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Alice – Episode 2

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSizeThis is the second episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

It was like ninety degrees and humid that day Jack arrived, and air conditioning wasn’t in our new budget. But I figured the old guy needed a good meal, so I heated up some of Mom’s homemade stew in the microwave while they talked.

“We’ll feed you, then I’ll give you a ride to a truck stop myself,” Mom said.

“That’ll be fine, Baby Girl. I told those people at the hospital you wouldn’t want me around, but they felt better thinking they were sending me to family.” He sat down at the table.

Mom didn’t sit. She was busy looking for a truck stop on her phone.

“Thanks,” he said when I put a bowl of stew in front of him with a plate of crackers. “I should have gone to Arizona in the first place. Last I knew, Jimmy Parks was still kicking. He’ll let me sleep on his couch. You go through war together, there’s a bond.”

“You’re still pretending to be a Vietnam vet?” Mom was using her stern voice, the one teachers use to bring rowdy teenage boys into line.

“It was never pretending. You can call the hospital if you don’t believe me. They wouldn’t treat me if I wasn’t a vet.” His lower jaw came forward under his tight lips, just like Mom’s when she’s mad.

“You have the number?” she asked, calling what she thought was a bluff.

He handed her a card and went back to eating the stew.

“They won’t tell me anything,” she said.

“Yeah they will. I signed off for you. Figured if I croaked, they’d track you down and you might want to know what happened.” He winked at me.

Mom glared at him. “Decades of drug abuse will do a lot of damage.”

“I haven’t used anything except pot since 1985.” He looked straight at her.
“Haven’t even had a beer since then.”

“Because I left?”

“No. I had Hodgkin’s. Figured my body had enough poisons in it without my adding any more.”

“Hodgkin’s?” I asked. “Isn’t that like cancer?”

He nodded. “It’s a lymphoma, hits the whole system. A gift from Uncle Sam and Agent Orange. I beat it, but the chemo and radiation they used back then were pretty destructive themselves. When I had those chest pains, they figured it was heart disease from all that, but my heart checked out fine. It was just a spasm in the artery, but they said if it happened again and cut off blood flow to the heart too long, that would cause damage. So I carry the nitro.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” asked Mom. He’d finally given her the full explanation she’d wanted.

He looked at her standing there with the card in her hand. “Use that cell phone of yours.”

She went out to the back yard to make the call.

“Are you dying?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t polite, but somehow he invited that kind of directness.

“No, I got a clean bill of health before they put me on that bus. But I need to take care of myself and keep watch for other cancers.”

“So why’d they think you needed to be with family, if you’re healthy?”

“Because I’m old, and the home I’d made for myself got taken away from me. That left me pretty depressed at first. Especially being all alone.” He looked out the window at Mom on the phone and sighed.

“Why’d the landlord kick you out?” I asked.

“Damned greedy guy’s making it a grow house.”

My jaw dropped. I’d caught Weeds a few times at Mary’s house. Her parents didn’t pay any attention to what she watched. But that was fiction. We didn’t know any people like that.

“He was going to grow pot there?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” said Jack. “They went and made medical marijuana legal in California, but it’s still illegal to feds. So growers are taking it indoors, out of sight, doing intensive hydroponics. I’m not the only one who got kicked out.”

Back then, marijuana was still illegal most places, including where we lived. I checked out the window. Mom was still on the phone, looking majorly stressed. I was glad she couldn’t hear us. I still whispered when I asked, “You smoke pot?”

“Yup. Have my medical card for back problems. But really it’s to help me deal with stress.” He looked out at Mom. “I could use some now. You know where to get any?”

“No.” I couldn’t believe he’d asked.

“Your mother brought you up to walk the straight and narrow, eh?”

“I guess. Well, she’s a teacher. Her contract says she has to reflect well on the school at all times.” How many times had I heard that? “She won’t even wear cutoffs unless we’re camping.”

“Seriously?” He laughed. “Good Lord.”

“So she wasn’t always like this?”

“Like what?” Mom asked from the doorway.

“Uptight, Baby Girl. You won’t wear cutoffs even at home? Probably don’t skinny dip anymore, either.”

“No, I don’t.” The cell phone was still in her hand. She put it back into her pocket.

“So,” she said, “they say you could go into the veterans’ home, but there’s a waiting list.”

“It’s bad enough having to go to a vet hospital. I was drafted. I’m not going to go live with a bunch of regular army types. I’ll sleep under a bridge first.”

“They said you get disability.”

“Yeah, but it’s not enough to live on.”

“Well, you can stay here a few days until we figure out an alternative.”

“Why thank you, Baby Girl.”

He went to hug her and she dodged it again.

“Just a few days,” she warned.

“Sure. I’ll get. . .” He turned to me. “What’s your name again?”

“Nina.”

“Nina,” he repeated. “I’ll get Nina to help me find a bridge for the summer. Then I’ll head to Arizona in September; see if I can find Jimmy Parks.”

Mom rolled her eyes over to me. “Nina, help him get settled in the den. I’ll finish unloading the car.”

She didn’t mean to let him stay more than a few days, but at some level she must have known it was inevitable.

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Alice – Episode 1

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSize

This is an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read it in weekly doses, buy the complete book, or do both and compare the two – a useful exercise if you’re a writer. The plan is to make an audio version, so I’m tweaking the writing to make that work better.

As always, you are welcome to share this link, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to publish or use the material. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where my story has traveled. Thank you.

Alice – Episode 1

This is the story of my mother, Alice McKenna. You know her as the Rosa Parks of the Taxpayers Civil Rights Movement. When she refused to give up her seat on that bus, Rosa Parks moved working people to stand up for their rights to end discrimination. That day in 2012 when my mom sat down in the middle of the bank and said “No,” she became the same kind of symbol for taxpayers.

If you’d known her a few months earlier, you’d never have believed it was the same person. I guess it started back in March, when she got pink-slipped. The school board decided football was more important than French. Frankly, my first reaction was relief that she wouldn’t be teaching at my high school when I hit ninth grade in the fall. I figured she’d commute to another town. But it was June, school was out, and Mom didn’t have a job yet. I helped her pack up her classroom.

We were unloading the car, stacking boxes in the garage, when an orange taxi pulled up in front of our house. The back door opened and out came a long-haired, scruffy old man in a faded tie-dyed shirt with a dirty army surplus duffle bag. He turned to look at us.

Maybe I should back up a minute.

You’ve got to understand, my mom was perfect. She always followed all the rules. The only wild and crazy thing she’d ever done was go to a sperm bank for my other half. No one knew about that except us. We never met the guy. People assumed she was divorced and I had a deadbeat dad I never saw. Aside from that, she’d always been very proper. If she ever had sex, it was before I was born and I don’t think that ever happened. And she never ever swore or used what she called “ugly” words.

But when my mother saw this scruffy old hippie standing by the taxi in front of our house? She dropped the box she was holding and said, “Shit.” She said it with a sigh, as if she used that word all the time. Then she set down the box she was holding. She put her hand up for me to stay put and she started for the guy, shaking her head and saying, “No, no, no, no, no! No, you are not here. You never came here. Get back in that cab.” He opened his arms as if she was happy to see him but she dodged the hug and said, “No. Leave.”

“Could you pay the taxi driver?” he drawled. “I used up all the cash they gave me on food. That bus trip took days.”

“Who they?” she demanded.

“The social worker who found you on her computer. Just like Orwell’s 1984.

“1984,” she repeated. “That’s the year I got the hell away from you, Jack.”

Jack! My grandfather. My only other relative and all I knew about him was his name and that Mom had left home at sixteen and never looked back… I’d never seen her so angry and flustered, and the more upset she got, the calmer he got.

“Now, Baby Girl…”

She shouted over him. “Don’t Baby Girl me! What are you doing here?”

The taxi driver interrupted to let her know the meter was still running. “You gonna pay me, lady?”

“Can’t you just take him back to the bus station?” she asked.

“Double the fare,” he said.

“I’d have to walk all the way back here, Baby Girl,” Jack reasoned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mom glared at Jack and paid driver. He burned rubber pulling away.

“You can’t stay,” Mom said. “Why are you here?”

“Well, the hospital social worker insisted I needed to be with family. You’re it, Baby Girl.”

“Why were you in the hospital?” she asked.

“It wasn’t a heart attack,” he said.

“What was it?”

“Well, they weren’t really sure, but all the tests showed that there was no damage to the heart, so it wasn’t a heart attack.”

Mom took a deep breath and blew it out hard. “Were you having chest pains?”

“Well, I got so upset when the cops came,” he said, as if it was perfectly normal.

She interrupted. “You were being arrested again?”

She’d obviously forgotten that I was right there in the garage where I could hear every word they said.

“I’d been renting the same place for, I don’t know, probably ten years,” he said. “The owner decided to take it back!”

“You? In the same place for ten years?” Mom scoffed.

He kept trying to sweet-talk her. “Well, Baby Girl, I’m getting up there, you know. Moving around gets harder as you get older.”

“It’s tough when you’re a kid, too,” she said.

At that point, he started rubbing his chest. “You’re not being fair, Baby Girl. I did the best I could.”

“Don’t bother pretending to have a heart attack with me. I’m not a wet-behind-the-ears cop. I know you, Jack.”

He squatted down by his bag on the sidewalk and pulled out a little brown bottle of pills.

“Quit faking,” Mom said.

He ignored her and stuck one under his tongue. He closed his eyes and kept rubbing his chest.

“You’re not fooling me,” Mom said, but she sounded a little worried.

“Just call a cab,” he said. “Get me to a truck stop. I’ll hitch myself a ride and leave you alone.”

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll do that.” She pulled out her cell and started to search for a cab company. We didn’t do rideshares.

That grundgy old man was my only relative, aside from Mom. I walked out to the sidewalk and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Nina, your granddaughter. Are you okay now?”

His full smile was like a light going on. “Granddaughter. Wow. Half-grown, too. How old are you?”

I found myself smiling right back. “I’ll be fourteen in August.”

“Almost as old as your mother was when she decided to be on her own.”

“Jack,” Mom warned, “don’t you start on her.”

“I understand, you don’t want me around here causing problems between you and your husband.”

“She’s not married,” I said. “My father was a sperm donor.”

Jack grinned. “Really?”

“From a sperm bank!” Mom crossed her arms and glared at him. “Having a man in our lives would only complicate things.”

“Well now you know what it’s like being a single parent,” said Jack.

“I was always the parent,” said Mom. “Nina’s never had to take care of me.”

“I did when you had the flu,” I reminded her. “I even made chicken soup from scratch.”

“You cook?” he asked.

“I can.”

“Man, I’m hungry,” he said. “Think we could convince your mother to let me stay for some lunch, at least?”

“Fine,” Mom said. “Lunch. Then you leave.”

Of course that’s not what happened.

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Defining Moments: Technology & Yesterday’s Coffee

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

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

Obviously it had lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tried to work on his story.

He went back and looked for more information about Angela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.

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

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

He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.

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

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

“It’s yesterday’s.”

“That’s okay.”

He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.

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

“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.

He shook his head.

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

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

“Who is this?” she demanded.

“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”

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

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

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

“Could someone else have used your phone?”

“No, I live alone.”

He could hear her running water.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The line was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.

“Yes. This is Marvin.”

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

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

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

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

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

“Angel?”

“The girl you called,” explained Helen.

“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”

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

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

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

“Where were your cell phones?”

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

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

“Hold on,” said a different female.

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

“Marvin?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”

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

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

Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.

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

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

Thanks.

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Defining Moments: Future in Podunk

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

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

And it might be a pipe dream.

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

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

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

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

“You help people plan their future.”

“I help them lose it…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could Charlotte have cued into that connection?

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

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

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

“Not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte glared at him and walked out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your mother?”

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

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

“Welcome home.”

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

Thanks.

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A Single Christmas Tale

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it?”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for the check.”

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

“That’s for sure . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

It was past noon as he headed out of town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there.”

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

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

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

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

“No problem. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

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Novel Bites: Christmas with Sunshine

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

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I had one Christmas with Sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From that moment on, Alice was my daughter.

 Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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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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