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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 1

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

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

“I bought a cabin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The window was the only thing she would have chosen.

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard

coverimagespbcBefore the story, I have a brief announcement:

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

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

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

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

“I have a lot to do tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pines rose high on either side of the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Moments: Remorse

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

“Your girlfriend’s here.”

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

“She’s not my girlfriend, Miguel.”

“Yeah, right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You having the usual?”

Angie nodded and politely handed him the unopened menu.

“I’ll go get your order started.”

Miguel already had the sandwich and tea ready.

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

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

“She’s just a customer.”

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

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

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

Frank took them back to Angie.

“Here you go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll miss you.”

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

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

“What’s today’s soup?” he asked.

“Broccoli cheese.”

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

“No sandwich?”

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

“You think they were wrong?” asked Frank.

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

“What did she tell the cops?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Lizzie from Running Away

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not. LIzzie is sister to the main character in Running Away. Please comment. Thanks.

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Lizzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

John mutters something that makes the people near him snicker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She must really love you.”

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

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Novel Bites: CJ from Running Away

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. This is a scene from Running Away, told from a different perspective.Durare RunningAway 300dpi2Tall

CJ

“You didn’t come home last night.”

Uncle Joe’s  not angry and he’s not specifically asking where I spent the night. After all, I’m eighteen. But it’s clear he’d like to know. He figured out I smoke weed long ago – the smell clings to you – but I don’t do that much and never before work, and he doesn’t bug me about it. So I don’t mind answering him now.

“I drove a friend to the grocery store and by the time we got done, you would already have been in bed. I didn’t want to wake you up with a text.”

“Don’t worry about that. I turn off the sound at night, but we’d have seen it in the morning. Your aunt was worried. Send her one now.”

I nod and pull out my phone to do it right away.

My dad died when I was ten and when my mother married six years later, Uncle Joe and Aunt Maria said they’d be happy to have me come live with them to finish high school. They knew I’d never liked the guy. And I’d already been spending my summers with them anyway, helping in the restaurant. It reminded me of when Dad was alive. I was so mad when Mom sold his place. It was supposed to be mine when I grew up.

Now I realize maybe she felt like she’d always been in competition with Dad’s restaurant. She certainly hadn’t ever loved it the way he did, even though she was right there by his side working with him. Selling it was the right thing for Mom. She was happier working for someone else instead of struggling to make a profit every month.

Aunt Maria texts me back right away, so I know she was waiting to hear from me. Next time I’ll make sure to let them know ahead of time.

Maybe I should plan on staying at Charlie’s again tonight. I already used my extra work clothes today, but I could run home on my dinner break to get more.

It’s not safe for Maggie at that house. And it was nice waking up next to her. But we might end up having sex if I come back tonight, and she’s not ready for that. I don’t want to be that guy. She’s messed up enough by what her step-father did to her. Not to mention she’s jail bait, though she doesn’t seem that much younger than me.

She’ll probably be okay. Charlie’s got Crystal, he won’t hit on Maggie.

Besides, I’m really pissed with Charlie about last night. Uncle Joe would give me the boot for that, even if I was just the driver and didn’t shoplift anything myself.

No, I don’t need to go back to that house.

***

It’s been busy all day, easy not to think about Maggie or worry about her being alone in Charlie’s house. She’s just a kid, fifteen today, all alone because her mother married the wrong guy. At least my step-father wasn’t like that.

Then I see her standing outside, looking at the stained glass hangings I did for Uncle Joe.

Before she can leave, I step outside. “Maggie, how’d you find me?”

“I was just looking for someplace to eat.”

But she looks stressed out and she has that huge backpack with all her stuff.  I nod at it. “You find another place to stay?” I hope Charlie didn’t try anything.

She looks past me, over to the side, avoiding my eyes. “I’m going to check out some other parts of the country.”

Shit, he must have done something. If she stays, maybe she’ll talk to me. I’ll kill him. At least beat the crap out of him. But I’ve got to sound cool so I don’t scare her off. “So I might not see you again. Come on in. I’ll buy you dinner.”

She smiles, so I lead her inside. It’s packed, but there’s a table in the corner open. She’ll be more comfortable there. I help her take the pack off and set it against the wall.

“This is Aji’s section. He’ll be right with you. Order anything on the menu.”

I know this will be okay with Uncle Joe. He helps out people all the time. He has me in charge of the coffeehouse side of the place, while he manages the restaurant. It’s the same kitchen and same menu of Greek food, but the ambiance on my side’s less formal.

Once I assure her that I’m paying for her dinner, Maggie relaxes some. I make her promise to talk to me before she leaves, then get back to work. But I keep an eye on her. She wolfs down the lemon-flavored soup that’s one of our specialties, but when Aji takes her a lemonade and gyro, she just looks at it. I stop by the table to ask if everything’s okay.

“Great. I probably won’t be able to finish it all.”

“Good.” I was going to sit down and see if she’d talk more, but there’s a customer up front waiting to pay. As I start to leave, she calls me back.

“This is weird, but I’ve gotta ask, is your uncle’s name Joe?”

I told her all about the restaurant and living with my aunt and uncle last night. But I want to know how she guessed his name.

“I think my mom met him a long time ago. When she was my age.”

So that’s why she came to Harrisburg – her mother must have been here. We get runaways, but winters are cold and rainy. It’s not a great place to be on the street.

And Joe’s always helped people. So I say I’ll go get him. She backs off, saying he probably wouldn’t remember her mom, but I figure he might, and besides, the longer Maggie’s here, the longer she’s safe. Maybe Uncle Joe will have a way to help her.

When I’ve cashed out the customer on my side, I go over to the restaurant and ask Uncle Joe to talk with me a moment in the office, a tiny room off the kitchen where we do the bookkeeping.  He goes with me right away.

“Is it about last night?” he asks.

“Kind of. There’s a girl. She’s run away because her step-father raped her, but she probably wouldn’t want me to tell you that. I stayed with her last night. It’s not a good place for an innocent kid. I’ve been trying to figure out how to help her all day, then she showed up and I bought her dinner. She says she’s going to move on, but anyplace she finds . . . ”

“How can I help?”

“She thinks you may have helped her mother, way back. Maybe . . . I don’t know.”

He says he’ll come over to meet Maggie as soon as he’s taken care of a few people ready to pay and leave. I take her a piece of baklava with a single birthday candle on top. Her smile warms me to the core.

“Thanks,” she says, “and thanks for not singing.”

I tell her Uncle Joe wants to meet her and ask what she did for her birthday. Her face tenses a moment, then she claims she just spent the day reading her mother’s journal, the one that told her about Joe and Harrisburg.

There’s something else though. I know something bad has happened.

Then Aji brings her a refill on her lemonade and she passes him her dirty dishes. She drops a fork on the floor and bends down to get it. As she sits up, she turns so she’s facing me and hands the fork to Aji without looking at him. Her eyes are glazed in terror.

Once he’s gone, she squeaks out, “How well do you know Aji?”

Aji’s worked for us for about six months and has always seemed like a good guy. He’s the one who introduced me to Charlie. But her question has me ready to pound him for hurting her, if that’s what he did. But it’s not. Not exactly.

“He robbed Charlie today.” I can barely hear her as she explains how two of them came in with guns, wearing ski masks, and stole Charlie’s stash of drugs and weapons.

She recognized Aji’s shoes. When Joe told him our wait staff all wear black shoes, Aji painted his Nikes black and swapped to skinny dress laces for them. Charlie recognized them, too, and he’s looking for Aji. What’s worse is Matt is with him. I met that guy once and he scared the shit out of me, and we were just sharing a joint. Matt was there to sell her ID. When she left the house, they were going to hunt the robbers down. If they know Aji works here. . .

Suddenly Uncle Joe’s at the table, pulling over a chair and asking Maggie about her mother, how she knew him.

“You just gave her a motorcycle ride one afternoon.”

My mind’s spinning, trying to think how to avoid having a shootout here while they chat back and forth. He remembers her mother, though. It was the year of Agnes, the storm everything’s still measured by here. He was on his way to see my dad up in Canada. Grandpa never really forgave my dad for dodging the draft.

Joe says Maggie has her mother’s eyes. Her mother must have been important somehow, because he and Maria looked for her when they were coming to visit us. So he didn’t know her here, didn’t know Maggie’s mom ever came to Harrisburg.

Joe gets up to leave and shakes Maggie’s hand. “Good luck, and give your mother our best. Tell her to stop in if she’s ever in town. Maria will be sorry she missed you, but she’s in Greece a few more days, visiting family. Nice meeting you, Maggie.”

Once he’s gone, she asks me what I’m going to do about Aji.

“I’ll tell him Charlie’s after him. If you’re right, Aji will leave right away and we won’t see him again.” I hope that’ll work. I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to say when Charlie shows up.

I wrap up her baklava and walk her out.

She’s right to be leaving town. Charlie’d probably be chill with her having been there when he was robbed, but Matt is one scary dude. I try to talk Maggie into calling her mom. If her mom ran away, too, she’d probably understand. But the creep of a step-father has Maggie convinced her mother will blame her for everything and hate her.

I give her a quick hug, hoping she’ll be okay.

Aji takes off like I figured he would and when Charlie shows up with Matt, I pretend I’m ticked at the guy for leaving us short-handed with no notice.

I finish with, “He didn’t even wait for his last check.”

The look Matt sends Charlie chills my blood. I shouldn’t have said that.

I hope Aji doesn’t come back for his money now.

I hope Maggie’s ride already has her clear of this town.

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Curves in the Road

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

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

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

I just wanted to live my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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Does it work?

My next novel, which will come out later this year, is Peg’s Story: In Search of Self. It’s the story of the mother in my first novel, Running Away. After that book came out, I wrote and sold the screenplay – the selling part took a few years. You may have seen the movie Running Away on Lifetime, and it’s been pirated to YouTube as well.

If you’ve read the book and watched the movie, you know that the movie did a great job with the suspense line but the backstory for the characters is different. That also means the dynamics between characters and the focus of the story changed.

This is how the changes look:

The novel is about the relationship between mother and daughter and how a subtle predator manipulates both of them to the point where Maggie (the daughter) ends up running away. The emphasis is on the mother-daughter bond – that’s why the hands are reaching for each other on the novel’s cover. My original script stuck with that emphasis, as did the re-writes I did to make it more affordable to shoot.

I’m still the only screenwriter on the credits, however the director added short scenes, including some up front to establish the stepfather as a bad guy quickly. The filmmakers explained that was essential to hold the audience. With several short scenes, the director also added a storyline making the stepfather evil beyond what he does to Maggie. As in the movie poster, he becomes the focal point.

Film is a collaborative medium and the final measure is always: Does it work?

  • Whenever someone tells me they’ve seen the movie, their comments center on the creepy stepfather – no one talks about the girl or her mother. My central theme didn’t survive, but the film does grab people and hold their attention.
  • I sold the script to a production company with a track record for producing and marketing films to television and computer movie markets. They sold the film successfully to French-speaking European television and then Lifetime. They knew their market.

So yeah, the film works. I got paid, got my credits at the beginning and end, and it’s added to my IMDb page. I’m happy.

Next week I’ll take a closer look at the film and how it compares to my screenplay.

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Me Too & Writing Romance: Heroes

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. The fifth rule is about the hero of the story.

Myth #5 – Women Want the Rough and Tough Guy

Rough around the edges, tough enough no one will mess with his woman? Hopefully not rough with his woman, though? Secretly sweet inside and kind to kittens? Terrified of babies because they’re so helpless?

Is that image why the rough and tough guys so often have more confidence than the nice, polite, considerate guys?

Me Too Connection

As I write, this scene is still playing in my mind: A high school study hall. A dozen kids at most, mostly boys, a few girls. The girls and half the boys trying to focus on their schoolwork. The other boys carrying on rowdy conversation as they enter the room, being corrected once, twice. One girl annoyed with them. Maybe because of things the teacher can’t hear. Then a clear comment about the girl’s sexual activities broadcast to the entire room clearly. The girl landing a few punches as she cries out at the injustice of his talking about her after they’d broken up, then running out of the room in tears.

Shock when the teacher sends the boy to the office with a referral for sexual harassment. Just words? There doesn’t have to be touching? Half the boys, the other girls, still quiet. None telling the boy or his friends that they are jerks, none asking to go after the girl to make sure she’s okay. Staying out of it.

There doesn’t even have to be truth in the words. A lie does just as much damage. Rumors never die. Even with everything in the news, times have not changed for the better, not for that teenage girl this cold day in 2018.

Rule #5 – Heroes Wear White Hats

Not literally, unless I do a western romance. But my heroes will be good guys who stand up for what’s right, follow a code of honor, and treat women as equals worthy of respect.

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Me Too & Writing Romance: Happy Single

While I plan the release of Peg’s Story: In Search of Self, I’m still writing. I have several short stories that I’m turning into romance novels. I want to make sure nothing I write undermines women. Therefore, I’m looking at myths and making myself some rules. The fourth one is that single women can’t have meaningful lives and be happy.

Myth #4 – Women are incomplete without a partner.

Funny thing…married women will invite single men or single fathers for dinner, but they don’t invite single women unless there’s a suitable single match coming.

When my kids were little, I thought it might be just us – they were pretty rambunctious. Then we got invited for a barbeque by the mother of my youngest son’s friend – not a big party, just the two families, not a single man in sight. And she told me why she’d offered the invitation: She and her husband had grown up in that small town, had had the same group of friends for decades, and when her husband recovered from a life-threatening heart attack, one of those women told her “I’m so glad he got better. I’d have missed having you as a friend.” If her husband had died, they would not have continued including her in their gatherings! Unfortunately, this was not a unique situation.

We’re encouraging young girls to take STEM classes, we keep fighting for equal wages for equal pay, we’ve gotten more men involved in caring for their children, but socially married women still exclude single women. Based on conversations with married friends, I don’t think this is a planned action. It makes some sense that couples would gravitate towards couples for socializing.

But why are single men included more often than single women?

I suspect it’s because a single man is traditionally more likely to be career-centered, while a single woman must be looking for a partner, which makes her a potential threat. And a married woman is traditionally less likely to risk that relationship than a man (because she needs it), and she’s more likely to be the one doing the inviting. Note I used the word “traditionally”. We often continue behaviors that no longer apply to current circumstances, because they’ve been ingrained over generations.

Of course the expectation in a romance novel is that there’s a happily-ever-after or at least a happy beginning for a couple. However, it’s okay for men to be happy single. There’s no reason single women can’t be happy and have fulfilling lives. They’re actually in a better position to have a good partnership than if they go into one needy.

Me Too Connection

The idea that a woman needs to be attached harkens back to the bad old days when women were the property of their fathers, until they became the property of their husbands. That links to the attitude that men can do whatever they want with women and that once a woman’s been used, she’s inferior.

Rule #4 – My heroines will have meaningful lives.

My heroines will include suddenly and perpetually single women who are developing or already have meaningful activities in their lives beyond the traditional nurturing roles. They will talk with other women about things other than sex, relationships, fashion, and appearances. They will have non-romantic relationships with both men and women.

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