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Before Another Sunset - Deluxe Second Edition

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Before Another Sunset

by Jason Zandri

 

Book Sampler – Titles include:

Another Sunset

I, Hero: The Beginning

I, Hero: Nathan Returns

I, Hero: Phases

As Life Goes: Elementary

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence

 

 

Published with the authorization of Jason Zandri, Connecticut 06492, United States of America

Copyright ©2015 by Jason Zandri

All rights reserved. No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The example companies, organizations, products, domain names, e-mail addresses, logos, people, places, and events depicted herein are fictitious. No association with any real company, organization, product, domain name, e-mail address, logo, person, place, or event is intended or should be inferred.

In the place where a real company, organization, product, domain name, e-mail address, logo, person, place, or event is intended, the ownership and copyrights of those aforementioned subjects remain with those owners.

FORWARD by Jason Zandri

I am sure to get the questions along the lines of “what prompted you to give away the first few chapters of all your titles, including your current work in progress?” (“I, Hero: Phases” at the time of this writing, December of 2015).

“Another Sunset” released one year ago (November of 2014) and while I have been working on additional books throughout 2015, I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to market the released ones and get my name out there.

On my blog*,_ THE GUNDERSTONE REVIEW[[, (]_][*https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/]), as well as via my author page on Facebook, (https://www.facebook.com/jzandri), I have been publishing excerpts of my books anyway. For the most part, the chapters released in this e-book have already been released there.

What I wanted was a better way to introduce more readers to all of the different titles and genres I was writing and this made sense to me; offer a former title of mine, in its own right, and then all the excerpts gathered in one release.

 

Before Another Sunset (The Sunset Series Book 1) – FIRST EDITION

Product Details

File Size: 190 KB

Print Length: 42 pages

Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited

ORIGINAL Publisher: Booklocker.com, Inc. (January 31, 2015)

ORIGINAL Publication Date: January 31, 2015

Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Language: English

ORIGINAL ASIN: B00T11GKYE

 

I have included new material from the all the books that has never been given away free before. At the same time, I am also offering samples of new work, (the afore mentioned “I, Hero: Phases”) that’s never been released via free excerpts (at the time of this release)..

It is my hope that this giveaway of the opening chapters of my books will give you, the reader and potential future fan, a solid introduction to my writing.

I hope you enjoy reading my stories as much as I did writing them.

 

BEFORE ANOTHER SUNSET

The complete prequel novella short to “Another Sunset”

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Peter Dempsey checked the time on his phone while leaning against his red Peterbilt 379. With his cell service flashing in and out, the time rolled from 5:59 to 6:00. He stretched his large arms up and over his head, and arched his back. He stepped away from the cab of the truck and turned east to let the early morning June sun hit his face.

A warm breeze came up from the south, seemingly starting from the rear of Peter’s truck, blowing the loose, dry, Texas flatland all over State Route 385.

Peter closed his eyes for an instant while the sand worked its way across his face and the two-day stubble. As suddenly as the burst came, it ended and a lighter morning breeze followed up in its place.

Charlotte Cassidy made her way out of the side door into the parking lot of the small store that bore her name. She looked into the sun and Peter’s direction and called out, “You do know I’ve been in here a bit despite not being open,” her eighty two year old voice cracking a little at the end of her comment.

“Yes Miss Charlotte,” Peter responded kindly while removing his baseball cap and making his way over. “I’m about to get all cooped up in the truck again. The last thing I wanted to do was come in on the early side just to sit at the counter, even though the company and the coffee are otherwise well worth it.”

“Well,” Charlotte said quickly turning around with a tiny smile, “come in when you’re ready.” A bit of her relaxed, southern accent escaped with her response. “I’m not about to come out here to fetch you again.”

Peter smirked as Charlotte disappeared back into the store ahead of him. Try as she might, Charlotte only sounded so gruff. After that, it was more motherly or grandmotherly depending on the recipient’s age.

Peter turned his head to the right and looked across Route 385 to the stores and homes on the north side of the road as he hit the side stoop of Charlotte’s Place and then stepped inside.

Maria Moreno was already behind the counter getting the coffee ready to serve to the customers. “Good morning, Mr. Peter,” she said smiling politely, with a little nuance of her Mexican accent coming out. “I hope you slept well last evening. The temperature dropped a little lower than normal for this time of the year.”

“It was actually a might refreshing Miss Maria,” Peter responded with a slight southern twang to his comment, taking a seat on one of the stools along the serving counter. “There are some nights, ‘specially on my northern routes in the winter, where I just have to run the rig all night long or I’d done freeze out. Then down here in the summer, there are those nights where it’s just too hot no matter what you do.”

Maria stopped her work for a moment along the back of the counter area and dropped her long black hair out of her hair catch to tie it back up tighter. “So I would believe “it is a dry heat” holds very little merit on nights such as those.”

“That be right on target,” Peter said smiling. Charlotte made her way around Maria with a mug for Peter and the freshly brewed coffee decanter. “Thank you Miss Charlotte. I sure am going to miss this coffee once I am back on the road.”

“Because it’s good or because it’s free,” she quipped with the slightest smile.

“Oh now, you know I come out of the way on some trips just to come through here,” Peter said with just a hint of defense in his tone.

“Oh I know… let an old gal play with you,” Charlotte responded playfully.

Peter pulled the coffee mug off the counter, took a small sip, and then set it down. Charlotte made her way back to the coffee burner station while Maria came over with a menu. “Did you need to take a look at it or do you already know what you want?” Maria responded, looking up at the store clock.

Peter just looked over at Charlotte who was now near the grill and he nodded slightly to her. With that, Charlotte began to cook Peter’s usual order of pancakes, cooked in bacon grease, with an order of bacon strips on the side.

“Miss Charlotte, I believe we are all set up. I want to run up and check on Caroline and then I will be right back down,” Maria said calling back to the grill area while heading towards the backroom exit.

“I’m fine child. Go on up and tend to your daughter and then come back down as soon as you can. You’re always quick…” Charlotte responded and then trailed off. Maria smiled to her and then exited into the backroom and out the back door, making her way over to the apartment side of the building. She then headed up the stairs to her second floor apartment.

Charlotte finished the breakfast order for Peter and came around the corner to set it down in front of him. “Are you headed back east along 385 or are you heading over to the interstate?” Charlotte asked, grabbing the syrup for the pancakes.

Peter took the milk off the counter and poured a little into his coffee. “Yeah. I have to make a stop… to um…”

“Maria left,” Charlotte replied, lowering her voice. “Are you still having issues with the back taxes on the truck?”

“Yes ma’am. I’m so embarrassed by it all,” Peter said as a knot formed in his throat. “I thought I was thinking of everything, you know, going off on my own, and working for myself.” Peter took another sip from his coffee and continued. Charlotte pulled up a loose raised stool on the serving side of the counter. “I really did think I had everything in order, but once you miss one thing, you find another, and so on. When the government opens the books to take a look at your taxes, that’s when you realize all the details you’ve missed. If I can’t get to a resolution soon, I’m worried they’ll take the truck in place of the taxes I missed and owe, being behind schedule and all.”

“Fffft!” Charlotte exclaimed. “That’s the logic of the government for you. Take away the ability for someone to make their livelihood… as if that would help them to pay up on what they owe. Doing that is going to help someone? “Pro” is the opposite of “con” so it’s only logical what is the opposite of “progress.””

Peter responded softly with a slight sigh and a little bit of a smirk with her comments. “Well in my case, it actually does cover the bills. If they repossess the truck and trailer and sell it, it’ll cover everything that is due. It’ll shoot my credit to hell and leave me without a way to earn a living driving, but all that’s owed would be paid. Maybe there’d be a little left over, but not much to do anything with.”

“Do you really think it’ll come to that?” Charlotte asked leaning forward and then looking back to the rear of the store to see if Maria was on her way back in.

“It is that bad but I met a fella who is trying to help me out. He thinks maybe there is a way to talk with someone at the IRS to get a settlement cost of what I owe, and then lock it into a payment schedule that I can manage.”

“Not some slick, corporate, government huckster I hope,” Charlotte said with a tone of disdain in her voice.

“No, no, Miss Charlotte. A regular fellow. Nice guy. Sharp as a tack. Literally has nothing except the clothes on his back. Well, that and whatever he carries with him in this big duffle bag he always takes with him,” Peter said as his entire tone changed to the positive. “The things he does, the way he gets things done, it’s almost like magic.”

“Hrumph!” Charlotte said scooting off the stool. “I don’t believe in magic or that much good will from someone. What’s in it for him?”

“You might if you met him. I’ve talked about Westville to him. He moves around quite a bit. He’s a drifter. He doesn’t have a permanent place to stay and he doesn’t ever stay around in any one place too often. I have to say, having only seen him over his last couple of stops or so, where he goes, he makes quite the impression. Somehow, he always seems to make a positive difference where he is at the time.”

“Who does Mr. Peter?” asked young Caroline leading her way in from the rear of the store ahead of her mother.

“A friend of mine down the road a ways. So how is our cheery eight year old this morning?” Peter asked with a wide smile.

“I’m eight and a half. I’ll be nine in just a few months,” Caroline said smiling and rounding the counter to the serving side, with her backpack draped over her shoulder. “With school all done for the summer, it’s almost like the time won’t be there at all and POOF, I’ll be nine.”

“Yes, well youngin’, I wouldn’t recommend growing up any faster than you need to,” Peter said, turning in his chair to cut up more of his pancakes. “At eight-ish or nine-ish, that’s the sweet spot of childhood. Trust me when I tell you, you want to stay right there.”

“Mr. Peter? Why do all old people say that?” Caroline asked innocently.

“Carolena!” Maria exclaimed from the coffee station. “You should not respond to an elder like that!”

“Oh it’s OK Maria. I’m not offended. It’s the way she has to size me up,” Peter said turning to Caroline who took the seat next to him. “You see little one, you’re at this spot in life where you’re old enough to do many things, fun things, but also young enough to not have a bunch of worries and things to be responsible for. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” Caroline said putting her backpack on the ground after untangling her long black hair from the strap.

Maria made her way over and reheated Peter’s coffee as Mel Porter came through the front door of the store. “Good morning Doc,” Maria said as she finished refilling Peter’s coffee.

“Good morning everyone. Caroline, Maria, Peter… you too Miss Charlotte,” Mel Porter said taking his usual seat at the far end of the counter. “How is everyone this fine, first Monday of June?”

“I am quite well myself, Doc,” Maria answered while taking a coffee mug for him and filling it.

“Peter, I understand you’re getting ready to travel for your next run this morning. East or west?” Mel asked pouring sugar into his coffee.

“I’ll be headed east for this run, Doc. I have a delivery and some other business to address as well. I do expect to be back through in about four weeks, as usual,” Peter answered as he finished off the last of his breakfast. “Well I’m all done with breakfast, guess I’ll square up and head out now. Any earlier time up the road now is cushion in case there are issues. Nothing from the Sheriff right?”

“I haven’t heard anything from Sheriff Neely on the scanner, so I reckon the road is clear,” Henry Baylor, who owned Baylor Appliances, announced assuredly, walking into the store and heading towards the counter. “You should have a nice smooth ride Mr. Peter.”

Peter looked at the younger man and smiled a little as Henry took a seat on the stool at the turn of the counter where he could see Maria best. Peter patted Caroline on the head, waved to Doc and Maria, and called out to Charlotte as he dropped cash for breakfast on the counter. “I’ll be planning to see y’all again in a few weeks. Keep the grill warm for me.”

“We will Mr. Peter. Drive safely,” Maria answered as she stepped away from the front counter area.

Peter took his cap, leaned over to Henry, and whispered in his ear, “Confidence. You’ve known each other a long while, you’re thirty-nine, she’s twenty-seven so the age difference is not a whole, big issue… You’re going to have to take the leap. She’s strong willed and progressive but she still is the type of woman that looks for the man to make the first move. Good luck. Fill me in over the Fourth of July holiday; I should be back around then.”

Henry smiled at Peter’s words as he watched the trucker take his leave from the store and then looked over to Maria. Peter was right. They had been friends for a long time. Henry would come in to the store two or three times a week just to talk to her and see how she and Caroline were doing. He always knew there was a little more to it than “friends” but for one reason or another, he never told her his true feelings. Henry adjusted his lanky frame on the stool a bit and leaned forward.

Charlotte walked to the serving counter and watched Henry’s eyes follow Maria around the back counter area. She smiled slightly as he would notice being seen by her and then look away or around the store and then try to follow her more by looking in the mirror. Charlotte wasn’t a particularly soft woman but she did like to see good things for the people she cared about and she cared about Maria and Caroline a great deal.

“Maria, child, can you please get me a couple boxes of paper towels out of the back and put them in the front display while it’s slow in here?” Charlotte called out as she looked over at Mel who was eating and reading the newspaper.

Henry fiddled with his coffee mug while Caroline changed seats and took a stool at the opposite end of the counter. He watched Maria come out of the backroom and walk past the serving counter entrance towards the display in the front of the store. Only when his line of vision crossed Charlotte did he realize she was watching him. Somewhat embarrassed at being caught he looked down into his coffee and then at the time on his watch.

“It’s not time to open the store yet so we can have a little chat,” Charlotte replied in a hushed tone pulling a stool over to take a seat. “How long are you planning to pine over her?”

“Miss Maria?” Henry said innocently.

“Yes,” Charlotte said in her matter of fact tone. “I would presume at this point it is a foregone conclusion that you’re interested in her. Certainly, everyone else knows it. She might even at this point.”

Henry looked over at Caroline to confirm she couldn’t hear the conversation. With her nose pressed inside a book, he assumed she couldn’t. “Well Miss Charlotte, we are friends,” he said in a quiet manner. “I do like to come around and talk to her. She’s very smart and kind. But I’ve known her a long time being a bit older and all.” He paused to take a sip from his coffee. “I remember when I was in my twenties and she was, well… too young to consider. Then she met her William and all…”

“Who has left,” Charlotte responded sharply. “And time has gone by from that and your other concern. I realize that the town isn’t getting any larger and to be quite blunt, since the travelers have thinned out with the shrinking economy and all, people that want to be together are limited to their friends or friends of friends around here.”

“I just don’t know really how to say something,” he responded meekly with a slight hint of southern drawl. “I was never really good at it and it’s worse now that I am older and some folks I used to know and considered have moved away to El Paso and such.”

“She is a kind woman,” Charlotte responded softly. “Even if she is not interested in that manner she will be proper about it. I think you should make the effort if it is something you feel. You will never really know one way or the other until you try.”

“I feel funny about her little girl too,” Henry said with a slight gesture. “I’ve known her since the day she was born.”

“Knowing the both of them for as long as you have puts you in a more comfortable place than another suitor if you think about it. You are already friends so you have a head start and can only move “up” from here. As I mentioned, if the interest isn’t there at least you know and you can be assured she’ll handle it properly. She may be tough as nails sometimes on the exterior, but she has a soft heart.”

Henry mulled over what Charlotte had said as Maria wrapped up at the front of the store and returned but he said nothing further.

The bell on the front door of the store rang as a couple more people entered for breakfast and coffee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Maria made her way around to the newspaper and magazine rack with the late afternoon sun coming in through the west side window. She moved the prior day’s papers labeled “Wednesday” tied in a bundle away to the storage area in the back room so they could be marked for credit. While in the back storage area, she moved around quietly so she didn’t wake Charlotte, who was in the recliner napping.

Maria quietly closed the door to the rear room as Rebecca Wilson entered the front door. “Hi Maria,” she said, brushing her short blond hair aside with her hand. She looked quickly around the store. “Where’s Caroline? Upstairs?”

“Hi Becky. No, she went to the Donaldson’s house. Shane is in Caroline’s class and he was in here with his step-father for lunch and they asked if Caroline could come by so I let her go over there today.”

“Ah,” Rebecca said as she took a seat at the far right side of the serving counter. “Is Miss Charlotte home?”

“Resting in the back room,” Maria replied, moving the small stool over to sit across from Rebecca. “I am glad it is slow enough in the afternoon that she can rest. She really needs it more than she lets on.”

“I like the fact that I can come in here and chat with you before I head over to McNally’s to start my shift,” Rebecca replied pulling out a small mirror to check her make up. “Honestly though, there are days where just doing the same thing over and over becomes so mundane.”

“How do you mean?” Maria asked as she poured herself a cup of coffee. She offered some to Rebecca but she waved it off.

“Well… honestly? We never get the chance to serve too many new people. I don’t want to complain about the regulars at all. If it weren’t for them, we’d be out of business, but we used to get a little more travelling traffic on 385 especially in the summer like this. This is probably going to sound a little silly, but I haven’t the opportunity to meet anyone new in the past six months. I never get out of town really and with no one new coming through more or less, I’m out of luck as far as a social calendar goes.”

“I can understand that. At the same time, I like the continuity myself,” Maria said taking her hair down and letting it hang about her shoulders.

“I know you were a couple of years ahead of me in school but we knew a lot of the same people. A lot of them have moved on. The population was almost twenty five hundred back then. We are below seventeen hundred now, with about three hundred school aged. About two thirds of the adults are married, so that leaves about four hundred people half of which are women. So from two hundred you have to take out those that are too old, or too young, or dating someone already. That leaves what? Fifty eligible men? I think I dated them all already.”

Rebecca had rattled all the details off the top of her head and with a straight face up to her last statement when she snickered just a bit. Maria smiled, covered her mouth, and began laughing. “I am so sorry for you, Rebecca. An old maid at twenty five,” Maria said laughing through her hand.

“I have to laugh too,” Rebecca responded with a slight smile “otherwise I would cry it’s so sad.”

The two sat silent for a moment over the exchange and then Maria spoke up. “I do not see very many additional solutions right now other than trying to deal with it and waiting things out. Unless you are willing to move to El Paso or elsewhere.”

“Well at least you have options,” Rebecca said casually, turning her head to look out the front windows of the store in the direction of Baylor Appliances on the opposite side of Route 385.

“What are you talking about?” Maria asked as the front door of the store opened up and Caroline walked in with Shane and his stepfather.

“Oh come on Maria,” Rebecca exclaimed hopping off the stool and moving behind the counter to pour herself a fountain soda. “Henry Baylor has been interested in you since the day he took the store over from his father,” she replied, flicking her thumb in the direction of his store.

Maria didn’t respond to the comment and turned her attention to her daughter. “Hi Caroline, did you enjoy your day?”

“I did, we had fun playing outside in Shane’s yard,” Caroline replied coming around the counter to the server side and putting her things down.

“Thank you for taking her and bringing her back Mr. Donaldson,” Maria said politely as she stood up from her chair.

“Oh no trouble at all. I would have had her stay longer but Caroline indicated that you close up the store a bit after six and she wanted to be back to have dinner. We invited her to eat with us, but she wanted to come home.”

Maria turned to Caroline and smiled just a little. “She does like to come home at the end of the day.” Caroline smiled back at her mother, looked around for Miss Charlotte, and pointed to the closed back door. Maria put a hushed finger up to her mouth and gestured at the door.

“Well, we have to get going. The lady of the house is getting dinner ready and if I’m late I eat it cold or not at all,” Mr. Donaldson replied putting his hand on Shane’s back. “Caroline is welcome over anytime.”

“Thank you again,” Maria said with a smile and nodded just a bit as they turned to walk out of the store.

Rebecca took her soda and walked around the front side of the counter to take her seat again. Maria looked up at the clock and headed over to the side door to lock it up while Caroline took a seat herself.

“Miss Becky is right Mama,” Caroline said innocently.

“Right about what, little one?” Maria asked as she turned the lock on the door and headed over to the front entrance of the store.

“Mr. Henry,” Caroline said energetically. “He does like you.”

Rebecca smiled and sat up on the stool with a smirk on her face.

“And how do you know this?” Maria chided walking away from the locked front door.

“The other day I overheard him talking to Miss Charlotte,” Caroline responded in a matter of fact manner.

“And what have I said before about eavesdropping on people?”

Suddenly concerned with disobeying her mother Caroline grew quickly attentive and defensive. “But Mama, I was just sitting there,” she said pointing over to where she was seated on Monday. “I was reading my book. They were talking quietly but their voices were carrying. I didn’t listen on purpose, but I did hear what they said.”

“And what did they say?” Rebecca asked, all perked up in her chair.

Maria turned to Rebecca with a disapproving look on her face, but Caroline started immediately with her response.

“Well Mr. Peter said something to Mr. Henry before he left, I really couldn’t hear because he said it softly in his ear and I wasn’t really trying to listen. But then after Mr. Peter left, Mr. Henry said to Miss Charlotte something about how you’re a nice lady Mama.”

“Well honestly Caroline, that could mean many simple things. Henry and I are friends. He has never approached me for anything more and I do not see him as more than that.”

“Yet,” Rebecca said with a grin.

The back door to the store opened up and Miss Charlotte stepped out. “Child, you let me sleep that entire time? Are all the customer doors locked?”

“Yes they are Miss Charlotte, front and side. Will you be coming up for some dinner tonight?” Maria asked.

Charlotte smiled at Rebecca who picked up her things to leave and head over to work.

“Oh yes Miss Charlotte, could you? I do like practicing my reading to you,” Caroline said excitedly.

“I don’t think I can refuse an invitation like that. Let’s head out the back exit and we can head on up.”

Rebecca smirked at Maria who swatted playfully at her as they all rounded the counter to leave for the evening.

CHAPTER THREE

Maria cleared the dinner plates from the table as Charlotte stood and made her way into the living room. Caroline went into her bedroom to change into her pajamas. While she was in there, she grabbed a book to read to Charlotte, came out, and sat on the couch.

“Mama,” Caroline called out from the living room.

“Sí cariño?” Maria answered without turning around from the sink.

“Do you know how you will answer Mr. Henry if he asks you to marry him?”

Maria dropped a pan into the sink, which fell with a sharp clatter. Charlotte smiled wide at the exchange.

“Carolena! Whatever gave you the notion to ask me that?” Maria asked turning off the water.

“Well, you and Miss Becky were talking about Mr. Henry and I told you what I overheard the other day. I thought that maybe since mi Padre was unlikely to return that you might be with Mr. Henry.”

Maria dried off her hands, made her way into the living room, and sat off the far end of the sofa. Caroline remained sitting between her mother and Charlotte but set the book down on the coffee table. “Cariño, it is not as simple as answering “yes” or “no”. That subject and a decision like that only happen under certain circumstances.”

“I don’t understand Mama.”

“Caroline,” Maria said, taking her daughter’s hand in hers, “I know what you said you heard, but Mr. Henry and I are simply friends. He has never mentioned any interest in anything further than that and I do not even know if it is something that I would want to entertain with him. To be with someone more than friends is a big step and it is just one of many that should happen before marriage can even be a consideration.”

Caroline looked up into her mother’s eyes taking in the words she had expressed. “Mama, would you think about it? I had a nice time at Shane’s today. Mr. Donaldson is a nice man but he is not Shane’s father. It got me to thinking that since you won’t be marrying mi Padre that you might consider someone else. Mr. Henry likes you and he is someone else.”

Maria took a moment to choose her words carefully. “This is a very difficult discussion to have with you, Caroline, today at your age. I do promise you that someday when you are older that I will explain it in much more detail when you can better understand it. Does that seem fair to you?”

Caroline thought about it for a moment and then answered, “Yes.”

Maria allowed Caroline to pull her hand away and take her book off the coffee table. “Mama?” she asked as Maria began to stand to go back into the kitchen.

“Yes honey?” Maria answered sitting back down.

“If Mr. Henry were to tell you he liked you, would you be able to think about it?”

Maria smiled and kissed her daughter on the forehead. “If Mr. Henry should bring it up, on his own, what he might feel, I could spend some time thinking about it.”

Caroline smiled at the answer and opened the book.

CHAPTER FOUR

Maria walked out of Caroline’s bedroom. “She’s sleeping now,” she said to Charlotte before walking into the kitchen. She turned back to her, “would you like anything to drink?”

“No thank you child,” Charlotte answered, adjusting herself on the couch slightly to get more comfortable.

Maria dried off the remaining dishes in the strainer and put them away while Charlotte gazed out the window at McNally’s on the opposite side on Route 385. She noticed it wasn’t any more or any less busy than other nights, although she did spot one rental car in the street. From her place on the sofa she could see just a little way into the windows and part of the bar area, where it was apparent some business travelers were enjoying drinks after their meal.

“Rebecca might have a good night tonight. It looks from here like a group of business travelers are having after dinner drinks. She’ll make out decently on her tips especially if they have an expense account.”

“That’s interesting,” Maria responded as she took a beer from her refrigerator and walked into the living room. “Just earlier today, she was mentioning how there had not been many recent out of town travelers and just like that, here they are.”

“She also mentioned about how there’s been no one new to be social with as well,” Charlotte quipped with a smile. Maria looked a little bewildered at her comment since Charlotte was not in the room for the conversation. “Thin walls, child,” she finally replied.

“Well yes,” Maria said with a smile, “having said that, I do not believe travelers are what Becky was hoping for. Well perhaps for the serving tips but not as far as the social part of the conversation today.”

Charlotte continued to look out the window and then turned more in her seat to get a better view up Packer Road.

“What is it that you are looking for?” Maria asked trying to see what Charlotte was looking for.

“Well,” Charlotte said huffing a bit and turning back around in her seat, “I half expected to see Sue Ann Kurtvow’s car and driver coming down the road. She must not be downwind of the out-of-towner smell.”

Maria smiled at the comment and got a little more comfortable in the single seat oversized chair she was sitting in across from Charlotte. “Well yes, I could see Mrs. Kurtvow attempting to fill her immediate social calendar in that fashion.”

“You know Maria,” Charlotte said softly, leaning forward slightly, “Caroline isn’t wrong in what she heard regarding Henry.” Maria sat up slightly at the comment. “With the way he comes in more regularly now than before, it must seem obvious even to you that he is gaining more of an interest in you than what he had before.”

Maria sighed a little. “I really like Henry. He is a very nice man. He is a very decent man. We are friendly with one another and I do enjoy his company when he stops by the store or when there are picnics to go to and we see one another. I just have never looked at him in that manner.”

“You haven’t looked at anyone in that manner since William left. Not that there’s a whole lot of choices left in Westville really, but you haven’t even opened yourself up to the possibility.”

Maria leaned back into her seat just a bit and glanced over her shoulder at Caroline’s room. “I have no desire to bring another man into my life or my daughter’s at this time or any time soon. The one man we should have been able to count on, the one on which I pinned far too many hopes and dreams, left us with little consideration and never looked back.” Charlotte quietly considered her next comments when Maria continued. “I have a simple life with my daughter. We have a warm place to stay and good food to eat. We also have people that care for us. There is little more that we could need.”

“Needs are one thing, wants are another,” Charlotte spouted quickly.

“I have few wants anymore, other than taking care of my family which now consists of myself and Caroline only.”

Charlotte sat forward and took more of her motherly tone. “I am not going to suggest that you cannot do it on your own nor that the only way you can be complete is to have a man around. At the same time, I don’t think it’s the smartest thing for you to simply dismiss the possibility of a fuller life for you and your daughter simply because you were deeply hurt by the one man you let into your heart as a young woman almost a decade ago. Shame on him for hurting you then and letting you down. I am certain the disappointment is deep. Shame on you to allow him to still affect you in this manner, all these years later.”

Maria sat quietly taking in what Charlotte said. Charlotte in turn settled back in her chair, slightly concerned she might have been a little too harsh on Maria.

“Well,” Maria said lightly, breaking the short silence, “I did imply to Caroline that if Mr. Henry should bring up the idea of going out one evening, on his own, I could consider it. So with that I guess I should.” Maria perked her tone up slightly and teased, “On. His. Own. I do not wish to have you, or Doc, or Becky, or others, prodding him along. If it is something he genuinely feels like asking me, I will take the time to see what is there, I suppose.”

“Good,” Charlotte said slowly getting up from the couch to head downstairs, “because he already asked me if there was a way for me to sit with Caroline on Saturday in the early evening so that he could ask you to McNally’s for something to eat.”

Maria looked with a blank stare at Charlotte.

“I guess all we need to do now is wait for him to ask you.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Rebecca sat with Maria outside of Charlotte’s Place at the customer picnic table taking a mid-afternoon break. While the storm clouds bumped about the sky, Maria would occasionally look up to check for rain. It continually looked ominous but the rain never fell. Rebecca checked her phone for the time. “It’s almost three. I have to head over to McNally’s early today. Friday set up and all.” Maria said nothing but glanced over Rebecca’s shoulder at Henry Baylor’s store. “What’s on your mind Maria? You’re unusually quiet today.”

“Oh, I am not really sure,” she responded turning around to check on Caroline who was jumping rope and hopping from stone to stone on the back lot of Charlotte’s property. “I am taking in some things that Miss Charlotte said to me the other day.”

“About Henry Baylor?” Rebecca asked tossing her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of his store. “You’ve either been really into my hair or consistently looking over my shoulder at his store front.”

Maria cracked a slight smile. “Miss Charlotte informed me that Henry was considering asking me out for an evening. She made it sound like dinner so unless he was planning to take me all the way to El Paso it would be over at McNally’s.”

Rebecca smiled a bit and then looked past Maria to see Caroline hop her way to the eastern end of the property and then stop. She pulled up her jump rope to hold it off the ground and then just stared at the old municipal buildings on the adjacent property. Rebecca looked over at them and then back to Caroline. Whatever Caroline was staring at Rebecca couldn’t see it herself.

“I had never realized he thought of me as more than a friend,” Maria continued softly, pulling Rebecca’s attention back. “I have tried to think about things differently. To begin with, he still has not said anything. I would otherwise think this is being overblown but the more the discussion comes up with others the more I hear that these are his intentions.” Maria shifted herself a bit on the bench as a rumble of thunder let off in the distance. “While I do plan to wait to see if he says something on his own, I must admit that I am having trouble moving past the thought of being friends. We have been for such a long time.”

“Well,” Rebecca said as she stood up from the picnic table, “if he’s planning for this weekend he better ask soon. I realize that Saturday is date night and all but, you’d think he’d want to ask you before the end of the day today. A girl has to pick out something to wear.”

Maria got up and cracked a half a smile, “I do not have many outfits to go through honestly.”

Caroline turned to see her mother getting up and ran over as Rebecca said good-bye and headed across the street. “Mama, can I go up to the house? I decided I want to draw and color. I can stay there a little by myself. If I need something I can come downstairs.”

Maria stroked her daughter’s hair. “That’s fine little one. As long as you do not touch the stove. If you should get hungry or need anything, please just come back down to the store.”

“I will Mama. Thank you, Mama,” Caroline replied as she darted west out of the parking lot and over to the stoop for the apartments.

Maria smiled and headed back in through the parking lot door and into the store.

Sheriff Neely headed out the front door with a coffee while Maria entered and Sam Crenshaw pulled into the parking lot behind her.

Charlotte wiped down the counter as Maria came around and the two of them tended to the customers that came and went over the remainder of the day that the store was open.

A small line of thundershowers moved through as Henry darted across Route 385 to the store. He came in through the front door as the shower picked up in intensity. The door closed behind him and Maria and Charlotte looked up from their places behind the counter. Charlotte smiled slightly as she turned to Maria. “I’ll be counting inventory in the back. You can lock the doors.” Maria put her hand over her mouth. She had never known Charlotte to count any inventory.

“Good evening Miss Maria,” Henry said slightly nervously and quickly removing his worn, red baseball cap.

“Hello Henry,” she replied as he slowly approached the counter. She was trying to anticipate if he was going to ask her to eat as everyone was saying to her for the past week. “We were just about to close but if you wanted a sandwich or something I could make it for you.”

“Well Miss Maria, I was wondering if I could speak with you,” he asked looking down briefly and then quickly reversing and looking back up at her. “We don’t often get the chance outside of work. You know, your being here, and me being a customer and all. I know you have to close up.” He looked around quickly. “Is Caroline here or over at someone’s on a play date?”

“She actually went upstairs before. She was playing outside and then wanted to draw. I brought her up something to eat about an hour ago and she was as they say, knee deep in glue and construction paper.”

Charlotte stepped out of the back room quickly for her and headed around the front of the counter area. “Maria, why don’t you finish locking up for me?” She turned and faced Henry. “Good evening, Henry. I hope you’ve had a good day today. I am sure I will see you tomorrow.”

“Good evening, Miss Charlotte,” Henry replied clutching his hat a little tighter.

“Certainly Miss Charlotte, I will lock up and come up,” Maria replied instinctively.

“Oh no rush,” she said opening the front door with a slight smile. “I have Caroline to keep me company so take your time.”

Maria smiled just a little at the comment and turned her attention back to Henry who was loosening up his tie and undid his top button. “Well Miss Maria, I guess I have the floor,” he said with the slightest bit of nervousness. He set his cap down on the counter and then reached over for her hand, which she gave him. Henry led her around to the serving side of the counter from the customer side and then guided her to one of the seats. “I had all this thought out of how I wanted to ask you out to eat n’ everything,” he said as he walked himself around to the serving side of the counter with a hint of his southern accent coming out. “Of course at this point I think everyone includin’ you knew I was going to ask you and so that takes a little of the “special” out of it.”

Henry made his way over to the grill and Maria smiled a bit at his last comment. He waved his hand over the grill. It was still a little warm and he turned it back on full to heat the surface up faster. He went into the small, refrigerated case and took some of the food out of it.

“So you decided to…?” Maria asked playfully trying to peer over to see what he was doing from where she sat.

“Well in order to make it more unexpected I decided to make you dinner. I figured this would give us the chance to talk in a comfortable place, one we are both familiar and used to, without having people we know see us over at McNally’s. Nothing against Mr. McNally of course,” Henry said as he did a little of the prep and peered over the serving shelf. “Of course I was taking the chance on you already getting dinner ready for yourself and Caroline at home but you pretty much keep to the same routine.”

“I had never realized you paid so much attention to my schedule,” Maria said as she stood up to come around the counter.

Henry saw her get up, stopped what he was doing, and stepped forward. “Not just your schedule. All of you really. I guess I never really thought long and hard about it.”

“What made you decide to think of things in this way?” Maria asked as she stepped into the grill area between the serving counter and the door to the back room.

“I really don’t know,” he said as he wiped his hands off on the prep towel and tucked part of it into his belt. “I guess, knowing we were friends and all, I didn’t know how to say it or what it might ruin if it didn’t go well. I just decided knowing that you’re a decent person and all and if you weren’t romantically inclined, you’d still be my friend after all was said and done. I did know I had reached a point where I didn’t want to keep wondering. “What if.” I knew I wanted you to know. I guess in my mind, all the real risk was gone. You’d still be my friend either way but if I let you know I felt differently, and if you felt the same, I would have more.”

Maria stared blanking at him. It was a side of Henry she never knew existed before today, both the romantic side and the bold forwardness. She had always seen him as kind and gentle but not with a lot of drive. She drew in a breath to speak but Henry slowly picked up his hand.

“I know there is a lot to talk about now that some of this is on the table. I would like to make this dinner for you myself. I figure you’ve come back here to help me. You help everyone and take care of Caroline. Just tonight, I would like to return that to you. I know you’re strong and independent. I’ve known you a long time. There’s a piece of you there too that wants to let go. You’re afraid you can’t. Tonight, at the very least, you can.”

Maria smiled at the thought of someone doing for her, went back to the counter, and sat down.

While Henry continued to prep the dinner for the two of them and engaged in small talk off the subject of what prompted the evening get-together, Charlotte had made her way up to Maria’s apartment on the second floor.

She let herself in through the unlocked door to find Caroline busy with construction paper and color markers.

“Well it would look like you’re a bit busy there little one,” Charlotte said to her closing the kitchen door.

“I am,” Caroline said proudly. “Is Mama coming home soon? I am a little hungry. That and I wanted to show her my project,” she finished, waving her hand about the table and everything she was working on.

Charlotte smiled a bit as she made her way over to the refrigerator. “If you’re hungry, I am sure there’s a bit of leftover food in here I can heat up for you. I think your Mama may be a little late this evening closing up.”

“Oooh,” Caroline replied as she set what she was working on down. “Did Mr. Henry come over to the store to see Mama?”

“As a matter of fact child he did.”

“Miss Charlotte, can I ask you something?”

“Of course dear, anything,” Charlotte replied holding up a plate with some beef and vegetables on it.

Caroline nodded her head and said, “Do you think Mr. Henry might want to be my step-father?”

Charlotte didn’t exactly know how to answer. She continued to get Caroline’s dinner ready in silence and then replied after a brief moment.

“I don’t know everything Caroline. I do know that Mr. Henry has feelings for your mother. I don’t know if your mother has the same feelings in return for him. If she does then the conditions exist for the possibility of love growing between the two of them. If not I am certain they will remain very good friends as they have been for a long time.” Charlotte stopped for a moment and turned to face Caroline. “What I do know is that a man like Mr. Henry has already considered you along with anything more he might have with your Mom. Were it to come to bigger things, I am sure he would help take care of you like a step father would do.”

Caroline merely listened to what Charlotte said and didn’t answer. She moved some of what she was working on aside to make room to eat even though it wasn’t out of the microwave yet.

“So tell me child, whether it is Mr. Henry or not, do you want to see your Mama with someone?”

“Well Miss Charlotte, I’m not sure. I see my friend Stephanie. Her father lives with her but he’s not very nice to her mom.” Caroline paused for a moment and then continued. “Now that I think of it, there are times she isn’t nice either. I guess they are not happy. Did mi Padre and Mama fight a lot before he left? Mama doesn’t speak to me a lot about it even though I ask.”

Charlotte took Caroline’s dinner out of the microwave and stirred it a bit so it was evenly heated, then she set it down for her to eat.

“Little one, I am not sure what your mother wants you to know and when she wants you to know it. These questions are better asked to and answered by her,” Charlotte replied softly with a bit of her Texan accent coming to the surface. “What I will tell you is your mother and William, your father, they did love each other. Things happened around the time you were born. His family and your mother’s decided to go back to Mexico. Your father came to see you in the hospital right after you were born. You were a little early and came pretty quickly; it took him a while to get there. The families had decided to go home. You mother decided to stay. She felt it would be a better life here for you and her. We all decided to help her.”

“We?” Caroline asked as she stirred her food and looked up.

“I gave her some work and a place to stay, that way the two of you would have a roof over your heads and food on the table. “Mr. McNally and Mr. Davenport too – when the two of you need things for the apartment they help out where and when they can. We all took you in, like family.” Charlotte reeled herself in a bit because she didn’t like to get emotional. “Because that’s what families do.”

“Did mi Padre love me?”

Charlotte looked at Caroline, walked over, and sat down in the adjacent kitchen chair. “Child, I honestly believe most parents love their children in all kinds of ways. A lot of times those ways are different than what someone else might expect. I am sure your father loved you in his own way. The decision to go back with his parents and family could not have been an easy one.”

Caroline looked up at Charlotte and stared into her old and wise eyes. “But if he did love me, and Mama, how could he just leave like that?”

“Child, there are some things that occur that are not easily explained. I am afraid this is one of those things. You’ll have to accept that your father felt a stronger need to go home with his parents at the time than stay here with you and your Mama.”

Caroline pushed more of her food around than ate it. After a few minutes, she spoke again. “Miss Charlotte? Will Mr. Henry pick me up and hug me?”

“Would you want him to?”

“I am only about a foot shorter than Mama now. She can’t lift me up anymore. I miss that. Just to be held. When I fake sleep on the couch, it’s because I want her to carry me to bed. Mr. Donaldson picks Shane up and he’s not his father. Would Mr. Henry do that?”

“Regardless of what happens between your Mama and Mr. Henry, if they get together or not, if you want to be picked up and held I am sure someone can do that. Just ask them.”

“I want to be big, but being big means losing out on being a little girl. There’s no way to be both.” Caroline stared at Charlotte for a moment. “I just want Mama to be happy. She seems happy at times and then less at others.”

“The world wears on people.” Charlotte replied plainly without thinking.

“What do you mean?” Caroline asked inquisitively.

“Oh,” Charlotte said with a little more vigor in her voice. “What I mean by that is that sometimes the load of everything one has to do becomes too much for them and they need help. Lightening the load makes it easier.”

“Many hands make light work,” Caroline said as she pulled her papers forward on the table.

“Yes. That’s an old saying. Where did you hear it?”

“Mr. Garcia. He’s pretty smart. Like you Miss Charlotte.”

“I’ve taught him everything he knows about running a store,” Charlotte joked looking out the window in the direction of his Wine and Spirit shop.

“Many hands make light work,” Caroline repeated softly looking at her drawings.

“What did you draw child?”

“Your store and the buildings next door. The library is there too.” Caroline walked away from the table and looked out onto the back property from the sliding windows. “At school the teachers brought in ten new e-readers for one hundred students because the work they were going to do improving the library was lost.”

“Yes, I remember. The funding program was pulled.”

“I don’t understand all that. They mentioned that at school too. All I remember is that we were all supposed to get them, one for each of us, and then Internet access at the library. Then the principal made an announcement that they weren’t going to work on it anymore. Then they got the additional devices for us to share.” Caroline looked back at Charlotte. “Many hands make light work. Does that really work?”

“I’ve seen it work child. Remember Mr. Rivera? He needed help with all that fencing. It was going to take him and his hands two weeks to do. Town folks got together and helped him. As people came in the store and at McNally’s, we talked about it to them. People said what they could and couldn’t help with. When the time came, we went and helped, and Mr. Rivera had all that work finished over the weekend.” Charlotte eased back in the chair at the kitchen table a bit. “In days gone by, there was a lot more of it like that.” She said with a slight sigh in her voice. “It’s done less now with people being busy and all, but Westville, we still have it in our spirit to do it right.”

Caroline walked back over to the pictures she drew and stared at them.

“We can save the library.” Caroline said softly without moving her gaze from the pictures she drew.

“What child?” Charlotte asked.

“It’s like you said Miss Charlotte,” Caroline said in a much louder tone looking up at her. “The people. We could come together like that and save the library; do the work that was going to be done for us. Westville can.”

Maria finished the chicken dinner that Henry had made her. The summer sun had finally set behind the western ridgeline of the mountain range. “This dinner really was wonderful Henry. I cannot tell you the last time I did not have to worry about preparing the food and just sat and was waited on.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” Henry said taking her right hand with both of his. “I had to guess at what you might like. I tried to watch what you would bring home for dinner from here on the occasions I was in here at closing. I might have asked a question or two of Caroline as well,” he said with a boyish smile.

“It was really wonderful. I ate the entire thing,” Maria said as she looked down at her hand in his. “I really did enjoy this evening. It has given me the opportunity to sit and talk with you privately which we cannot do here while we are open or even at the end of the day when people are still here. It was really nice to get to know you even better than before.”

“It is something when you have the chance to have that different kind of conversation with someone,” he said as he slowly let her hand go. “You know them for a long time and then you still find a way to know them different and better.”

Maria slowly stood up and gathered the dishes. Henry just watched her and smiled a bit.

“I really do not know how to say this Henry,” she said softly and becoming a bit upset.

“Please don’t be upset,” Henry responded quietly as he stood and took the plates away and set them on the counter. He wrapped his arms around her, hugged her quickly, and then stepped back to look at her. “I wanted to make the effort. I know what I feel. That isn’t going to change. At least now however, what I feel is out in the open for you to know and then you can tell me what you feel.”

Maria sighed. “I am not very good with this. My parents were very strict. I only had one boyfriend and we all know how that ended up,” she said lightly as her eyes darted around Henry’s face. “I wouldn’t change any of that if it meant not having Caroline. Of course, after, I never was with anyone else again. Between the real lack of people here to socialize with in our own age group, the inability of not being able to get around without an automobile, and tending to Caroline, there really hasn’t been much time for that.”

Henry dropped his hands to her sides and took her hands in his.

“I do care for you, Henry. You are very special to me. I just do not feel a romantic connection. I cannot say there never would be one, but I have to be honest with you and tell you that at least right now, I do not have those feelings for you. I am so very sorry if this hurt you.”

“It’s OK Maria,” he said drawing her hands up to his mouth and kissing them lightly. “I had a pretty good idea this was the way it would go. I had to turn the stone over.”

They both stood closely to one another for a few moments and Henry slowly let her hands go. “I will only be upset if we do not remain the very best of friends as we have always been,” Maria said trying to maintain her composure.

“Absolutely,” Henry replied as he turned to pick the dishes back up. “Let’s get this cleaned up so it’s not left for the morning and you can head home.”

Maria helped take the things over to the sink to wash. Henry plugged the drain once the water was hot and began to fill the sink with water. Maria reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “You are a very special man, Henry. You are a wonderful person and kind. You deserve the very best in someone that can offer themselves to you. I do hope you find her someday.”

“But I have found her, Miss Maria. She just didn’t feel the same. But that’s OK. You can’t pick who you fall in love with. You just love them.”

Maria smiled just a bit. “Will you promise me this does not become awkward between us?”

“It won’t. I promise. I will be in here bright and early for coffee tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Henry, for being a wonderful friend to me.”

“Thank you, Miss Maria, for the evening. It was my pleasure.”

Epilog

David Stephenson leaned against Peter Dempsey’s red Peterbilt 379 watching the sunset in the western sky. With the last of it disappearing beyond the mountain range, he slid his hands into his pockets. “Another Sunset; another day done,” he said aloud to himself.

He reached back into the cab of the truck while waiting for Peter to come out of the diner and thumbed through a few magazines that Peter had been keeping in his truck. One of the financial ones caught his eye and he pulled it out of the pile. On the cover were numerous story titles contained within the issue.

One particular one, “Technology and How it Changes the Game”, leapt out at him. He thumbed the inside table of contents to get more of a summary of the written piece. He then flipped back to the cover and scanned it for a publication date. Near the bar code, he found what he was looking for.

“March 2009?” he said aloud and then opened the magazine to the starting page of the article.

On page seventy nine was a picture of several technology CEOs and investment banking managers. On the opposite page were article segments calling out some investment analysts and other industry players. David turned a couple of more pages and stepped away from the truck instinctively. Over those pages he found what was triggering his memory when he saw the profile portrait of himself.

Nonchalantly, David walked over and dropped the magazine into a nearby public trash can.

He turned and began walking back to the rig when Peter came out of the diner with a woman in professional attire. Peter pointed his finger out to the main road and he could hear him giving her some directions back to the interstate. Once he was through, she handed him a folder of paperwork, shook his hand, and was off to her car.

Peter made his way over and took his hat off. “Mr. David, I could give you rides in my truck the rest of my days. I can’t ever pay you back square for all you’ve done for me.”

David just smiled. “It isn’t about that, getting squared. You needed help. I could help. So I did.”

Peter lunged over and bear hugged him. “Anything you need. Whenever. You’ve got it.”

“Well, beyond this for you,” David said pointing at Peter’s paperwork, “Pamela Mendoza is all set as well. There’s nothing more for me to do.”

A shallow look came over Peter’s face. “I guess that means you’re going to head out.”

David looked back at his large green army duffle bag leaning up against the cab of the truck. The two men stood in silence for a moment. Peter fiddled with his paperwork. “I take it we’re not going to head eastward to take our leave or anything. You just want to go.”

“If you’re not travelling west it’s fine. I can make my way,” David said smiling slightly. “I have been at it a while.”

“Absolutely not,” Peter said firmly. “I got to thinking that maybe you might want to let the folks know you were going.”

“I never do,” David said plainly.

“I know. I thought this time you might consider it differently,” Peter replied softly. David just looked at the man a few years older than him with his deep brown eyes and then slowly turned towards the failing twilight in the western sky.

Peter walked away, did his usual safety check around the truck while David closed his eyes, and listened to the roar of the cars as they came by on the state road. When he finally opened them, he turned to head over and get his bag but Peter had already put it into the truck.

“So where did you want to head?” Peter asked starting up the rig.

“I’m not really sure. Usually I would just walk a road like this one,” David replied pointing. “I’d stay off the interstate for the walk time and if I caught a ride I’d go wherever the driver lead.”

“I like taking the state routes when I have the time to kill,” Peter replied loudly over the engine. David made his way over to the passenger side of the truck. Both men climbed in and Peter moved the rig out onto the road.

“So where do you want to head?” Peter asked. “There are any number of places we could make for your next stop.”

“You choose,” David said bluntly. “This is your neck of the woods. You know what I am doing. Where should I go?”

A long grin came over Peter’s face and he replied simply to his passenger, “Westville.”

The rest of David’s story continues in Westville in “Another Sunset” now available.

A six-chapter excerpt follows in the next section.

ANOTHER SUNSET

Chapter One

The warm morning sun came through the passenger window of the Peterbilt 379 as it made its way up Route 385.

Peter Dempsey glanced at the clock on the dashboard as it rolled to 7:00, and then looked at his passenger while he slowed up his speed just a bit as the western route took a turn back to true west, and the morning sun moved back to the rear of the big rig.

“Are you awake?“ he asked with a voice barely louder than the din of the engine and the roar of the tires on the road. “We’re just about here,” he added, and rubbed the week-old brown and gray stubble on his face.

As the truck pulled into the small township, David Stephenson opened his eyes and peered out of the dusty passenger window to the open fields of dirt and scrub brush alongside the state road.

The four-lane State Route 385 went through the town and dropped down to a two-lane road as they entered the town center.

David straightened his five-foot-eight frame up a bit in his seat and looked over to the man who had given him a ride for the better part of the last day, and then looked back out the windows of the truck.

“Well, it does look from here to be exactly the way you described it,” David said, and scratched his short brown hair.

A number of small storefronts, with residential dwellings above, lined the south side of the road. A few small storefronts dotted the northern side of the road, but they were mostly small and single, with a few double and triple family homes on the main route.

To the south there were no road spurs, just dusty open land that sloped upwards gradually toward a small hill range.

On the north side, roads went north and out of view of the slowing rig, with small single family homes spread out more and more sparsely as the road moved away from the main route.

“It’s a nice little place,” Peter replied as he gazed around as well. “I always thought it would be a nice place for me to stay for a spell when I’m not driving the rig. I make it a point to stop here when my route puts me through the area.”

Peter gave a soft sigh and eased the truck into the large parking lot—left off the route, next to a small three-family dwelling with a storefront where a connecting street on the right, named Packer, came down and dead-ended onto the route. “Aw, hell, who am I kidding? I make it a point to come through here when it’s miles out of my way. Perks of being an owner-operator. Texas is full of neighborly folk, but I’ll tell you what,” he said as he applied the parking brake. “You’ll never find sixteen hundred more neighborly folk on the planet than the ones you’ll find here.” His southern accent thickened up as he finished.

“So, you really think this is the place for me to be?” David asked, and peered out across the driver-side window.

“Son,” the older man said, with his eyes crinkled up, “if just a fraction of what you’ve gone and shared with me is gospel, and I reckon it is, and more from what I’ve seen with my own eyes, then you need to be here and this place needs you here.”

“I’m an easy sell. I’ll do what I can.” David smiled, opened the passenger door, and climbed out. “Shall we have breakfast?” He looked across the main route to the buildings on the opposite corners of Packer Road. One was a hardware/general purpose store. The name on the sign above the windows read: Davenport’s General Store, and the sign on the store on the opposite corner read: McNally’s Grill and Pub. Next to the pub sat another store, called Barker’s, but from the lot it was a little difficult for David to make out exactly what was inside.

“Only if you let me buy breakfast,” Peter replied loudly, as he shut the engine to the rig down.

David replied while he circled around the front of the truck. “I can’t let you do that. You just drove me seven hundred some odd miles. I have to at least buy you breakfast.”

Peter hopped down and closed the driver’s door.

“Son, I don’t have much. I could have a million dollars and it wouldn’t be enough to square up with you for what you’ve done for me.”

“I don’t need anyone to be squared up with me, and remember what I said. There are a thousand ways to be far richer than the sum of any money you might have.” David looked to Peter then turned, squinting his brown eyes when he looked in the direction of the morning sun, just coming up over the eastern plain and the hills in the direction from where they’d come.

David turned in the opposite direction to get a view of the western horizon.

“I know, and I know that’s an honest answer, too. Makes it all the harder …” Peter choked out the last word, but then firmed up his voice. “I insist, and I won’t take no for an answer. Breakfast on me, and I’ll talk to Miss Charlotte. She’ll have some work for you and a room—I’m almost certain.”

“Okay, old-timer, I know better at this point than to try to win this argument with you,” David said with a little smile.

“Old timer?” Peter said. “Hell, I can’t be more than fifteen years older than you. That’s your Yankee wise ass seeping in a bit.”

David flinched just a little, and then composed himself and responded, “Remember now, I offered up a little bit—”

Peter stopped in front of him, turned to face him, and cut him off. “Like I said, I don’t have much. My word is one of the things I have. I gave it to you. Your secrets, the ones you shared, are safe. I won’t talk about them.”

“Perfect,” David replied, and without skipping a beat, continued, “So, let’s go see about that breakfast you raved about for two hundred miles.”

The pair headed past a couple of parked cars and into the storefront. David looked up at the sign over the front of the building—Charlotte’s Place.

Peter walked in ahead of David, and passed the racks and shelves of everyday items.

David stopped to look around the small store. Having traveled extensively for some time, he studied the store with a certain amount of inquisitiveness. The place was reminiscent of a neighborhood corner store back east. Here, it was more likely a necessity store so everyday items could be bought without having to drive fifty miles or further to a larger town to stock up.

At first glance, the store didn’t look huge. When he looked around one more time, David assumed it couldn’t be more than three thousand square feet in size, but as he looked at all of the items for sale, he felt sure the little store had everything you might need for just about anything.

A young girl, in a yellow top and blue denim skirt, approached David from the direction of the counter area, where Peter had gone and where a couple of older men sat and drank coffee.

“Hi, mister, you’re new here. Can I help you find something?”

David snapped out of his reverie and turned his attention to the girl. “Well, hello.” He looked at her and smiled. “And how are you so sure I’m new here?” he asked in a friendly voice.

“Well …” the girl responded with a smile that lit up her tanned complexion. “The town, for the most part, isn’t getting any larger with the people that keep moving out, and I know I’ve never seen you before, so I’m figuring you’re new.”

“Well, that’s a good guess, miss. I am new. I traveled in with Mr. Dempsey.” David widened his smile and leant toward her, while he pointed over at Peter.

“Mr. Dempsey is a very nice man. You must be a nice man, too, ‘cos Mr. Dempsey never gives anyone a ride in his truck.” The girl moved her long black hair from in front of her shoulder to the back.

“Well, you’re quite observant for an eight year old.” David guessed her age while looking past her, watching Peter talking with an old, graying woman at the counter and gesturing back in his direction.

“I’ll be nine in a couple of months,” the girl responded, eyes shining proudly. “My mama said I’m pre … pro …”

“Precocious?” David asked.

“Yes, that’s it.” She untangled some of her hair from her shirt straps.

“So, does the pretty precocious girl with the long black hair have a name for the new customer? Mine is David.”

A voice with a soft Mexican lilt called out from behind him. “Her name is Caroline, and I am sorry she is bothering you.”

David turned around in the direction of the voice, which had come through the doorway to the storefront.

A woman who resembled the young girl approached them, dressed neatly in a light-blue checkered dress outfit.

“I am Maria, and again I am very sorry she is bothering you.”

“Oh, your sister isn’t bothering me,” David replied quickly in an honest tone, looking over the slender woman. “As a matter of fact, she was asking me if I needed any help with anything.”

“Daughter,” Maria responded with a slight sound of disapproval in her voice. She put her arm around Caroline, who stood at about four feet tall and just a foot shorter than her mother.

He realized his mistake, and what it must have sounded like to her, and replied with haste, “Daughter. I’m so sorry. Well, she certainly is well mannered for an up-and-coming nine year old.”

David turned his attention to Caroline and said, “Thank you for asking me if I needed any help. I’m going to go have some breakfast with Mr. Dempsey.” David smiled then addressed the two of them together, “It was nice meeting you both.”

Then he turned, walked away, and headed over to the breakfast counter next to where Peter stood, still engaged in conversation with the woman. He stared for a moment, and then took a seat on the stool a little away from them.

As he sat, he took a menu and looked it over briefly, then someone walked toward him.

A familiar voice asked, “Good morning, would you like some coffee?”

Slightly startled, David looked up from the menu. There stood Maria, finishing putting on her apron.

“Coffee? Sure,” David replied. “So, you’re a mom and a waitress. All learned in the same five minutes. I wonder what the next surprise is going to be.”

“I am not sure you will be around long enough to uncover any other surprises,” Maria said, with just a touch of her Mexican accent coming through, then she filled David’s coffee.

“What makes you so sure about that?” David asked.

“Well, it sounded as if you came in with Mr. Dempsey, and he generally comes through but will not stay.” Maria’s tone shifted a little,. “It is a shame. People come and go, but they do not stay. Some of us who have been here a while also leave, never to return.”

Before David had a chance to ask her what she meant by that, Peter approached with Charlotte Cassidy.

Charlotte seemed grandmotherly in her looks, but her step and stance were as solid as someone half her age. She leaned over the counter from the serving side and looked David right in the eye. “So, young man.” She leaned a little closer and stiffened up her tone. “Peter here says you came in on a ride in his truck. Says you’re looking for a place to stay and some work to do.”

David glanced up to see the reaction to the comments on Maria’s face, and then looked back to Charlotte as Caroline came over and sat one stool over at the counter.

“Yes, that’s the case,” David answered. “I’m passing through, but I thought I might like to stay a little while, and in order to do that, I’d need a place to sleep and some work, if you have one or both.”

“I might have a room and a little bit of work around here. The room ain’t the greatest, but it ain’t the worst and the work is pretty much the same. It’s one hundred dollars a week, but I hate to lock up the room for short periods of time. I’m not looking for a lease or anything from you, but it’s a little into the summer right now … do you figure you’ll make it through the end of the year?”

“If it’ll put your mind more at ease, I’d be willing to pay for the room to the end of the year.” David smiled, sipped at his coffee, and slipped a hand into his pocket.

“The room’s on the third floor. It’s really just one big room and a bathroom. There’s a sleeper sofa up there already, but you’ll need to run down to Jim Davenport’s for some linens and towels and such.”

“I’ll take it,” David replied without missing a beat.

Charlotte squinted and looked at David a little more closely. “Why is a strapping young lad like yourself coming to hang around our little dust bowl to the end of the year?” she asked.

“Well, I’m not one hundred percent certain how long I’m going to stay. I figure at least two months, but as I mentioned, I’d be willing to pay to the end of the year.”

David looked around and noticed that everyone was listening to the conversation, including the two older men at the far end of the counter.

“Why would you want to pay for the months you might not stay?” Caroline asked.

David turned to look at her before her mother could correct her. “Well, I need a place to stay. I might stay that long and I might not, but Miss Charlotte needs to make sense of locking up the room with someone like me.”

“So why are you staying?” Caroline asked.

“Carolena!” Maria said in a hushed tone.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind the questions. It’s refreshing to have an honest conversation with someone that has no motive other than to know an answer to a question.” David turned to Maria, and then focused his attention back to her daughter.

“Well, Caroline, everyone needs to be somewhere. Mr. Dempsey talks often and kindly about this little place, and I thought: now that seems like a place I want to stay for a while, so here I am.”

Caroline gave a wide smile and looked up at Charlotte, who smiled a bit herself. “I like him. Can he stay?”

“That’s about the only seal of approval I need. The room is yours,” Charlotte said as she turned and walked around the counter and headed in the direction of the other two men in the store. “If you want to rest up a bit and come down later, you can start working today. We open at six in the morning and close between six and seven p.m. during the week, depending on who’s coming in and what I feel like. … Lots to do …”

“Is there a key for the door?” David asked.

Charlotte stopped for a moment, looked up at the ceiling, and then turned around and gave a grandmotherly smile. “I’m sure that when the door was put in a key came with it. Haven’t seen it since. Welcome to our little town.”

David smiled.

“Caroline, your school bus is coming down the street,” Maria said and pointed to the front windows.

David wondered, “School bus? In the summer?” He turned in his chair to see an older passenger bus coming down the main route toward the store, and then it stopped at the corner of Packer Road.

“That’s the school bus?” David asked Maria as she came around the counter to help Caroline gather her things.

“Yes. It is the bus that takes her to the county school for a summer program she is in.” Maria hustled her daughter off the stool and toward the door. Then she kissed the girl, who then headed out the door and onto the bus.

Peter came up to David and sat next to him. “So, I’ll be heading out soon. You can finish the coffee, and I gave Miss Charlotte a few bucks. Make sure you eat something. I’ll bring in your duffle bag before I go.”

“I’d appreciate that. I’d hate to have to buy new clothes, too,” David said with a half-smile. “Thanks again for the ride and for getting me set up here. I really appreciate it.”

Maria came back around the serving side of the counter and wiped down the spot where Caroline had been sitting.

“No, thank you,” Peter said as he smacked David on the shoulder and got up. “I have another run that takes me through here in about three to four weeks. I’ll be sure to stop by and check in.”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Peter headed out the front door of the store and the two men who’d been drinking coffee headed out the side door nearest them.

Charlotte sighed while she cleaned up after them.

“Maria, I’m going to sit in the back for a little bit. You make sure you come get me if it gets busy and you need help.”

“I will, Miss Charlotte,” Maria answered.

“Does it get busy enough for you here that you need to get her?” David asked, and took another look at the breakfast menu.

“No, but she likes to say that anyway,” Maria replied as she pinned her nametag on her dress. “Sometimes she will rest and fall asleep in her chair in the back there. She needs more rest, anyway. I honestly do not know how she does it. I am one-third her age and I have a hard time keeping up with her.”

“So, she’s about eighty,” David replied without looking up.

“About.”

“That’s it? No answer?” David asked.

“Well …” Maria sounded playful. “You just got here and it would seem as if you might actually be here long enough to uncover other surprises, but I would think you would not want to learn them all in one day.”

“Well,” David said, trying to change the tone of the conversation, “I’m sort of hungry, but I could use a better rest than I got in the cab of that truck, so I think I’ll just head upstairs.”

Peter came back through the doorway with David’s duffle bag. David stood to meet him part way, took the bag, and extended his hand to shake Peter’s, but Peter pulled him forward and gave him a bear hug.

Maria watched the exchange, raised an eyebrow, and leant on the counter. She reached back to the hair catch that pinned up her long, black hair and adjusted it slightly to tighten it up.

“You take care now,” Peter said as his eyes welled up a little. “I know you might move on in a bit, but make it at least through my next trip. Three or four weeks. You were figuring to be here at least eight, right? This way, if you need another ride, I’m around.”

“I’m figuring as much. I’m sure I’ll see you. Safe travels.”

Peter waved to Maria, turned, and left the store.

David carried the full-size bag, nearly bursting at the seams, to the counter.

Maria gave David an inquisitive look.

“Something wrong?” David asked as he leaned the bag on the stool, sat on the adjacent one, and slid his coffee back over.

“What happened with Peter?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“He has been coming in here for years,” Maria’s accent came through more strongly. “I have never seen him express himself like that. What happened to him?”

David studied the look on Maria’s face for a moment before responding. “He had some things going on, some personal things. I did what I could to help him.”

Maria’s next words came a little quieter and a little less demanding, “He often spoke of people he met in his travels on the road. He has never mentioned the likes of you, and I have never known him to give anyone a ride in his truck. How long have you know him?”

“About eight weeks,” David said with a smile. “It might be a little more, I forget exactly. Not long, that’s for sure.”

Maria stared.

“Am I not meeting some approval?” he asked, then sipped more coffee and reached for the spoon on the counter.

“I am not sure I understand the question.” Maria leant backward into the counter.

David glanced around to the mirror behind her, which basically took in the whole view of most of the now-empty store. “You seem to me to be somewhat motherly about people. You have a lot of empathy for others, but caution as well. You were concerned for Peter because he engaged in an uncharacteristic response, one you’ve never seen before, and a stranger he gave a ride to, which was also uncharacteristic.”

“You presume much of people you have just met. But in saying so, you are not wrong either.” Maria, despite her Mexican accent becoming predominant again, spoke in precise English, and David noted that she generally didn’t use contractions in her speech, but instead enunciated each and every word in her high, clear voice. Her comments became more pointed. “Peter is a kind man. A man with a good heart. He is the kind of man that is easily taken advantage of by the wrong kind of person.”

David sat up straighter. He hadn’t expected to be locked into a contentious conversation, but decided to engage. “With respect to your point of presuming much of people, you’ve just met me as well. It would seem I could make the same counter claim of you,” David responded quietly and in calm tones. “I’m a good reader of most people, so I feel comfortable with most of my assumptions. When I’m wrong, I own up to it. What makes you believe I might be the type of person that’s the wrong kind?”

Maria seemed to realize she might have judged a little and been a little harsh, and she backed off her position and softened her tone. “You are right. I am sorry. It is like I said, Peter almost never gives anyone a ride in his truck and then you say you have barely known him two months. … Still, he seemed to express sincerity about something you appeared to have helped him with, so I will take it at face value.”

“Thank you,” David responded and smiled.

Maria’s face softened with her change of tone. “Besides, Carolena seems to like you and she is a pretty good judge of character on first glance.” Maria began to tidy up behind the counter.

“So is it Carolena or Caroline? You’ve called her both,” David asked.

“Well, that is a long story I will not bore you with. The short story is her father was set on the name. It was his grandmother’s name and had some significance to him. Not enough to stick around for us, but … anyway, being a Mexican-American, the name would be Carolena, so I will call her that when I am being endearing to her.”

“Or when she’s in trouble,” David said with a slight grin.

“Yes,” Maria responded softly. “And she can often be that,” she said as she smiled.

David smiled, nodded, and said, “I’m going to head up and get some more rest. I’ll come down a little later and check with Miss Charlotte on what she wants done and when she wants me to get started.”

“Rest well then,” Maria responded, clearing the coffee cup. “Are you sure you do not want anything to eat? Peter did ask that you eat something.”

David paused for a moment. “I think I’m okay for now.”

Maria stared for a moment with a hard focus. “I will come up to get you in a couple of hours. You need something to eat. If you prefer some rest now, that is fine, but you also need to eat.”

David smiled as that motherly characteristic came through in her statement. “I don’t suppose, if I tried to argue the point, that I would win.”

Maria smiled slightly. “You would not.”

David took a few steps toward the door with his bag in his hand, then stopped and turned back to Maria, who was still looking at him.

“So, the long story that you didn’t want to bore me with. If I wanted to hear it, would you tell me?”

Maria paused before responding, and then stated, “Why would you want to hear it?”

“One of the best ways to get to know someone is to ask them to tell a little about themselves and then listen to them tell their story.”

“And is that what you want? To get to know me?” she asked in a more guarded tone.

“Well, I will be here a little while. I think it makes sense.”

“A while. And then?” Maria said as her tone shifted once more.

David sensed he’d hit a nerve. “You never know what tomorrow brings. You plan your life like you might live forever, but you need to live it like it might end sooner than later. That’s the best way I know to try to get the most out of it. It doesn’t make sense for everyone, but it does for me.”

David backed up more toward the door, but he kept is gaze on Maria’s face. “And yes, to answer your question, I would like to get to know you, but I’m not going to pry, and I leave that up to you.”

David stepped out of the door and headed for the stairs to the apartment to rest.

***

Maria continued to stare at the door as David walked away.

“Interesting man,” Charlotte’s voice called out of the back room.

“He seems nice enough.” Maria moved more into a work mode behind the counter, and then made her way to the other side. “He seems out of place.”

“Everyone that’s not from here is out of place,” Charlotte replied as she reached the small grill and turned it down. “He sounds like he’s from up north. Probably New York.”

“That is not what I meant. I meant more like lost, I guess,” Maria stated as she just looked out the door, puzzled.

“Ah,” Charlotte replied, putting dishes into the sink to clean. “That would be the soft Maria, trying to save the tortured soul of another but not saving her own.”

Maria turned around from the doorway and looked at the old woman. “That is what I do, is it not?” She sighed. “I often feel like I can help. And I never can.”

“You never let them in.” Charlotte leaned over the counter. “Not everyone is William.”

Maria rolled her eyes and moved toward the counter. “That is not what I am talking about. How I am is not about Billy and what happened.”

“No, it actually is,” Charlotte said and took a seat. “That’s the root of it with you. People disappoint. You put too much faith in them, and then, when they let you down, it ruins you. I remember when you were pregnant with Caroline. You were so happy. Even though it disappointed your father that you weren’t married first, and you really didn’t want to disappoint him. You wanted to be pregnant and have a family and you were so happy for it, despite how it happened.”

“I have a daughter. I lost the family. Here and in Mexico, basically, as well,” Maria’s tone saddened.

“William had to take his own path. It’s unfortunate, but you’ve only gained, not lost. We all wish you’d see that.”

“We?” Maria asked.

“Your family. All us folks around here. I know we’re different from the people you knew from your village in Mexico, but you can erase some of that borderline that separates our two countries. Inside, we’re all the same. We love you just as much.”

Maria guided herself slowly onto the counter stool. “I am not that young, eighteen-year-old girl anymore.”

“Bah! I’m old. You’re going to be, what, twenty-eight?”

“Next year,” Maria said and cracked a little smile.

“That stool you’re sitting on is older than you.”

Both women laughed out loud at the statement. Charlotte made her way around the counter and walked over to the front door of the store. “I remember when Henry and I opened this store decades ago. ‘It will be a nice little way to earn some extra money to supplement what I make at the mine’ he told me. Who knew it would be all we’d have left when the mine closed up. Who knew it would keep me into my eighties.”

Maria turned on the stool and noticed the time. She got up to make coffee, as more of the regulars would be on their way in shortly.

Charlotte turned from the door and noticed Maria getting the coffee ready. “Good thinking. We are working, after all. Folks will be here shortly, and the customers aren’t going to pay good money for only my wit.”

Maria smiled as two customers crossed the street and approached the store, and another pulled their car into the lot.

Chapter Two

David woke to the sound of light knocking. As he opened his eyes, he wondered if he’d imagined the sound, then it repeated.

“Mr. David, it is Maria. I have something for you to eat.”

David got up quickly from the beat up, brown couch and walked over to the door and opened it.

“Hi,” he said, standing in the doorway in only his jeans. “I guess you weren’t kidding on the food. Thank you. Come in.”

Maria stared at his chest for a brief moment, looked away, and then stepped into the room. “It is ten o’clock. I really cannot stay very long as Charlotte will need me back down there when the lunch folks come in. She tries to do everything on her own, but she really cannot any longer, as I mentioned to you before.”

David took the bacon and egg sandwich from her and smiled. He took a bite from it and set it on the kitchen table, then walked over to pull a clean shirt from his bag.

***

Maria watched him snap the shirt open and then put it on. Her eyes drifted over his body.

He is not particularly fit, but nor is he out of shape, she thought as she lifted her gaze up to his brown eyes. Still, she found herself wanting to stare.

David caught her looking and said, “So, I can eat this quickly and go downstairs and give Charlotte a hand.”

“Oh,” Maria said as she paused, snapping herself back into the conversation, slightly embarrassed. “I think she needed help from you for things like the shelves in the backroom and the scrub brush out back and other things on the property. Less inside the store.”

“I see.” David grabbed his socks and sneakers. “Well, there seems to be enough to do inside as well. Things outside can wait for after hours. You have good daylight here in the later summer—to sometime after eight I presume?”

“Yes.” Maria folded her hands in front of her torso.

“So, Miss Maria Romero, you live on the second floor? And Miss Charlotte lives on the first?” he asked as he finished lacing up his sneakers.

“I see you can read the mailbox labels,” Maria said showing a slight grin.

“Yes, well, I’m loaded with many little, hidden talents.” David smiled then took another bite of his sandwich and walked toward the door with it in his hand. “Shall we?”

David opened the door and gestured for Maria to pass first, which she did with just the slightest smile on her face.

***

David took another bite of the sandwich while they headed down the stairs. As he turned the first landing to the second floor, he paused when a touch of vertigo hit him, then immediately dissipated. Maria turned around and David looked up and stepped forward.

“Did you forget something?” she asked in a soft voice.

“No, why did you ask?” he asked as they continued down to the first landing and then outside.

“You stopped walking. I thought you needed to go back for something.”

He smiled. “Basically, everything left that I own in the world is in that bag upstairs and there’s really little else other than clothes. Nope, I’m all set.” They rounded the building corner to the front door of the store, then entered.

Three people sat at the counter, and one walked the small aisles with a basket, picking up household items.

Maria continued to the counter, and David paused to read the items on the small bulletin board on the wall near the newspapers and magazines, while he ate more of his sandwich.

Charlotte’s voice drifted in and out of the conversation with the three people at the counter. She was discussing David as the new tenant and worker at the store.

David scanned the notes on the bulletin board. Items were posted for babysitting, fixing autos and trucks, hauling services, and so forth—all local numbers, as much as he could tell—and, while they had pull tags for the numbers for someone to take with them, most remained intact and not pulled.

His eyes drifted to a colorful mini poster, titled, Our Library. David pulled the tack out of it and took it down to read. While he did that, Charlotte walked over.

“I know I have things to do and for you to get started on, but we really haven’t discussed pay or anything, so I suppose we should.”

“That’s fine.” David turned around and smiled. “I’m going to do some work, you figure out what the value of that is to you and what you can afford, and I figure I’ll be fine with it.”

“Really?” Charlotte’s eyes widened, and her question came out at volume . “You strike me as someone from up north. And I know a few folks from that way. Always wheelin’ and dealin’. How do you know I won’t under bid your work if I know you’re so willing to allow me to set the rate?”

“You simply don’t strike me as the type of person to take advantage. I trust you’d be fair and offer what you could.” David glanced over at Maria while she took an order from a woman at the counter. Then he looked up at the menu on the wall and back down to Charlotte. “I’m going to give Maria a hand with that order. If you need me to do something else, let me know.”

“How were you planning to help Maria take an order?” she asked, as David pinned the flyer back up and walked toward the counter.

“Well, I can cook what the folks have ordered, and that’s helping,” David said with a smile. The customers and Maria were now listening to the conversation.

“That’s all well and fine.” Charlotte walked over to the customer side of the counter. “But I traditionally do all the cooking and the sandwich making around here.”

“I’m sure you do, and I bet it’s fantastic. But why not let me give it a try for them? If they don’t like the way I do it, you can always take it back.” David turned to the customers. “Care to give my skills a spin? You’re guaranteed to like it or I’ll pay for it.”

The three folks looked at Charlotte, who shrugged as if to respond ‘why not’. Charlotte sat next to Mel Porter, a retired doctor and one of the regulars at Charlotte’s Place, on the customer side of the counter.

Mel looked like an average, every-day older gentleman in his early seventies, even though he had yet to hit sixty-eight-years old.

Diana Canton, a single mother in her fifties, had long, graying and thinning hair, and she looked a few years older than her age.

Carol Campbell, a recent widow in her sixties, had dark black hair.

“Well, I’d like to try it,” the woman who’d been walking the aisles and picking up items said. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she continued as she sat on an empty stool a little away from the others and placed her basket of items on the counter. She looked up at David with her deep blue eyes.

“My name’s David. It’s nice to meet you.” He extended his hand.

“Sue Ann,” the middle aged woman responded and extended her hand, in a manner that indicated it was to be taken rather than shaken. David responded appropriately for the gesture, and then let her hand go.

He turned to look at Maria, who stared with a certain level of disdain. “Ah … where are the menus, Maria?”

“Yes, Maria, please be a dear and get me one, won’t you?” Sue Ann interjected with a tone of slight disrespect, as she removed her wide-brimmed white hat.

Maria handed a menu over to David. Sue Ann pulled a brush out of her purse and combed her medium-length, strawberry-blonde hair, and David set the menu down in front of her.

She was rather well dressed, as compared to the few other people he’d seen so far. It wasn’t so much that she was over dressed, but her clothes looked newer and a grade above the others. He paid little further attention to it, other than recognizing the difference. He also noted that from appearances, she might be around fifty—a few years older than him.

“So, David, what brings you to Westville? It certainly can’t be to cook eggs for all us Texas folk … native and non-native alike.” Sue Ann flirted as she pushed the menu back slightly.

“Well, for this very moment it is.” David returned the smile. “So how would you like those two eggs?”

“Surprise me.” She leaned forward a little, allowing her top to gape open further. David saw the gesture and made a point to not acknowledge it as he walked away and toward the grill. Maria came down to the others and took their orders. She glanced over at Sue Ann once she was done.

“Anything the matter, Miss Romero?” Sue Ann asked.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kurtvow. I was going to ask you if you would like me to ring up your purchases separately or with the breakfast,” Maria responded quietly with lowered eyes.

David looked up from the food work area while he put the apron on then seasoned the grill. He took notice of how disarmed Maria acted. It was uncharacteristic from how he’d seen her earlier.

“You can ring these up now on my husband’s account. I’ll pay for breakfast separately,” Sue Ann responded, then turned toward David.

Maria removed the basket from the counter and totaled up the items. She then went over to a ledger near the register and entered information into it. After that, she put the items into a cardboard carrier box and walked back to the counter.

Sue Ann put her keys on the counter. “Be a dear and place those into my car, please, Miss Romero.”

David turned down the burner, moved the pan over to the warmer, and came around the counter. “Which car is it, Mrs. Kurtvow?” Then he turned toward Maria. “I’ll take that for you, Maria.”

“I can handle it on my own, thank you just the same,” she responded to David as she took the keys off the counter.

David turned to Charlotte, who stood taking in the exchange, and deflected with a neutral question, “Do you have any cinnamon?”

“In the back room, on the shelf on the far wall. We use those larger ones for food prep,” Charlotte said.

David walked away and into the back room. He saw the cinnamon right away on the shelf. He took it into his hand and stood for a moment, digesting the exchanges that had just taken place.

“Let me offer you some free advice, Maria,” Sue Ann said, as Maria began to walk away. “While some men like confident women, virtually no men like a woman that does everything themselves. If you’re not going to let them do things for you, they’ll find another woman that will let them.”

“Mrs. Kurtvow, with respect, I am not looking for a man to do anything for me.”

“Well, that explains many things,” Sue Ann responded quietly. David emerged from the back room and headed over to the grill.

Maria looked at Charlotte, who had a look of concern on her face.

“Mrs. Kurtvow, would you like these in the trunk or the backseat?” Maria asked with a little more vigor in her voice.

“The backseat, dear. I’m sure you’re familiar with that area of the car,” Sue Ann answered in curt tones.

David flicked his gaze up as the comment ended and came around the grill area at speed. Almost on cue, Charlotte stood briskly. Suddenly, David sensed a need to not follow his initial instinct to say something, and so continued beyond the counter. “Here, at least let me get the front door for you, Maria.”

“The car is off the side door, David,” Sue Ann responded.

David cut across the store to the side door as Maria walked over toward it. He didn’t offer to take the box, but he got out in front of her and held the door open.

He watched Maria make her way over to the car with the box in both hands. She’d either struggle with the keys or set the box down to complete the task. He let the door go behind her and stepped up and took the box.

She gave him a stern look. “I am more than capable of putting a simple box into the woman’s car,” she said, almost as if she felt insulted. A little more of her Mexican accent slipped out in her response.

“I realize that you are quite able and capable. I wanted to help make it easier for you.”

Maria opened the back door of the car and jerked the box from David’s hands. “I do not need a man to come running to my rescue.”

“It’s not that,” David said, feeling defensive.

Maria interrupted and continued, “It is never with the correct intentions and it comes with the want and need of other expectations.” Then she slammed the door and walked away back toward the store.

“Hey!” David yelled out, which stopped Maria in her tracks. She didn’t turn around, but she closed her eyes, realizing her rudeness. “A really strong and independent woman is one who knows full well she can do it all, but is confident enough in herself to allow someone to help.”

Maria took a step forward then stopped.

“You’re better than that exchange we just had,” David said in a softer tone, as he walked up and past her and held the door open.

Maria walked in past him and paused for a second. “I am sorry,” she said quietly.

David touched her arm softly, to keep her from walking further away from him. “We can talk about why that happened some other time,” he said in a reassuring voice and with a smile.

When they walked back into the store, everyone looked in their direction. Maria kept her head down and went around the counter to get the coffee, and David headed over to the grill area to tend to Sue Ann’s eggs. He then looked at the orders up for the other customers and started all the core items for each.

“Well, I really must know—because you’re like a breath of fresh air around here already—how long will you be here in Westville?” Sue Ann asked loudly, to be sure to be heard from the counter to the grill area.

“To be honest, I’m not really sure,” David answered without looking up. “I tend to travel around. Sometimes I’m in one place for a while and sometimes I’m here and gone.”

“Sounds interesting.” Sue Ann adjusted herself in the seat, with some effort to get David’s attention. “What’s the change-up factor? What makes you decide it’s time to go?” she asked with just a hint of southern accent coming out.

“When I figure my work is done,” David said with a smile, while he prepared all the plates for the orders.

“And what work is that?” Sue Ann asked.

David looked up and realized the others weren’t talking among themselves but listening in on the public conversation. “What needs to get done,” he responded.

Sue Ann followed up with, “And that would be?”

“Now, Mrs. Kurtvow.” David came around with the orders. “If I told you everything today, you would become far too quickly bored. The best stories take time to unfold.”

Maria crossed her arms when David delivered over the orders to all the customers instead of handing them over to her. He then went back around to get the final plate, which went to her. Maria frowned in confusion about the plate. She looked at him as if she needed to serve it, but everyone had a plate.

“That one is yours,” David said with a smile.

“How do you know what I like to eat?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you what …” He walked back toward the grill area. “Try it. If you don’t like it, you can tell me, and I can work from there. I think you’ll like it.”

“You seem pretty sure of yourself,” Maria said, with shoulders hunched defensively.

David looked around at the others enjoying their first bites. “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I usually know what side I’m on at any given time.”

“I don’t care which side it is,” Mel said. “Anyone who can cook like this can dance all over the place. Holy Mary!” Mel turned to Charlotte. “I’m sorry, Miss Charlotte, and you know I say no one cooks as well as my departed wife other than you, but if you’re eating what I’m eating …”

“Well …” Charlotte sounded both defensive and in jest. “It’s pretty good considering a man cooked it.”

Carol and Diana both smiled at the comments. They were enjoying the food so much, they could only smile and take another bite.

Sue Ann looked up from her dish and directly at David. “What’s in this? It’s excellent. How did you learn to cook this?”

David flinched as he recalled the exact time he’d perfected the egg breakfast meal he’d served the patrons. He looked around and responded. “It’s actually an old family recipe,” he said with a strained smile that he forced harder to maintain for show.

“Impossible, they don’t cook like this up north,” Charlotte interjected, trying to break David’s uneasiness.

David responded in defense of the comment, “I think I might surprise you on some of those stereotypes and dispel a few of them.” He moved from the grill area back toward the counter. His entire attitude had shifted from the moment prior.

“Will you be here long enough to do that?” Maria asked, and her Mexican accent thickened up. “As you indicated, you may be here and then you may be gone.”

“Well, as I said …” David moved past her and around the counter to the customer side. “I stay until everything I need to do is done.”

“Yes, I recall,” she replied, then looked at Sue Ann, who enjoyed the cross stare. “And what exactly is that? And who are you anyway with a comment like that?” she added. “We have had enough false saviors here …”

Sue Ann took notice of the comment and sat up.

David noted the reaction and tried to store it to digest later. He followed up quickly to remove the sudden additional tension he could feel in the room. “All these complex questions and assumptions when the real burning question, for me at least is, Miss Maria, how do you like your meal?”

Maria looked at him and squinted her eyes just slightly. She then softened her look and responded, “It is very good, I must admit. Perhaps not as good as I might make …”

“Very well then.” David turned to measure the attention of the others at the counter. “Please let me know when you’re willing to show me how it’s done. I’m more than happy to learn a new thing or two.”

Maria’s eyes widened—as though she hadn’t planned on that type of response. Charlotte grinned and looked away. Mel Porter moved up on his seat, waiting for any follow up response.

Carol smiled as she leaned forward to pay better attention.

“I was not implying I could show you or that I was free to invite you over for something to eat,” Maria said.

“And that’s because you live so far away from me, down on that second floor and all. And I suppose your calendar is full, too,” David responded playfully with a warm smile.

“I have a lot to do with Caroline. She is a handful. I am busy here and with her. And to be quite blunt, Mr. David, it is sort of presumptuous of you.” she responded in a standoffish manner. “Basically, you invited yourself over.”

“Of course it was presumptuous. How very north of me. Despite all my travels in recent years, I’m still not totally adept at understanding the nuances of southern hospitality and kindness. My apologies, Miss Maria.” David bowed a little, and then made his way back around the counter.

Diana turned and mumbled to Carol, “He’d only need to make one pass at me.”

Carol giggled like a schoolgirl at the comment, and Charlotte smiled. Mel grinned.

Sue Ann finished up the last bits of her meal. David went beyond the back grill area, through the back room, and out through the back door.

***

Maria moved around the counter and walked through the store, where she pulled stock forward on the shelves. Her mind raced. How rude of him to be so presumptuous, she thought. Her heart raced right along with her brain. The more time she spent thinking about him the more attractive he became. He was nice to look at, but there was nothing exceptional. He was a middle-of-the-road-looking man.

She walked from the end of one row to the next one.

He is not someone I would otherwise or normally find attractive. She worked the stock in the next row, then looked up at the back door he’d exited through. He is not from here and he has already indicated he is not going to be here for any real length of stay. There is no point in investing the time.

She looked up at the wall beyond the shelves she stood in front of and whispered,“Por qué estoy gastando todo este tiempo pensando en él?” She moved her eyes back to the rear of the shop and to the back room, wondering where he’d gone.

Maria came around the row slowly, then walked toward the counter entrance from the customer side to the work side. Sue Ann stood, took cash out of her wallet far in excess of the meal, and addressed Maria, who stepped around with her eyes still peering into the back room area. “Please cover my meal and give my regards and the change to the cook. I can’t wait to find out all there this to know about our new visitor.”

Maria collected the money. Sue Ann took five more dollars out of her wallet and left it on the counter. “Thank you for putting the groceries in the car for me.”

Maria looked at the tip and measured the tone of the comment. It seemed nearly genuine. “Thank you, Mrs. Kurtvow,” Maria responded, hopeful that it might have been just that.

Sue Ann looked at the back door of the store, and then leaned forward and over the counter. “If you’re not going to take advantage of that, I can certainly tell you others will. Consider that an add-on to your tip.”

Sue Ann smiled to the remainder of the folks in the room. “Good day, people. I’m sure I’ll be seeing y’all around,” she said and headed out the side door to her car.

Maria went into the back room and found that David still wasn’t there, and that the rear door stood open. She walked to the doorway and stood on the threshold, where she saw David looking around the immediate property and at the rear entrance of the residential side of the structure.

***

“Are there more people?” David asked, as he walked toward Maria.

Maria waved him off. “No, Mrs. Kurtvow just paid and left, and the folks from before are still there.”

David stopped his approach and looked up the back stairs and the small deck off the back of his apartment from the ground. He then turned his view to the west and then looked back up.

“Are you expecting to find something?” Maria asked pointing in the general direction of the deck and then further west.

“I realize the sun came up a few hours ago. I was wondering what the view looks like at sunset and dusk,” David replied, looking into the sun and in Maria’s direction.

Maria stood quietly for a moment before responding. While she paused, David continued to look at her. With the sun behind her and shining around her, David couldn’t move his gaze.

“Is there something significant about the sunset you are hoping to find or see from your deck?” Maria shifted her small frame.

“I always try to take the time at the end of the day to watch the sun go down, if for nothing else than to view another sunset. People’s lives are blessed in all kinds of little ways. For me, I take a little comfort in seeing another day is done and watching another sunset.”

Maria’s eyes shone, as though she wanted to say something, but the words seemed stuck. At length, David asked, “How far is it to Mexico?” He pointed south.

“Maybe twenty-five miles or so,” Maria replied softly, and looked in the direction of her home country.

“I take it you miss it.” David turned and walked forward.

“America has been my home for a long time. Mexico is where I come from and where my family went home to. Despite the troubles here, America offers opportunities one cannot find for the most part in the rest of the world. Choices needed to be made for myself and for Caroline. They were in the best interest of us, so I make no apologies there.”

“And you shouldn’t,” David said with conviction, as he approached the steps at the base of the door where Maria stood.

A shallow burst of wind ruffled Maria’s dress and carried some sand along with it. She lifted her hand with the bill from Sue Ann’s breakfast. She cleared her throat loudly. “Ahem, well, Mrs. Kurtvow paid for her six-dollar breakfast with a fifty-dollar bill and wanted me to pass along to you her regards and the change.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll take the regards. Thank you very much for passing them along. Why don’t you keep the change?” David slipped into the remaining space in the doorway, stood close to Maria for a moment, and then passed the threshold and turned back toward her.

“It is not mine to take,” Maria replied, holding up the fifty in front of her.

“It’s mine to give away, so go ahead and take it,” David said, wondering if that was the button that would set her off.

Maria reached over, grabbed David’s hand, and stuffed the money into it. “I will ring you out later. You will keep that tip,” Maria replied, agitated.

David laughed as she slipped out of the doorway to storm off past him, which caused her to stop short and turn around.

“What is so funny?”

“You’re far too easily spun up. What did I do wrong there?”

“That is forty-four dollars.” Maria’s voice got louder and her accent heavier. “The average tip most folks can afford to leave is a dollar and the change. It takes me a week to get that much, if I get that much at all, and you want me to just take her money? In all her time she has never left me more than five dollars after taking a dig or two at me, so I look at it like combat pay.”

She folded her arms in front of her, which caused her to lift her breasts slightly. David forced himself to not look at them. He found it difficult to keep his glance up.

“And what’s the issue right now?” David asked with a slight smirk.

“No one gives almost forty-five dollars away!”

“Mrs. Kurtvow did. I’m simply passing the same money along to someone else. I have what I need. I earn what else I have to in order to pay for a place to stay. Beyond that, the money isn’t going to buy me anything I don’t already have.”

Maria looked surprised by the explanation and took a moment to gather a response. “Okay” she said, softening her tone. “If that is your explanation, then why pass it along to me?”

The immediate thought that went through David’s head was that she was a single mother and could probably use the help, but he figured that would upset her and he’d already poked his little bit of fun at her. “I figured you might be able to put it toward something that you and Caroline need. Perhaps if the bills are all caught up, you might put it toward a simple want instead.”

Maria absorbed the response.

David shrugged. “That, and I figured you have this disdain for Mrs. Kurtvow, so it would be fitting that you spend her money,” David added with a smile.

Maria beamed with a genuine smile, not the customer-polite ones she’d presented before.

“Ah,” David said as he turned away to walk out of the back room. “That’s what an honest smile looks like on you. It looks good. You should share it more often.”

Maria stayed in the back room, gazing after him with a happy gleam in her eyes.

Chapter Three

Mel Porter came back into Charlotte’s Place in the late afternoon.

David had finished up what there was to do inside the store and now worked out back clearing some of the scrub brush growth on the back part of the property.

Maria busied herself with some light restocking and cleaning near the front door, and looked up the road occasionally for Caroline’s bus to return.

Mel walked up to the serving counter and sat across from Charlotte who rested in the high server chair on the work side.

“So, I see the young lad is out back now,” Mel said as he moved and got comfortable in the chair.

“Yes, a lot a piss an’ vinegar in that one,” Charlotte said. “No moss on that stone. We keep calling them young, but they really aren’t, are they.” Charlotte gestured over toward Maria.

“No, I guess they’re not, not so much anymore. Where does the time go? Well, at least for them they still have much of their lives to go.” Mel adjusted himself in the chair a bit more. “Us, we have more days behind us than in front of us.”

“Speak for yourself, old man. I’m not planning on going any time soon,” Charlotte said with a small smile, knowing she was fifteen years his senior.

Mel smiled. “Are you almost finished with David? I was going to walk him over to Davenport’s to introduce him, and so he could pick a few things up.”

“A couple things.” Charlotte stood to collect a few items behind the counter. “I was done with David half an hour ago. He just keeps doing work. Secondly, you and I both know that half your interest is to walk around with him and chew his ear off.”

Mel smiled widely at being called out. “Guilty as charged, Miss Charlotte.”

“Go around back and grab him anytime you’d like. I know he’ll need some stuff for the apartment. I’m not sure of his cash situation, so if needed, have Davenport extend him credit and I’ll back it up if necessary.”

“Jim’s had to tighten down like we’ve all had to. It’ll make him comfortable that you’re willing to back up David’s credit.”

Charlotte turned around from what she was doing. “And you wouldn’t?”

“You and I are old school. We would, regardless. Still, there’s something about the boy’s honesty and openness that makes it easier to do.” Mel hopped off the stool, headed behind the counter, and cut through the store to exit out the back.

“Yes,” Charlotte responded and trailed off. “There is just something about him … his situation, for lack of a better term. I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well, Charlotte,” Mel replied as he reached the back room entrance, “you’ve been a pretty good read of people over the years. I’m sure within just a little bit of time you’re going to know our young friend better than he knows himself.”

Charlotte smiled at the compliment, and Mel exited toward the rear door.

When the school bus pulled up to the intersection, Maria set her dust broom down and stepped out the front door of the store. The old bus breaks squealed loudly as the vehicle came to a full stop.

***

David looked up from the far end of the property upon hearing the sound. He glanced over at Mel, coming out of the back of the store, and then looked back at the bus.

Caroline bounded out of the bus and ran toward the front of the store and just out of David’s view. He smiled, turned toward the western horizon, and peered at the skyline, mentally judging the remainder of the day.

“Mama,” Caroline called out as she cleared the street. “Today was such a fun day. I am so happy to be able to go.” Caroline hopped in place, and her four-foot height cleared her mother’s five-foot frame.

“It is okay, honey. I am happy you are having fun. Come inside and tell me all about it.”

The two stepped through the entrance, and another brisk wind kicked up more dust and sand from the street and the dry land area.

***

Caroline ran up to the counter, and Maria turned to watch the bus drive away. Her thoughts turned to the remainder of the costs for the summer program. “Dios mío, where am I going to come up with the one hundred dollars for the final two weeks of the program?” Maria whispered to herself as the bus pulled out of view.

She slipped her hands into her pockets when she realized she still had Sue Ann’s guest check to ring out along with the remaining forty-four dollar tip. Maria walked over to the register to clear out the guest check David had returned to her, and made the change. “Miss Charlotte, can Caroline sit here for a moment while I go out back?”

“Of course, dear. I haven’t heard everything that happened at school today,” Charlotte responded with a smile.

Caroline reached over the counter and kissed her mother and threw her arms around her neck. “I love you, Mama. I have the best Mama.”

Maria pulled back tears and returned the hug, then looked at Charlotte, who herself fussed a little to keep from getting stupid sentimental, as she would put it.

Maria let go and headed back behind the counter and toward the back exit.

Mel approached David just as he turned away from the western view he’d been taking in.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” Mel asked while he finished his approach.

David turned to face Mel. “It’s a very nice view. I have this funny thing about sunsets. I try to take them in at the end of the day, when the day allows.”

“Of all the habits there are out there, and plenty of them are bad, that’s a good one to have.” He cleared his throat with a soft harrumph. “Charlotte’s going to let me steal you to go over to Jim’s for your things before he closes up for the evening. Why not head up, clean up a bit, and change out of those clothes now that you’ve managed to get them good and dirty.” Mel expanded his already wide smile.

***

Rebecca Wilson walked alongside Main Street from the west and toward McNally’s Grill and Pub, where she worked part time as a food server and bartender. As she made her way, she peered over to the Cassidy property.

She slowed her pace before crossing the street, then she noticed someone unfamiliar with Doc Porter. At the point where Maria came out of the back of Charlotte’s Place, Rebecca walked out of view of them in the yard and crossed the street.

She adjusted her denim skirt at her trim waist and tightened down on her button up shirt, intentionally popping the next button open.

She smiled a little as she shook her short blonde hair, which barely touched her shoulders, and said to herself, “Yes, this twenty-five-year-old server is going to crack the fifty dollar tip threshold tonight. Positive thinking.”

***

On the rear property of Charlotte’s Place, Maria approached David and Mel.

“Gentlemen,” Maria said in a soft voice as she approached.

“Maria,” Mel said, with slight surprise. “I was just telling David to head on upstairs to clean up so I can take him over to Davenport’s before they close up.”

“Yes, that would be good. I am sure David needs a few things for the apartment.” Maria nodded. She slid her hand back into the pocket of the skirt where the forty-four dollars and change remained. He will need this for the things he has to buy, she thought.

“I’ll head up now to get cleaned up, Doctor Porter. Can I meet you inside Charlotte’s?” David asked, and wiped some sweat from his brow.

“It’s Mel or Doc, please,” he said as he turned to walk back into the store. He smiled at Maria. “Take your time, but he closes in about an hour.”

“Hi, Maria,” David said and began a slow stride back toward the rear entrance to the living side of the building. Maria walked along with him.

“I am not very good at this so I will just say it. Are you certain you want me to have that tip from Mrs. Kurtvow? I know you have items to buy for the apartment.”

David turned and let out a small chuckle. “I’m pretty good at always saying what I mean and meaning what I say. Yes, I think you will find more good use for it than I will. I have some cash, and I’ll earn more.”

Maria touched David’s right arm softly and pulled him to a stop. “Thank you,” she said, and the emotion of being able to better afford Caroline’s classes nearly overtook her.

David seemed to sense her emotional level and looked as though he wanted to deflect her out of the emotional state she’d entered. “Ah,” he said, “so you already have a good use for it. Tell me,” he inquired as they walked up the stairs to the third floor.

Maria’s voice perked up. “Well, as you saw this morning, Caroline has those summer classes she loves. There are a couple of weeks left before regular school begins in two weeks, and they cost fifty dollars a week. It was getting a little tough to come up with the additional money. If your offer is genuine, it will make it far easier to just come up with the difference over the weekend to pay the full bill.”

David walked into the apartment, into the kitchen area, and removed his shirt. He sat in the chair and took his boots off. “How will you make up the difference? I talked to Charlotte before I headed outside. She said on Saturday she’s only open until about two, or whenever she feels like shutting the grill off. And she’s closed on Sunday.”

“Yes, I was thinking of asking over at McNally’s if they needed any additional help for one of the shifts on Saturday,” she replied while she watched David walk over to the kitchen sink and run the hot water. “They also, like most everyone else here, are closed on Sunday.”

“Well, that’s refreshing. I come from a land of twenty-four-hour stores. People need to force themselves to stop. I think part of the problem is they can do anything at any time, and as such, they never take a break. When everything is closed, it sort of forces them.” David ran his hand under the water, waiting for it to warm.

“Yes,” Maria said with a smile. “Folks are calling you Mr. New York, since no one really knows where you came from.” She was as much making the statement as probing.

“Really?” David responded with a playful glint in his eyes. “You can tell them Mr. Boston is a little more accurate in a particular context.”

Surprised, Maria said, “So, you are from Boston?”

“As wicked as that sounds,” David said, still playful and with a Boston accent. “No, but I am a big Red Sox fan.”

Maria smiled. While she wasn’t much of a sports enthusiast, she understood the baseball reference. “From that area of the country I thought the New York Yankees were the favored team.”

***

David paused for a moment and looked at Maria. If he said too much he could give away more of the area from where he came from. “Miss Maria,” he said softly, “you’ll find I’m always pulling for the underdog.”

David turned off the water, which never got warm, and walked over to his duffle bag on the adjacent sofa bed. He fussed around, ad pulled out sixty dollars, and handed it to Maria.

“What is this?” she asked.

“The forty-four dollar tip covers part of the class, and that sixty handles the rest.”

Maria handed it back to David like it was on fire. “I cannot. I do not like taking the forty-four you have already given me.”

“Okay, look. I would prefer you not lose part of a Saturday with Caroline to give her two weeks of classes away from you. The forty-four dollars from Mrs. Kurtvow’s tip is yours to keep. If the sixty dollars is too much then just pay me back down the road. It’s not like I don’t know where you live, seeing as how you’re one floor down and all.”

Maria looked blankly at David, and seemed overwhelmed by the kindness.

“Since it was such a discussion piece before, I promise to not leave town before you have the opportunity to pay it back,” David replied with a smile, in an effort to come off funny.

Maria tried to restrain her emotions, but one tear got away from her left eye. David turned away and stepped toward the sink to afford her the chance to clear it without getting caught.

“I guess I’m going to have to change without cleaning up,” David said, looking at the sink. “Seems to be no hot water.”

Maria wiped the runaway tear then turned and walked over to the power breaker box in the apartment. “Miss Charlotte turns off the hot water tank when the room is not rented, to save on the electricity,” Maria said while she threw the switch on.

“Smart woman. Well, at least it’ll be ready for the morning.” David walked over to the duffle bag and pulled out some clean clothes.

“Please, bring your clothes downstairs. You are welcome to use my shower,” Maria said, then turned and stepped toward the door.

“Are you sure?” David looked back from the bag. “I don’t want to impose.”

“I insist,” Maria said, and her accent came out hard in the comment. “I will let you in, but then I need to run down to get Caroline.”

“Thank you, Maria.” David grabbed his things and moved toward the door.

“No, thank you, Mr. David,” she said as she walked out and down the stairs ahead of him. “You are beginning to restore my faith in people, … strangers, no less.”

David smiled as he shut his apartment door and followed behind her down the stairs to the second floor. He whispered quietly to himself, “And I’m just getting started.”

Chapter Four

David walked across the street with Mel Porter, toward Jim Davenport’s General Store.

“Jim’s place is the last of the General Stores.” Mel pointed east up Route 385, the town’s main artery. “Time was, when the mines were open and the cattle ranches were at full tilt, fifteen years back and over the prior fifty, this whole street was packed each night with local people coming and going. I suppose not as much as you’ve seen back where we all assume you’re from …”

“New York,” David said with an easy smile.

“Well, it’s been said back East, but I’ve heard a couple of people call you Mr. New York,” Mel said as he smiled, and the wrinkles in his face became a bit deeper with the expression.

“As I said to Maria earlier, Mr. Boston is a little more accurate in a particular context.”

Mel’s expression got a little more enthusiastic. “Ah … well, back twenty years ago, this town was nearly six thousand in population. We actually were one of the few areas out here able to maintain a town government and not have to fall under county rule. Seems like a lifetime ago now …”

The two men entered Davenport’s General Store. Mel looked up and smiled over at Jim. “Hi Jim,” he said and stuck his hand out to shake it.

Jim was in his early sixties, taller than David at a little over six feet, and wore his mostly white hair combed backwards, which didn’t quite cover the slight thinning on the top.

David took a quick scan about the store from where he stood. With the exception of food items, which could be found over at Charlotte’s Place, Davenport’s General Store had many of those every-day items that you might need right next door rather than traveling to a bigger town to pick them up: Linens, towels, kitchen items, small hand tools, yard items, and so forth.

Mel turned to David and introduced him.

“Jim Davenport, I’d like you to meet—”

“Mr. New York,” Jim said with a smile.

“Boy, that nickname sure does travel fast,” David said with a grin as he gave Jim’s hand a firm shake. Jim’s grip was tighter than David expected, and it actually took him a little by surprise.

Jim smiled some more. “Small town. Friendly town.”

“Yes. And I’ve seen a few of them along my way while traveling. Were I judging a contest, I’m thinking that Westville would have already captured that credit and I’m not even here one full day.”

“Thank you. We take a lot pride in our town. That’s kind to hear from a stranger.” Jim beamed.

“I mean it. I don’t normally toss around a lot of praise.” David pulled out his cell phone to check the time. He moved it around a little and then put it back in his pocket.

“If you’re not getting a signal for a call …” Mel pointed over toward the pay phone near the courtesy desk.

“No, no. I just wanted to see what time it was so I knew how long I had. You close up in about thirty minutes?”

“If you need a little more time, it’s fine. I’m only closing up and heading over to McNally’s for something to eat, anyway.”

“I’ll try not to hold you up. I did notice the cell service is spotty here, and forget the data network. Are there better locations for reception?” David asked and grabbed a small cart to hold his purchases.

“The closer you get to the Kurtvow property, the better the signals get. Brian Kurtvow paid out of his own pocket to restore that part of the infrastructure.”

“I’m not sure I follow.” David sharpened his attention, as he had some familiarity with the topic.

Mel edged his way into the conversation. “Five years ago, just as they were wrapping up a major infrastructure project to expand the cable television, cellular, and Internet fiber networks in this rural area off a federal grant, a storm rolled through with a large series of tornados. We were spared, as were many towns, simply because we are so spread out. Problem was, the damage caused from the storms took out many of the overhead lines, and some of the substation platforms that housed the systems, and their main junction points. Other than the area around the Kurtvow property and the satellite connections he personally maintains, unless you have the money for the personal satellite dishes, there’s really not much more out here but landlines and dial up service to this day.”

David scratched his head. “Okay, I guess I can understand the set back of a storm, but five years later, nothing?”

“We’re too small a town.” Jim turned and looked about the store. “The next town is San Pecos, twenty miles up 385, and they’re even smaller than us. Fort Alpine is the town east of here. They’re smaller than us, too. The closest larger town is East Sanderson, with fourteen thousand residents, and they’re nearly fifty miles away. The lack of population density doesn’t allow for the service companies to recover their installation or operational costs for decades, even if everyone took the service, which more than half the folks can’t afford. The only reason they were going to sign us up, those that wanted it and could afford it, was because the federal government was paying the installation costs. Once the storm took out that infrastructure …” Jim’s voice trailed off. David understood the rest.

“Well, that’s too bad. It must be hard on the school kids not having the connectivity to help out with their studies.” David took a couple of steps with his carriage, and then stopped and turned back to the two men at the front of the store.

“Say, Doc. What about the library? I saw a little poster on Charlotte’s bulletin board that said Our Library. I recall something on that flyer about bringing a steady Internet connection to the library. That’s the building easterly on 385 on the same side as Charlotte’s Place, right?”

Both Jim and Mel smiled. “Yep. Right near the old Town Hall and the other municipal buildings in that small plaza.” Jim responded first. “That’s our little spitfire Caroline, and her dream for the library. She has the Internet access at the county school in East Sanderson with the rest of the students from there and the surrounding area. Of course, like most of the other kids, when she comes home, it’s either dial up or nothing, because most folks, as I mentioned, don’t have the dish data connections or even dial up, generally due to the expense of it.”

Mel continued. “Caroline has this dream to find a way to get the connection back to the library. I believe the building is all set up for it from the wiring side. We had a grant for computer systems, too, but once the storm took out the external infrastructure and the remainder of the project got cancelled, the grants for the computers got pulled as well.”

David looked at both men for a moment. “Do you think her project has any merit?”

Neither man responded right away. They both looked at David as if to quantify the question. Jim finally said, “Well, it’s not without its merits, but most of us don’t have the money to donate to a project like that. A few folks have the wiring know how, but you still need to purchase the computer hardware. And even if that could be done, you have to have the money to service and maintain it monthly.”

“Money helps.” David nodded. “But it isn’t everything. You can have all the money for something, but without the will to do it, it will fail. When people feel like they have skin in the game and some ownership, it’s more powerful than any other currency. There was money for the project before the storm. The storm was a setback. More money could have been lobbied for, and I bet there was some level of insurance coverage. Whoever sponsored the bill for the original money lost their will. Either that or something else happened.”

Mel leaned back against the checkout counter as he offered his reply. “Senator Foreman. He wasn’t reelected. He actually didn’t run again. He retired. Said his bit for the people was done. He sponsored the original bill and got the original funding. After he left, no one picked up the ball.”

“You said this was all about five years ago?” David asked.

“Well, the bill passed about ten years since. Then there was setup and so forth. I guess the major work began seven or eight years ago. They were just about done five years back, like I mentioned, when the storm took everything out.”

David prodded some more, “So this is Caroline’s idea?”

Mel smiled and replied with a little skip in his voice, “Who else but a child could dream that big?”

David smiled back. “Children aren’t held back by the obstacles of adults. They’re too young to see them.”

David grinned and then departed down the aisle to pick up his items, while the two men stood in silence over his comments.  

Chapter Five

Charlotte walked upstairs with Maria and Caroline to their second floor apartment. Caroline skipped past her mother and took her things to her bedroom while Maria looked down the hall to the dark bathroom, and then pulled out a chair in the kitchen to sit down with Charlotte, who had already taken a seat at the table.

“Anything the matter, dear?” Charlotte asked as she got comfortable.

“Oh no, Miss Charlotte. I was wondering if David had finished, and it looks like he has, because the washroom door is open and the lights are off.”

Charlotte felt puzzled at the statement, but Maria continued, “When he got to the apartment, there was no hot water because he never turned the hot water tank on. Since he wanted to go with Doc to pick some things up, he really didn’t have a lot of time to spare waiting for the water to heat up, so I offered to let him use my shower.”

“Ah.” Charlotte leaned forward onto the table and rested on her arms. A little of her gray and white hair, all tightly bound, slipped out of the tie and draped down loosely.

“Would you like some tea?” Maria asked, and got up from the table.

“If you’re going to put the water on, I don’t mind if I do.”

Maria filled the kettle with water, put it on the stove, and turned the gas burner up to high.

“If you would excuse me for a moment, I would like to change.” Maria made her way out of the kitchen.

“Take your time, dear. I know you want to get comfortable at the end of the day.”

Maria smiled and disappeared into her bedroom.

Caroline came out of the other bedroom with a book and walked over to Charlotte. “I borrowed this from school the other day. I think I need to return it soon. I’m not sure. Just in case, I think I’ll finish reading it today.”

“That sounds wonderful, dear,” Charlotte replied, looking the book cover over.

Maria peered out of the room in just her jeans and bra to check on her daughter. She smiled then grabbed a slightly faded pink top and pulled it over her head.

“Won’t it be so nice to get our library online, Miss Charlotte? Then not only can we borrow the books, but if we can get the portable e-readers, we will be able to download them from libraries everywhere and read them. Instead of checking out an actual book, we would be checking out a digital copy. We would check it back in the same way when we were done, so someone else could borrow it to their e-reader.”

Maria walked out of the room at the tail end of her daughter’s comments, and Charlotte asked a question. “I thought the school library already allowed for that.”

“It does, Miss Charlotte.” Caroline continued, excited. “But there are too many kids who want to borrow the e-readers, and not enough of them to go around. That, and the school is over an hour away on the bus. If we had our own e-readers here at our own library, I could walk there in just minutes to borrow a digital book, since we don’t have the Internet here at home.”

Charlotte felt excited for Caroline and her desires to move beyond the few books available at their little library branch at her reading level. She also was fully aware that hopes of bringing their library online had been dashed several years ago with little hope for another round of funding.

“Well, you sound all excited, Caroline. I do hope that something comes from the work they’d planned for the library.”

Maria prepared the teacup for Charlotte as Caroline spoke. “Oh, but Miss Charlotte, it will. I have some ideas. You remember. I put up the flyers in your store and over at Mr. Davenport’s and Mr. McNally’s. I also sent the letter to Mr. Kurtvow. And, I sent the letter to Governor Green. And Mr.—Mr.—Mama, who was the man I wrote? The one originally going to supply all the computers. You told me his name when I asked before and I wrote the letter.”

Maria scrunched up her face for a second. “From Zee Technologies?”

“Yes, Mama. You said he was the owner.”

“Ah yes. That was Zachary Taylor.”

“Mr. Taylor, Miss Charlotte. Between all those people and all of us, I’m sure we can do it.” Caroline smiled, kissed Charlotte, and took her book into the living room to read it on the couch.

Maria sighed, looked at her daughter for a few momentsand then redirected her attention to the stove as the kettle of water came to a boil.

Charlotte just stared over at Caroline, and then looked at Maria, who’d taken her hair down from the workday. Her long black hair cascaded over her shoulders to midway down her back.

“You know,” Charlotte said with a sigh, “I remember when you were that age and your mother brought you into the store. I can’t believe almost twenty years has come and gone like that.”

Maria nodded, but didn’t respond, as she placed the teacup on the table.

“You were a lot like her, always on fire, always with some mission. She’s your daughter, that’s for sure.” Charlotte turned her attention away from Caroline and looked at Maria. “Something on your mind, child?” Charlotte slid the drink forward. “Your thoughts seem to be elsewhere.”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” Maria replied, and snapped out of her thoughts. “I was just thinking of something Mr. David said earlier.”

“Which was?” Charlotte asked with additional interest.

“He made some suggestion as to where he comes from. He was still vague. I am not sure what to make of it. It seems odd that Peter would give a stranger a ride in his truck. He never does that. It is out of character.”

Charlotte smiled. “It would have to be an extraordinary stranger, knowing Peter.”

“Yes. It is strange. He seems like an honorable man on the surface. Somewhat trustworthy. But he hides things of himself. As if to be closed.” Maria pulled out the chair and sat down.

“Like many men.”

“I do not know many honorable men,” Maria responded, with ice in her voice and eyes.

“I didn’t specifically mean any one part,” Charlotte said, “but most men play things close to the vest. And when they do, there’s often a good reason, even if only they know that reason.”

Maria didn’t respond to the comment, but dwelled on it until Caroline called out from the living room.

“Mama, can I go on to the deck to read while the sun’s still up?”

“Sure, but stay on this floor. We cannot go up to the upper deck, as that is Mr. David’s deck while he rents the room.”

“Yes, Mama,” Caroline replied with a smile, then went over to the sliders, onto the small deck outside the door, and sat on the wicker furniture.

Maria turned her attention back to Charlotte and looked at her, but said nothing as thoughts moved in and out of her head.

“You don’t usually get this lost in thought, child. As a matter of fact, at the end of the day, you’re usually a tad chatty until about an hour or so later.”

“I am sorry, Miss Charlotte. This David is so puzzling. And then his stay? He may or may not stay some length of time, but he was willing to pay in advance the full five months to the end of the year. It might be one thing for Mr. Kurtvow to do something like that, but not David … I do not know his last name.”

“Stephenson,” Charlotte said. “He signed my little makeshift lease with Stephenson.”

“Okay. So it might be one thing for Mr. Kurtvow to pay a few months ahead like that with everything he has and owns, but not David Stephenson with his whole life in a duffle bag.”

“If it meant getting away from Mrs. Kurtvow,” Charlotte said in a low tone, “I’d give Brian the room for free to the end of the year.”

Maria smiled then covered her mouth, as it became a laugh at the comment.

Footfalls made their way up the first set of stairs, past the apartment, and then up the next flight.

“Well, I guess all the shopping’s done,” Charlotte said, before taking a sip of tea.

***

Maria listened for the closing door to the apartment, which she barely heard, and then looked up at the ceiling.

“He is very light footed,” Maria said and continued to look at the ceiling. “With all the other tenants over the years, you could always hear them walking around. Their footsteps, or at the very least, the creaking in the floor boards.”

Charlotte seemed about to respond but then stopped herself.

Then Maria popped out of her chair. “Excuse me,” she said as she went into her bedroom and delved through the pockets of her uniform. A moment later, she returned with money from her outfit and set it on the table.

“This was another thing that puzzles me,” Maria said pointing to the money. “He clearly has some money, because he paid you in advance, but he needed some work to keep up, I suppose. But then he rejected Mrs. Kurtvow’s tip.”

Charlotte glanced over the money. “She left that much? I know she was flirting with our new tenant, but I’ve never seen her throw a hundred dollars before.”

Maria looked down at the money then back up.

“Oh no,” Maria responded. “There is more to the story there. So, Mrs. Kurtvow being how she is, left fifty dollars for her five dollar and change breakfast, leaving David the remaining forty-four and change. He then proceeded to give it to me when I tried to give it to him.”

“And what reason did he give?” Charlotte asked as she leaned in, listening more intently.

“Mr. David said the money wouldn’t buy him anything he didn’t already have. And then he added something about him being able to earn more if he needs more.”

Charlotte said nothing and took a moment to let the words settle in.

Maria continued. “Then he also said I might be able to put it toward something that we need or maybe a simple want.”

Charlotte eased back in the chair. “Did you have something in mind?”

Maria moved forward in her seat and leaned on the kitchen table with her arms out in front of her. “That is where there is more to the story. I have the last two weeks of Caroline’s class, which is another hundred dollars. So I decided to ask David if he was genuinely offering the tip to me, because if that were the case I would put it aside for the classes, as it would put me about half way there. He said it was a genuine offer. He wanted me to take it.” Maria leaned back in her seat, and then scooted it closer to the table. A wash of emotion came over her face.

“I thanked him and said that I would use it for Caroline’s class. I said I would be checking with Mr. McNally to see if he needed any extra help over the weekend, so I could get the rest of the money right away rather than ask you if I could be a little late with the rent. I did not get into that part with David, though.”

Charlotte reached across the table and touched Maria’s hand as the young woman became overwhelmed and tears streamed down her face.

“What happened?”

“He gave me another sixty dollars. I believe he intended to give it to me, but I insisted on paying him back when I was able,” Maria responded through the tears.

“What did he say?”

Maria snickered out a small laugh and responded in a slightly humorous tone, “He agreed and promised not to leave before I had the chance to pay him back. He told me that, after all, he knows where I live.”

Charlotte smiled at the comment and let Maria’s hand go so she could wipe her eyes up.

“This man walks into our lives here. … Who is he that he is gracious like this? It is wonderful, but I am so cynical. What kind of man does things like that?” Maria reached for a napkin on the table to dry her tears.

Charlotte got up and walked over to the slider door to the deck. “An old, troubled soul, perhaps looking for redemption, or maybe resolution. Or maybe, just maybe, a kind soul adrift in the world, looking for a place to anchor him,” she said.

She peered out, and Caroline wasn’t there. She glanced at the stairs that lead up to the third floor.

Maria finished composing herself and walked over. “Did you want to sit outside?” she asked Charlotte as she also peered out the window looking for Caroline.

“Oh no,” Maria exclaimed as she attempted to head out the door past Charlotte. “Caroline must have gone up.”

Charlotte stopped her and put a hushed finger over her lips and pointed up above her as the two stepped out onto the deck.

They moved out and listened, and Caroline’s voice became clearer as she addressed David. “… and so you see, Mr. David, this is why we would like to raise the money for the library. What do you think of my ideas?”

“Well, I really must say, your mother was absolutely correct in telling you that you are precocious. I’m going to give you a gift. Would you like that?”

Caroline paused. “I’m not sure.” Confusion and hesitation laced her voice. “Mother says I can’t take gifts from people.”

“That’s a good policy, but this is a little different than an actual thing. What I’m going to give you is an honest answer that has no bias. That means I’m going to answer you without any real opinion of my own on the matter; something I believe most people don’t do for anyone, let alone little children.”

Maria and Charlotte looked at one another. Maria stepped over to the stairs.

David continued. “I think that you’re undertaking something important and selfless, for the most part. While you do personally have something to gain in getting that library online, because you will use it, it’ll also be available for anyone else who wants to use it. Instead of doing something small and simple to solve your problem for yourself, you’re willing to take this on in order to try to help everyone.”

David moved around on the deck, and Maria moved away from the stairs back toward Charlotte, so as to not be seen. “Should we be listening?” she whispered.

Charlotte only smiled.

“What you’re trying to do is going to be difficult, Caroline. Times are trying for most people, and around here it might be a little harder on most folks than perhaps elsewhere. Getting local people to help out may only get you so far.” The two women continued to try and listen, as a pause descended. Then David spoke again.

“Hey,” he said softly, “all I wanted to do was to let you know that it’ll be a difficult task, so you could be properly prepared to take it on if that’s something you want to do. Have you ever heard of the Wright Brothers?”

Caroline’s voice rang with puzzlement. “The men who made the airplane?”

“Yes, the men who made the airplane. They crashed a lot of airplanes, a lot of people told them they would never get one into the air.”

Another pause came, and then continued after a moment. “After being told by a lot of people it couldn’t be done, and that they should give up, after a lot more hard work and continued effort, after crashing even more planes, one finally got off the ground. The lesson in that story is to never let people discourage you from chasing a dream. Some dreams become realities. Did you understand all of that?”

“I think so,” Caroline responded.

“Excellent. So, how can I help you take this on?”

Maria and Charlotte looked at one another, then Maria turned and headed up the stairs and called out, “Caroline, are you up there?”

Caroline gasped. “Oh! My mama said to stay downstairs.” She jumped up and hid behind David.

When Maria rounded the corner, David stood facing her. He smiled with a look of child-like guilt on his face.

“Carolena, hiding behind Mr. David is not going to work. I am so sorry she came up here. I did ask her not to bother you. She got used to coming up here when the apartment was empty.”

“It was no problem at all. I came out to watch the sunset, and she just made her way up the stairs and we got to talking.”

Caroline didn’t move from behind David, but maintained her still position behind him, holding both of her hands on his belt.

David smiled at Maria and she returned the look. “I have this funny feeling she isn’t going to come out.” David took a step to the left and, like a shadow, Caroline matched it. Charlotte had quietly come up behind Maria and stood beside her.

David stepped backwards so he was positioned a little closer to the wicker two-seat bench on the deck. “Well,” David announced loudly. “I bet I can see the last of that beautiful Texas sunset if I sit right here.” And he began to sit down slowly “on” Caroline.

Caroline giggled and quickly let go of David’s belt, then scampered out of the way toward her mother. David completely sat once she’d gotten clear. Caroline went over to her mother and hugged her.

David looked at the two of them and smiled. “I thought that might work.”

Maria’s faced stretched into a wide, amused smile. Caroline looked up at her mother and smiled too. It had been a long time since she’d seen her mother this happy.

Charlotte gave Maria a knowing look, then walked over to the single wicker chair and took a seat.

David got up from the bench seat. “Here, girls, sit here. I’ll go get a chair from the kitchen.”

Maria’s expression changed as she responded, “Oh, we do not want to bother you.”

“Yeah, you’re not bothering me. Come sit.”

Caroline didn’t need to be asked twice. She made her way over to the spot on the bench seat closest to Charlotte.

David smiled at Maria when he walked past her to fetch a chair.

Charlotte touched Caroline’s hand and she looked over to her. David walked out with the chair and was just about to set it down when Charlotte gestured to Caroline and pointed to the chair. Maria sat on the couch and when David set the chair down, Caroline jumped out of her seat and grabbed the kitchen chair away from him. She slid it to the opposite side of Charlotte and sat in it, leaving the only place to sit next to her mother on the couch.

David looked at the open seat and did not break stride; he walked right over and sat as if it were nothing.

Maria turned red despite her deeply tanned complexion and she looked at Charlotte and Caroline. Charlotte had a “no apologies” look on her face where Caroline could only giggle as little girls do.

Ignoring everything because it didn’t faze him, David turned to Charlotte and then Maria. “Well, I would offer you something, but seeing as how I haven’t been here a full day, the fridge is empty. I can get you some water if you like.”

“We are fine,” Maria said, but with a smile. The extra color drained from her face. “Caroline may not be later but …” Maria said jokingly, staring at her daughter, which only made her giggle more.

David glanced over at the sun as it dropped behind the range of hills to the west. Daylight would last a little while longer, but the sun would set shortly.

Charlotte nodded to David. “Well, did you get everything you needed?”

“Yes, I think so, at least to get me started. I hate to buy more than I need. If I need something else, I can always go back.”

“So Doc introduced you to Jim Davenport, I take it,” Charlotte asked.

“Yes, and then we walked over to McNally’s, as Kevin McNally was outside and Doc wanted to introduce me. Then we walked all along Main Street. He talked about how there used to be more stores along the road and how there used to be more occupied houses along the feeder roads.”

***

Charlotte smiled, thought back, and looked down off the deck to the street below. She spent several minutes thinking about how Main Street looked when her departed husband first bought the store and added the dwelling space to the building.

“Doc mentioned how the town used to be a strong municipality form of government and, as time and the downturn wore it away, Westville and the other remaining communities more or less were forced out of necessity to follow the county-based system. He made it sound like a personal loss or a loss of pride. I could hear it in his voice.”

Charlotte agreed silently.

Maria looked over, inquisitive, at David and asked, “Up North it is all local town and city governments, is it not?”

“It is,” David replied. “I’m not sure how or where the shift is in the country, but it seems like the Boston to DC corridor, and all those states, seem to allow for town or city-based governments and then, as the population spreads out, it turns more and more to county-based systems. I believe the western states follow the northern and northeastern ones, with some exceptions.”

Maria adjusted herself on the couch, and David moved away a little to give her some room. Then he grabbed his phone off his belt.

“Are you expecting a call?” Maria asked.

“Out here? Not with the lousy signal. This is truly a glorified watch just now,” David said with a smile. “I wanted to be mindful of the time. Doc and Jim are over at McNally’s and they wanted me to stop by for a drink with Kevin. Apparently, there are more stories to tell the newcomer.”

“When are they expecting you?” Charlotte asked, smiling.

“I told Doc that I wanted to drop off the things I bought, and then I would head over. I told him around eight, so I’ll get going in a few minutes or so, since it’s after that already.”

David stood, looked at Caroline, and then turned and pointed west. “There it goes.”

Caroline looked at the setting sun as it disappeared over the hill. “Another sunset?” she asked.

“Another day done,” David said, then smiled and walked past everyone and toward the stairs. “Well, I’m going to head over. Caroline, as long as it’s okay with your mother, you’re more than welcome to come up here and sit.”

Caroline jumped up and hugged David at the waist. “Oh thank you, Mr. David. It’s okay, right Mama?”

“As long as Mr. David has no issues with it, I am fine.” She watched David shake his head in a no.

Caroline squeezed David even harder. David ran his fingers through part of her hair. Then the color drained away from his face when Caroline let go and looked up at him. He knelt down in front of the girl. “Now, remember what I said, if you want to do this library thing, you count me in. You tell me how you think I can help you take this on. You sleep on it and maybe think about it over the weekend and let me know. And then …”

“And then our plane will fly,” Caroline said.

“That’s right. Crash as many as we need, to make one fly. I’m all yours, little lady.” David smiled and stood. “Good night, ladies.”

Caroline smiled as David made his way down the stairs.

“Excuse me,” Maria said softly to Charlotte, and pointed to Caroline. Charlotte nodded and Maria followed David down the stairs.

It took her to the ground level to catch up with his long strides.

“David,” Maria called out as he landed on the dirt at the bottom.

He turned around and smiled at her.

“It is very kind of you to offer to help Caroline, but it is not really necessary.”

“I’m not sure what you mean. I’d only help and work with her when you were around. Unless you disapprove of me being around in general.”

“Oh no, it is not that. I just wanted to let you know that you do not have to entertain her.”

“Okay, but if I wanted to work with her on this, you don’t have an issue, correct?”

“No, I would not have an issue with it, but I am certain you have other things you would rather do.”

David reached down and took Maria’s hand and held it in both of his. “Like what, Maria? All I have is some work here and little else. It isn’t that I don’t have anything else better to do, but rather, even if I had other actual things to do, I can’t think of anything better I’d rather do than watch a little girl fight to reach her goals.”

David let Maria’s hand slip away and took a couple of steps back.

“Do you think it is really possible? What Caroline wants to do?”

David smiled, just a little a first, and then much wider. “Anything is possible. You need to believe, and you need to keep getting up and pushing forward.”

“Are you not concerned with failing?”

“I don’t fear failing,” David replied, then turned to walk across the street. Before he moved on, he said, “The only thing I fear is the one time I fail so badly that I don’t want to try again.”

Maria stood and watched David walk across the street as the setting sun glinted off the windows of McNally’s.  

Chapter Six

David stepped into McNally’s. Mel Porter and Jim Davenport sat at the bar along with a few other regulars. Kevin McNally came around the bar and introduced all of the regulars to David, and he made acquaintances with them.

As Kevin walked around to the few folks eating dinner at tables to ask them how their meals were, he introduced them to David.

Over the first hour, and over three drinks bought by some of those regulars, David met close to thirty people before he finally settled into a seat at the bar with Mel and Jim.

“Wow, I feel like I’m running for public office or something off a whistle stop,” David said as he laughed and pulled his beer toward the end of the rail. “Rebecca, you’re effectively the only one I haven’t talked to, so introduce yourself.”

Rebecca, who had been working tables earlier until another waitress came in, poured drinks behind the bar. She smiled wide at being asked. She tossed her short blonde hair with her hand. “Well, the short, short version is I grew up here and twenty-six years later I am tending bar for my next door neighbor,” she said in a sassy tone and smiled at Mr. McNally.

“Okay, is there an extended version of that story that you can tell in sixty seconds between drink orders?” David finished off his fourth drink, and then pointed to another. “Good thing I’m only walking across the street.”

“Sure.” Rebecca nodded as she went over to the tap to refill David’s beer. “I was from the last high school class here in town before we shut down and went to the regional system. I wanted to go to Western Texas College, but things happened at home, money got tight, and I did what I needed to.”

Rebecca’s voice trailed off just a little as she finished. David picked up that it was a disappointment to her to have been unable to go. Generally, he would read a little more into it, but as the drinks settled in on him, he felt untrusting of his perception of the conversations. He’d decided to try to change the subject, but then Rebecca continued. “Now there’s a little bit more of a possibility to go, as far as the demands on my time, but not so much on my ability to pay. I would say I’m resigned to my fate, slash, future, but I don’t look at it as such a bad thing.” Her voice picked up as she brought David’s beer over to him. “There are worse fates in the world, and I’ve made my peace with the path I’m on and the direction I’m heading.”

David listened to the tone of her words and watched her body language. As she spoke, she was trying to convince herself that she was all right with the outcome of her life to this point. David was less convinced but let it be for now.

From his seat he could see out the front windows of the bar and across to Charlotte’s Place. Maria’s place still had all the lights on. He glanced at his phone. “Almost nine thirty,” he said aloud as he hopped off the barstool and over to the pile of newspapers at the far end of the bar.

“That’s our little monthly newspaper,” Rebecca said as she walked down that end of the bar on the server side. “We don’t have all that much going on for even a weekly, so I write that once a month and publish an extra issue around Memorial Day and then Labor Day … you know, the unofficial beginning and end of summer.”

“So this is your work?” David took the small periodical and folded it up lengthwise to put into his back pocket to read later. “How much? I’ll read it at home.”

“Oh, I don’t charge for it. I print a few dozen copies each month and leave them here and at Mr. Davenport’s store, Charlotte’s place, and a few of the other merchant places up and down 385 here in town. Customers take them to read as they want. I sell the ad space. I make a few dollars, but mostly it’s just covering costs. The merchants are actually being kind by taking ad space. It’s not like we have any other place to go locally, and none of the businesses compete.”

David took in Rebecca’s comment as he resumed his seat. It hadn’t occurred to him up until that point that there was only one of each type of business. While a little overlap occurred with some items from a convenience factor, the town had only one hardware store, one barber, one pub and restaurant, one convenience store, and so on.

“So the newspaper and the writing, I take it that’s a hobby or passion of yours, or was it something you were hoping to do?”

Rebecca turned her blue eyes in the direction of the door. “Yes, it’s a passion of mine. I’d hoped to get a degree in journalism.”

David turned to the door as Rebecca’s gaze was still locked there.

Sue Ann Kurtvow stepped in and made her way over to the bar area. She set her purse down on the bar and slid it along toward where Mel, Jim, and David sat.

Kevin immediately got up. “Mrs. Kurtvow, would you like your usual?” He pulled out the chair for her. She passed by it and pulled the chair out next to David instead.

“Of course, darling,” she replied, then leant her side into the bar and looked to her right, at David. “What a wonderful surprise to see you here. I trust your first day in our little town has been okay for you.”

“It’s been just fine, Mrs. Kurtvow,” David said with a smile, as he looked around at folks. Most seemed cautiously polite to her, but he could sense the tension. Part of it dislike for the woman, and part of it something else he didn’t understand.

“I do believe I had said it’s Sue Ann,” she replied in a sickly-sweet southern tone. “I don’t need you to be so formal with me. I’m actually hoping you can get quite familiar with me.” She put her hand on his knee and eased it up his thigh.

David looked at Rebecca, who didn’t seem to know how to react. Sue Ann was known for this, but not generally so brazen or public about making an advance.

“Mrs. Kurtvow, were you out with Mr. Kurtvow this evening?” Rebecca asked after a brief silence.

“That stick in the mud?” Sue Ann replied in harsh tones. “He doesn’t like to even go out to the mailbox to get the newspaper. Oh, not your little publication, Rebecca; the real one that comes each day out of Dallas.”

David flinched at the comment. It was the same type of cutting remark she’d made earlier to Maria. David had to breathe in and count. His social filter had diminished from having the few drinks he’d had in such a short amount of time. He wasn’t as worried about the getting home part as he was about speaking his true mind right then

“So, do tell me, David, did the gentlemen show you around properly? It would have been better to have a proper escort for the earlier evening, but I was tied up with other matters. I’m free now, however.”

David just smiled as Sue Ann’s hand was now all the way up his thigh and she slid it to the inside.

Kevin came out of the kitchen with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and filled a glass for Sue Ann.

“You can mark me up, Kevin, and get David his drinks on me,” Sue Ann said as she removed her hand from David and took her drink.

Rebecca moved to the register, went over to a ledger much like the one Maria had marked up at Charlotte’s in the morning, and entered information into it.

“David has about four more drinks coming from other people this evening. I’m not sure he’s going to get through all of them tonight,” Mel said.

“Well, that’s just fine, Doc. Those can be put on credit for him on a bar tab. The rest of the night, he’s mine.”

Mel turned to Jim and said quietly, “This isn’t going to end well. He’s drinking and she’s somewhere between persuasive and demanding.”

The house phone rang and Rebecca answered it behind the bar. “Jim, it’s for you. The Mrs.”

Jim pulled out his cell, looked at the zero bars, and put it away. “Thanks,” he said as he took the phone from her.

***

Mel got up and went over to the kitchen and walked in behind Kevin.

“Uh, we need to get him out of here,” Mel said when Kevin moved around the corner.

“Him who? David? He’s fine. Sue Ann is only going to push so far in public, and David seems like he has the type of personality to deal well with her as long as he slows down on the drinking. What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not sure, but she isn’t the best this town has to offer. Besides that, I like David and whether he stays just a little while or longer than he planned, it’s better she doesn’t get hooks into him. Never ends well,” Mel replied.

“Has to offer what? You heard him. He’s here for a while, but he isn’t staying. Brian Kurtvow is resigned to the way his wife is and there’s no stopping her anyway. You deliberately yank him out of here and piss Sue Ann off and it’ll be way worse than anything she’s going to dish out on her own.”

Jim poked his head into the kitchen. “The little lady wants me to come home, so I’m leaving. Good luck with this mess.” He smirked as he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Think you two knuckleheads can get him back across the street okay so he’s not a statistic?”

“We won’t let him get hit by a car,” Mel said with a grin.

“I mean a Sue Ann statistic. He’d be better off if he got hit with the car,” Jim said with a laugh. “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Jim,” Kevin called out.

“Yeah,” Jim responded coming back into the kitchen.

Kevin thought for a moment and then followed. “Can you stick your head outside? Let me know if she drove herself or if she had the driver take her.”

“Sure.” Jim backed out of the kitchen and walked toward the front door.

The two men stood silently for a moment waiting for Jim to come back. Kevin looked at David, who now sat alone with Sue Ann with only Rebecca at the bar.

Jim came back to the kitchen. “She has the driver. She’s up for maximum mischief. Sorry, gents, I need to leave.”

“Why does she do this?” Kevin asked.

Mel scowled. “Because she can. On top of having nice features, she has money and power. So with all that, she’s always starved for whatever she doesn’t have, and right now her current interest, for whatever reason, is David.”

“Well, maybe it doesn’t really matter,” Kevin said. “Brian knows what’s going on. Sue Ann could care less. David is clearly here by himself. He’s probably the best-dressed drifter we’ve had in a while. Let Sue Ann sniff him up. It distracts her from the locals who are trying not to piss off wives and girlfriends. If he knows how to screw really well, perhaps he can change her entire disposition.”

“No one has that much skill and talent,” Mel huffed as he walked toward the kitchen phone. He picked it up and dialed a number.

“Who are you calling?” Kevin asked, peering out the window of the kitchen again.

“Charlotte. I thought maybe I could have her call the bar with something for David to do and maybe he’d leave on his own.” Mel frowned. “She’s not answering. She might be upstairs at Maria’s. She often goes up there after work to visit.”

“So call Maria’s,” Kevin said.

“She doesn’t have a phone. I’ll see if I can get him to go over there,” Mel said, then walked out of the kitchen and over to David. He wedged himself between Sue Ann and him.

“David, Charlotte needs help with something over at the store. Can you head over and give her a hand?”

David sharpened up and sat up straighter in the chair. Sue Ann put her hand back on his thigh.

“Charlotte isn’t here,” Sue Ann responded sharply. “Whatever it is can wait for the morning, I’m sure. What was the issue?”

“She didn’t say,” Mel said.

“Well then, it can’t be a very large emergency and it can wait. I didn’t hear the phone ring a second time. There was only the one for Jim to scamper home, which he quickly did.”

David slipped back into a casual posture in the seat. Kevin walked over and pulled on Mel’s arm and brought him over to the front of the bar by the front door.

“Look, Doc, I don’t want her pissed off at me again. Remember last year? The sales guy from Kansas City? His car broke down and he was stuck here for a couple days?”

“Yes. The blonde fella,” Mel said with a laugh.

“We all tried to save him and Sue Ann caused all kinds of problems with the ledgers, including mine and others that tried to help. She can deal with being outsmarted. She views it like gamesmanship or something perverted. But if it’s a brute outflank, like just yanking the guy out of here, she gets mad and gets even. So either outsmart her or let her be.”

Mel looked out the window and across the street. Maria’s lights were still on. He turned to look at David and then to Kevin.

“Don’t let him leave with her. I’ll outsmart her, but I need a minute.”

Kevin said nothing and just stared at him.

“Give me your word. You’ll keep him here.”

“I’ll do my best, Doc. I can only do so much. She’s not likely to leave the champagne bottle. It’s still half full and I don’t allow her to take it with her.”

Mel crossed the street under the only floodlight on Route 385 in town and made his way over to Charlotte’s Place. He headed up the stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door.

Maria opened the door quietly. “Doc? Why are you here so late?” Maria asked in a soft whisper.

“Pardon me, Miss Maria, I was looking for Miss Charlotte and she wasn’t answering her phone.”

Maria pointed over to her couch. “She fell asleep. Caroline was reading aloud. It happens often, actually, and she just stays overnight on the couch. It is a nice role reversal, instead of the adult reading the little one to sleep. I actually just put Caroline to bed.”

Mel frowned.

“Is something the matter?”

“I feel stupid even mentioning it to you. Charlotte would understand.”

“Can you try?” Maria asked.

“Bottom line?”

“Of course.”

“You remember the incident with the sales guy from Kansas City and Mrs. Kurtvow?”

Maria stood for a second to try to recall the events and then responded. “I believe so, not every detail, and every time someone told the story it changed a little. But I do remember generally what happened.”

“David is stuck at the bar with her right now. Same situation,” Mel said.

Maria stood motionless at first, and then asked, “Can you stay here in case Caroline wakes up?”

“Yes, but what are you going to do?”

“I am not certain, but I will try to get David out of there.” Maria headed down the stairs, then went across the street in a hurry. Mel watched through the window.

***

Maria entered the bar, past Sue Ann’s driver, who was sitting right outside the front door.

Sue Ann looked over and pulled her hand off of David’s leg, despite the fact that Maria clearly saw her.

“Excuse me, David,” Maria said over the din of the conversations of the remaining patrons.

David set down his sixth drink and turned around slowly. “Maria?”

“I am sorry to bother you this late …”

“Yes, Miss Moreno, what is so important that you are interrupting us?”

Maria took a deep breath. Sue Ann normally disarmed her and she would back down, but she wanted to stand on this.

“I am sorry, Mrs. Kurtvow. David, Caroline fell asleep and then woke up upset and she asked to see you. I generally would not impose on someone …”

David popped right out of the chair. “Rebecca, Mr. McNally, if I owe you money, I’ll square up in the morning.”

Maria made to follow as David bolted nearly full speed out of the bar, but Kevin stopped her short. “He’s had a lot to drink in a short period of time. Make sure he’s okay.”

Maria nodded, then entered the street. David was already headed up the stairs. Mel barely got the door open.

Maria felt incredibly guilty. She hadn’t expected such a dramatic reaction from the white lie to get David out of the bar.

When she got into the apartment, Mel asked, “What did you say? He couldn’t get in here any faster if he flew.”

Charlotte awoke with the commotion, and sat up on the couch. Mel walked over and helped her up.

Maria stood in Caroline’s doorway. David knelt on the floor near the bed, looked her over, and then turned to see Charlotte and Mel approach.

“She’s all set. She fell back asleep,” David said, addressing the others.

David climbed to his feet again and wobbled. Maria stepped forward to help steady him and took him by his arm. David touched her hand and they walked out of the room. Mel closed the door behind them.

David approached the kitchen table and put both hands on it and leaned forward. He staggered to the side.

“Doc,” Maria called out.

Mel looked over when the blood ran out of David’s nose at a heavy volume, and it spotted on the kitchen table.

Maria grabbed a dishtowel and covered his nose. “I used to get these. It will be okay; tip your head back.”

“No!” Mel called out. “There’s too much volume. It’ll back up into his lungs.” Mel kept the rag under his nose but kept his head forward. Maria got a clean towel and wet it with hot water.

After a moment, the bleeding stopped. David was still disoriented and didn’t move.

Maria washed the blood off his face.

***

As the foggy feeling lifted, David was less aware of the bloody nose than why he had come over in the first place.

“Caroline,” he said as he lurched to move.

“David, she is fine. You just checked on her. Thank you very much for coming right over,” Maria said.

“Damn nosebleeds. They’re happening more and more often. I’m sorry. I’ll replace your towels.”

“I am not worried about towels. Are you okay?” Maria asked as she continued to clean him up.

“I’ll be fine. I always am.” David became more and more aware of his surroundings and those present. Despite not feeling well, mixed with what he’d had to drink, he moved toward the door.

“Are you sure you will be okay? You had a bit to drink and that was a sudden and nasty nose bleed,” Maria asked.

“I’m sure. I’m good.”

“Just as well, I am going to come up in the morning,” Maria said with a stern glint in her eye.

David smiled and headed out the door and up the stairs.

***

Charlotte looked at Mel. “You didn’t like that nosebleed?”

“No,” Mel replied. “That wasn’t a small blood vessel rupture like you might see in a normal nosebleed.”

“What should we do?” Maria asked.

“I’ll try to talk to him in the morning,” Mel said as he headed to the door. “I’m not his doctor, so I don’t have his history, but I can try to see if he’ll let the retired doc look at him.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Charlotte said.

When Mel left, Charlotte made her way toward the door. She turned and smiled at Maria. “I was napping for a bit and missed some of this. I trust you’ll tell me the rest of the story in the morning?”

Maria smiled back and said, “Of course.”

The story continues in “Another Sunset” available in paperback or in e-book formats.

Another Sunset (The Sunset Series Book 2)

I, HERO: THE BEGINNING

 

PROLOGUE

Nathan stepped to the side of his ailing father’s bed. The cancer was about to have its endgame. Nathan did the best he could to keep a strong face forward for his father. If he opened his eyes again, he would want him to see that he wasn’t upset.

“When it’s your time, there’s nothing you can do to change that outcome. The only thing you can do is meet it head on,” Brian Devron had told his son the last time he’d been fully lucid. “I’ve done the best I could to teach you everything I know. A father does that his whole life for his children. Some have very little time. Others have decades. I don’t feel robbed having only twenty-three years of your life to do that. It’s not about the quantity of time, it’s the quality. That is what we’ve had. I don’t know what life has in store for you. No one really does. You move about it the best you can with the gifts you possess. Give back more than you take. Compete only with yourself. Live life by your own measure; no one else’s.”

Those would be the last words of wisdom that he passed along to his only son.

The son would bury the father on a Thursday and spend the next few weeks settling his estate and liquidating his assets.

He would spend the remainder of that school year finishing up his degree. Over that summer, he then moved from Connecticut to an apartment in the Kips Bay area of New York City.

With the following fall, a year later, came change.

Nothing was ever the same again.

CHAPTER ONE

Nathan made his way down Third Avenue with a bottle of water from his refrigerator in his back pocket and his backpack slung over his right shoulder. The early morning September sunrise beat along the high rises while he walked along the east side of the street, as he did each morning on his way to work. He ran his fingers through his short, sandy-brown hair, and then pulled out his cell phone. He checked the screen, read the current time, and a calendar message that read, “Autumnal Equinox begins at 8:06AM.” The time was 7:51AM, which gave him twice the amount of time he needed to get into work on time. Along the way, as per his routine, he stopped in the convenience store near 27th Street for a breakfast sandwich.

He smiled at the owner of the small shop and the girl that worked for him behind the counter, as he did most mornings.

“Good morning, Nathan,” the older, Middle Eastern man said as he picked up the bread knife. “The usual?”

“Hi Mahar, yes please.” Nathan pulled out his wallet and stepped up to Cindy at the register.

“Cindy, don’t ring him out today,” Mahar Niresh said as he worked on the sandwich for Nathan.

“I can’t do that, Mahar,” Nathan said, waving his hand. “I appreciate it but you can’t pay your rent giving me free food.”

“Yes, of course, but this is not your food, is it?” he asked with a smile. Cindy, slightly confused, looked over at her boss and listened to the exchange while she tightened up her blond hair in the elastic band. “I hadn’t realized it until the other day, but you don’t eat breakfast from my shop. You come in here and buy the sandwich for the elderly homeless woman.”

“Well, that’s a half truth,” Nathan responded, feeling slightly embarrassed. “I used to eat the breakfast every morning. It’s a great sandwich. But Cici needs the sandwich more than I do. I only have so much free money, so …”

“Then it is settled.” Mahar smiled and finished up working on the breakfast, and then came over with a slightly larger bag than Nathan was normally used to having. “Today, I will buy breakfast for both of you. There are two sandwiches here. From now on, I will always make you two and charge you for the one.”

Nathan left a couple of dollars in the tip jar at the counter then extended his hand to Mahar, who promptly took it and shook it firmly. “Thank you, that is very kind.”

“You are very kind. I am honored to try to be as kind.”

Nathan smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Good morning to you and Cici as well,” Mahar said.

Nathan headed out the door and turned north on Third Avenue. A few minutes later, up the avenue, he smiled when his friend, Lisa Cooper, waved him down at the next block.

Nathan waved back and moved up the block to meet her, with a slightly quickened pace.

“Good morning. I like your shirt today,” Lisa said, and her smile expanded even wider. The morning sun highlighted the lighter parts of her strawberry-blond hair. “Which hero is this?” she asked, pointing to his t-shirt.

“This,” Nathan said, “is Amalgam.”

“And his powers are?” she asked, turning to lockstep her pace with Nathan, along his left side. She gazed up at him from her five-foot-two stance to his six feet.

“Well, it’s really cool,” Nathan said, the excitement clear in his voice, as if he were a teenager with a new comic rather than a young man who’d just turned twenty-five. “The character can absorb the powers of whichever hero, or villain, he touches.”

“Really,” Lisa replied in an animated tone, apparently interested in the topic. “Is it permanent? Do the powers he absorbs stay forever? Are they permanently removed from the host?”

“No,” Nathan said, stopping at the corner to wait for traffic. He put his hand up and looked east toward the early morning sun as the sunlight poured down the street between the city high-rises. “What happens is his body absorbs the abilities, traits, and weaknesses in almost a mimic form. The hosts retain their original powers at their normal level, no diminishment, and Amalgam is able to copy them exactly with the same level of skills and execution. No learning curve.”

Lisa turned in the direction that Nathan was looking. “So, does he keep the powers to the next transference or do they dissipate over time?”

“He keeps them until he touches another hero, or villain for that matter, and sets off a new exchange. It’s an intentional effort exchange. So, for example, if he’s copied a hero that has the power of flight and carries another hero without that power, he wouldn’t suddenly transfer and lose that present ability.”

“What are you looking for?” Lisa asked, unable to see what Nathan was trying to see.

“Oh, it’s silly actually, because you can’t see it with the naked eye,” Nathan replied as the signal changed and they crossed the street. “There’s a celestial event going on right now. The Baxter—Zephram comet is in the sky, aligned between the Earth and the Sun right at this moment. I know there’s no way to see it because the brightness of the sun blots it out, but I had to look. At the same time, on the far side of the Sun, Jupiter is aligned directly opposite. Also, on the opposing side of the Earth right now is the Moon, and in deeper space, Saturn.”

“So, they’re basically all aligned in a row?” Lisa asked as they cut over towards Lexington Avenue.

Nathan pulled his phone out to check the time again. “Almost to the minute. Just a little more.”

As the two turned the corner to Lexington Avenue, they spotted two police cars and an ambulance. Nathan dropped the breakfast sandwich bag and darted toward them. Lisa scooped it up and followed at a jog.

Officer Jack O’Malley held up his hands. “Easy, Nathan,” he said, with sympathy warming his thick Brooklyn accent. “They’re taking care of her. A couple of thugs whacked her for her bag.”

“Is that Nathan?” the old, thin woman on the gurney called out. “I want to see him. I need to see him.”

“Cici,” the ambulance driver responded, “we really need to take you now. The cut is deep and you lost a lot of blood. We need to go.”

“Nathan! Come!” she yelled, taking a thin, tarnished and worn, open-sided copper bracelet from her wrist.

Nathan pushed past Officer O’Malley and went up to the gurney before they loaded it into the ambulance. “What happened, Cici?” he asked as he looked her over on the stretcher, and for a brief moment, remembered the way he felt seeing his father laying in his hospice bed during the last days of his life.

“Thugs. Wanted Cici’s bag,” the old woman replied. “Wasn’t going to get it without a fight.”

“Cici,” Nathan said, disappointed, “I could have gotten you another one. It wasn’t worth taking a beating for. Nothing is.”

“You’re wrong. It was from you,” she said as she reached out and grabbed his arm with great strength for a healthy woman, let alone an old, frail one that had been stabbed in the abdomen. “You are the only person to give Cici any consideration. I always remember your kindness. Daily. I wait for it. The beacon in the dark.” She slipped the C-shaped bracelet over his wrist. The attendants tried to load the gurney, but she wouldn’t let go of Nathan’s arm.

Cici opened her deep brown eyes wide, kept a death grip on Nathan’s arm, and reached across with her other hand to cover the bracelet with her palm. She took a large, deep breath and spoke. “Where there is darkness, you are light. Where others know fear, you will be brave. When there are setbacks, you will persevere. Where others find weakness, you bring strength.” She paused for a moment to take another deep breath, and closed her eyes. “Where there is despair, you are hope. Where cowardice falls, you rise courageously. Where others do not have the ability to believe, you have faith.”

Pain flared in his right arm, from the wrist up, and he felt incredibly weak. Where Cici’s right hand lay across the bracelet, it became hot to the touch. He tried to pull his arm back, but couldn’t break her grip.

“You will suffer,” she said. Her eyes snapped open, and she bellowed, “So that others will endure. You will triumph where others would fall.” Nathan pulled on his arm, hard, leveraging with his feet. He looked at the woman he knew as Cici, but could no longer recognize her as her eyes went completely white and her voice dropped to barely a whisper above the city sounds. Nathan couldn’t understand what she said. She spoke in Latin, and he tried in vain to catch at least some of the words.

Cici released her hold, and Nathan jerked himself back. Alarms on the monitors went off. The attendants jerked the gurney into the ambulance and worked feverishly.

Nathan stumbled backwards, into the hood of Officer O’Malley’s cruiser. He looked up into the eastern sky, directly at the rising sun. Flashes of light, brighter than the sunlight, filled his field of vision in his line of view in front of the sun. “Baxter—Zephram?” Nathan said, then blacked out and fell to the pavement.

CHAPTER TWO

Darkness. Warmth. Voices. The sensations invaded Nathan’s consciousness. He became aware of the needles in his arms and the tube in his nose. He opened his eyes a bit at a time, and then all in one go.

“What happened? Work?” he said weakly, and reached over to the small table he’d noticed to his right.

“I already called them,” Lisa said and moved a little closer to the bed. “I told them you were ill and had to come to the hospital. You’re all set.” Lisa reached over, touched his forehead, and ran her hand up lightly into his hair.

Nathan closed his eyes for a moment to process everything. Lisa worked in the same building as he did, but for a different company on another floor. However, she did know his boss. “What happened?” Nathan asked, without opening his eyes.

“As near as I can tell, you passed out. Cici had your arm and wouldn’t let go. She was talking to you, then she stopped, and when you fell back against the squad car, you blacked out.”

“How is she? She looked pretty bad.”

Lisa didn’t answer right away. A shudder ran through her. Nathan eased his eyes open when Lisa’s silence defined the unsaid for him. “She didn’t make it, did she?” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“I’m sorry. The ambulance technicians did everything they could. The doctor called it here, but they are saying that the reason she stopped talking and let your arm go when she did is because she died at that point.” Lisa reached over and touched his arm when a few tears escaped. “Will you be okay?” she asked, her voice breaking on the last word.

Nathan said nothing at first, and turned his head a little to look out the window. After a few moments he sighed. “You know, when I finished closing up my father’s affairs, paying all the bills, settling the money, handling the estate, and then finally taking the job at Brumfield, I really didn’t know what to expect from the Big Apple. People say so many different things about working, and life in the big city, but I needed the change and this was an awesome opportunity. Between that and the apartment that fell into my lap over in Kips Bay, it was all like an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“Despite the good fortune, I had no friends at the time. Then I met this crusty old woman on the sidewalk who yelled at everyone that walked past her. I offered her my sandwich. She complained because it had cheddar cheese in it. Then she ate it, cheese and all, because she was hungry. She told me how thousands of people likely walked past her over the two prior days and no one gave her anything to eat.” Nathan took a long blink, turned to look at Lisa, who was crying steadily, and then looked back out the window. “I remember saying to her, ‘You have a cup full of change from all the people who have passed by. I’m sure there’s enough to get a sandwich.’ She answered, ‘Of course. I sit here and collect the change. A lot of people give. Some want me to the leave the spot because they don’t want me here.’ Then she went on about how other people, social worker types and such, wanted her to go with them to get help in a center or something. ‘They’re measuring their work or worth by how many Cici’s they get off the street. You’re the only one that took the time to do something different and offer me a sandwich.’ After that, I stopped every day; I would even head out on weekends, with some water and a breakfast sandwich. I wanted to make sure she ate at least once in a given day, the way she should. Now she’s gone. This is so sudden. Tomorrow won’t feel right, not buying that sandwich, and not grabbing that water from home.”

Officer O’Malley stepped into the quick care area that Nathan had been staged in. “You gave us a bit of a scare, dropping like that, Devron. I only want one flash of excitement per morning if you’d be so kind,” he said in a soft, but noticeably Brooklyn, accent.

Nathan smiled at the comment. He knew Officer O’Malley from his beat and, while he was a gruff man, his heart was in the right place.

“I really don’t need a statement or anything from the two of you. We pretty much know what went down there, but from the lack of anything more than the general description Cici gave us, these thugs were like anyone else hanging around and wandering the area.”

“So it’s unlikely you’ll be able to catch who did this?” Lisa asked.

“Not from a lack of trying, Miss Cooper,” he replied sternly, but in a friendly tone. “I personally will try. Cici’s been on that block from before I was on the force. Tough old broad. If it were ten years ago, those thugs would be the ones on the ground, battered around by the bag they tried to take.”

Nathan cracked the smallest hint of a smile. He could picture that scene in his head. He pulled at his right arm, found some play in the IV lines, and looked down at the copper bracelet attached to his right wrist.

“Yeah,” Jack O’Malley replied as he lifted and dropped his police hat. “She slapped that on your wrist while holding your arm. I heard one of the ambulance techs say it was hot to the touch when they were working on you.”

“Well, Cici did have a tight grip on it,” Nathan said in a monotone.

“What was it she said to you?” Lisa asked.

Nathan focused for a minute. “You know, it’s all a blur now. It was almost like a poem or something.”

“Barry Falxon, my partner, joked that it was a spell,” Jack said, and adjusted his gun belt.

“So Cici was a follower of the Wiccan religion?” Lisa asked.

“No, more like a real witch,” O’Malley replied. “Shop keepers would complain that she would cast ‘spells’ and ‘hexes’ on customers as they walked by.” He made air quotes. “Really freaked people out.”

Lisa looked at Nathan. He knew the old woman better. He gave the barest of shrugs at the comment, and then reached for the bracelet with his free hand. “Ah … that’s just Cici being Cici. She was harmless. No one took the time to stop and talk with her. Her comments were often odd, and she skipped from subject to subject, but I don’t think she was malicious.” The copper felt slightly warm when he touched it. When his fingers took on a “pins and needles” tingling, he released it, and then rubbed his fingers together.

“I’m going to head back to work,” Jack said, tipping his hat. “Adia asked about you when she heard you were in here.”

Nathan’s expression turned to a warm smile at the sound of his friend’s name. When he looked over at Lisa, she seemed agitated.

“She was going to stop by, but I am sure they’ll discharge you soon,” Jack continued. “I overheard the attendant, so I’ll let her know you’ll likely not be here. You might want to give her a call, or message her, or whatever it is you kids do these days. Beyond that, make sure you head home and rest the remainder of the day. I think you’ve had your fill of excitement.”

“Thanks, Officer O’Malley,” Nathan replied in a low voice.

Officer O’Malley turned to leave the area, but then turned back and smiled at the man young enough to be his son. “Why not call me Jack, from now on, Nathan? I think you’ve earned it.”

Nathan smiled a little more. Jack O’Malley was big on formalities, and offering someone to address him by his first name, especially in uniform, meant a great deal.

Jack said nothing further, tugged a little on his gun belt, which rested bellow a belly just a hair too large, turned, and left the room.

He called over his shoulder, “Take care of him, Miss Cooper, he’s all yours now.”

CHAPTER THREE

Nathan took his time opening his eyes, and then stared at his living room ceiling in his small one-bedroom flat. As he collected his bearings a bit, he realized that he was on his couch. He sat up, pushed the blanket off him, and looked out the window over his small dinner table. Darkness obscured the outside from his view.

He looked over at Lisa, just coming out of the kitchen area. The events of the day, and the medication from his hospital visit, made his thoughts a scrambled mess.

“Did you go to work?” Nathan asked as he dropped his feet to the floor.

“I took a personal day. I told them what happened and they were good, with it being last minute and all,” Lisa responded with a soft smile. She set a cup of hot chocolate down on the coffee table and took a hairband off her wrist. She pulled back her medium-length hair and tied it into a ponytail.

Nathan sank backwards into the couch cushions. “You didn’t need to do that. I would have been fine. Thank you all the same, though. I do appreciate it.” He tugged a little at the copper bracelet on his right wrist.

“Need to, is a relative term. The hospital wanted you checked in on for the next day or so. Beyond that, I wanted to.” She smiled softly and sat in the adjacent easy chair. “Besides, I can’t go off disobeying an officer of the law.”

Nathan looked up, genuinely puzzled.

“Officer O’Malley said,” she replied with a deepening tone. “Take care of him, Miss Cooper, he’s all yours now.” She grinned then returned to her normal voice. “There only so many laws I am willing to bend or otherwise break.” Lisa softened her tone and lowered her voice just above a whisper. “When it comes to you, I figured that was a good one to obey.”

Nathan smiled warmly at the words “take care of.” It had been a while since anyone had done that for him. He took care of his father while he was sick, along with tending to his own needs. And then there was the slight act of kindness that he would do daily for Cici. That effort was now no longer needed. The thought of that saddened him some, and he played more with the bracelet.

***

Lisa sat quietly after her playful but leading comments. At times like this, she resented saying them. She always had to reach and extend, trying to see if he had any interest beyond “just friends,” but he was always indifferent and non-committal. Sometimes it would bother her more than others. Like on the evenings when they would spend time on the couch watching a movie and he’d nod off. She would move to get more comfortable, or reach for a remote to turn the TV off, and that would wake him up. She would tell him to just stay on the couch and she would try to sit there with him and hold him, playfully, but he would invariably leave. Many nights, she would get up near the point when he would first start nodding off, to get a bathroom visit out of the way so as to not have to hold it all night because she wanted him to stay. She’d nearly reached the point where the one-way effort wasn’t enough anymore. She hated feeling that way. She wanted more.

Lisa pulled herself out of her thoughts. “That bracelet won’t come off, you know?” Nathan looked up as Lisa continued. “The nurse couldn’t get it off your wrist. It wouldn’t even turn. I tried myself while you were sleeping.”

Nathan tugged at it lightly and it slipped right off. He examined it, and then extended it towards Lisa. She reached out to take it, but before she could fully grasp it, she shouted in pain and released it.

“OW! It’s red hot,” she exclaimed, putting her fingertips into her mouth and then blowing on them, dropping the bracelet to the floor.

Nathan jerked in a reflex action and picked it up. Lisa stood, then walked into the kitchen to turn on the cold-water tap. Nathan put the bracelet back on his wrist and got up. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Lisa ran her fingers under the cold water. “I’m fine.”

“I don’t understand that reaction. Are you sure it was heat, and not something in the metal that your skin responded to?”

Lisa pulled her fingers out from under the tap and held them up—the heat blisters clearly visible. Nathan’s wrist appeared unaffected.

“I’m sorry,” he said and made his way over to the kitchen. His hand trailed from table to chair while he moved, so he could steady himself as he walked.

“It’s okay, it’s not like you knew it would burn me. Still, why isn’t it burning you?” Lisa looked down to the bracelet.

“I don’t know,” Nathan said as he touched it. “This is going to sound crazy, but sometimes it feels cool to the touch on my wrist, but warm to the touch with my hand.”

Inquisitive, Lisa reached over with her free hand while her other one remained under the tap. Nathan pulled his arm away in a protective move, but it was more to keep Lisa from getting burned again than to keep from being touched.

“It’s okay.” She gestured forward. “I’ll go lightly with a soft touch.”

Nathan extended his arm and she inched forward to touch it with the lightest contact she could manage. This time the metal only felt warm, so she laid her fingertips with more pressure.

“It’s just warm,” she said. “The nurse and I weren’t burned before when we touched it.”

“But you were just before, once I broke contact with it.”

Lisa nodded.

Both of them looked at one another, puzzled.

Nathan took the bracelet off and set it on the counter while Lisa dried off her hands. He reached down with just his pointer finger extended, and touched it. “It’s cool to the touch,” he said.

Lisa wrapped the wet paper towel around her fingers, and then touched it. Immediately, she jerked her hand back.

“Are you okay?” Nathan asked.

“I’m fine. The wet paper towel kept me safe, but it definitely felt hot.”

Nathan scooped up the bracelet, and he and Lisa looked at the counter. No sign of heat wear marked the surface of the counter top.

He walked over to the area near the stove, set the bracelet down, headed over to the freezer. Lisa called out, “Nathan, stop!” She pointed, wide eyed, to the bracelet. He stopped in his tracks and turned.

“It moved slightly,” Lisa said, astonished. “I swear. Step away slowly, but face it so you can see.”

Nathan took two small steps backwards and away from the bracelet, and it moved forward a smidge.

“Lisa, go over there.” Nathan pointed up and away from the kitchen area, and in the opposite direction from where he was backing up. Once Lisa moved all the way to the far corner of the living room, Nathan back-stepped toward the front door to the apartment. Without warning, once Nathan was a full six feet away, the bracelet flew off the counter and snapped into its former place on his right wrist.

They looked at one another in amazement.

“That was what? About two meters?” Nathan said, looking over, and then walking back into the kitchen. He repeated the same set of actions and got the same result, while Lisa simply looked on in quiet amazement. Nathan set the bracelet down and put his left hand around his wrist in the place where the bracelet had been worn, blocking the area completely. When he backed up, the bracelet flew to a higher spot on his right arm, above where his hand blocked.

Shock sent shivers rolling down Lisa’s spine. “How did it fit that high up on your forearm? The gap isn’t that wide. It shouldn’t fit.”

Nathan looked over at her, and then back down at his arm. “I think the metal expanded.” He let go of his wrist and the bracelet moved on its own to its original resting place, then decreased visibly in size and fit.

Lisa walked over. “How can it do that? It can’t just gain or lose size. It’s like creating matter. It’s just not possible.”

Nathan went to the closet and took out his bulky sweater and a heavy winter jacket. Back in the kitchen, he got duct tape out of the utility draw. Lisa watched while Nathan placed the bracelet on the counter then put the sweater on, and then the heavy winter jacket. Once he had them on, he secured the sleeve opening with the duct tape. He set the roll down and backed up with haste toward the apartment door. At the six-foot range the bracelet moved through the air. Nathan dashed an additional three feet to the right and crouched down. The bracelet tracked the change in his movements, changed in size, and attached itself to his right arm, above the elbow and over the sweater and coat.

“Holy crap.” He stood up and pointed to it, and where it rested on his right bicep.

Lisa shook her head in disbelief. She’d watched the events unfold, but could hardly accept what she’d seen. “I can’t tell what I’m in more disbelief over. The whole flying through the air thing, the size change thing, or the parasitic-like attachment the thing has to your right arm.”

Nathan took the bracelet off his bicep with minimal effort, and it immediately returned to its original size and shape in his hand. He set it down on the end table in the living room and removed the duct tape and, eventually, the jacket and sweater. While heading over to the closet to put them away, the bracelet automatically flew back to his right wrist.

Nathan walked back over to the couch and sat down. Lisa made her way back over to the easy chair. “Well, I think it’s safe to say you’re never going to have to worry about losing that thing.”

Nathan continued to look at the bracelet without acknowledging her comment. He glanced over at the clock, near the small stereo tuner. It read “8:49PM.” Nathan rubbed his face and groaned softly. Events had overwhelmed him, and he looked physically and mentally fatigued.

“Lisa, I’m beat. We need to think about this thing, but I can’t do it right now.” Nathan sank backward into the couch. “It doesn’t seem to be harming me, and it appears I can either sleep with it on, or remove it and leave it right next to me on the night stand. That’s close enough that it won’t move to my wrist. If what I want to do is keep it off me.

Lisa got up and grabbed his arm. “Come on, get to bed.”

Nathan got up slowly and wobbled a bit. “Here, I’ll walk you to the lobby,” he said as he pulled her toward the door.

“No,” Lisa said, letting go of his arm. “I’m going to stay here tonight, in case you need anything.” She smiled and took his arm again. “I can’t disobey a direct order from Officer O’Malley, after all.” For a moment she flinched on the inside, knowing she was giving in to her wants and desires again. As much as she yearned for a better reaction from him, and really wanted to stop playing into it, she also couldn’t resist her desires to try to let him know exactly what she felt and what she wanted.

“Look, I appreciate it,” Nathan said, as he made his slow way to the bedroom. “I just don’t want to put you out. Tell you what, I’ll grab a blanket and sleep on the couch.”

Lisa shook her head; surprised he hadn’t rejected her outright and completely and simply insisted on her leaving. She didn’t know how to take it. “I appreciate the chivalry, but you’re the one that had the episode. I’m a big girl. I can sleep on the couch. I’ll call Adrianne and let her know I’m staying here. She’ll be ‘disappointed’ that she’ll be all alone in our apartment, and will call her boyfriend to keep her company. I’ll go back in the morning and the whole place will reek of sex,” she said with a wry smile.

Nathan said nothing further in protest, but just looked at her.

“You help everyone, Nathan. You never seem to need any help of your own. At the very least, you never ask. Today you do. I’m going to help you, so just enjoy it.”

Nathan wrapped his arms around Lisa and hugged her. “Thank you,” he said in weak and tremulous voice, and held her softly.

CHAPTER FOUR

At a little after two in the morning, Lisa heard Nathan stirring about wildly in his bed. She got up from the couch and went in to check on him, and found him sleeping restlessly and drenched in sweat. She tried to wake him to ask if he was okay, but he was in such a deep sleep he never really came out of it.

Worry creased her brow. He seemed awfully hot and sweaty. The possibility of dehydration had her even more concerned. She went to the kitchen, where she got a large glass and filled it mostly with ice and the remainder with water. She took it and a chair back to Nathan’s bedroom, where she managed to rouse him just enough to drink some of the water, which he did and dropped right back to sleep

Lisa sat there for a while after, just watching him, unable to get back to sleep herself, despite it being just a little before four in the morning. The best thing to do would be to try to keep him cool with a cold, wet washcloth.

The heat was off in the room and, because of that, it was a cool sixty-six degrees. There wasn’t much more she could do from the environment side of things. With the covers turned down and Nathan in only a pair of boxers, she continued to do what she could to try to keep him cool and comfortable.

At one point, when Nathan settled entirely and it appeared his breathing had shallowed, she considered calling an ambulance, but he responded to her touch, and moved about somewhat, so she decided against it.

Just before sunrise, Nathan awoke suddenly and let out a yell, sitting upright in the bed and panting heavily. The abruptness startled Lisa, who was cooling him with a cold, damp cloth. She moved out of the chair and away from him.

“Are you okay?” Lisa asked in a moderate whisper while she settled herself and moved closer.

Nathan stared at her with a deep look, and then glanced around the room as if he was lost or out of place in his own apartment.

“Can you say something? You’re scaring me that something isn’t all right,” Lisa said as she sat back down into the chair.

Nathan, still panting, scanned the room. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then closed it.

Lisa looked over at the nightstand and saw the copper bracelet sitting on top. She reached over to Nathan and scooped up his right hand in both of hers, then held it. “I’m right here. It’s okay,” she said in a comforting tone.

Slowly, over a few minutes, Nathan settled down, but muttered some speech to her. It wasn’t fully coherent at first, just a few random words that almost sounded like a response to a question that hadn’t been asked, but then it developed into a full conversation.

“I was dreaming,” Nathan said. “But it wasn’t one dream. It was dozens of them. Small snippets. I’m starting to forget them all now.” He turned to look at Lisa as opposed to staring at the far wall of the bedroom. “Wait. It was more than that. They were events, real events, from when I was a kid. Not dreams. Well, they were dreams, but not like a dream where it’s something that never happened or something imagined. This was like memory recall and as if I was reliving it. The dreams seemed like they were in exact detail.” Nathan shook her hand loose from his, hopped out of the bed, and headed for the doorway.

When he exited into the living room, and beyond two meters, the bracelet flew across and attached to his wrist. He barely flinched when it hit his right arm, but stood in front of his sofa and stared at the TV screen as if it was on and he was watching something. Lisa made her way out and stood to his side.

“In one of them, it was from when I was young; maybe six or seven,” Nathan said without moving his gaze from the turned off television screen. “I was in Wagmeyer’s. The neighbor’s kid, Billy, was shoplifting gum. I confronted him. He punched me in the mouth as I got louder and said I would tell Mr. Wagmeyer. It hurt. I remember. He took off and Mr. Wagmeyer got me a cold rag and cleaned up my split lip.” Nathan moved his hand up to his mouth, as if he could feel the injury.

Lisa turned a little more and tried, in the semi-darkness of the living room, to look into his eyes.

Nathan spoke again, still in that trance-like state. “I was a teenager helping my dad. We were collecting returnable bottles so we could cash them in. We were going to donate the money to the homeless shelter.” Nathan lowered his hand from his lip and a smile crept across his face. “We were both dressed up as The Patriot; not the t-shirts. He rented full costumes to make it fun. We looked ridiculous. We filled up a borrowed school bus with the cans and bottles.”

Lisa smiled, trying to picture a teenaged version of her friend with his father, dressed like one of the superheroes he always talked about.

The smile disappeared from his face when he continued. “A summer or two later, a young girl in a cancer ward—maybe aged around ten—had a last minute wish to meet Blue Scarlet and Kojo, and one of those nonprofit wish foundations was working on it. The lady called my father directly because they knew the girl’s time was short and that he always had those t-shirts and costumes. The lady wanted to know where we could find someone on short notice to help them out. I remember his response clear as day. ‘My son and I are on our way.’ We dropped what we were doing and left for New Haven.” Nathan sank into the center seat of the sofa. “We spent thirty minutes there in her room until she was too tired to stay awake anymore. As we left, the floor nurse asked us if we could go to the adjoining room. The little boy in there saw us come in and asked if he too could see Blue Scarlet and Kojo.”

A small tear escaped from Nathan’s left eye; small in comparison to the ones streaming down Lisa’s face, as she took a seat next to him on the couch, listening to him tell his memories.

“We spent the next three hours that Sunday visiting every child on the sixth floor. It was so surreal for me at the time. I remember. My father said afterwards how powerful he felt. The doctors couldn’t save any of them. They were all terminally ill. But we had the power that one day to make them all smile.” Nathan slipped backwards into the couch and Lisa dragged him towards her. “Not even the doctors could do that anymore.”

Nathan shifted position to get more comfortable. “‘These costumes and t-shirts,’ I remember my father saying, ‘I actually feel for a brief moment that I have the ability to channel the energy of the hero and put it to my own use.’ He said it that day, and repeated it over the years, as we did things together.” Nathan closed his eyes and leaned a little more into Lisa. “So many wonderfully inspiring things that could be done if that were only true. If only for a brief moment, we could harness those powers.”

Lisa nudged forward just a little to see Nathan drift off to sleep. He seemed cooler to the touch. She closed her eyes as well, to rest some, so that the next day of work would be a bit more bearable despite the lack of solid rest.

CHAPTER FIVE

On Friday morning, Nathan headed out from his apartment around the same time he always did, but the walk today would be very different. Lisa had left a short while before to head back to her place to shower and get a change of clothes. Because of that, she wouldn’t be meeting him part way and then walking with him.

Nathan made his way uptown, sad to realize that he wouldn’t need to stop in at Niresh’s for a breakfast sandwich for the same reason he’d left the bottled water at home; there was no longer the same need as before for either of them. Cici was gone.

As he turned onto Third Avenue, he took a deep breath of early autumn air. A mix of city smells filled his nostrils and he stopped for a moment and stepped aside to allow other pedestrians to make their way around him. Always mindful like that, if he needed to fish through his smartphone for something or respond to a text, he would step backwards and away from the rushing pedestrian traffic.

While standing there and taking in the morning air, he reached over and clutched the bracelet on his right arm. It felt warmer than his skin and a feeling of tingling ran up both his arms, and almost felt as if it was crossing his heart as the two sensations met in the middle of his chest, directly below the Sapphire Speedster symbol on his t-shirt.

Without warning, a horn sounded from the south and Nathan whipped his head around to see a panicked driver of a small delivery box-truck run a red light, crossing 24th street, barely missing the cross traffic cars in pattern, and all the pedestrians that moved quickly out of the way. At the same moment, the initial horn blast dissipated, and everything seemed to slow to a crawl.

Nathan turned at normal speed to the north to see people effectively motionless at the intersection of 25th in the active crosswalk, and the sounds of the city faded into an indefinable warble.

“Hey! Look out!” Nathan yelled on instinct, while waving his arms. With no response from the people, Nathan ran towards them at the next block.

When he reached the pedestrians, he realized they couldn’t respond to him. They moved much slower than he did. Although still in motion, they barely moved at all. Nathan looked back at the truck inching its way toward the active intersection, where just moments ago it was moving at least thirty miles an hour. People walked over the road in the east-west crosswalk, and the matching automobile east-west traffic pattern was active as well. Nathan also noticed a car stopped at the northbound red light with a woman and a preteen passenger.

“Run,” came out of Nathan’s mouth and, again on instinct, he moved. His conscious mind reacted automatically. Nathan ran over and set about clearing the crosswalk of pedestrians by picking them up, leveraging their slow momentum versus his speed, and putting them onto the destination corner. While he did this, and with what seemed like more automation to him, he noticed traffic barrels and saw-horses in the excavation area at the corner construction site, where a building had been demolished and a new foundation was being dug out. He grabbed the barrels on each trip back to block the sidewalks. Anyone attempting to step off, he presumed, would see them blocking their path into the crosswalk, and that would hopefully force them to pause and see the truck before getting into its path.

Nathan continued until he’d fully cleared the street area. He then turned his attention to the stopped car and the two occupants as the truck neared at its unnaturally slowed pace.

Nathan attempted to get into the car, but the locked doors stopped him. He found a rock nearby at the construction site, then shattered the back door and driver’s-side window, and manually opened the locks. He leaned in and set the emergency brake on the already stopped car, and put the automatic transmission into “park.” After that, he took the two occupants out of the car and seated them on a bench at the adjacent coffee shop.

The out-of-control truck had nearly reached the stopped car. Nathan pulled the driver from the truck cab and sat him down next to the occupants from the car. He then climbed into the seat, and attempted to break the vehicle and apply the emergency brake. The regular brakes wouldn’t engage, and neither would the emergency brake, and since the vehicle was in motion, he couldn’t get the transmission into park. The parking pin just clattered, slowly, against the automatic transmission. All he could think to do at that point was to downshift the vehicle into first gear. He then turned the steering wheel towards the construction site and turned the key for the ignition into the off position. For what to him seemed like minutes, the truck trajectory “slowly” adjusted to the new heading. Nathan did the best he could to visually assess the speed and distance of the crossing automobile traffic. As near as he could estimate, the cross traffic was going to miss hitting the truck, given its present speed and course. Once firmly headed for the foundation pit, Nathan jumped back out of the cab and removed workers from the construction site as the truck headed straight towards the work area.

While he removed the last worker off the site, the box-truck hopped the curb and moved towards the small pedestrian barriers between the sidewalk and the site.

Nathan moved quickly to verify he had all the people out of harm’s way, and then dashed up the block and towards the back of a group of people that had turned towards the sound of the truck horn.

Once he had come to rest, now with the group, Nathan’s vision returned to viewing everyone at regular speed, and all the sounds around him became audible and intelligible again.

The box-truck careened into the open and now-empty construction pit, with the transmission screaming wildly in first gear. People became aware that they needed to adjust their bearings, as they were disorientated, finding themselves along the sidewalk and away from the intersection where they’d been just moments ago.

The mother and daughter, from the car at the red light, stood up and looked at their parked car in the middle of the road as other vehicles came to rest all around the four corners.

The truck driver, now seated next to them, also stood up, totally disoriented from having been relocated out of the vehicle that now sat on fire at the bottom of the construction site.

The construction crews that Nathan had relocated to the sidewalk responded to the accident and prevented people from entering the area. The foreman called 911, and two construction lads tried to get closer to the truck to see if anyone was hurt and needed help.

Nathan took a few moments to try to absorb what had just happened.

As people around him moved towards the scene of the fire, he stayed put for a minute, and then slowly made his way up 26th Street to Lexington. While he walked, he again placed his left hand, palm down, over the copper bracelet on his right wrist. This time it felt cool to the touch and his skin felt warmer than the metal.

Still not completely certain of everything that had happened, Nathan turned the corner and tried to run as fast as he could up Lexington Avenue, but he only managed a normal speed for himself. He pressed on and continued to run, past 27th and 28th streets, at full speed. By the time he reached 30th Street, tiredness plagued him and he felt fairly certain that no matter how fast he’d moved before, he was now back to doing the average top speed for someone his age.

A small bus stop nearby had a bench, and Nathan walked over and sat down. He closed his eyes and spent several minutes listening to the echo of the city sounds around him. He then took his phone out and called into work to let them know he had been on his way, but suddenly felt unwell. They told him to rest it off and come in on Monday.

He put the phone away and sat for several more minutes before he got up and headed home. He tried to convince himself that none of the events happened the way they actually did, as if it were a daydream of sorts. Since it seemed so surreal, he nearly convinced himself until he got back to the area of the event and saw all of the emergency responders on the scene and the news crews that had started to show up.

Nathan was forced across the street along with all the other pedestrians. Officer Jack O’Malley saw him and waved. Nathan nodded back to him and crossed the street to head home.

CHAPTER SIX

Nathan put his wallet and keys on the small table to the left of his apartment door, and pulled his cell phone out. He dialed the number in his quick contacts for Lisa and let it ring while he walked into his bedroom.

“Nathan? Hi, how are you feeling? Are you okay?” Lisa asked the second the phone connected. For a few moments Nathan didn’t respond; he stood in his bedroom, and then sat on the near edge of the bed. “Nathan? If you’re talking I can’t hear you. We might have a bad connection,” Lisa said.

“No, I’m here,” Nathan responded in a quiet and meek voice.

“Is everything all right?” she asked with a concerned tone. “You don’t sound like yourself. Are you okay? Did anything happen? Is there anything new regarding the bracelet? Please, talk to me. I’m worried about you.”

Nathan paused before answering. He had no real explanation for what had occurred and he wasn’t even sure what to say to her. “No, I’m fine,” Nathan said eventually, with a little more vigor in his voice. “I was on my way to work and … well, to be honest I’m not really sure what happened.”

“Did you go by at the time of that accident? It’s right along your route, down the avenue before you reach my cross street,” Lisa exclaimed. “No one is really sure what happened there.”

Nathan frowned. “How did you know about that already? You’re farther north—you wouldn’t have seen that.”

“I read it on NEWSTICKER; a bunch of eyewitness interviews were up there already,” she said. Nathan moved to his desk, set his smartphone to hands free, and fired up his laptop to see what Lisa was already reading.

“It says here a delivery box-truck careened out of control in the area of 25th on Third Avenue and, by some stroke of luck, wound up in a construction site without harming a soul. People on the scene were saying they heard the horn, the commotion, and people scattered around the street. A few reported high bursts of wind and flashing lights and it was over as quickly as it began.”

As soon as the laptop was powered up and online, Nathan read over the same report. It made no mention of people saying they felt as if they’d been picked up and moved, or anyone that identified someone moving at high speed. Nathan assumed that was either because the people couldn’t properly identify the sensation or didn’t want to be labeled as crazy. He assumed at that point that he was going too fast to be seen or identified.

“Nathan? Are you still there?” Lisa asked.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I was reading the article you pointed me to,” he said as he leaned back in the chair. “I came back home. I was on my way to work and I still felt things weren’t fully ‘right,’ so I called out. Work was fine. They said to take the day and come back in on Monday.”

“That was good of them, and I’m sure you could use another full day of resting,” Lisa replied. “Did you need me to swing by with anything at lunchtime?”

“No, I think I’m good,” Nathan answered as he closed the lid on the laptop. “Say, I was wondering, do you think you could come by after work for a little bit?”

“Oh … well, if you need me to for something I can, but I sort of have plans. They’re tentative and informal and all came together at the last minute; I can cancel, I don’t need to go.” She sounded uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“Oh no, don’t do that. I’m fine. I was going to ask you to come by if you weren’t busy, but if you’re already engaged with plans then that’s fine. Friday happy hour with the group?” Nathan asked in all innocence.

“Well, they are going out, and I was asked, but I have plans with Kevin, that guy from the purchasing department. I mentioned him to you a couple of times, back when he and I had lunch together. He sort of asked me to join him and a few of the people from that department tonight, and I said yes.” Nathan couldn’t quite tell if she was hesitant because she felt embarrassed, or for some other reason.

“Ah, cool. Well, enjoy and have fun. Let me know how you make out, Lisa,” Nathan said.

“Are you sure? Look, I can come by at lunch and check in?” Lisa now sounded concerned. But what for? Was it about the possible wedge that might form in their friendship over her deciding to go out with Kevin? For Nathan, this was a total non-issue.

“I’m good, really. If it’ll make you comfortable, let’s check in around noon and, if I need anything, you can swing by. How does that sound?”

He heard the smile in her voice when she answered, “Of course. Please, get some rest.”

“I will. Bye, Lisa.” Nathan ended the call and stood up. Then he turned around and slid his desk chair back under the desk. As he turned to make his way out of the room, he noticed a shirt on the corner of his bed. He picked it up and walked over to the half-length mirror between his desk and dresser. He studied the shirt he had on, the Sapphire Speedster, and the one he’d just picked up, Power Arc. He continued to stare, and thought back to that morning—when he’d gotten out of the shower and stood in his towel, pulling the clothes he planned to wear.

“I was going to put on Power Arc,” he said aloud to his reflection in the mirror. He remembered thinking about it several times. He just stared into the mirror. He could remember thinking about putting on the Power Arc shirt, but he couldn’t recall when he changed his mind for the Sapphire Speedster one. He also couldn’t remember the act of doing it, either. He looked away from the mirror and tossed the shirt onto the bed, then turned back to the mirror and looked at himself in the Sapphire Speedster shirt.

“I didn’t plan to pick this shirt to wear today,” he murmured, and then turned to look at the Power Arc shirt again. He gazed down at the bracelet on his arm. Realization dawned. “I mimicked the shirt’s powers. When Cici put this on me, I was in my Amalgam shirt, and Amalgam can mimic other powers.” Nathan walked out of the room, uncomfortably conscious that he was talking to himself. Oh well, you know what they say: it’s when you argue back that you’re in real trouble.

Seated at his small kitchen table, he looked at the bracelet on his arm. There is some magic to this thing he thought. I can’t leave it off and walk away. If anyone touches it while it’s off my arm, they get burned. Cici wasn’t burned by it. She actually wore it. The thing flies across the room and will morph to fit its surroundings, like it did to get over the jacket sleeve.

Nathan took the bracelet off and looked at it closely. It appeared completely without markings on the outside, but upon closer examination, he could see tiny etchings on the inside. He had to really focus as they were barely visible to the naked eye, and he only managed to see them due to the volume of sunlight coming in through the window, and the way it shone on the metal at the angle he held it.

Nathan set the bracelet down then stood and walked away. When he neared the small closet, the bracelet shot off the table and back onto his arm. Startled, he mumbled aloud, “I’m going to have to get used to that, I guess.” Then he opened the door to the cupboard. He rummaged around until he found what he was looking for: a strong magnifying glass.

Once again seated at the table, Nathan shifted the chair some more to maximize the sunlight and his viewing angle on the bracelet. He took it back off his wrist and turned it over to where he’d seen the slight markings. Using the magnifying glass and the bright sunlight, he managed to make out ten distinct markings on each side of the bracelet opening. Each marking seemed to be duplicated in order on both sides of the bracelet opening, paired up with itself. They almost looked like dots to the naked eye and a casual glance, with ten on one side of the opening and ten on the other.

Nathan set the magnifying glass and bracelet down on the table and went to fetch some paper to sketch out the markings. As before, the bracelet flew to his arm once he was about two meters away from it. As he rummaged around the draw and it snapped itself around his wrist, Nathan shook his head and thought, Still not used to that.

Once he’d sketched down the markings, he went to his bedroom and brought out his laptop. He sat for a moment and thought about what he was going to do and how he would go about it. For a brief moment, the bracelet warmed on his wrist. He looked at it, not exactly sure what it meant, but then a compulsion to get up overcame him, and he willingly gave in to it.

He got up from the table, walked into the bedroom, and changed out of his Sapphire Speedster and put on the blue Power Arc one. While he felt somewhat in a trance about the action, at least he was aware this time that he was doing it.

Back at the table, Nathan spent the next couple of hours using the drawings and, once or twice checking back on the bracelet, he researched everything on the internet. When he’d finished, he felt fairly confident that he’d identified all the symbols.

“The Greek gods,” he said aloud, and tossed the pencil onto the table.

On the pad next to the scrap paper with the sketchings, read the ten names he’d identified on either end of the bracelet: Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus.

What the hell is this? Nathan wondered, as he remembered that Cici also rattled off something to him in a language he didn’t understand, just before she’d let him go. And why these particular ones? Why would Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the Greek gods, be missing?

Nathan went to lie on the bed for a few moments to collect his thoughts. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

The story continues in “I, Hero: The Beginning” available in paperback or in e-book formats.

I Hero: The Beginning

 

I, HERO: NATHAN RETURNS

 

PROLOGUE

The morning sun rose over the horizon and heated the crisp morning air.

A middle-aged woman sat on a park bench with a small, mixed-breed dog on a leash. The dog sniffed around at the grass to the left rear of the bench, and the woman turned her back to face her dog.

Smartphone in hand, she wore ear buds in her ears. Through them, she listened to music while an older gentleman with white hair, dressed in a long suit coat, came along. He moved alongside the park bench in the grassy area off the paved path. The smaller dog immediately tugged on the leash to see the other dog.

The woman casually lifted her hand to her ear, dropped the ear bud out of it, and glanced over at his pure-bred Labrador Retriever. “We might as well be having that affair we’re always accused of, meeting up like this as often as we do,” she said quietly without taking her attention off her dog.

“It’s better that the talk is of an affair that we’re not having than what we’re actually doing,” the man replied, and turned his back towards her and allowing the dog to move him a couple of steps away. “Status and update?” he asked.

“We still have no way to track him,” she said and got up from the bench to pick up after the dog. She took the opportunity to scan the area for other people. There were none. “His powers … change, for lack of a better description. We’re following a given signature, and then it disappears entirely. When it does come up again, it registers differently. We track that for a while, and then he just falls off the radar.” She dropped the small bag into a nearby pail and walked her dog near his so they could sniff each other. “Generally, he seems to head west before he drops out of sight. We’ve eliminated California, Oregon, and Washington because of the number of occasions he disappears heading east from those states. Intelligence is liking Nevada, but it’s still too loose and just a guess.”

“Do you think it’s deliberate? Do you think he knows we’re trying to track him and is masking his movements?” He tugged at his dog’s leash.

“I can’t know for certain,” she said and looked up at him with a slight smile. Then she reached into her coat pocket to make sure her identification badge was still there. “His movements are too casual; if I had to guess, I would say ‘no.’ He’s young, not skilled or trained, and he trusts easily. Why his signature disappears and then shows up differently is something we haven’t figured out. It does repeat; there are times it matches prior signatures, and we have a catalog of nine distinct ones to date, but why they constantly change is another unknown. We also see no detectable pattern in the changes. It appears random.”

“We know Senator Kelly is the direct link between Nathan and the President; have we had any luck with that route?” The man looked directly at the woman.

“No. He’s tight-lipped, won’t budge, and has to be the cleanest politician I’ve ever seen. We can’t even find anything to leverage on him,” she said and looked at the ground with a frown.

“Everyone has a closet, and there are always skeletons. I don’t want to have to go that way with him, but if I have to, I will, even if I have to fabricate something. We need to figure out what’s going on. It’s a matter of national security,” the man said and looked over at his dog, as it did its business in the grass.

The woman glanced over, and then tended back to her dog. “I’ll put some more people on it, but eventually it’s going to leak. The people like Nathan; once it gets out that the CIA and Homeland are trying to track him, it’s not going to be good.”

“The CIA and Homeland are not tracking him,” the man said.

“Yes, two rogue groups within each organization are, without authorization, and without Presidential backing. That will go over so much better with the public,” she said with an eye roll. “Is it such a smart idea to engage tonight on World News with Mark Daniels?”

“America’s Roundtable is the place for a discussion like this.” The man turned and stepped over to her, near the edge of the paved walkway. “The top thirty-five most populous cities in the United States, with a total population that exceeds forty million souls. Offshore, shell companies, and foreign interests, all buying, leasing, or otherwise occupying property in the dead center of each of those cities. We’ve been stymied on just about every legal front in trying to gain access to some of those locations. Others that we have been able to access haven’t produced anything worthwhile to date.”

She looked up at him with a steely look in her eyes. “I am as much a patriot as you are. Have you ever considered that there is no conspiracy there? Even if there is one, how can you be so sure it has to do with him? Nathan has no income that we’ve been able to detect. We have no idea where he lays his head at night. As far as food goes, there are millions of families that would offer him dinner, if he even needs to consume food anymore with respect to the powers he has. He just doesn’t have the means for anything nearly as grand as what you’re assuming, based on all of our intelligence.”

“You’re naïve, Jane,” the man said in a stern tone. “His capabilities are unmatched. There are governments that would pay a fortune to exploit them. He has a commodity that no one else can provide in his abilities.” The man tugged at his dog to bring him out of the grass and onto the paved path. “Everyone has a price, and everything can be bought.”

“Said the man who has brokered his share of said deals,” Jane Parker said. She pulled the other ear bud out and put the unit in her purse.

“It is exactly because of that, I know something is going on. I will get to the bottom of it,” he said as he took a couple of steps away from her.

“If you’re right about this, then hopefully the people will understand the need for some of the illegal activity—” Jane said.

“We’re covered under the Patriot Act,” he said, stopping his departure abruptly.

“That’s a load, and you know it, but if it helps you sleep at night, so be it. Sooner or later it’s going to surface, whether we want it to or not, Congressman Johnson, and I hope you’re ready for that.”

“I’ll be ready because there is just no way I’m that far off base on this. Those properties in those cities … they all tie back to Nathan somehow, and I’m going to figure it out. All that power he has, and it’s not enough. Now he’s involved with something in the middle of all those cities … all those lives. I will find out what that is.” He turned to walk away.

Jane turned back to where the Congressman had exercised his dog. “You going to pick that up?” she asked.

“The park has paid caretakers; they’ll tend to it,” he said without turning around.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Adia Santiago closed the apartment door behind her and sighed. As she stepped into the kitchen, she pulled her phone out of her pocket. She momentarily set it down on the counter to pull her ponytail tighter. With that done, she shook off a loose strand of her long black hair, and then took the phone again. Nearly eight o’clock, and a new text message had come from her roommate, Melinda, “out with the boyfriend, don’t wait up.”

She smiled, dropped her purse on the table, and walked over to the couch. Once she’d flicked the television on, she set the remote down and took off her shoes, tossed them aside, and lay down on the couch.

“… World News with Mark Daniels; thank you for joining us for this special edition of America’s Roundtable. With us tonight …” Adia stopped paying attention, sat up, and grabbed the remote. She was about to change the station, when she paused when the topic grabbed her attention.

“… hero or menace? With me to discuss the implications of Nathan, his powers, and his impact, good and bad, on the people is tonight’s distinguished panel of guests.”

Adia set the remote down and fixated her attention on the television.

“To my far left, we have U.S. Senator Mackenzie Kelly from New York, who is now serving his third term. To my near left, we have General Kevin Westmartin, the most senior member of the US Air Command. On my far right, we have Congressman Patrick Johnson from Texas, who is now serving his sixth term in that office. To my near right, noted scholar, Professor Rebecca Farnsmith, who is the head tutor of the Folklore and Mythology department at Washbury University. Welcome, everyone.” He looked around to the four people who sat around him. “And welcome to everyone at home, tuning in this evening for this special, live broadcast.”

Adia continued to watch as the view on screen changed to smaller news feeds along the right edge and the lower portion of the display. The overall video feed shrank to the upper-left two-thirds of the screen to accommodate the data streams from the network.

“To remind everyone here and the viewers at home of our format,” Mark said as the camera view focused on him. “This is an open, roundtable discussion. Technically, it can be on any topic; obviously, the major topic this evening is Nathan and his extraordinary powers, but the conversation is free to go anywhere. We will only interrupt the discussion if we cannot maintain some semblance of order, which I am sure we all can agree, is needed to have a discussion.”

Mark smiled and looked over to Professor Rebecca Farnsmith. “Let me open the discussion with you, Professor Farnsmith. There has been a lot of speculation regarding Nathan’s powers. While they seem to equal, or in some other manner, mimic the fictional characters from EarthWorld comics, there has been a smaller discussion, mainly from your current and prior students, as well as followers of your work, that they are rooted in the characters from Greek Mythology.”

The camera panned past Congressman Johnson, who had a look of disbelief on his face over the comment, and stopped at Professor Farnsmith.

“Thank you for the opening, Mark. First, let me say that the beings from Greek Mythology were not ‘characters,’” she said, turning casually and propping her seated position. She wanted to have presence but didn’t want to insult or dominate. “We believe, from our studies of the writings and records, that these beings existed here on Earth for an extended period of time.”

“Oh please,” Congressman Johnson said in a burst of contempt. “I thought we were going to discuss this man Nathan and his threat to our society; not sorcery, or some such, from two thousand years ago.”

“What’s harder to believe, Congressman?” Professor Farnsmith responded quickly and turned towards him. “That there are powerful beings that once visited us from another realm, where they once lived among us, and the people of that time thought of them as gods. Or is it easier to believe there is a man flying around, with the powers of the fictional character of Mister Atomic, helping dissipate wildfires by breaking down the molecular bonds of oxygen and thereby removing one of the required fuel sources that feed it?”

“Is that how he helped with the southern brush fires in your home state of Texas, Congressman?” Senator Kelly asked with a smug look on his face.

“Look,” Congressman Johnson said with his hands open in front of him, and his southern accent became more pronounced. “I do not deny that this Nathan has done a great many things that have helped a great many people. There are so many issues and concerns with his powers. Where is his allegiance? What is he working on for the President? Or other nations, for that matter?”

“I can tell you, unequivocally, Congressman Johnson,” Senator Kelly said. “And you good people at home, the young man we all know as Nathan is extraordinary not only in the powers he wields but the level of discretion under which he uses them. Or doesn’t, as is sometimes the case.” Senator Kelly moved in his seat slightly and continued quickly, concerned that he might get cut off. “We, the United States Government, have asked him for help on occasion on matters that I cannot discuss fully here. When it was applicable, and he was able, he helped. When he felt it was too high a level of interference, in a gray area, where a sovereign nation was concerned, and we would not contact them to explain our incursion, he would decline to help us.”

“And who is he to question the Commander in Chief?” General Westmartin said loudly.

“He’s an everyday citizen,” Senator Kelly said. “He does not serve as an enlisted American, and as such, he has every right to decline something. At best, he’s working with us like a consultant might for the FBI or the CIA. And just like them, if he feels there is something off, he simply declines.”

“So what is he working on?” General Westmartin asked. “I haven’t been in the loop on much of anything, and yet I should be, more so than not.”

“Obviously, General, I am unable to comment on that,” Senator Kelly said.

“And yet.” General Westmartin pointed his finger. “It’s only you and the President with those special little phones to call him. Now, why is that?”

“Well, the choice of the President having one is pretty self-explanatory; if anyone is going to need to pull a major ripcord and need the help of a superhero, it would be the President of the United States.”

“Fair enough,” the General said and shifted in his seat, leaning forward. “Then why do you have the other one?”

“Because he trusted me with it,” Senator Kelly said, still leant back in his chair and relaxed.

A brief lull followed, which the Senator took advantage of and turned back to Professor Farnsmith. “Professor,” he said. “You commented before on your beliefs and studies of the Greek gods, Zeus, Hera, and so forth. Can you lend more of your knowledge? I am quite interested in your theories.”

“Well,” Professor Farnsmith said. “We believe these beings existed on another plane of existence, where the laws of time, nature, physics, and perhaps some others, like magic, apply differently than in ours. For instance, it’s been hypothesized that those beings were few in number. There were not millions or billions like the number of us as we exist here on Earth. They may number in the hundreds, or even less. That is a theory as to why they can tap into the powers they have. They are connected to their version of nature and their universe at such a level that they can tap into the very energies around them and channel those for directed use.”

General Westmartin said with heavy sarcasm, “Zeus and his thunderbolts.”

“We harness electricity with machines and technology; why couldn’t a highly evolved being channel it through his body with nothing more than his will?” Professor Farnsmith asked. “We have Earth; we theorize that their Mount Olympus is where they reside. Because they were around for many centuries, it is assumed they either live for a considerable time or that time moves differently on their plane of existence. Or perhaps it is both.”

“So those beings could be alive today?” Senator Kelly asked in a serious tone.

“They could,” Professor Farnsmith said.

“Woo!” Congressman Johnson said loudly. “That blasphemy is going to cost you some nice votes come next year.”

“First off, I never called them gods. Having said that, who said aliens have to be green and arrive on spaceships?” Senator Kelly gave him a cool look. “Why couldn’t they be ‘alien’ beings, but rather than coming from another world far away, they instead live on another plane of existence?” Senator Kelly made finger quotes in the air.

“Exactly,” Professor Farnsmith said. “In the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Book of Joshua, the Book of Job, and the two Books of Chronicles, to name just a few ancient writings, each mention a number of people that lived well beyond four hundred years of age. They were the few; the exceptions. If we are to assume those as correct ages of beings on this world, it supports that the same could also be true for beings in other planes of existence. Additionally, if time moved differently there, where years here were days or hours there, they would seem to be immortal and seemingly live forever.”

“That’s an interesting theory, Professor,” General Westmartin said. “You wouldn’t happen to have any concrete proof to back any of it up?”

She held her ground, “I have as much proof to my beliefs as you might for whichever ones you hold. As with all ancient texts, there are possible mistranslations from text to document, document to parchment, and so on. It doesn’t have to be egregious; even a minor one can throw something off. A decimal in the wrong place … that sort of thing.”

“So even your own hypotheses and theories are suspect?” General Westmartin said.

“Of course.” She nodded and smoothed her skirt. “I believe in the work I do and the topics I study but I am limited to the data and information I’m given to review and work with.” She paused for a moment, and then continued, “I do believe in it whole-heartedly. And if Nathan has been given this gift by them …” Professor Farnsmith paused and turned to see Senator Kelly nod slightly. “Then it stands to reason that he is tapping the same energies that other heroes have in the course of history.”

“Helen of Troy? Hercules? Perseus? I think that if any are going to be somewhat household names, those would be it,” Congressman Johnson said loudly. “I might have to consult my grandson for some of the new-age fiction ones.”

“Heracles,” she said. “Hercules is from the Roman mythos.” Professor Farnsmith smiled. “Sarcasm is the tool of a weak mind.”

“I would like to know what the issue is, that certain factions of the government and the military, have with Nathan,” Senator Kelly said as be repositioned himself in the chair. “If the fact alone that the President of the Unites States has zero issue with him isn’t enough, what is it that bothers people? He’s not acting as law enforcement. He’s never performed any function as a citizen. He’s assisted when called upon, but it’s not like he made citizen arrests. He’s been on the scene of the occasional crime, like when helping with flooding and holding looters while the police arrived, but he’s effectively never acted independently.”

Adia got up from the couch to get something to drink, and said to the television, “You tell them, Senator.” She made her way into the kitchen and continued to look back at the television as Senator Kelly continued.

“The fact of the matter is, with all the powers he has, I think he’s shown great restraint. I wonder how many other people could do the same. Perhaps it’s why they chose him.”

“All this issue aside with the Greek gods, Senator, granting powers and all,” General Westmartin said. “I have never seen, in man or nature, an imbalance to any one side, maintain. With man, when one side moved away from clubs to fire sticks, so did the other side. Right now, we stave each other off with tons of nukes pointed at one another. Oh, sure, they are dormant now, and the escalation is way down from where it was in the 60s and 70s, but they are all available to use when and if needed. As far as nature goes, I am far less the expert, but when too much groundwater is tapped, we have sinkholes. When too much overfishing is done, other species suffer or die off. If there is so much of a counterbalance in a force of good, my concern is when the opposite of Nathan shows up.”

A quiet pause fell over the panel for a moment.

Adia walked from the kitchen with her glass of water and set it down on the coffee table.

“Would you care to elaborate further on that, General?” Mark asked to try to re-engage the conversation.

“There are two major issues on this point; let me start with the first one, Nathan himself. What if the power goes to his head? What if he suddenly does decide he is bigger than all of us and decides protecting isn’t enough and that he should rule? How can we possibly defeat someone so powerful?”

“His powers are not absolute,” Senator Kelly said. “He confided in me that fact, and I hope he’ll forgive me if it was something he wanted kept more confidential. He never explicitly identified as such but … he indicated that his powers are … regulated, to a degree. He basically said that the Greek gods granted them. He knows this, although he never explained how, and freely admitted he’s never seen or met any of them. Since he’s indicated that much, I believe that if these beings decided to intervene in such a way, to try to affect without directly getting involved, that they would also have a way to intervene should he become a direct threat.”

“What makes you so sure?” the General asked.

“Faith,” Senator Kelly said. “It would seem to me that if they desired, these beings could directly involve themselves as they did millennia ago. For whatever reason, they left and decided to stay gone, as far as we’re all aware. Who knows if they indirectly influenced things along the way? We’ll never know for sure unless we could communicate with one of them. At the end of the day and for whatever reasons, they have decided to act in this manner through Nathan. From what I’ve seen, in such an ordinary man, they have found someone extraordinary.”

Adia smiled. Her thoughts drifted to the last time she’d seen Nathan and the day he said goodbye. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“Excuse me,” Mark said, moving his hand up to his earpiece. “We are getting word now that there is an emergency at the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant. We are going to interrupt our broadcast. … Stacy Martins for the local affiliate is on the scene. Stacy … we are live to you.”

“Yes, good evening, Mark. Details are sketchy at the moment but apparently there was an issue earlier with one of the reactors and its cooling system. About an hour ago, the criticality level changed from Site Area Emergency, which is an issue contained within the site boundary, where no action is needed by the general public, to General Emergency. With that enacted, the evacuation order was initially given for the two inner zones around the plant, but that now has been escalated, and emergency sirens have gone off. I have unconfirmed reports that containment loss may occur if they cannot get the situation remedied in short order.”

Aida said, “Come on Nathan … show them what you’re made of.”

***

Persephone stood in the garden by the reflecting pool on Mount Olympus. She smiled upon the chaos occurring on the scene. With the crisis at the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant escalating, Zeus and Hera also arrived.

“Fancy seeing you here, daughter,” Hera said while walking around the far side of the reflecting pool. “Slow at this time in the Underworld?” she asked and waved her hand while she looked down at the ensuing emergency.

“My hand is not in this, as it is, of course, forbidden,” Persephone said with a feigned smile, and then turned to her father. “I am, of course, as equally surprised to see you here—both of you. It’s unusual to see either of you at the reflecting pool at all, let alone together.”

Zeus said nothing but only looked down into the pool at the scene.

“We all feel it too; I do expect you to realize that,” Persephone said, looking at her father. “The hero Nathan is pulling power from this realm, and through all of us, as you commanded, Father. It may be expressly the twelve, but we all feel him. We all know when something is amiss. You may feel it first, but we know it too.”

***

Adia continued to watch the scene unfold on the television when suddenly Nathan appeared on the screen, landing in the background of the shot with the reporter. She clasped her hands together and prayed.

“Yes, Mark, it does appear that Nathan has arrived.”

“We have confirmation here as well,” Mark said. “We are getting the automated telemetry feed information from Nathan’s Computer Central network. As viewers might be aware, since enabling the Computer Central network a few months ago, Nathan makes available to all news reporting networks, via the AP feeds, all and any pertinent information for any major emergencies. You will see this information on the right side and bottom of your television screens at home. From time to time as well, the view on the screen may break away from our network control to live feeds that Computer Central provides. Nathan has maintained that he does this in an effort to provide clarity and transparency to anything that he is doing in the public interest.”

The camera in the studio zoomed out to show the entire panel and then the shot went back out to the reporter on the scene. Almost immediately, the shot then cut away to the raw feed from Computer Central.

***

Nathan entered the facility and raced toward the reactor core.

“Computer Central,” Nathan called out, tapping the small device in his left ear.

“Enabled,” the female voice of his computer system responded through the communication device.

“What’s the status of the core?” Nathan asked as he reinforced his personal shielding as Captain Delta.

“It will go critical. It will need to be evacuated.”

Nathan moved quickly to the area of the core. “Looks like I’ll have to pull the same move I did with the shuttle; I’m going to need to extend my shielding, and then move this whole unit.”

“Affirmative. You will not be able to contain the reactor once the critical level is reached.”

“I might have been better served today to be Mister Atomic; he could have absorbed all this radioactive energy until it became inert.”

“Confirmed,” Computer Central responded. “The known quantities of nuclear and radioactive material on site Hanford Nuclear Power Plant are within Mister Atomic’s capabilities to neutralize.”

“I’ve learned not to second guess the compulsion to don one shirt over another,” Nathan said while he focused and extended his personal force-field around the failing reactor core. The action sheared electrical circuits and crushed much of the support and surrounding superstructure. Once fully enveloped, he strained to raise the enveloped material while he gravitated alongside. “How far …” Nathan asked, his voice straining under the duress. “Do I have to get this into the edge of space to jettison it completely out of orbit and Earth’s gravity well?”

“Scanning the mass of the matter you are now raising based on density. Scanning. … Sending the information to your wrist monitor. It is based on my readings. I have added twenty-five percent to the weight calculation and the speed requirement based on the readout. You will need to reach that altitude and speed away from Earth to send the matter away successfully. I have also plotted a course to allow it the best trajectory towards the sun.”

Nathan glanced at the display. He continued to strain as he raised the material. “That exceeds the highest altitude I’ve ever attempted as Captain Delta.”

“Affirmative. By 313 percent. It is within the parameters of the character’s abilities based on the fictional accounting of his powers.”

“Yes,” Nathan said and continued to lift the mass, under pressure. “Nothing like the words ‘fictional accounting of his abilities’ to instill my personal confidence.”

The emergency crews on the ground watched the major portion of the reactor complex lift and leave the site within Nathan’s protective shielding.

“Segmented portions of Captain Delta’s powers are derived from willpower,” Computer Central responded as Nathan continued to lift the radioactive materials and the remnants of the reactor tower and core skyward. “Your supply of willpower, to date, does not have an upper measure.”

Nathan continued upwards for several minutes in silent concentration at his best speed to reach escape velocity.

“Distance from ground?” Nathan called out, and his voice broke.

“Twelve-point-three miles.” Computer Central responded.

“Is the radiation leaking outside the shielding?” Nathan asked, looking around.

“Negative.”

“Storm clouds are forming out of thin air up here.” Nathan’s tone shifted to concern.

“Analyzing … analyzing … conditions are not permissible for the formation of storm clouds at your location.” Computer Central responded.

“What?” Nathan asked, slightly dazed, as he began to slow his acceleration and move lateral and away from his original position directly under the core materials.

Lightning strikes leapt from cloud to cloud, and then exchanged down to Earth.

“The clouds should not exist, given your location and the present conditions,” Computer Central responded.

Suddenly, Nathan grabbed his throat, gasping for air, with his personal shielding gone.

With the total loss of his powers, he plummeted toward Earth, and the reactor materials fell with him.

CHAPTER TWO

Zeus stared into the water in the reflecting pool, and then waved his hand into the water. No images from Earth showed in the pool. He waved his hand again in an attempt to render anything from the prime plane. Only the water showed.

“HADES!” Zeus screamed. Thunder rumbled but muted quickly. Hera appeared surprised at how fast it dissipated, given Zeus’ anger.

Zeus concentrated, and the gods of Mount Olympus appeared one by one around the reflecting pool. They each responded to his call and gathered.

Zeus looked around for Hades, but he hadn’t arrived. “What ploy is afoot? Mount Olympus has lost its connection to the Prime Universe. The hero Nathan is in dire peril at this moment. He was in the middle of a mission of mercy. Whatever power grab this is, by any of you, it must cease immediately.”

Hades finally arrived and approached from the rear of the group of gathered Olympians. “This is no power grab from anyone here in Mount Olympus, The Underworld, or even Tartarus, for that matter. The interference is coming from someone in the Prime Universe, on Earth. I have been trying to track the minor interruptions prior to this major one.”

“And this is the first I am hearing of your discovery?” Zeus yelled. Lighting ripped across the sky, followed by light thunder.

“Notice your powers are partially dissipated? As are mine,” Hades said as he moved about the others. “This anomaly has severed our connection to the Prime Universe, which is the root and funnel to our powers. With the connection severed, the dissipation will continue. There is a low-level minimum that our plane will provide to support us all, but I do not know what that threshold is.”

“This is unprecedented,” Zeus said in a quiet voice. “What mortal could sever the connection?”

“I don’t believe it was just any mortal,” Hades said. “You will need to summon a Watcher; they likely know.”

“They are not bound to this realm, Hades, and you know that. I cannot command them here. We need to re-establish the connection, or Nathan falls to Earth.”

“Earth,” Demeter said with an excited gleam in his eyes. “I can still feel her. Nathan is falling. He is disconnected from us. He is reaching to her.”

“I can feel Nathan’s pull,” Athena said and stepped forward. “His pull; not the realm. How is this possible with the connection to the realm gone?”

Zeus looked over to Hera, then Hades, and then stepped back to the reflecting pool. Still dark, it showed only the surface of the water. One by one, the gods nearest to the pool stepped over to look in and saw only their reflections.

***

The images unfolded on the television screen, and the telemetry shown changed dramatically.

“Analysis,” Computer Central said over the airwaves. “All power levels read zero. Heart rate rising. Blood pressure rising. Calculating rate of descent. Calculating radiation levels. Calculating impact area. Calculating losses.”

“This is what I am talking about,” General Westmartin said and jumped out of his seat. He mopped his forehead with the palm of his hand and snapped the sweat off onto the floor. “There is a failed nuclear reactor plummeting to Earth. This superhero yanked the emergency out of an area that was prepared to deal with the issue and evacuate, and it’s falling to … wherever it’s falling to, where nothing can be done. It’s going to impact and wipe out wherever it hits.”

Congressman Johnson walked over to one of the monitors to get a closer look at the trajectory. He pointed to the screen to an area marked in red. “It’s dropping to the metro Phoenix area. My God … that’s America’s sixth largest city.”

Senator Kelly, who had remained seated at the broadcast roundtable, stepped away to place a phone call.

“We need to send up a nuke,” General Westmartin said. “If we do that, and incinerate the core and the critical fuel—”

“We’ll poison more of the atmosphere with radiation, and affect a larger group of people, than letting the reactor plummet to the ground wherever it’s heading,” Professor Farnsmith said, and then came over from the broadcast desk. “The only hope we had before to avoid a Chernobyl-like incident on American soil was Nathan. And to get out of this now, he remains our only hope.”

“What do you suggest we do, Professor Farnsmith?” General Westmartin asked. “Pray to the Greek gods to grant Nathan back his powers? Whether it was on the ground or falling from the sky, this is a level seven INES nuclear event.”

Professor Farnsmith looked at the General. She then turned away and knelt on the ground, lowered her head, and did as he suggested.

General Westmartin shook his head and turned his attention back to the studio monitors. He focused so he could listen to the telemetry being delivered by Computer Central on the audio channel, and they continued to review the feed information on the display.

“Trajectory confirmed; metro Phoenix area. Two-point-one miles north of city center. City population, census estimate, 1,537,058. City shielding capabilities not fully online. Cascading shielding will be ineffective. Attempting cascade remapping. Available power insufficient. Grid re-alignment at sixty-four percent.”

“What the hell is going on?” Congressman Johnson asked when he came alongside the General.

“That goddamned computer is re-routing electrical power from the grid,” General Westmartin said and pointed to the power map on the screen.

“For what purpose?” Senator Kelly asked, coming over and slipping the cell phone back into his pocket.

“I don’t know, but I remember enough of these readings from my days as a plant operator; if that mess of automated circuit boards continues with the re-route, it’s going to take the cycles per second beyond what the grid can handle. It’ll auto trip the relays in the substations and bring down the whole Western Interconnection at the worst time, in the middle of all of this mess,” Congressman Johnson said.

“It’s trying to draw power.” Senator Kelly ran his fingers through his hair.

“To what end?” General Westmartin asked, again in a loud voice. “Look, it’s calculating maximum draw from the Texas Interconnection.” He pointed to the voltage maps.

Congressman Johnson focused on the readings and the map. “It’s tapping the relays,” he said with wide eyes. “It’s locking out the overrides. It’ll burn the grid right out.”

“How quickly?” General Westmartin asked.

“It depends on the power draw,” Congressman Johnson said.

Then, Nathan’s weak voice came over the communications channel. “Computer Central?”

“Enabled.” Computer Central responded.

“Status?” Nathan asked just as lightning ripped across the sky.

“Trajectory, metro Phoenix area. Two-point-one miles north of city center. City population, census estimate, 1,537,058. City shielding capabilities not fully online. Cascading shielding will be ineffective. Cascade remapping failed. Power amplification insufficient. Discontinued. Grid re-alignment canceled and returned to WECC control.”

“Affirmative,” Nathan said as loudly as he could to compensate for the roar of thunder. “Time to impact?”

“Three minutes, seventeen seconds.” Computer Central responded.

“Maximum threshold for recovery at my full power?” Nathan asked.

“Calculating, using known capabilities of Captain Delta. Calculating versus last known mass of reactor. One minute, fifty-eight seconds to full power, maximum thrust, and shielding recovery.”

“Power status?” Nathan asked.

“Zero,” Computer Central responded.

Nathan closed his eyes and concentrated. The storm ripped around him. Totally unprotected, he could feel the atmospheric changes. The thunder pounded through him. He focused on a single thought and repeated it over and over.

“Zeus, Hera … help me.”

***

“I can hear him,” Athena called out. “He’s calling out to us.”

“He needs the connection,” Artemis said. “Our makeshift contingency on his powers is preventing him from channeling the gifts bestowed on him.”

“Impossible,” Hades yelled. “That is in place only to keep him in check. I insist that this interruption is Earth based. A mortal is mixing into the dark magic realm.”

“It can’t be,” Hermes said. “No mortal Earther has the knowledge capacity for an incursion such as you suggest.”

“The connection is gone, Nathan is powerless, and none of us have a hand in this,” Hades said. “If you have a better theory—”

“Wait,” Hera said, excited. “I can feel a power draw.”

Zeus looked into the still-dark reflecting pool. “The connection is still disrupted. I cannot see into the realm.” Zeus closed his eyes. “He’s pulling from Mother Earth.”

***

Nathan focused. He felt something, but different and unfamiliar than what he was used to. The impact of the storm around him dissipated despite the constant wind and thunder.

“Power readings becoming available,” Computer Central responded. “Readings are erratic and inconsistent with prior output levels.”

Nathan opened his eyes and powered-up his shielding. He turned and quickly slowed his rate of descent. He enveloped the power plant and reversed upward radically. “I don’t know what this connection to my powers is, but I’m not going to complain about it. Maximum velocity,” he said, straining to climb with all the added weight from the nuclear reactor cocooned inside his personal shielding. “Get me back on course to send this thing on the trajectory to the sun.”

“Affirmative. Maintain climb and rate of speed; escape velocity will be reached. Adjust course, fifteen-point-five degrees.”

***

Tears streamed down Adia’s face, and her emotions swung from anxiety and fear when Nathan was falling to hope and excitement as he recovered and began to climb. She locked her view onto the screen and listened intently to the broadcast recap.

“We are unsure of what just transpired,” Mark Daniels said as his image appeared briefly on the screen before the shot went back to the telemetry and long-distance camera visual feed from the Echo Four satellite of Nathan’s current location. “What we’ve been able to piece together from the last five minutes of audio, video, and telemetry is that Nathan had nearly reached the extent of Earth’s gravity well, where assisted thrust wouldn’t have been needed to continue the damaged reactor and radioactive materials off into space on a trajectory that would have eventually taken it into the sun, when he suddenly lost all of his powers.”

Adia closed her eyes as the broadcaster continued his monolog. She focused on Nathan’s well-being. I know you can’t hear me, Adia thought. Even despite those wonderful powers; I wish you could. I know you’ve been gone. I know you felt you needed to go, and I have been upset over it. Please, be well. Please, be successful. Please, be safe. The world needs you. I need you.

***

Nathan reached the ejection point, and further extended his shielding. He slowed himself away from the mass of the power plant and pulled around in a slingshot manner. With as much spinning force as he could muster, he turned one revolution and freed the plant.

“Is it on course?” he asked.

“Affirmative.”

“Chance of falling back into Earth’s gravity well?”

“Infinitesimal; an anomaly would need to be added to any calculations for any course correction back in this direction. Current course and speed take it constantly away from Earth.”

Nathan took one last look back at the shrinking superstructure as it moved out of orbit and away from him into space. Then he turned and rocketed back into the atmosphere. “I need to get back down to Terra Firma. I’m way too high up and another power loss up here will kill me.”

***

The reflecting pool remained dark, but all the gods on Mount Olympus could feel the lessening stress coming from Nathan.

“The connection is still broken, but Nathan appears to have been able to make the connection to Earth to draw powers directly from it,” Athena said, speaking up from the relative silence. “He survived the calamity.”

“Yes,” Poseidon said. “I would like to understand how he was able to accomplish that, seeing as how he shouldn’t have been able to in the first place.”

“Whatever caused the disruption to our connection between the realms may have also disrupted the magic we used to temper his link to his powers,” Hera said and paced. “The pattern stayed locked into our contingency. Despite being able to tap powers from Earth, he couldn’t reach beyond the capabilities, as we’ve tied them to the garments he wears and the fictional heroes they represent.”

“Be that as it may, something is amiss,” Hades said, and then turned and threw his hands into the air. “I can’t believe that, for all my love of chaos, I am the only one concerned about this.”

“You are only concerned because of the potential for power that he could wield were he fully able to harness it.” Aphrodite walked into his path.

“You are correct. You might recall, you might all recall,” Hades said and spun around—his long cloak moving wildly with the motion. “I warned you of this with Ahzeem Ama, but my warnings fell on deaf ears. The mortals are too fragile to wield so much power successfully.”

“Ahzeem Ama was addressed,” Hera said, stepping forward.

“At a huge cost.” Hades pointed his finger. “To all of us. I also warned it was foolish to try it again.”

“SILENCE!” Zeus glared at them all. “Whatever the cause, regarding all matters, we need to get them into the light and addressed. This uncertainty and chaos cannot go unchecked. Ahzeem Ama has been dealt with; he has been destroyed.”

“You are a fool, brother, if you really believe him to be destroyed,” Hades said and folded his arms. “He is certainly not in Elysium, and I know for certain that he isn’t in The Underworld. As much as I can tell, he is not in Tartarus either. We are all intelligent enough to know that nothing is ever created or destroyed any longer. It … exists differently.”

“He has been dealt with and is gone,” Zeus said.

“Once we do re-establish our connections between the realms,” Hades said. “Are we going to bring a Watcher here to shed some light on this?”

“No present Watcher will have insight to what has transpired,” Zeus said.

“Oh, I fully agree, brother,” Hades said. “I meant a former Watcher.” Hades smiled and looked in Demeter’s direction, and then over to Hera.

Zeus sighed. “I would prefer to let a Watcher take their earned rest after their time has passed. However, your argument is impeccable, unfortunately. I will leave for the Elysian Fields to speak with her.”

CHAPTER THREE

Lisa Cooper stood on the corner of Lexington Avenue, looked down the cross street, and then stepped slowly down the block. A quick breeze moved her strawberry-blond hair when she stepped across the street between the traffic and stopped where a small batch of flowers lay.

“Someone leaves them every day,” Adia said, approaching from Third Avenue in her police uniform.

Lisa looked up, startled. “Hi, Adia,” she said and slipped her hands into her pockets.

“I used to think it was Nathan.” Adia pointed to the flowers. “One day, I patrolled through here twice in a short period and, while it’s not beyond his ability to zip in and out of here quickly, that particular day, at that time, an emergency had him tied up. I saw it on the news. So when I saw them placed that day at around that time, I knew it couldn’t be him.” She sniffed a little. “Sort of ruined the sentiment for me. I used to imagine he would come through to leave them behind for Cici, and then check in on me.”

Lisa looked at her pointedly. “I’m sure that if he had been, he would’ve checked in on both of us. He cared for both of us.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Adia said and backed off.

“Look,” Lisa said. “I know things never got off on the right foot with us, and I’m not expecting some sisterhood or anything, but it’s clear he was important to both of us.”

Adia only nodded, and then sniffed again. “It bothers me that somehow it’s someone else. I wanted it to be him.”

“It doesn’t mean at times it wasn’t. It doesn’t mean, because he was here without a trace, that he wasn’t here at all. Maybe he has been.” Lisa stepped out of the direct sunlight. “Sometimes, when I hear thunder and I look around for the lightning, and the times when I never see another flash, I always imagine that it was Nathan flying away and breaking the sound barrier. You know, sonic boom and all.”

“I’m going to tell you something,” Adia said, wiping her hands nervously on her uniform. “And if you ever repeat it, I will shoot you with my service revolver.”

Lisa smiled a little and looked at Adia, meeting her brown eyes directly.

“When Nathan lost his powers yesterday in mid-flight and fell …” Adia took in a deep breath. “I felt scared to death for him. More scared for him at that moment than the incident at Madison Square Park.” She looked down at the ground, and then back up to Lisa. “I don’t know what caused his power loss, and he hasn’t followed up at all today, despite the entire media circus. All I know is that I worried it was all over. And all of a sudden, he’s nowhere to be found.”

Lisa stepped forward and touched Adia. “I was afraid and worried for him too.” She looked at the flowers. “It makes me wonder who else is thinking of Cici, then. When she was alive, only Nathan did. Even I admit that I could have done more. It was only him.” She paused and looked up and down the street to Third Avenue, and then back to Lexington. “I guess for today at least, it will remain a mystery.”

Adia nodded. Lisa could tell she didn’t know what else to say and remembered that she always played things close to the vest. She also recalled that she wasn’t good at small talk.

“Are you on patrol?” Lisa asked. “I thought you worked farther west.”

“I am, but it was a welfare check,” Adia smiled. “I guess Nathan rubbed off on me a little.”

“He had a way of doing that before he was a hero, didn’t he?” Lisa said with a smile.

“Can I ask you something?” Adia folded her arms in front of her chest.

“Of course,” Lisa said.

“Why didn’t you and he ever get together?” Adia asked, then turned slightly to look away and then back. “I mean, he always turned to you first. You clearly could have been with him if you wanted. I know the two of you had feelings for each other; despite that, and always for one reason or another, you never got together.”

Lisa bit her bottom lip and breathed in and out quickly. “I always felt there was something there. And I liked knowing the way we felt about one another. It was always there but also unsaid—if that makes any sense. I enjoyed spending time with him, but I always felt my feelings would never be returned to me. I admit that sometimes I felt like we loved each other more like brother and sister than something romantic. At the same time, the physical attraction to one another was there. When we were together, I could feel the tension. Some nights, I would be there, and I just wanted him to take me.” Lisa stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. That was thoughtless. The two of you were together.”

Adia held up her hand. “Were. That’s the operative word. Like you and what’s his name.”

Lisa smiled. “Yeah … that train wreck.” She sighed. “Seems like such a long time ago.”

“I know.” Adia unfolded her arms and lowered them. “It hasn’t even been a year.”

Lisa looked at Adia for a few seconds. “I miss him too.”

Adia reached for her radio when it squawked. “That’s me. I have to go.”

Lisa nodded. “Take care.”

“You too,” Adia said and took off at a brisk trot toward Lexington.

Lisa looked back to the flowers and knelt down to get a closer look. Adia stopped and called back to her. “Do you really believe that?”

Lisa looked over without standing. Adia asked again, “Do you really believe that Nathan comes through to check up on us? Without stopping to say ‘hi’ or anything?”

“I do. I think he wants to let us know he’s here but he wants to keep us safe, out of danger, and not have us be marked as targets for people that would try to get at him. Right now, you especially with all that Madison Square Park stuff … you’re the one who has the highest visibility.”

Adia nodded, turned, and headed back towards Lexington again. Another shot of warm wind funneled between the buildings, but this time in the opposite direction. Adia paused and looked upwards. “No thunder,” she said softly. “Perhaps a little slower for a better look?”

Lisa felt the same warm burst of air. She closed her eyes and reached down without looking to touch the flowers.

I can almost feel you, Nathan. Almost. We’ll take on the burden and risk. Come see us. You’re wearing the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Not even you can do that alone.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Professor Rebecca Farnsmith stepped over to her desk. Most of the students and faculty had left for the day, and she settled in her desk chair, totally exhausted after her flight in from New York and the broadcast event.

She shifted forward to adjust the screen angle on her laptop and open it up. While the system booted up, she took a brush from her bag and combed her mid-length blond hair.

Once the operating system had started, she logged in and scoured the web to review as many original articles on Nathan and the entire situation from the day before as she could find. While she reviewed them, an instant message popped up.

DIANE J.—Hey—your birthday is late next week, right? Big 39! 40 is next. Actually, you start your 40^th^ year; you just don’t get credit until you finish it. OLD FART! We should do something tomorrow. You free?

Rebecca dismissed the message without responding to it and moved to the next news article. The story had run in the Texas Daily News. The article ran with the events of the previous day along with one of the best photos of Nathan she had even seen. She sat forward in the chair and reached for the screen and touched it lightly.

A chill ran up her arm. She continued to touch the screen and motioned with her right hand up to her lips. Fixated on his image, she moved in her chair when a student came crashing into her room, startling her.

“Professor!” the young girl called out. “It’s Lynn. She’s real sick.”

Rebecca snapped to her feet, closed the lid of the laptop, and followed the student. “Why did you come get me? Why not call 911, if she’s that sick?”

“I wanted to,” she said, hurrying in front of Rebecca. “But she stopped me and said to get you instead. She asked for you by name.”

“Me? Why would she ask for me?” Rebecca asked, struggling to keep up in her high heels.

“I don’t know,” the girl said and threw her hands upward. “She said something weird and asked for you by your full name … I think. Is your middle name Barbara?”

“Yes, why? How would you know that?”

The girl didn’t answer, and the two of them entered the dorms in the adjacent building. Students milled around the hallway amidst a lot of commotion, but it settled when the professor came in.

They entered the room, and the girl she knew as Lynn Packard lay in the bed a sweaty mess. Her face looked deep red and blotchy.

“Leave,” Lynn said, looking at her roommate. “Close the door.”

The girl did so, leaving just the two of them in the room.

“I almost did it, Professor,” she said, struggling to sit up.

“Did what?”

“It was like you suggested.” Lynn reached over to an old and fraying book on the nightstand. “I looked this book up, at the Providence Library. I went there last weekend to get it. There was no record of it, but the old man … he said he was a Watcher … he knew about it. It was just as you suggested in class.” Lynn continued to struggle to stay upright. “The Earth, nature, science, magic, the known universe, and the realms beyond. They are all interconnected.”

Rebecca reached over and went to touch Lynn’s forehead, but Lynn reached out and took her hand with amazing strength for a sickly girl having trouble sitting upright.

“Nathan is part of the equation. But his presence is not unique. There was once another. The Greek gods empowered him, too, to be a savior. Those gods grew jealous. The people loved the hero more than the creators of the hero. They stripped him of his powers and banished him. But his energies remain. They are a part of our world. Anytime someone has déjà vu, or experiences accidental, one-time telekinesis, or precognition, or other things of supernatural nature, they are accidentally tapping that remnant energy. I found the harness. I grabbed onto it yesterday.”

A bolt of fear ran up Rebecca’s spine.

“But I couldn’t hold onto it. It burns even still. Nathan is the bridge.”

“You …” Rebecca said softly. “You caused his power loss yesterday. What did you do?”

“I cut the link,” Lynn said, closing her eyes and leaning back. The sweat poured off her forehead. She continued to hold the professor’s hand. “The Greek gods don’t have their bond here any longer.”

“Nathan nearly lost his life, along with a great many others. I realize you didn’t know what you were doing—”

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” Lynn roared violently. She sat up and tightened her grip on Rebecca’s hand. Dual voices sounded when she next spoke, “Nathan needed to find the secondary conduit to his power connection to the realm. He has it now.” The duality in her voice dissipated, and she became weak again. “I can also connect to the same bridge … to help him … he cannot … do this … on his own.”

“Lynn, you’re sick; we need to get you to the doctor,” Rebecca said. She tried to stand, but Lynn tightened the grip on her hand and wouldn’t release it.

“I made a mistake,” she said, with a slight duality returning to her voice. “I tried to bridge everything fully all at once. That won’t work for us. It is too much for us to manage. We can manage the connection from the elemental plane. Gaea is tied to all of it, but most closely aligned with Earth and nature. And she favors us women.”

Lynn pulled Rebecca back down and stared directly at her face and into her eyes. She tipped her head ever so slightly. Her eyes went totally white, and the normal features all disappeared. Only the whiteness remained. Then the whiteness filled with black. With her free hand, Lynn reached around the back of Rebecca’s neck, held it tight so she couldn’t move, and chanted—first in Latin, and then in Greek. She then kissed Rebecca on the lips, deeply and passionately. With the final remnants of her consciousness, the professor responded and kissed her back.

The room filled with light, and then just as quickly, with complete darkness. A deafening hammer of thunder erupted from the room and radiated outward, flattening everyone in the vicinity to the ground and knocking them unconscious.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Zeus entered the realm of Elysium casually. He spent only a moment before he located who he wanted to speak with.

“Watcher,” he said, still at ease. “Or do you prefer your Earth-bound name of Cici Johnson?”

Cici turned in her elegant and flowing golden dress, which seemed to absorb and amplify the sunlight that streamed through it. “There are a few Watchers here, mighty Zeus. It’s a tad confusing if you only call out, ‘Watcher,’” she said with a warm smile.

“Very well, Cici Johnson. Do you know why I have come here to seek you out?” Zeus asked and stepped toward her.

“Cici would be just fine.” She turned to walk with him. “I would think it has to do with the disruption between the realms. I don’t know things the way I used to when I was on Earth, but we all felt that disruption.” She turned a weary look to Zeus. “Some are far more aware than others.”

“What do you know?” Zeus stopped in his tracks.

“Not as much as you might hope,” she said, resigned. “The Fates see certain things. The Watchers see certain things. We both see the same things differently some of the time. Only they know the path ahead, and it can change suddenly on them. I know that is not entirely clear. What is clear is that neither set of us saw this event. Which is concerning.”

“It has been millennia since a Watcher chose a champion. I do not question your choice in Nathan. It is at a time when it is needed, and he continues to evolve beyond expectation in his role. The Olympians set a mitigation. You worked around that partially. As strange as this may sound, I do not question you for that. I do need to know what you did.”

Cici turned to look at Zeus fully. She took in a deep breath and sighed. “Ahzeem Ama is not as fully and completely banished as you and the Olympians would have hoped,” Cici said and stepped away.

Zeus followed her. “And you knew this? And you said nothing?”

“A Watcher’s duty is to watch. Not to interfere. Not to report back. Not to stem a tide or let one flow. The only exception to that rule is to choose a champion, when the call is heard.” She stopped and turned back to look at Zeus. “I heard the Olympian call and I answered.”

Zeus held up his hand, and then motioned forward with it. “I do not question that. I will reiterate, I need to know what you did in anchoring Nathan’s powers. I need to know what you know of Ahzeem Ama.”

“A Watcher—”

“Your time as a Watcher has passed. You are an everlasting spirit here in the Elysian Fields. You are no longer bound by those rules—at least not while you are in here.”

Cici looked Zeus over. “You are aware, of course, we Watchers still feel strongly about our bonds of duty, even after we are gone.”

“I am fully aware,” Zeus said. “But I know you also realize there is much more at stake here, and certainly where Ahzeem Ama is concerned.”

A small stone bench appeared out of the nothingness when Cici thought of wanting a place to sit. Another did for Zeus when he thought the same. Cici took a seat and spoke, “Very well. I will start where I believe it makes the most sense. Some time ago, a few decades now, while still relatively young, I would hear a disembodied voice call out. At times, I believed it to be my imagination. As I became older and understood my duty and role, and came closer to the existence of all the realms, I could hear the voice more clearly. Ahzeem Ama. He was in the Ethereal Plane, where the Olympians had trapped him. His energies had fully dispersed across the plane as you left him. Over the preceding centuries, he had learned to use the existing ethereal streams to connect himself; as if using the streams like a thread as a conduit to pull his essence together. Each time he managed to localize a segment of himself, his spirit and energies would coalesce. His voice would sound louder to me at that time.”

Cici adjusted herself and her dress, then leaned in toward Zeus. “I wasn’t the only one to hear him. Each Watcher designated after me could also hear him, although less so. Certain followers of the Wicca religion could as well. A few of the Druid followers, too.”

Zeus leaned back and furrowed his brow.

“Once he realized so many could hear him, and that no one would answer him outright with everyone interconnected, he stopped. Many assumed he lost the ability to do so or dissipated across the realm again. I knew better. He continued to work on coalescence and looked for weaker prey; someone that he could better manipulate.”

“We can destroy the fabric of the Ethereal Plane,” Zeus said, once he realized a way to do it. “That should stop him there.”

“It’s too late,” Cici said. “He has moved into another plane. He strung all his fragments together and moved. I presume the Astral Plane, but there’s no way to know where he went from there. Since his life ended, not even the Fates know. He’s escaped their view.”

“If he escapes into the material plane, if he makes it to Earth …”

“There are seven billion souls there. You can be sure that is where he is headed,” Cici said.

“We will have to intervene directly.”

“You will not be able to.” Cici looked away.

“What do you mean?” Zeus asked.

“The last major disruption, from the minor ones that Hades was reviewing, has severed part of the connection between Mount Olympus to the Earth Prime universe. While the connection is somewhat restored, you will find, unlike how you were able to travel here, you will be unable to get there. At least not in a normal fashion.”

Zeus stood, closed his eyes, and focused intently. After a moment, he opened them to realize that Cici had been correct in her assessment.

“Were you and The Fates aware of this future? Is that why you anchored Nathan’s powers to the Earth Prime realm rather than Mount Olympus?” Zeus asked.

“It was mostly something I felt,” Cici said. “And even with that, it wasn’t a normal … observation that a Watcher would have, but almost a cross between what we might normally observe and a disruption between the realms. It offered what I can best describe as a glimpse to a possible outcome. The vision became unclear, fluid, and changing, and I am unsure as to why that was. It was mostly as I stated earlier. Any of the lead Watchers, or The Fates, even myself, none of us saw this event building.”

“Then we will be unable to intervene if the connections to the realms are still not as they were,” Zeus said and moved away from the bench, which dissipated.

“There may be more that can be done to restore the connection, but magic is at play that hasn’t been seen in millennia. I believe it’s never been seen. I believe Ahzeem Ama has found a mortal that has a grasp of both sides—magic and science. I believe he is leveraging both.” Cici rose and walked toward Zeus.

“I guess we shall see how well your champion of choice performs, Cici Johnson,” Zeus said, and then focused on home. “It would seem to me that he is going to be tested far more than Artemis and Athena wanted.” He faded into the ether. “I hope for all our sakes, given the disconnection especially, that he is successful. He is now as much the champion of the Earthers as the Olympians.”

Cici looked skyward as if she could see Zeus return to Mount Olympus. “I have seen the man he has been and who he’s become. The Fates have seen his future. He will never give up, even at the very end.”

CHAPTER SIX

Congressman Patrick Johnson stirred his coffee, then adjusted himself in his corner seat in the diner while his handler sat across from him, in the seat against the wall, reading the newspaper. He held the paper low and slightly off the table.

Jane Parker walked into the diner and sat in the booth directly behind the Congressman. Her two agents walked over to the waitress. One flashed his credentials, and then came over with the freestanding ‘SECTION CLOSED’ sign and placed it at the head of the seat row. He then took a seat right next to the sign, and the second agent sat one booth over.

“Status and update?” Congressman Johnson asked, looking up at his handler.

His handler did not respond but looked up from the newspaper. Jane took a deep breath and said, “We almost had a solid track on him. He’d been headed on a steady and direct course towards Nevada, and then he came to a stop—almost as if taking a break—somewhere in the Rockies in Colorado, in or near Buena Vista. When he left, he continued on his course, and then suddenly turned around and headed back to the east coast.”

“What have you done to track him more successfully?” Congressman Johnson asked and lifted the coffee to take a sip.

“We haven’t changed anything. The signatures we’re tracing and tracking seem to be active all the time. Before, he would disappear, and the tracked signature would be gone all of a sudden, and it would be hours or days until another signature showed up. The signatures seem nearly constant now.” Jane motioned to one of the agents. “Can you have the waitress bring over a pot of coffee, please?”

The agent nodded and got up.

“His powers may be growing or have become harder for him to mask,” Congressman Johnson said.

“We’ve figured out how to map his signatures and, possibly, what designates the change in Nathan’s powers,” Jane said quietly. “Interestingly, one of our information technology specialists came up with the theory. Big comic book geek. She mentioned that every power set belonged to, or seemed to mimic, the powers of a different fictional character from EarthWorld comics. We had her outline the main characters from EarthWorld comics and, basically, as she described it, they were all the members of Omega Alliance International—a worldwide group of twelve superheroes.”

Congressman Johnson raised his hand and wiped his forehead, then ran his hand back into his white hair. “Anything else?”

“It seems that Nathan’s powers have changed,” she said while taking the coffee pot and cup from the returning agent. “Before his entire power loss incident, my I.T. specialist theorized that his powers appeared to activate automatically when Nathan was needed. Effectively, he remained inert and just a regular man at other times. That would explain not only the long gaps of not being able to track him but also why we now suddenly can. With that power loss, something changed in however his powers become present.”

“Does this I.T. person have any ideas on weaknesses?” the Congressman asked, and then sipped his coffee.

“She did, and she was uncomfortable about telling us her theories,” Jane said.

“My heart bleeds over her discomfort.”

Jane shifted uncomfortably in her chair and said, “She indicated that any time Nathan has any of their powers, he would also have their weaknesses. Since these are all outlined in the canon of the comic world, we pulled all that data immediately.”

“Well, that is somewhat helpful, but unless there’s some common weakness or vulnerability, we can’t have a counter strike force carrying everything and the kitchen sink to combat him.” He leaned backward in the seat and rested against the cushioned backing.

“She outlined a theory on his powers, and they correlated with the different signatures we traced earlier,” Jane said, and then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “She believes that his powers are tied to the clothing he wears.”

“Magical clothing. Phooey.” Congressman Johnson sounded exasperated. “Am I going to have one of those weeks where I say, ‘I think I’ve seen everything?’ I mean, come on …”

“I never said it was the clothes and t-shirts he wears that give him the powers,” Jane said, lowering her voice even further. “We’ve analyzed what powers he’s exhibited and when, mapped them to the signatures we have, and tied them to what he had on at the time when that information was available.” Jane leaned forward more and spoke a little louder. “It’s a spot-on assessment. Whatever grants him his extraordinary abilities, clearly has changed since the power loss situation, as they are more available to him on a regular basis. What hasn’t changed are the properties and the design; they remain in lockstep to whatever he’s wearing.”

“And he’s never exhibited having powers in regular clothing? A plain, everyday shirt?” the Congressman asked, turning around in his seat to look backward at Jane.

“Not as near as we’ve been able to tell,” she said, also leaning back and looking around the diner. “It doesn’t mean that hasn’t been the case, but that’s the analysis we have and the theory we’re working from at this time. His powers mimic the clothing he wears, and while before there seemed to be an escalation tied to his powers activating, that is no longer the case; he now has them whenever ‘in costume,’” she said, making air quotes in the air.

Congressman Johnson nodded, and then turned to face forward in his seat. A few moments of silence passed before he spoke to her again, “I take it you saw the legal steps we’re pursuing?”

“It surprised me that you went a legal route at all. I presumed it would be pushing for something … more aggressive. A military response on some level.” Jane finished off her coffee.

“Your tone tells me you don’t approve,” the Congressman said with a wry smile on his face.

Jane stood. “Anything aggressive is going to blow up in your face. Figuratively is one thing; I’m more concerned if it’s literal because of the collateral damage that might be coupled to that.”

“Everyone says Nathan is a hero.” The Congressman chuckled. “Are you saying now that he’d put people in harm’s way?”

Jane moved alongside the table and looked down at the Congressman. “I’m saying he’ll attempt to defend himself. I’m saying that any aggression, at a level that can affect him powered up, is likely to impact innocent bystanders. And Nathan can’t be everywhere at once.” Jane glanced over at the Congressman’s handler then back. “But to address your first point: Yes, he is a hero. The people that dislike and fear him are in the minority. You’re in that minority.”

The Congressman smiled and stood, then took her hand and shook it. “Thank you for the update. Jane. I’ll be in touch.”

Jane smiled and took her leave.

The story continues in “I, Hero: Nathan Returns” available in paperback or in e-book formats.

I Hero: Nathan Returns

I, HERO: PHASES

PROLOGUE

Hephaestus stepped into the chamber and made his way toward Ares. “I make the assumption we are alone in here?”

“We are; is there some concern that you have?” Ares asked turning casually towards him.

“I always have concerns where your schemes are concerned; especially the ones that fly in the face of agreements with Zeus.” Hephaestus said lumbering into a seat near a large table.

Ares walked past him and around to the far side and sat. “You and I both know Ahzeem Ama’s eternal soul is still trapped between the Ethereal and Astral planes of existence. The evil essence that consumed him in the Prime Plane…”

“Is trapped within the mortal called Rebecca Farnsmith,” Hephaestus said, cutting him off. “The Olympians are aware of this. We are also aware that Lachesis finished her measuring work; that thread in now in Atropos’ hands.”

“Yes,” Hades proclaimed softly. “The issue is, the Hero Nathan.”

“Yes. He has become unpredictable to the point where the Watchers are confused and The Fates have been moved, continually, something that has never been seen before. Even The Fates themselves are unsure of what force is re-guiding their hands.” Hephaestus replied.

“What is more likely is what has been seen regarding Rebecca Farnsmith. What we need to do is to be prepared for that end game.” Hades countered. “I do not have enough power alone; are you prepared to commit?”

“I am,” Hephaestus answered. “I will be here and ready when that time comes.”

“Are you also prepared to deal with Zeus?” Ares asked. “The time is near when the choice to close the circle is to be made; it will be the only way to eliminate Nathan.”

“The powers of the gods were meant for the gods; if a champion be needed I was always fine to go along with Zeus because it was never a permanent thing. I made one exception with Ahzeem Ama and we all know how that went. The total strain on the tie to the realms… I know that another will likely end our ability to hold our powers and our existence. The beings in the Prime Universe… as much as I find them interesting… I am not willing to end my existence in favor of allowing theirs,” Hephaestus said.

Ares nodded and said nothing further.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Nathan moved uncomfortably in his seat looking around the room at all of the cabinet members in their formal dress. He was uncomfortable being casually dressed in his Captain Delta polo shirt and black pants but he had learned the hard way once before about scheduled appearances in civilian clothing. In addition to how he was dressed, the formal line of questioning was very pointed and nearly accusatory which kept him from being at ease while he continued to answer their questions.

Nathan looked up quickly at Rebecca who was now in the gallery as she looked on wearily.

“Mister Nathan,” the elderly gentleman speaker continued, “we do understand your comments based on the limited explanation of your powers; we are still unsure of why you are unwilling to try and assist with this effort when your powers are active. Also, in consideration of the nature of Miss Rebecca’s powers, being totally based from the elements and the Earth itself, as you’ve each described, it just doesn’t make any sense for the two of you to decline this.”

“Mister Speaker,” Nathan said, sitting forward and becoming more agitated than just uncomfortable speaking to an older person, “as we’ve both indicated prior, the reason for declining in these efforts isn’t actually because of any limitations of our powers or any lack of desire to try to make a difference here. Certainly when it comes to the elements, Rebecca’s raw power, skills, and ability, far outweigh mine. The issue more is all the variables that come into play, especially when it comes to my instincts.”

“As I indicated prior,” Nathan continued more confidently, “when I travelled up to the Greenland ice sheet to survey the scientific stations on the global melt project, and attempted to do the small scale re-freeze adjustments for the scientific review, my powers cut out. I have learned that for all their peculiarities in how they function, they activate or deactivate, generally, for a specific reason. I often cannot tell why and I can’t circumvent that. I have also learned it is very dangerous to ignore.”

“Yes,” the speaker interjected, “you have indicated prior concerns, but certainly Miss Rebecca was there and could have continued the efforts for the measurements and in consideration of a larger scale response.”

“She and I discussed things the moment my powers deactivated,” Nathan responded, looking quickly over to Rebecca and then back to the panel. “The fact that my powers deactivated was enough for both of us to pause and to take some time to consider things. It might be that we are not meant to intervene in this.”

“I know we on this panel do not have to educate either of you on the criticality of the escalation of the ice melt to the permanent ice packs. Between the inflows to the oceans, raising the sea levels…”

Nathan raised his hand and interrupted. “We can’t answer all the questions. What if this is the opposite side of the pendulum swing in the natural order of things?”

“The greenhouse gasses that man has been emitting into the atmosphere…”

“Are no different than the large volumes in the past emitted by chain eruptions from volcanoes in the ring of fire around the Pacific,” Nathan exclaimed, standing from his chair. “I don’t know if this isn’t the normal cycle, over all the millenniums, from the prior ice age. We might very well be on the far ‘warm’ end of that. What if we take an action now, refreezing the sheets and that brings the next ice age cycle back centuries before it is to occur naturally?”

“The rising oceans now are more of a concern.”

“I don’t disagree; they are slowly rising and we, all of us, can make subtle changes to address that. For emergency response, Rebecca and I will engage. Neither of us is comfortable taking critical actions like turning nature. We don’t know what the full ramifications are.” Nathan said leaning forward on the table.

“So the two of you are willing to allow all the negative impacts of these critical changes? You are not willing to take a proactive response?”

Nathan looked over at Rebecca. She nodded to him.

“The saying is ‘with great power, comes great responsibility.’ We are trying to be responsible. If we make these changes, we don’t know what will happen in the future long after we are gone. What if it does, in fact, return an Ice Age to Earth far earlier than what should occur naturally. Perhaps given the proper millennia, man evolves on their own where they can fully remedy that kind of natural impact. Perhaps they move to the stars and other planets at that time, finding ones that can sustain life. Or, maybe they find ways to retreat unground as a civilization until the natural melt process occurs once again. What if our changes forces that early arrival and it meets the humans at a time when they cannot fully survive it? What if our tinkering today causes a global Ice Age, rather than the partial ones that have occurred prior? What if the short term goals of today cause the future extinction of all life on Earth?”

Nathan paused while a murmur of conversations quietly rumbled through the room. He continued once it settled.

“Rebecca and I have the powers of the gods; those beings that tap the energy from this universal plane. It really should be comforting to all that we are so responsible and cautious with them. That we never were the type of people, from before, that were casual and reckless, and carried that attitude and behavior forward with them today. There would be much bigger problems to face than slowly melting ice sheets would that have been the case.”

“We are not being selfish in declining to help here,” Nathan said standing upright and lightly floating off the ground in Captain Delta style. “I think we are being perfectly selfless.”

Nathan moved away as the chairman gaveled. “This hearing is still in session!”

“Not for us,” Rebecca exclaimed floating in the air alongside Nathan. “We will take our leave of you.”

There was an uproar in the crowd as the chairman continued to try to gavel everyone down.

Nathan lowered himself some so that the public address system could pick up his voice. “I don’t understand the issues here. You act as if we were compelled to be here, as if we were brought here under summons. We were invited; we accepted and were willing to speak. Honestly, we’re being treated as if we are on trial. If someone is an engineer and could construct something to reflect sunlight at the poles, they are not compelled to do so. You could offer them billions and they could still refuse on the very same grounds we did. Somehow, for the two of us, every time we decline something, the accusation is that we are un-American, disingenuous, or just unwilling due to some ulterior motive.”

Nathan looked over at Rebecca and then glanced around the room quickly. He then floated back to the ground and addressed the chair.

“If we decided to take some covert action, on our own and without approval or authority, we would then be charged with being totalitarian. We can’t win. At the end of the day, we might be super powered, but we bleed just the same.” Nathan lowered his voice. “As much as I try to not take it personally, things like this do hurt my pride especially because I am always trying to do the right thing.”

Nathan said nothing more, turned, and simply walked out of the room with all the cameras trained on him.

Rebecca maintained her position hovering slightly higher than where she was prior when Nathan lowered himself to the ground.

The ruckus in the room continued to increase and the chairman was unable to gavel it down.

Rebecca compressed the cool air at the top of the meeting chamber, superheated it, and allowed it to rapidly expand. The ensuing thunderclap silenced the room and brought Nathan back inside.

“Now that there is silence, I will speak,” Rebecca said sternly.

“The chair doesn’t recognize you,” the chairman called out.

“And yet the chair had no problem addressing me prior in the third person. I will have a right to re-address this chamber.”

Nathan flinched.

“You are not recognized; you are out of order!” the chairman said as he banged down his gavel.

Blackness filled Rebecca’s eyes.

Nathan crouched.

“So be it,” she said calmly. Rebecca lowered herself to the ground and her eyes returned to normal. She turned and walked towards Nathan who finally relaxed.

The pair exited the building and went skyward. They flew silently until they reached the lower cloud layer.

“I could sense you, you know,” Rebecca said lightly, looking over to Nathan. “You came back into the room totally prepared to defend everyone in there from me despite a portion of them that do not like or trust you.”

“It’s not my place to judge anyone; people are entitled to feel what they want, up to and including not liking me or the both of us. And yes, you were willing to go overboard… I can sense you too; remember?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said somewhat withdrawn. “The full connection to these powers, with my being the talisman, is an ongoing issue.”

“What else have you been able to research regarding the re-anchoring of your powers?” Nathan asked as the pair continued to climb.

“It appears there is nothing on the subject.” Rebecca said plainly drifting further away from him and then closing the gap casually. “There are no incantations to try. Apparently that is the entire reason the gods began to use talismans when they forged heroes from the mortal coil. When a talisman is imbued as the connection source, and then mystically tied to a human, if there are issues with the control of the powers by the wielder, the gods needed only to destroy the talisman.”

“And given that,” Nathan said leveling off and accelerating, “I presume that prior to that or in instances like this one, where someone leveraged the mystic arts, the only way to address any issues is to…”

“Destroy the wielder,” Rebecca said plainly.

They flew a short distance in silence before Nathan spoke up. “We’ll find another way. There must be something we are missing or something that is unknown to us.”

Rebecca sighed. “There is also the fatigue… In your case, with the bracer as the anchor, the metal ‘fatigues’ from the strain of being a talisman and it can be magically rejuvenated. A human being cannot beyond a certain extent.”

“I thought you said the meditation and the spirit prayers were helping,” Nathan asked.

“They are,” Rebecca responded, “but they have limitations as well. I am going to need to address that problem as well if I cannot break the present binding of the enchantment.”

“Promise you’ll keep me posted on how you feel and on any progress you make?” Nathan asked slowing and rising.

Rebecca rose up in front of him and grasped him. “Of course,” she said, moving in and kissing him deeply.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Lisa Cooper stood near the large conference table while U.S. Senator Mackenzie Kelly made his way into the room with two other people. She quickly moved her strawberry blond hair out of her eyes and stepped away from the table to meet them partway. “Senator,” she said uncomfortably but calmly while extending her hand.

“Miss Cooper,” the Senator responded, shaking her hand, “thank you for making the time to meet with us.”

“I didn’t mind making the time Senator, especially where Nathan is concerned, but to be honest, it didn’t exactly sound like it was an optional request.” Lisa said plainly, looking over to the two others in the Senator’s party.

“I am sorry about that,” he said calmly, “there are some things we need to address and we do need your help I’m afraid.” He turned slightly and gestured. “This is Jane Parker; she is a special attaché for this research.”

Jane extended her hand to Lisa who cautiously shook it. The Senator then moved toward the other person in the party. “This is Mr. Black; he works security operations.”

Lisa looked over the tall man in the suit who hand moved a muscle since walking in the room. “Wonderful; a SEC OPS guy named Mr. Black, dressed in a black suit and wearing sunglasses inside a dimly lit conference room. Yep, I’m not worried at all here.” Lisa replied harshly taking a step back and away. She glanced around the otherwise empty and windowless room and then looked back to the Senator. “With all due respect Senator, let’s cut to the chase. What do you need?”

Jane moved away to a seat and the Senator stepped over to the closest one. “Please sit,” he motioned to her while Mr. Black made his way over to the door and stood next to it.

“I thought all this cloak and dagger stuff went out with the arrest and conviction of Congressman Patrick Johnson this past spring.” Lisa said, still standing on the opposite side of the table. She was somewhat nervous to dress them down but she wanted to remain as confident with them as she could.

“Congressman Patrick Johnson was arrested for his part in the illegal activities he undertook in his personal investigations. Unfortunately, while he was on to discovering some things worthy of deeper investigation, his tactics and procedures were almost all illegal,” the Senator answered plainly.

“So what are you saying?” Lisa said leaning forward and dropping her palms onto the table. “That Nathan is doing something illegal?”

“We’re not sure,” Jane interjected coolly.

“Weren’t you a party to all of this?” Lisa asked curtly. “Now I remember why you looked somewhat familiar to me. I remember someone from your own technology staff outing you. It was all over the news.”

“My offices were involved as part the Congressman’s efforts,” she responded simply, “under my direct supervision and per my execution orders.”

“’Just following orders’… where have I heard that before?” Lisa said sarcastically as she stood upright.

Senator Kelly raised his hands lightly, “Look, we’re not even accusing Nathan of anything…”

“Yet…” Lisa retorted.

The Senator continued from the interruption. “There are concerns within the NSA, especially given some of Rebecca’s inconsistent behavior, that some of what has been uncovered from the Congressman’s prior investigation looks suspicious and warrants further review. All of it points to activity that Nathan has been engaged in.”

“He saved your life,” Lisa said boldly. “He completely outed himself bringing that falling space station you were on to the ground. This is how you repay him? He’s given you and the President the only means of directly contacting him. Adia and I don’t even have that kind of access to him…”

“Lisa,” the Senator continued, “you and Adia are his only peer friends; Officer Jack O’Malley is the only other person that knows him at all on a personal level. We’re going to be talking to the two of them as soon as we can get them in here. We need to get an understanding of what’s going on with him.”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Lisa said as she became upset with the line of questioning.

“We are eventually going to get to that. Our concerns are that if we bring him in here cold, to talk with him, that he might further hide whatever it is he’s doing,” Jane responded.

“Is any of it illegal?” Lisa asked. “Whatever happened to taking someone at their word? Presumed innocent? Nathan has done so much for so many…”

“We are still trying to determine if anything is illegal. Much of what he has been loosely associated with doing has been within private locations,” Jane said, “so it’s been difficult to ascertain everything.”

“Then all you should need is a warrant to investigate formally but I guess you can’t get one because there isn’t enough evidence. And if you can’t go in via the NSA using the remnant powers under the Patriot Act, then I am going to make the assumption that what you have is razor thin at best.” Lisa stated backing away from the table. “I’ll be bluntly honest with you; I have nothing for you because I haven’t seen much of Nathan recently, but even if I had and I knew anything, I wouldn’t divulge it.”

“Even if it was a matter of national security?” Jane asked standing up and moving around the table toward her.

“He wouldn’t jeopardize our nation’s security or any nation’s security for that matter.” Lisa turned to look at Senator Kelly. “You should know that just based on the number of times he’s turned down Presidential requests to undergo efforts on behalf of the government when he thought things were not in the best interests of the people, no matter which people they were.”

“We’re not questioning his integrity…” the Senator began.

“Then what are you questioning?”

Senator Kelly sighed and stood up. He slowly walked over and continued. “We don’t know the full capabilities of his Computer Central and what we believe is the artificial intelligence he’s created and the network he’s built. On top of that, there are concerns regarding Rebecca’s stability and how much she directly influences and affects Nathan.”

“Adia has had more exposure and interaction with the system than I have… I don’t believe it is an artificial intelligence. It responds to input only as much as I can recall.” Lisa said.

“We’ve seen it attempt to compute out a solution on its own with respect to the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant incident. When Nathan lost consciousness and began falling to Earth, Computer Central attempted to independently take action.” Senator Kelly replied taking a small digital recorder out of his pocket. “The studio feed didn’t deliver all of this on broadcast television but the equipment inside the studio captured all of it.”

The Senator pressed ‘play’ and Lisa leaned in to listen.

The first voice on the recorder was the female voice of Computer Central. “Trajectory confirmed; metro Phoenix area. Two-point-one miles north of city center. City population, census estimate, 1,537,058. City shielding capabilities not fully online. Cascading shielding will be ineffective. Attempting cascade remapping. Available power insufficient. Grid re-alignment at sixty-four percent.”

“What the hell is going on?” Congressman Johnson’s voice echoed in from the background on the recording.

“That goddamned computer is re-routing electrical power from the grid,” General Westmartin’s voice boomed and spiked the speaker

“For what purpose?” Senator Kelly looked up upon hearing his own voice come over the device.

“I don’t know, but I remember enough of these readings from my days as a plant operator; if that mess of automated circuit boards continues with the re-route, it’s going to take the cycles per second beyond what the grid can handle. It’ll auto trip the relays in the substations and bring down the whole Western Interconnection at the worst time, in the middle of all of this mess,” Congressman Johnson responded.

“It’s trying to draw power.” Senator Kelly said.

“To what end? Look, it’s calculating maximum draw from the Texas Interconnection…” General Westmartin’s voice began but some of the sound was cut off from the recording.

Congressman Johnson’s voice was heard next. “It’s tapping the relays… locking out the overrides. It’ll burn the grid right out.”

Two more voices were heard but were effectively intelligible on the recording when Nathan’s weak voice came over the recorded communications channel. “Computer Central?”

“Enabled.” Computer Central responded.

“Status?” Nathan said.

Senator Kelly stopped the playback. He pulled a small pad of paper from his inside suit pocket and read aloud from what was written. “City shielding capabilities not fully online. Cascading shielding will be ineffective. Attempting cascade remapping. Available power insufficient. Grid re-alignment at sixty-four percent.” He looked up from the pad. “Computer Central took independent action, without direction, and as much as we can tell, without consideration of what the actions might have done to the entire electrical grid.”

“I don’t know much about electrical grids and cascading failures but I think restarting power plants and putting power back on the grid is an easier aftermath to deal with than the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant hitting the ground in the metro Phoenix area and likely killing a sizeable portion of one point five million people,” Lisa said defensively.

“It’s more than just the independent action,” Jane responded. “How did Computer Central gain access to those electrical systems? And the communication of cascading shielding being ineffective… we’re not even sure what that means.” Lisa stared at her blankly without responding and Jane continued. “An analysis was done at the power amplification on the grid; whatever Computer Central was trying to do, it was drawing power to the top of the PrimaSync Tower in the center of Phoenix. When it couldn’t complete its task it discharged the power across the grid for use.”

Jane paused for a moment and looked over at the Senator. He nodded and she continued. “We attempted to gain access to the roof of that building from the building manager. The doors to the roof were sealed. We tried to observe from other floors without success. The materials used in the external glass are completely one way and we believe the interior may have been replaced with iron or lead as we cannot even push wavelength devices inside. We even went old school trying to penetrate from lower floors; all burrowing devices seize when trying to cut through the separator level. It’s like the hardest material on Earth is shielding the divisional space. When we asked the manager who rented the upper floors and the roof, he gave us a corporation that is an overseas shell company. The company has all bogus information and there is no point of contact. The account that was used to pay the lease has been closed, but the lease there has been prepaid for thirty six months. When we tried to bring agents onto the roof from a helicopter descent, the aircraft systems were hit with a directed electromagnetic pulse which disabled the aircraft. The pilot was barely able to regain control of the aircraft and maneuver it away to safety.”

“Well,” Lisa said, “whoever is on those floors definitely likes their privacy.”

“A directed electromagnetic pulse is an attack,” the Senator said to her.

“On an inbound aircraft to private property, that sounds more like defense to me,” she said curtly. “Regardless, what does that have to do with Nathan?”

“Hours after that particular event, he was seen landing safely on the roof and entering the upper floors. He clearly has access to the space and whatever equipment is up there.” Jane said to her.

Lisa moved away from the table. “It sounds to me like you’re going to need to use a direct approach with Nathan and ask him what he’s doing there; as I mentioned prior, I haven’t spoken with him in some time and you have more direct access to him than I do.”

“Plausible deniability?” Jane said to her.

Lisa stopped short and turned around. “As I see it now? Genuine concern for my overall well-being. Seems to me if I actually had any information and simply refused to divulge it, I would have been retained… and it would have been extracted by some means.”

“That we don’t do,” Jane defended.

“Really?” Lisa said. “So what happened to your information technology specialist that outed you?”

“I don’t know,” Jane said looking directly at her. “She quit, walked out of my office that day, and I’ve never heard from her again.”

“Makes me wonder if anyone has,” Lisa said turning away to continue out the door.

Mr. Black began to step to block the doorway but the Senator waived him off.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Rebecca sat in the open meadow, her legs crossed, and the westerly wind blowing at her back, moving her hair forward.

She tipped her head back, opened her eyes and looked skyward into the deep blue, and steadied her breathing. She extended her arms outward on each side of her and let the warm sunshine radiate on her.

She began to chant the verses she memorized and slowly closed and opened her eyes rhythmically.

Her head filled with images and she continued to focus on the words she wanted to repeat.

There were different and random scenes. Lightning, thunder and rain. Children playing in a schoolyard. Nathan flying toward her. An early morning sunrise. Lisa looking out of a passenger window of an airplane. Adia standing in the street with her gun drawn. The earth below her shrinking from view. An outstretched hand.

Eventually the images overloaded her ability to recite the passages and her body slowly raised off the ground. As it did, she allowed her legs to unfold and drop. As her feet dangled below, her hands and arms remained outstretched on either side of her.

Her lips quivered and her eyes turned completely white. The wind became brisker and the cirrocumulus clouds began to sheer in the sky.

“Hestia,” Rebecca whispered, “why have you forsaken me? You promised me a child if I continued forward… I have done the best I can to obey. In all the images I am seeing, there is no child of my own. I once believed your words of a daughter. I have been loyal to you; I have been trying to stem the consumption of my being… the powers are consuming me. I will not survive much longer and the time to bear the child needs to…”

Rebecca’s body began to stiffen and become rigid. Her back began to arch and bend backwards. The clouds began to transform to thickening nimbostratus and filled the entire sky.

“Rebecca… can you read me?” Nathan asked over the earpiece. “A storm is forming in your area; it doesn’t seem to be naturally occurring.”

Rebecca did not trigger the response mechanism and ignored Nathan’s call. Stronger and stronger winds formed behind her and blew forward. Rebecca arched further. Her eyes became black. Her face was stoic.

“I must maintain this vessel,” Rebecca spoke aloud to the open field, her voice radiated in parallel with a deeper female voice. “Gaea’s connection has been broken; she cannot tame this creature any further and the woman will be unable to further resist. The vessel is weakening and will need to be replenished and fortified.”

“Computer Central, can you confirm the signal is transmitting?” Nathan said over the communications channel.

“Affirmative. Rebecca is receiving; she is either unwilling to respond or she is unable to respond.”

Pain washed over Rebecca’s face and she began to struggle with her left hand to reach up to the device to respond. Tears began to drop from her blackened eyes.

“The vessel continues to fight,” Rebecca spoke in a voice that echoed its continued duality.

“Rebecca, we’ve got increased atmospheric degradation there,” Nathan squawked over the communications channel again. “The barometric pressure is dropping rapidly. Can you diffuse it? I can’t get there in time as Weather Master and it’s not even what I am wearing… Captain Delta is the only one that can reach your location fast enough but his powers won’t allow him to dissipate a storm.”

“New telemetry,” Computer Central communicated over the channel. “Seismic activity now detected in the Ramapo Fault system.”

“Location and strength?” Nathan asked.

“Near the junctions of the Hopewell and Chalfont faults; initial reading, magnitude 5.5,” Computer Central responded.

“I’m on my way,” Nathan said dropping the communication.

***

Jane Parker raced into the command center. “Status!” She barked. “And get me Senator Kelly on the line.” She looked about the room as a flurry of activity was taking place.

One of the controllers ran up alongside her. “We were monitoring Rebecca; she was in a mainly rural and unpopulated area near the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border. She had been still for a short period of time when all of the sudden storm clouds began to form.” He pointed to the right side, room sized display that showed the eastern seaboard and was zoomed in on the mid-Atlantic states. “We are now receiving reports of seismic activity there…”

“On mainly dormant fault lines? At the same time atmospheric disturbances formed out of nothing? Way too coincidental for me.”

Another tech ran up to Jane with a phone. “We have Senator Kelly for you.”

“Senator?” she asked taking the phone. “Now would be a good time to use your hotline to Nathan to get us as much information as he’s willing to share,” she said looking over at the red streak on the map on the left side, room sized display making its way across the continental United States.

“Am I reading this telemetry correctly?” he asked over the phone. “There is a mesocyclone in that area with a supercell storm and we are also having a magnitude 5.5 earthquake?”

“That information is all corroborated,” Jane responded, flipping the phone to load speaker mode. “Rebecca has been in that area since before the incidents began.”

“I’ll place the call,” Senator Kelly responded. “Hopefully Nathan can explain what’s going on and take some corrective action.”

“He’s en route and should be there inside of twenty minutes. We starting reading his Captain Delta signature over southern Colorado and he’s moving faster than Mach 10,” Jane responded.

***

Senator Kelly dropped the call with Jane while walking over to grab the retrofitted smartphone that Nathan had given to him. He powered it on and set it up to reach Nathan’s encrypted communication frequency.

“Nathan,” he said, walking back over to his desk.

“Senator Kelly,” Nathan responded. “I presume the call is for the east coast emergency? I am on my way.”

“Nathan, Rebecca is right there; why doesn’t she dissipate the storm? Does she have the ability to deaden the earthquake effects?” he asked.

“I’ve tried to reach her; she isn’t responding,” Nathan responded somewhat frantic.

“I don’t need to tell you exactly how bad this looks for the two of you.”

“I understand Senator,” Nathan answered quickly. “My first concerns are for Rebecca and the people in harm’s way. I can deal with the court of public opinion at a later time after the emergency is resolved.”

“Of course Nathan; I would want to work with the President and send you resources to assist if you need them,” the Senator responded.

“I’m not even sure what we’re dealing with here Senator, so I have no way to even assess yet what I might need to even ask for the help. Regardless, thank you.” Nathan said, straining in an attempt to increase speed.

“Of course Nathan. Let me drop off so you can focus.” The Senator said closing the communications channel and walking away from his desk to lock his office door. He opened the door a crack and flipped the deadbolt. The inner office staff looked over at the action. The Senator then flipped the deadbolt again and pulled the door closed and secured it.

The Senator slipped the phone into his jacket pocket, and turned away from the door to return to his desk. He took a seat and opened the top left drawer of the desk. He reached inside into the back and released a lever that allowed him to remove the entire drawer. Senator Kelly then reached through to another small level that released the entire top and bottom cabinet mechanism, which allow it to part on the hinge like a book.

The Senator then dropped off the chair to reach into a secret compartment and pull out a lock box. He up righted himself and placed it on his desk.

On the top of the metal box was a number mechanism; he entered the six digits which allowed the top to slide open three inches and expose a fingerprint reader. He placed his thumb on it, which allowed the box to open. Inside the box was a small electronic device, which he removed.

He walked away from the desk with it and over to his bookcase on the wall. He kneeled down, pressed in a four-digit pin on the pad of the small device, and then held down the green button next to the top left of the second shelf. A slight sliding noised sounded. He then entered a different digit pin and held down the green button next to the top right of the same shelf. Another sliding noise sounded. He repeated this twice more on the lower sides of the shelf.

He moved over to the left side of the shelf and pulled it and like a door swinging open, a low crawl space was exposed. The Senator made his way inside and pulled the shelf door closed behind him.

Once inside, his motions turned on the lights in the hidden six by six room. He stepped around the small desk in the room and sat in the chair.

He lifted the top of the small laptop and then pulled the removable plastic head from the small pad device he used to unlock the bookcase shelves, exposing a USB-like plug with a unique eight pin head. He inserted it into the special jack on the laptop, which allowed it to power up and boot into a custom operating system.

When the terminal was fully online, he verified that the secured connection was made and then typed a message with the keyboard.

‘Has Project Phases been initiated?’

The senator sat for a long period of time simply staring at the blinking cursor before the system returned a response from the remote recipient. ‘Negative’ was the response received on the screen.

‘The current cycle is almost identical to what was discussed for Phases,’ the Senator typed.

There was a much shorter pause for the follow up. ‘With the telemetry we reviewed from our satellites, both the sudden storm and now the seismic activity, we assumed the Americans had begun without us, despite the agreement to discuss before. We are happy this was in error. We are enjoying the cooperative efforts and we were concerned about the possible jeopardy of them.’

The Senator leaned in and responded, ‘I assure you, we did not take a proactive action. The circumstances, as they are unfolding right now, are one hundred percent coincidental. Despite the scripted scenario and options, this is unfolding naturally.’

Senator Kelly leaned back in his chair and awaited a response. ‘Nathan has helped both our countries a great deal. Our concern, unlike elements in your government, have never been with him. They are with the woman who seems unstable and partially unable to control her abilities.’

Senator Kelly typed in his response. ‘Nathan is on his way now.’

The terminal chirped back a response and the Senator reviewed it. ‘We are tracking him thanks to the signatures you shared. He has increased his speed even further and is approaching Mach 13. He should be in the vicinity in minutes.’

The Senator had no immediate response. While he mulled one over, another message arrived. ‘Our analysts have hypothesized that the woman, either inadvertently or intentionally, is causing both events. You know Nathan personally; do you believe he will take all and any corrective actions?’

The Senator considered his response and then leaned forward to enter it. ‘I would like to believe that Nathan would do whatever needs to be done, at whatever cost. That’s said, we have to have all contingencies covered.’

The response that returned was, ‘We agree. Thus the need for this join effort.”

The Senator was about to enter a response when another message was received. ‘Do you confirm, despite the coincidental nature of the present incident, that we are no longer ‘station keeping’ but now at Phase Four?’

The Senator read the message and the screen flashed off and quickly returned. ‘Was that an interruption in the communications? Has the connection been compromised?’

‘Impossible; the connection is still live and fully secured. This is a dedicated line and a block cipher using large block size of 8192 bits. There is a 160-bit key, which is used to generate two large sets of subkeys using an array of 2048 32-bit numbers. The encryption algorithm makes four passes over the data, each time applying one of four transformations adapted from MD5. We change the key each day even when the terminals are otherwise dormant; there is nothing more secure on the planet.’

The Senator read the passage a few times to take it all in until another message came in. ‘Are we at Phase Four? I believe we are, but we both need to agree to make the level.’

The Senator responded simply ‘Yes’.

‘I must disconnect for now; we must convene to discuss the activity on your east coast. I hope we do not get to Phase One.’

‘God help us,’ the Senator responded.

‘I do not know if that would be enough,’ was the reply.

The Senator pulled the device from the laptop and it immediately lost power. He sat back in the chair and sighed.

***

Nathan expended as much power and energy as he could. He hit the communicator to transmit.

“Computer Central?”

“Enabled,” the female voice of the computer responded.

“Have you been able to reach Rebecca?” he asked wearily.

“I have broadcast on all frequencies at fifteen second intervals. There has been no response.”

“What is my ETA?” Nathan asked as he met the expanding storm head on and dropped lower in the atmosphere.

“You will be at ground zero, her location, in fifteen seconds. Decrease speed.”

“Affirmative,” Nathan replied.

“There are now two F2 tornados forming adjacent to her location. I have registered a 4.3 magnitude aftershock.”

“What’s her status?” Nathan asked.

“Negative response.”

Nathan expanded a forward shield of energy and sheered the first tornado’s rotation. He slowed and came about as it began to reform. He expanded his shielding further and went closer to the point where the funnel cloud formed and disrupted as much airflow as he could. He did what he could to counter the rising and falling air so that the funnel could not reform.

“The cyclonic activity in that cell is neutralized,” Computer Central said.

Nathan broke away and came about. He viewed the other tornado as non-threatening as it was in an open field. He began to approach Rebecca who was floating in the air less than fifty feet off the ground near a rural road.

“How long has that news crew been there?” Nathan asked Computer Central, noticing a microwave broadcast van.

“Unknown; their live broadcast has been active for three minutes, seventeen seconds.”

“Wonderful,” Nathan said. He telekinetically flung debris at the van to take out the antenna, trying to make it appear to be random materials swept up and thrown about by the winds from the storm. “Did that do it?” Nathan asked.

“The broadcast is no longer being received,” Computer Central responded.

Nathan turned and continued to approach Rebecca. Her entire body was still bent backward, her arms were extended outward and her feet were dangling below her.

“Rebecca! Stop!” Nathan yelled approaching her.

Rebecca suddenly snapped rigid and upright.

Nathan was taken by surprise to see the full blackness of her eyes.

“What the…” Nathan began to say before lightning poured down from the clouds and multiple strikes hit him.

Nathan screamed as he was driven to the ground. He struggled to increase his personal shields while gravity increased below him exponentially.

“Rebecca…” he said struggling. “You have to stop.” He looked up at her as she slowly floated over. The ground below him shook and began to sink under its own weight.

A sinkhole formed and the earth dropped rapidly. Nathan was being crushed by his own weight and then the weight of the dirt and rocks that caved in as the walls of the sinkhole collapsed.

Lightning strike after lightning strike rained down from the sky and pummeled the center of the sinkhole.

There was a pause in the lightning strikes and the earth settled in the center. Nathan had disappeared from view.

Torrential amounts of water and hail poured down from the heavens and the storm compressed into a smaller and smaller area of the field.

The gravity well increased and the ground sunk further, filling with dirt, debris, and hail the size of softballs.

Rebecca floated overhead and the torrential weather parted around her. A small smile moved across her face and her eyes, black as the darkest night, peered down into the sinkhole.

The ground rumbled and Rebecca’s body became tense. A pulse wave of energy ripped out of the sinkhole and radiated outward. Rebecca was impacted at point blank range and thrown back.

The violent weather broke suddenly and Nathan emerged from the sinkhole through the mud and ice. The remaining falling rain began to clear some of the mud from him.

Nathan quickly looked for the other funnel cloud; it was fracturing and dissipating over the ridge.

He saw Rebecca on the ground and flew over. He tried to repower his communications device but the unit was too damaged.

Captain Delta’s power coursed over Nathan as he quickly recovered from the exchange while he cautiously knelt down next to Rebecca. He reached over to lift her eyelid but Rebecca started to stir. Instinctively, Nathan stood and backed off; his fists radiated raw white power.

Rebecca’s eyes fluttered open and they were normal. She began to sit up. “What happened?” she asked.

“You had another blackout,” Nathan said powering down. “As near as I can tell you were meditating out here and blacked out. The powers overtook you. This is on the boarder of a split personality or something. We can’t do this on our own anymore. We are going to have to consult with…”

“Who? Doctors? What are they going to be able to help with?” Rebecca asked angrily. “They know nothing about the mystical arts at all, let alone the ancient ones I used to lock the powers of the Primer Universe to me.”

“Likely not,” Nathan said stepping forward to embrace her. “However, if there’s anything neurological going on, they might be able to diagnose that. At least information like that might help you research whatever you might need for yourself.”

“I am fairly certain I know what is the matter as we discussed before,” she said softly and turning away. “My body, as the talisman, cannot handle all the strain of what is going on. It’s breaking down and the mind is an organ; like any other organ, when there’s an issue there…”

“Look,” Nathan said in a comforting tone, “I’m not about to give up that easy. There has to be something we overlooked or something to try. You once told me that even with all the elements and the correct incantations, the magic involved simply doesn’t bind the powers to anyone. There has to be a marriage of body, mind, and spirit you told me.”

“This is true,” she responded softly.

“Then you are one of the few that these powers could have bound to; with that, with an issue like this, there has to be a way to address things.” Nathan looked around as the weather fully broke. “Look, stay here. I’ll scout around and see if anyone needs help. Don’t leverage your powers and don’t leave unless you’re threatened by someone or something. Even then, don’t engage. Just fly away.” Nathan smiled and touched her face. “It’ll work out; it has to… I love you.”

“I love you too,” she responded, raising her hand to touch his.

Nathan turned to move away and she latched on to his hand. “How bad was it?” she asked plainly.

Nathan looked back at the sinkhole and then turned to her. “Bad.” He responded without hesitation. We’ll address it; a press conference or something. In the meantime, Bucksville is the closest incorporated town; let me go so I can see if they need any help. I don’t know the full extent of the storm or the earthquake from here. You were my first stop.”

Rebecca nodded and Nathan flew away. She watched him disappear over the hilltop.

Rebecca began to walk over to the sinkhole. The ground underneath her was unstable and it crumbled and rolled down the embankment. She instinctively floated when the ground gave way. She surveyed around, looking at the materials thrown out of the sinkhole when Nathan blasted his way out.

Voices sounded from behind her. She instinctively drew power from mother Earth and moved over the sinkhole, as it offered her the protection from a ground approach since the ground was unstable and collapsing into it.

She watched the news crew running ahead of the broadcast van. Anxiety filled her mind, She did her best to even out her breath but she felt control slipping away. She continued to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth by conscious effort.

The van settled, the camera operator poised himself, and the woman reporter called out. “Miss Rebecca,” she yelled loudly to her. “Are we rolling? The microwave is shot so we need to bring this back to upload for broadcast” she asked the camera operator softly. He nodded to her. “Miss Rebecca,” she called out again. “Can you make a statement about what’s occurred here today?”

Rebecca didn’t respond and continued to stay composed.

The reporter called back out. “Miss Rebecca, there’s a growing segment of populace that believes we shouldn’t allow you and Nathan to run…”

“Shouldn’t allow?” Rebecca asked plainly, turning midair and hovering closer to them and the vehicle. “Who are you to allow or not allow?” Rebecca’s voice grew louder and a slight duality entered her words. Clouds thickened and there was a distant rumble of thunder, but she quickly released the cloud cover so they would naturally dissipate. “Nathan and I have the powers of the gods. We are benevolent but we could easily rule.” Rebecca continued and the darkness returned; her eyes became completely black. “We rush from one corner of the world to another whenever there’s an issue, to address problems that are often the result of man. When something doesn’t go perfectly for us, fixing your mess, the criticisms follow.”

The camera operator stepped to the side slightly and panned left to take in the entire sinkhole and then back up to Rebecca.

“Miss Rebecca,” the reporter continued, “there have been a number of situations where the direct result of you using your powers has caused almost as much damage as the existing emergency. Care to comment?”

“In the end did we make a difference?” Rebecca asked lowering herself slightly. “Were Nathan and I able to save precious lives?”

“Yes, but in the case that I am thinking of, the Bridgehaven rescue, you caused nearly a million dollars’ worth of infrastructure damage.”

“And Nathan helped with the repairs; he spent weeks with the transportation crews during their work and rotational cycle to effect all the repairs.” Rebecca’s voice grew louder. “Repairs that would have otherwise taken twice as long.”

“Repairs that were needed because of a miscalculation, by you personally, on the structural integrity of the supports. A later review…”

“A later review?” Rebecca asked. “It must be nice to have the luxury of ‘after the fact’ to point out someone else’s mistakes as they take action to save lives.”

“This is understood,” the young reporter quickly jumped back in, the warm wind beginning to whip her mid length black hair around. “The original question was regarding the growing segment of populace that believes we shouldn’t allow you and Nathan to run rampant using your powers; they are lobbying lawmakers to…”

“There you go again with the permit and deny,” Rebecca said plainly. “Who do you believe you are? Your lawmakers can create all the laws you want; who will enforce them onto us?” Rebecca climbed a few feet higher and raised her arms. The ground shook and moved beneath them. “Who will make us cease and desist?” Rebecca asked.

Rebecca looked skyward to make sure the clouds were not forming. The ground rumbled more and the area next to the nearby sinkhole dropped inside.

“We are gods!” she yelled down to them, her voice echoing in duality. “You are nothing!” Rebecca threw her hands up and over her head and then pulled them down in front of herself as if she was performing a chin up exercise.

The Earth lurched beneath the camera operator, the driver of the van, and the reporter; it then dropped out completely from under them into its own sinkhole. The ground and rubble noise overcame their screams until all evidence of them was gone beneath the ground and the two sinkholes merged as one larger one.

Rebecca studied the ground and surveyed her work for several minutes. Her lips twitched lightly and she said “Less than nothing,” to the wilderness around her.

Looking away, she guided herself up and away into the western sky.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Lisa stood outside of Bar 515 and looked down at her watch.

“You’re never going to see me coming if you’re looking at your watch,” Adia Santiago called out while making her way over. “By the way,” she asked smiling, “who the hell wears a watch anymore?”

Lisa looked over and smiled a little.

“You look a little tired,” Adia said as the pair turned and walked into the tavern.

“I’ll try not to take that too personally,” Lisa said casually.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Adia responded.

“I know,” Lisa said, placing her purse on the short ledge near the windows to Third Avenue. “To be honest, I am tired. I’ve been reviewing all the recent news articles that you passed along regarding Rebecca.”

“At least the past few weeks have been quiet,” Adia said. “The most recent outburst was just that; the outburst at the Greenland Ice Melt public hearing. She’s been really quiet for the most part and there’s been no real incidents.” Adia looked away and at the beer taps. “It almost makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be doing this. Maybe she… they, found a way to deal with things.”

“Look,” Lisa said quietly, “we’ve both seen this before. It cycles with her. She unravels and then reels it back in. Sooner or later she is going to unravel too much and then it’s Nathan that is going to pay the price.”

“What do you mean?” Adia asked.

“He’s going to either be the one to deal with her fallout and any personal guilt he associates with that, or worse, he is going to be the only one that can disarm her and he is going to be torn doing it.”

Adia nodded slightly. “What else is keeping you up?”

“Well to be honest, the whole conversation with Senator Kelly and that Jane Parker isn’t making for good sleeping either,” Lisa said.

“I am still waiting for them to talk to me,” Adia said to her and then lowered her voice. “They spoke to Jack; he was so pissed at them.”

“Do you know what the details were?” Lisa asked.

“They attempted all the same fact finding details with him from what you told me they did with you.” Adia responded. “Jack was far less courteous with them.”

“I wasn’t all that cooperative,” Lisa defended.

“Whatever you were, I can assure you, Jack was less cooperative.”

There was a slight pause in the conversation and then Adia continued. “You’ve been researching things; what do you have?”

“Since I found those book references to the Greek gods and the ramifications of their ties to this plane of existence, which have all been written off as legend, I haven’t been able to put them down. There are so many things that explain Nathan’s powers… I shouldn’t say ‘explain’, not really. It’s more like suggestive or implied, but given what we’ve seen with Nathan and now Rebecca, it does explain a great deal.”

The waitress came over with two beers and menus. The girls put them down to glance at them and then Adia continued. “Hit me with it; what have you got?” she asked, with her Puerto Rican accent becoming slightly more pronounced.

“There’s so much; I don’t know where to start,” Lisa said taking a drink from her beer and glancing down at the menu. “I guess I can start with the lore. I guess that sounds better than ‘legend’ because the more I read, the more I believe the Greek gods actually walked among men thousands of years ago.”

Lisa stopped when the waitress came back over and they each placed an order for something to eat.

Adia pulled her hair tighter in the pony tail and got a little more comfortable in the seat. “I did mention to you what happened when I traveled back to Wallingford, Connecticut with Nathan, right?”

“Yes, sometime after you got back and we began to talk a little. Can you refresh my memory?” Lisa asked.

“We were there, in Wallingford, and Nathan was drawn to the Center Street Cemetery. He was wearing a shirt with The Reaper on it. I wasn’t fully versed on that superhero and so Nathan explained it to me. The Reaper can see, generally, recently departed spirits. He has the ability to commune with them but it is simple conversation and generally they can only answer questions. There are some they are unable to answer and in that situation they are otherwise mute. Nathan explained that the spirits are a partial shell of the person who left this plane of existence; the soul of the person has moved on, but the essence is still partly here, accessible to The Reaper’s powers.”

Lisa set her beer down. “You ran into the spirit of Nathan’s father and Cici’s as well.”

“Right,” Adia continued. “The spirits that The Reaper generally ran into were only available to him and his power and influence because of some earthly, physical plane, unfinished business that needs to be addressed, or something that needs to be communicated.”

“And Nathan’s father needed to pass along that Nathan would be placed in the path of danger.” Lisa said quickly.

“That’s correct. Despite the perils that Nathan had to face, the spirit of Brian Devron wanted Nathan to know that he was confident that he would rise to the occasion.”

Adia mulled over what to discuss next and in that short period the waitress came back with their orders.

“Did I ever tell you that the spirit of Cici was surprised to see me there?” Adia asked.

“No,” Lisa responded putting ketchup on her French fries.

“I remember her saying, ‘Adia Santiago; I am surprised. Little surprises me.’ Then I asked her how I had surprised her. She explained that she was a Watcher; born into each generation and charged to observe the ebb and flow of mankind. One of the things that really stuck out with me was the whole ‘we are meant to witness and not interfere, with the exception of when The Fates or the gods demand; neither of who wants to directly meddle in the affairs or free will of mankind.’ I found that so interesting considering the amount of “minor” interference they seem to get into,” Adia said, throwing her fingers in the air to make air quotes. “Then she said ‘while I am a Watcher and tend to see much, I do not see everything. That, and the free will of mankind tends to make for gray areas of what might be, so all things are not always clear.” Adia looked up at Lisa. “That’s when she said ‘I did not see Nathan on a path with you. I saw him on a path with Lisa Cooper.’”

“She said that?” Lisa said, eating a couple of French Fries.

Adia only nodded and ate some of her food.

“Did she say anything else?” Lisa asked.

“She explained a little more about her responsibilities as a Watcher. That was to keep the talisman of the gods. She said ‘in times gone by, when the pendulum swung too far, or too often, or too radically, the gods would restore the balance by calling on a hero.”

“Which gods?” Lisa asked.

“Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus.” Adia recited.

“Not the king and queen of the gods? No Zeus or Hera?” Lisa asked.

“I found that strange too. It was almost as if something was missing. The ten I listed were the etchings Nathan found on the talisman, that bracelet… bracer thing on his wrist.” Adia paused for a little more food and looked up at the ceiling to think it through more. “Cici said the Greek gods’ powers are at their height on Mount Olympus, but she also mentioned that when mankind worshiped them and prayed to them, the gods could very successfully channel their energies from Mount Olympus through the Earth for their use in this realm when they were here.”

“Oooo,” Lisa said through the food in her mouth. “That reminds me… something I read when I was researching all of this. Go ahead and finish.”

Adia nodded and continued. “Cici talked about how the Greek gods are powerful beings from another realm of existence. When they spent their time here, from a time in history before the one true God became known, they were worshiped as gods, and that allowed them to exist the way they did.” Adia paused and took a sip of her beer. “Once the son of God began to walk the Earth, more and more people cast aside the false gods. It took many centuries, but eventually their time and their worship by the people, ended. Despite being cast aside, these beings still loved and cared for humanity. Because the people no longer worshiped them, their ability to funnel and channel their extraordinary powers in this plane of existence waned and they retreated to Mount Olympus.”

Lisa grabbed for her drink. “So they are limited in what they could do today, were they to ‘show up’.”

“So to speak,” Adia said.

“I will tell you,” Lisa said, “from everything I looked over; they would be super powerful if they were worshiped today. Apparently, a part of the tie to their powers here in this realm is the life force of each individual that worships them. Not really ‘sacrifice’, but each person that ‘prays’ to a given Greek god, grants that god the ability to harness their life-force and add it to their own. This is why direct sacrifices were powerful gifts to them; if someone willingly gave their soul, even if it was in battle to protect a temple let’s say, that god would receive the remainder of their life-force.”

“That might explain their longevity; it only takes twenty sacrifices in war or at the altar to add one thousand years to their life span, assuming fifty years per. I am sure in those days there were many.” Adia said.

“There is that and what I was alluding to you before,” Lisa said eating more off her plate. “Time moved more slowly for them in their plane of existence.”

“So days here are like minutes there?” Lisa asked.

“There’s nothing definitive in the texts but it seemed to me that it was more like hours to minutes, but not one to one. Maybe like an extended slow motion?” Lisa said unsurely.

“Wow,” Lisa said leaning forward. “Can you imagine how powerful they could be today? There are seven billion people on the planet… if a segment started to worship them today…”

“That’s another thing,” Lisa said siting up, “apparently, even though they appear to be youthful because of what they received from the sacrifices made in their name, they are actually very old. Their age affects them. Apparently, when they come to Earth, and it’s a reason they do not so much anymore, they begin to age rapidly, although what it actually is, is a rapid consumption of their remaining life force.” Lisa grabbed her drink. “It is slowed as our hours are there minutes or some such, but it affects them. There’s no ratio but it goes back to the true age of the god, the amount of time spent in the Prime Universe, energies expended, and so forth.”

“I guess that better defines what Cici told us; that while the gods cannot easily intervene directly anymore, they still do, very infrequently. She mentioned that there is some strife in Olympus and that some of them are of the opinion that the one true God is too allowing of mankind’s free will and too absent a deity, which sends Earth and her people in and out of too much chaos. At the time, she was explaining Nathan’s gifts. Since their powers here are diminished, they created a way for special people, when the need is great enough and the correct person is found, to do for them. At times in history, these were true demi-gods, born of man and god, and other times they were just heroes. She mentioned Heracles and Perseus.”

“Wow,” Lisa said.

“What?” Adia asked.

“I always wondered what geek talk sounded like,” she said with a smile. “Now I know.”

Adia burst out laughing. She quickly stifled her laugh.

“What’s wrong?’ Lisa asked.

“We’re working on this… trying to figure out what is going on with Rebecca, to help Nathan. I am trying to remember what else we talked about when Cici was there. There was something more.”

The two sat quietly while Adia tried to recall more of the conversation, picking over their remaining food. When the waitress came by, they each ordered another drink.

“That’s it,” Adia said snapping her fingers. “We’re working on Rebecca, the issues she’s having and the problems she’s causing… I mentioned that any one person, having all that power, what would happen if the wrong person was chosen. I mentioned how horribly wrong that could be for humanity. Cici mentioned that something like that had already occurred. The Greek gods addressed the issue, she really didn’t go into how, but it is also why millennia have come and gone without a new hero or any other type of intervention by the gods.”

“Until Nathan,” Lisa said plainly.

“Correct,” Adia answered setting her beer down. “Cici, as the primary Watcher and keeper of the talisman, had the responsibly at the end of her life of passing the talisman to the next Watcher or to a champion. She chose Nathan.”

“So how does Rebecca play into this?” Lisa asked. “If there was only one talisman and the Champion already has it, how did she come into her powers?”

“I don’t know,” Adia responded. “Nathan isn’t really all that forthcoming when I talk to him about it. He mentions things in small snippets but he knows I am fishing. Also, for the most part, I really don’t see him all that often. The few times I do, he’s with her.”

Lisa took another drink from her beer and Adia pushed her glass around on the table. “One or two times he’s been here, and I made him honor the ice cream agreement we have, he’s sort of alluded to the fact that she imbued the powers onto herself.”

“How? Magic?” Lisa asked.

“He really didn’t say.”

Lisa lowered her voice and leaned in. “There’s more than one passage in the things I’ve read that mentioned magical conjuring.” She reached into her oversized purse and pulled out a small notepad. She opened it up and reviewed some of her notes.

The waitress came by and cleared a couple of items from the tables and then walked away.

Adia looked over her shoulder, “Did it offer any details?”

Lisa looked over her notes, “All the things I read were… I don’t know the best way to put it. Like workarounds… or hacks… to tie into the same universal energies. Each time it was mentioned, and there were many instances where that was fully omitted, it always discussed dark magic.”

Lisa looked over to the waitress who came back over.

“Hi,” Lisa said to her, “Could we have two more please?”

“Sure,” she said.

Lisa looked up into the waitresses eyes and caught a shimmering light before she turned and walked away.

Adia stared at Lisa and waited until the waitress left. “You looked spooked; are you okay?”

Anxiety took over and Lisa stood. “I could swear I saw a power discharge around her eyes. The waitress; Like static or something. I’ve seen that before. From Nathan. The day he was dressed as The Patriot and nearly assassinated in Madison Square Park.”

“Are you sure?” Adia asked. “You’re not just freaking yourself out with all this talk?”

“I’m sure,” Lisa said grabbing her things. “We need to go, now.”

“We need to pay…” Adia said grabbing her purse.

“I know Andre; I’ll come back tomorrow and take care of it.”

The girls turned to the door to leave and the waitress was in their immediate path.

“We need to leave,” Adia commanded, “I’m a New York City police officer…” Adia began to fish for her badge and then looked up at the waitress and locked onto her eyes.

The waitress stepped forward and into her personal space. “Yes, Adia Santiago, I know.” The waitress reached up, lightly stroked the side of her face, and then kissed her.

Lisa went to move and the woman raised her left hand and unlocked her lips from Adia. “Lisa Cooper… you too… come here.”

Lisa lost all her ability to resist; all of her anxiety and fear washed away.

The waitress stepped over to Lisa, holding Adia’s hand, and touched her face.

“I would think with all the studying you’ve done recently of us, that you would have noticed the goddess of love much sooner than you actually did.” Aphrodite said smiling, still holding the form of the waitress. “Still, it’s nice to know I mainly still have my touch when it comes to hiding in plain sight and blending in.”

Both women were in a trance.

“Follow me,” Aphrodite said, touching the body of the form she had taken. “We have much to discuss and little time to discuss it.”

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Nathan returned to the field; he looked about frantically but could not find Rebecca anywhere. From his vantage point in the sky he quickly noted that the sinkhole had expanded to nearly twice its size.

He slowed his speed, lowered his altitude, slowly spiraled away from the area and gained additional altitude slowly. He kept his attention down in an effort to survey the ground below.

Once he completely extended his orbit outward far enough to the rural access road he found what he was looking for.

“The tire tracks,” he said aloud and heading back to the ground.

Overhead he heard the sound of a helicopter coming closer. He looked westward toward the town and could see it on approach. He tried his communications device and it was still not functioning.

“I’m not going to reach Computer Central or Rebecca this way,” he mumbled aloud to himself.

Nathan rose off the ground and observed the single set of tire tracks from a few feet above. He then turned to see the helicopter slowing and cutting to a semi-circle pattern, which delayed its full approach.

Nathan lifted his hand slightly in a partial wave to the pilot, who then cut back and slowly moved in.

The turning motion allowed Nathan to see the helicopter was from the same news company as the van he saw through the area prior. As it came to a landing on the far side of the field and a safe distance away, Nathan rose higher and made his way over.

The pilot powered down the helicopter and two passengers exited.

Nathan landed and walked over.

“Hi,” the reporter yelled over the engine and the spinning blades, “Steven Capshaw, WADC Action News.” He motioned around to the camera operator. “That’s Julie Cummings and the pilot is Karen Cupp. We had a field reporting team out here and we can’t reach them. We know the storm was bad enough to knock out their broadcast but we can’t raise any of them on their phones either.”

A sinking feeling went through Nathan. “I saw them earlier. I actually came back this way partly to check on them. The epicenter of everything happened here and the intensity of the storm and the quake dropped rapidly as you move away. There wasn’t a lot for me to help out with so I returned.”

“They were broadcasting at one point and then debris took out the antenna,” Steven replied somewhat quieter because the helicopter came to a complete shutdown state. Karen opened up the pilot door and stepped out.

“I know where they came in,” Nathan said pointing around the sinkhole. “There’s a rural access road back there and that’s where I passed them earlier.” He moved where he was pointing slightly more north. “I saw some tire tracks off the road and into the grass; I am going to make the assumption that they followed Rebecca.”

“That makes sense,” Steven said as the four of them began to walk in that direction. “The footage they were broadcasting showed her in the area; they captured you on approach and then there was a dust up of heavy debris that hit the vehicle.”

Nathan floated upwards without responding and scouted from above. A little guilt came over him as he knew he intentionally forced the debris to stop the live broadcast.

“Can you see anything from up there?” Steven said calling up to Nathan.

“No,” Nathan responded, lowering himself to the ground. “Do you have a smart phone? My communications equipment back to Computer Central was damaged but I can open an encrypted communication connection if there is a signal out here.”

Steven pulled out his smart phone and readily handed it to Nathan.

“Thank you,” Nathan said, using a secured internet connection to open a port to Computer Central. Nathan turned the speaker on hands free.

“Enabled,” Computer Central’s female voice responded over the connection.

“Earlier we detected the live broadcast from the news van; do you still have that broadcast frequency and the transmission connection details?”

“Affirmative.”

“Scan for the broadcast frequency; where is that van?”

The four gathered around the hands free speaker when the display changed.

“Coordinates delivered.”

Nathan looked them over and then looked about. “Are these correct?”

“Affirmative; the transmitter is still active despite the loss of the microwave antenna.”

“What does it mean?” Julie asked.

Nathan continued to look around. “The boost from the microwave antenna was lost when the debris took it out but it was still transmitting. Anything strong enough can pick the signal up. Computer Central is reading it. We are basically standing at these coordinates. We should be able to see the van.” Nathan brought the phone closer and looked over at the sinkhole, “Computer Central.”

“Enabled.”

“What is my altitude?”

“You’re not flying…” Karen said quietly. Nathan slowly raised his hand.

“Two hundred forty-four feet above sea level,” Computer Central responded.

“What is the altitude of the transmitter?” Nathan asked.

“One hundred sixty-three feet.”

Nathan quickly handed the phone back and flew up. He maneuvered over the sinkhole and looked for any shifting movement. There was a slight gravel displacement and he moved toward it. Arching over slightly, he drove a perpendicular energy spike into the ground and then flattened it out. He continued to focus and strain to expand it.

“Is there anything we can do?” Steven called out.

“Call 911; use a different phone. I’ll apologize later if I’m wrong.” Nathan replied, his voice breaking slightly.

Karen took hers and dialed.

With one thrust, Nathan used the shield like a giant shovel and wedged a section of the earth upwards. The action quickly uncovered the van and the three bodies. Nathan lifted everything he had and moved it from the area of the sinkhole into the adjacent field. Once everything was down, he guided himself back to the active smart phone. Steven handed it over and the three of them broke towards their co-workers.

“Computer Central.” Nathan said shakily.

“Enabled.”

“Scan all human life signs; tell me what you have.”

“Four human life signs, including yours.”

Nathan walked away from where he was and approached the three people from the helicopter.

Julie was openly crying and turned away. Nathan disconnected the session from Computer Central, erased the connection data, and handed the phone back to Steven.

“What happened?” Karen asked looking up at Nathan from her kneeling position in front of the reporter.

“The sinkhole formed as part of the seismic activity that was present,” Nathan began slowly. “It was smaller prior to my departure to Bucksville; I don’t know if it caved in on itself…”

“Nathan,” Steven called out, “there was nothing going on in this area until Rebecca showed up. We only caught what we caught on the feeds because the news van was coming back from a story in Bucksville; they basically wandered into what was going on, stopped, and began reporting on how a mostly sunny day suddenly spawned a storm with two tornados.” Steven looked about the muddy debris and kicked the small dirt encrusted ice. “This is baseball sized hail; I can’t imagine what it was before.” He looked up into the atmosphere. “The weather patterns don’t support what occurred here. Forget the earthquake for a moment; Rebecca’s powers, as much as the media has been able to piece together…”

“I know,” Nathan said, cutting him off. “I’ll find her.” Nathan looked over the wreckage and simply stood. “I’m sorry,” he said to Steven. Then he turned to the others. “I am sorry for the loss of your colleagues.”

Julie was still crying and could not respond. Karen only nodded slightly.

“Go,” Steven said. “We’ll wait for the emergency crews.”

Nathan moved to step away when the older man reached lightly for his arm.

“I trust you’ll bring her in,” He said plainly. “She was the only other person in this area. She left either before this occurred or she at least saw it happen. The police and investigative teams will need to have access to all the information.”

“I will,” Nathan said looking at him.

Steven let his arm go. “I’m sure you realize two things; if she saw this occurring she should have done something to stop it. That and all of the events were caused by her; even if the ground caved in afterwards, it was her involvement that destabilized the ground.”

“I have little argument over the weather, she was directly responsible for that. I can’t definitively say…” Nathan defended until he was cut off.

“Can’t definitively say that a mainly inactive fault line wasn’t affected by her powers? The ones that tie to the Earth and nature itself? Nathan come on! We know you two are involved with one another but certain elements are unarguable here.” Steven proclaimed.

“Do you have kids?” Nathan said quickly.

“Yes, one in high school and the other is starting college. What does…” Steven said until Nathan cut him off.

“I expect the way I feel right now is the way you might feel if one of them was charged with a wrong doing. It pulls at the fabric of your being. Someone you love, someone you want to protect is in trouble and you want to do something about it to save them. At the same time, you know what the circumstances are surrounding it and that reality is telling you how you need to act over how you feel.”

Steven took a deep breath in but didn’t respond.

“I will handle my internal conflict and do what needs to be done.” Nathan said as he pushed off and made his way skyward.

***

“What’s the current status on the ground?” Jane parker asked peering over the monitors.

“The storm has fully dissipated, Nathan has returned to the epicenter and there was air traffic control response in the area. It sounded like communications with a helicopter.” One of the operatives called back from his terminal.

Another specialist got up from her chair and made her way over. Jane watched her approach. “Parsons,” Jane said standing up to meet her, “Natalie, what do we have.”

“Her signature is easier to track because it’s constant. Nathan has been under his Captain Delta powers more often than not recently because of the number of incidents and accidents he’s been responding to globally. Because that power set allows him the fastest travel time, he’s able to respond better.”

“He went clear across the country in a matter of minutes to address this issue.” Jane said.

“Correct,” Natalie confirmed. “It would have been easier for him to deal with the events as Weather Master but he couldn’t get there in time. We only know so much about his powers. We do know there are times they are ‘off’ but I would expect that if he could simply change shirts mid-way through an event to better leverage powers that he would. It must not work like that.”

“I agree, from what we’ve seen historically, that’s proven out.” Jane said turning away. “Where is Rebecca headed?”

“It appears to be back to the home she owns,” Natalie responded.

“She never seems to have a concern about that,” Jane said shaking her head. “She goes right back to her house like anyone else might, regardless of the powers she has or who might want to come after her there.”

“Too confident?” Natalie asked.

“Arrogant. Nathan is confident. She simply presumes that no matter what happens, she can defend herself or that Nathan will save her.”

“Ma’am,” another specialist called out. “We’ve received a 911 call from the epicenter. Three casualties.”

“I want a live track,” Jane called out. “Put it on the big board. Put Rebecca and Nathan on it.”

The specialist followed up and the displays changed and the main monitor in the center of the room powered on with a live track.

“Rebecca has arrived at her home and Nathan is now on approach.” Natalie said.

“Nathan was in a big hurry; makes you wonder why.” Jane said. She picked up her Bluetooth headset and put it on. “Get me Senator Kelly.”

After a few moments Natalie returned. “The Senator is unavailable. The aide indicated that he’s heads down. His outer office door is locked. The inside aide was called and she informed me that until his inner door is opened he cannot be disturbed.”

“Damn it; we don’t have another point of escalation on this.” Jane said looking about. “Well, I guess this is all Nathan until the Senator contacts us.”

***

Senator Kelly exited the secret area inside his office and closed it behind the wall. Then he walked back to the desk to lock it back into its prior position. Once he finished, he walked from the bookcase and then back to the desk a couple of times looking things over..

Satisfied with the way his office looked, he went over to the computer in his office to review the weather feeds and the news updates from the disturbance area. He rubbed his hands together reviewing the most up to date information and then grabbed his office phone.

His assistant picked up. “Put me through to Jane Parker,” he said.

“Yes sir; she called no more than ten minutes or so ago,” the woman responded.

“Why wasn’t I informed?” he asked angrily.

“Per your prior orders sir, when the inner doors are locked…”

“I understand,” he said cutting her off. “From now on, when Jane Parker calls or any senior specialist from her division, you can buzz this room.”

“Yes sir,” she said, muting the line for a moment. “I have Jane Parker on the line,” she said upon returning to the line.

“Jane,” the Senator said looking back over the monitor. “Open a socket so I can connect to your big board. I am sure you’re working something from the news feeds.”

“Yes,” she said. “There are three casualties from the epicenter. I just got off the phone with the first responders onsite. It appears that the victims were a three-person news crew that was in the area.”

“Wonderful,” the Senator said sarcastically. “We don’t have enough problems with the superheroes…”

“I have the feed loops from Steven Capshaw from WADC; it was his news crew that was onsite.” Jane said. “Natalie, open a second socket and give the Senator the feed.”

After a couple of moments, the Senator was able to open the second connection inside their facility and review the raw footage.

“How much of this made it on air?” the Senator asked.

“As you’re watching the feed, you can see a degradation in the quality; that change is where they lost their microwave feed to broadcast. Everything that appeared clearer, that made the on air broadcast.”

The Senator reviewed the recording several times with Jane on the line and working with her specialists.

“Jane, what do you see on this recording… right after the four-minute mark?”

Jane stopped working with people in the situation room and dropped her attention to a smaller display in front of her. She moved the play back up to the four-minute mark and watched it forward. She repeated the process a couple of times. “It looks like the news van is making its way forward, behind the reporter and the camera operator.”

“Right; the camera operator was moving along on foot with the reporter. They must have been stopped and recording something. Then they must have seen Rebecca and moved along to get in closer.” The Senator mused. “Watch the whole thing from the beginning with that in mind. Focus on the background after Nathan arrives; right around the three fifteen mark or so.”

Jane backed the recording to the beginning, redirected the sound through her headset and leaned it to watch it closely.

“This is Pamela Samson for WADC news. We are coming to you live from Rural Route Four between Bucksville and the interstate which appears to be the epicenter of this flash storm.”

The camera pans away slightly to show the fury of the storm around them. Pamela is right next to the van and the wind jars her slightly toward it as the camera operator turned the view back.

“As you might be able to make out in the distance,” she said loudly over the wind, “you can see what from this vantage point appears to be Rebecca floating a few feet above the ground.”

The camera operator again panned away and attempted to zoom in and clean of the shot but the wind and the rain made the image somewhat grainy.

“There have been a number of news reports in the past of Rebecca not having fully control of her abilities; that she may be trying to use a certain volume of wind, as an example and then exerts too much force… from this vantage point, she seems to be fully in control. She isn’t moving from her location; she is in perfect position. The winds from the storm are not affecting her in the sky, it also appears at times as if the elements from the storm, the wind and the rain, are moving around her.”

The camera shot panned into the storm more and then back to Pamela.

“As we made our way along this road from Bucksville, we were forced to stop our vehicle when the ground began to shake. We are waiting on confirmation that it was an earthquake. There is an old fault system in this area but it has been inactive for decades. There is almost…” a wind gust overtook Pamela’s commentary and left what she continued to say inaudible. She continued to attempt to report but the intensification of the storm made it impossible for her to do so.

“Look,” the camera operator called out a few moments later as he jostled the camera, further blurring the shot.

Pamela turned to look in that direction. “…appears… not one… funnel clouds have formed. From this…. appears that they are… they might be…”

Jane looked down at the time stamp to judge when Nathan would arrive in the upper part of the shot. She saw him and the electrical discharge from his powers race into the scene as debris flew and took out the recording.

When the recording continued the quality and clarity was noticeably lower. Pamela’s voice could be heard but much of the shot was shaky imagery while the camera operator moved along carrying the equipment.

“That was a massive volley of lightning… I don’t know how he survived that. I can’t tell…” there was static and wind breaking up her speech. “…it looked like more than just the lightning took him out of the sky.”

“I can see the size of the hail stones from here,” the camera man called out as smaller ones pelted the van.

“Is that a valley area? I thought the ground pitched up there?” Pamela remarked as they came to a stop.

The van driver slowed and called out the window. “I don’t know how much closer we should get. It’s not safe. She’s not safe. The mud is getting deep and this van is rear wheel drive.”

A flash of light disabled the recording at that point and then it began again after being restarted.

The scene replayed where Pamela tried to engage Rebecca and Jane watched as the shot went in and out of focus. The recording clipped the point where the Senator highlighted and she stopped it to move it frame by frame.

“Are you talking about 4:22?” Jane asked.

The Senator moved his recording to that point and froze the frame to look at it. “Yes, right there. You tell me what you see.”

“Rebecca’s eyes… there’s no iris, no pupils… they are totally black.” Jane said in a low voice.

“There have been scattered reports of this prior by eye witnesses but it’s generally been dismissed. They actually caught it in this shot.” Senator Kelly said sitting back slightly.

“It seems like it,” Jane said raising her hand to her mouth. “The quality of the shot is poor and it’s less than two seconds in length before she moves so radically and the camera operator becomes more unsteady with the shot.”

“I know,” the Senator said moving the mouse on the screen to zoom in on the still frame. “This is the first real confirmation of the rumored reports.”

“The ending of the recording is lost,” Jane replied.

“I think what is there says it all,” Senator Kelly said softly.

Jane backed the recording up to replay the end.

“Shouldn’t allow? Who are you to allow or not allow?” Rebecca’s voice was heard on the recording. A faint sound of thunder could be heard.

“Nathan and I have the powers of the gods. We are benevolent but we could easily rule.” Rebecca continued; the camera operator focused in on her and showed that her eyes became completely black. “We rush from one corner of the world to another whenever there’s an issue, to address problems that are often the result of man. When something doesn’t go perfectly for us, fixing your mess, the criticisms follow.”

The scene panned left to take in the entire sinkhole and then back up to Rebecca but the shot was becoming more unstable and the damage to the recording media was beginning to affect the playback, digitizing portions of the sound and the imagery.

“Miss Rebecca… situations where the direct result… caused almost as much damage… comment?”

The playback ended. Jane breathed in deeply and let out a sigh. “What are we going to do?”

“Nathan is on his way to Rebecca; we are going to have to let him take action on this,” Senator Kelly responded.

“Senator,” Jane responded sitting upright in her seat, “with all due respect, do you really have that much faith in Nathan that he will do the right things here? He’s progressively become harder to deal with, perhaps to a degree because of her. Maybe it’s the powers going to his head over all this time.”

“Would you rather deal with trying to bring one of them in and have the other protecting them, which makes it so you really have to try and bring them both in, or would you rather try to reason with one of them and have them assist you?” the Senator asked.

Jane said nothing at first. She lowered her head slightly and spoke. “And Phases?”

“Our friends thought we had already begun without them,” Senator Kelly answered.

“It would seem to me that we don’t have to take on a campaign to discredit them and have the media and popular theory work against them; they are doing this all on their own with the current set of events.” Jane said lifting her head and looking around. One of her specialists was coming over and she held up her hand to pause her where she stood.

“My counterpart and I both agreed that because of the events and the way they unfolded, we are effectively at Phase Four.”

“I thought the four phases of the plan were called to be set at given stages and if needed,” Jane said and lowering her voice more.

“That is true; we were supposed to contact one another, agree on the actions, then set the phase and set the action into motion. Because circumstance took us there on its own, he called the Phase and I agreed to it. Now that it occurred organically and not in a manipulated manner, it’s better for us.” The Senator responded.

“So why move the Phase to ‘four’?” Jane asked.

“If we decide to continue with the contingency plan at this point, in a proactive manner, we would need to go to Phase Three. In order to do that and call up the other operative branches, then this level must be set.”

“I hate to say it Senator,” Jane said sitting up in her chair, “a lot of the time I forget I am talking to you and I keep hearing Congressman Johnson.”

“Well perhaps the need has changed some. I won’t deny it; I don’t like the path I am on. I don’t like that we moved on the PrimaSync Tower in the center of Phoenix without all the warrants in place and I am not going to sanction that again. This little negative public relations effort, while unsavory, is legal as long as we are not fabricating things.” Senator Kelly wiped his mouth with his hand.

“Phase Four was intended to do that…” Jane said.

“If necessary. We were going to stretch the truth if necessary to paint an unfavorable picture to get the ball rolling if we needed to. We didn’t need to. What bothers me is that three people directly paid with their lives to get us here.”

“I would have rather had the stretched truth,” Jane said plainly.

“So would I,” Senator Kelly said, disconnecting the line.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Lisa slowly opened her eyes. The brightness of the room made her squint lightly. She felt lightheaded as she tried to sit up. She suddenly realized she was on a very large bed. She quickly checked about herself; she was fully dressed.

She quickly jumped off the bed, became dizzy, and sat back down on the edge.

“Yeah I did that too,” Adia said softly walking over to her.

“Where are we?” Lisa asked.

“Some fancy hotel here in this city of yours,” Aphrodite said, now appearing in her own form. “When I was told this was the place to go, I spoke with the manager and he simply insisted I take this room.” Aphrodite said with a smirk.

Lisa looked around the stately suite from the edge of the bed and then slowly stood up. Her mind continued to clear. She felt and immense emotional pull toward Aphrodite. She tried to clear her head.

“We can get back to the discussion now that you’re awake,” Adia said.

“Yes,” Aphrodite proclaimed, “we must and then as much as I enjoy these surroundings, I really must be going as well.”

“It’s harder and harder for your kind to spend expended time in this realm,” Lisa said plainly.

“You have been one of the most accurate studies of us in recent memory,” Aphrodite smiled and walked over to her. “The reason I am here is that so much of your focus was on me and your interest level and passion for what you were doing, for Nathan, was so high, it was coming across almost like prayer and worship. Therefore, it was something I could ‘hear’, so to speak.”

“You skirted my comment,” Lisa said.

“I did,” Aphrodite replied quietly, raising an eyebrow. “You are correct. The more aged we become as the millennia pass by, the more of our being is consumed… aged suddenly, if you will. It is almost that when we are here, our bodies are greatly affected by what our true ages in the realm should be. The life forces we have at our disposal and the connection to the power of the Prime Universe notwithstanding, we are impacted.”

Adia stepped alongside Lisa. “You said there was much to discuss and not a lot of time to discuss it…”

“Yes,” Aphrodite said stepping closer to touch Adia’s face. “You and your friend Lisa here would piece together everything before long but I am afraid it would be too late at that point. At this point there is a lot of confusion and turmoil in the work The Fates are undertaking and what the Watchers see. So much so that there has never been a time when there has been so much divergence in the path of life.”

“I’s sorry Aphrodite,” Lisa said trying to shake off what she was feeling. “You’re not being clear.”

Aphrodite smiled at her and stepped in to kiss her. Adia watched her initially resist and then total succumb to it. Adia felt the urge to look away and at the same time, she couldn’t and felt her own emotions edge in.

Aphrodite stopped and backed off. “That should help clear your mind some; let me try this again. For every action there is more than one outcome; you can go left or you can go right… in its simplest form. Any action not taken in the Prime Universe is taken in another realm in the multiverse. Right now, the fabric between the universes is thin. We believe there is… interference, from the dark magic that Rebecca used to co-opt the powers she has gained for herself. That interference is allowing fragments of the nearest multiverse to spill into this one. This is why what the Watchers seeing isn’t always clear and why The Fates are repeating tasks and are unclear on peoples’ fates.”

“And the rest of the Olympians?” Lisa asked.

“They do not know I am here,” Aphrodite said turning away slightly. She turned back to Adia. “Actually, that is not totally true; Hera knows I made this journey. Not that I told her about it. She was watching from the reflecting pool as I transversed through the gateway from our realm to yours.”

“So let me see if I understand this,” Adia asked. “This is the main universe. Actions are taken here and these are the initial response. An action not taken here, is elsewhere.”

“Correct,” Aphrodite said turning back toward Adia. “Infinite choices across a multitude of existences.”

“And the Olympians?” Lisa asked.

“We are not of this realm; as such we are unique to our own place and even when we move within your existence, we do not have an additional place in other realms. We exist only in Olympus and then here when we visit. We do not exist in the multiverse. While we can visit one of them as we might visit here, the situation for us is far different.” Aphrodite said.

“Meaning?” Lisa asked.

“We draw our powers from Olympus, the Prime Universe, the connection between, and the Earth itself. When we visit another realm in the multiverse, even the closest one in similarity, with the fewest differences or divergences from here, we are mainly stripped of the bulk of our powers. We have only a weak tether to Olympus. Eons ago, many of us enjoyed going between the existences. Now, with so much time removed and the tether so weak, we no longer dare it.”

“You said time was of the essence,” Adia said, shaking off the emotional feeling she had for Aphrodite.

“Yes,” Aphrodite said, her tone became blander. “Rebecca is not everything she appears to be. Once before, we picked a champion. Well, more than just once before, but in this particular instance, we imbued the wielder with too much power. When the time passed to address this, it became a battle for humanity. This man was Ahzeem Ama and while we know his eternal soul is still trapped between the Ethereal and Astral planes of existence, the evil essence that consumed him in the Prime Plane, your realm here, has returned.” Aphrodite moved over to the windows in the suite to take in the view of the city. “We believe that entire essence, the evil force if you will, is in one place…”

“Rebecca,” Lisa said plainly.

“Yes,” Aphrodite said turning around to look at the two of them. “As a normal being she was already physically and emotionally attracted to him. When she was… possessed by the essence, it modified and then rooted itself to her deepest emotional parts of her personality.”

“Like she wasn’t already wonderfully unstable… now she’s super powered too,” Adia said sarcastically.

“There is more to things than what appears on the surface,” Aphrodite said closing her eyes. She lifted slightly off the ground and floated backwards and away from the windows to the suite. Lisa and Adia moved closer to one another.

Aphrodite was a few inches off the ground still and she waved her hand. The view of the city disappeared and the windows became dark. The resulting view resembled something similar to television screens more than windows.

“More than just choosing the right person,” Aphrodite said, “which is difficult enough, the timing to choose that person is also nearly as critical. The mere fact that Cici was dying at the time, that she heard the call of the Olympians, that Nathan was her choice and arriving before she passed, were each difficult enough to arrange in synchronicity. There is one other factor that allows Nathan the ability to maintain the best and most stable connection to the powers of the realm.”

“The alignment of the planets,” Lisa said quietly.

Aphrodite turned her head and looked directly at her. She waived her hand lightly and the windows showed a view of deep space, almost as if on a speeding space ship and looking out the main view screen. “I remembered that you were there that day,” Aphrodite said with some level of surprise in her voice, “I had no idea you were aware of the alignment that day.”

“Nathan talked to me about it,” Lisa answered and turned toward Adia. “It was one of those things he chattered about. I loved to listen to him talk about it. I didn’t have a ton of interest but he was so excited that I would listen, that anyone would, so I let him run with it.”

Adia became a little tense but then turned her attention to the windows. “Is that Saturn?” she asked.

“Yes,” Aphrodite replied as the view showed them passing by the ringed planet. “During the sealing of the talisman to the chosen hero, there was a celestial event occurring. Above and beyond just a planetary alignment, Saturn was in direct alignment with Earth.” The view in the windows quickly changed to an approach of the Earth. “As you can see here as well, the moon was also aligned and as we pass the Earth…” Aphrodite stopped and looked over at Lisa.

“The Baxter—Zephram comet was also aligned between the Earth and the Sun,” Lisa said, recalling the words that Nathan had said to her.

“That comet was an added catalyst. It was a gravitational, material, and interstellar event that has never been calculated into any incantation or any magical binding ever before.” The view of the windows passed the sun and ultimately Jupiter on the far side and then when dark. Aphrodite waved her hand and natural light and the cityscape returned to view in the windows. “With such an idea alignment, the comet is an added positive catalyst for someone like Nathan and the character that he has. If he has the willpower, he will likely tap into the powers in ways none of us ever have.”

“Why?” Adia asked. “Your kind has had so much time to harness and use the powers… why would you assume Nathan would grasp them so quickly and use them even better?”

Aphrodite smiled. “What is it that you say?” she asked tipping her hear and raising her hand to her chin. “We are ‘fat and happy.’ We don’t worry for anything, generally, we fear basically nothing and we harness little more passion daily than for our own sloth. Nathan’s mind is fresh and energetic. He believes in the people, his people, all of you; that you all can each achieve greatness of your own, whatever that might be. He wants to see people reach those successes. As much as he externally shuns the role, he is a wonderful protector. It is why Cici chose him. There are people on Earth, that if they could will something into existence for someone else, they would; even at a cost to themselves, because they are at peace with the world and they love themselves… they want other people to feel that way too.”

“That’s Nathan,” Lisa said to her.

Adia stepped forward. “As much as I don’t mind the history lesson and learning about Nathan, which I already know a lot about, I’m not seeing the urgency from before when you said time was of the essence.”

“Rebecca imbued the powers onto herself rather than a talisman; that alone is going to take a toll on her being. She used dark magic and improper incantations, which have and further will, taint her and her powers. She also performed them at the worst possible time with respect to the local celestial bodies. The Earth and moon were pulling at direct angles to one another and the moon was at half-moon phase. With those direct opposing forces, and Rebecca’s power selection, Gaea’s, mother Earth itself, she could not have more incorrectly chosen a time to cast that magic, when mother Earth was under her greatest local stress with the moon pulling away at that angle.”

“So with all of that, and the way Rebecca placed the powers onto her own being, she is under the same duress as well?” Adia asked.

“Yes,” Aphrodite said as she moved to take a seat.

“You’re getting weak,” Lisa said to her.

“I am. Being away from this realm for so long… I am not used to the drain on my power and the strain on my being. I will need to leave shortly. I will need to rejuvenate for a period of time in the Fountain of Life on Mount Olympus.” Aphrodite looked over to Lisa. “You’re concerned for my well-being. In all the years of people praying to me, they offered sacrifices for honestly selfish reasons; in the end hope of getting what they wanted. You want nothing but for me to be well.” Aphrodite stood slowly, looking over at Adia then back to Lisa. “I must agree with the Watcher formally known as Cici Johnson; it is surprising that Adia and Nathan ended up with one another in a physical, emotional, and sexual relationship when Lisa is more aligned. I believe it is where that ‘opposites attract” saying comes from.”

Aphrodite walked over and kissed Adia. At first, she resisted but finally relented. When she was done, she took a step back and looked directly into her eyes.

“I am not a Watcher; therefore I cannot see as well as they would where you will go throughout your life. You are a strong woman, determined, driven, and independent. You will be able to get most of what you are looking for from your natural talents. To get the rest, you will need to rely on your softer side, which you hide away from most. It takes a far braver person to embrace what they feel than hide it. You have the strength if you would only believe in yourself.”

Adia said nothing as Aphrodite stepped away.

Aphrodite hugged Lisa deeply and then stepped back. There was a sadness in her eyes that Lisa thought she saw, but she dismissed it.

“It’s okay,” Aphrodite said to her and smiled.

Lisa leaned in and kissed her. When she finally stepped back she felt a little light headed.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anything that wonderful in my whole life,” Lisa said.

“I am the goddess of love; when love is used for the right reasons, it can bring so much joy to peoples’ lives.” Aphrodite quickly turned to Adia. “I know; the wrong reasons can have very terrible affects.”

“I didn’t realize you can read minds…” Adia said stepping away and to the windows.

“It’s not so much reading the truth thought as it is the emotional impulses someone gives off. I read those empathetically, so to speak.” Aphrodite said turning her attention back to Lisa.

“Nathan will not understand the things I have told you here. You will need to help him believe, both of you, before it’s too late. It is hard for me to say in one breath ‘trust me’ when I know you’ve read enough to realize that you should do the very opposite with my kind. I was one of the twelve that granted Nathan his powers…”

“Twelve?” Adia called out. “There were only ten symbols on his bracelet.”

Aphrodite turned to her and smiled. “Nothing on that level happens without Zeus and Hera’s knowledge. They are what fills the gap.”

Lisa looked at Adia puzzled, but Aphrodite offered nothing further on the subject.

“As I said, it is hard for me to say in one breath ‘trust me’ when you believe you should do the very opposite with my kind. While I was one of the twelve that granted Nathan his powers, it is within the same twelve where some treachery could abound. I offer you this as help and as a warning. The two of you together will make all the difference.”

Aphrodite slowly stepped back and then away from Lisa. She moved over to the windows near Adia that overlooked the city. Aphrodite reached over, touched one of the panes of glass, and it shimmered. Once the shimmering ended, the view of the one pane was that of the fields near the reflecting pool on Olympus.

Aphrodite looked back at Lisa and smiled. She then turned to Adia. “Nathan still has feelings for you.”

“The man has an odd way of showing them; he always has,” she said sarcastically with her Puerto Rican accent bleeding into her reply.

“I see far more than you do. Less than a Watcher, but more than you,” Aphrodite said softly. “Remember what I said; when the time comes, he will need you.”

“When the time comes for what?” Adia asked.

“Things that Cici mentioned of Nathan, the things that are still to pass.” Aphrodite said, raised her eyebrows slightly, and then stepped through the shimmering portal. Once on the other side, she looked back to the two of them and called out. “He will rise courageously, but for all his powers, he cannot do it alone. I believe the saying goes, ‘behind every successful man there is a strong woman.’ Nathan has two standing beside him. With that, he will be able to do what he must.” The portal suddenly closed, leaving the girls staring out at the view of the New York City skyline.

 

The story continues in “I, Hero: Phases”, a work in progress, expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

 

AS LIFE GOES: ELEMENTARY

CHAPTER ONE

Mark Sanford stood among the boxes in the living room of his father’s former home—a small three-bedroom cape—with a cup of coffee in his hand. The weak morning sunlight broke through the early winter cloud cover and came in the windows and around the hanging drapes. It had been nearly sixteen years since he’d lived on South Cherry Street with his parents. He remembered the day he moved out of the house to his apartment at eighteen years of age, shortly after his mother had passed away. He now smiled at the irony of wanting to come back to a place he was so ready to leave in order to start his adult life so many years ago, in an effort now to simply start over.

The oil furnace kicked on, and the forced air system pushed heated air while he made his way quietly up the stairs to his old bedroom. His son Matthew now lay in Mark’s old bed. The door creaked a little as he went to peer in and that was enough to wake the boy.

“Dad?” Matthew called out.

“Hi son, I’m right here,” Mark responded as he opened the door all the way and walked in. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Not really,” Matthew answered as he sat up. “I guess I’m not used to sleeping here. I suppose I have to get used to it.”

“Look, sport.” Mark sat down next to his son and ruffled his short brown hair. “I know this change is a big adjustment for you. It is for all of us: you, Grandpa, and me too. I expect it’s hardest on you. Talk to me about it. You were pretty quiet during the car ride here, and when the movers dropped everything off yesterday.”

Matthew looked over at where the movers had placed his desk, and then he looked about his dimly lit room. They’d focused on this room yesterday, and it was the only one fully set up.

“What are we going to do with all the stuff that was in here?” Matthew asked, pulling the covers up towards his chin.

“Well,” Mark said, then took another sip of coffee and scratched the four-day-old gray and brown stubble on his face. “We moved most of it down into Aunt Teresa’s old room at the other end of the hallway, and we can just leave it all in there, like storage. We’re in no hurry to get rid of it, honestly, and Grandpa and I are still discussing things.”

Matthew rubbed the sleep out of his brown eyes. “Things like what, Dad?”

“Well, some of the adult things that parents and grandparents have to discuss,” Mark said, trying to remain somewhat vague on his details to his only son. Matthew looked at his father, waiting for him to continue. “Did you want to know more?”

“We talked about this, Dad.” Matthew sat forward. “I’m going to turn twelve in May, and in the fall I’m going to sixth grade. I don’t want to have to pull everything out of you. I want us to talk about things. It’s like you said, some things I won’t understand, but they’re things I need to start learning. So teach me.”

Mark smiled. “Fair enough, but I’m not just going to volunteer everything. It’s true, we did discuss how the move would change things, and that I’d treat you like you were a little older, but there are still some things that I’m not going to discuss with you. And most things aren’t going to be up for debate or negotiation. You’re still the child, and I’m still the parent.”

“Yes, sir,” Matthew replied in a meek voice.

“Having said that, I don’t want to discourage you. What did you want to know?” Mark asked, then took another sip from his coffee.

“Well …” Matthew sat up a little more. “I know at first you and Grandpa talked about staying here ‘in the meantime,’ but then the conversations became a little more permanent sounding. I guess I’d like to know which way it’s likely going to be. I have to start up in a new school for the remainder of fifth grade and then for middle school. I’m on this side of the tracks; I’m going to have to go across town to Moran while basically everyone at Pond Hill goes to Dag. Are we going to stay a short while or a long one? Are we going to stay here in Wallingford or are we going somewhere else?”

Mark smiled at the comment, as the conditions of the school changes reminded him of his childhood going from school to school. “Let me start with that. It does look like we’ll be staying longer term, and I’ll get back to that, but I don’t want you to worry about the changes in schools. I missed having similar things happen to me when I was eleven and in fifth grade because of the way the schools were set up at the time. At one point, a little after I went through, the town had three middle schools; Robert Early Junior High School was downtown, and kids got divided between the three schools. When the change from Elementary to Junior High happened to me, I found it somewhat difficult. And, I guess, a little stressful having to make some new friends, and being concerned about losing some of the old ones, but it will be different for you. What can end up happening is that you’ll meet a whole new set of kids that will become new friends. Then, once you get to high school, there will likely be some interaction from things like cross-town sports events. It may give you the chance to see people casually again. You’ll have an overall advantage of knowing people from both sides of town.” Mark leaned back a little and looked at his son. “You’re a lot like me. You’ll make friends fast here in the neighborhood and at Pond Hill. I’m sure that when the time comes, you’ll make new friends over at Moran too, I suspect.”

“So what happened? After high school and all?” Matthew moved around a little under the covers to get more comfortable.

“Well, like with all things, time and tide cause things to drift. You have new interests and interactions with other people, at work and socially. Sometimes high school friends make the transition, and you carry together. Most of the times you don’t and you go your separate ways. Sometimes, decades later, things can renew, but it’s very rare. I don’t expect—now that I’ve come back to Wallingford—to find many old friends that I’m going to begin suddenly to hang around with. The connections with some will still be there, I’m sure, at some base level.”

“What about the house and Grandpa’s store?” Matthew asked and sat back up.

Mark got up off the bed and paced over to the desk. He took another sip of his coffee then set the cup down. “The house,” he said with a bit of a sigh and a pregnant pause. “Grandpa is going to give us the house. You and me. He wants both our names on it. Mine for now and yours for the future. He’s going to stay in Florida year-round now, and when the time comes, he’ll leave that to Aunt Teresa. Because some of these changes were unexpected, he’ll come up for short visits to see us and to gather some of his things. He has things here still he’d like to take with him and keep. But instead of spending six or so months here in Connecticut and then the rest down in Florida, he’s just going to stay there.” Mark walked over to the window that overlooked the back yard and pulled back the blind slightly to see the light snow that had started to fall. “As far as the store goes, Mr. Hemsworth didn’t want to renew the lease with Grandpa, so as of January first next week, it’ll be empty again. I thought it made sense to make the lease payments and work the store myself. I can work the hours in the store, and then decide what I want to do with the garage bays.”

“What do you mean, Dad?” Matthew asked with an increased level of interest.

“Well,” Mark said, as he turned away from the window and walked back over to his coffee. “I’m not a mechanic. Certainly not on the level Grandpa was, and I can’t work a garage for much more than fluid changes, tires, belts, hoses and a few other minor things. I was thinking of maybe expanding the convenience store through all the space and just sell fuel. That’s down the road right now. I have to get us settled here and things up and running there first before I start making wholesale changes like that.”

Matthew looked at his father and leaned forward as if to say something, and then leaned back.

“You were thinking something,” Mark said quietly and looked over. “Go ahead. We can’t have a conversation and discuss things if it’s going to be one sided.”

“Well, I remember you told me that when you were a kid you used to work in the store with Grandpa once in a while. And you had a paper route. I thought maybe I could do that.”

Mark smiled and stepped over to the desk chair then sat in it. “A newspaper route is a big responsibility.”

“I know, like we talked about on the car ride here,” Matthew said, and his eyes glinted with enthusiasm.

“Yes.” Mark nodded. “Well, this is the time of year that routes open up. It’s the worst part of the winter, and the Christmas tips are all over. Carriers that were thinking about giving routes up do it around this time of the year.”

“Is that how you got your routes?” Matthew asked, as he turned down his sheets and swung his feet off the bed.

“Well, the one in the morning I got because my friend Larry was giving it up. It was an easy sell to the paper company because I already knew the route. Then, when Jacob up the street on the adjacent route broke his leg, I did his for a while and then he didn’t want his anymore. I think I was the only kid with eighty customers. They were large routes to start with. Also, what made it easier is The Record doesn’t have a Sunday paper,” Mark said as he enjoyed the little stroll down memory lane with his son. “I have to call the papers about getting product to the store. I can chat with the circulation manager about any open routes and if they still allow twelve-year-olds take them.”

“And the store?” Matthew hopped down and put on his slippers. “Can I help in there after school for a few dollars? I’ll keep my grades up, and I won’t let them slip. When you give me chores around here, I’ll get them done too.”

“Baby steps,” Mark said, then took the last sip of coffee. “Let’s see what turns out how, and we’ll go from there. I might not have much free cash flow from the store to afford you. I’ll need afternoon coverage, and I need to pay someone as it is.”

Matthew started to walk out of the room, and Mark got up to follow him. “Are you going to work the store the hours that Grandpa did or the way the last person renting the store ran them?”

“Well, when Grandpa ran the store there were blue laws where you couldn’t be open on Sundays, so you were granted a day off in that manner. Grandpa used to be open by six in the morning and closed round about the same time in the evening. On Saturdays, he’d open about seven and close a little after one. Mr. Hemsworth opened by five in the morning, and between him and his wife and his older son, they kept the place open to ten at night, seven days a week,” Mark answered as they both went down the stairs and made their way into the kitchen. The kitchen had an older style that hadn’t been updated in quite some time. Mark went over to the coffee pot, a new automatic drip coffee maker, which he’d brought with him during the move, and refilled his cup. Matthew picked through the boxes, looking for something to eat, and settled on Boo Berry cereal. “I think we’ll have to see what works for us. We need some money to pay for bills and utilities here at the house and to cover the expenses at the store. We’ll need to be open enough and offer service and items to customers to meet their needs to support that, but I don’t need to go crazy. I’m not looking to get rich or anything like that, and that would never happen in a corner store anyway. Maybe we can mimic, to a large degree, Grandpa’s old schedule in the store. I’ll certainly need someone to work there part-time with me to cover hours at the end of the day and for afternoons when I need to be out of the store for things.”

Matthew dug out a bowl for his cereal. “Would you try to keep the same weekend hours too?”

“Well, I’ll probably need to make Saturday a full day like any weekday. Maybe I can close a little earlier. It depends on how those last couple of hours does on late Saturdays. That’s where more of that need and demand is for having someone in there part-time. If there’re enough sales to merit the part-timer, I’ll leave the store open. Otherwise, I can close it earlier.” Mark set the coffee cup down and took the coffee pot over to the sink to rinse it out. “As far as Sunday goes, I’ll likely have to open at least until noon for people to come in and get fuel, coffee, their newspapers, and whatever else. Again, we’ll have to see how it goes.” Matthew took his cereal over to the table and listened to his father. “You have to remember too,” Mark said as he put the rinsed pot away and cleared out a couple of items from the dish drying rack. “Depending on the status of having someone there part-time, or not, you might need to come over to the store after school and stay with me in there to do homework and whatnot until I close on a given day.”

“Oh.” Matthew sighed. “Couldn’t I just let myself in and sit and do homework here? Eleven is old enough to watch myself.”

Mark raised his hand, palm outward, and then went over to one of the boxes to unpack a few small items and put them away. “I know you are, and the town is plenty safe. That’s not the issue. For a little while, it might simply be more practical to have dinner at the store right around closing time. A little ‘kill two birds with one stone’ thing. You could get off the bus at the corner of John Street and then just walk the six blocks to the store. If the weather is really bad, you can ride it up to Ward Street and get out and come up the one block. I’ll make sure to talk to the bus company about the other stop option. That way, you can be at the store at four thirty and do your homework to about five thirty, and I can make us a little something to eat as I close up. Then we can head home together.” Matthew didn’t respond, but Mark could see a little disappointment. “Look,” he continued. “Everything is fluid. This is how I see things starting out, but we can discuss some changes depending on how things work and how responsible you keep yourself. One of the issues is going to be in the mornings. I can get you out of bed, but you’re going to have to get yourself on the bus. It’s either that or you’ll have to come to the store and get picked up from there.”

“I think I can do that on my own here—especially if it works out and I can get that paper route. I’ll just come home from the route, get cleaned up, eat, and hop on the bus.”

Mark smiled at his son as he moved into the next box of items. “I know we’ll figure all of this out together. It’s a restart for both of us. We’ll make the best of it.”

Matthew finished his breakfast quietly while his father continued to put everything in the kitchen away.

 

CHAPTER TWO

When Mark had finished moving the last of the items around the main part of the convenience store, he stepped through the adjoining door to the three garage bays with the design layout in his hands. He laid it down on the workstation table when someone approached the glass walk-in door to the garages, then he made his way over to unlock the door.

“Hi,” Mark said and swung the door open in the late afternoon winter darkness. “Sorry about the lack of lighting outside,” he said as he looked up at all the overhead lights that were turned off. “But we’re not open for a couple more days and I was trying not to attract people to the building early. I’m figuring on a formal opening on Monday. Can I help you with anything?”

The young woman stepped inside and stomped her boots to kick the freshly fallen snow off. “Hi,” she responded with downcast eyes and in a hesitant voice, then she took off her woolen hood and removed her hat. “I saw your ad in the paper, for part-time help, and I was hoping to catch you while you were in here, so I could apply.”

Mark raised an eyebrow to the young woman. “Well, you’ve already scored a couple of points with me for taking the initiative by walking here in the snow to put in the application.” He looked out of the door at the oncoming snowstorm. “And fairly quickly too; I don’t think the ad ran more than one day.” Mark motioned for her to step back into the main store then reached behind her to re-lock the walk-in door to the garage area. Matthew peeked out of the office area, where he had been finishing his homework, to see whom his father was talking to.

“So I see you had design plans,” the young woman said as she unzipped her coat part of the way and pointed to Mark’s hand with the paperwork, doing her best to make small talk and seem at ease. “Are you planning to expand the store side or re-open the garages for car repair?”

Mark could tell she was nervous and trying to make small talk, but she was fairly effective in her process despite being uneasy. She came across as genuinely interested, rather than simply making the comments only for the purposes of small talk. “Well, Miss …”

“Diane. Diane Wakeford.” She remained tense but did extend her hand to shake Mark’s.

“Miss Wakeford. Did you grow up around here?” Mark asked as they shook hands.

“Yes, I’ve lived here my whole life. Twenty-four years,” Diane said and took her hand back quickly.

“I see. Interesting.” Mark walked behind the main counter and took out application paperwork for her, then grabbed a pen and clipboard. “Did you go to college for business or marketing?”

“Oh, no sir.” She lowered her head slightly; removing her striking blue eyes from view by looking down at the paperwork she took from Mark. “I went to work right after high school. It was just what I’d planned, and it worked out for me, you know, going straight to work and all.”

“And are you working now?” Mark asked, leaning back against the counter.

Diane looked up straight at him and, in a quiet voice, responded, “No.” She paused for a second and cleared her throat, but never took her eyes off him. “I was, up until about a year ago, as a retail associate and in-store product marketing associate. I’ll put that information down here on the application. It was at Barker’s Department Store, and now it’s King’s Department Store.” She set the paperwork down to take her jacket off. The room wasn’t overly warm for a winter temperature setting, but she was clearly heating up. “I worked there part-time while in high school, as the retail associate and then closer to full-time hours over the summers. Once I graduated, I got the product marketing associate position.”

Mark studied her for a moment, and then said, “So, you worked there as a store product marketing associate.”

Diane became attentive and answered, “Yes, until I left about a year ago, give or take, as I mentioned. It was a family decision.” Diane paused again. “Well, not my family, as in my mother and father. Well, stepfather. My father and mother are divorced. He remarried and moved out of town.” She seemed to become aware of her nervous rambling and that she’d offered up more information than Mark had asked for, and settled herself then continued, “I was living there prior. After that, I moved out to live with my fiancé. So it was our decision for me to stop working.”

Mark held up his hand. “That’s fine; it’s a personal reason you’ve given. You don’t need to divulge the details.” Diane smiled at the statement, and it appeared to Mark as if a weight had lifted from her. “So Diane, why don’t you start filling out the application and tell me what you’re looking for as far as weekly hours and shifts.”

Diane took the forms and the pen and stepped over to the counter nearest the cash register to begin filling them out. “Well, I was looking for something full-time, but I don’t have a car right now, so really anything nearby will do. This job’s only a mile from my house, so walking to work is easy for me regardless of the weather. I guess the nice thing is that minimum wage just went up twenty-five cents to $3.35 an hour, so that’s basically eight percent more than I would have been making.”

Mark watched her fill out the form with quick, neat strokes. She didn’t have to pull anything from her wallet to reference for the forms, like her driver’s license for that number, nor her Social Security card. “I need to find someone who can cover four to six shifts in a part-time capacity to start with,” Mark said, then walked over to the coolers and turned the fluorescent lighting out. “Depending on how things go with that person, how they work out, being dependable and working hard and all, I may add to the hours and increase the pay.”

A slight shift came over her behavior after the comments. By her reaction, Mark presumed it was a job she needed. “So, tell me, Diane,” Mark said, mentally preparing to take note of her responses, “you noticed the design plans in my hand when you came in. I’m planning to do something with the old bays there. I haven’t exactly decided what I might do. I could hire someone to do auto work, or I could sublease out all the space for someone who has more capacity to do it than I do. Or I could expand the store into some or all of the three bays. What do you think I should do?”

Diane stopped, set the pen down, and looked up at him intently with her piercing blue eyes. Mark took the time to look into them this time and felt uneasy as if he was suddenly the one being interviewed. “You want to know my thoughts?” she asked, still in her quiet voice.

“Why not?” Mark reclaimed his composure. “You’ve been in this town all this time. You probably know a lot of what young adults your age are looking for in and around the area. Yes; if it was your store, what would you do?”

Diane took a moment to collect her thoughts and stepped over to the glass door between the store and the bays. Matthew, who still stood listening from the doorway of the back office, backed up half a step so as to not be seen.

“I would keep the far bay with the heavy lift and highest ceiling and partition it off.” She seemed to say what she was thinking with confidence, but Mark could still sense that “girlish” uneasiness, or something else, coming from the young woman. “That way, if you have the capacity to do the work or find someone that does, you can use that area.” She tucked her head slightly, and then pointed to the glass that led into the middle of the remaining area. “The other two bays I would convert for store space, but I would lease the area like a kiosk in the Mall.” She turned her head to look at him to make sure he understood. “You know. Like up at the Meriden Square, where they sublet the spaces for other small businesses.”

Her idea intrigued Mark. “What would you put in there?”

“Well, you’re subletting the space, so it could be almost anything. What I think what you want to have is something that compliments everything else that you already do here. Maybe someone who’s interested in a sandwich shop? You could have the coolers and the counter areas all ready for them to go, and they would lease the space and make the food. They sell at their counter, and when people want soda or juice for the sandwich, they come to you. That or you’re cross drawing. Someone who has to grab lunch, get their lottery tickets, cigarettes, and fuel on their break is going to come where they can do it all in one stop.”

Mark said nothing while he mulled her idea over, then he walked over to her partly-filled-out application and glanced at it. RATE OF PAY—any. SHIFTS DESIRED (if applicable)—any. DATE AVAILABLE TO START—any.

“You didn’t like the ideas?” Diane asked with a detectable level of concern in her voice.

“Oh, no,” Mark said quickly, looking up from the paperwork. “They’re quite progressive. I certainly hadn’t thought about subleasing chunks of space inside the store. That’s a creative way to look at it because I don’t need to do the work myself, using your example, handling the food and the prep. That, and I don’t have to hire another hand that may be interested in ‘just’ working. With them leasing the space, it is a business of theirs to make or break. The more I think on your ideas, the more I like them.”

Diane smiled widely. “No one’s ever really expressed an interest in one of my ideas,” she said in an elevated tone, backed by a rush of evident excitement on her face. She reached over and hugged him, but then immediately tensed up. Mark also stiffened, as the sudden forwardness surprised him. She let go almost at once and jerked herself back, and her cheeks flushed in embarrassment. “Oh, I’m so sorry for that.” Diane lowered her head and stepped away.

Mark moved forward, feeling somewhat awkward, and reached his hands out clumsily and said, “Look, no harm done. You got a little caught up in the moment and excited.” Mark backed away just slightly. “When can you start?”

“I’ve got the job?”

“I don’t see why not. I have to hire someone, and while I’m sure I can find another worker, I guarantee they won’t be this excited and enthusiastic.” Mark looked up into the security mirror and saw Matthew peering around the corner.

“Oh!” Diane called out and put her hands over her mouth. “I can start right away, Mr. Sanford.”

“Let’s see.” He looked back at her application. “You were born in 1957, so that makes you twenty-four. Yeah, ‘Mr. Sanford’ is my father, and he’s down in Florida. So ‘Mark’ will be fine.”

Diane didn’t respond but continued to wear a huge smile on her face.

“I’m not completely sure what hours I’m going to need you, especially at first, Miss Wakeford, but I’ll try to keep you at a total of thirty per week. More if the business can sustain and justify it.”

“Could you call me Diane?” she asked as tears welled up. “I would be uncomfortable calling you ‘Mark’ if you’re going to call me Miss Wakeford.”

“Sure, I suppose that’s fair. Look, I’m going to collect my son and lock up. Can I give you a ride home?”

Diane turned and looked out of the window. The snow had picked up a little. “If it’s not going to put you out of the way. Otherwise, I would appreciate that.”

Matthew came around the corner the remainder of the way with his books and his father’s jacket. “I locked up the rear door. Here,” he said and handed the winter coat to his father.

“Matthew.” Mark took the jacket and pulled his keys out. “This is Diane Wakeford; she’s going to start working here next week.”

Matthew looked up into her eyes and stared at her while extending his hand. He squeezed out an almost whispered “hello” to her. While she was twelve years older than him, she stood barely five feet tall, and Matthew wasn’t much shorter than her at fifty-four inches.

Diane blushed a little at Matthew’s apparent attraction and reaction then smiled and responded “hi,” which came out a bit forcefully.

“I’m sorry for staring,” Matthew said, somewhat embarrassed, while his father turned the remaining lights off. “I could swear I’ve seen you before.”

“My sister is your age and in fifth grade over at Pond Hill; Melissa Bancroft. Same mother, different fathers.”

“Ah,” Matthew said, then looked over at his father.

Mark fumbled around some papers behind the counter so he could listen in a little and get a better understanding of his new employee’s demeanor, as well as to give his son the chance to talk to her a little.

“Are you friends with her?” Diane asked. Matthew just continued to stare at her. “Missy. My sister. I know school just restarted with the New Year and all. I’m not exactly sure how long you’ve been over at Pond Hill, but we live down Ward Street, right near the north end of East Street, so I was wondering.”

“I’ve seen her,” Matthew said with his voice breaking an octave higher than it normally would. “I tried to introduce myself to her, but she’s a little aggressive for a girl.”

Diane laughed aloud. “That’s Missy. She’s everything I’m not. Brave. Fearless. Indifferent to whether everyone or no one likes her. She’ll never admit it, but she likes a challenge. If you engage her, you’ll get her attention. Don’t walk up and introduce yourself. I know you haven’t formally met her, but if you walk up and just talk to her like you’ve known her a while, she’ll respond.” Matthew nodded and Diane leaned in to whisper in his ear. “She’s starting to get interested in boys, and you’re handsome. … You’ll catch her interest before she even knows what hit her.”

Matthew’s smile grew wide as Diane drew back and looked at the expression on his face. “I see my sister already has your interest.”

Matthew slunk backward, and blood rushed to his face.

Mark came around the counter with his things and the keys to the car. “Are we all set to get going?”

“I am, Mr. … Mark. Thank you again for the opportunity.”

“I’m looking forward to having you on board,” Mark responded, then moved past the two of them for the door. Both of them followed him out, and he locked up the store for the evening.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

At recess, Matthew walked along the side wall of the school, kicking the slushy snow on the ground and dragging his feet a little. With the small spike of the late January temperatures into the forties, the teachers had decided to take the fourth and fifth graders out for their short break. He looked across at a group of boys swapping baseball cards a few feet ahead of him to see Melissa Bancroft and a couple of other girls talking to one another.

Since speaking with her older sister in his father’s store a couple of weeks prior, he hadn’t had a good enough reason to engage her in a conversation. He’d tried a couple of times—once in the lunch line then once on the bus going home, but she always seemed aloof and indifferent to his efforts.

She’s pretty and all, Matthew thought, but I don’t even know what else I could say to her to try to talk to her and, to be honest, the whole, “chase me” thing is getting under my skin.

Matthew integrated himself with the boys looking at the trading cards, but he casually looked past them at Melissa.

***

Melissa smiled as her friend Carrie Hoag tugged on her arm. “See! He did it again, Melissa.” Carrie let Melissa’s arm go, took off her hat, and tucked the brown strands back up. “He stands there and tries to look busy doing something else, but it’s always in a direct line to see you. I told you he likes you.”

Melissa smiled and moved a falling piece of her black hair away from her dark brown eyes. “He’s friendly. We’ve talked a little. He lives in the neighborhood. Well, over on the far south side of it, anyhow. My half-sister works for his father.”

“Oh my God, have you seen his father?” Alecia Parker squealed. “He’s almost as cute at Matthew.”

“I know,” Melissa responded, almost embarrassed, and giggling softly. “I think Diane has a crush on him.”

“On her boss? That’s totally—” Carrie began before Alecia cut her off.

“RAD!” Alecia said excitedly. “Come on! He’s gorgeous!”

“Matthew or his Dad?” Melissa asked, then giggled.

“Well, they both are. Obviously, Matthew is too young for Diane,” Alecia replied, then turned her head to look a little more carefully at Matthew.

Partly being funny and partly to make a point, Melissa responded, “Well, technically speaking, he’s not. Right now the age difference doesn’t work but when he’s older it would. I mean my sister is twenty-four, and when I asked Matthew when he would be twelve he said ‘May,’ so that’s twelve years’ difference.” Melissa strolled forward, and her friends followed. “My sister said that Mr. Sanford …”

“Mark. She calls him Mark all the time,” Alecia said with a big smile.

“Right …” Melissa nodded. “Diane said that Mr. Sanford’s birthday was coming up in February. She’d overheard Matthew talking about it to him at the store. So it’s a twelve-year difference there too. My stepfather is ten years older than my mother. It’s almost the same.”

“That would mean that when Marrrky was in fifth or sixth grade, your sister was just born,” Carrie said in a playful and teasing tone as she too turned her more of her attention towards Matthew.

“I don’t mind a bit of playful talk,” Melissa said in a quieter voice, “but I think Mr. Sanford deserves a little respect. I mean, we can crush on him all day,” she said as her smile widened, “but he only gave Diane permission to call him ‘Mark.’”

Carrie let out a little squeal and pushed lightly into the other two girls as if she was swooning.

Melissa looked over at Matthew, then lifted her hand to wave to him, and he waved back at her. He waved back to me without looking around. At least he has some confidence, she thought. She opened her mouth as he stepped away from the group he was with and walked towards the three of them.

“He’s coming this way,” Carrie said to Alecia and grabbed her playfully by the shoulders.

“Oh my God, Missy, what are you going to say?” Alecia asked.

“How can I know? He hasn’t said a word to me yet today. I didn’t sit near him on the bus.” Melissa tried to steady herself, but her heart rate climbed; something she’d never experienced with a boy before, and it bothered her a little. Easy, she thought. Since when are you nervous talking to people? She liked the idea that she was strong and, in her mind, as self-supporting and confident as she could be for her age. She didn’t want to fall into the same trap her mother did and the recent relationship that had failed with her older sister. Seeing all of that around the house made her tough, but meeting Matthew had softened her thoughts in ways that surprised her, and the way she was suddenly feeling caught her off guard.

“Hi Melissa, Carrie, Alecia,” Matthew said as he walked up. He held Melissa’s gaze and said, “I was wondering if you were busy after school.”

The girls giggled and Melissa turned away from them. “Well, I have a lot of homework.”

“Me too. I thought we might work on the Social Studies review together if that would interest you.”

Melissa smiled at the thought of being asked, and he had done it so directly. He didn’t seem nervous like the other boys who talked to her. At the same time, she realized she was far less nervous about talking to him than over the past few days of getting to know him better. “Well, I like the idea, but I’m not allowed out with boys. Even for school work,” Melissa said with a frown. “That’s my dad’s rule.”

Without a pause, Matthew said, “Is he home after school? Maybe if I came over and asked him? That way he knows it was an honest interest in homework.” Matthew smiled. “And maybe to listen to a little music.”

Melissa grinned ear to ear. No one had ever asked her to sit and listen to music together. However, the smile washed away quickly. “My stepdad works until eleven, so he’s not even home to ask.”

“Could I ask your mom? Is she home? I don’t mind staying there at your house.”

“She works until seven. I’m sure she’d have a conniption if I had a boy over. I’m supposed to call her when I get in now that Diane is working for your dad, and I’m home by myself until then,” Melissa said, waving her friends off when they giggled at the two of them. She stepped away and tugged Matthew by the arm to follow her. Melissa smiled, continuing to hold onto his arm for a moment after the tug to move him along.

“How about you ask her if you can come to the store to study with me?” Matthew said, looking down at Melissa’s hands still on his arm. “It’s better than you sitting there at home alone. Your sister’s there. My Dad’s there. And your mom can pick the two of you up at seven.”

Melissa let her hands go. “I thought your Dad closed the store at six?” Then she turned away from Matthew as the cold wind picked up and blew her loose strands of hair around.

“He does, that’s right,” Matthew said, visibly embarrassed. “I was thinking of the time your mother comes home and not when my Dad closes the store.”

“I guess you really wanted to spend time with me if you forgot when your dad closes the store,” Melissa said quietly, trying to make it sound sincere.

“Would you like to check with your mom and ask?” Matthew looked somewhat withdrawn and defensive. “I could get off at your bus stop and walk with you to the house and wait for you to call her at work. If she says yes, we could walk together to the store.”

“I’d like that,” Melissa said with a smile.

“Okay, that’s great,” Matthew said a little louder and with some confidence. “I’ll see you on the bus.”

Melissa turned to walk back to her friends, and then called out, “Matthew?”

“Yes?” he answered before he fully turned around to walk away.

“Do you have a nickname or does everyone call you ‘Matthew’ all the time?”

“It’s just Matthew,” he said, withdrawn again. “I favor it that way because … well, I just do.”

“It’s a nice name. My friends call me Missy,” she said, and her smile returned.

“Diane called you that as well. I wasn’t sure if it was something you liked or if it’s something done to tease. Like when my friends are goofing and call me ‘Matty’ or ‘Sandman.’ I was trying to figure that out. Your nickname—it’s pretty. Like you.”

Carrie and Alecia completely lost themselves on the “pretty” comment and screamed and laughed. Melissa glanced over at Matthew, who looked visibly shaken for having said what he’d said and watching the reactions of the girls. Melissa gave the two of them a scornful glare and walked over to him.

“You’re the nicest boy I’ve ever met,” she whispered in his ear, and then kissed him on the cheek. She didn’t want to see his reaction, so she turned and ran from him and her friends. “I’ll see you on the bus.”

“Yeah,” Matthew said as they disappeared up and over the small, snowy hill on the playground. “See you on the bus.” He watched while Carrie and Alecia tried to catch up with her.

***

Matthew took a couple of steps to the side, watching Melissa, and then turned to walk and smacked right into another girl coming his way. She slipped in the snow and fell. Matthew reached down to help her up. “I’m so sorry; that was clumsy of me. I wasn’t paying attention.”

The fair-skinned girl with the red hair smiled and extended her hand to be helped up. “It’s okay. Accidents and all,” she said while she stood and brushed the snow off.

“The snow got you wet; I’m sorry about that,” Matthew said, rather embarrassed. He wanted to brush the snow off her but hesitated on touching her. The girl looked at him, evidently wondering if he’d follow through, and smiled when he finally did.

“Recess is almost over. I’ll be okay. Well, I suppose now that we’ve bumped into one another we could say ‘hi.’ My name’s Elizabeth. My friends call me Liz.”

“Matthew,” he said, smiling. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Well, I suppose knocking me over had a benefit,” she said, then laughed and brushed more snow off her pants.

“Oh?” Matthew turned to walk with her. “Such as?”

“Well, for one thing, I finally got to meet you. You’re new here, and I can’t get your attention from the back of the classroom. That and when you make a mistake, you have only positive improvement from there, for the most part.” Her lips curved up in amusement.

“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose you’re right,” Matthew said with a shy smile and a glance her way, and then they walked back toward the school building.

CHAPTER FOUR

The school bus pulled up to Ward Street, and only Melissa and Matthew got out at the corner. They crossed the street in front of the bus, and then it continued northbound past Boylan’s corner store on South Cherry Street.

“So, I saw Liz finally got around to saying hello to you,” Melissa said, with her head turned to watch Matthew’s expression while they headed down the street to her house.

“Yeah. I didn’t know her so well. You know, except from class. I thought she lived in this neighborhood somewhere, but she lives over on Blakeslee.” Matthew kicked some of the snow boulders forward on the sidewalk.

“That’s closer to the southeast side schools: Dag, and Lyman Hall.” Melissa slowed at her driveway cut. “This is my house. I’ll call my mom. You’ll have to wait on the porch. I can’t have anyone in when no one’s home. Especially a boy.”

“Have you had many boys here?” Matthew said, and immediately regretted blurting it out.

Melissa thought about the comment for a second and smiled. “No. You’re the first one I brought home.” She kissed him on the cheek then darted into the house.

***

Melissa closed the front door behind her and blew a lung full of air out of her mouth all at once. I can’t believe I did that. TWICE now! What was I thinking? When did I become this mushy girl? She headed into the kitchen and grabbed the phone that hung on the wall. She dialed the number to her mother’s workplace and stretched the long coiled cord to the phone so that she could look towards the front windows. She watched Matthew pace around on the porch.

“Corametrics—how can I direct your call?” the female voice on the other end of the phone asked.

“Um … Accounting, Mrs. Canton, please,” Melissa asked, unsure of herself.

“One moment, please.” The line went on hold.

Too many last names, Melissa thought with a slight frown as the hold music filled her ear. Diane Wakeford, Melissa Bancroft, Karen Canton, wife of Joseph Canton … ugh! I miss Dad. I guess Diane feels the same way. I know Mom just wants to be happy and have someone in her life …”

“Hello,” the woman on the phone said on her return. “Mrs. Canton is unavailable to take a call at the moment. May I take a message for her?”

“Um … no, thank you. I’ll try her later.” Melissa hung up. She hated to leave messages despite her mother asking her to call once she got home from school, especially now with Diane not around because of work.

What could I say? She thought as she rummaged through the drawer in the kitchen for a pen and a piece of scratch paper. “Can you tell her, her daughter called, and leave her the message that she’s going up the street to do homework with a nice boy?” I hate that. It’s stupid to call, and I’m going to get her yelled at and into trouble at work. Melissa looked back to the front windows while she started the note to her mother. Still, he is a nice boy. I wouldn’t mind getting yelled at if it meant spending time with him. I wonder what music he likes. Melissa looked down at the little heart shape she’d drawn on the piece of paper. “This boy is making me brain damaged!” she said aloud and with a huff. She crumpled the paper, tossed it into the trash, and started a new note:

“Mom—I went up the street to Colony Convenience, where Diane works, to study with Matthew Sanford.” Melissa paused her writing for a moment. “I need help with Geography, and Matthew is a wiz at it. I will come home with Diane when the store closes around six. Love you—Missy.”

Oh, that sounded ridiculous, Melissa thought, dropping the pen on the table and walking away from the note. It serves the purpose. It communicated where I am, whom I’m with, and how and when I will be home, even if it sounds dorky.

***

Matthew peered briefly in through the window to check how far into the house he could see. It was too dark to make out much more than a hallway into the house going past a flight of stairs. The room at the far end might be the kitchen. He could see Melissa’s outline in the poor lighting. From where he stood, it looked like she’d taken off her hat and pulled the phone from the wall to place a call. With the tiny amount of light coming from the kitchen, it was hard to make out much, but she did shake out her long black hair.

I never really noticed how long it was, Matthew thought. She always has it pinned up or under a hat. The bangs look cute. Matthew pulled his face away from the window and walked back and forth on the porch, shaking his head like a puppy might. When the heck did I become a girl’s hair expert?

A few moments later, after thinking about Baseball cards, Styx, and whether it would be cool to have cable TV and thirty-six channels for the first time, Matthew stopped walking when Melissa came out of the house.

***

“All set?” Matthew turned to step off the porch but stopped short.

“Yep, all set. I called my mother.” Melissa turned to him since he’d stopped. “Everything okay?”

“Yes,” Matthew said, waving his hand forward in a partial motion to the stairs. Melissa stepped forward and realized he was letting her go first. Once she appreciated that, she simply stepped off and walked at a normal pace. “So, your Mom was okay with things?”

“Well,” Melissa admitted, sheepish, “I didn’t reach her. She couldn’t take the call, and I hate leaving a personal message like that with the woman who takes the calls, so I hung up and wrote her a note.” Melissa turned half a step in front of him. “It’s not a huge deal.”

“Of course not.” Matthew nodded. “I leave my Dad a note all the time when I take off to do something. It’s so he knows where I am and that way he doesn’t worry.”

Matthew slipped on an icy patch but caught his balance. Melissa stepped forward with her head turned back and snorted with a quick laugh then slipped herself. Matthew reached forward and grabbed her, one hand low on her waist and another on her shoulder to stop her fall. He held her effortlessly while keeping his stance on the remainder of the ice. The cold winter air escaped both of their open mouths as the two of them stood looking at one another. A look of uncertainty overtook Matthew’s expression as he held her, and he stood her up to let her go.

Keep breathing, Melissa said to herself. Saying something now would be cool. “Thanks for catching me. No point in cracking my head open; I could ruin the rest of winter that way.” Oh my God! Stop talking. The remainder of the walk. Say nothing!

“Uh, yeah. No problem. Sorry. I didn’t mean to grab at you.” Matthew sounded nervous.

“Oh yeah, well, anytime,” Melissa said, stepping forward. Oh God, maybe I can get out into the road at the corner, and a car can hit me. “Anytime?” What is wrong with me? He caught me and couldn’t wait to let me go. He had such an awful look on his face.

Matthew became quiet and said nothing further, and the two of them continued over the next few blocks to the store in silence.

When they came up alongside the building of his father’s store they each looked up at Diane, who stared back at them through the glass. Matthew confidently stepped ahead of Melissa to open the door for her. She jittered just a little but then immediately calmed down once she sensed that strength of character coming from him again.

Melissa stepped in and took her hat off, and Matthew pulled the door closed. Diane waved over to them. “Hi.” She looked surprised to see her little sister. “What are you doing here?” she mouthed silently to her as Matthew turned his head away and toward the glass windows of the garage area.

“Just a second,” Matthew said, touching her softly on her lower back and over her heavy winter jacket. “I want to see what my Dad is doing and then I can introduce you.” Matthew stepped away, and Melissa felt a tingle from his light touch.

“What are you doing here?” Diane whispered sharply. “No way Mom said this was okay.”

“I called her. She couldn’t come to the phone, so I left her a note on the kitchen table,” Melissa said in a hushed tone, looking back over at Matthew, who’d stepped into the garage area.

“What if Joe sees the note? He’ll go ballistic!” Diane said as her voice began to come back to a normal volume with Matthew out of hearing range. The sounds of the power tools going on and off would certainly drown out their voices.

“You worry too much about stepfather Canton, Diane,” Melissa said, cracking wise. “You’re twenty-four; if I were twenty-four, I wouldn’t let him push me around the way he does you and Mom.”

“Well, you’re not me. And you’re not depending on him for a place to live like I am. You’re still a minor and Mom’s daughter. If she’s there, he sort of has to keep you. He can remove me at any time.”

“You know he works until eleven and doesn’t get home for half an hour after that. Longer if he stops at the club to play cards.” Melissa’s irritation showed in her voice.

“He’s a cute boy,” Diane said, trying to change the subject to something more light hearted.

“I suppose,” Melissa said, attempting to sound indifferent.

“That was a miserable effort to sound uninterested in him,” Diane said, giggling. “Fifth grade …” She gave a sigh. “What a wonderful time of change.”

“Is that when you started liking boys?” Melissa asked.

“It might have been over the summer,” Diane said. “It might have even been the start of sixth grade, but it was Danny Quintin. I’d had a crush on him since second grade. It blossomed into something around then. Well, for me at least.”

Melissa looked over at Matthew talking to his father. He motioned over towards the two of them. Noticing they were looking at him, Matthew waved to the two of them, looking directly at Melissa. The blood rushed to her face, turning it red, while Diane waved back.

“My God, you’re blushing. You must really like him,” Diane said with a smile.

“I do.” She bit her lip, nervous. “I don’t think he does, you know, like that.”

“Why would you say that?” Diane asked.

“Well, I slipped on the ice earlier and he caught me before I fell. He barely said anything to me and then couldn’t wait to let me go,” Melissa said with a sad tone in her voice, looking through the shop window at him.

Diane countered, “Well, he asked you to study with him, and he could study and do homework by himself or with one of his other friends, but he asked you instead.”

“He also said we might listen to some music. I assume if we finished early,” Melissa responded, and glanced at the floor shyly.

“An invitation to study and then listen to music too?” Diane said. “When’s the wedding?”

“Stop. Please. Tease me any other day like a sister might but please not today. Yes. I do like him. He’s nice. He’s polite. He talks to me like I’m anyone. He knows I’m a girl, but he treats me the same as any of his friends. I like that. All the way home on the bus I talked, and he listened and he talked and I listened. It was better than talking to Carrie or Alecia.” Melissa turned to look at him again, and then turned around and looked at Diane. “I know I give you a lot of flak about Steve. I’m sorry. He treated you like crap as if he owned you. I’m not sorry to say I was happy when he kicked you out because that meant you got to come home and be with us. I like having you there.” She closed her eyes as tears welled up in them. “I’m sorry I was hard, saying what I felt, while that was all happening and when you first came home. I could have found a better way to tell you.”

“I know, Missy, and I understand,” Diane said. “That’s your style. Straightforward and from the hip. Someday, when I grow up, I want to be like you.”

Melissa wiped a stray tear away as the garage door opened, and Matthew and his father walked into the store area.

“Missy,” Matthew called out to her, “this is my Dad. Dad, this is Melissa, Diane’s sister.”

“Hi,” Mark said as he brushed his hands on his work pants. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m a little dirty, sorry.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Sanford,” Melissa said with a smile.

“Did you want a soda or anything before you go study? Matthew said that he asked you here and that no one was at your house.” Mark motioned toward the coolers.

A car pulled up to the fuel pumps, and Mark turned his head to look out.

“You seem to get a lot of cars through the fuel pumps,” Melissa said, looking out the windows as well. “I saw a few coming and going last week when I stopped in here with my Step Dad. He says you have the cheapest fuel in town.”

“Well, we have the location here on Route 5 and it’s on the corner; that’s certainly a traffic pull, but the main attraction is that we do have the lowest cost for fuel in town. It’s because we did away with the full-service pumps and have people pump fuel themselves, unlike most of the other stations, so we’re able to shed that cost and pass the savings along to the customer.” Mark gave a gentle laugh. “Honestly, I’d like to sell more coffee. I earn more per unit.” Mark looked over at Diane then back to Melissa. “The work I’m doing out there …” He pointed over his shoulder. “… converting two of the bays into more store space; I’m going to sublet that out. Your sister gave me that idea.”

“She’s smart like that,” Melissa said with a wide smile and turned toward Diane. “She’s pretty and kind, too. When I grow up, I want to be like her.”

***

The words from Mark and Melissa overwhelmed Diane, and she began to cry a little, so she turned her head away and tried to look busy. Matthew went over to the display of paper products and grabbed a small box of facial tissues for her. “Thank you,” she said, then sniffed and dried her eyes.

Matthew nodded and took Melissa by the hand to head into his Dad’s office area to do homework.

Mark watched them round the corner and turned back to Diane. “Are you okay?”

“Oh yes,” Diane said with a sniff. “Complements are scarce at home.”

“I’m sorry about that.” Mark sounded sympathetic. “They shouldn’t be in general, but especially not at home.”

“I can see where Matthew gets his kindness.” Diane leaned over the counter. “I think my sister likes him. You know. Like a girl likes a boy,” she said in a soft whisper.

“Oh,” Mark said, caught somewhat off guard. “Well, I guess I’ll need to have ‘that’ conversation with him soon. At least it’s a nice girl like your sister.”

Diane laughed a little. “She’s nice, but she’s tough too.”

“Matthew can use the challenge. Besides, if she’s anything like you, it’s worth any potential negative,” Mark said as he backed away and turned to head to the garage. “I mean that. Your idea for these two bays is very progressive. I’m encouraged that it will be successful. All I need now, really, is someone to operate that final garage bay for all the things I can’t do.”

***

Diane took on that intense look that she had when she focused on something. Mark could almost feel the look on him. The bell on the door rang as the customer came in to pay for his fuel. With Diane turned away to collect the payment, Mark headed back out to the garage.

CHAPTER FIVE

Even though it was just a few blocks away, Mark insisted on giving the girls a ride back to their house once the workday had ended. Diane indicated she could walk back with Melissa, and Matthew offered to walk with them both, but Mark felt that it was too late and too cold. The temperatures had dropped sharply, and the wind had picked up.

“Thank you for the pizza, Mark,” Diane said from the front seat. She looked back at Melissa, who sat in the back. “You didn’t have to feed us. I’m sure my mother just worked late, and that’s why there was no answer at the house when we called.”

“Oh, it was no trouble,” Mark said as he pulled up to their house. “I was happy to have the company. ‘Just Matthew’ is getting boring.” He chuckled.

Melissa looked down the driveway and noticed both cars. “Joe’s home,” she said in a reserved tone to Diane.

“Is something the matter?” Mark asked, shifting the car into park and turning it off.

Diane jerked the passenger door open, “No, it’s fine. If he’s home, we need to get in. Something must have happened at work. He’s usually on shift until eleven. He’ll be upset we’re both out.”

“I don’t understand,” Mark said, confused, looking back at Matthew, who only shrugged to him.

Diane looked back in at him, and the look was very different than the one he’d grown used to seeing on her face. “Can I just explain things to you tomorrow?” she asked as Melissa got out of the car and the front door opened.

“DI!” the man on the front stoop yelled. “Is Missy with you?” He tugged up on his pants below his spare tire of a stomach. The graying, balding man stood in his robe in the cold winter evening—the look of disdain over his two stepdaughters clearly apparent.

“Hi Joe, yes, we just got done over at the store and had pizza,” Diane said in a nearly frantic tone.

Mark got out of the car and peeked into the back seat. “Stay here,” he said to Matthew before closing the driver’s side door and crossing in front of the car. “Mr. Canton, hi,” Mark said and strolled up onto the property. “I haven’t had the chance to meet you formally since Diane started working for me.” He looked past Mr. Canton to the woman looking out of the living room window, whom he presumed was the man’s wife and the girls’ mother.

“You girls get inside and go sit with your mother,” Joe snapped, then turned his attention to Mark. “Mr. Sandford—”

“Mark, please. Mark Sanford,” Mark said. The girls went behind him and into the house while Matthew looked up and over the backseat at Melissa, who never turned around. He crawled over the seat to the front passenger side.

“Mr. Sanford, we have a rule about Missy being out with a boy by herself,” he said and pointed a shaky finger back toward the car.

“Totally understandable, Mr. Canton. The eighties bring a whole new generation of things we never grew up with. Well, let me help put you at ease. They were in my office at the store the entire time, legitimately engaged with their homework, and if Diane wasn’t in there with them, I was. As soon as homework was done, as time went, we closed the store and gave the house here a call. When no one answered, I assumed that you and your wife were likely at work still, so I wanted to make sure the girls got fed dinner.”

Joe Canton stood on his front porch trying to size up the man in front of him. He spoke well and put him at ease. “Well … I suppose I can make light of the situation … this one time. The girls know our rules better. It would appear they tried to call; according to you.” Mark was about to interject more in their defense, but he decided to hold off. He wanted to glance around the man, but when he tried just a little, Joe moved over and blocked his view.

***

Matthew could see the girls in the living room occasionally through the drawn drapes when they moved around. While he never met Melissa’s mother, there was another woman in the room with them, and he assumed that was she. He sat forward and pressed himself into the dashboard to try to get a better view from the partial illumination coming out of the upstairs windows, and from the hallway lights. The window in the front left side lit up, but he couldn’t see into it because the trees in the front yard blocked his view. Matthew sank back into his seat.

***

“Well, Mr. Canton, I won’t keep you further. It’s late, and I’m sure you want to get back inside.” Mark studied Joe’s face and his stern look for a second, and then continued, “I mean you worked a hard day, and it’s time to get some respect for that; have a full meal and something to drink and relax a little in front of the TV.”

Joe’s expression changed and relaxed entirely. “Finally,” he said in a calmer manner, “another man that understands the way things are supposed to be. Have a good night … Mark … right?”

“Yes, sir, you have a good night. Make sure you remind that Diane of yours to be on time for tomorrow,” Mark said as he backed away towards his car.

“She’ll be there, early,” Joe said with very little additional emotion.

Mark gave the barest of smiles and waved.

Once he got back to the car, he glanced back over his shoulder at the front door just as it closed.

“What was that all about, Dad?” Matthew asked when his father got in the car and started it.

“That, son,” he said, pulling the car around, “is a remnant from the 1950s.”

“I don’t understand what that means.” Matthew sounded confused.

“Well, it’s hard to explain to you fully. You wouldn’t understand all the nuances; you’re too young. If I simplify the explanation for you, would you promise to keep it between us and not discuss it with Diane or Melissa?”

“Sure, Dad.”

Mark took a deep breath in while turning the car into their driveway. “Their father is an asshole,” Mark said with the straightest face he could. Matthew gasped in shock—because his father almost never swore. “If I had to guess, he’s overbearing and gets his way in that household by being totalitarian and by coercion.”

“So I guess you don’t like him?” Matthew asked as he opened the door of the car to get out.

“The man is free to run his household any way he sees fit. It’s his home. At the same time, there are other people there too that have the same right to happiness and respect that he expects to get. I hope he does that.” Mark got out, picked up the leftover pizza in the box, and followed his son into the house. “At the same time, I somehow doubt that.”

“What do you mean?” Matthew asked, setting his things down on the kitchen table.

“Well, if I had to judge his character from this one meeting …” Mark paused while he took the remaining pizza slices out and wrapped them up to put into the refrigerator. “No matter what level of respect he might actually get, he’s likely to presume he’s entitled to more and isn’t getting it. On top of that, with Diane being older, and despite how passive she is, I’m sure he feels like he’s lost a level of control he once had.” Mark tore up the now empty pizza box and dropped the smaller pieces into the garbage. “And then your friend Melissa,” he said, smiling, “she’s a spitfire, I can tell. He won’t be able to control her much longer.”

Matthew listened to everything his father said. Then he looked over at the phone on the wall. “Do you think I could call Mom?”

Mark turned to look at his son. He took a deep breath in and let it all out in a sigh. “It’s a long distance call. If you get through, you’re going to have to keep it short.”

“I know, Dad. I miss her. I was hoping that maybe this time she’ll answer the phone. It’s been a while.”

Mark hated that look of disappointment on his son’s face. He’d seen it so many times before. “Let me place the call for you.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Mark placed the call on the rotary wall phone and, as it rang, he handed the phone to Matthew. He walked into the living room and sat in the recliner while Matthew listened to the phone ring. Mark looked at the clock on the wall: 7:15 here meant it would be 6:15 there; she should be available if she went home after work.

***

In the kitchen, Matthew pulled the chair out nearest to the wall phone and sat down. He gave the yellow, spiral cord a slight tug to loosen it up a little and give it some slack.

“Yello,” a man answered on the line after a few rings.

“Um … Hi,” Matthew said. “Is my Mom there?”

“Mom?” the agitated voice asked. “BARB!” the man yelled, sounding as if he had turned his head away from the phone. “Barbara! There’s some kid on the phone looking for his mother.” Matthew could hear footsteps on a hard floor, and they grew louder. Matthew flinched and yelled, “Dad!” to his father and away from the phone receiver.

“Hello,” the woman’s voice said softly over the phone.

“Mom?” Matthew asked as Mark walked into the room.

Barbara sighed into the phone. “Is your father there, Matthew? Does he know you called?”

“He’s right here. I wanted to talk to you. I’m doing well in school. I might get a paper route. I made some new friends and one is a nice girl …” Matthew blurted it all out in a rush.

“That’s wonderful, dear. Let me speak to your father, please.” Barbara sounded irritated.

“She wants to talk to you,” Matthew said, dejected.

Mark walked over and pulled out the kitchen chair while taking the receiver away. Matthew looked at it, surprised. His father always asked him to leave the room when he spoke with his mother. “I know you’ve asked me to treat you a little older where and when I can. I’m going to do that now,” he said softly while covering the mouthpiece. “It’s not going to be pleasant for you to hear. I wouldn’t think any less of you—no one would—if you wanted to avoid this and deal with it another day.”

Matthew thought about his father’s words for a moment, and rather than leave the room as he had done countless times before, he took the seat instead. Mark pulled the next wooden kitchen chair over and sat facing the other way so he could hold the receiver off his ear a little to let Matthew hear too.

“Hi Barbara, what can I do you for?” Mark asked in even tones.

“Why do you do that? Why do you let him call?” she asked. “Can’t you keep an eye on him?”

“I dialed the number for him. He wanted to talk to you. If you want to be upset, be upset with me.”

“It’s such a simple thing. We’re done. We’ve been separated for over a year and a half, and the divorce has been final nearly a year. You have your life, and I have mine. I don’t want you in it anymore. Or him. I never really wanted kids. We were too young, and I had a life to live still. Now I’m going to, just a little later than I planned. Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

Mark looked over at Matthew, who had slouched back away from the phone upon hearing that part of the exchange. He was crying outright and just short of openly sobbing.

“I think I’ll be able to convince him fully from this point forward of your request for no contact. Your exchange here has made that incredibly simple now.” Mark had to use all his will to keep himself from getting upset in front of his son. He wanted Matthew to see his strength so he might draw from it, as much as his soul wanted to cry for him.

“Well, for Christ sake, I hope so,” Barbara shouted into the phone. “I don’t want to have to change numbers and hand them all out to my family for no reason. It’s over, and I’m done. I’m not going to take these calls anymore. I was with you because it was a lot of fun. You understood me. But then things happened, and you wanted to settle down. I never wanted to be a man’s wife and I certainly never wanted to be a mother. Everyone talked me out of the abortion. I tried to make a go of it, and I did the best I could for ten years. Ten years!” she said even louder. Mark looked over at his son, who fidgeted in his seat. Mark placed his free hand on his son’s knee. “You can’t save everyone, Mark. Not everyone can be helped. Some don’t even believe they need to be saved. Could my life be better? I don’t know, maybe, but it’s certainly not a bad life that I needed to be rescued from. Certainly not by the likes of you. Not everyone needs a man on a white horse, and you try too hard.” Barbara sighed into the phone. “That life I lived with you and him; I’m not getting that time back. I was miserable. I’m not anymore. I’m happy. I’m not going back to it, and I want no attachments or memories of it. It was the worst ten years of my life, and I wish I could erase them all.”

Matthew leapt up from the chair, tipping it over, and bolted from the room, with his footfalls slamming louder all the way up the stairs to his bedroom. Mark took the phone down from his ear. He lost the will to keep the tears back and wept, and the slam of the bedroom door at the top of the stairs punctuated his soft sniffs. With Barbara still venting into the phone, he eased to his feet and put the handset back on the receiver without saying another word.

Mark composed himself and thought about the things he wanted to say to Matthew before he went upstairs. Once he’d gathered up as many answers as he thought he might need to questions that might get asked, he went up the stairs on quiet feet.

At the top, Mark leaned over to the right and knocked on Matthew’s bedroom door.

“Leave me alone! I don’t want to talk!” Matthew cried out from behind his door, and his voice came out muffled as if he’d spoken through his pillow.

“Listen, sport, I know that was hard. It was hard on me, and I’m big. It had to be worse for you. A person can break attachments and feelings from a spouse, but it’s so much harder for a child to do that to a parent.”

“GO AWAY!” Matthew screamed. “I hate you!” he continued and his voice got progressively weaker. “If you just gave her what she wanted, we could still live there! I could still see her. … Maybe she’d change and love me again …” Matthew cried openly again. “She did love me, right, Dad?”

Mark rested his forehead against the door, laid both hands on each side of his head, and touched the wooden grain. If there’s any Creator in the universe, you draw that pain out of my child right now and funnel it into me. I can take it, he can’t. Not like that. As fast as he could, Mark processed responses in his head. At length, he said, “Matthew.” And pressed his head even harder on the door. “Every person has only so much capacity to love, be it for himself or others. Feelings like that are short in supply in every person, and it must be nurtured and replenished. There’s no normal amount; it varies from one person to another. If we’re lucky enough, we have people in our lives that give us more than we need, so we can give that love to others the same way we’re loved.”

After a short moment of silence, Matthew opened the door, and Mark stepped back to give him room. Matthew crashed into him, dropping his head into the center of his chest, and squeezed him so tightly that air rushed out of his lungs. It was the first time Mark had realized how tall and strong his son had become.

“I love you, Dad. I never tell you enough. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, son,” Mark said and tried to breathe in over the bear hug to form his next words. “I love you too.”

Matthew spoke without lifting his head at all. “So I guess that clinches it; it’s going to be just us for now.”

Mark held him tight. “Yes, Matthew. It’s going to be just us.”

“It’s okay,” Matthew replied softly, as much to respond to his father as to convince himself. “We’ll be fine, you and me. Things will work out.”

Mark closed his eyes and held his son. For the first time since they’d returned to Connecticut, he actually believed that.

CHAPTER SIX

Diane worked her way around the store, cleaning up around the makeshift coffee area for the customers. While she wiped down the counter, she peered through the front windows toward the pair of gas pumps that stood on the property, parallel to Route 5. The previous customer to have filled up had left, and a lull fell in the business traffic despite the busy flow along the state road. The late afternoon sun had already begun to drop lower in the western sky. Because of that it seemed later than it actually was, but the days were getting longer.

Diane stepped out into the store expansion area, where Mark worked, and called over to him, “You’ve been at this for about three hours straight; do you think it might make sense to stop for a short break?”

Mark turned around then glanced over at the clock. “Four fifteen,” he murmured. “Yeah, I guess I got into a rhythm and hadn’t realized what time it was.” He walked towards the store.

“I just swept in there,” Diane said, stepping into his path. “You’re a dusty mess. What did you need? I’ll go get it.”

Mark looked at her, and while he did, Diane felt uncomfortable about the way she’d just addressed him. Mark then looked down at his pants covered in sawdust and sheetrock debris. “Yeah, I guess I am dirty enough that I would track into the store.” He stepped over to a work stool and sat down. “Could you get me a soda, please?”

“Sure,” Diane said, relieved that he’d responded well to her comments. She stepped into the store to take a bottled soda from the shelf of the cooler, and then went back to the work area to give it to him.

“My favorite,” Mark said and took it from her with a warm smile.

“In the glass bottle, not the plastic one and not the can,” she said. “I remembered.”

“I think I’ve had two sodas in front of you in the short time you’ve worked here. That’s a pretty good eye on the details.”

Diane grinned then looked away as something caught her eye. “Excuse me,” she said. The bell to the entrance rang when a customer walked in, and she was already on her way out to wait on her.

***

From the high stool, Mark looked out of the large glass window into the main part of the store, not focused on anything but just staring generally. The past couple of weeks with Matthew had been difficult with the culmination of the events from the phone call. While he’d missed the one day of school immediately following, he went the day after, and he seemed to recover fairly quickly. Maybe it was because we’ve been separated for a while, Mark thought as he continued to look through the window. It wasn’t as if she’d taken any of the initial visitation she was entitled to. The whole year prior she wasn’t around either. She would come and go. It was just Matthew and him. The call was like a final slap in the face rather than a deep knife wound. Quick shock and done. Then you heal, and it’s all superficial. There may be more to it, and it might manifest in other ways, but Matthew seemed to be dealing with it okay.

Mark’s attention focused on the events in the room and the short transaction for the cigarettes and lottery tickets that the customer wanted. He stood up and walked over to the door between the expansion area and the original store, which allowed him to watch a little more closely and make out part of the conversation. He noticed that Diane smiled, made small talk with the customer, quickly got her items, and pointed over to the store shelves to suggest something additional. The customer waved it off but thanked her, paid for the items, and left. As the customer crossed near the door to exit and the one he was standing at, she smiled at Mark and waved. “Have a nice day,” Mark said, pulling the door open. “Thank you for stopping in.”

Diane came around the counter, “Out, you’re dirty,” she said with a motherly tone and then tensed up. “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”

Mark laughed. “It’s okay. It’s not like I’m your boss or anything.”

Diane froze in her tracks then turned away to straighten out items at the soda fountain station. Mark backed up into the work area and brushed off his pants quickly with his hands, and then went into the store. “Are you okay?” he asked her, concerned at her sudden shift in attitude.

“I’m fine,” she said but remained timid. “I was out of place. I’m sorry. That won’t happen again.”

“I was kidding. It’s fine. I understood what you said and why you said it.” Mark wanted her to return to her former manner. She only nodded and went back to work.

Mark watched her walk around the store and straighten out items on the shelves, moving them forward, so they were more aesthetically pleasing. She’d effectively lost all her personality and passion that she’d had from just the moment before.

“Diane, I’m really not upset at the comment,” Mark said and stepped forward.

“Yes, I understand.” She nodded.

“Would you look at me, please?” Mark walked up and stood right next to her. Diane stopped what she was doing and turned to him, but kept her head bowed down. “You turned toward me, but you’re still not looking at me,” Mark said in a gentle voice.

Diane lifted her head slightly but continued to avert her eyes. “I have a few more things I should finish ahead of the end of the day close.” Her tone sounded calm and nearly without pitch.

“Look,” Mark said, walking over to the door and locking it, then turning the “BACK IN TEN MINUTES” sign around. “We never did have a full conversation over what happened last week after your sister was here with Matthew and the exchange with your stepfather.” Mark stepped away from the door and towards her. Diane lowered her head and folded her hands in front of her. “I have this sinking feeling that a lot of this,” he said, waving his hands about, “has a lot to do with what happened after we left you girls there.”

Diane didn’t offer any additional explanation and continued to stand there quietly.

“I don’t want to berate you, you’re not a child, but I think you should talk to someone. I assume you must have some friends you could talk to about this. I’m a pretty good read of people and their reactions to their environment. It’s a blessing and a curse, to be honest.”

Diane glanced up at him while keeping her hands in front of her. “I have a couple of girlfriends I do things with, but we’re not especially close,” she murmured. “I really would like to finish working. Taking care of things around here settles me. It makes me happy.”

“Why? I mean, I don’t want to complain; you excel at customer service. I wish I could afford to pay you twice what I can because you’re worth at least that much.” Mark continued but noticed that Diane’s face lit up when he praised her. “Why is tending to the store and your duties so important?”

“I feel useful,” she said with a few tears welling up in her eyes. “And you honestly appreciate it.”

Mark became uncomfortable and turned to unlock the door. “Okay, here’s the deal. We’re going to drop this now. It’s not right for me to discuss this with you in this manner. Here in the store, I’m still your boss, and you’re my employee. I want you to think about your friends and if the things that you have going on are something you feel comfortable discussing with them.” Mark turned and pulled down the “open” sign. “If you decide you’re not comfortable talking with them,” he said, turning back around to face her, “I want you to consider talking to me. After six p.m., of course. I don’t judge, and I’m a bit further ‘around the block’ as they say, than you.”

Diane’s expression changed, and she smiled. “Of course.” She unlocked her hands and got back to cleaning around the counter areas and the stock on the shelves.

Mark smiled at how happy she seemed at getting back to work, then he stepped out of the store back to the expansion work area.

***

The school bus pulled up to the corner where Matthew would generally get out, but he continued to stare out the window.

“Hey! Are you getting off the bus?” the driver called out to him.

“Sorry,” Matthew said across the rows of seats. “I’m getting off the Ward Street stop today.”

The driver waved in the mirror and closed the bus door. A few stops later, they reached Ward Street, and Matthew got out. The bus pulled away, and he turned to walk toward the store, but then stopped suddenly and watched Melissa coming down the street toward him. He turned and headed in her direction then called out to her, “Hey.” He waved, and a smile widened on his face. “You weren’t in school today. Not feeling well or playing not feeling well?”

Melissa looked wan and withdrawn. “It wasn’t a good night at the house last night and I didn’t sleep well. I told my Mom I didn’t feel well, which was technically true on the lack of sleep.”

Matthew looked at her and tried to figure what to say. He thought about the questions his father might ask him when he wasn’t feeling so good. Then he turned and looked up the street in the direction of the store and fished around in his pocket and found two dollars. “Want to walk with me to the soft serve place for an ice cream and tell me about it? I know it’s kind of cold out and all but … my treat.” He held up his cash.

Melissa smiled and nudge-bumped him, “You’re awesome, you know?”

Matthew tried to stifle the return smile to her, but he failed miserably and didn’t care. Melissa was nice to him and kind in general, and he liked the way he felt around her.

The two finished the small walk to the ice cream shop. Matthew looked diagonally across the street to his father’s store. Melissa took her chocolate cone from the serving window while Matthew turned back around to pay.

“Do you have to head over to the store?” Melissa asked, then took a lick of her ice cream cone.

“Yeah,” he said, putting the change in his pocket. “It’s pretty much the routine.” Matthew stepped away from the window area and turned to look back down Ward Street in the direction from which they’d come. “I can walk you back home first.”

“You’re not going to have an ice cream?” Melissa asked and pointed back to the service window.

Matthew smiled. “I only had enough money for one.”

Melissa’s face lit up. The pair stepped away from the serving window back to the sidewalk area. “Could I come sit with you at the store?” Melissa stopped and looked in that direction.

Matthew stepped back and looked over at the store. He could see Diane walking around working. “Well sure, that’d be fine. Did you need to walk home first to get anything?”

“No homework for me, out sick, remember?” she said with a wry smile.

Melissa and Matthew headed in the opposite direction toward the store, and then someone called out, “HEY! MISSY!” It was loud enough that it caught Diane’s attention inside the store. She stopped and looked up at the same time as Matthew looked up Ward Street to the east. On a black dirt bicycle, jumping from one remaining snow pile to the next, was the source of the voice.

“Who’s that?” Matthew asked Melissa as they neared the corner.

“A friend of mine,” she said. The boy pedaled across Route 5 and came to a stop where they both stood. “Michael Anderson,” she said, gesturing to the boy on the bike, “meet Matthew Sanford.”

“Hi.” The boy stepped off the bike. “Do they call you Matthew or Matt?”

“Matthew.”

“Cool. Friends call me Mike. So, Missy, long time, no see. What’s up?”

Melissa turned to Matthew. “Mike goes to a private school. It’s why you don’t see him at Pond Hill.”

“Actually,” Mike said, wheeling his bike away from the edge of the road, “I think I would go to Stevens.” He pointed in the general direction of where he lived.

“I’m fairly new here, so I don’t know all the schools,” Matthew said a little uncomfortably, noticing how Mike stood close to Melissa. “Missy, I probably need to get in, that and it’s getting a little cold.” Matthew pointed over to the store.

“Your old man owns Colony Convenience?” Mike asked.

“Well, it was my grandfather’s place for the longest time. When he stopped working there, he leased out the building. My dad and I are here now, so he’s going to work it.”

“Cool.” Mike turned his attention to Melissa. “Missy, I’m free for a bit. It’s been a while. Did you want to catch up?”

Melissa looked over at Matthew. “It’s okay. If you want to catch up, go ahead,” Matthew said, but half-heartedly.

“Are you sure?” she asked, taking another bite of her ice-cream.

“Sure.” He turned to Mike, “Well, it was nice meeting you. See you around.”

“You too, San-man,” he replied.

Matthew smiled a little, looked quickly at Melissa, and turned to walk to the store as the walk signal changed. He made it to the east side of Route 5 and crossed the parking lot to the front door without looking back. Diane had opened the door for him, and he muttered a shallow “thanks,” then walked past her and his father into the back room.

***

“What was that all about?” Mark asked slightly above a whisper. “He’s not prone to being moody.”

Diane looked back towards her sister who was walking back towards home with Mike. “I think my sister had something to do with it.” A small smile grew on her face. “I bet neither one of them knows what just happened.”

Mark looked puzzled as Diane walked away from him and towards the back room.

Diane turned the corner and her light blue skirt flung at her mid-calf. Matthew was fishing through three of his custom made 8-track tapes. “You know, I meant to ask you,” Diane said from the doorway, “when you and Missy were here last time, were you constantly changing from one 8-track to another?”

“What do you mean?” Matthew said, looking up at her.

“Well, I heard a number of different artists. Are any of those K-Tel or Ronco tapes?” she asked.

“Oh, the samplers?” Matthew responded as she shook her head. “No, I make these at home from my albums.”

“You have a stereo at home that lets you record onto 8-track?” Diane stepped in and extended her hand for one of the red tapes.

“Yeah.” Matthew handed her one of the tapes, the cardboard holder, and the song list. “I wanted to save up for the one that recorded cassettes at first, but everyone does that. That and it was a hundred dollars more expensive. I decided on the unit I have at home instead.”

“Interesting. I didn’t even know they made home units that recorded on 8-track.” Diane set the tape down, moved to the side of the desk, and sat on the corner. Matthew nodded and eased the tape back from her. He took the one marked “MIX TWO and put it into the portable player his father had in the office, and then took his books out of his backpack.

“So, I saw you, Missy, and Michael Anderson at the soft serve. I didn’t know you knew him,” she said.

“I just met him.” Matthew averted his eyes. “Missy introduced us when he came down the hill on his bike.”

“I didn’t mean to watch you kids, but I was looking that way when I noticed you come up the road,” Diane said in an almost motherly tone. “You weren’t in the mood for ice-cream?”

Matthew looked up at her with wide, unsure eyes. His answer, when it came, sounded truthful. “I only had two dollars. I could only get one, and I wanted to get it for her.”

“I see,” Diane responded. “She went back home, I guess, then?”

“Well, I offered to walk her back but she said she wanted to come here. Then Mike stopped and wanted to catch up with her. I guess he hasn’t been around or something. I wasn’t going to stop her if she wanted to go with him,” Matthew said. “I better get to my homework,” he said, shuffling his books around.

“Okay. If you need anything let me know.” Diane turned to walk out of the room. She stopped short of the doorway and turned back. “So, Matthew?” He looked up at her. “Just so you know, Missy likes you. Sometimes we girls are not paying the right kind of attention. The nice boys get overlooked. You’re a nice boy. Make sure you don’t get overlooked.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” Matthew’s brow creased into a frown.

“If you like Missy, tell her. Don’t let someone else.”

Matthew squirmed in his seat. “We’re just friends. I mean … you know … I like girls but …”

“I know it’s a little embarrassing. You’re a young boy, and things change between fifth grade into sixth. Or around this time. Everyone’s different. You can always talk to your Dad. If you feel like you can’t, then please consider talking to me. Either way, you should find someone you’re comfortable to talk with. At the end of the day, though,” she said softly, “girls like to be pursued. Be chivalrous and thoughtful, and you’ll find someone worthy of that.”

Diane stepped out of the office and into the hallway toward the store area. Her last comment, “Be chivalrous and thoughtful, and you’ll find someone worthy of that,” echoed in her head.

Mark stood next to the last beverage cooler when she emerged from the hallway. “What was that all about?” he asked.

“Well, as near as I could tell from watching across the street, Matthew went and got my sister or she met him at the bus stop or something, and they were on their way here. He bought her an ice cream and then ‘the competition’ got in the way. Michael Anderson came down the hill on his bike and interrupted their conversation.”

“Ah,” Mark said, leaning back against the counter. He looked out the window as a car pulled up to the pumps and the driver got out, with credit card in hand, to fuel it up. “So Melissa didn’t go to school today?”

“No,” Diane said, somewhat withdrawn, “she wasn’t feeling well from last night.”

“What happened last night?” Mark asked.

“Oh, you know … everyday things with mixed families. Step parents and all. I think she ate her dinner too fast trying to get back up to her room, and upset her stomach.”

Mark nodded but frowned. “You know,” he said, “we never really did talk about things from last week. And then there was that exchange earlier. I know I said we could wait until six but …”

Diane’s jaw tightened involuntarily.

“That, right there,” Mark said and pushed off from the counter. “What is that? You’re happy and passionate, and then you lock up.”

“I’m not sure you’d understand,” she said and lowered her head. “Well, I mean … I don’t think I’ll explain it well.”

“You’re very empathetic; I can hear that in the way you talked to Matthew just now.” He pointed his thumb over towards the office. “It’s like you said to him; you should find someone you’re comfortable to talk with. If you feel like you don’t have someone, then please consider talking to me.” Mark stepped forward and tucked his hand under her chin to raise her eyes back into view.

Diane looked up the additional foot height difference into his eyes as he let go and backed up half a step.

“The nice boys get overlooked. I’m a nice boy and I’m trying to make sure I don’t get overlooked,” Mark said with a smile. “Tell me what’s on your mind. I’m more than just your boss. I’m your friend. Or at least I think so, and I hope you do too. And I try to help my friends.”

Diane continued to stare at him. He’s your boss; you can’t go there. He’s older. He has a son. The thoughts continued to race in her head. “It’s not appropriate,” she said to him softly as one of the thoughts made it to her mouth.

“What’s not? Talking to me about some personal things? Again, if the concern is that it’s here, I can wait until after six,” Mark said and walked away slowly. “I’m not pressing because I’m nosy and want to know your business. I’m pressing because I’m concerned.”

“You are? Why?” Diane called out, making him stop and turn around.

“Apart from the fact that if there’s too much going on in your life outside of here, I run the risk, in the worst case, of losing the best employee ever?” he said lightheartedly, which brought out a smile on her face. “The additional fact of the matter is, people have troubles. We all do. I feel compelled to help you with yours if I can.”

Mark smiled then turned to walk down the hallway back to the office area.

Diane smiled so wide it hurt her face.

The story continues in “As Life Goes: Elementary” available in paperback or in e-book formats.

As Life Goes: Elementary

AS LIFE GOES: THE END OF THE INNOCENCE

CHAPTER ONE

Matthew Sanford pulled his red Chevrolet conversion van along the curb in front of the three-family house where Melissa lived with her mother. He looked at the time on the dash; it read 6:15 a.m. He glanced back over at her sister’s apartment next door when Diane stepped out.

Matthew got out of the van and walked around behind it.

“Good morning, Matthew,” Diane Wakeford said to him while she pulled the door closed and locked the deadbolt with her key. “Are you taking Melissa and the gang to the beach again?”

“Hi Di; yes, we decided to go since none of us had to work today,” Matthew said dragging his fingers through his slightly long brown hair. “Well, Tim had to work, but then he got someone to cover for him.”

“I hope Missy is chipping in for gas,” Diane said stepping out to the sidewalk. “Having a car is expensive with the service, fuel, and the insurance. She works too; she can pitch in.”

Matthew looked at Diane’s features and the outline of her face. Every time he did, he could see Melissa and he always graced the feeling with a warm smile. This conversation was no different. “She offers. Almost every time. I always tell her no. I get a few bucks from the guys. I just feel better about it like that.”

Diane noted the consideration the young man paid to her little sister, who was no longer as little as when they all first met seven years ago. “You know Matthew,” she said smiling at him and turning a little to keep the sun out of her eyes, “you’ve turned into quite an impressive young man in so many different ways, but least of all how you treat people.” Diane’s tone turned somewhat somber for a moment. “Don’t ever let the travails of life take any of that wind out of your sails.”

Matthew just looked at her for a moment. He wasn’t sure how to take the comment. “Is everything okay, Diane?”

“Oh sorry,” she said recovering her normal, happy tone, “I didn’t mean to be a wet blanket on your beach day. Just some things on my mind. So who are you picking up today?”

Matthew didn’t dismiss Diane’s demeanor but he let it go for the time being. “After I get your sister here, I’m going to swing around to get Tim and his girlfriend Patti. Then I am going to get Mike and Lesley,” he said dragging his foot a bit on the sidewalk. “I think Missy said Alecia and Carrie wanted to go, so I’ll get them too. It’s why I start so early. By the time we fetch everyone and get out of town it’s after eight.”

“And you go all the way to Misquamicut?” Diane asked.

“Yep,” Matthew said. “It’s a nicer beach. It’s a fun ride in the van. We listen to the music and then we spend the day there.”

“Are you still stopping on the way home in Old Saybrook for Pizza?” Diane asked taking a slight step backwards and glancing down at her watch.

“It’s the ritual,” Matthew replied with a grin. “I figure we have a couple more weeks or so of opportunity then it’s back to Sheehan for senior year. We might not get the chance next summer depending on who’s going where and doing what for college, work, and other things.”

The popping sound of the neighboring door pulled Matthew’s attention and he turned to see Melissa coming out in her yellow two-piece, covered only by a flimsy pullover. She waved quickly to the two of them and came down the stairs. “I was waiting for you to come inside and get me,” she said smiling with the early morning summer breeze blowing her long black hair behind her. “But I see I am no competition for the engaging conversation of the illustrious Miss Wakeford,” Melissa said playfully as she bounded over to Matthew’s side and pulled her fingers through her long brown hair.

“Well good morning, Miss Bancroft,” Diane responded spiritedly. “I see you’re wearing the minimum amount of bathing suit as required by law.”

“Oh geez,” Melissa said tugging on her pullover and adjusting her top, “you sound like Mom now.”

“The only reason you get away with that outfit with Mom is because she knows you’re going with Tim and Matthew,” Diane said in a motherly tone. “Otherwise she’d never let you out of the back yard with it on.”

“Really?” Melissa said turning her comments away from the original playful tone. She looked herself over. “Matthew,” she said, “is this suit ‘too much’”?

“I think it’s fine,” he said looking her up and down once. “You could almost pass for a girl,” he said teasing and quickly backing up.

“You jerk,” she responded back, playfully taking a swing at him. “Paul likes it.”

“Ah, the new guy,” Matthew said coolly. “What happened with Chris?”

“Well,” Melissa said switching her beach bag between her hands and stepping towards the van, “come to find out we wanted different things,” she said peeking into the side view mirror where her brown eyes stared back at her.

“Such as?” Matthew said moving over to open the passenger slider for her to get into the van.

“I wanted him to be… I don’t know, decent, I guess,” she said climbing in the van.

“And what did he want?” Matthew said closing the door part of the way.

“Dumb whore, Jenny.”

Matthew whistled and closed the door. “Guess I won’t ask what that’s all about,” Matthew said looking at Diane.

“Good idea,” Diane said. Matthew came around to the back of the van to cross over to the driver’s side. “Matthew?” Diane said before he stepped all the way around.

Matthew turned back and looked at her. Diane hesitated for a moment with her mouth open. “Have fun today,” she said with hesitation in her voice.

Matthew stared for a moment and looked at her. “Okay,” he said with a small grin. “Was there something else?” he asked taking a small step forward towards her.

Again, Diane hesitated. “No,” she quietly responded. “Just have fun. And be careful.”

“Yes, Mom,” Matthew said jokingly.

Diane curled her hand up into a fist, shook it, and puckered her face tight. Matthew laughed aloud. “Did you want a ride to the store?” he said wiping his eyes, which teared up from laughing.

“No thank you,” she said politely, “I like the short walk and it’s nice out.”

Matthew waved and turned to get into the van.

***

Diane was at the main counter at Colony Convenience when Elizabeth Wellsworth walked through the door. “Fifteen on pump four, please,” she said handing a twenty to Diane.

Diane turned the pump on and made the change for her. “You’re Elizabeth, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” Liz replied. “You’re Missy’s sister right? Diane?”

“I am,” Diane said glancing out the window and over to her car. She noticed the girls in the car and all the beach attire. “I guess everyone is going to the beach today except me.”

“Really?” Liz said looking around the store. “Is Matthew going?”

“Oh,” Diane said surprised. “I assumed you were tagging along with them. Once in a while there’s a second car full when his van is loaded.”

“He’s going to be at Rocky Neck today?” Liz asked inquisitively.

Diane paused for a moment. She realized that Liz wasn’t going with them and then remembered that Liz and Melissa didn’t get along very well with one another. “Um… I’m not sure where they are going.”

Liz looked out the window of the store as Matthew’s van pulled into the lot. “I guess I can ask him now,” she said and turned to walk out of the store. She quickly shook out her long red hair.

Mark exited the back room and looked out the window to see his son’s van come to park in the open space. “I see everyone is going to the beach except us,” he said to Diane.

She laughed. “I just said that to Elizabeth,” she said pointing to her outside.

Mark scratched an itch on the side of his head. Diane looked at his graying hair and then reached up touched her own shoulder length black hair. She was staring at him.

“Do I have something in my hair?” Mark asked playing with it some more.

“Oh, no,” Diane said surprised, realizing she was staring at him. “Sorry.”

Mark walked around the counter to see his reflection in the small two-way mirror on the wall. He sighed. “Just like my Dad,” he said sounding somewhat resigned.

“How so?” Diane asked.

“Well,” Mark said turning around to look at her. “My Dad started getting gray hair in his forties as well. I’ll be forty three soon; I was hoping it would take a little longer.”

Diane turned her right eyebrow up and grinned. “I think it makes you look even sexier than you already are.”

Mark smiled at her. “Easy for you to say; your hair is jet black as the day I met you.”

“And if it wasn’t?” she asked.

“It wouldn’t matter,” Mark said turning towards the larger area of the store, “I’d still want you more than I did yesterday, but less than I will tomorrow.”

A warm feeling rushed over her while she watched him move away.

***

Matthew hopped out of the driver’s door and Tim pulled the slider open to grab the cooler. Michael Anderson popped his head out of the back seat area. “You guys need any help?”

“Nah,” Tim said, “you can stay with the girls.” He grinned and looked back. Michael shook his fist playfully. “I’ll keep them all warm.” Lesley Patterson, his girlfriend, shoved him playfully at the remark.

Tim looked over at his girlfriend Patti and then he turned to Matthew who came around the van.

“Hi Liz,” Matthew said to her as she approached the van.

Tim looked into the van to see Melissa scowl while she looked past Carrie and Alecia.

“So I see you’re all headed to the beach as well,” she said, overtly adjusting her top. Matthew followed her hands with his eyes.

Carrie gave Melissa a slight shove and pointed. Melissa turned back, looked at her, and whispered in a harsh tone. “What?”

Tim stuck his head back into the van part way to listen inconspicuously.

“She’s going to bait him,” Carrie said quietly. “She’ll find out where we’re going; do you really want her there?”

“Not really my business,” Melissa said quietly. Alecia leaned in. “I have a new boyfriend now and…”

“And nothing,” Alecia said. “Paul was conveniently around and asked you to the movies when Chris pulled that bullshit stunt. I’ve never understood why you and Matthew never got together.”

“I know why,” Carrie said confidently in a hushed tone. Patti listened in as well. “It’s like Alecia said, you never really give him the chance. You end one boyfriend and end up with another one asking you to a movie or skating or something.”

“So it’s my fault that I like to go out and do things with boys?” Melissa asked defensively.

“It’s not that. You just never give him the chance.” Patti interjected.

“We’ve been friends for years,” Melissa responded, looking over fondly at him. “I never considered it much and always figured if he liked me more than friends he’d say something.” Her tone changed slightly. “He never has.”

“That’s what we’re saying,” Carrie replied. “You’re never really giving him the chance. You are good friends; he knows that too. He doesn’t want to ruin that so when a chance opens, he treads lightly, but before he takes a chance you’re out to pizza with the next boy.”

Melissa didn’t respond immediately. She continued for focus on Matthew and Liz. She watched him look at her and then looked up and down her figure herself. “If I stepped out of the van now he wouldn’t even see me.”

Alecia looked over at Matthew. “You have a boyfriend now; he knows that. He’s not going to challenge.”

“Liz has a boyfriend too. More than one for that matter,” Melissa glared. “Not stopping him from looking at her like that.” Self-consciously, she pulled at her bathing suit top. “Maybe if I looked that… healthy…”

“Pay better attention, girl,” Patti said with a snap in her voice, undoing her sandy blond hair and pulling it back into a ponytail. “He looks at Liz like that when he sees her; when she’s front and present. Take a better look at him at other times. That look in his eyes; it’s always there for you, whenever someone mentions your name, even when you’re nowhere around.”

Tim took a couple of steps back. Liz reached up and hugged Matthew quickly.

“I’m sure we’ll run into you,” she said, letting go and turning to look into the van through the windshield. She smiled directly at Melissa and turned to walk away.

Tim looked over, saw Mark exit the store from the main door, and walked over towards the boys. “Live it up,” he called out warmly, “summer is almost over and then it’s back to the grind.”

“Hi Dad,” Matthew said turning to walk up. He glanced over to watch Liz head back to her car. “Can we pay for some ice to keep the sodas cold?” he asked while Tim followed.

“No,” he said simply. Tim and Matthew stopped dead in their tracks and turned to look at one another. “When have I ever charged you for the ice?”

“Man,” Tim said, “I never get used to your dry humor, sir.”

“I like that you boys always ask to pay. It’s the right thing to do.” Mark said.

“Is my Dad here yet?” Tim asked while they all continued over to the ice machine.

“Not yet,” he said. “He’s been working a lot; we’ve had a full schedule for weeks now but his back was bothering him. I told him to rest up a little this morning and that I would tackle the first couple of cars in myself.”

Tim turned his head slightly, “Thank you for that, Mr. Sanford; I know he appreciates it.” Tim looked over at the cars in the side lot. “I see you’re selling some used cars now,” he said, setting the cooler down.

“Yes,” Mark replied diverging slowly away from the boys and heading to the garage bay. “We finally got that dealer license we needed and I picked those up at auction last weekend. Your father has a keen eye; saved me from some potential lemons.”

“Didn’t you sell some cars before, Dad?” Matthew asked, shoveling ice into the cooler.

“We have been for a couple of years now but it’s been under the maximum since we didn’t have the license to do more. Diane got everything together for me at the state, forms and such, which allows us to sell more of them legally.”

Another car pulled into the pump area at the north side of the store. Matthew looked over to Liz who finished pumping her fuel. He then looked back at the fuel pumps on the north side of the property and closed the lid to the cooler. “How are the new pumps on that side working out?” he asked flipping his thumb backwards over his shoulder.

“Good,” Mark said stopping at the door to the garage. “People heading up and down Ward Street favor them and it keeps some of the congestion down at the front of the store.” Mark looked over quickly at the girls stepping out of the van to stretch their legs. “Not for anything guys,” he said, “I’m amazed that the girls’ fathers let you three boys take off with their daughters in a van to the beach.”

“Dad!” Matthew said while Tim chuckled.

“Kidding!” Mark said. “But you do have five of them in there; safety in numbers I suppose,” he said.

“We’re eighteen,” Matthew said pointing at himself and then Tim. “Heck, Tim will be nineteen soon.”

“And aren’t the girls seventeen?” Mark asked.

“Well… yeah. They all will be eighteen over the next few months,” Matthew defended.

Mark waved both of his hands. “I’m joshing with you guys; you’re good boys…” Mark paused for a moment. “Well, I guess, “men” now really. You’re good men; you do the right things and you treat people well. You work hard. I shouldn’t make light of that.” Mark said. “Have a good day at the beach today.”

Matthew and Tim turned and picked the full cooler up together. Mark headed inside as the two of them head over to the van slowly.

“So I guess Liz is headed to the beach as well?” Tim asked cautiously.

“Yeah,” Matthew said. “Donna and Marie were in her car. They were going to Rocky Neck.”

“Were?” Tim asked.

“Well, when I told them we were heading to Misquamicut, Liz said she’d head there as well,” Matthew responded innocently.

Tim slowed his pace, tugging backwards on the ice chest.

“What?” Matthew asked.

“That’s going to go over like rocks in a boat with Melissa.” Tim said, setting the chest down.

Matthew looked over at the van. Melissa was looking at him past Carrie and Alecia who had stepped outside. “Look, we’ve all known each other since we were little; you guys more than me. Melissa has a boyfriend anyway. And Liz… well… Liz is Liz. She’s not going out with a guy like me when she has the pick of the litter. Heck, she never sticks to one anyway; she has more than one. I’m not interested in being one of many.”

“Even if it means being with Liz?” Tim asked.

“Well…” Matthew said with a pause, tugging forward with the cooler full of ice and soda cans. “I wouldn’t say “no”; you’re right about that. If I could get her out on a date, I might ask. I will tell you there’s no way I am competing over a girl. I feel like I am a nice person and fun to be around. They should be able to see that; I see those same good qualities in them.”

Tim just nodded at his friend.

“Donna is nice,” Matthew continued. “I thought it might be nice, with a bigger gang at the beach, that it might give me a chance to talk to Donna… you know, maybe sit with her a while and such.”

Tim nodded again as they reached the van and dropped the cooler inside the side slider door.

“We all set?” Michael asked.

“Yep,” Matthew said looking about the vehicle. “Anyone need to use the bathroom in the store before we get going?”

Michael groaned. Upon Matthew’s comment, all the girls hopped out of the van.

***

The girls made their way back out of the bathroom in the store and Melissa hung back near the counter. Carrie looked at her. “I’ll be right out,” she said waving at her and heading over to her sister.

Mark instinctively walked into the office, assuming that she wanted a quick, private conversation with Diane.

Melissa tugged at her pull over a little and looked at Diane who stood with a smug look on her face.

“What?” Melissa asked sounding annoyed.

“I find it somewhat ironic how many times I stand at this counter to find you coming to me for advice.” Diane said in a soft tone.

“Why is it ironic?” Melissa asked.

“Because it’s always about boys and you’ve dated more than I ever did.”

“Well maybe… yes,” Melissa said, quickly looking out at Matthew and flashing the “one minute” signal to him. “The numeric value hasn’t granted me any additional wisdom. Besides, it’s not as if I can ask Mom. She certainly can’t help.”

Diane’s look toned down a little at her younger sister’s comment regarding their mother. She then glanced out the window at Matthew. She then turned back to Melissa. “I have to scratch that,” she said definitively. “While you tend to ask some advice about boys, it’s not so much about them in general. It always seems to be about Matthew.”

Melissa looked over at him and bit her lip a little. Her expression turned very soft and timid. “He’s so nice to me; he always has been. I don’t even function well around him. He’s so calm and cool around everyone. I don’t know what to say to him half the time anymore. I want to say everything and I never can. I am so worried I am going to ruin everything if I pursue anything that I never do. I never let him. I make sure I stay away from him when I’m not with another boy…”

“But why Missy?” Diane asked. “If he makes your heart so light that it floats away on its own… don’t you want to try to capture that?”

“I do,” she said with tears welling up in her eyes. “Almost since the day I met him in fifth grade, you know, once I really started to like boys and all.” She turned and looked out the window to see him again. When he turned to look back in she quickly looked away and back at Diane. “What if I did and things didn’t work out? What if the friendship was ruined going forward from the end of that?”

“Loving anyone that much is a huge risk,” Diane said plainly.

“I don’t know if I would live. I would die if I couldn’t have him in my life at all.” Melissa said wiping a stray tear away.

“You won’t die from heartbreak,” Diane said trying to sound reassuring. “But it will likely hurt.”

“The way I feel when he’s around… I’d rather have that at a distance than to have it end somehow.”

Diane sighed. “You’re a smart girl Missy. I guess technically after your birthday I’ll have to call you a woman. Regardless, you know there is no right thing to do. You’re not leading him on so there’s nothing to fix or correct. You simply need to ask yourself “what do you want” and then make a choice. I wish I could offer you more advice than that.”

Melissa walked a little closer to the door so that none of the boys would come in looking for her. A car pulled in so she rushed out her thoughts. “Is that what you did? With Mark?”

“Yes,” she said softly, looking back at the hallway leading down to the office. “The jury is still partly out on that I suppose. He’s only come along so far.”

“But you risked more than just the friendship that started with him; you risked your job as well.”

“Yes,” Diane said smiling.

“And if it all blew up? Would you change what you did and how you did it?” Melissa asked, putting her hand on the door.

“No,” Diane answered confidently. “I might have risked and lost it all but now at thirty years old I don’t have to sit here and ask myself “what if?” I am here now and I know that answer.”

Melissa left her finish and then made her way toward the door.

“Hey,” Diane called back to her. Melissa stopped short. “Matthew is special. It’s a safer risk.”

“How so?” Melissa asked.

“Regardless of how it might go, unless one of you was completely horrible to the other, like a full break in trust or something, you will always be in each other’s life.”

“How are you so sure?” Melissa asked.

“Because of all the things that have happened over the years, with all of us,” Diane said waving her finger around in a circle. “Because of the kind of boy he’s been and the man he’s become. Because of how you are and how you feel… even if the two somehow don’t stay in love with one another, assuming it goes there; you will always love each other.”

Melissa wiped another loose tear away, then headed out the door to rejoin her friends.

CHAPTER TWO

The August summer sun moved high into the sky and Michael, Tim, and Matthew moved from the water back over to the blankets where everyone was sitting and laying out.

Liz sat up next to Marie and Donna. “How was the water?” she asked pulling her red hair back tighter in the pony tail and glancing over at Matthew who was still making his way up.

“Not too bad really,” Tim answered taking a seat next to Patti. “It’s never super warm but it’s a good break from the ninety plus degrees… HEY SANDMAN!” Tim yelled over to Matthew who was still lagging behind.

Matthew looked up at him. “We should come again tomorrow with whoever is off,” Tim shouted. “It’s going to be hot again and the summer is nearly over.” Tim looked back over at everyone nearby. “Anyone in?”

Marie looked at Donna. Marie shrugged, “Wouldn’t kill me to come again. Liz, can you drive again?”

Liz paused for a moment. “I’m not sure, maybe.” She looked up at Matthew who finally came all the way over. “Matthew,” she began, leaning in a little further and allowing her suit top to hang, “I like the idea of all going in one car; is there enough room in the van?”

“Mike,” Matthew said looking over and stretching his arms up over his head. “You said you were out for tomorrow… you have to work?”

Michael looked on while Lesley chimed in. “Me too. Well, not work, but I have to help my mother with some stuff during the afternoon so I’m out as well. But I’m in the next time for sure.”

Matthew looked over at Donna whose attention he was hoping to get, “Can you come with us tomorrow? I could come by and pick you up?”

Donna was pleased that Matthew asked her directly, which drew Melissa’s attention.

“Um… I think so,” Donna responded, trying to sound reserved and holding back a grin. “I would have to double check with my mother but I can’t think of a reason why I can’t go.”

Matthew grabbed his wallet from inside his sneakers, which were next to his bag on the beach. He took a pen out of the bag, but then tossed it back, and pulled a business card from his wallet. “This is my number at home in my room. Give me a call when you get home tonight; I’ll take your number then and we can square up the details for tomorrow.”

“You have your own line in your bedroom?” Donna asked looking at the business card.

“Well, I pay for it with the money I earn mowing the lawns,” he said proudly. “Speaking of which,” he said turning to Tim, “we can bag the lawns tomorrow to come to the beach again but it’s supposed to rain over the weekend. I’m going to need your help on Friday to finish up all the work.”

Tim flashed a ‘thumbs up’ and leaned in and kissed Patti, playfully tipping her over. Melissa watched the two of them kiss.

Liz glanced over at Matthew’s business card in Donna’s hand. She slowly slid over to Matthew. “Can I have one? I didn’t know your father set you up with a business already.”

“Oh no,” Matthew defended, “It’s nothing that formal. I started cutting lawns and I bought a trailer to hook up to the van to haul the mowers around. I got cards made because people kept asking for my information and that was easier. I pay the insurance for liability and such, and then the insurance and fuel for the van; the rest is just for whatever.”

“He’s being modest,” Tim said pulling away from Patti.

Michael looked over and chimed in. “He is,” he said standing up and taking Lesley’s hand. “He’s made more since April with Tim helping him than some people make all year at a fast food place.” Lesley brushed the sand off the back of her thighs and wrapped her arm around Michael as he continued. “He could probably get a couple of leaf blowers for the fall and a plow and blower for the winter…”

Matthew waived his hand in the air a little, “no, no, no… for the extra money it’s great but I don’t think I want to do this the rest of my life.”

“What do you want to do?” Liz asked, holding out her hand casually for her card.

A quick look of contempt came over Donna’s face once Liz began to monopolize the conversation with Matthew.

Tim smiled at Liz’s question and walked away with Patti toward the water and away from the group.

Carrie nudged Melissa, who then sat up and switched over to a kneeling position closer to where Patti was standing prior, taking up her space.

“Honestly?” Matthew said while handing the card to her and then closing up his bag. “I really wanted to be an on-air DJ on the radio. I even looked into the broadcasting school up in Bloomfield. It’s not terribly expensive and after the courses are done they offer job placement services.” He stood up and Liz followed his frame as he took a step away. “But I also looked into the future track of that career in the overall job market with Michael, sharp as shit he is with stuff like that, and what we figured out is that the career is in a decline. So… I guess I’ll have to look into something else.” Matthew took a few steps backward toward the water and looked over at Donna. “Of course I have all of senior year to think about it. Right now?” he said smiling at her. “I’m just looking forward to tomorrow, the warm weather, the beach, and the company.”

Lesley tugged at Michael and the two of them walked away and towards the parking area in the direction of the ice cream trucks.

Donna watched Matthew as he turned and headed over to the water. She watched him casually jog away, hoping he’d turn around to look at her one more time. He slowed a little and turned his head partly but never fully turned around. That was good enough for Donna as she noticed it.

Melissa watched Matthew head away as well. She let her thoughts drift only for a minute before Donna spoke up.

“What the hell, Liz,” Donna said moving closer to her.

“What?” Liz asked looking as innocently as she could come off.

Carrie and Alecia stopped what they were doing to pay attention, since it was now just the five girls on the blankets.

“Robert and Stan aren’t enough? Matthew shows some interest in me and you have to twat block me?” Donna exclaimed.

“Wow,” Melissa whispered to Carrie and Alecia, leaning in quickly. “A second ago I was pissed at Donna for getting Matthew’s attention and now I’m on her side.” Melissa leaned back and watched Matthew enter the water at the shoreline as light waves from the Atlantic Ocean crashed in.

“You know what Donna,” Liz said standing up quickly, “if he had a solid interest in you, I wouldn’t be able to pull his attention. Clearly it’s equal or at least divided,” she said tugging down on her own top. “The question you need to ask yourself is ‘how far am I able to go to get and keep his attention’?”

Donna couldn’t respond more than just opening her mouth. Liz smirked, turned, and followed Matthew’s path to the water.

Marie touched Donna’s shoulder while Carrie moved over to close up a tighter circle.

“You know what Donna?” Marie said quickly. “If Matthew is that easily swayed by her, you don’t want to waste your time with him.”

“Oh!” Donna exclaimed. “Yes I do. He’s a nice guy… mostly. He’s like everyone else when it comes to Liz. She’s like this siren that none of them can resist.”

“That’s because she’s a huge slut whore,” Alecia responded adjusting her sunglasses.

“She’s going to go out there now and just pull him into her web, you watch,” Donna said somewhat upset. “By the time she’s done with him, he’ll take her to the beach tomorrow and he won’t even remember to call me back,” she said looking at his business card.

“Look,” Melissa said, mustering all the confidence she could considering the emotional conflict she was having. “Matthew tends to “walk the walk’ as they say. He showed an interest in you; he’s going to follow up. Liz is going to be a challenge for him; he’s been infatuated with her since the first day he ever laid eyes on her, but that infatuation is the only power she has on him. He’s otherwise level headed.”

“Ah…” Carrie said, flipping her short brown hair. “But which head is more level!”

The girls were quiet for a second and then they all screamed and giggled at the comment.

***

Matthew swam out deeper into the ocean to a point where he was upper chest deep in the water when standing. He turned to look back to the shore when he saw Liz coming out toward him.

He stared at her wet, slicked back, red hair and was mesmerized looking into her eyes. She stopped a little further back from where he was so she could stand in the shallower water.

“Are you going to come back in a little?” she asked playfully with her back to the shore.

“I guess I could,” Matthew said innocently and looking around. “Other than the jet skiers way out there,” he said pointing across the way, “and the ones on the boogie boards, we’re the farthest out.”

Liz was pleased when he came in somewhat. She took two steps out toward him.

Matthew looked back over to where the girls were sitting. They were huddled up and talking. Liz glanced back at them. “They are talking amongst themselves.” She reached under the water and touched Matthew on both hips. “I’m right here and you have my full attention.”

Matthew flinched at her touch. Despite the fact that they had been familiar and friendly with one another, innocently, over the years, each time Liz touched him, it was like a static shock and he never could prepare himself for it.

“I’ve always meant to tell you,” she said with a slight tone of mischief in her voice, “that I am always turned on by your response to my touch.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Matthew responded genuinely.

“All of you boys… well… I guess you’re all men now that you’re over eighteen… you all collapse when I touch you. You come at me and take me. You think I am all yours but you’re all really mine.” She smiled at him. “Not you though. Oh you want to give in,” she said lowering her hand across the outside front of his bathing suit under the water and tightly feeling exactly how excited he was. “But you resist… why.”

“I’m not like all the others,” Matthew said as best he could to maintain his composure. “I won’t be put into a box with everyone else.”

“No you’re not like everyone else,” Liz said in her playfully evil tone. “Still,” she said, loosening his drawstring and slipping her hand inside his suit, “you’re only so far removed.”

Liz tightly wrapped her right hand and played. She used her left hand to part her two-piece top and expose herself.

Matthew grunted. He partly took a step backward but Liz matched with a forward step.

“It’s pretty clear you’re excited,” she said. “You’re underwater. To the whole beach it looks like we are two people out here talking.”

Liz sped up her movements as Matthew’s resistance completely failed and he was captivated by what she was doing to him. Matthew tried to look back at Donna but Liz simply moved herself back into his view.

“You want her?” she said playfully. “She wants you; you can have her tomorrow. Right this moment, you’re all mine. I will have you.”

Matthew couldn’t look away anymore. His attraction to Liz was always very strong and with her right in front of him, doing what she was doing, he couldn’t break away. He also realized that even if he could, he really didn’t want to. What she was doing felt so wonderful and it was more than he ever imagined he’d have with her.

He swallowed hard and his breathing became short and shallow. Liz curled up her lips more at his response. She stepped forward and kissed him, still moving her right hand rapidly. With her pulling her top left and away with her free hand, and then touching her chest to his, it was more than Matthew could stand. He lost control and let go. Liz stopped kissing him and touched her forehead to his; she looked down into the water and squeezed her right hand in response and rhythm to him. She listened to him huff a couple of times and groan. He reached out with his hands and pulled her in from her hips.

“You can go now,” she whispered quietly. “All I wanted was your response… today. I have it. You can go back to Donna now.”

Matthew drew back as Liz let go of him.

“I love and hate the way you make me feel… you know that right?” Matthew said sounding irritated.

“I know,” she said. “And right back at you.”

Matthew slowly backed away and looked at her. “I don’t do what you do… the taunting and teasing. You do that intentionally.”

Liz said nothing and only smiled a little. She drew her right hand up, out of the ocean, and over her tight belly.

Matthew stopped walking away. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Liz stopped and lowered her hand into the water and stared at him blankly.

“What you do to me intentionally… you do that ‘back’ to me. There’s something I do, or it’s just me in general, that invokes an emotional response from you.” Matthew stepped forward half a step. “Look, I didn’t mean to… I mean… we’ve known each other forever. Some feelings are tough to get away from. However, I never abuse it… I know what we mean to one another; friendship wise and then some.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Matthew,” she said quickly becoming irritated. “I enjoy exciting you and getting a response from you… and other men. Beyond that, it’s mainly meaningless.”

Matthew quickly studied her. He decided on what his thoughts were on the matter and knew she’d never confess or own up to anything more. “Of course,” he said with a smile. “And my response was…”

“A handful,” she said, with some of her prior emotional response returning. “Luckily,” she said, tracing both of her hands across the ocean surface, “I didn’t have to go far to wash my handful off.”

Matthew smiled at her and she returned it.

“Shall we meet out here again tomorrow?” she said playfully.

Matthew dropped his playful look. “As much as I enjoyed your attention, if I am formally here with Donna tomorrow, no.”

“You can say no to me?” she said playfully.

“Honestly?” Matthew asked, watching Liz. “Probably not. Given that, I’ll have no choice but to keep my distance.”

Liz initially didn’t know how to take his comments or how to respond but a slow and sly smile crept across her face.

Matthew smiled, turned away, and headed back to shore.

CHAPTER THREE

Matthew pulled away from Tim’s place on Valley Street and turned left up the steep hill to West Side Field. He took the right turn onto East Street and looked up in the mirror at Melissa who never came up front once Tim got out as she always did.

Matthew looked at the time on the clock, which read a little past nine and turned into the parking lot.

Melissa barely looked out the window and grabbed at her things around her seat. “Are you planning to make me walk down to Carlton Street from here?”

“Of course not,” Matthew answered, shutting the van off and turning to the side in his captain chair seat in order to look directly at her. “What’s going on with you today? You’ve been bi-polar all day. Happy half the time and upset the other half.”

Melissa fidgeted and tugged at her pull over. She then fussed with her hair. She tried to look up in the rear view mirror quickly and then fished through her bag for her brush.

“I presume you’re coming tomorrow and not seeing Paul tonight,” Matthew said looking at her affectionately, watching her combing out her hair.

“No, I’m not seeing him tonight. I have to comb out this rat’s nest of sand and salt water or I’ll look like hell tomorrow too,” she said, sounding agitated.

Matthew looked at her hair, “I get it, I suppose. You look fine. At least I think you do.”

“Ugh!” Melissa huffed pulling more of her hair with the brush.

“What?” Matthew responded defensively. “I meant that.”

“Of course you did; Matthew can do no wrong.”

“What the hell is going on with you?” Matthew said.

Melissa looked up at him, half mad and half upset. She dialed it back because she knew she was out of line. “Forget it. I’m sorry. Long day… it was fun and I want to go tomorrow but I’m tired a little and cranky. Too much sun and then too much pizza…”

“Anything else?” Matthew asked quietly.

A small grin stretched over her lips. “Well, I’m feeling a little crampy ahead of my monthly visitor…”

Matthew playfully winced. “I have to be the only male that gets subjected to this. Alecia and Carrie are getting to be TMI with me too.”

“What can we say,” she said softly and slowly moving up to the front seat. “We trust you. You’re a nice guy. You defend us. You never judge any of us.” She sat in the passenger captain chair sideways to face him and dropped her bag forward.

Matthew looked at her and just stared casually.

“Nothing to say?” Melissa asked. “I figured you’d chime in with one of your pearls of wisdom. We are going to have to start writing them down. Sanfordisms or something like that.”

Matthew shook his head. “No, I was waiting to see what you were going to say next.”

“You’re pretty humble, generally,” she quipped. “Did I miss something pertinent?”

“No,” he answered naturally, leaning backwards part of the way.

“Oh, no” she said in a mischievous tone and raising her right eyebrow upwards. “I am invoking friendship rules. You have to come clean with what you’re thinking…”

“You have to know the rule number,” Matthew said playfully.

Melissa scrunched up her nose and then rested her hands on her knees. “Four,” she said simply. “Unless divulging would break a trust, friends must speak what’s on their mind.”

“That rule can only be invoked once a day,” Matthew said glancing over at the clock. “Time limit?”

“Next five minutes,” she said boldly. “Communication; just the facts and no hurt feelings – go!”

“Okay,” Matthew said with a slight sigh. “I was thinking about the way you and the girls…”

“The guys do too; you’re like their rock,” Melissa quickly added.

Matthew held up his hand, “Okay.” He moved in the seat a little. “I was thinking about just the girls and two things dawned on me.”

“Go on,” Melissa said anxious to hear the rest.

“I realized that as nice as it was to hear, that you and the girls appreciate me and how and where I stand, it dawned on me at that moment that your opinions of me were the ones that mattered the most.”

Melissa smiled warmly. She started to reach over and then hesitated when she thought of Paul.

“Paul,” Matthew said, noticing her movement and then her stopping short. He looked into her deep brown eyes. “It’s okay, I understand.” Matthew looked to his left and casually out the windshield and then back to her. “So what were you so miffed about today?”

Melissa breathed in to respond but Matthew jumped back quickly. “And you can’t simply say, ‘dumb bitch Liz’ like you always do. I want you to tell me specifically what about her tagging along pissed you off today because I know that’s what it was in general.”

Melissa deflated her lungful of air and mulled over what she wanted to say. “Okay… honestly? No holds barred? No guilt involved? I speak my free mind and… you keep me as your best friend?”

“Yes,” Matthew said without hesitation.

Melissa flinched a little. She had tossed in the last part of her comment on a lark and it didn’t faze Matthew at all; he answered it wholeheartedly.

“Okay,” she said sitting upright. “It really pisses me off the way Liz is. Donna and Marie go to school with her at Lyman Hall and they hate how she is. She is conceited and inconsiderate. You made plans with Donna for tomorrow…”

“I made plans with everyone,” Matthew defended casually.

“Yes,” she retorted, tipping her head, “but you asked her in the vein of having her come specifically. Yes, you’d go if she couldn’t and she could have tagged along with Liz, but you asked her specifically so it’s sort of like a public date.”

“I wouldn’t presume to debate your point,” he said playfully smug.

“You would lose,” Melissa responded in kind with a smile. “I mean, you literally just finished asking her to go and Liz had to follow you all the way out to the water. Good thing when you came back out to cozied up to Donna. You scored back lost points…” Melissa trailed off in her comments as a brief unsettled look crossed Matthew’s face. “What happened out there anyway?”

“Oh you know, just chit chat; you know Liz,” Matthew said quickly.

Melissa pointed to the clock. “It’s never just chit chat with her; not since seventh grade when she was kicked out of Dag Hammarskjold Middle School for making out in the stairwell. You’re inside the five minutes.”

“No holds barred? No guilt involved? I speak my free mind and… you keep me as your best friend?” Matthew repeated Melissa’s ask.

“Yes,” she responded nervously. “Or course… to the end of our days.”

“She made a pass at me,” Matthew said quickly. He looked at Melissa’s blank stare. She really didn’t want to hear the rest; he could tell by looking at her.

“How?” she asked Matthew.

“Are you sure…” he started.

“How?” she repeated to him.

“Under the water…” Matthew said looking down and then away. He was somewhat embarrassed to tell her but it was what they both agreed. “I wanted to stop her and say ‘no’ but the second she touched me…”

“You had sex with her in the ocean? In plain sight of everyone?” Melissa said with a roar.

“No, no, no!” Matthew quickly defended. “No,” he continued squirming in his seat. “Firstly, I’ve never done that… I’m still… well… you know.”

A look of relief washed over Melissa’s face.

“She reached for my swim trunks under the water and touched me. I was excited. As much as I wanted her to stop, I wanted her to keep going. And she did. She reached inside.”

“And?” Melissa asked.

“And eventually I couldn’t take what she was doing anymore and I… well… you know.” Matthew said with a slight smile.

“Eeeww. In the water?” Melissa said puckering up her face.

“What?” Matthew said. “It’s the Atlantic Ocean, not a pool. There’s a ton of salt in the water already, and all the marine life, large and small, do far more than what I did in there.”

Melissa burst out laughing and Matthew was happy to have the tension broken so he laughed along with her.

He glanced over at the clock as it went past the five-minute mark.

“So have you ever?” he asked her. “You know… with a boy?”

“No,” she answered looking at the time as well. “Second base is as far as I let them go. If I touch them when we kiss it’s always on the outside of their pants, if at all.” She looked over at him and then at the clock. “So never?”

“No,” Matthew said. “I never tried entirely so I don’t know if I could have or not. I never went in prepared, you know, carrying a condom or anything, so I don’t know.”

“Third base?” she asked.

Matthew turned up the corner of his mouth slightly and Melissa asked nothing further.

“So I know we’re past our time and all, but why does my interest with Liz bother you?” he asked starting the van and turning around to face forward. “At some level it’s always bothered you. You’re the one with the steady boyfriends since ninth grade; what’s the big deal who I am infatuated with?”

“I don’t know really,” she said softly, moving to sit forward herself. “Maybe because I know it’s an infatuation and risky that I don’t want your feelings hurt… Maybe I think you’re this awesome person that deserves someone that can really appreciate all of you and what you offer to them.”

“She doesn’t?” He asked, dropping the van into drive.

“Hell no,” she answered loudly. “I supposed there’s someone for everyone but she doesn’t deserve you.”

“And you do?” he blurted out quickly and looked at her.

Melissa turned red and quickly responded “I never said I did. And I am seeing someone.”

“You never said you didn’t either,” Matthew said. He waited for her to follow up more but she stayed quiet the remaining two blocks to her house.

Once there Matthew turned off the van and hopped out. He grabbed the left over pizza for her to take in and she grabbed her things. The two of them walked toward the door of her mother’s apartment. Matthew looked up quickly to see the curtains move and come to rest. He smiled a little and then turned to Melissa.

Melissa opened up the front door and dropped her things inside. Matthew stepped inside to set the pizza carry out box down.

“So tomorrow then?” he said.

“Yep,” she responded brightly.

Matthew stood at the door and looked down into her eyes. He caught himself in the pause and taking half a step forward. He immediately stepped back.

“Okay,” he said leaning toward outside. “I’ll see you then.”

“Matthew,” Melissa said calling out quickly.

He turned around, looked right into her dark brown eyes, and only stared.

“We were talking just before, when I said how we girls thought of you. You said ‘two things dawned on me.’ You only told me one. I’d really like to know what the other thing was.”

Matthew breathed in deeply and turned to face her. “Do you remember fifth grade when we first met?”

“Yes,” she said, fondly recalling some of the memories that quickly flooded her thoughts.

“I was thinking of the kind things you were saying about me, that you and the girls thought. And then I thought about how it really only mattered to me what you thought.”

“Yes, you told me that,” she said softly. “What was the other thing?”

“I though how nice and warm it made me feel that you thought those good things of me. Like in fifth grade when you used to tell me I was the nicest boy you ever met. I realized suddenly that somewhere along the way, in middle school I think, you stopped saying it. I realized I missed it and I hoped I still was that ‘boy’ to you.”

“You remember that?” A flood of emotion poured over Melissa and she struggled to keep herself in check. “I still feel exactly that way about you.”

“It’s nice to know that.” Matthew smiled softly, took two steps backwards, and called out. “See you tomorrow.”

Matthew hustled around the van and got in. Melissa closed the front door, pressing her right hand on it, leaving it there, and just stared at it.

Once she couldn’t hear the sound of the engine anymore because the van pulled away and around the corner, she burst into uncontrollable tears.

CHAPTER FOUR

The last September sunset dropped beyond the horizon. Michael Anderson laid on the hood of his car. Tim and Matthew sat on the roof of Matthew’s van.

“What time are we picking up the girls?” Michael asked, looking at his watch.

“I told them we’d come by around seven thirty,” Matthew answered. “The movie doesn’t start until nine thirty. Do we want to eat before or after?”

“Why not both?” Tim joked picking through his wallet. “Girls are killing me.”

“You earn decent money,” Michael chimed in quickly looking up at the two of them. “Your budgeting sucks.”

Tim looked down with a scowl. “Screw you man,” he said in a half-kidding, half-serious tone. “My dad might be a mechanic but I still need parts for my car; those aren’t cheap.”

Matthew waved Michael off quickly behind Tim’s back and spoke up, “Not for anything Tim,” he said in a soft and defusing tone, “Michael is pretty sharp. He helped me streamline some of my costs for the lawn business, such as it is. Saved me about five hundred in taxes, insurance, and fees. He understands this stuff really, really, well.”

Tim nodded. Matthew looked around him to Michael.

“Sure,” Michael said. “Sometime over the weekend or something… I could try to help you out.”

“Thanks,” Tim responded softly.

Matthew turned to the guys, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Two hand touch at the Pierce Plant… it’s been forever since we played a pick-up game on the front lawn.”

Both boys nodded and then Michael spoke up, “We need to fix that; this is likely the last hurrah for that… you know, into the winter and then the spring.”

Matthew nodded. “What’s the deal for tonight then? We can deal with the grudge match rematch some other day.”

“So Lesley and Patti wanted to see Top Gun,” Michael said. He hopped off the hood of his car. Matthew climbed down off the roof of the van and circled around.

“Again?” Tim asked. “What else is playing at The Twin?”

“Aliens,” Matthew said quickly. “Donna wants to see it.”

“I doubt Lesley will go for it,” Michael said.

“I miss going to the Center Cinema,” Matthew said walking away. He looked away from the sunset and toward Whirlwind Hill Road. “This town is changing… I guess we are too.”

“What do you mean?” Tim asked, jumping off the roof of the van and glancing down at his watch.

“Oh I don’t know,” Matthew said staring off and then turning around. “I guess I have just been thinking a bit. It seems like just yesterday I moved here and met you guys. Now we are wrapping up our last year of high school… I am wondering what’s next.”

“See that, Sandman,” Tim said coming up alongside, wrapping his arm around his shoulder and turning him back towards the sunset with his six foot five frame. “That sunset there is the end. Not ‘of everything’ but just ‘the day’. We have all of tomorrow to do something awesome too or nothing at all. We get to choose.”

Michael slowly came over, looking intently into the twilight in the western sky. “That was profound,” he said.

Tim and Matthew looked over at him, expecting some sort of punch line.

“No… really,” Michael defended. “I mean it was a simple statement, after all it was Tim,” he said with a smirk.

“There it is,” Tim said pointing playfully.

“Seriously,” Michael continued. “I have to say, I know I’ve had an above average life with my adoptive parents and all, and the money they have… But they live wisely; fully and completely inside of each day. The money makes it easier but it’s not the whole thing, so to speak.”

“What do you mean?” Matthew asked.

“Well, they obviously did a lot of planning for their future, which is now more of their present; they are older than your parents, Tim. But is seems like no matter how much they planned forward, they always did something ‘for today’,” he said, throwing finger quotes in the air.

“Sounds pretty smart,” Matthew replied.

“It is,” Michael said stepping forward and ahead of where the two of them stood. “People spend so much time chasing money… it’s insane. I want to earn whatever I think I’ll need and then live off it the rest of my life. That’s the point you really live.”

“Yeah… well I can’t say I know a whole lot about that,” Tim replied. “But I will tell you what I do know; I am figuring it won’t matter a whole lot to me either way. I’ll never likely have an excess of money, not like you and your family Mike,” he said taking his arm off Matthew’s shoulder and stepping alongside Michael. “I won’t be smart and all… feely, like Matthew.” He chuckled while Matthew moved up and alongside Michael. “But I know how to work hard and do what has to get done. That’s got a price and value to it all on its own. I figure it’ll serve me well.”

Matthew stepped forward and turned to look at the two of them. “When did we become a group of profound assholes?”

The boys burst out laughing as the sensitive and serious moment was interrupted by Matthew’s chaotic revelation.

“In all seriousness,” Matthew said, wiping a tear from his eye and stifling his laugh, “My Dad says so much of life is an unknown that try as you might, you can’t plan for it all. He said to me, do the right things, treat others like you want to be treated, be fair and honest, work hard, and remember to laugh.”

Tim stepped away a little so that the three of them stood in a circle. “We got this.”

“We do,” Michael responded.

“And like other graduates from Sheehan, Lyman Hall, and Xavier, we’ll stumble and fall too,” Matthew said. He squinted his eyes a bit and a stray thought crossed his mind. “You have to let things happen and be there for the ones you care about. When they slip, you try to catch them to break their fall.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Michael asked.

“My Dad,” he answered.

“You can’t always be there for everyone; what happens then when they fall when you’re not around?” Tim asked.

“You help them back up,” Matthew said confidently.

The three of them stood in silence for a moment. An old truck rattling its way up Whirlwind Hill Road broke the silence.

“Let’s make a pact,” Matthew said, sticking his right hand out, palm up, between them. “To be there for one another, when times are good to celebrate and when times are bad to lessen the burden. No matter where our lives take us.”

Tim dropped his hand in on top of Matthew’s without hesitation. “I’m in.”

“Done.” Michael replied, doing the same.

After a moment, Matthew dropped his hand out from the bottom and the boys drew their hands back.

“Let’s go get the girls and have fun tonight,” Matthew said with a smile.

CHAPTER FIVE

Melissa stepped out into the early October air from the apartment she shared with her mother. She turned immediately to the next-door apartment and knocked lightly at first but then tapped a little harder on the final hit to the door.

Diane opened up the door and squinted just a bit with the morning sun hitting her face. She was already fully dressed for the day.

“Hi Missy; Mom send you over?” she said looking at her younger sister still in her pull over from the night before.

“Yeah,” Melissa said stretching her arms over her head. “She was going to put coffee on and make some waffles and she wanted me to ask you over.”

“Sure,” Diane said stepping outside and pulling the door closed behind her. “I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning.”

The two headed inside. The smell of coffee and cooking waffle batter filled the air as the pair moved into the kitchen.

“Hi Mom,” Diane said walking into the kitchen. “Thanks for inviting me over. Can I help with anything?”

“No I think I am all set,” Karen Canton said with a smile, quickly looking back at her oldest daughter.

Melissa went around to the far seat and sat. She turned to a small shelf and thumbed through the mail from Saturday’s delivery quickly. “Canton, Canton, Bancroft… ah here it is Wakeford; this one got delivered here by mistake.”

Diane reached over to take the mail from Melissa She looked at the return address and then folded it in half and slipped it into her skirt pocket.

“Not going to open it?” Melissa asked.

“It’s just a bill,” Diane said with a slight laugh, “I’ll check it later when I sit down to make out my payments tonight. I wonder why they brought that here.

“New mailman… well, lady… person… she might have gotten confused. We do have dissimilar last names.” Melissa said.

“Are you going over to see Mark later? You usually do on Sundays,” her mother inquired.

“Probably,” Diane responded sounding a little resigned. “It’s what I do.”

Melissa looked over at her mother, who came over with the platter of waffles and set them down on the table. Melissa got up quickly and grabbed the plates off the counter.

“Okay,” Karen said softly, “Breakfast was a partial pretense to get you over here,” she said looking at Melissa. “Both of us have noticed you’re not annoyingly chipper like you usually are.”

“Oh,” Diane said, quickly changing her tone. “I’ve been a little tired. I didn’t realize it was noticeable.”

Karen turned and brought a hotplate over and the coffee decanter. Melissa forked a waffle off the platter. “It’s more than that,” Karen continued. “And you know I know better,” she said with a soft smile.

Diane looked over at Melissa who was sporting a mouthful of breakfast. She then looked down at the table. Karen poured her daughter a cup of coffee and slid it over to her. “You’re welcome to a waffle but I expect that you’re not hungry,” Karen said, slowly moving into the free seat at the table.

The three sat in silence for a few moments while Diane added things to her coffee from the table. She looked over at Melissa when she began to speak. “If I discuss this with you, both of you, it has to stay between us. No meddling or talking to anyone else about it.”

“Of course, dear,” Her mother responded.

“Sure,” Melissa said with a mouthful of food, “Who would I talk to that would be interested in whatever you have going on?” she replied, paying partial attention.

“You’re really close to Matthew,” she said quickly, which made Melissa pay closer attention, “and I don’t want this getting back to Mark.” She looked at the two of them in succession and then looked down again at the table. She slowly put her hands up on the table, one on top of the other.

Neither said anything. Karen reached over and touched Diane’s hands softly.

Melissa continued to eat but was doing so more slowly and looked at her older sister.

“What’s going on with Mark?” Karen said quietly. “Melissa,” she said quietly looking over at her, “will keep this among us girls; she won’t discuss it with Matthew.”

Diane took in a deep breath and tears dropped off her face onto the table in front of her. “I don’t know. He has been acting funny. He’s been strange and out of character… distant.” Diane looked up and the tears came down her cheeks. “He’s been having Matthew work more hours at the store, which is fine, he wanted them. He’s kept my hours the same, which is fine, and I expect that. But with Matthew in the store more, Mark has been in there less. If Matthew is there, that is the second person we’ve always liked to have around. Rather than staying or just going home to mow the lawn, or take care of something at the house and then come back at the end of the day, he has Matthew or myself lock up. A few times I’ve gone over the house afterward and he’s not there until later.”

“Well, I’m not sure what you’re upset about,” Karen said trying to sound reassuring. “There could be any number of reasons he’s not around.”

“I know,” Diane said sobbing a little, “but when I ask him, ‘how was your day” or ‘did you have extra errands to run, is there something I could help you with’ he clams up and changes the subject.”

Melissa slowly set her fork down and looked over at her older sister without saying a word.

“I don’t know what’s worse, Mother,” Diane said crying audibly, “growing apart and thinking he doesn’t love me anymore like he used to or thinking he might be moving on to someone else.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Melissa said jumping into the conversation. “It’s totally out of character.”

“The way he’s acting is already out of character,” Diane said defensively and sounding more upset. “I’m not young and pretty anymore,” she said sitting back and drawing her arms in and up and bringing her hands to her own shoulders. “I see the young girls come in and how they look at him.”

“My God Diane,” Melissa said standing up and walking away from the table toward the stove. “I make jokes about you becoming an old maid with an apartment full of cats but you’re twenty years away from that.” She smiled at her sister, trying to make her laugh at the comment. When she saw it didn’t work, she changed her tone. “Look, you’re not even thirty one yet and you’re talking about some young girls… what young girls? Twenty five year olds that come into the store? What are they going to offer a forty two year old man?”

“They are far more attractive,” Diane said, sounding defeated. “I’m sure they are probably more dynamic and sophisticated than I am. I am sure there are… things… they offer that I don’t.”

“Not from what I’ve heard,” Melissa said without thinking. She reached into the refrigerator for a glass of milk. When she turned around to go back to her seat she noticed the two of them staring at her.

“What are you talking about?” Karen asked.

“What are you talking about?” Melissa said looking over at Diane.

“You know…” she said quickly. “Things…” she whispered.

“Oh,” Melissa whispered back. “You mean sex,” she finished in a boisterous tone.

“Well, as I was saying,” Melissa said smiling and trying to temper her grin, “what I’ve heard, through the thin wall that separates my bedroom here and yours in your apartment, I highly doubt that.”

Diane blushed and Karen pulled her hand up to her mouth to stifle her smile a little.

“Sorry, Diane,” Melissa said laughing a little, “but you’re loud.”

Diane’s demeanor briefly changed to the shared laughter in the room. She wiped a tear away from her face.

It quickly got quiet again and Karen leaned in. “Look Diane,” Karen said taking her hands again, “I am likely the worst person to give out relationship advice considering my track record, but I know people enough to know that you cannot make them fall in love with you or stay in love with you. Either they are or they are not. The man that I see as Mark Sanford does love you. I don’t know what is going on with him, and if you’ve tried to ask him, and you believe he’s not telling you everything, then you might need to be more insistent.” Karen looked over at Melissa quickly and then back at Diane. “As far as your being too old, that’s a lot of hogwash; there’s not much separating you from the twenty five year olds you seem to be worried about. And maybe they are dynamic and sophisticated but that’s not what Mark was looking for, at the time and I doubt suddenly now. He was looking for the things you offer. That’s what attracted him to you.”

“I’m so worried, Mom,” Diane said sniffing. “It’s not even the work or the apartment. I can get another job and find another place to live if I needed to. There’s only one Mark and I want him in my life.”

“There’s only one Diane,” Karen responded, trying to muster up courage for her daughter that she barely had for herself. “He knows that, too.”

Diane felt a small amount of warmth come over her and looked down at the table again.

Karen looked over at Melissa and made a quick zipping motion with her hand across her lips.

Melissa nodded once to her mother and then looked again at Diane.

CHAPTER SIX

Matthew came into the kitchen and stopped short when he realized Diane was seated there and talking.

“Come on in, Sport,” his father called out with a light wave while Diane looked over.

Matthew looked down at his watch for the time and then checked it against the microwave. “Um… I was wondering; did you need to go anywhere tonight?”

Mark looked over at his son trying to figure out where he was going with the question. “Well,” he said, “it’s Friday; we were thinking about a movie but hadn’t decided on going out or HBO.”

“Okay,” Matthew said somewhat nervously. “This will take me all night if I try to slide into it. Dad, can I borrow your car?”

Mark took advantage of Matthew’s vulnerability to ham it up regarding the request. “Oh my! What could have occurred in the universe to make my son want to trade in the Sanfordmobile for the family car? Even if it’s for just one evening?”

Diane raised her hand to cover her mouth and to hide her smile.

“Mr. Epps.” Matthew responded simply. “I’m going to pick up Donna Epps to go to the movie and he doesn’t care for me and the van.”

“Well that’s a little odd,” Mark said in a more serious tone. “I guess I get the overall reason why but he didn’t seem to have an issue over the summer.”

“The summer was the beach and a gang of us; tonight it’s just a date with Donna.”

“Did he tell you she couldn’t go with you if you came with the van?” Mark asked.

“No, he really didn’t imply it, directly anyway, but I know it’ll make him more comfortable. Honestly, it’ll make Donna more comfortable too, I think. We are going alone and not on a double date or anything.”

Mark smiled. “Good man,” he said, fishing around his pocket for the keys.

“Thanks Dad,” Matthew said taking his father’s keys and setting his down on the table. “You know, in case you need to go out…”

Mark looked over at the keys and grinned a little.

“No joyriding in it and fuel it back up,” Matthew said in an authoritative sounding voice before turning to leave out the back door behind Diane.

Once the door closed and Matthew was out of sight, the two laughed audibly.

“Oh man,” Mark asked pointing to the back door, “do I sound like that?”

“Only sometimes,” Diane said getting up slowly from the seat and coming over to his. She settled down into his lap. “Well, we can’t go out for a joy ride; ‘Dad’ said so. He didn’t say anything about having an indoor joy ride.”

Mark smiled at her. She lowered her head and kissed him deeply and passionately. He returned her kisses just as enthusiastically.

She slowly reached up to unbutton her shirt. Mark pulled away and stopped her. He softly guided her hands away. He kissed her softly and motioned for her to get up.

Diane did and moved to the hallway; making the assumption they were going to the bedroom to get comfortable.

Mark moved to the refrigerator to get something to drink. “So,” he said, pulling out a diet soda, “it looks to me like we have the whole night to ourselves.”

“Yes,” Diane said passively. She folded her hands in front of herself and stood still.

Mark looked over at her and sighed. “You look upset and distracted.”

“I’m confused,” she blurted out.

Mark moved toward the kitchen sink and turned back around to face her. “About?”

Diane stayed quiet and looked down.

“I stopped reading minds some time ago,” Mark said, trying to break the tension in the room.

“Is there…” she began and stopped to clear her throat and strengthen her voice. “Is there someone else?”

Mark took a deep breath in. “Why would you think that?” he asked setting the soda down on the counter. “We’ve been together almost seven years now; what brought that question on all of a sudden like that?”

Diane looked up, her hands still folded. Tears began to stream down her face. “Your behavior is different. You’re not as attentive as you used to be when we are together and not at work. You seem preoccupied in your thoughts and you are not sharing them. You’ve left the store a number of times recently; it’s becoming a new pattern for you, where you don’t come straight here or back to the store at the end of the day.”

“Well I have been trying to extend Matthew’s responsibilities there honestly. We had a talk about life after high school and he’s indicated he’d rather work than continue with his education, at least for now. I’m not totally excited about that; I really think he’ll need a degree down the road.”

“You didn’t,” Diane said quietly.

“I’m an exception to the rule. The world is changing too. And maybe I want more for him that running a store and just sort of getting by.” Mark responded with some of the strength dissolving away.

Diane strengthened her resolve as best she could and it came out in her tone as she responded. “He knows what he wants to do right now. He’s talked to you some about it.” She leaned forward a little and whispered. “The store echoes when it’s empty and the two of you, your voices are deep and strong.”

Mark smiled a little at her playfulness.

Diane let go of her hands to brush the remaining tears off her face and then folded them back in front of her again. “You make it sound like the life you’ve built isn’t something to aspire to. I, and apparently Matthew, disagree. The bills are paid and there is food on the table. The stress of work is low; the business and the indoor kiosks are thriving. The garage has more work than it can handle. I handle the books you know… you’ve put a lot aside and invested it well.” She stepped forward and let her hands go. “In my opinion, success in life isn’t measured by fancy cars, vacations, or the size of one’s house. It’s the measure of the amount of love that’s in it. You have a life full of love; in the things that you do and how you do them. The love of a son that idolizes you. My love…” her voice broke, she dropped her head, and she began to cry again.

Mark stepped forward and put his finger under her chin to raise her head. “Come with me,” he said, taking her hand and bringing her through the dining room to the stairs. “I was waiting for ‘the right time’ but I suppose I really didn’t know what that was. Now might work.”

He led her upstairs and turned away from Matthew’s room.

“This is Teresa’s old room,” Mark said, fishing a hidden key out of his wallet.

“Your sister that rarely comes to visit,” Diane said quietly.

“Yes,” Mark said with a light laugh. “That one. Well, I only have the one anyway…”

Mark unlocked the door but didn’t open it. He turned around and touched the sides of her face. “You asked me ‘Is there someone else?’ I never answered you. There is no one else, not for me.”

He kissed her softly and deeply for a moment and slowly stopped. He let his hands slip away and he turned back toward the door, opened it and walked in.

Diane followed to the threshold and Mark stepped to the side and turned on the light in the room.

All of the stored boxes of things were gone. The room was repainted, cleaned up, and decorated with baby furnishings, including a day bed, a glider rocker, and an old, refinished crib.

“I don’t understand,” Diane asked stepping into the room.

“All of these are from when Matthew was born,” Mark said pointing around the room.

“I know; I remember after your father came to collect things, shortly after you and I started to see each other, much of this was up here and packed in with everything else.”

“And my father came and got his things for Florida. Over time, this just became a room to stuff full of things,” Mark said walking over and touching he rail of the crib. “Matthew is a hair taller than me now. I remember when he fit in this thing and wouldn’t ever sleep.”

Diane smiled. “So you decided to clean up the room and set it up for memory sake?”

Mark turned and stepped back closer to her. “I know how much you wanted a family of your own. I know I wasn’t in the right place before to offer you a chance at any of that. I am now. I was wondering if you might consider marrying me and…”

“Yes!” Diane said to him crying and sobbing fully. She turned and grabbed him hard and held him. “Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly love you any more than I already did… you show me ways…” she was unable to finish as her emotions overwhelmed her.

Mark held her tightly and whispered in her ear. “You came into my life when I needed it the most. It made all of the transition from where I was to where I needed to go, for me and Matthew, as smooth and as seamless as possible.”

“He’s become a good man,” she forced out between her tears, still holding him tight.

“And you have your part in that; this was not a singular effort on my part only. If I had trouble dealing with him or things, you were always there to help me and support me. You’ve given me everything. I want you to have the same.”

He held her tightly and she nuzzled up as much as she could.

“I love you Diane Wakeford, now and for the rest of my life. I want to spend the time trying to make you as happy as you’ve made me.”

She pulled back to look at him and said softly through her tears, “you just did.”

 

 

The story continues in “As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence” available in paperback or in e-book formats.

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence

 

 

ABOUT JASON ZANDRI

Jason has been working in the information technology field in one form or the other since 1996. He is currently employed full time at Bloomberg LP as a Systems Engineer in the R&D group. Jason lives in Wallingford Connecticut, with his wife Renata. He is the father to four children, three boys and 1 girl—11 years (Andrew), 9 years (Angela), 7 years (Adam), and 6 years old (Alex).

 

Social Media links

Twitter – @GUNDERSTONE https://twitter.com/gunderstone/
Facebook Author pagehttps://www.facebook.com/jzandri
LinkedInhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/jasonzandri
Google+https://plus.google.com/+JasonZandri/
Author blog – The GUNDERSTONE Review https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/

Books by Jason Zandri

 

[Before Another Sunset (The Sunset Series Book 1)
Another Sunset (The Sunset Series Book 2)
**]

[I Hero: The Beginning
I Hero: Nathan Returns
I Hero: Phases (Expected first half 2016)
I Hero: The Storm (Expected second half 2016)
I Hero: Untitled Book 5 (Expected first half 2017)]

[
**]

[As Life Goes: Elementary
As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence
As Life Goes: The Reunion – (expected April 2016)
As Life Goes: The Wedding (expected July 2016)
As Life Goes: The Funeral (expected October 2016)]

Another Sunset

David Stephenson is a kind drifter who comes to settle in the small Texas town of Westville. His sense, empathy, and awareness are well received by the residents of the failing town as they welcome and befriend him. During his stay he helps a small local girl try to realize her dream and while doing so excites and energizes the whole town to help out. Lives change as fate takes a critical turn. The local would-be reporter, tasked by David’s longtime friend, takes off on a mission to unravel the mystery of his travels, where he came from, and discovers why he is on his journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Sunset Reviews – (see all on Amazon.com) http://amzn.to/1RHrdES

 

“The author has a nice way of weaving together a touching story that definitely tugged at those heartstrings”
http://www.amazon.com/review/RE23H0HC4YBXY/

 

“Endearing characters, well-paced dialogue, and valuable lessons…all the components of fantastic book”
http://www.amazon.com/review/R3KETK9GVPLVIV

 

“Instead of the fast pace of stories that tell too much, too soon, Another Sunset moved its pace along with detail that helped really form its characters. It gave plenty of time to delve into the story and not be able to fully discern where the story was going (which I like – I don’t like to be able to script out what’s going to happen! Surprise me!)”
http://www.amazon.com/review/R3DJBKJG5DVFM1/

 

I, Hero – The Beginning

The story that started it all

 

An everyday man, living less than ordinary life in New York City, simply makes his way about his work life and one at home. A kind heart and an empathetic soul, who tended to think of others before he thought of himself.

 

With his childhood totally left behind and gone with the final resting of his father, Nathan has come to terms with his past as he forges his life in the present, unaware of what lies ahead.

 

An unlikely friendship, a random act of violence, a budding romance, all part of a life changed.

 

“When it’s your time, there’s nothing you can do to change that outcome. The only thing you can do is meet it head on. You have to hope that the life you had with others, while you were here, has made a positive impact.” – Brian Devron

 

“Where there is darkness, you are light. Where others know fear, you will be brave. When there are setbacks, you will persevere. Where others find weakness, you bring strength. Where there is despair, you are hope. Where cowardice falls, you rise courageously. Where others do not have the ability to believe, you have faith. You will suffer, so that others will endure. You will triumph where others would fall.” – Cici Johnson

 

“This is it; it all changes tonight. Anything I do tonight, at a minimum, is going to at least expose all of this to the world.” – Nathan Devron.

 

 

“I, Hero – The Beginning” – Excerpt I

http://bit.ly/1MKrwsF

[[“I, Hero – The Beginning” – Excerpt II
http://bit.ly/1CCp4Sl]] [[++
++]]
“I, Hero – The Beginning” – Excerpt III [
**]http://bit.ly/1HlZEYo

“I, Hero – The Beginning” – Excerpt IV
http://bit.ly/1CwNg3l [
**
**][All my free excerpts from my books can be found on my blog via
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/category/excerpt/

 

I, Hero – Nathan Returns

Nathan is back in New York City; the place where it all started, nearly one year later. While he has been away, he has been establishing a base of operations and trying to follow the direction his life has taken – making a difference and answering the call for help where and when he is needed.

He has returned to this birthplace of his powers with more questions of why he is on the path he is on and what is expected of him.

During a dangerous rescue, his powers dissipate, and leave him critically vulnerable.

He connects back with old friends who help him rediscover the man he used to be to in order to help him be the man he has become and the man who he must be.

Magical forces come into play, pulling on nature itself, which introduces an unexpected challenge to Nathan while he is at this perilous juncture.

The pendulum swings even farther out of alignment; it is up to Nathan to respond before forces are set into motion that cannot be countered.

I, Hero: Nathan Returns

I, Hero: Nathan Returns – Excerpt I[
**]http://bit.ly/1PKdbiD[[++
++]][
**]I, Hero: Nathan Returns – Excerpt II[
**]http://bit.ly/1j3gXqy[
**
**][All my free excerpts from my books can be found on my blog via
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/category/excerpt/

 

 

As Life Goes: Elementary

“Every new beginning starts from nothing. Understanding that you can have everything in the love of one person, isn’t that worth the risk of personal capital? Isn’t that kind of love worth it?” – Diane Wakeford

 

“Have I ever told you, you’re the nicest boy I’ve ever met?” – Melissa Bancroft

 

“I will have the friends I want. I don’t care what boy likes me or what boy I like. You’re an awesome friend. I am not giving you up because we’re going to different schools or for any one person either.” – Elizabeth Wellsworth

 

Mark Sanford returns to his hometown with his son Matthew in tow to rebuild their lives. Recently divorced, and with the mother totally abandoning her parental responsibilities, both father and son are beginning their fresh start together.

 

Matthew begins to make new friends in the neighborhood and at school while he tries to find his place among people that have been friends with one another for years at elementary school.

 

Mark takes over the reins of the former family corner store with the help of a young woman looking for work. The ability to love and trust that woman entering his life is difficult for him because of all he has lost. For Matthew, that “first love” is difficult to understand without a motherly influence and with a father that has been deeply hurt.

 

[As Life Goes: Elementary

  • – Links to Excerpts*]

 

[+ As Life Goes: Elementary – Excerpt I+] [
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/as-life-goes-elementary-excerpt-i/ [
**
**]As Life Goes: Elementary – Excerpt II [
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/as-life-goes-elementary-excerpt-ii/ [
**
**]As Life Goes: Elementary – Excerpt III[
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/as-life-goes-elementary-excerpt-iii-author-jason-zandri/ [
**
**][All my free excerpts from my books can be found on my blog via
**]https://gunderstone.wordpress.com/category/excerpt/

[As Life Goes: Elementary – Links to Reviews
**][
**]FIVE STARS A refreshing read – touching and very inspiring![
**]http://www.amazon.com/review/R2585J9HGG45TQ/[
**
FIVE STARS] Touching and very relevant[
**]http://www.amazon.com/review/R30MV63ZF0VILI/ [
**]

 

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence

“You have to let things happen and be there for the ones you care about. When they slip, you try to catch them to break their fall. You can’t always be there for everyone; when you’re not and if they should fall, you help them back up.” – Matthew Sanford.

 

“Now and for the rest of my life, I want to spend the time trying to make you as happy as you’ve made me.”

 

“There’s no way to know all things with absolute certainty. If you want to love that much, if you want the chance to be Matthew’s entire world, and have him be yours, you’re going to have to risk everything.” – Diane Wakeford.

The one constant in the universe is change.

 

Matthew, Tim, Melissa, Liz and the gang come to the end of their youth as they turn eighteen and prepare to leave high school.

 

Old friends and new come together as their lives shift from the moment they are in to the future that is coming at them.

 

One love is discovered and then lost. Another is never fully revealed. Others are put forward to stand against the tests of life, time, and circumstance.

 

At a time of letting go, they do their best to hang on, realizing that yesterday is gone and what they have to look forward to is everything that tomorrow offers.

 

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence[

  • – Links to Excerpts*]

 

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence – Excerpt I

http://bit.ly/1knbsVe

 

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence – Excerpt II

http://bit.ly/1MycCaG

 

As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence – Excerpt III

http://bit.ly/1M4duT0


Before Another Sunset - Deluxe Second Edition

Before Another Sunset Book Sampler - Titles include: Another Sunset I, Hero: The Beginning I, Hero: Nathan Returns I, Hero: Phases As Life Goes: Elementary As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence Before Another Sunset is the complete prequel novella short to “Another Sunset” and it is included here in its entirety. ------------------ Westville, Texas. A small town with friendly people; families that have stayed and endured life's ups and downs. Many have left as the town no longer can fully support its own. An old woman maintains one of the remaining small businesses at the center of town, helped by Maria, her second floor tenant. Maria's daughter Caroline starts to question her father's absence. She also dreams up an idea to help the local library. Friends uncover true feelings and a kind drifter's travels bring him closer to the town. - PREQUEL NOVELLA TO "ANOTHER SUNSET" ------------------ Along with that, I have included the first six chapters to six of my other titles: ------------------ Another Sunset David Stephenson is a kind drifter who comes to settle in the small Texas town of Westville. His sense, empathy, and awareness are well received by the residents of the failing town as they welcome and befriend him. During his stay he helps a small local girl try to realize her dream and while doing so excites and energizes the whole town to help out. Lives change as fate takes a critical turn. The local would-be reporter, tasked by David’s longtime friend, takes off on a mission to unravel the mystery of his travels, where he came from, and discovers why he is on his journey. ------------------ I, Hero: The Beginning An everyday man, living less than ordinary life in New York City, simply makes his way about his work life and one at home. A kind heart and an empathetic soul, who tended to think of others before he thought of himself. An unlikely friendship, a random act of violence, a budding romance, all part of a life changed. ------------------ I, Hero: Nathan Returns Nathan has returned to this birthplace of his powers with more questions of why he is on the path he is on and what is expected of him. During a dangerous rescue, his powers dissipate, and leave him critically vulnerable. He connects back with old friends who help him rediscover the man he used to be to in order to help him be the man he has become and the man who he must be. Magical forces come into play, pulling on nature itself, which introduces an unexpected challenge to Nathan while he is at this perilous juncture. The pendulum swings even farther out of alignment; it is up to Nathan to respond before forces are set into motion that cannot be countered. ------------------ I, Hero: Phases (current work in progress) ------------------ As Life Goes: Elementary Mark Sanford returns to his hometown with his son Matthew in tow to rebuild their lives. Recently divorced, and with the mother totally abandoning her parental responsibilities, both father and son are beginning their fresh start together. Matthew begins to make new friends in the neighborhood and at school while he tries to find his place among people that have been friends with one another for years at elementary school. ------------------ As Life Goes: The End of the Innocence The one constant in the universe is change. Matthew, Tim, Melissa, Liz and the gang come to the end of their youth as they turn eighteen and prepare to leave high school. Old friends and new come together as their lives shift from the moment they are in to the future that is coming at them. One love is discovered and then lost. Another is never fully revealed. Others are put forward to stand against the tests of life, time, and circumstance. At a time of letting go, they do their best to hang on, realizing that yesterday is gone and what they have to look forward to is everything that tomorrow offers.

  • ISBN: 9781310734625
  • Author: Jason Zandri
  • Published: 2015-11-27 14:20:35
  • Words: 105214
Before Another Sunset - Deluxe Second Edition Before Another Sunset - Deluxe Second Edition