Tag Archives: women’s fiction

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

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSize

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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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 6

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

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

The medics arrived first and, following Anne’s instructions to avoid unnecessary contamination of the scene, determined that she was indeed right. John Davenport was dead. They’d barely returned to the kitchen when the police arrived.

Officer Hendricks reminded Anne of her son when he left for boot camp – head shaved nearly bald, posture erect, proud yet nervous. Detective Grant, on the other hand, was more like her husband. He was gruff, numbed to the horrors of the job even in this small mountain community.

When they moved to the bedroom, she followed, but positioned herself in the hallway so she would not have to see John’s face again.

“Did you recognize the gun, Ma’am?” Officer Hendricks asked from the doorway.

“Yes. It’s his. He kept it loaded, on the bedside table,” she said.

“A Colt?” questioned Grant.

“He got it when we moved here. Liked the way it looks. His Glock is in a drawer in the kitchen. He was a detective with Schenectady PD. He’s had a hard time adjusting to retirement.”

“The gun is in his hand,” Hendricks said softly.

“Until the coroner gives us his findings, we can’t make assumptions,” said Grant.

“Hendricks, go call in and let them know we need a lab team out here. We may want to work with DPS.”

Hendricks passed Anne, then turned and asked, “Were you in the gun safety class?”

“John insisted I should know how to shoot.”

“I remember,” said Hendricks. He looked at Grant as he explained, “It was too much gun for her. Nearly tore her arm off. She quit after her first shot.”

“I hate guns,” Anne said. “I told him not to bother getting a smaller one for me.”
Grant ushered Anne out of the house behind Hendricks.

“Any sign of forced entry?” he asked. He didn’t believe it was a suicide.

“No. But the side door wasn’t locked. I must have forgotten. I was running late when I left. He’d already laid down for a nap.”

“A nap?”

“He’d gotten into the habit of doing that after a big meal. We ate about five and I left at five-forty-five.” She inhaled deeply and pulled up her shoulders and allowed her eyes to glisten. “If it was murder, it’s probably my fault he’s dead.” She let her chin quiver slightly.

Grant paused a few moments, then said, “You shouldn’t blame yourself for leaving that door unlocked. Most folks here don’t bother with that unless they’re leaving the place empty.”

They sat on the front deck. Hendricks closed the police car door and came over.

“There’s a team on the way,” he said.

Grant nodded, then asked Anne, “Was there a particular reason you would have locked up, if you’d remembered?”

“After thirty-five years as a cop, twenty of them in homicide, my husband insisted on keeping the doors locked, even when we were both home, even when I was working in the yard.”

“You do the yard work?”

“John loved the fact there was no lawn to mow. He liked the tall pines.”

“Are those tomato plants in that raised bed?”

Anne was surprised. Grant didn’t seem like the kind of man who would care about anything other than his work, and dead tomato plants were not readily recognizable from a distance. “They were. I haven’t got the knack of gardening here yet. It’s so different.”

“You’re from New York?”

“Yes. Schenectady. I always had a wonderful garden. I don’t know how anyone can grow anything here.”

“So your husband was asleep when you left?” Grant asked.

“Yes.” She needed to stay focused. This wasn’t the time to complain about anything.

“Where did you go?”

“The assisted living center. I play cards every Wednesday with some of the residents, six until seven. That’s as long as most of them can last.”

Detective Grant wrote that on his pad. “Do you have a friend we could call for you?”

“No. No one I’d want to bother at a time like this. We’ve only been here a year, almost a year, actually; not long enough to make that kind of friend.”

“We can drive you to a motel,” he offered.

“Thank you. I’d like that.”

“We have to wait for the lab people to check your hands and clothing for residue, though.”

“Of course,” she said.

“It’s standard procedure,” Hendricks assured her. Then he got her talking about John while they waited for the specialists and watched the sun slide down to the horizon.

Grant listened. It wasn’t a suicide. The Colt would have kicked the man’s hand back, or flown right out of it. Most murders were personal. The victim hadn’t known anyone here. It was unlikely some low-life had tracked him down this far for revenge, which left the woman. The spouse was the most likely candidate in any homicide.

When the lab specialist got there, Grant watched as Anne pulled clean clothes out of the dryer, then he left her alone to remove the clothing that would have to be tested.

“Don’t run any water, though,” he warned.

“I won’t, but I’m sure I washed my hands after playing cards.”

Grant knew they wouldn’t find anything on her, but procedure demanded she be checked. He’d also make sure they did a toxicology screen on her husband. Women traditionally used poison. She could conceivably have shot her husband while he was comatose from something he ate. But, being a homicide detective’s wife, she’d know that would be suspected, so the tests would probably be a waste of money.

When the lab people were done with her, Hendricks drove Anne to a motel in the Mustang while Grant followed – and watched as the car ahead of him passed under the street lights on Main.

At the motel, Hendricks walked the woman into the office, then slid into the passenger seat. “She’ll probably end up selling the place, if anyone will have it, and moving back to New York.”

“She said that?” Grant asked.

“I asked again if she had a friend we could call to come be with her.”

On the way back to the crime scene, Grant pulled around behind Safeway and parked with the headlights on the dumpster. He pulled on a pair of disposable gloves as Hendricks watched, puzzled.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Grant ignored the question. He got out and lifted the heavy lid. There was a neatly tied black yard bag tucked under some cardboard that should have gone into the recycle bin, but on top of the other trash. He yanked the bag out and opened it as Hendricks joined him.

Grant pulled out the plastic rain gear with duct tape still sticking plastic bags to the cuffs. There was a shower cap with a clear veil of plastic taped to it as well.

“What made you check here?” Hendricks asked.

“She looked toward Safeway when you drove by, while she was rubbing her shoulder. I expect it’ll be her DNA on the inside of this and we’ll probably find his on the outside.”

When they went back to the motel to pick her up, Anne saw the bag and nodded.

“He killed me first,” she said. “I was a gardener. He killed me.”

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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 5

At first, Anne tried to adjust to the idea of staying married. They had enough money they could take a modest trip each winter, if they were cautious with other spending. So when the window air conditioner broke and John decided not to replace it, she did not argue. There were ceiling fans and her friends told her the monsoons – daily thunderstorms – would cool things off most days. It helped that John started going out every day again – usually fishing, sometimes hunting, always alone. He seemed less depressed than he’d been all winter.

Then she realized the roses and berries she’d planted in the fall had died, because she didn’t understand she needed to start watering in the first months of the year. Back home, the only thing her garden needed in the winter was some pruning – she hadn’t even checked on the roses and berries for months. She didn’t want to ask John for money to replace them, so she suggested she could work part time for her garden money.

“No. My mother never had to work and my wife doesn’t either,” was his knee-jerk response. “If you have to have your damn garden, here, use this.”

He handed her a twenty, which might be enough for seeds and a few starts, but not for new roses and berries. She started skimming money from the grocery allowance he gave her each week, but it wasn’t enough. She didn’t dare take money out of the bank – he might take her name back off the accounts.

She gave up on having anything along the fence, at least for now.

She planted tomato starts and seeds for other vegetables in the raised beds she’d insisted on when they first arrived last fall. John would never have agreed to that expense now.

The monsoons were nothing but a promise – everyone commented on how late they were. There were blistering hot days with no wind when John stayed in the stifling house while Anne volunteered in air-conditioned luxury. When the AC on her truck went out, John reluctantly agreed to let her use the Mustang – if he wasn’t going to use it.

He did go out before dawn most days, but would come back to spend the heat of the day watching television. Sometimes he went back out, sometimes he didn’t. His depression seemed to have returned with the heat.

Anne began to express concern about her husband with her casual friends – a bit here, a tad there, a partially expressed thought followed by biting her lower lip. Just enough to let it be known she was worried that her husband was depressed. She told them she thought he might have jumped into retirement too early, and that he wasn’t as satisfied with hunting and fishing as he’d expected. When the librarian saw her researching depression, Anne assured the concerned woman that it was her husband about whom she was concerned, not herself. The librarian suggested he might be having an identity crisis, after having been a detective for so many years.

Anne considered the irony of that possibility – he’d been unconcerned about her losing her identity as a gardener, but he’d lost his own, while she still thought of herself as a gardener.

Then one June day she came home from her book club meeting to find a scorching wind had killed her tomato plants and shriveled the sprouting vegetables. She stood staring at them and burst into tears.

She cried for her lost identity as a gardener, for the hours spent in her lovely garden with her son, for the smell of his sun-warmed hair, for the years devoted to creating that beautiful place – years that garden allowed her to stay trapped in a loveless marriage. She cried for her absent mother who had lived the same kind of life. She cried for the girl who might have found a happier life.

When there were no more tears, she went inside the cabin where John was sitting like a zombie, staring at the television. She grabbed the remote and turned it off.

“I’m done,” she said. “I want a divorce.”

John stared at her silently.

“Did you hear me?” she screeched. “I want a divorce.”

He got up slowly and walked up to her until his nose almost touched hers. He spoke quietly, but in that tone he had that meant the matter was closed. “No.”

He slid the remote out of her hand, sat down, and turned the television back on.

“I want a divorce,” she repeated. “I’m serious. I’m sick of this place and I’m sick of you!”

If he’d argued, there might have been a chance at reconciliation. They might have agreed the move was not working well for either of them and made plans to try another place.

But he didn’t.

She tried one more time. “John, we’re both miserable.”

He shook his head and replied quietly. “Until death do us part – marriage vows don’t say anything about being happy. What’s for dinner?”

Stunned, Anne put away groceries and started cooking.

They ate at 5:00. At 5:20 John finished and went to their room for his after-dinner nap. By 5:30 Anne had cleaned up the kitchen and could hear him snoring. At 5:45 she put a yard-waste bag into the trunk of the Mustang and left for the senior center, making one stop on the way to toss the bag into a dumpster. She played cards with the residents for an hour. She and old Mr. Smith in his wheelchair were the weekly winners.

On the way home, she put the top down and sat tall so the breeze could catch her hair.

As soon as she parked the Mustang beside the cabin, the heat pressed down on her. It was so difficult to breathe when it was this hot. The sun wouldn’t set for another hour or more.

The house was quiet. She walked back to the bedroom where John was lying on the bed, his head on a pillow soaked with gelatinous blood. She pulled her cellphone out of her pocket and dialed 911 as she returned to the kitchen.

“My husband’s been shot,” she told the woman at the other end of the line.

Her carefully controlled voice conveyed hysteria threatening to erupt.

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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 4

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

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

While John spent his time alone, fishing and hunting or sitting in front of the television, Anne shelved books at the library on Mondays, played cards with residents of the assisted living center on Wednesdays, and read with first graders on Fridays – not to mention the monthly book club. She was making a place for herself in the community.

As the air began to crisp in October, both of the Davenports missed the red of the sugar maples, so they took the Mustang up to the higher elevations where aspens shed their yellow leaves. The day was pleasant enough that Anne thought she might enjoy traveling with him, that there might be hope for the marriage if he stayed busy hunting the rest of the time and let her garden in peace. The thought cheered her, since it looked like she was stuck in the marriage whether or not it was tolerable. She had nosed around in his desk when he was out hunting and found some bank statements, but she still wasn’t sure if they could afford to live separately.

Then came winter.

John went for weeks without leaving the cabin. He looked at travel options and said they were too costly, they should wait a year. He complained about her activities – as if she should be sitting next to him as he sank into depression. It wasn’t her fault John’s life had revolved around his work or that his hunting buddies had been fellow detectives and officers from the Schenectady Police Department or that going hunting and fishing alone had quickly lost its appeal. He was the one who decided to buy this cabin and retire in a place where he didn’t know anyone. He’d made her give up everything that mattered to her to come here. He could complain all he wanted about her activities. She didn’t care. Volunteering, focusing on other people’s needs, had kept her from falling apart when John Jr. was blown to smithereens and it was helping her make this transition. She was adapting – he should try it.

Of course she didn’t say any of that. She just went about her business as she pleased.

While she missed her home and garden, John had been right about winter. In March they had one big snow that lasted just long enough to stop Anne’s pining for real winter. The rest of the time they got a light dusting that no one bothered to shovel. That was much nicer than winter in Schenectady. She had already planned out her raised beds and the rest of the yard

“Do you realize four out of the six houses on this stretch of road are empty?” John asked Anne one evening during the big snow. “The house down on the corner is the only other place with a plowed driveway, and there aren’t any cars parking on the road, so the others have to be empty.”

“They’re snowbirds or flatlanders,” Anne replied, automatically using the terms she’d picked up from her new friends.

“What?”

“Snowbirds are from up north. Flatlanders are people who live in The Valley – Tucson or Phoenix – and only come up on weekends or a week or two when it’s unbearably hot.”

John responded to the recognition that they lived in a largely vacant neighborhood by buying new deadbolts for the doors and insisting Anne take a gun safety course. She did fine in the class until the first night they had target practice. She had a little bursitis from years of gardening. When the backlash from firing John’s gun threw her arms up, the pain was so intense that she’d cried right there in front of everyone.

The instructor apologized. “That is way too much gun for you. I should never have let you try that your first time shooting.”

She’d gone straight home and handed John his .45 as if it were venomous.

“My shoulder’s killing me.” She glared at him.

“I should get you something smaller,” he’d acknowledged.

“No! I quit the class. I could never shoot a person anyway!” In twenty-some years, this was the first time she had yelled at him. She half expected him to get up and hit her. She was prepared to call the cops on him. Wouldn’t that be something!

He just shrugged, though. “Well, at least you’ve fired it. If you need to, you can do it.”

Anne walked away.

By the time April rolled around, an idiot could see John was severely depressed, and the taxes he had to pay on the sale of his ancestral home made it worse. One sunny Tuesday, Anne made his favorite breakfast, including the last of the elk sausage. As they finished eating, she started the conversation she’d been planning for months.

“There was this lady at the library yesterday, I couldn’t help overhearing her tell her friend how her husband had passed on and she was losing her home because she didn’t have enough for the inheritance taxes. I just couldn’t stop worrying about it last night.”

“That wouldn’t happen to you,” John reassured her. “I invested the money from the house to make up for using my retirement fund for this place. You’ll have enough to pay the taxes.”

“Even after all they took?” she asked in her most innocent voice.

He shrugged. “You don’t have to worry.” There was no strength in his voice as he said it.

“Good,” she said, as if that had alleviated all of her concerns. Then she added, as if it was an afterthought, “It is a shame, though, how they tax the same money over and over.”

John actually made the suggestion for her. “I should put your name on the cabin – and the Mustang. Then we’ll both have to be gone before they can take more taxes on those.”

“Is there anything else we should have in both names?” She again played innocent.

“Everything,” he said, slapping his hand on the table. “I should put your name on everything so they can’t take a cent.”

“I can do these dishes later,” she offered.

He nodded. “Let’s get it done.”

She went with him to the Motor Vehicle Department to change the title and registration on the Mustang and then the county recorder to add her name to the deed of the cabin. John took her out for lunch then. She was worried he’d lose interest in this project, but he seemed happier than he’d been in ages.

“All that’s left is the bank,” he said as they left the restaurant. “You don’t have to go anywhere else this afternoon?”

“No, I’m all yours.” She smiled brightly.

At the bank he added her name to all of his accounts, including his investment account and the safety deposit box. The banker even convinced him to set up online access for Anne, so she could take care of bills if John was not able to do so.

“You’re wise to be doing this. It makes everything so much easier for a surviving partner,” said the banker. She tucked a gray lock of hair behind her ear. “Have you done this with all your investments and belongings?”

Anne could have kissed the woman.

“Nope,” he said. “We’ve taken care of it all now, except my pension. Can’t put that in her name, but it’s set up with her as beneficiary.”

At last, Anne could assess their financial condition. While it looked like a lot of money to her at first, when she did more research, she realized it really wasn’t enough for two separate households.

Divorce was not a good plan.

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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 3

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

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

Anne Davenport’s home was going to be put on the market in June.

John started fixing things before his March retirement, then they had to “de-clutter” to satisfy the realtor and down-size dramatically because the Arizona cabin he’d bought without consulting Anne was a quarter the size of their house in New York. By the end of May, they’d had four garage sales and donated $17,000 of unsold items to charity. Some were family heirlooms that had been sitting in the attic since his mother passed away. Anne had never dared get rid of them before, but John was ready to get rid of everything now. He was ready to move on to a new life.

Anne Davenport, however, did not want to leave the garden that defined her after more than two decades of work, the garden where she could still feel the presence of their deceased son.

When she realized John’s decision was final, she considered filing for divorce. Carefully vague questions led her to volunteer at a woman’s shelter where there were books she could read without any record of her borrowing them. Her problem was that John had done nothing that qualified as “fault” and would never agree to a “no-fault” divorce. She knew this without asking. He’d spoken scornfully of workmates who divorced.

And even if he did agree, everything she read and heard indicated that divorce was a financially disastrous move for both parties. Since John had always handled everything to do with finances, she’d have no clue if he hid assets, either. Her only hope was that the house would not sell and John would let her continue to live in it while he went off to Arizona.

Unfortunately, the realtor caught on to Anne’s subtle attempts to scare off potential buyers and refused to show the house in her presence anymore. So Anne was depending on prayer and a slump in the real estate market to keep her in her home. As a show of faith, she went ahead and planted a blueberry bush on John Jr.’s birthday – blueberries had been his favorite, and were small enough for her to plant on her own. When Memorial Day Weekend arrived with no offers in sight, she went ahead and planted her vegetable garden, even though that annoyed John.

Ironically, it was her established garden and the prospect of fresh tomatoes that made the buyers choose Anne’s home from dozens of houses they’d seen.

The deal closed in late July, so Anne got to harvest her early crops – asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, peas, a few tomatoes and summer squash, and greens, of course. The best sweet corn was Silver Queen, though; it didn’t ripen until fall. Hopefully the new owners appreciated it. There was no way of knowing, really; those people would think she was odd if she wrote to ask about the corn. She’d left detailed instructions on the garden’s care. She hoped they maintained it as religiously as she had.

John sold his Toyota and wanted to sell her battered little pickup before they moved. “All we’ll need is the Mustang. There won’t be that much driving to do, and there’s a small local airport where we can park it safely and fly into Phoenix international whenever we travel.”

“You won’t want to carry plants and fertilizer in your car.” That ‘64 Mustang was his real baby.

“There’s no garden,” he countered. “I told you that. It’s tall pines and clay soil.”

“That’s all the more reason to have the truck. I’ll probably have to bring in some good dirt as well as fertilizer.”

“You’re not listening!” he shouted. “Since when did you get so stubborn and unreasonable? It’s not the least bit attractive.”

Would that qualify as verbal abuse? Maybe all she had to do is show some backbone and he’d give her grounds for divorce – even if that meant moving to Arizona. She’d checked. Their laws were similar. But she needed to know how much money there was, whether it was enough to make divorce an option.

At least the truck was hers. The title was in her name; he couldn’t make her sell it. She’d still have the freedom to come and go as she pleased, without having to beg permission to take his car.

The calendar turned to August as she drove her pickup to the White Mountains of Arizona, following John as he drove a small rental truck with the few pieces of furniture they’d kept, towing his vintage Mustang on a trailer. Anne had never been west of the Mississippi. She’d wanted to stop in St. Louis, to go up into the great arch there and get closer to the mighty river, but John had no interest in wasting time sightseeing.

As they got farther west, the vast empty spaces loved depressed her.

But she cheered up when they got to the cabin. It was actually a small house with a deck that made it look like a cabin, and it was on the edge of town, not in the middle of nowhere as she’d expected. It looked cozy and it was on a large lot with Ponderosa pines and scrubby little trees that had to be some kind of oak, based on the shape of their leaves. There was no lawn, just dirt, rocks, and weeds.

She envisioned transforming it as she had their huge yard back home.

The first full day there, she discovered she could walk downtown to the Safeway supermarket, the library, the movie theater, and the chamber of commerce. She got a library card and borrowed the book the reading club was reading. She asked for directions to a nursery and found there were two close by – she visited both and asked a million questions.

John had never been a joiner. He spent much of his time fishing or hunting, and he made a short list of minor repairs and maintenance the cabin required. The lack of a lawn under the tall pines was one of the features John had found most attractive. The small oaks created piles of leaves to burn, but that was something they did together. Anne roped him into helping her build her raised beds – the timbers were too large for her to handle alone, but he certainly didn’t want her wasting money hiring someone when he was right there.

She’d rather hoped he’d be loudly abusive about it where neighbors could hear, but he just grumbled, “Anything you plant will die when we travel.”

“I won’t be planting anything in these until spring, but it’s easier to build the raised beds now, while the ground is dry and firm. The only things I’ll plant this fall are roses and berries along the front fence.”

“Why do you want to mess with all that?” he’d complained. “As soon as I get this place patched up, we’re going to do some traveling. That stuff won’t survive if we’re gone half the time.”

“They should get plenty of water from winter snows, even when we travel. That’s when you want to travel, right?” she asked sweetly, but tuned out whatever he said next.

She waited patiently for the right time for her next step.

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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 2

Warped Tales – be warned.
As a child I read piles of books filled with short stories – the complete works of Poe, stories from the Twilight Zone, collections from Hitchcock, etc.
As an adult, thrillers rule.
This is that kind of story, in six parts.

Anne Davenport sat in her son’s bedroom. John had removed every piece of John Jr. after the first year, except the ornately carved box that held the boy’s ashes. If John had had his way, those would have been scattered to the wind, up in the Adirondacks where he and his son had hunted together, but Anne refused. She couldn’t remember another time she’d ever asserted her wishes over her husband’s, at least not about anything important. Little things, she generally capitulated or let him think he was having his own way, while she did as she pleased.

But tell him no? She’d never argued with him. She followed her mother’s example in that.

John Davenport was at work. She could talk out loud without him thinking she was losing her mind. “I don’t want to leave. This room and the garden are the only places I feel you anymore.” She spoke to her son, but of course there was no response; she didn’t expect one.

Anne sighed and stood up, crossing the room to look out the window. John Jr.’s room was on the back of the house, overlooking the garden where he’d grown up helping his mother while his father worked. He was so excited when John decided he was old enough to go hunting. The two had bonded over guns and blood.

John Jr. went into the military to be like his father, headed off to war and died at nineteen, blown to bits so cremation was the only option, nothing left for a casket.

Now John wanted to uproot her, take her to some cabin in Arizona, a place she’d never been, that he bought on a whim without talking to her, where he could retire and hunt all the time.

Hunting and his Mustang, the only things he really cared about. Nurse to his mother, mother of his child – those roles were done – all she was now was his cook and housekeeper, and on rare occasions he needed her body for his physical relief. She’d read enough now to know she’d never had a man make love to her.

She was so young when they met – just eighteen and so inexperienced in love, in life, so vulnerable. John was the kind and concerned responding officer when her father put a gun under his jaw and pulled the trigger. When her mother told him how they’d been nursing her husband after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, John shared that his own widowed mother had just been told she had cancer, he wasn’t sure what type.

He came back on his own time the next day and offered to help fix some things around the house that had fallen into disrepair. Anne’s mother was so grateful, so impressed, and so glad when he wanted to marry her daughter – despite the fact he was ten years older than Anne, who’d never had a real boyfriend. She’d never gone past a closed-mouth kiss at the end of a date. John courted Anne in his 1964 Mustang, wooing her with talk of all the exotic places they would see together, respecting her, never pushing for intimacy before marriage.

After the wedding, they moved into his mother’s home – John was an only child, so they were the only ones available to help her through her illness. John worked all the time, so that meant Anne became nurse and companion to his mother. Anne’s own mother, convinced that her daughter was taken care of for life, sold her house and took off on a trip around the world. Her last letter came from Australia, where she’d met a most interesting man. That was while Anne was pregnant with John Jr. Her mother knew where they lived; if she was alive and wanted to stay in touch, she could. Anne let go of the uncertainty and hurt and focused on her baby.

She gave up on hearing from her mother a lifetime ago. A lifetime of losing herself in caregiving, her garden, and volunteerism, keeping herself busy so her marriage wouldn’t become another statistic as her husband centered his life on his job as a detective with the Schenectady Police Department, hunting, and his car.

They never had traveled, other than a weekend drive to a car show.

The Mustang was Anne’s one hope to dissuade John from selling the house – the house he had inherited. Anne had never thought to lobby for her name on the deed, so she had no say in the sale now. But John belonged to the Mustang Club of America and the Adirondack Shelby-Mustang Regional Club. He hadn’t been able to be very active, because he worked such long and irregular hours. Retired, he would be able to attend all their events.

Unfortunately, there was a club in Tucson and the mountains where he’d purchased this cabin were a favored spot for summer gatherings of car lovers in the southwest. The altitude provided relief from the heat.

Anne leaned her head against her son’s window, took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled. She spoke to her absent son again.

“Your father’s been with the force thirty years. He brought home the retirement papers last night; he’s turning them in today to retire in March. He’ll be using some vacation time between now and then to freshen up the house with new paint and repairs. He already talked to a realtor who came and told us everything that’s wrong with it.”

A violent urge to strangle the woman, to stop her from talking, had poured through Anne. That wasn’t something she’d say to her son, though, even if he wasn’t really present to hear, even though she’d politely smiled and nodded instead of throttling the woman.

It felt as if John Jr.’s spirit was in the room, and she wasn’t about to tell her son’s spirit, or anyone, how angry she was with John. For years he’d neglected maintenance of their home; now he’d decided to sell it, he was eager to do it all. She had to let go of that anger if she was going to make him see the foolishness of this move.

Anne turned from the window. “I’ll try to reason with him.” She brushed her hand along her son’s container on her way out of the room. It was a mahogany box, with a pretty garden-like scene carved into it. She had broken into tears when she first saw it. John would have been happy with a plain metal box.

When her husband got home that night, she had elk roast with potatoes and carrots waiting for him. She of course let him talk first.

“They were razzing me all day about being an old man. I told them early retirement’s my way of assuring I’ll have a chance to be an old man.”

“I’m glad you’re retiring,” said Anne, though it wasn’t really true – even if they didn’t move, he was sure to upset her routines. “But why rush into selling our home? You were only in Arizona a couple weeks. What if you don’t like it as much as you expect to?”

“I don’t want to keep up two places, and even if I did, this house is too big.  I’d want to move into something smaller, maybe a condo.”

Did condos have any space for a garden? “But you grew up in this house,” Anne started.

He cut her off. “And so did our son, and you’ll never let go of him as long as we live here. It’s not healthy. You need to move on.”

“And there’s my garden.”  I’m a gardener, that’s who I am. She heard the panic in her voice and tried to put it in terms he might understand. “That’s over two decades of effort.”

“And it’s way too much for the two of us.” He pointed his fork at her. “I know, I know, you give the surplus to that place that gives food away. Someone else can do that. Our income’s not going to cover that kind of charity anymore.”

Anne started to speak but was instructed to stop by an abrupt wave of his hand.

“Instead of spending all your time gardening, we can finally do some of that traveling we always wanted to do,” he said.

As if it was her fault they hadn’t traveled, and had nothing to do with his using vacation time for hunting. Truthfully, Anne didn’t really care about traveling anymore, hadn’t since her mother dropped off the face of the earth, but she would have gone along with him. She was still trying to compose a response when he spoke again.

“We’re moving to Arizona.”

She could hear in his tone that his decision was final.

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Warped Tales: The Gardener – Part 1

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

As an adult, thrillers rule.

This is that kind of story, in six parts.
 

“I bought a cabin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The window was the only thing she would have chosen.

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard

coverimagespbcBefore the story, I have a brief announcement:

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

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

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

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

“I have a lot to do tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pines rose high on either side of the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Moments: Technology & Yesterday’s Coffee

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

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

Obviously it had lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tried to work on his story.

He went back and looked for more information about Angela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.

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

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

He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.

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

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

“It’s yesterday’s.”

“That’s okay.”

He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.

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

“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.

He shook his head.

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

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

“Who is this?” she demanded.

“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”

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

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

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

“Could someone else have used your phone?”

“No, I live alone.”

He could hear her running water.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The line was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.

“Yes. This is Marvin.”

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

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

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

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

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

“Angel?”

“The girl you called,” explained Helen.

“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”

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

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

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

“Where were your cell phones?”

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

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

“Hold on,” said a different female.

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

“Marvin?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”

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

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

Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.

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

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

Thanks.

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Sheri McGuinn

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