Tag Archives: resilience

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: Nina’s Thanksgiving

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. Nina is Alice’s daughter and narrator of the book, Alice. This is a Thanksgiving when she was younger, before the events in Alice. Please comment. Thanks.

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Mom pulls the oven rack out enough to poke the withered orange lumps with a fork.

“Done!” She pulls the pans out and puts them on top of the stove. Eight halves of those little pumpkins she says are the best for pies, face down on cookie sheets.

“Why don’t you just use the canned stuff, like a normal person,” I grumble. I’m twelve and my mother’s no longer perfect.

She shrugs that off. “They taste better from fresh pumpkin.”

“Did you have pies like this when you were a kid? Is that it?” I dig at the issue.

“Yes.” Then she changes the subject like she always does. “We need to let these cool before we scoop them out. Are the ginger snaps ready to roll?”

She won’t ever talk about her childhood. I know her mother died when she was born and she was brought up by her father, and that’s about it. I’m not even sure if he’s dead or alive, and I don’t think she knows, either. But I bet someone always made pumpkin pies this way for the holidays when she was little. I bet she had normal Thanksgiving dinners. We never have.

“Nina.” Her voice breaks into my thoughts. “The cookie dough?”

We mixed up the cookie batter first thing this morning and it’s been cooling in the refrigerator while the pumpkins cooked. Mom’s efficient about energy use – we’ll bake the cookies while the oven’s still warm.

“Yup. All four batches.” I pull the first roll out of the fridge and start peeling the wax paper around it open. We have to make our cookies from scratch, too. Always. Mom won’t buy the frozen stuff. We’ll make six kinds of Christmas cookies, too, everything from the basics of flour, sugar, butter . . . not margarine, no way, not for Mom.

I’d get it if we had family that expected all this tradition stuff, but we don’t. It’s just us. And we’ll take the cookies and pies to the homeless shelter this year and have our Thanksgiving feast there, with a bunch of smelly people who won’t take off their coats because they’re afraid of having them stolen, and raggedy little kids running around screaming. When I was little, we’d go to a soup kitchen. The people there were usually cleaner. Most of them still had homes, I guess.

I try one more time. “Why can’t we go to the soup kitchen instead?”

Mom gives me the look, the one that says we’ve already been over this. There aren’t as many volunteers at the homeless shelter and I need to be less judgmental. If she lost her job, we could end up homeless.

But she’s a teacher and she’s been doing it long enough to have tenure, which means they can’t just fire her. She’d have to like murder someone in class or the school would have to collapse or something. She’s also dead set on this Thanksgiving tradition.

“I’ll help you with all the cooking, but I’m not going this year.” I try to sound as firm as she does when she’s giving me no choice. “Mary invited me to their house.”

Mom just looks at me. I’m not sure if she’s disappointed or what. But she’s not saying “No” right away, so maybe there’s a chance.

I work on it. “They’re having the whole family, her cousins I met last summer and a bunch more relatives, so one more won’t be any problem. Her mother said it was okay.”

Mom sighs and nods. “You’ve never had that kind of Thanksgiving. You should. It’s special.”

“I can go?” I almost didn’t bother asking! And she caved right away!

She smiles like it hurts and blinks like maybe she’s holding back tears, but she nods yes and I hug her, hard.

“Thanks, Mom!”

“I’ll miss you.” She says it quietly and it tugs at my heart, but this is something I need to do.

Guilt makes me try to explain. “I need to have one Thanksgiving with a bunch of people who know and care about each other, not strangers sharing an especially big meal.”

“I know,” she says. “When I was little, we didn’t have real family, but we had a huge group of friends who gathered together for the holidays – and baked the pumpkins for the pies – then when I was older, it was just two of us, and sometimes we ended up . . . anyway, yes, you can spend this holiday with Mary and her family. It’ll be good for you.”

“Were you homeless?” Maybe that’s why she never talks about it.

She smiles as if she’s having a memory that makes her feel warm. “Between homes. Sometimes we were between homes. Go call Mary, then get back here and help me with these cookies.”

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Impressions: Alone With Jimmy

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was such a weird kid.

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

My heart squeezes out a tear.

At last Aunt Sue joins in the nighttime chorale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie nodded madly.

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

“Cool!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Charlie sounded suspicious.

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

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

“Cool!” said Charlie.

“Sit up against the cab,” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The brat still didn’t answer.

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

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

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

“Call,” he choked. “For real.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were supposed to do it together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Sheri McGuinn

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