Category Archives: YA Fiction

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.

 Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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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.

FullFront

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

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www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

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Novel Bites: Jimmy’s Plan

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 Michael Dolan McCarthy. The book is told from Michael’s perspective, whereas this story explains his little brother’s perspective in the opening chapters. Please comment. Thanks.

FullFront

Fast as the wind. That’s me. At nine, I’m the youngest player on our team, but I’m the best. The ball dances between my feet as I race to the goal.

Andy’s a good goalie, staying in the middle, ready to dive to either side, shifting his weight from foot to foot. The space between them calls to me. In a league game, I wouldn’t take the chance, but this is practice. I go in close, lock eyes with him, then slam the ball right between his feet. It bumps his ankle and veers into the net at an angle.

“Aw, man!” Andy retrieves it. “Did you have to make me look stupid?”

“Bet you’ll never take your eyes off the ball in a real game.” I grin as Coach’s whistle pierces the air.

Andy rolls his head back to look at the sky, then grins back at me. We fist bump and run to the sideline. Coach will tell us what we did right and wrong in this scrimmage, then have us do one more before we call it quits for the day.

I’m not surprised to see Michael here. My big brother comes early to watch practice a lot, which makes me feel less like a baby, having a teenager walk me home all the time. But he’s talking to Coach, which is weird.

“Nice play, Jimmy,” says Coach. “Grab your stuff, you’ve got to go.”

I glare at Michael. He follows me over to the duffel bag I use for school. It’s the only thing big enough for my soccer stuff and whatever I need during the day. The regulation ball Mama bought is always with me, ready for pick-up games at recess and lunch.

“Why can’t I stay?” I grumble as I change into my street shoes. Some of the kids wear their soccer shoes home, but I save mine for the field. “We’ve got a big game tomorrow.”

“You’ll have to miss it. I told your coach. Mama’s got a job interview out of town and she’s taking us with her.”

“It’s Ridgeview!” Michael knows Ridgeview is our toughest opponent. “They need me! Why’s Mama got to take us along?”

“She can’t leave us home alone.” Michael stares at the shoes I haven’t tied. “Hurry up. We need to get going.”

Michael is the one who’s held things together since Dad died. He’d rather be on the high school soccer team than babysitting me and our little sister Missy all the time, but he hardly ever complains.

I do, though. “Mama’s supposed to cut my hair tonight. Is she still going to do that?”

Mama buzzed me right before school started. It’s Novem­ber now and my bangs keep getting in my face. It’s kind of nice to hide behind them in class, but on the field it’s a pain. I’ve been trying to get her to cut my hair for two weeks.

Michael looks like he might cry. “Don’t be mad at Mama. It’s not her fault.”

“What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

But Michael doesn’t answer. He takes off for home so fast I have to trot to keep up. He does that when he wants me to shut up and quit bugging him about something. But this time, maybe I don’t want the answer. If one more awful thing’s happened to our family, well, that just wouldn’t be fair.

Still, I need to know. When we get to the apartment, I watch Michael unlock the door and finally ask, “What’s going on?” My voice sounds like a little girl’s, all weak and trembly.

He chokes on the words. “Mama’s gone, Jimmy. Too many pain pills.”

“No! Where is she?”

Michael nods up towards her room, his hand on my shoulder. I shake it off and run upstairs, hoping he’s wrong, that she’s just sleeping heavy. She can be hard to wake up when she takes those pills. But tears start pouring down my face even before I get to the foot of her bed and see her lying there all stiff like a big plastic doll. Mama’s not there anymore. No touch needed to know she’s gone.

When Dad died, we knew it was coming because of the cancer, but this? My eyes drift to the empty pill bottle by her hand and rage pours through me, worse than the day our cat Betsy died and Mama tossed her in the trash and she was gone before we even knew she’d been hurt. I smashed up our room that day and Michael told me how that’s rage and it’s what got his father killed and Dad wouldn’t be happy with me for letting it take over like that.

Now Mama’s deserted us, left us on our own. I’m shaking, holding back from smashing things, and crying sad, all at once. “Why, Michael? Why’d she do this?”

Michael puts his arm around me and turns to walk us away from the bed and out of that room. “You know how worried she was, how she’s felt she wasn’t taking good care of us, like she couldn’t do anything right. . .”

“But now she can’t take care of us at all.” My rage slides into fear, a cold lump in my belly. The tears stop and my eyes open wide as I turn to Michael. “What are we gonna do?”

We’ve lived in this ghetto apartment long enough to understand Social Services is the threat now. They’ll come and take us and we’ll be split up and maybe never see each other again. But Michael’s already thought it through. As he explains everything, I’m not surprised the girl across the street is going to help us – they’re always on the phone. Missy found Mama, and she’s over at Shenia’s house now.

But when he tells me where we’re headed, well . . . Dad didn’t have any family and Mama never talked about any, so I figured she didn’t either. But Michael has an envelope with Mama’s handwriting on it, addressed to her parents at an address in Pennsylvania, all the way across the country.

I’ve got a million questions, but mostly, “Why don’t we know them?”

Michael sighs. “They broke off with Mama when she married my father.”

I stare at my big brother. When I’ve been outside all summer, my skin’s nearly as dark as his, and we both have light blonde hair. But mine’s straight as can be and wispy, while his is thick and kinky. I know what he’s saying, but it makes no sense. “That’s stupid,” is all I can offer him.

“Yeah, well, she was writing to ask for help. Maybe they’ll take you and Missy. I’m almost sixteen, I can get along on my own if you two are safe together with family. I’ll stay close enough to keep tabs on you.”

Michael’s the best big brother anyone could have. I don’t want to live with anyone who would reject him.  When we get there, I’ll set them straight that it’s all of us or none. But if it’s going to be none, I have to start being more helpful, so Michael knows it’ll work, that he won’t have to take care of me all the time, and I’ll help with Missy.

I have to show him.

We’re taking one bag apiece, what we can carry. We might never see the rest again. Michael dumps my school stuff onto the bed and starts packing his own backpack. The first thing I do is shove my soccer ball back into my duffel.

“You can’t take that,” he says. “You have to get all your clothes in there.”

I start shoving underwear in around the ball. I want to be grown up, but tears are pouring down my face again. I snuffle and blink and keep shoving clothes into the bag.

Michael stops packing his. “Jimmy, you have to listen to me now.” He sounds tired, old.

“Mama gave it to me.” I suck in air to try and stop the crying, but end up sobbing.

“Can you deflate it?”

I shake my head. “Coach airs it up for me.”

Michael pulls me into a hug and holds me while I shake and sob. When I’ve mostly cried myself out, I heave a big sigh and look up. Michael lets me loose and wipes his own face. I’ve soaked the front of his shirt. I snort up snot so I can breathe better, then go back to stuffing stuff in around the ball.

“I can make it all fit. I don’t need many clothes.”

Michael gives me a quick side hug and lets me be. When we’re both done packing our bags, I remember I want to be helpful so he’ll keep us with him instead of making us stay with some white grandparents who never bothered to know us.

I can help make sure we get away. “Will the police come after us?”

“Maybe. But in a city this big, maybe they’ll be too busy.” Michael doesn’t sound like he believes that, and I sure don’t. Nothing’s gone easy for our family since Dad got sick.

I have a good idea, though. “We should get all our pictures out of the house, to slow them down.”

Michael hadn’t thought of that. Mama never let me be in charge of Missy because I’m too hyper, but I’m smart, and I can totally focus when it’s important. That’s why I’m so good at soccer. I’ll watch out for Missy and I’ll keep finding ways to help Michael take care of us.

We’re going to be together, one way or another.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

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Novel Bites: Nina’s Thanksgiving

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. Nina is Alice’s daughter and narrator of the book, Alice. This is a Thanksgiving when she was younger, before the events in Alice. Please comment. Thanks.

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Mom pulls the oven rack out enough to poke the withered orange lumps with a fork.

“Done!” She pulls the pans out and puts them on top of the stove. Eight halves of those little pumpkins she says are the best for pies, face down on cookie sheets.

“Why don’t you just use the canned stuff, like a normal person,” I grumble. I’m twelve and my mother’s no longer perfect.

She shrugs that off. “They taste better from fresh pumpkin.”

“Did you have pies like this when you were a kid? Is that it?” I dig at the issue.

“Yes.” Then she changes the subject like she always does. “We need to let these cool before we scoop them out. Are the ginger snaps ready to roll?”

She won’t ever talk about her childhood. I know her mother died when she was born and she was brought up by her father, and that’s about it. I’m not even sure if he’s dead or alive, and I don’t think she knows, either. But I bet someone always made pumpkin pies this way for the holidays when she was little. I bet she had normal Thanksgiving dinners. We never have.

“Nina.” Her voice breaks into my thoughts. “The cookie dough?”

We mixed up the cookie batter first thing this morning and it’s been cooling in the refrigerator while the pumpkins cooked. Mom’s efficient about energy use – we’ll bake the cookies while the oven’s still warm.

“Yup. All four batches.” I pull the first roll out of the fridge and start peeling the wax paper around it open. We have to make our cookies from scratch, too. Always. Mom won’t buy the frozen stuff. We’ll make six kinds of Christmas cookies, too, everything from the basics of flour, sugar, butter . . . not margarine, no way, not for Mom.

I’d get it if we had family that expected all this tradition stuff, but we don’t. It’s just us. And we’ll take the cookies and pies to the homeless shelter this year and have our Thanksgiving feast there, with a bunch of smelly people who won’t take off their coats because they’re afraid of having them stolen, and raggedy little kids running around screaming. When I was little, we’d go to a soup kitchen. The people there were usually cleaner. Most of them still had homes, I guess.

I try one more time. “Why can’t we go to the soup kitchen instead?”

Mom gives me the look, the one that says we’ve already been over this. There aren’t as many volunteers at the homeless shelter and I need to be less judgmental. If she lost her job, we could end up homeless.

But she’s a teacher and she’s been doing it long enough to have tenure, which means they can’t just fire her. She’d have to like murder someone in class or the school would have to collapse or something. She’s also dead set on this Thanksgiving tradition.

“I’ll help you with all the cooking, but I’m not going this year.” I try to sound as firm as she does when she’s giving me no choice. “Mary invited me to their house.”

Mom just looks at me. I’m not sure if she’s disappointed or what. But she’s not saying “No” right away, so maybe there’s a chance.

I work on it. “They’re having the whole family, her cousins I met last summer and a bunch more relatives, so one more won’t be any problem. Her mother said it was okay.”

Mom sighs and nods. “You’ve never had that kind of Thanksgiving. You should. It’s special.”

“I can go?” I almost didn’t bother asking! And she caved right away!

She smiles like it hurts and blinks like maybe she’s holding back tears, but she nods yes and I hug her, hard.

“Thanks, Mom!”

“I’ll miss you.” She says it quietly and it tugs at my heart, but this is something I need to do.

Guilt makes me try to explain. “I need to have one Thanksgiving with a bunch of people who know and care about each other, not strangers sharing an especially big meal.”

“I know,” she says. “When I was little, we didn’t have real family, but we had a huge group of friends who gathered together for the holidays – and baked the pumpkins for the pies – then when I was older, it was just two of us, and sometimes we ended up . . . anyway, yes, you can spend this holiday with Mary and her family. It’ll be good for you.”

“Were you homeless?” Maybe that’s why she never talks about it.

She smiles as if she’s having a memory that makes her feel warm. “Between homes. Sometimes we were between homes. Go call Mary, then get back here and help me with these cookies.”

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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Novel Bites: Lizzie from Running Away

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. LIzzie is sister to the main character in Running Away. Please comment. Thanks.

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Lizzie

“How could they not have known what was happening in the concentration camp! How could they have put Hitler into power in the first place?”

John Swanson has only been in our class for a week. I think he’s trying to be noticed by playing devil’s advocate.

Mr. Ludes doesn’t mind. He likes any class participation. He pushes up his glass as he says, “Tyrants come to power by manipulating public opinion and often by doing things that are right. Remember, the Great Depression was world-wide. People in Germany were starving. Hitler promised to make things better, and he did. Employment increased when he first came to power. And he started youth groups—that sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Hitler seemed like a hero to many people.”

“Well, they all must have been really stupid, then,” John snorts.

“No! They weren’t stupid.” My voice startles me, and the rest of the class. I’ve been very quiet this year.

Mr. Ludes grins. We are actively engaged in learning.

John mutters something that makes the people near him snicker.

I stare at my fingertips with their raw cuticles where I’ve been chewing and ripping bits of my own flesh. My voice is quiet but steady. “When people are evil, they’re really good at hiding it. In fact, that’s what makes the difference between someone who does some bad things and someone who really is bad.”

“Yeah, right. Sounds like Sunday school crap.” John snorts. His buddies grin.

I pull my hands into fists so I don’t see the bloody evidence. “No. It’s not from church.” I don’t even go to church, except the support group meets there.

Mr. Ludes asks us to think about it. “You’re old enough, there’s probably been a time someone tricked you, or broke a promise, or seemed nicer than they were.”

I stop listening and stare out the window. Looking off into the sky is the centering technique that helps me hold it together when I want to scream. When I glance back at the clock, the eyes of another girl who never talks catch mine and hold for a moment. We instantaneously share knowledge we don’t want to have. The bell rings and we escape together.

“I’m Cindy,” she says. “Wanna ditch lunch?”

We slip out to a spot under the bleachers where we can have privacy. Her story is my sister’s, abuse by a step-father, delivered in short, tough phrases. Mine is different.

“At first, we both thought he was a creep. And Maggie did start acting out, but he made her sound so much worse, especially next to me. Mom had always taken it for granted that I’d do well in school, but Richard made a big deal about every A. He convinced Mom to let me babysit on school nights, and when he caught me sneaking one of his beers to take with me, he just winked and pretended he hadn’t seen anything. I was the good girl; Maggie was evil or on her way to it.”

“Guess I was lucky I don’t have a sister,” Cindy says.

“I was beginning to like him.” I swallow hard. “When Maggie complained about the way he treated her, I ignored her and figured it had a lot to do with the way she was acting.” I can’t hold them in anymore – the tears stream down my face. “I blamed her in my head, even though I never came out and said it. Our counseling group says he was manipulating both of us, that I shouldn’t feel bad. Maggie even says not to worry about it.”

“She must really love you.”

“She does. But it’s not just that I feel guilty. I would have been next . . . What if someone else tricks me?” My fear is reflected in Cindy’s eyes. Will we ever be whole?

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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Impressions: Mortal

I’m a salesman—spend half my life driving from one pitch to the next. It gives me time to think. That night I was driving through the redwoods, well past midnight.

When I was a kid, I read a spooky tale about a girl named Lavender who haunted a back road. They said she was dressed up for a party. It was a good story and I probably read it a few times, as I did when I was a kid and had all the time in the world, but I’d forgotten about it until I saw her. Not Lavender, the girl walking barefoot along the narrow road lined with giant trees, wearing what I took to be a prom dress, a flimsy bit of pink gauzy stuff and lace.

I was well past the last tourist trap when I saw her.

She wasn’t carrying shoes, as you might expect with the fragile, uncomfortable sort of thing girls wear to a prom. She was walking along the road at midnight with feet accustomed to the gravel of the shoulder, not picking her way like someone with tender soles. There had to be a destination in her mind, so sure was her stride. While she reminded me of Lavender, I didn’t doubt that this girl was of solid flesh.

She turned and waved her arms. My headlights flashed briefly on her terrified face, then it was gone in the night. I didn’t stop.

Offering a young girl a ride on a dark stretch of road in the middle of the night could have had disastrous results, were she of a mind and talent to claim misuse convincingly. I drove past the girl and on a good mile before my conscience got the better of me. There were so many ways she could come to no good end, walking alone that way along the road in the dark under the giant trees. And she had looked frightened.

She was probably a nice girl, a good girl who would not make up lies. I should help her. So I watched for a wide spot in the road and turned around. By then several minutes had passed. There was a good chance she’d have arrived at her destination and I’d find no one walking along the road.

It wouldn’t mean she’d been a figment of my imagination.

There was no sign of her. I went back well past the spot I’d seen her, to the little store with the carved bear, and I turned around once again and drove slowly, to make sure I didn’t miss her. By then I was worried. She had looked terrified. I admitted this to myself as I searched in vain. There were no houses on that stretch of road, no driveway to a home where a young girl in a prom dress would have gone, no side roads, nothing until the spot where I’d turned around the first time.

Well, I suppose you’re thinking she was a ghost, like Lavender, and I was thinking maybe I’d imagined her, too. But she was real. A man riding his bicycle along that bit of road the very next day spotted a splash of pink in a hollow beside the road. They say it was her head hitting a rock that did her in, but the force of impact indicates a speeding car clipped her, throwing her from the road.

Of course I know better. Mine was the only car on the road that night.

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. As Halloween approaches, I’m including a few less admirable characters. If you’d like reading more about this villain or his victim, leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

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Impressions: Charlie’s Demise

“I can’t believe Charlie’s dead,” she wailed.

Joe put the phone down next to the refrigerator. The sobs continued over the speaker as he rummaged for a beer. If he’d known what to say, she wouldn’t have heard over all that snuffling anyway. There was an especially loud slurp of mucous and Ann started talking again.

“I mean, I yelled at him and slammed the door on my way out. I went to work and bitched to Susan about always having to clean up after him…”

As she dissolved into another burst of waterworks, Joe pulled his last Fatty Ale from behind the milk, where he’d hidden it from his roommate. Shoot. She wasn’t making any noise. He had to say something, but what? He’d never lost anyone close to him.

“Yeah,” he grunted.

It was enough.

“Then I came home and there he was, stiff and cold.”

If Ann went after a ball the way she did conversation, she’d be unbeatable. She kept on talking, not crying anymore, but still making those liquid noises between sentences.

“He was always there for me, you know?”

He nodded as he waited for his email to load, then realized audio was required.

“He was awesome,” Joe managed to say.

It was the kind of comment he figured people would make at a funeral, even if they hadn’t liked the deceased. He certainly hadn’t liked Charlie. Joe had been taking it slow, starting by establishing a solid friendship with Ann. Then, the day he was finally ready to ask her out on a real date, he dropped by her apartment and there was Charlie.

“You know, I fell in love with him at first sight,” Ann was saying.

No kidding. Charlie moved in and became the center of her life. He went everywhere with her, except work. Sometimes Joe could get her to have lunch with him if she didn’t have enough time to go home, but all she talked about was Charlie. Most of it had been negative.

“You could get rid of him,” Joe had suggested. “It’s not like you’re married.”

She’d chewed him out for that comment. She insisted she loved Charlie and lectured Joe, saying he had no understanding of commitment.

“It was awful,” she was saying now, sad but no longer soggy. “Coming home and finding him with that cord wrapped around his neck like that… and the last thing I did was yell at him.”

“You think he committed suicide because you yelled at him?” Joe choked out.

“Quit!” she snapped. “Don’t be mean.”

He took the phone off speaker, then took a deep breath and held it to stifle the laughter threatening to explode. He put the phone up by his ear, but away from his mouth.

“They said he probably died right after I left the apartment this morning,” she was saying.

“Who said?” he managed to ask by releasing a tiny bit of the air that threatened to pop his chest like an over-full balloon.

“The EMTs,” she replied defensively. “They were very understanding and kind.”

Hysterical laughter burst forth, shaking his entire body as his diaphragm contracted uncontrollably. She started crying again, but he couldn’t stop laughing. Tears poured down his face.

When he finally caught his breath, he asked in disbelief, “You called 911?”

For once she was silent.

“You did! You really did!”

He didn’t even try to stop the laughter anymore.

“And were they cool with being called for a doggie suicide?”

The call ended.

She might never speak to him again.

Oh well, imagine what she’d be like with kids.

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Joe, Ann, or Charlie, leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

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Impressions: Benny’s Last Dollar

Benny swallowed the end of his drink and looked at his last chip, a dollar.

It was all set up to favor the house. Benny knew that. He’d known it from the first time he went to a casino, but still, he couldn’t stop until his pocket was empty. There was a slot machine near the exit just waiting for this chip.

Even the time he hit the big jackpot, big enough to buy a new truck, maybe even one of those new little houses on the edge of town that his girl always talked about, he’d kept on playing until his stake was completely gone. That’s what he called it—his stake. That made him feel like one of the pros, the serious poker players in the big money games held privately in the back room. But Benny never took more than one day’s pay. However much he was earning, that was his limit.

Of course, he’d made that rule when he had a good full time job. This week, he’d only worked two days, helping an old lady fix a bunch of stuff on her house so she could sell it. He and George had really dragged their heels to make the job last. She was only paying them minimum. They used to make four, five times that with overtime.

Not anymore.

One day’s pay had gone for new socks, thrift store shoes and shirts, and groceries they never had at the food bank. He’d come to the casino with the rest, and he’d managed to make it last a good while – building it up, then losing some, building it up again. Until he ended up with nothing but this dollar chip. Since then he’d been watching other people play while he finished his drink.

Back in the day, he could say the free drinks paid for anything he lost. But he didn’t drink much anymore. He wasn’t AA or born-again; he hadn’t even tried to quit. It had come on him gradually, until one night last July he’d headed home and realized he’d nursed one whiskey the whole evening. Even when the company folded and his girl dumped him, all in one week, he didn’t crawl into a bottle like some of his buddies.

Benny scanned the casino, all the people absorbed by machines or tensed over tables. The drink girl came up and offered him a refill.

“No,” he said. He paused and stared at her as if she were an alien life form. “No, I’m done. Thank you.”

She moved on to the next customer.

Benny cashed in his chip and tucked his dollar into his pocket.

He straightened his shoulders, smiled a half smile to himself, and gave the pocket with his dollar in it a pat. Satisfied, he took one last look around before leaving.

He wouldn’t be back.

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Benny, leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

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Impressions: The Novice Traveler

Carolyn lumbered through the airport, a backpack slung over her left shoulder, her right arm stretched by the weight of her carry-on.

Big Brother’s voice reminded her, “Unattended bags will be confiscated.”

She stopped to catch her breath, put the suitcase on the floor close to her feet, and moved the backpack to her right shoulder. The pack had been the agent’s idea, so she could make sure everything made the plane change with her. It held more and had better pockets than a traditional purse, but she felt silly carrying it.

She picked up the suitcase and trudged onward. It had taken her forever to get to the departure gate and then they announced a change. Why did it have to be at the opposite end of the airport?

The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled her as she instinctively inhaled deeply. That would have to do. The bakery line was long, her new gate was still a good hike away, and the flight would be boarding soon.

She looked longingly at all the people effortlessly pulling bags on wheels. Why hadn’t the agent suggested that? If her father’s old bag hadn’t been the right size for carry-on she would have shopped for one. Maybe they all had wheels now.

Finally she got to the new right gate.

Carolyn lifted her eyes skyward. “Please don’t let them change it again.”

“You got that right,” said a Gothic person of indeterminate sex.

Carolyn started. She hadn’t meant to talk out loud.

Big Brother repeated his warnings. The Gothic person sniffed, drawing Carolyn’s attention to a nose ring. There was one through the left eyebrow, too. Why would someone do that? It had to hurt.

“You going to Maui, too?” the Goth person asked.

Carolyn paused, but saw no way to keep her destination a secret. She nodded and turned away. There were only two seats left open. The Goth person plopped down next to her.

“I love the islands… you been before?” it said.

Carolyn shook her head and pulled out the novel she’d brought for the plane. She opened it and put her head down, but that didn’t work.

“Kauai’s the best, but Maui’s nice if you stay away from the tourist traps.”

Carolyn stared at the first page.

“I’m Becca.” The girl shoved her ring-laden hand over Carolyn’s book.

Carolyn raised her head and made cautious contact with her fingertips.

The girl’s black lips couldn’t hide her dimples or the openness of her smile. It was just all the black leather and spiky hair and dramatic, ghoulish make-up that made her seem threatening. Well, that and the piercings. Carolyn returned the smile tentatively.

“You’ve been to Hawaii before?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. I love it there. Costa Rica’s nice, too, but Hawaii’s my favorite.”

“Really?” Carolyn thought of all the vacations she’d spent caring for her parents and working on their house – her house now. “You travel a lot?”

“Yup. I’ll stay until my money runs out, then go crash with my folks, get a job, and save up for the next trip. They cut me a deal on rent, to get me to come home sometimes, but eventually I’m going to work my way around the world.”

“How long did it take you to save up for this trip?”

“Three months. Maui’s really cheap if you know how to do it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“About fifty dollars a day. And the plane ticket.” The girl pulled a small electronic device from her pack and stuck pieces of black foam into her ears.

“Fifty dollars a day?” Carolyn sighed. Her hotel alone was three times that.

The girl didn’t hear. She was nodding to a dissonant sound audible despite the ear buds. So Carolyn didn’t talk about the Jeep the agent had insisted she add to the reservation, so she wouldn’t get stuck off-trail or on a beach. Carolyn was too timid to ever leave the road, and too timid to argue with the man. At least he hadn’t made reservations at restaurants for her, though he’d given her a list of places that served delicious fresh sea food – probably all expensive.

Carolyn touched Becca tentatively on the forearm. “Where do you eat?”

The girl emptied the ear closest to Carolyn, but still nodded to the music as she answered. “Mostly from grocery stores, then fix it in the kitchen or barbeque out back at the hostel. Groceries are expensive, but it’s cheaper than eating out.”

“They let you use the kitchen?”

“It’s a hostel. Like a hotel, but with community bathrooms and kitchen.”

“You share the bathroom with strangers?”

“And I’ll be sharing a room with three other people. You can get a private room, but it costs more. I’ve only done that when my gram came along.”

“Your grandmother?”

“Yep. She travels the same way. Hey, let me give you her email.”

As the girl handed Carolyn the slip of paper, a disembodied voice called for the first passengers to board. Carolyn stood up. The agent had said a first class ticket was essential for such a long flight. She knew Becca would be flying tourist.

“Are you sure your grandmother won’t mind you giving this to a stranger?”

“That’s the beauty of being a traveler,” Becca smiled. “There’s no such thing as a stranger.”

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Carolyn’s journey – or Becca’s – leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signaturewww.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

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The Incident – Chapter 13

When I get back to the campfire, Mom’s just poured water on the coals and ash. Hot ash flying into dry needles can start a forest fires so last one up always douses it.

I stare at the steam rising, a rock in my stomach and the paper in my hand as Mom turns and sees me.

“I thought you’d turned in already,” she says. “We could have had a nice chat by the fire.”

She’s not demanding to know where I’ve been by myself so late; she’s trusting me.

My chest heaves as I suck in a big breath, then the tears start flowing and my body’s shaking and Mom’s there putting her arms around me, rubbing gently along my spine the way she always does when we’re hurt.

She kisses the top of my head and says “We love you.”

I hand her the note. She gives me the flashlight so she can read and still keep an arm around me. She holds me tighter the farther she gets. At the end, she’s crying and pulls me into a full hug and kisses my forehead and looks me in the eyes.

“We love you. Nothing will every change that. Next time you’ll make different choices. That’s all any of us can do, is try to do better next time.”

It’s going to be okay. I’m still going to go to boarding school, because it’s a better school and it’s in the mountains not far from where we used to live. I’ll be more careful making new friends there and I’ll go to Mary’s for long weekends, back with all my old friends.

I’m going to be okay.

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

The Incident is contemporary YA (Young Adult). Following time-honored tradition, I’m publishing it here in installments. To be alerted when the next segment goes online, “follow” this blog. The entire story will be published here. You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to publish the story elsewhere. Thank you.

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