Tag Archives: Defining Moments

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.

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Novel Bites: Maria’s Secret

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 one is not. Maria’s husband is Joe in Running Away and Peg’s Story (soon to be released). Please comment. Thanks.
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“Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue” – Buddy Holly’s song haunts my husband.

Every time it plays, Joe’s gaze turns inward and saddens. I know he’s thinking of Peg, a girl he knew briefly as I planned flowers and music for our wedding.

It’s not what you think. It’s not that kind of connection between them. He was her white knight one sunny day when she most needed one. He rescued her, listened to her, soothed her with stories, and got her safely home – at least with no more damage.

Today, he would have talked her into going to the hospital, stood by her as she talked to police and pressed charges against the boys who so callously used her body. My Joe understands that body and mind and spirit cannot be separated, that what injures one injures all parts of the being. So when he hears that song and remembers, he blames himself for not knowing more than he did at the time, for not being more than he knew how to be.

Joe confessed to me, after his last visit to his brother in Canada, that he’d driven back to the place he dropped her off,  and asked a stranger raking leaves in a yard if a girl named Peg lived in that neighborhood.

The stranger pointed to a house. “She used to live there.”

She ran away and they were told she was swept away by the flood that ruined my wedding plans. Her loss was of course the more tragic event, but the wedding, moved from a riverside venue to a small chapel at the last minute, with a fraction of the guests able to attend, that is what marks the time for me. That she died here haunts my husband – he wonders if she came looking for him, hoping he could help her again, or perhaps still searching for deliverance from her trauma?

And this is why I have a secret from my partner in life. Not from any foolish jealousy. He treasures me – there’s no insecurity between us. No, I hold secret from him that which would only deepen his unreasonable sense that he failed this stranger somehow. It is a secret I share with his aunt. You see, the girl did come looking for my beloved.

She was thin and pale and impressed his aunt as old for her age. It had to have been her, though despite the circumstances in which they met, my husband admitted she was quite pretty with a figure that may have drawn unwanted attention. Auntie says the girl came only the one time, looking quite desperate, and quick to believe when told the Joe she sought was out of the country on his honeymoon. We agree he doesn’t need his guilt reinforced by that knowledge.

Since Auntie shared her story, I share my husband’s unreasonable guilt.

On our wedding day, the storm had passed and the waters had begun to recede, leaving their destruction behind. When we saw the state of the garden by the river, my mother suggested waiting a year for the venue to heal, but I didn’t want to abandon our honeymoon trip to Europe. When I shocked her by suggesting my virginity would not last another year and any wedding that late might be with a rounded belly in the gown, she helped me find the small chapel where my beloved and I exchanged our vows on the date we’d planned.

So you see, the girl was not swept away by the flood waters. She came looking for my Joe while we were on our honeymoon.

But believing she is dead must be easier for her family than always wondering what became of her. I know it would only haunt my husband more to know she may still be out there, still trying to put body, mind, and soul back together.

I know she haunts me.

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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.

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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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Impressions: Alone With Jimmy

The house is so small that the sound of brush against teeth carries down the hallway to the bed where I’ve been lying on my back, pondering the designs in the wood ceiling for hours, trying not to think ahead to what I am going to do.

The usual muffled murmurs come as my aunt and uncle settle in for the night.

Before long, Uncle Fred is snoring loud enough to cover my departure even if I slam the door on my way out. But I won’t; it’s too important that I leave without notice.

The covers hid my shorts when Aunt Sue peeked in like she always does. She never fusses at me for sleeping in a tee-shirt instead of the lacy nightgowns my mother buys. Aunt Sue believes in comfort.

My shoes are out on the porch, caked in mud from helping in the garden. Aunt Sue can’t bend over so easily anymore; she’s glad I’m here. I made sure to get all the weeds pulled today. This morning she said I could stay with them for my senior year, that I didn’t have to go home.

I wait for her heavy breathing to start—not quite loud enough to call it snoring, but definitely a sound she’d never make awake. The two of them have no idea that they play this counterpoint each night, apart yet together, like Charlie’s favorite music.

He was such a weird kid.

My baby brother started playing keyboard before he even started school, and when Dad played his old music, it was always the complex stuff that got Charlie excited—like some of Dad’s Moody Blues—really old stuff. And the kid would memorize a song and sing it until it drove me crazy. This summer it was I Know You’re Out There Somewhere. I can still hear him.

My heart squeezes out a tear.

At last Aunt Sue joins in the nighttime chorale.

I slip out of my bed and quietly pad down the hallway to the front door. This afternoon, when no one was looking, I put some salad oil on the hinges. It won’t last long, but I only need it to work this once. The door opens without a squeak.

My shoes aren’t where I left them! Aunt Sue must have decided to clean them up. They’re probably by the washtub in the laundry room.

I’m not going go back, though. Not now. I might lose my nerve.

So I pick my way across the gravel drive, gingerly placing one foot at a time, until I reach the lawn. My pace quickens, and then I stub my toe on a tree root, invisible on this dark night. I slow down and my thoughts catch up to me.

The moon was full two weeks ago, the last time I slipped out.

That night, Charlie snuck down the driveway after me. My eight-year-old brother was my parents’ weapon to keep me out of trouble with boys. He loved tagging along and they encouraged it. In fact, when they first let me start dating a couple years ago, they insisted he be included. My first date took us roller blading and spent more time with Charlie than he did with me. Word got out and I didn’t date much. If the nerd in our building hadn’t asked me, I would have missed my Junior Prom. I finished the year totally depressed.

But I left that in the city. Every summer I can remember, even before Charlie was born, has been spent with Aunt Sue and Uncle Fred at their cabin in the Adirondacks. Our parents have always said it’s so we don’t have to endure the city heat while they work, but I suspect the cost of childcare was a factor. Sue and Fred are actually Dad’s aunt and uncle, so they’re retired and have always seemed to enjoy having us for two months. Their cabin is on the edge of town, not far from the state beach. Everyone knows us—including all the guards at the beach.

I’d had a crush on Jimmy for two years—all the girls did. This was his last summer to lifeguard. He was going into his senior year of college and had an internship lined up to teach classes at an art gallery in Manhattan this fall. It took half the summer, but I finally got up the courage to congratulate him. Then I told him how much I like the work displayed at that gallery—in detail. Like Charlie and his music, art has always been my obsession.

After that, whenever Jimmy had a break, we’d sit on the beach talking art and how he wanted to teach it in elementary schools, to help little kids’ talent bloom.

One afternoon, when Charlie had gone fishing with Uncle Fred, I stayed and talked with Jimmy as he closed up the beach. I followed him into the lifeguard shack, talking about how much I love Monet’s garden paintings more than his cathedrals. He hung up the equipment and was saying how he wanted to go to Monet’s home in Giverny when he turned around and it was if he saw me, really saw me, for the first time. Our eyes met for a long moment, then he reached out and slowly pulled me into a kiss.

Fortunately, Charlie loved fishing more than swimming. Whenever he wasn’t at the beach with me, I lived through the day in aching anticipation. When Jimmy had a break, we’d still talk art, but with unspoken communication flowing between us as well. Once the beach closed, we used the privacy of the guard shack.

It wasn’t just hormones and we weren’t just a summer fling. We talked long term, and agreed four years wouldn’t be much of a difference by the time I finished college. Of course we couldn’t expect my parents and Aunt Sue and Uncle Fred to understand how serious we were, especially since I’d hardly dated. They wouldn’t see how much we had in common. They’d never believe Jimmy always stopped when he got too excited. He said that he could wait until I turned eighteen, even though my birthday’s not until May, and that he wanted it to be special, not because we got carried away necking in a shack. So we kept our relationship a secret.

Jimmy wanted to take me out on a real date, though. So he started being friendlier with Charlie and asked him if he’d like to go play mini golf, so it was as if I was the third wheel. When he picked us up, Jimmy acted like he thought of us both as kids, and he paid as much attention to Charlie as me, until afterwards when he took us to the lake and showed Charlie where to hunt for bullfrogs.

That worked until Charlie got bored and came looking for us and caught us kissing.

“Jennie and Jimmy under a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g! Wait ‘til I tell Aunt Sue!”

“You can’t!” I screeched. I grabbed his shoulders to shake him, but Jimmy stopped me.

He gently replaced my hands with his and squatted down to talk to Charlie face to face. “Can you keep a secret?”

Charlie nodded madly.

“I really like you sister.” He paused until Charlie nodded solemnly. “In fact, I love her and when she’d done with college, I want to marry her.”

“Cool!”

“But I’m four years older than she is, and while that won’t be much when we’re both in our twenties, right now your parents wouldn’t like my kissing her at all. They might make me stay away from her if they knew. I wouldn’t even be able to take you to do stuff.”

“I won’t tell anyone.” Charlie looked so serious, I knew he meant it.

Tonight, at the end of the lawn, I pick my way to the smooth hard dirt of the road. Bare feet won’t be a problem now. It’s three miles to the lake. Even in the dark, I can walk there in less than an hour.

We’d just wanted some time alone with more privacy than we could get at the lifeguard shack with stragglers still on the beach, or with Charlie tagging alone. So that night two weeks ago, Jimmy was waiting down around the curve, where the pickup’s engine wouldn’t be heard from the house. I thought everyone was asleep before I slipped out, but I was wrong.

Charlie must have kept to the shadow side of the road, out of the moonlight, because I never saw or heard him following me until he saw the truck and ran to catch up.

“Hey, where’re we going?” Charlie demanded.

“Go home,” said Jimmy. “Please, Charlie?”

“Why?” Charlie sounded suspicious.

I sighed. My first chance to be really alone with Jimmy, under the stars on a romantic moonlit night, and Charlie was ruining it. “Better let him come.”

“Fine,” said Jimmy. “Get in the back.”

“Cool!” said Charlie.

“Sit up against the cab,” I demanded.

I might as well have been talking to myself, because as soon as Jimmy got going, Charlie was standing up behind us with his head in the wind above the cab.

“Is there anything he can hang onto back there?” I worried.

“No, but he’s in the center. I’ll drive slow.”

Jimmy pulled me close to him and a kiss landed on my cheek. I knew he could drive fine with one hand; he’d given me rides home from the beach. And it wasn’t his holding me that made it happen. Really, it wasn’t.

We were going slow. Not much faster than in a parking lot. But it’s automatic to swerve and brake when something jumps out in front of you. Even the sheriff said that, trying to make Jimmy feel better. But that was later.

Jimmy glanced back to check on Charlie. The deer jumped in front of us. I screamed. Jimmy yanked the wheel and braked hard. We missed the deer but landed nose down in the ditch. At first, we laughed, glad we’d missed the deer.

Then I turned to check on Charlie, and he wasn’t there.

“He’s probably just hiding to scare us,” I said. “He probably slipped out of the truck while we were laughing.”

Jimmy pulled out a big flashlight and started looking out away from the truck while I checked under and around it.

“Come on, Charlie. It’s not funny anymore,” I yelled.

The brat still didn’t answer.

“Call 911,” Jimmy called to me. He was just trying to scare Charlie out of hiding. His flashlight was still sweeping across bushes, searching.

“Charlie, you’re going to be in big trouble if I call 911 and you’re just joking around!” I hollered.

There was still no answer. Jimmy’s flashlight stopped.

“Call,” he choked. “For real.”

Instead, I walked over to Jimmy, thinking Charlie was hurt a little or something. But his head was against a big rock and his neck was bent all wrong and I touched him and the dark stuff all over him was warm and sticky and it was blood and I started screaming. Jimmy took my phone and he had to move away, back to the truck, so they could hear him . . .

At the funeral our parents couldn’t look at me. Somehow it was decided I should stay in the mountains the rest of the summer. I wasn’t asked.

My feet slap the hard-packed dirt of the road as I start to run in the black night.

The sheriff refused to arrest Jimmy for negligent homicide because he hadn’t been speeding, hadn’t been driving recklessly, and out in the country it was common for kids to ride like that regardless of the law. As far as the sheriff was concerned, it was a tragic accident, no more, no less. So my parents wanted Jimmy arrested for being with me. We told the sheriff we’d never gone that far, so he was giving it a few days, hoping my parents would cool off. But it wasn’t going to work.

My mother found out about the internship teaching children and she knew one of the directors at the gallery, so Jimmy lost that, and they were talking about having him arrested for endangering a child. If that happened, there would be a record and he’d never teach.

Everyone’s saying he ran off, but he didn’t. I know. I was with him.

We were supposed to do it together.

We went to Lover’s Leap, the big boulder away from the beach, where it wouldn’t be some little kid that found us. Sometimes teens go there to party and jump off the rock—they say the water’s fifty feet deep. Jimmy brought cement blocks—one for me, two for him. We tied rope to them and then around our waists.

“Just exhale and it will all be over quickly,” Jimmy said.

We were supposed to jump together. But we couldn’t hold hands because we were holding the cement blocks. We were supposed to be together forever. I thought I was going to leap with him, but there was a little piece of me still hoping it would get better once I got back to my city school, where no one would know it was my fault my little brother isn’t a pest anymore.

We said “I love you” together, then Jimmy disappeared.

I frantically untied the rope at my waist, jumped in and tried to save him. Too deep. Too dark. I couldn’t find him. That was yesterday.

I sat there, staring into the water, crying, for hours. When I finally slipped into the house it was past dinner. I mumbled that I wasn’t hungry and went straight to bed. This morning my mother called Aunt Sue. Later Sue found me pulling weeds in her garden, and she asked if I’d like to stay and do my senior year here. I just shrugged.

My parents will never forgive me. They don’t want anything to do with me anymore. They want me to stay here, where everyone knows I killed my little brother.

I’m going to the lake. My cement block is still there. I’m going to be alone with Jimmy under the stars after all.

The whole time weeding today, my mind was writing and re-writing a final text for my mother, so I know exactly what I’m going to say. I’ll send it at the last possible moment, when it will be too late to stop me. But they’ll know where we are. People will know Jimmy didn’t run off.

At the boulder I tie myself to the cement block before reaching for my cell phone. It vibrates as I pull it out of my pocket—a text, from Dad.

“Are you okay? Miss you. Would you mind cutting summer short, come home next weekend? Your mother’s beside herself with guilt for getting Charlie to tag along and for attacking your young man. She’s trying to make that right. We hope you know how to contact him; Sue said he’s disappeared. Love you, Dad.”

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

Impressions 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.

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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.

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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
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Films That Changed My Life

Someone recently asked me what three or four films defined my life – took it new directions, made a lasting impact, that sort of thing. Being a movie junkie, my first thought was that it would be impossible to narrow it down that far. However, in the next moment, three films came to mind. These films changed the course of my life, each in its own way:

AroundTheWorldIn80DaysAround the World in Eighty Days (the 1956 version with David Niven) – This is the first film I remember seeing at the theater – The Grand – and it began my lifelong love of movies. The heavy red velvet curtains framed the enormous screen and up on the walls were traditional theater comedy and tragedy masks. The music swept me away from the opening moment and carried me on down the sidewalk to Tony the Greek’s, where we went for ice cream after the show.

The Grand sent out a calendar each month with which movies would show which days. It was a one-screen theater on the corner of routes 20 and 17 in Westfield, N.Y. Eventually it was torn down, and Tony the Greek’s is long gone as well – but those memories are still strong, as is my love of movies and the movie theater experience.

badThe Bad Seed also came out in 1956, but I can’t imagine anyone took me to see it at the theater – I was a preschooler. I do remember watching it on television, several times. It began a lifelong fascination with how people work when things go off course and a love of well-constructed psychological thrillers.

HighPlainsDrifterHigh Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood’s second feature film as director, 1973) changed the way I look at films. I’d never heard of Fellini or any other European filmmaker, but I came away babbling about the visual effects and realistic characters – and went back to the theater two more times to watch for details. That awakening led to my repeatedly participating in film appreciation classes at College of Marin – watching and discussing key films. (They showed different ones each semester).

So that’s the three that popped into mind immediately as shaping my life. And then there’s a fourth – which should have been obvious. Working on an early version of the script earned me my first paycheck as a writer and got me started on my current path.

EyeOfTheDolphinEye of the Dolphin ended up being written primarily by Wendell Morris, who had a solid record writing for television whereas I had no screenwriting credits and no major publishing credits. Since most of what I wrote ended up discarded when they got enough funding to change the setting of the film, I got a creative consultant credit rather than one as a writer – but it got me started on IMDb. And I still have a photocopy of that first check on my inspiration board.

What films have had a lasting effect on your life?

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Curves in the Road

At sixteen my plan was to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student, then go to Northwestern for journalism and become an international reporter. I’d make the world a better place and have adventures at the same time. I was on that road. I was editor of my school paper and studying both French and Spanish. I joined AFS and met exchange students from all over the world. I brought home the application.

But my mother had been a stay-at-home mom for almost forty years and she wasn’t ready for an empty nest, so she insisted I could wait and go abroad while I was in college. That last year of high school, there were few academic courses left for me to take. Instead, my interest in art, music, and drama, which had been largely dormant for two years, came back full force. I never even applied to Northwestern.

The killings at Kent State, a month before my high school graduation, did nothing to change my mind. The paranoia of the day seeped into me. Publication of the Pentagon Papers could have inspired a renewal of my interest in journalism, but instead the content increased my detachment from world events. Then Watergate filled the television and my first choice for president was a crook or the man he’d made look like a buffoon. I did a write-in vote for “No Body” and wanted nothing to do with any of it.

I just wanted to live my life.

It’s a good way to live, focused on immediate surroundings, the things where you may make a real difference in lives, one at a time, or one small community at a time. And that is one way to change the world without taking on the big issues.

Looking back, there have been many other roads not taken, some of which might have brought me back closer to my original intent. It’s okay I didn’t take those roads. There have been rough spots, but overall, life has been full and interesting and right now it’s really good. I’m writing fiction full of strong women, providing good role models. . .but, every so often, I wonder if I’m playing hooky from another destiny.

A few weeks ago, I bought the January 15, 2018 Time because it was supposed to be a good news edition, edited by Bill Gates. This morning it got to the top of the reading pile. In it, there’s an article by Melinda Gates about how women’s movements around the world are bringing about significant changes not just for the betterment of women, but for society as a whole. She advocates for an increase in financial support for grassroots women’s organizations and women’s funds.

The article makes me feel as if there’s more I need to do.

It could be a diversion from projects already in place, to avoid completion. I need to guard against that temptation. But I suspect the road I’m on is curving and will eventually intersect with the one not taken long ago.

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Never Pay to Publish – and OMG

I had this writer’s blog, Never Pay to Publish, ready to post today. For anyone following this for writing tips, it’s below.

But sometimes life happens.

KatieRiver2My daughter Katie has always been a risk taker – when she was twelve, she bought two tickets to whitewater the Colorado River for my birthday. She knew it was the only way she’d get to go. That’s her grinning. I’m under the wave, still in the boat.

After college, she surfed the beach off San Francisco alone – worried me sick. When she and her husband first met, they surfed the Pacific beaches all the way to Panama. She has a little scar where coral ripped open her lip in Costa Rica. Now she lives in far northern California where she can teach safe kayaking and surf year round – with a wet suit.

She’s gotten old enough to call people in their late teens and twenties “kids” and when she and her husband saw the surf near home was big and rough this morning, they decided to go north to a different beach. On the way home, they stopped on the cliff overlooking the beach they’d decided was too rough to surf – they always take time to enjoy life like that. What they saw was three “kids” on boogie boards in an area they NEVER surf because of the rip tides, two boys and a girl in their late teens or twenties. They saw the white of the boys’ backs and realized they had no wet suits. Even in August, the water up there is icy cold. The “kids” were caught in a rip.

Katie and her husband drove down to the beach, where the kids’ friends were finally calling 911 – they’d already been in the water at least 45 minutes. Katie and her husband got their boards and headed out, through the waves they’d chosen not to surf, out into the rip they’d never go near.

When they got to the kids, Eric took charge of the two who still had some strength to help them back to safety. Katie took the boy who was sinking into hypothermia.

At first she tried to tow him to shore, but he was too weak to hold onto the board. So she pulled him onto it, got on top of him, and paddled the best she could.

Once they got back to the break, they still had to ride the waves into shore – the waves that were big enough Katie and her husband hadn’t surfed that beach earlier. The other two were still strong enough to ride in on their own and walk out of the water. Katie’s kid couldn’t hold onto the board. She had to ride in on top of him.

They made it most of the way before they got dumped and she lost him. But by then, the fire and rescue crews were on the beach, ready to help, and they got her kid to shore and onto a stretcher for the ride to the hospital.

The helicopter that would have looked for them at sea was still at least 15 minutes away.

Today, my daughter called me from under a tree, where she’s sitting, still shaken up by the whole episode. She didn’t want me to find out by reading about it somewhere. But there were no news cameras, so it may never be noticed by media. She found out the kid she helped warmed up and was released from the hospital.

I’m still tearful. My daughter saved that kid’s life by risking her own. I’m terribly proud of her – both her actions and her need to sit under a tree and absorb it all today.

20170817Never Pay to Publish

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