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Alice – Episode 6: Meeting the Neighbors

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

That first day, we made quick polite stops at every house on the block, both sides of the street. Like Jack had figured out, it was a bedroom community, so most houses we ended up tucking the flyers into the edge of the front door. I was going to put the first one in a mailbox, but Jack stopped me.
“That’s a federal offense,” he said in that serious lecture tone he shared with Mom. “They probably wouldn’t care, but it’s best to avoid trouble when you can.”
I was burning to know more about Jack and trouble, considering all Mom had shouted when he first arrived, but I hadn’t even figured out what to call him. Grandfather was way too formal, Grandpa didn’t really fit either. I thought of him as Jack, but I didn’t normally call adults by their first name – at least not anyone over thirty.
“We’ll go back out in the evening,” said Jack. “After dinner. And on the weekend. Take our time and let people get to know us.”
That evening, Jack went straight for the house where he’d seen the girl with her head covered. It turned out one of the Apu families was Muslim, from Pakistan, but the other was Hindu, from India. Their dads were doctors at the same office.
There was a Hindu girl my age, Ambar, and two Muslim brothers a little older than us, Yusuf and Karim. While Jack chatted with the fathers, Ambar and I sat in her backyard talking with the boys. Her mother kept an eye on us from the kitchen.
“I’d never have been allowed to have Muslim boys for friends if we were still in India,” Ambar said. “And when it’s time for me to marry, my parents are going to insist on a nice Hindu boy.”
Yusuf, who was sixteen, laughed. “Our parents would be furious if they knew how casual we are at school with the other kids. They wouldn’t want us marrying outside our religion, either.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, and I don’t even go to church,” I said. “We celebrate Christmas, but that’s because everybody does.”
“Don’t tell our parents,” said Karim. “That’s worse than being a Christian!”
“Definitely,” said Ambar.
“So you girls are going to be in high school with us this fall,” said Yusuf.
“You’ll probably get Mr. Zeller for math,” said Karim. “He’s a complete burnout—he should have retired years ago. Whatever you do, don’t correct him if he makes a mistake.”
We chatted for an hour about the different teachers and what high school was like. We were all friends by the time Jack finished talking with their fathers and said it was time to head home.
I told him how nice they all were. “I can’t believe they’ve been on the bus for three years and they never talked to me before.”
“They were probably waiting for you to make the first move, Nina. After all, they’re in a country where half the people see someone whose skin’s a little different, who talks with an accent, and immediately they’re suspected of being a terrorist.”
I considered that. “Maybe. And I’m usually doing homework or reading.” I started to wonder what other potential friends had never tried to talk to me. “I don’t talk much with anyone else on the bus, either.”
“Well, don’t feel bad. They’ve had each other for friends.” Jack laughed a little and slipped into teaching mode. “That definitely wouldn’t have happened if their fathers hadn’t gone to med school together. When India and Pakistan were split apart by religion, the lines weren’t as clear as the politicians tried to make them. It got ugly.”
Mom using that tone would leave me bored and looking for a way out. Jack made it feel like he was sharing important secrets, so I didn’t mind. I wanted to share, too. “Ambar wouldn’t be allowed to be friends with the boys anywhere else.”
“I’m surprised they let it happen here,” said Jack. “But maybe they figure it’s unavoidable, and they can manage it this way.”
It was too late to go anywhere else that night, but we went out every evening after dinner. Three of the houses we visited later that week belonged to university professors. Jack talked with the couples about new developments in stem cell research, globalization vs. isolationism, and the social resistance techniques of Gandhi.
In the last discussion, Mr. Parker, a young professor of Social Justice classes, eagerly listened to Jack describing the Berkeley protests he had participated in, with Mom strapped onto his chest. He asked if Jack would be a guest speaker in the fall.
“I’ll have to let you know,” said Jack.
When I told Mom how much Jack knew about so many different things, she still said he was full of shit. She used that word a lot whenever he was near her, and they argued almost every time they were in the same room—about personal stuff or world affairs, anything and everything.
Jack’s check came to our house the first of July and he insisted on giving Mom some of it for room and board, which was probably why she quit saying he had to leave. She was getting more and more stressed about money and not having a new job lined up for the fall. She was on the computer all day every day, putting in applications all over the country. She told Jack she wasn’t putting our house up for sale until she knew where she’d be working in the fall. There was still a chance a French teacher would leave mid-summer, somewhere close enough for her to commute.
I finally decided to call my grandfather Jack, like Mom did. I tried it out on him alone first, then at dinner. Neither of them noticed. At least they didn’t say anything about it.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 5: Breakfast

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

The next morning I made a scramble. Breakfast is my favorite meal to cook. Jack helped and then went to get Mom. They were talking about the empty houses when they came into the kitchen.
“I can’t believe the banks just let the yards die off like that,” he complained. “Don’t they know that hurts the value of the house, and everything around?”
“Why do you care?” Mom asked. “You never believed in owning real estate, did you?”
“I hate to see waste. There are too many homeless people to have houses sitting empty all over this country, left to fall apart.” Jack turned to me. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Plates are in that cupboard, silverware in that drawer,” I said. “Put the plates here and I’ll dish this up when it’s done.”
“Having homeless people move in wouldn’t help much,” said Mom. She got juice out of the fridge and took it to the table. “They wouldn’t be able to take care of the houses. Ownership’s not cheap.”
“They’ll have to sell them under market, the way they’ve let them go. That won’t help your investment.”
Mom looked at him like he was speaking an alien language that she understood, but she didn’t expect him to understand. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Even if they sell at a depressed price, the new owners will invest enough getting them fixed up to bring their equity back in line with the rest of the neighborhood. It’ll work out.”
“If you don’t have to sell before that happens.” He pointed at Mom. “You should be making a fuss, now, before they sell.”
She stretched her neck, tilting her head side to side and rolling once each way. “I hadn’t planned on moving anytime soon.”
I caught the past tense – that’s what happens when your parent is an OCD teacher. I whipped around to face her, dropping some scramble from the spatula onto the floor. I didn’t care. “You’re going to sell our house?” I demanded.
She took a slow breath before she answered – always a bad sign. “I’ve expanded my job search. We might have to move.”
“Great.” I turned away from her and finished dishing up the scramble. I kept blinking to hold back the tears. Everyone was away for the summer. If we left before they came back, would I ever see my friends again?
“It’s not a definite,” she was saying. “I’m checking every day for new postings, but there’s nothing within fifty miles of here. French teachers just aren’t in demand.”
By the time the plates were ready to take to the table, Jack was cleaning up the mess I made on the floor with a paper towel.
“Thanks,” I said as I stepped past him. I couldn’t look at Mom yet. She couldn’t know how close to tears I was. She was doing her best. I knew that.
After breakfast, which was really quiet, Mom went back to her job hunt on the computer. Jack helped me clean up the kitchen.
“Can you print from that computer of yours?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s wi-fi’d with Mom’s printer.”
He looked at me. “Wi-fi like they have in coffeeshops?”
“Kind of, but it’s just our local network. We have a password so people driving by can’t access it for anything disgusting or illegal.”
“Okay,” he said. “Is it too old-fashioned to print out some flyers offering handyman and babysitting services? Figured we could take them around and introduce ourselves.”
I wiped the table and counters. The kitchen was done. “Actually, that’s a good idea. There’s one family I’ve worked for a little. I’ll call and ask if I can give their name and number as a reference. We should put our pictures on it, too. You look nice this morning.”
I slapped my hand up against my mouth, but he laughed.
“I was pretty scruffy after that bus ride.”
“Why didn’t you fly?”
“Bus was cheaper by almost a hundred bucks. Train would have been better, but it was almost as much as flying.”
I understood being careful with money. Even before she lost her job, Mom had always watched our spending – like not getting cable. She did agree to getting an antenna and we picked up quite a few options with that.
“Will your mother see the flyers on her printer?” he asked.
He seemed worried. I started to ask why when it hit me. “You’re staying more than a few days, aren’t you.”
He grimaced. “Well, I’m not sure where else to go. I’m too dang old for sleeping under bridges. And it seems like Alice can use some help right now.”
I thought a moment. “If she sees the flyers, she’ll know you’re planning to stay awhile, but she’ll also see you’re looking for work, and Mom likes that. The only reason I haven’t done more babysitting is we’re away most holidays and during the school year, she says that’s my job… It’ll be okay, whether she sees the flyers or not.”
As it turned out, by the time I’d taken and uploaded a photo of Jack and we designed a great flier together, Mom was taking a break, making coffee in the kitchen, so she didn’t even hear her printer.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 4: Nina Cries

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSize

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

Jack was really old school about technology. He insisted on having the cell phone on speaker so it wouldn’t give him brain cancer, so I found out his friend was dead with him. He wrote down the name of the cemetery and thanked the person who told him, then said goodbye and handed me my phone.

“I don’t know how to hang that thing up. You don’t have to pay long distance for that call?”

“No, we have unlimited calls and text anywhere in the country.”

“And your mother has internet on her phone, doesn’t she? That’s what she was doing before?”

“Yeah. So can I… I’m sorry about your friend.”

He shrugged it off. “Wouldn’t a land line cost less? Or having one cell phone? What with your mother losing her job and all?”

I’d never known anyone who had someone close to them die, so it was a relief to talk about anything else. Maybe that’s how Jack felt, too. “We talked about it when she got pink slipped, but my cell phone’s how I stay in touch with my friends, especially over summer, and Mom needs hers for jobs. So I’m going to babysit more and pay half.”

“I’m just meeting my granddaughter and here she is taking care of babies herself.”

He sounded sad again, so I babbled on about texting and Facebook and Twitter and all the ways my friends and I communicated.

“You don’t have to be an adult for that?” he asked.

“As far as the internet is concerned, I’m eighteen.”

“Does your mother know?”

“Yeah, she lectured me about not talking to strangers online, but she caved on the age issue because she knows that’s how all the kids connect. She admitted that’s important. But she insisted that I keep her on my friends list, so I have to tell everyone to be careful what they post.”

He stared out the window and let out a big sigh. “Does your mother have many friends?”

“Not really. Mostly she works and then spends time with me. It was cool when I was little, but it’s kind of a pain sometimes.”

“That’s probably my fault,” he said. “When she was little, she made new friends all the time, then we’d move on. Somewhere along the line, she started keeping to herself. I didn’t even notice until she was gone and there was no one to tell me where.”

I didn’t know what to say. Most of what he’d been telling me about my mother was really weird and didn’t fit with what I knew about her at all, but being a loner was totally Mom. After all, she even went to a sperm bank for me. But I’d never thought about why she might be that way.

“You and your friends do things together, too?” he asked. “It’s not all electronic stuff?”

“Of course.”

“But skinny dipping’s not one of them?”

He smiled. I was glad he wasn’t talking about sad stuff anymore. I grinned back at him.

“No, I don’t think my friends would do that.”

“Too bad. It’s a liberating experience. What will you be doing with them now school’s out?”

That’s when I told him how my friends all lived across town and everyone had plans for the summer. It hadn’t mattered when Mom and I were going to hike the Appalachian Trail all summer, but now it was a bummer. But it wasn’t as bad as finding out a friend was dead, so I stuck on a fake smile and tried to sound excited that I’d have all that extra time for babysitting.

“Who do you babysit for?” he asked.

“There’s one family down the street, but I think there’s more with little kids.”

He looked at me like I’d said something really strange. “Think? You don’t know your neighbors? How long have you lived here?”

I got defensive. “All my life, but we’re never home. When I was little, Mom taught gymnastics across town and took me with her – that’s where I met my friends. We’ve been friends forever. We do things together after school and summers, Mom and I go camping different places.” By then I was shaking. Everything caught up with me all at once and I couldn’t stop the tears but I managed to lower my voice. “It’s just now everything’s messed up. And I can’t tell Mom because she’s worried enough.”

Jack pulled me into a hug and let me muffle my sobs against his chest. He didn’t mind the snot all over his shirt.

I’d almost gotten it under control when we heard Mom coming. He gave me a wink and went to head her off. I washed off my face and holed up in my room until dinner.

Dinner was tense. Jack still looked like a hippie, but he wasn’t so scruffy after he’d showered, shaved, and put on some clean clothes. He complained about the bus trip.

“It would have been more comfortable if I’d hitchhiked,” he said. “But the folks at the hospital didn’t think I should do that. . . So, is this a small town or a suburb?”

“A little of both,” Mom replied. “It’s more separate from the city and smaller than most suburbs, but there aren’t a bunch of people who’ve lived here forever. Most of it used to be a farm until they built these houses for commuters.”

Jack nodded. “So it’s a bedroom community? People mostly just sleep here?”

I put in my two cents. “And they work in their yards and gardens. The houses in this area are all pretty small, mostly like ours, but they all have big yards.”

“Folks keep things nice?” he asked.

“Pretty much.” Mom replied.

“Looks like you picked a good place for Nina to grow up.”

“Don’t try to schmooze me,” Mom warned him. “You’re only staying a few days.

“I know.” He put his hands up, then looked at me and lowered them.

That ended conversation until Jack helped clear the table while I loaded the dishwasher. Mom had already excused herself to get back to her job hunt.

“I usually take a walk after dinner,” Jack said. “Let’s scope out the neighborhood, see who might need a babysitter.”

“Okay.”

As he closed the front door, Jack asked if there were any kids my age in the neighborhood.

“A few ride the bus, but they keep to themselves.”

“Why’s that?”

I shrugged one shoulder. “I think they’re Muslim. I know it’s two different families, but all the parents speak English with that accent like Apu.”

“Who’s Apu?”

“On the Simpsons, the storekeeper?”

“Oh, that cartoon. I’ve seen that a couple times. Never bothered having a television myself.”

“Mom’s like that. She’d rather read.”

“Guess I didn’t do everything wrong.”

The red Porsche with the personalized license plate that said “I SUE 4U” went by about the time we reached the vacant house on the corner.

“Lawyer I take it?” asked Jack.

“Yeah. He moved in next door last summer. He’s hardly ever home.”

“Probably busy taking people’s money away from them. He doesn’t have any kids, either, right?”

“I think he lives alone.”

There was some new graffiti on the abandoned house and the grass wasn’t coming back.

“That place looks like shit,” said Jack.

“It’s been empty a couple years. Mom said it’s going through foreclosure.”

“That’s too bad. Especially when everyone else keeps their places so nice.”

“There’s two more the other direction. They’ve been empty even longer,” I said. “They’re worse.”

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

Sheri2012RGB2inch

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice Episode 3: Settling In

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

We only had one television; Mom was weird about that. She thought it was almost all a waste of time. I even had to promise not to watch programs online. At least I had my own computer. It was her old desktop, but I’d put in some new components to speed it up, so it worked great. No, I wasn’t really a computer geek. They had a workshop at school on how to build a computer.

Anyway, the television was in the den, where I helped Jack set up temporary living quarters. I figured I wouldn’t be watching TV much while he stayed with us.

“Does this thing pull out into a bed?” he asked.

“No, sorry, but it’s comfy to sleep on,” I said. “I’ve zonked out on it plenty of times when I was watching movies late. Or we have those really thick air mattresses that we use for camping, if you’d rather have one of them.”

“No, the couch is fine. How often do you go camping?”

“At least half of the summer, usually.” Talking with him while we put sheets on the couch seemed like the most natural thing in the world. “We’ve been to most of the national parks east of the Mississippi. And we were going to hike the northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail this year, except Mom’s got to job hunt now instead. We were going to do part of it each year and finish right after I graduate from high school.”

“Don’t teachers get tenure in New York?”

“Doesn’t matter when they cut the program. If she’d been qualified to teach something else they would have transferred her. But she can only teach French.”
Jack laughed so hard his shoulders shook and his eyes teared.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Your mother started speaking French when she was about your age,” he said. “We were living with this woman in Quebec. That only lasted a few tense months, but your mother caught onto the language easy as pie.”

“You lived in Quebec?”

“Just while I was with. . .Genevieve, that was her name.”

“Mom never told me she lived in Canada. She never talks about anything before I was born.”

“She had a whole lifetime before that, Darlin’.”

I whispered again, “She used to skinny dip?”

He whispered back, “When she was a little tyke, she hardly ever wore clothes and no one wore them for swimming.”

“What are you whispering about?” Mom was in the doorway and she didn’t look happy.

“We’re just talking about how much you liked swimming when you were little, Baby Girl.” He sounded completely innocent. “Thought you were unloading your car.”

“It was almost done. Nina, don’t listen to his stories. This man is the biggest liar you’ll ever meet. And you, don’t you infect her with your nonsense.”

“What do you mean?” He looked bewildered, but I could tell he knew exactly what she meant.

“And no pot in my house,” she continued to lecture. “Nothing illegal, or you’ll get a ride straight to the police station, you understand?”

“Sure thing, Baby Girl. I don’t want to cause any problems. I’ll just sleep here a few days until I figure out where I’m going. I won’t be any bother at all.”

“Yeah, right. Nina, take him to your room and do a search for this Jimmy Parks person in Arizona.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“And leave the door open. I’ll be checking on you. No stories.”
Jack had never had a computer or a cell phone.

“Seriously?” I asked.
Jack sat on the bed behind me. “Played with one at the coffee shop a few times, looking around on it, but most of the news was about people I’d never heard of. Seemed like most of them hadn’t done anything worthwhile for people to care about, either.”

“Yeah, but you get the news fast.” As I waited for the internet to load, it didn’t feel fast.

“How much confidence can you have in the truth of it? They’ve always tweaked history, but they can do it way too fast with the internet.” He sounded so much more serious now. “I’d rather read something on paper, where they know what they said is going to be around for people to take a second look at it. That’s harder to change.”

“You can get news from around the world, though, and get their perspective on things. Our Social Studies teacher had us checking the BBC last year.”

“Really? Well, that might be a good thing,” he said. “So you think you can find Jimmy Parks?”

“I can try.”

It turned out that there were dozens of Jimmy and James Parks in Arizona, but we didn’t find the one Jack knew.

“I should have had them check while I was at the hospital.” He sighed and shook his head.

“Should always have a backup plan.”

“He was in the military with you?”

“We were in ‘Nam together.”

“When’s the last time you talked to him?”

“Ten, fifteen years ago. Maybe.”

“He could be anywhere,” I said.

I was thinking he could be dead, and Jack looked like he was thinking the same thing. I figured that was why he hadn’t asked at the hospital – that and he’d expected Mom to be happy to see him. Sadness poured out of him the same way happiness did. I wanted him happy.

“How did you meet Mom’s mom?” I asked.

“Got out in June of ‘67. Headed straight for San Francisco.”

“That’s what they called the Summer of Love, wasn’t it?” I was proud of my knowledge. “We had a sub in Social Studies when we were studying the sixties, and he told us about that and Agent Orange and a whole bunch of other stuff that wasn’t in the books.”

“History changes according to who has power.” Jack spoke in what I already considered his lecture voice.

“That’s exactly what Mom said when I told her the teacher was upset his plans hadn’t been followed! Word for word the same.” And she’d sounded like Jack, too.

“Well, she heard me say it often enough, and she was there for the protests. She was a tiny thing, she may not remember much of it, but she was there.”

He dug in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a plastic sleeve. I caught a glimpse of a young woman with flowers braided into her hair before he turned it over and pulled out a yellowed piece of newspaper. He unfolded it carefully and smoothed it out on my desk where I could look at it. It was starting to rip on the folds.

“That’s your mother,” he said proudly.

It was a peace rally. The toddler he pointed to had tangled hair down to her waist and she was wearing shorts and nothing else. She was helping a much younger Jack hold a sign: Make Love, Not War!

“Did she do protests when she got older?” I asked.

“Nah, the movement cooled off once they finally pulled out. There was still stuff going on, but the fire had died. At least for me it had.”

He looked sad again so I got the hospital’s number from Mom and called to ask about Jimmy Parks. Jack’s social worker connected us with an officer who connected us with another officer, until we finally got someone who could help us. Jack had enough information for them to track down Jimmy Parks.

Unfortunately, Jimmy was residing in a cemetery in Phoenix.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.
Sheri2012RGB2inch

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I left?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” I couldn’t believe he’d asked.

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

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

“Seriously?” He laughed. “Good Lord.”

“So she wasn’t always like this?”

“Like what?” Mom asked from the doorway.

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

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

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

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

“They said you get disability.”

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

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

“Why thank you, Baby Girl.”

He went to hug her and she dodged it again.

“Just a few days,” she warned.

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

“Nina.”

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

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

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

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Alice – Episode 1

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

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

Alice – Episode 1

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

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

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

Maybe I should back up a minute.

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

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

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

“Who they?” she demanded.

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

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

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

“Now, Baby Girl…”

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

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

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

“Double the fare,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t a heart attack,” he said.

“What was it?”

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

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

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

She interrupted. “You were being arrested again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quit faking,” Mom said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack grinned. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

“You cook?” he asked.

“I can.”

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

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

Of course that’s not what happened.

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Novel Bites: Missy’s Tahoe Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Novel Bites: Maria’s Secret

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not – this one is not. Maria’s husband is Joe in Running Away and Peg’s Story (soon to be released). Please comment. Thanks.
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“Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue” – Buddy Holly’s song haunts my husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know she haunts me.

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Novel Bites: Jimmy’s Plan

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not – this is from Michael Dolan McCarthy. The book is told from Michael’s perspective, whereas this story explains his little brother’s perspective in the opening chapters. Please comment. Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

“No! Where is she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to show him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you deflate it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

www.sherimcguinn.com

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Sheri McGuinn

www.sherimcguinn.com

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