Tag Archives: strong women

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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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

www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

Please comment. Thanks.

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Impressions: The Novice Traveler

Carolyn lumbered through the airport, a backpack slung over her left shoulder, her right arm stretched by the weight of her carry-on.

Big Brother’s voice reminded her, “Unattended bags will be confiscated.”

She stopped to catch her breath, put the suitcase on the floor close to her feet, and moved the backpack to her right shoulder. The pack had been the agent’s idea, so she could make sure everything made the plane change with her. It held more and had better pockets than a traditional purse, but she felt silly carrying it.

She picked up the suitcase and trudged onward. It had taken her forever to get to the departure gate and then they announced a change. Why did it have to be at the opposite end of the airport?

The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled her as she instinctively inhaled deeply. That would have to do. The bakery line was long, her new gate was still a good hike away, and the flight would be boarding soon.

She looked longingly at all the people effortlessly pulling bags on wheels. Why hadn’t the agent suggested that? If her father’s old bag hadn’t been the right size for carry-on she would have shopped for one. Maybe they all had wheels now.

Finally she got to the new right gate.

Carolyn lifted her eyes skyward. “Please don’t let them change it again.”

“You got that right,” said a Gothic person of indeterminate sex.

Carolyn started. She hadn’t meant to talk out loud.

Big Brother repeated his warnings. The Gothic person sniffed, drawing Carolyn’s attention to a nose ring. There was one through the left eyebrow, too. Why would someone do that? It had to hurt.

“You going to Maui, too?” the Goth person asked.

Carolyn paused, but saw no way to keep her destination a secret. She nodded and turned away. There were only two seats left open. The Goth person plopped down next to her.

“I love the islands… you been before?” it said.

Carolyn shook her head and pulled out the novel she’d brought for the plane. She opened it and put her head down, but that didn’t work.

“Kauai’s the best, but Maui’s nice if you stay away from the tourist traps.”

Carolyn stared at the first page.

“I’m Becca.” The girl shoved her ring-laden hand over Carolyn’s book.

Carolyn raised her head and made cautious contact with her fingertips.

The girl’s black lips couldn’t hide her dimples or the openness of her smile. It was just all the black leather and spiky hair and dramatic, ghoulish make-up that made her seem threatening. Well, that and the piercings. Carolyn returned the smile tentatively.

“You’ve been to Hawaii before?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. I love it there. Costa Rica’s nice, too, but Hawaii’s my favorite.”

“Really?” Carolyn thought of all the vacations she’d spent caring for her parents and working on their house – her house now. “You travel a lot?”

“Yup. I’ll stay until my money runs out, then go crash with my folks, get a job, and save up for the next trip. They cut me a deal on rent, to get me to come home sometimes, but eventually I’m going to work my way around the world.”

“How long did it take you to save up for this trip?”

“Three months. Maui’s really cheap if you know how to do it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“About fifty dollars a day. And the plane ticket.” The girl pulled a small electronic device from her pack and stuck pieces of black foam into her ears.

“Fifty dollars a day?” Carolyn sighed. Her hotel alone was three times that.

The girl didn’t hear. She was nodding to a dissonant sound audible despite the ear buds. So Carolyn didn’t talk about the Jeep the agent had insisted she add to the reservation, so she wouldn’t get stuck off-trail or on a beach. Carolyn was too timid to ever leave the road, and too timid to argue with the man. At least he hadn’t made reservations at restaurants for her, though he’d given her a list of places that served delicious fresh sea food – probably all expensive.

Carolyn touched Becca tentatively on the forearm. “Where do you eat?”

The girl emptied the ear closest to Carolyn, but still nodded to the music as she answered. “Mostly from grocery stores, then fix it in the kitchen or barbeque out back at the hostel. Groceries are expensive, but it’s cheaper than eating out.”

“They let you use the kitchen?”

“It’s a hostel. Like a hotel, but with community bathrooms and kitchen.”

“You share the bathroom with strangers?”

“And I’ll be sharing a room with three other people. You can get a private room, but it costs more. I’ve only done that when my gram came along.”

“Your grandmother?”

“Yep. She travels the same way. Hey, let me give you her email.”

As the girl handed Carolyn the slip of paper, a disembodied voice called for the first passengers to board. Carolyn stood up. The agent had said a first class ticket was essential for such a long flight. She knew Becca would be flying tourist.

“Are you sure your grandmother won’t mind you giving this to a stranger?”

“That’s the beauty of being a traveler,” Becca smiled. “There’s no such thing as a stranger.”

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Carolyn’s journey – or Becca’s – leave a comment.

Thanks.

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Me Too: Evil Woman & Female Hero

In the literary context, Merriam Webster defines heroine as the principal female character in a literary or dramatic work” and they give “the heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” as an example.  There’s a problem with that.

According to opensourceshakespeare.org, Romeo speaks 163 times to Juliet‘s 118. Juliet is clearly the lead female and second character by size of role, but by appearing in both opening and closing scenes while Juliet does not, Romeo clearly has the primary lead. This is often the case in movies. If there’s a leading man in a movie, the leading female may play more of a supporting role than an actual lead. This has been a way to blur the lack of true female leads. This is also reflected by the way awards are given for movies. For example, Oscars are listed with leading and supporting men coming before any women are listed.

However, there is hope. The Me Too movement may be making a dent.

I just finished writing a screenplay for a company that produces a lot of movies for television. They provided a rough treatment for a starting point, along with the instructions that not only did they want the villain to be a woman, the primary protagonist was to be female as well. I’m calling her a female hero because she is definitely not playing second fiddle to any of the actors and she is the one who takes action to save the day. In reality, the leading actor is playing a supporting role to her lead.

Creating a female hero to triumph over the evil woman made this really fun to write. And since these guys have a good track record for selling their films to major outlets, I have to believe they’ve checked the market and found that the industry wants more women in leading roles. We’ll see.

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Female Role Models in Literature: Lillian Moller Gilbreth

There’s a long tradition in literature of having a tomboy juxtaposed with a feminine girl. In the late 1800’s there was a series for little girls about Ruby and Ruth, where Ruby was the one getting into trouble all the time and Ruth was the good girl doing her needlepoint. By then, Louisa May Alcott had written Little Women, with Jo the tomboy and Beth the good girl. Trixie Belden was a tomboy but her best friend was the girly-girl.

There are also books with a strong female protagonist without much of a feminine girl as a foil, but usually those strong females are surrounded by males or thrust into a formerly male role. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is all tomboy and her father’s fine with that. Calpurnia tries to civilize her a bit, but with little luck. In The Hunger Games, Katniss has been thrust into her father’s role as provider and protector.

lillian gilbrethThere are also biographies, of course.

One of my favorite non-fiction books is Cheaper by the Dozen, published in 1949. It is based on the real Gilbreth family – written by two of the twelve.

Per the Foreword:
“Mother and Dad, Lillian Moller Gilbreth and Frank Bunker Gilbreth, were industrial engineers. They were among the first in the scientific management field and the very first in motion study. From 1910 to 1924, their firm of Gilbreth, Inc. was employed as ‘efficiency expert’ by many of the major industrial plants in the United States, Britain, and Germany. Dad died in 1924. After that, Mother carried the load by herself and became perhaps the foremost woman industrial engineer.”

Their efficiency methods carried over into their parenting by necessity – with twelve children to manage. Surrounded by adults as a child, I was always enamored by the idea of being part of a large family, but the concept of conserving time and energy through efficient habits is what really stayed with me from the book… and subliminally, the understanding there were no restrictions on what I might become.

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