Tag Archives: life changers

Defining Moments: Technology & Yesterday’s Coffee

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

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

Obviously it had lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tried to work on his story.

He went back and looked for more information about Angela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.

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

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

He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.

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

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

“It’s yesterday’s.”

“That’s okay.”

He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.

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

“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.

He shook his head.

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

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

“Who is this?” she demanded.

“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”

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

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

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

“Could someone else have used your phone?”

“No, I live alone.”

He could hear her running water.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The line was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.

“Yes. This is Marvin.”

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

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

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

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

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

“Angel?”

“The girl you called,” explained Helen.

“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”

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

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

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

“Where were your cell phones?”

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

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

“Hold on,” said a different female.

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

“Marvin?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”

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

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

Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.

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

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

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

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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.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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

Sheri McGuinn IMDb

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A Single Christmas Tale

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it?”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for the check.”

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

“That’s for sure . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

It was past noon as he headed out of town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there.”

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

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

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

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

“No problem. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

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Novel Bites: Christmas with Sunshine

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

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I had one Christmas with Sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From that moment on, Alice was my daughter.

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Novel Bites: Missy’s Tahoe Christmas

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

FullFront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

FullFront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

“No! Where is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to show him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you deflate it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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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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