Category Archives: Free Fiction Online

Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 1

Warped Tales – be warned.
As a child I read piles of books filled with short stories – the complete works of Poe, stories from the Twilight Zone, collections from Hitchcock, etc.

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

“I bought a cabin.”

John had talked non-stop since she picked him up at the airport, about the cooler full of elk meat he’d brought back from Arizona, how great the hunt had been, how the mountains were wonderful – not the desert he’d expected, how much he loved the Ponderosa pines, and his bad knee hadn’t bothered him – even after walking over rough ground all day. He kept talking as he put his suitcase and cooler into the trunk of his Charger and drove them home. He finally stopped for a breath as he carried the cooler into the kitchen.

That whole time, all Anne heard was “I bought a cabin.” As he continued talking, she stewed about her husband’s complete control over their finances. He gave her an allowance for groceries and her garden, as if she were a child. When she wanted something outside that, she had to ask for it – and if he didn’t think it was necessary, he didn’t always give her the money. But it was just like him to buy a hunting cabin without consulting her. He never asked her opinion when he bought a new car, and he’d had the garage torn down and replaced when the kitchen could really have used an update. But the garage had been in bad shape – she didn’t want it to collapse on John’s 1964 Mustang, either. So that made sense; a cabin in Arizona did not.

Carefully modulating her voice to a neutral tone, she asked, “You bought a cabin?”

“It closed yesterday. I used my Roth IRA to pay cash.” He started transferring white-papered chunks of frozen meat from the cooler to the freezer. “This’ll cook up just like venison.”

Anne had learned how to cook venison the first year they were married – twenty-three years ago.

She forced her voice to sound curious, rather than accusing.  “Didn’t you say this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? That there’s a lottery or something to get permission to hunt elk?” She paused. “Why buy a cabin?”

As usual, John saw no need to answer immediately. Anne looked at the freezer and judged the available space. She’d thought she left more than enough room, but it would barely fit. “That’s from one animal?” she asked.

“Those elk are huge,” he said. This was the first time he’d gone out of New York to hunt. Living in Schenectady, he usually hunted deer in the Adirondacks. “Sometimes they allow hunting in areas where they’re over-populating. And there are plenty of deer and other animals. There’s even a mountain lion season – fall through the end of May. There’ll be plenty of hunting. You’re going to love it there.”

I’ll love being home by myself while you go off to your cabin.

As usual, Anne Davenport kept such thoughts to herself. She never went on his hunting trips. Her Thanksgivings were always spent at the Food Depot, helping make and serve dinners for homeless people. John would have complained about that, if he hadn’t spent every Thanksgiving in the woods with his buddies and his guns.

But John Davenport was a good provider, always had been. Even when they first moved into this house, when it was still his mother’s, John had paid all the bills and insisted Anne never had to work. “My mother never had to work, and neither will my wife.”

When John Jr. was little, Anne had plenty to do taking care of her son and her mother-in-law. Anne was the one who held the woman’s hand as she fought the cancer that ate at her for years. John took his mother’s death so hard, as if it was a surprise, not a blessed release from pain – because he was always at work, always taking extra shifts, taking exams to keep moving up until he made detective,  just before death finally rescued his mother from cancer’s hold.

By then John Jr. was in elementary school and Anne was volunteering in his classroom three days a week. John still didn’t want her to work, so she started to garden. At least that way she felt like she was contributing by lowering their grocery costs.

The one time she’d brought that up with John, he had laughed.

Then he put his arm around her and gave her a hug. “Gardening’s your hobby, like mine is hunting. Both put food on the table, but we spend as much or more money as we would going to the store. It’s okay. It’s a good hobby. And don’t worry about money. That’s my job. That’s why I’m a detective instead of a beat cop.”

At least he admitted the fresh veggies were better than most store-bought. And he did buy her a little pickup truck to use on her supply runs. He even put it in her name. It was the first vehicle she’d ever owned, and she still had it.

Wife, mother, gardener – gardener was the only identity truly her own. Just like being a detective was John’s identity. But she was expected to listen to every detail about his work, while he showed no interest in talk about her garden.

Aside from money for her hobby, John’s only activity in the garden was digging the hole whenever she planted a tree – until John Jr. got big enough to do it for her. John Jr. loved working in the garden with her. For his first birthday, she bought a dwarf apple. He was so delighted, she let him choose a new fruit to plant each year on his birthday. A white peach, a cherry tree, different apples, berry bushes, a strawberry patch – by the time he left home, they’d turned the two-acre lot into a mini fruit farm.

The last three years, Anne chose what to plant and put it in by herself. Berries and grapes didn’t require much digging. She still planted those on John Jr.’s birthday. It helped her get through the day. At least her garden was alive and still growing.

And John had finally updated the kitchen last year. He actually took her away for a week, up into the Adirondacks to see the leaves as they turned, to show her the areas he’d hunted in all his life. When she came home, there was the new kitchen – new cupboards, new appliances, new flooring, and a new window. She liked the window. It was a mini greenhouse over the sink, where she spent much of her time indoors. Beyond, she could see her garden.

“The contractor suggested that,” said John proudly. “He couldn’t believe the old kitchen didn’t have a window on that side. He saw your garden and thought you’d like to grow herbs and stuff you use when you cook, right there easy to use, and I told him he was exactly right.”

The window was the only thing she would have chosen.

She didn’t tell John she’d rather have had a gas stove. That would have been ungrateful, rude. He’d spent a lot of money, and he’d had the workmen put all of her dishes and gadgets into the new cupboards, cupboards that went right up to the ten foot ceiling. She waited until John went to work the next day to use a step ladder and rearrange them with Christmas dishes and other seldom-used items on the top shelf.

She hated that kitchen, except for her window herb garden.

John left a package of elk sausage in the refrigerator to thaw for breakfast the next morning. “They did a terrific job with the spices. We had some before we left. The guy selling the cabin let us eat there, in trade for eating with us.”

“Are you going to spend all of your vacation time there?” After three decades with the Schenectady Police Department, he had a few weeks off every year. He spent many of them hunting, but he usually took a few long weekends too.

His voice was surprised and accusing, as if he’d been perfectly clear all along and she simply hadn’t been listening. “We’re going to retire there.”

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Warped Tales: The Development

Warped Tales – be warned. As a child I read piles of books filled with short stories – the complete works of Poe, stories from the Twilight Zone, collections from Hitchcock, etc. This is that kind of story. The original version first appeared in The Maverick Magazine several years ago – I’ve revamped it a bit.

The Development

It was Clyde’s last day working on the farm. The truck would pick up the last of the cows after lunch; the wrecking crew would be there the next day. Streets and skeletal houses already filled the lower meadow.

God, that stinks. Clyde was staring at the brown stream of unprocessed manure in the trough behind the cows as he thought this.

You think yours smells sweet? A female voice reverberated in his brain.

Clyde swung his head around, looking for the source of the words, but he was alone. The only other life in the barn was the last three cows and Bootsie, his cat. Clyde had been on edge for the last two days, now he was imagining things. Bootsie rubbed against his leg and he picked her up. As he rubbed her behind the ears he sighed, remembering how he’d had to kill the other cats.

Ralph shouldn’t have made you do that.

“Who is that?” he shouted. He moved toward the door, expecting to find a prankster lurking outside. He swung his head back and forth, but there was no one in sight, only the work crews half a mile away.

The voice came again. Why did he care about the cats, anyway?

It was inside his head, but somehow seemed to be sourced behind him, in the barn. How could that be?

Yes, I’m right here, Clyde.

Where? This time Clyde just thought the question.

Right over here, dummy. The cow he called Betsy turned to face him and flicked her tail, but she didn’t make a sound.

Why am I hearing you? he asked. Am I going crazy?

I don’t know. I’ve always been able to hear you.

Clyde panicked a moment, trying to remember everything he’d ever thought about in the barn. Then he relaxed. What does it matter what a cow knows? Do the other cows hear me, too?

Don’t think so. I can’t even communicate with them. They’re just dumb animals. Betsy quit looking at him and flicked her tail again. We’re going to be picked up this afternoon?

“Yep. You’re going to another dairy farm,” he said as he walked between cows to face Betsy, rather than talk to her rear end.

Can you please repeat that without the sound? She blinked her eyes at him, as if to confirm it was her thoughts he was hearing. When you talk out loud like that, I can’t understand you. It gets all garbled.

Clyde obliged. That dairy farmer who came by last week is picking you up this afternoon.

Good. The rats are terrible with the cats gone.

“That’s what I tried to tell Ralph.” Clyde forgot and spoke the words out loud. He went back to thinking. The rats will move into those new houses, too. I told him. But the realtors said the barn cats were a health hazard … You can’t understand me when I talk out loud?

No, something gets garbled in the process. It makes about as much sense as the sound of a metal box being dragged across the floor.

Clyde stopped breathing. She knows.

Of course I know. I was here. Betsy raised her tail.

It was an accident! Clyde’s response was automatic.

Right. You picked up that iron bar and bashed in Ralph’s skull by accident. Betsy’s bowels emptied, gushing into the trough behind her.

Clyde started babbling out loud so the cow couldn’t hear him. “What am I going to do now? The police have already been to the house looking for him. What if she can talk with someone else like this? I killed him with a witness!”

I can’t understand you when you do that. Betsy complained. Think clearly, please.

“I didn’t mean to do it!” Clyde shouted. Then he went back to thinking. I was mad from having to kill the cats. Then, when I told him I was going to take Bootsie with me, he grabbed for her. He would’ve wrung her neck. I couldn’t let him do that.

I know. You were just looking out for Bootsie. You should have done it long ago.

You think it was the right thing to do? You could tell them he came at me first, that it was self-defense.

I’m a cow, dummy. They’re not going to interview me. Besides, Clyde, think about it. What happened after you hit him?

He fell.

Where did he fall, Clyde? Betsy blinked and looked over her shoulder.

Right behind you, in that muck. You kicked him.

Exactly. I kicked him right in the head. Massive trauma. Very unlikely they’d notice he got hit by a bar first. I did it on purpose, to cover for you. You’re the one who always looked after us.

Clyde stiffened and stared at the cow. He swallowed. But I put the body in the box and dragged it out to the truck.

Well, that’s not my fault. I was trying to tell you to leave him where he was, but you weren’t hearing me yet.

Clyde pictured the place he’d dumped the box.

Betsy snorted and shook her head. So they’re going to find his body in a metal box at the bottom of the river by a bridge. She chided him for his stupidity. Good luck convincing anyone he got there accidentally.

Clyde carried Bootsie out to the truck, leaving the voice behind. He’d move back to Texas. No one would track him down there, even if they did find Ralph. He settled Bootsie into the cab and got his rifle off the rack.

Just to be safe, he went back to take care of Betsy.

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Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard

coverimagespbcBefore the story, I have a brief announcement:

Carla King’s 4th Edition of Self-Publishing Boot Camp, Guide for Independent Authors is available tomorrow (2/1/19). Check it out here. Disclosure: as an Amazon affiliate, I get a few cents if you buy anything after going there from here. But whether you do that or look later, this is my primary resource as a book coach and when publishing my own work. The best part? She stays on top of all the changes in the industry and provides free updates.

Now, the story: “Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard”

Karen was the last to leave. She pulled on her fleece-lined jacket, hat, and gloves. As she said goodbye, she yawned.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay over until morning?” Mary offered.

“I have a lot to do tomorrow.”

“It may be April, but you could still run into snow up on the rez.”

“There was a little on my way over this afternoon, but the sun was melting it off as it landed.”

The road passed through the edge of the Apache reservation. For thirty-some miles there would be no house in sight, just high plains on either side, broken by stretches of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen groves. In the summer, driving across it in a thunderstorm was humbling and exalting at the same time. Tonight it would be dark and peaceful; a good ending to a full day.

Mary was skeptical. “Well, watch for elk; they’re always on that stretch.”

“I will. I haven’t hit an animal in thirty years.” Karen gave her friend a hug. “I’ll see you next weekend.”

Mary watched her walk to her car. “Call me when you get home.”

“No, I won’t. It’s an hour drive and you’ll be asleep by then.”

Karen started her car. As she drove out of town, the bank’s marquee flashed the time and temperature – twelve o’clock, twenty-seven degrees. She had to turn down the heater, though. The car might be old, but everything worked except the air conditioning, which she didn’t really need living up here in the mountains.

She continuously scanned ahead to the edges of her headlights’ beams. It was habit, ever since she’d killed two deer six months apart, long ago, before she moved to Arizona. Elk were much larger than deer, and harder to see from her little car because when they were close, their eyes were above the range of her headlights, and their dark coats blended in with the night shades of shoulder and roadside brush.

She spotted a group of large dark shadows off to the left and automatically slowed in case one should suddenly decide to cross the road. They were far enough away that her headlights flashed off a pair of eyes; the other animals continued feeding. She decided to stay well below the speed limit, to be on the safe side.

She passed only one car, going the other direction. There would be no sign of civilization until she reached McNary, a little town on the reservation. While her eyes continued watching for elk as she drove, Karen slipped into a meditative sense of peace. Clouds blocked whatever light the sky might have offered as she drove the deserted miles on top of the world, but she knew when the road dipped she was moving from the vast open fields into a stretch of forest.

Suddenly, anxiety hit, jerking her out of her reverie.

There was no good reason for it. She turned off the radio; maybe the car was making a noise that disturbed her subconsciously. But the car was okay, knocking a little, but that was normal at this altitude.

A cold shawl of prickles dragged up and across her shoulders and her breathing became so shallow she was almost holding it. She forced herself to inhale deeply. She lived alone; she didn’t jump at shadows. She tried to chide away the unwelcome sensation of fear.

But the chill was palpable inside her winter jacket. She cranked up the heat and still felt icy. Goosebumps were lifting her shirt off her arms.

She hadn’t checked the back seat when she got into the car; hadn’t done that since she moved up here out of the city. She resisted the urge to look back or even in the mirror, as if not knowing would make it not real. And if she didn’t see anything, she still wouldn’t be sure.

The pines rose high on either side of the road.

Suddenly, something dark poured into her and constricted her breath. A triangle of lights off to the right came and went so quickly she wasn’t sure she’d really seen it. Silently she recited the 23rd Psalm, as well as she could remember it.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul.” There was something else she wasn’t remembering, then “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

Death and evil, that’s what she felt pouring at her from the forest. It wasn’t someone in the car. It was something out there. She drove a little faster, but not so fast she wouldn’t be able to stop for an elk. She definitely didn’t want to have an accident here, not tonight.

At last she saw the sign announcing the edge of McNary. The feeling eased away from her as she drove through the little town. She passed someone walking along the other side of the road in dark clothes. She was almost home.

By the time she got to her cabin, she no longer felt the presence of evil, in fact she felt a little silly about it. She fixed herself some warm milk. Once it was gone, she was barely awake enough to slip under the covers of her bed.

Karen’s life went on. She forgot all about that unpleasant feeling and there was nothing to remind her. The Apache girl’s disappearance never made the newspaper Karen read.

The first assumption was that the teen had taken off with her boyfriend, but then he came back from visiting relatives out of state and asked for her. He’d been in Oregon when she last left her mother’s house, and he could prove it. In Karen’s world this was still not newsworthy.

It was fall when a hiker’s dog happened upon the girl’s shallow grave – not far from the road, where the Ponderosa Pines stand guard.

Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments – short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.
Thanks.

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Defining Moments: Technology & Yesterday’s Coffee

Marvin unplugged his computer for the fourth time as yet another thunderstorm rolled through. He worked on battery, trying to meet his self-imposed deadline, but the computer died before he could finish. Frustrated, he gave up. He turned off the lights and stretched out on the couch to watch the storm outside. He toyed with the idea of plugging the computer back into the wall, but repeated lightning strikes lit up the room. He couldn’t afford a new computer and he didn’t want to lose all of his work on this one.

His cell phone jarred him awake. Why had he set the ringtone to that annoying buzz? He stumbled across the now-dark room towards the sound, bumping into a chair and cursing on his way. He grabbed the phone and caught a glimpse of a 716 area code before the display flashed its low battery warning and went dark. The clock on the microwave beamed a steady 12:06. A few hours ago, the phone had said the battery was at 100% and he’d unplugged it.

Obviously it had lied.

He turned on a light. The storm had passed, so he plugged in both the phone and his computer to let them recharge, though he didn’t hold out much hope for the phone. He probably needed a new one, or at least a new battery – if they even sold batteries for it anymore. Someone told him the new ones didn’t have batteries.

He decided to make a cup of coffee and get back to the story he’d been trying to finish all day. As he waited for the microwave to chime, his thoughts wandered back to the phone call. He knew that area code. It was an East coast number. It would be three in the morning there. If he knew the caller, their name would have popped up, not the number.

A telemarketer? Not at three in the morning. A bill collector? They weren’t supposed to call in the middle of the night either, and he didn’t have any debts anyway.

It had to be an emergency – someone calling with bad news.

The phone rang again. He didn’t think it let calls through while it was charging. He looked at the number and hit answer, but again the phone died before he connected with the caller. He repeated the number as he wrote it on his whiteboard.

The first thing he did on his computer was a reverse search for the number. Angela Newsome – no one he knew. He took a sip of coffee. She was probably calling his number by mistake. That’s all – it was probably just a dyslexic error or she was drunk, this time of night.

He tried to work on his story.

He went back and looked for more information about Angela.

She did live in a small town near his aunt and uncle. What if she was letting a stranger – a member of his family – use her phone at a hospital because their cell phone had died? It had to be important for her to have tried calling twice at this hour.

The phone rang again and he dashed across the room to answer it. Again it died without making a connection. As Marvin stared at the useless piece of technology in his hand, he felt he had to contact Angela Newsome as quickly as possible. He wouldn’t get any work done until he knew the reason for the calls. He copied the number onto a piece of paper and the phone actually let him check that he had it right, though he couldn’t call out.

It had to be something wrong with Uncle Joe or Aunt Helen. They were in their eighties. It could be either of them, one lying in the hospital with a heart attack that promised to be fatal and the other desperately reaching out to family for support.

He slipped his wallet into his pocket with the paper, put on his shoes, and found his car keys on the kitchen shelf where he’d left them earlier. He didn’t stay in touch the way he should. A few years back, Aunt Helen had called him late at night when one of their grandkids wrapped a car around a tree. The kid didn’t make it, and Marvin hadn’t gone to the funeral.

He paused on his way to the door. Did he really want to know what was happening?

Maybe he could wait until tomorrow, go buy a new phone or battery, have his number transferred if necessary, and then he could call. The only funeral he’d ever attended was the one for his parents and kid sister, when he was sixteen.

It was his fault they weren’t safe at home. He’d gotten so obnoxiously drunk that night that someone had called his parents – either to get rid of him or to get him home safe. He didn’t even remember. His sister rode along because when he was like that he responded better to her. He didn’t even get hurt in the accident; neither did the drunk who plowed into them.

Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.

Joe and Helen had taken him in while he finished high school. Their kids were older – already had families of their own, scattered all over the country. Some of them might even be living out his way. Aunt Helen could be calling for him to go help someone dear to them.

The night was crystal clear, with stars shining brightly. The air was still moist and aromas heightened – damp earth and pines. It wasn’t a bad night for a drive. He wound down dark roads into the little town near the highway, where the diner was open all night.

He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.

“I can’t let you use the business phone, but I’ll get my cell for you,” she replied.

“Thank you,” he said as she handed him a menu. He felt like he had to order something. “I’ll have a cup of coffee.”

“It’s yesterday’s.”

“That’s okay.”

He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.

The first time he called the number, he got a voicemail message that confirmed it was Angela’s phone. He left a message and took a sip of the bitter coffee.

“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.

He shook his head.

“They called you three times… I’d call them back the same,” she said.

Not sure if he was angry or worried, Marvin called the number again and hung up when it went to voicemail. His third try a young woman answered – groggy, confused, and irritated.

“Who is this?” she demanded.

“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”

“I didn’t make any calls. You called me.”

“Your number was recorded on my phone. Three times, about forty minutes ago.”

“I was asleep. It’s the middle of the night.” She was mostly irritated at this point.

“Could someone else have used your phone?”

“No, I live alone.”

He could hear her running water.

“So you’re saying your phone must have called me itself?”

“No, you probably made a mistake copying the number,” she said, then yawned.

“I double-checked it.” Marvin was sure he’d gotten it right.

“Listen, I don’t know how my phone could have called you, but…”

“What?”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.

He waited, heard her walking down stairs. When she didn’t say anything, he asked “Are you okay?”

“There’s a weird light in my yard. . . Are you some kind of psycho trying to lure me out of my house? I have a gun.”

“No. I’m sitting in a diner in Arizona.” He flagged down the waitress and held the phone out to her. “Tell her I’m not in her yard.”

“Hello?” said the waitress. “This fella’s sitting in the diner, using my phone. He was six kinds of worried who was calling him so late from back East.” She gave him the phone back. “She says she’s going outside to see what’s going on.”

“You should call the police,” he said into the phone, suddenly fearful for Angela.

“I’m walking out to the hedge to see. . . Oh shit, someone’s put their car in the ditch. I have to call 911.”

“Call me back. I want to know you’re okay.”

The line was dead.

“You done with my phone?” asked the waitress.

“She said there’s a car in the ditch. I asked her to call back. Can I wait here awhile? In case she does? It’ll be your phone number.”

“I’m here until eight in the morning. You can keep my phone on the table, but let me know if there’s a local call. My kids should be asleep, but you never know.”

“Of course, and I’ll get some breakfast, I guess.”

“You don’t have to, but it’ll keep that coffee from rotting your gut.”

“It is a little strong. But that’s okay. I wasn’t going to sleep more tonight anyway.”

He was half-way through his greasy eggs and hash browns when the cell phone rang. It was the 716 number again.

“Hello?”

“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.

“Yes. This is Marvin.”

“It’s Aunt Helen. This nice young woman’s let me use her phone. She said you woke her up insisting she’d called you.”

“Are you okay? Was it your car in the ditch?”

“Yes, and your uncle’s arm was bleeding something terrible. I didn’t dare leave him – I had to keep pressure on it. We were on our way home from Junior’s and we were close enough we decided not to spend another night in a motel. I was supposed to stay awake and help keep him alert, but I dozed off and he must have, too.”

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

“I’m fine. This angel is driving me to the hospital behind the ambulance.”

“Angel?”

“The girl you called,” explained Helen.

“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”

“The medics took him to the hospital because he lost a lot of blood, but they were able to get it to stop. They said he wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t kept the pressure on.”

“How long ago did you crash?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, but it seemed like forever. I was terrified I’d fall asleep again and he’d bleed to death.”

“Where were your cell phones?”

“I think they were in the cup holder, but they must have gone flying when we rolled.”

“The car rolled?” he asked in a panic. He was answered by silence. “Aunt Helen? Are you there? Are you okay?”

“Hold on,” said a different female.

As he waited he heard voices in the background, not clear enough to hear the words.

“Marvin?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Angela Newsome. It’s my phone? We’re at the hospital now. They’re both going to be okay. You’re really in Arizona?”

“Yeah.”

“Is there any family here that I can call?” she asked.

“I don’t think so, but Helen carries a little address book in her purse. That’ll have people you can contact for her.”

“Okay. . . Nice meeting you, I guess,” she said.

“Yeah. Thanks for going out to check on that light when you thought I was a psycho.”

“Psycho, psychic – where’s the line? I didn’t really have a gun.”

“You would have here. It seems like I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have one.”

“So if you were a psycho, you would have believed me,” she said.

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”

“I’ll stick around until someone they know comes. And I’ll call you later and let you know how they are,” Angela promised.

“Thanks. My cell phone’s not working right, but I’m getting it replaced first thing in the morning. My number should work by noon your time.”

Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.

“This coffee really isn’t too bad.” He smiled at the waitress as he returned her phone.

Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

www.sherimcguinn.com  
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

Sheri McGuinn IMDb

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Defining Moments: Future in Podunk

Looking ahead, James could see the train snake around a curve. Then centrifugal force gently shifted him away from the coach window. In every sense of the term, his future was unclear.

Charlotte had been against this from the beginning. She was right about the timing. Quitting a good job was always risky; with the economy unstable, even more so.

And it might be a pipe dream.

Why had his father always used that term? The old man hadn’t been a drug user. Maybe he meant bagpipes. Or church organ pipes. There was no way to know now.

As a kid, forced to spend his weekends and holidays helping out at his father’s garage, James had sworn he was going to have a job where the grease didn’t soak into his skin. Working on cars, you could scrub yourself lobster red, yet, when you rinsed off the soap, your hands would still be grimy in the deep creases. He’d hated that.

Charlotte kept throwing it into his face, “You’re never going to be happy anywhere. Why not keep a good steady paycheck where you don’t have to be a grease monkey?”

“Maybe it was having my father for a boss that I hated,” he’d replied, almost making himself believe it. “Maybe I hate having a boss, period. Maybe I want to do work that means something.”

“You help people plan their future.”

“I help them lose it…”

The recommendations he’d made to several clients had crashed along with most of the market. He was good with engines. He’d be able to help people keep their cars on the road when they couldn’t afford new ones.

“Well, I’m not moving to the middle of Podunk,” Charlotte had announced. “I have a good job here and I’m keeping it. And I’m keeping the house. You’ll be glad once you come to your senses.”

“You can’t afford the mortgage alone, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to send.”

“I’ll rent out the spare room. If you’re lucky, I’ll take you back once you’re done with this early-onset mid-life crisis.”

So he had a safety net, of sorts—if she didn’t end up getting some young hunk for a roommate and change her mind about taking him back. The house was in both their names, but with falling real estate values, their equity had disappeared. She could insist on selling and the bank would get it all. That wouldn’t surprise him; they’d been drifting apart even before his father died. It was just as well Charlotte had never wanted kids.

The future was so uncertain. He’d always had a plan, all the steps to get where he wanted to be by thirty-five. And he got there ahead of schedule. Then thirty-five came and went and… nothing. There was no prize; no dreams; nowhere he wanted to go. When the market’s slide started, he realized he’d been working for a system that pretended to care about people. It was all fake. He’d believed his own sales hype.

But the garage, that was different; fixing something that was broken, something tangible that people really needed. He had a lot to learn, though. His father had invested in all the computer-diagnostic gear. Of course he’d still insisted his ear was the best tool he had.

“Jimmy-boy,” he’d say. “Use your senses and the brain God gave you.”

The “boy” always attached to his name didn’t bother him much with forty lurking a couple years away, not like it had when he was a teenager. And now he’d never hear his father say it again. The old man had died in his sleep, holding a photo of the mother James could barely remember. Charlotte had flown out with him for the funeral and the reading of the will.

At the cemetery he’d been overwhelmed by the number of people who came to pay their respects. Mary Jo was even there, and she’d given him a quick hug.

“I’m so sorry.” There were tears in her eyes. “He was a wonderful man.”

Charlotte suddenly appeared at his side and introduced herself as his wife. He was too shocked to correct her. She always said “wife” was a demeaning term inferring a woman was no more than an extension of her mate. Charlotte didn’t believe in marriage.

He’d never told her about losing his virginity with Mary Jo in the back of that old pickup out on the logging road. He’d been too ashamed. They’d been lying on the blanket afterwards, enjoying the sun, when Mary Jo took his hand, then pulled back with an instinctive “euw” from the forever grease embedded by his nails. He’d avoided touching her after that, and when he left for college the next month, he never looked back.

How could Charlotte have cued into that connection?

Not that it mattered. Mary Jo wandered off, talking to other people. His last glimpse of her, a man was helping her into a battered economy car. He didn’t see the guy’s face, but he moved like a young man, and it was a young man’s car. She wouldn’t be interested in rekindling any flame. So she wasn’t the reason for his decision.

There were only four of them present for the reading of the will: the lawyer, James, Charlotte, and the kid who’d been working for his father the last few years.

“Well, James,” the lawyer cleared his throat. “Did your father ever tell you his plans for the garage?”

“Not really.”

Most of their conversations had been on the phone and revolved around weather, politics, and James’ progress toward his goals.

“Well, Sean here… you know Sean, don’t you?”

His father had mentioned the kid from time to time. He’d apparently hung around the garage for years before he was finally old enough to work there. They’d never met, but James nodded, to get the lawyer to continue.

“Well, your father decided he wanted the garage to stay open, you know…”

James’ first thought was that his father had put in a clause to assure the kid would have the first chance to buy the place. Then the cold certainty that his father had left the garage to this Sean person settled into James’ stomach.

“What your father decided is to leave the garage to the two of you, fifty-fifty. If you both want to sell, you can do that only after working together at the place for a year.”

“What!” Charlotte was the one who shouted; James was speechless.

“James can’t do that,” Charlotte explained. “He’s got a good job; he can’t walk away from it for a year and expect it to be there when he gets back.”

“Well,” said the lawyer, “he can make that choice. But then the garage goes to Sean.”

“What about the house?” James asked. The idea of keeping the garage might already have been forming. He’d need a place to stay, though.

“Your dad sold the house long ago,” said the lawyer. “You didn’t know that?”

“He never mentioned it. I haven’t been back since I left; he always joined me for vacations. It was the only way to get him to take time off from work.”

He could count on one hand the number of times his father had come to visit, or met him in a vacation spot, but those had been good times, mostly. His father had complained a little about the business calls James kept taking, but that was the norm for James. He was always connected.

“Jim set himself up in a trailer and split the property when I was a kid,” said Sean. “He sold the house to my mother.”

“The trailer and the property it’s on are yours, James,” said the lawyer.

“So I could stay in it and work the garage with Sean here for a year, then we can sell the place and you can get out of this town.” He finished with a nod to the kid.

“That’s fine with me,” said Sean. “I loved working at the garage, but that was because Jim was there.”

“Your father practically raised Sean after his mother was widowed,” the lawyer explained.

James wondered how he’d never known his father was so close to this kid. He had tended to zone out when his father rambled on about the garage and town, but surely it would have registered if his father had talked about this kid like a second son.

“There has to be a way to break this will.” Charlotte’s voice cut through the uncomfortable silence. “James would lose more by giving up his job than he’d ever get from selling a garage in this little town.”

“Actually,” said James, “I’ve been thinking about making a career change anyway. The year here will give me time to sort out the future.”

Charlotte glared at him and walked out.

Now he was on a train, heading back to the home he’d left twenty years ago. Sean was going to pick him up. They’d spoken on the phone several times in the month it had taken for James to leave his job properly. James had let Charlotte keep the car and put most of his things in storage; he’d confided in Sean that relationship was dying anyway. Sean was sure they should sell after a year, which made the commitment less threatening than it might have been. The kid had graduated from high school almost two years ago and was as anxious to move out of that little town as James had been.

“I only stuck around because Jim needed reliable help,” Sean said.

Sometimes James wondered if the kid was the old man’s illegitimate child. He’d never known his father to be involved with a woman, but maybe he’d been too wrapped up in his own life to notice. His father might have split his property and lived separately like that to protect the woman’s reputation from small town gossips.

But Sean’s mother had just lost her husband when she bought the house, that’s what the lawyer had said. James couldn’t see his father getting involved with a married woman, so Sean wouldn’t have been his.

The old man probably missed having a son; James certainly hadn’t been much of one.

Sean was at the station waiting when James got off the train.

“My car’s over the other side of the street,” he said. “Your train came in a few minutes early.”

When they reached the battered economy car, Sean tied the largest bag to the roof, explaining, “My mom wanted to come along, so I can’t put it in the back seat.”

“Your mother?”

Sean looked over James’ shoulder and grinned. “Come on, he’s here already.”

James turned into a hug, then Mary Jo stepped back and smiled at him.

“Welcome home.”

Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.

Thanks.

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Defining Moments: Remorse

Okay – we’re back to fiction. This one’s a stand-alone story from my dark side.

“Your girlfriend’s here.”

Miguel grinned over the counter as he passed Frank two lunch specials. Frank turned his head and saw Angie slide into her booth in the back corner of Oak Street Diner.

“She’s not my girlfriend, Miguel.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Keep it up and I’ll start letting people know you’re the owner.”

“You’re not that crazy,” Miguel quipped.

Miguel liked cooking. The first thing he did when he bought the place was hire Frank to run the front end of the restaurant. People assumed Frank was the new owner and they valued his personal attention. Miguel knew that service was as important as good food to build a solid customer base, so he gave Frank a percentage of the net on top of his salary and tips.

Miguel went back to the grill and Frank carried the specials to the lawyers at table five. They were embroiled in a discussion that didn’t stop as each in turn leaned back to let Frank put a plate in front of them. He could have mixed up the order and they wouldn’t have noticed. It wasn’t always about talking to people; sometimes it was about knowing how to serve without interrupting.

He picked up a menu out of habit as he walked back to Angie, but he knew she always ordered tea and a toasted cheese sandwich—the cheapest items they offered.

“How are you, Angie?” Frank asked as he handed her the plastic folder.

“It’s gone to the jury,” she replied tensely. “They’ll find him guilty, won’t they?”

Angie needed someone to listen to her. She’d appeared the first day of the trial and had eaten lunch at the diner every court day since.

He smiled. “You’re the expert, the one watching the proceedings.”

“Oh, no. I just hear them talking when they come out.” Her hushed tone was apologetic for the misunderstanding.

“I thought you said you were doing research for a writing class. Shouldn’t you be in the courtroom?”

“I can’t. That man is evil.” She seemed to shrink as she said it.

Frank had read the headline stories when it happened, before Angie ever set foot in the restaurant. Neighbors had called 911 because they heard the young mother screaming. The police response was slow. When they arrived the victim was alone in the house; she’d been bludgeoned to death. Her infant was nowhere to be found.

It was that missing baby that made a common fatality of domestic abuse become the focus of news for months. It was also what left some doubt in Frank’s mind about the boyfriend’s guilt.

“They still haven’t found the kid, have they?” he asked.

“No.” Angie was blinking back tears. “He killed that baby, too.”

“I’ll bet her ex- killed her and took off with his kid.” Frank knew from the papers that the defense was offering that explanation.

“You can’t believe that!” Angie glared at him in shock.

Frank held back his response – did she prefer believing the child was dead?  That was worse than her obsession with this drama that had nothing to do with her. Well, if the jury was out, this was probably her last day in the restaurant. He continued pleasantly professional.

“You having the usual?”

Angie nodded and politely handed him the unopened menu.

“I’ll go get your order started.”

Miguel already had the sandwich and tea ready.

“What if she’d chosen something different today?” Frank asked.

“You know she wouldn’t. I put extra cheese into it. I swear she’s skinnier than she was when we first saw her. You like a woman with some curves, don’t you?”

“She’s just a customer.”

“Why do you always talk with her so much, then?”

“That’s what she’s here for, not the food… It’s a good thing you like your kitchen. This place would fold in a month if you were out front.”

“You should show more respect for the man who signs your check.” Miguel grinned and shoved the plate and metal teapot across the counter.

Frank took them back to Angie.

“Here you go.”

He turned her cup right side up and poured some tea while she adjusted her plate in front of her.

“He is guilty,” she whispered. “It’s not the first time.”

“I didn’t know that,” Frank apologized. “With that kind of testimony, of course they’ll find him guilty.”

He saw a brief flash of terror cross her face before she looked down at her plate and mumbled a thank you. His skin prickled; he wondered if she had mental problems. There was probably a clinical term for getting so wrapped up in someone else’s tragedy, something more specific than obsession.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” he asked.

She shook her head without looking up. He thought about sitting down for a few minutes, starting a chat about something innocuous to distract her, but the door chimed the presence of a new customer. Hopefully she wouldn’t have a major breakdown during the lunch rush.

Frank didn’t have a chance to talk to Angie again until he took her the check. She had cash ready.

“Here,” she said. “Keep the change. I need to get back in case they come in with a verdict quickly.”

“We’ll miss you.”

It was important to be polite to every customer, even one you’d gratefully never see again.

Angie headed to the restroom and Frank deposited the cash. His next customer was at the table by the door. Mike McCarthy, who covered the courthouse beat, had his computer out, ready to use their Wi-Fi. He waved away the menu Frank offered.

“What’s today’s soup?” he asked.

“Broccoli cheese.”

“I’ll have a bowl. No, make that a cup.”

“No sandwich?”

“Not today.” McCarthy grimaced. “My appetite’s off. The jury came in, not guilty.”

“You think they were wrong?” asked Frank.

“I interviewed the neighbors. There was another girlfriend with a baby before this one. That girl told them he got so angry when the baby cried that it scared her. They said she made it sound like it was her fault for letting the baby disturb him – typical abused spouse crap.”

“What did she tell the cops?”

“They couldn’t find her. A year before he killed this one, she disappeared with her kid and no one’s seen her since. So all they had was hearsay from the neighbors.”

Frank saw Angie coming from the restroom. He owed her an apology.

“Angie, this is Mike McCarthy, a reporter. He says you were probably right, that the guy’s previous girlfriend disappeared with her kid.”

“All the publicity this got, she’d have come forward, if she could,” McCarthy added. “Until someone else is lucky enough to get away from him alive, that prick’s free to go do it again.”

They both turned at Angie’s primal wail. “No! He got off?”

The men nodded. Tears flooded her terrified face as she sucked in a breath painfully.

“Did you know…” McCarthy started as Angie ran out the door.

McCarthy closed his computer and started after her. Frank was going to follow them, but a touch at his sleeve stopped him.

“Excuse me,” said the customer. “I need my check. I have a meeting…”

“Come back to the register and I’ll ring that up for you,” Frank said automatically.

He was reaching for the ticket when tires squealed, there was a heavy thud, then the blare of a horn stuck on.

The regular closest to the window stood with his cell phone in hand, shouting, “An ambulance! Send an ambulance! In front of the courthouse! Someone got hit by a car!”

His stomach in a knot, Frank took care of the customer’s ticket.

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A New Year – 2019

I’ll be back to short stories next week, but a year ago I was blogging primarily for writers, talking about reasonable expectations, looking back, motivational boards, and planning. I was on a roll, getting things done.

On my About page, I’ve just posted an update describing my second half of 2018. Where writing is concerned, I got off track, stopped using my spreadsheet to plan each week, changed direction ineffectively, didn’t achieve my primary goal, didn’t get my new book out . . . lots of negatives. My accountability partner and I both moved this year and fell out of the habit of weekly planning together, but the last two weeks we’ve gotten back into it, using our spreadsheets to plan and track progress. I’m trying to have reasonable expectations for the 168 hours in each week, leaving time for sleep and other basic human stuff.

KeepPaddlingOn New Year’s Eve the last several years, I’ve made a habit of listing accomplishments for the year, making a new plan, and creating a new motivational board. I didn’t really want to do it this year, with all those negatives, but I did. My list of accomplishments did not include my writing goal for the year. However, I did make a respectable amount for writing, editing, and formatting work – considering the time put into those activities. I did keep this blog going, even when I was on the road for months. The switch to free fiction feels right, and there are more followers each week. I attended the RWA conference in Denver, which got me off track when I pitched Peg’s Story, but I attended many informative sessions and expanded my network. Seeing what I’d done right perked me up and got me planning for the new year.

Previous years, I just had one page of large print, listing things I wanted to accomplish during the year ahead – something to keep posted on my wall to stay focused. Last year, I got fancier. I had one main writing goal with three objectives that would help me reach it, then steps to reach each objective and actions to reach each objective. In fine print it fit on one page with narrow margins. It was overwhelming. This year, I’ve gone back to larger print on that one page. My goal is a dollar amount for the year. I have five potential avenues for achieving that goal, so I listed all five. Of course I came up with ideas for each area, and I did pop them into the list (so I wouldn’t lose them), but it’s not nearly as rigidly picayune as last year’s. To make it less intimidating, I color coded the print: first, second, third, and later priorities. Anything like this blog that’s done regularly is highlighted. The red items are the priority for the first weeks of January.

My motivating phrase for 2018 was “Keep Paddling”. Well, the board got packed up at the end of June and kept in a storage unit with most of my things – and my motivation, direction, and drive floundered. Having no set work space didn’t help. I just pulled it out from under the tarp where many of my belongings await a place in my new digs. I’ll keep it leaning against the wall wherever I’m working, until I have a spot to hang it up.

I’ll keep paddling.

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A Single Christmas Tale

A stand-alone story, first published in The Maverick, Show Low AZ.

Glaring sunlight intruded on Alec’s dreams. He rolled over, willing himself to go back to sleep. Then the phone jarred him up and out of bed. He dragged the quilt behind him as he dashed to answer it.

“Santa got me skis!” The young voice was bursting. “Did you get my present?”

“Yes, I’m opening it now,” lied Alec. The present had been opened as soon as it arrived.

“Do you like it?”

Alec smiled, looking at the misshapen blob of clay. “It’s wonderful. Did you make it yourself?”

“Yes! It’s a pen holder. We made them at school.”

An older voice in the background said, “My turn, Honey,” then “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah, you too.” The tears in his throat annoyed him.

“Thanks for the check.”

“Figured Santa could use it,” Alec replied gruffly.

“That’s for sure . . .”

That was all they had to say; there was more than one kind of distance between them.

Alec tried to shrug off the holiday blues by making himself a real breakfast – eggs, sausage, and pancakes with real maple syrup. When they were a family, she always made coffeecake on Christmas morning.

He dawdled over his food, staring out the window, watching the jays, and then he took his time cleaning up. Dishes washed, dried, put away. Counters and stove-top wiped clean. He even swept the floor.

Still morning, he thought. No one else will call. Maybe there’s enough snow for a ski up on the mountain – only got out once last year.

Alec pulled his cross-country skis and poles out of the garage, then rummaged through closets until he found his boots and special wool socks. He decided to wear his heavy coat. He’d probably be too hot, but he didn’t push himself the way he used to.

It was past noon as he headed out of town.

The railroad tracks were too open; the wind had blown them bare. He kept driving, looking for the wooded trail he’d hiked last summer. Finally he found it – at least the map painted on the large wooden board looked familiar.

It was sheltered, and enough higher to have gotten more snow.

There were no other vehicles at the trailhead, but the path had been skied on sometime in the last couple days – since the last snow. He put on his skis and started awkwardly. After a few minutes, the rhythm came back to him and he started moving right along. At first the trail led up steeply. He unzipped his coat and was still sweating, but it felt good.

I’ll be fine as long as I keep moving, he thought.

He was glad when the trail looped around and headed downhill. But it was steep, and the light was getting tricky as the sun sank into the trees. He’d forgotten dusk would come earlier on this side of the mountain. He had to slow down.

His shirt clung to him like an icy glove. The trail was getting harder to follow. Going around a curve slowly, he nearly fell when his right ski grabbed a rock. He paused.

I could break a leg and freeze to death out here, he thought. But what difference would it make? No one would miss me; no one would really care.

Suddenly the hair on his body bristled, pushing the wet shirt away from his skin. He looked around in the dusk, but couldn’t see anything. Yet every nerve was tingling. He didn’t dare risk falling by going too fast, so he skied with his poles swinging broadly.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing…” He bellowed out Christmas carols to frighten off whatever was out there in the dark.

Suddenly, he saw bright light ahead. As he got closer he saw a truck sitting at the trailhead, its headlights on his car. Happily, Alec glided into the parking area and released his skis. He heard the truck door open.

“Hey there.”

The voice sounded friendly, but panic gripped Alec when he looked up to see a large man standing with his back to his truck, holding a long-barreled gun pointed in his direction.

“Man, I’m glad to see you,” said the stranger. “Pulled over ‘cause I was nodding off, then I seen them big cat tracks all around your car and figured you were a goner. I’ll just stand by here ‘til you’re ready to go.”

Alec stowed his gear, got into his car, and started it up. He rolled the window down as the man got into his own truck.

“Thanks,” he called, grateful to be alive.

“No problem. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

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Novel Bites: Christmas with Sunshine

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not. This is from Alice – her father Jack telling us about the moment he became her father. Please comment. Thanks.

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I had one Christmas with Sunshine.

We’d been together since August, though sex and drugs flowed pretty easy on the farm, so there was no way to be sure whose bun was in her oven. But now her belly button was inside out, I was the only one there massaging her back and cuddling up with her at night. I didn’t want anyone else.

We were still having sex. Anna told Sunshine it was perfectly natural and safe. In fact, she said pregnancy hormones increase a woman’s interest in sex – though that might have been wearing off. The last time we did it on Luke’s waterbed, Sunshine needed help getting out of it.

“Jack, I feel like a beached whale.” Then she rubbed her belly and smiled as if being a whale was the best thing in the world.

There were three or four toddlers and a couple waist-high kids living at the farm. I wasn’t completely sure which kids went with which adults, because they ran in a pack and we all watched out for them, more or less. There were two houses and who slept where changed frequently.

At our Thanksgiving feast, one of the older kids asked about Christmas, and there followed quite a debate about whether or not we should promote a commercial holiday. But we didn’t have a television, so the kids weren’t pestering anyone for the latest toys or anything. The kid asking just wanted to know what to expect – which I understood. Looking back at my life overall, you might be surprised to hear me say it, but living day to day with no plans for the future does have its down side.

Usually I kept quiet when the group was deciding on things like that, but that time I spoke up.

“I spent last Christmas in a miserable jungle, wondering if I’d make it through the day alive.” Mostly I kept being a vet to myself, so that was a surprise to most of them. “I don’t give a shit about it being commercial or religious. I just want that warm, peace-loving feeling everyone seems to get when they put up a tree and lights and start thinking about what they can do for other people.”

Longest piece of talk most of them had ever heard from me. Then I sat back and listened while they sorted it out. They decided they didn’t have to be Christians to believe Christ was a good guy who worked for peace, so it was okay to celebrate his birthday.

Once that decision was made, everyone got into it full bore.

We all hiked out into the woods and found a small tree to cut down. Luke suggested digging one up, but Ben, who had spent some time on the farm while his grandfather was still working it, said the tree would likely die when replanted and the one we were cutting would never grow because it was shaded by bigger trees. He said it was actually better for the forest to be thinned out now and then.

The ladies got to baking cookies and pies and popping corn that the bigger kids sewed together into garlands for the tree. I was supposed to call the ladies women, but that’s not how I was brought up and some things stick. Mostly I avoided calling them anything.

Once the smells and glitter got everyone into the spirit, we drew names from a hat, so each of us was responsible for one present and no one knew who had what name. Well, except for the ones helping the toddlers. Susie and Becky and couple other women stepped up to draw with the kids. They were probably the mothers, I guess.

I’m not sure how I got so lucky, but when I opened up my slip of paper, I had Sunshine. The rule was we were to make one gift for our person, unless there was something we knew they really needed or wanted that had to be bought, and they wouldn’t or couldn’t get it for themselves.

Well, Sunshine had all the hand-me-down baby stuff she was going to need, but there was one thing I could buy for her. She wanted a Polaroid camera so she could take pictures of her baby as she grew up. Sunshine didn’t talk much about where she came from – I never did know her real name – but she was sad that there’d never been any pictures of her growing up. She said it made her feel as if maybe she never really existed as a child.

Back while my father was still dragging me around, bragging about my medals and laughing about my shaggy hair, back before hordes of kids descended on the City and drove the original peace-lovers away, one of the guys passing through Sunshine’s life had taken her photo on a sunny day in Golden Gate Park. Sunshine had a copy of it, so she knew she existed there, in one of her gauzy outfits, with a ring of flowers in her hair. She was beautiful. She must have been a beautiful child, too.

So that’s what I got her. I didn’t share my finances with anyone, but I hadn’t spent all my money on drugs. When I first went to ‘Nam, I set it up so almost all my combat pay went into the bank for when I got home again. Figured it would give me a good start. But when I got back, there was nothing I really wanted to do with it, so most of it was still there – more than enough for a camera. I wanted to get Sunshine a lot of other things, but there was that one gift rule, so I settled for buying a dozen rolls of film to go with the Polaroid and wrapped it all in one box.

We exchanged gifts Christmas Eve, because otherwise the kids would have had us all up at the crack of dawn. It was after dinner and we opened them one at a time. I don’t remember what I got, or anyone else. I just remember the smile on Sunshine’s face. Annie wanted to take a photo of us together, but Sunshine said no, she was saving all the film for the baby.

There was a fire in the fireplace and all the lights were off but the Christmas tree and one for Ben to read by. He had a book of Christmas stories and he read them aloud, one by one, until the last kid got carried off to bed asleep and by midnight the adults were ready to call it a night. Then it was just me and Sunshine sitting on the floor, me spread-eagle with her leaning up against me so I could rub her belly as we watched the flames grow low. I leaned my head forward and breathed in the sweetness of her hair.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said softly, pressing her cheek gently against mine. “Not just for the camera, but for sticking with me. We’ll take a picture of all three of us once the baby’s here.”

She was assuming I was going to fill in as this baby’s father, and part of me wanted to, but I wasn’t sure it was mine or whether I would be any good as a father anyway. So I didn’t say anything, just eased back, but I kept rubbing her belly, watching the fire.

That’s when I felt it. The first time, I wasn’t sure. I sat there holding my breath, keeping my hand still in the same spot. Then that baby did a flip or something and there was no doubt at all.

From that moment on, Alice was my daughter.

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Novel Bites: Missy’s Tahoe Christmas

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not. This story is from Michael Dolan McCarthy, his little sister Missy talking to us after a conversation with Michael in which he reminded her of Christmas in Tahoe. Please comment. Thanks.

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I remember the last Christmas we were all together. I didn’t used to, cuz I was only in kindergarten back then, not second grade like I am now. But Michael helped me. He’s my big brother and he takes care of me.

Once I remembered my puppy mittens, that Christmas came back all shiny and warm – except for the snow. I got wet and cold when we went sledding, but then Daddy put me in the front seat with the heater going full blast and I warmed right up. When we made a snowman, it didn’t matter that I got wet cuz I could go inside and warm up every time.

We stayed in this place that was even nicer than our house – we lived in a house back then, not that creepy old apartment where we left Mama last night.

That was a bad place. I don’t like to think about it.

That Christmas, when we went to the mountains all of us together, I did have to share a bedroom with Jimmy, but there were twin beds. We even had our own TV to watch the Grinch and the old movies Mama liked for the holidays. Michael slept on the couch in the living room cuz he was old enough to stay up later than us, as late as Mama and Daddy.

We got there Christmas Eve and Daddy went out and got a little tree and put it on a table in a corner of the living room. Mama popped popcorn and we made popcorn strings and paper snowflakes for that tree. It came with some lights and little decorations, but Mama said it wasn’t a Christmas tree until we put some of our love into it.

There was a fireplace in the living room, too, one where you turned it on with a switch like a light. We brought our stockings from home, all excited to have a real fireplace for them, but there wasn’t any way to hang them above it. Jimmy wanted to put nails in the wall, but Daddy said we couldn’t do that. So we put our stockings on chairs next to the fireplace, and sure enough, Santa found us and filled the stockings and put presents under that little tree, and three sleds were against the wall next to it with bows on them.

I’d been worried about how Santa would find us if we weren’t at home, but Daddy said he wanted snow for Christmas. When he was a little boy, he lived where it snowed every winter, lots and lots. Mama, too, but in a different place. She told me a little about it while I helped her put glitter names on the stockings and bows to make them pretty. She hardly ever talked about when she was growing up, so I listened to every bit, except I don’t remember all of it because I was only five. But it was a farm near a big lake and she played outside all the time and drove tractor when she was younger than Michael!

Now I’m seven and Michael’s driving Mama’s old Explorer across the country to take us to her parents on that farm, even though we never met them before. He tried to call them again today, but I don’t think he got to talk to them yet. We slept in the car last night and now we’re driving up into really big mountains, way bigger than that Christmas we went sledding, and it’s starting to snow, but Michael says we have four wheel drive and that means we’ll be okay.

Sometimes people are surprised he’s my brother, cuz his skin’s kind of brown all the time, but that’s cuz he had a different father first. Michael called our Daddy Swede. Daddy said that was okay, that Michael started calling him that before he married Mama and it didn’t matter what Michael called him, he was still Daddy to all of us.

Anyway, Daddy was so much fun. He pulled me back up the sledding hill every time, so I wouldn’t get tired before the boys. And he rode behind me, holding me close against him, so I wouldn’t get scared when we hit a bump or tipped over. He laughed every time.

But this Christmas we’ll be with our grandparents in that big farmhouse where Mama grew up, with snow to make snowmen with and oh, Mama showed me how to make snow angels, too.

I can make one for her and one for Daddy, angels for angels. They’ll like that.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

www.sherimcguinn.com
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Sheri McGuinn

www.sherimcguinn.com

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