Friday, December 8, 2017

More Than We Think We Are

I sat beside my sister at the funeral of our dear friend's mother. Our eyes fell on my sister's young daughter. She sat contentedly in the lap of her grandmother, beside us in the same church pew.

"She's so beautiful," my sister remarked, her eyes bright as she watched her daughter.

"She really is," I said, then voiced the next thought that filled my head, "People are always saying how beautiful our daughters are, and how they look exactly like us. Do you ever think that maybe we were more beautiful than we realized when we were younger?"

My sister reached over and squeezed my hand, voicing no response. She didn't need to reply. I knew. I knew the struggles she and I had navigated over the years. I knew what it took to eventually believe ourselves beautiful.

The funeral began with an old, familiar hymn, but the thought remained with me. As the priest blessed the family and friends filling the rows in the church, I couldn't shake the question: are we more beautiful than we realize?

I'd encountered a lot of beauty in the past week. Easily overlooked beauty. Misconstrued beauty.

It was there to see in the face and hands of my best friend. Exhausted, no makeup, eyes not long dry from the most recent of many tears, she greeted me with a long hug when I arrived at the hospital where she and her family kept vigil with her dying mother. We sat at her mother's bedside, talking in reserved voices that rose with emotion then quieted as her mother's ragged breathing fluctuated. My, she was beautiful. The love in her eyes. The gentleness in her fingers as they grazed the blankets of the bed in front of her. The aching tenderness in her glances at her mom. My friend had spent years caring for her mother. Years of tending to her needs, housing her, shuttling her to appointments, encouraging her, upholding her dignity. Loving her.

Then there was her mother, Connie, who lied dying beside us. If my friend hadn't let me into the room, I would not have known I was in the right place. She was unrecognizable, seemingly a shell of her former, spirited self. Seemingly. Except, if I kept my wits about me, I could see that she was still her whole self. She was still Connie, who battled cancer for all these years, never willing to give up. Through treatments and sickness and depression, through remissions and reoccurrences, she'd plodded onward. Yet, here she was. She wasn't a woman defeated. She was a woman ready. She was a woman ready to leave. She'd done her work and fought her battles. Her readiness was as beautiful as it was heartbreaking.

So there I sat in the church pew, wondering over how many different ways we miss the beauty. Wondering why we can't see it.

I want to see it. I want my spouse to see it. I want my children to see it. I want you to see it. This life, it's so much more beautiful than we think. Its beauty is only surpassed by the people, by us. We are more, much more beautiful than we think we are.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Stranger's Hands

She could not look away from his hands. Wide palms; long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn't thought of a man in years.
Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn't keep track each day. That stopped around one and a half years. Every few months though, she added it back up. Numbers were a comfort to her; a steadying force reminding her some things made sense. This didn't begin with her husband's death. It was true since she first learned basic mathematics.
Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since his death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger's hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband's hands. A stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?
"Less than yesterday." That's what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on. Cora thought Tessa didn't know what she was talking about.
She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa's next question would be, "was he attractive?" Cora realized she couldn't have answered. She'd noticed nothing except his hands.
"It's a start," she heard her sister say in her head.
"It's an ending," she whispered as she began to run.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Summer Holiday - Part Three


Part One



“Good evening,” Michael greets us. “You both look lovely. I am glad to see you.”

He addresses Aunt Rita too, but his gaze remains on me and I am surprised to see a touch of nervousness in his friendly expression.

“Good evening, Mr. Gable. I hope you are well tonight,” Aunt Rita responds.

“I am.”

I blush under his attention. He is even more handsome in this glittering, giddy atmosphere than in the midday sunlight. His black tuxedo is well tailored, with a pop of color in his emerald green pocket square.

The band begins another high spirited tune. Dancing couples cover the open space on the large, raised patio where the band is arranged, facing the ocean. The harmonizing notes fill the silence that falls between us.

Aunt Rita clears her throat. “I’m going to find some acquaintances.” She finishes her wine and places the empty glass on a passing footman’s tray. “Enjoy yourself, Mary.”

While I am wondering what I might say to encourage her in her mission for the night, she is already striding away with her chin high.

Michael looks toward the band and back at me. “Would you care to dance?”

Again, I am struck by his nervousness. It is slight, and if I did not have his self-assured demeanor of this afternoon with which to compare, I might not notice. Somehow, the alteration in him bolsters my confidence. This man, this stranger who feigned friendship in order to speak to me today, has a unique effect on me.

“Perhaps we could walk first and see the grounds,” I suggest. “I can’t say I’ve ever been to a party quite like this one. Have you?”

“Only here.”

He offers his arm and I slip my hand into the bend of his elbow. We begin to walk the circumference of the lawn and the crowd it contains.

“Do the Colemans host many of these?”

“Twice a year. This is their annual end-of-summer garden party.”

I laugh in disbelief. “Garden party?” Images of the garden parties I’ve attended flash through my mind: small gatherings of intimate friends; tea and finger sandwiches; quiet conversation.

“They like to take something average and raise the bar," he remarks with a laugh. “Their other annual event is the Christmas party. That one is indoors, of course, and even more grand.”

The reality that I know nothing about Michael is dominant in my thoughts. “How do you know the family?”

“I am a second cousin. Mrs. Coleman’s maiden name was Gable.” He greets someone as we round a back corner of the courtyard, then returns his focus to me. “And you, Mary? If this is your first Coleman celebration, how did you happen to be here tonight?”

I admit, “We weren’t invited.”

“Do tell." His eyes widen with curiosity.

“I don’t think I can.”

“You are more a mystery than I expected.”

“I’m not, truly, but it turns out my aunt might be.” I leave it at that, unwilling to confide Aunt Rita’s secrets.

Michael stops beside a stone fountain at the end of the courtyard. It is a circular structure with a tall statue of a heron perched on a pedestal at the center. The bird’s wings are spread as if about to take flight. Water flows from the backs of its wings and around its feet down into the tiled bowl below. We admire it in silence. The band segues into a softer, slower melody.

“You’re a bit of a mystery yourself, Michael.”

“Tell me about yourself, Mary.”

“I was about to make the same request.”

“You first. Tell me anything you’d like.”

He lets my hand slip off his arm and takes a seat on the edge of the fountain.

“My full name is Mary Eve Harper and I have lived in Boston all my life. I have an older brother and sister, both married. I teach piano to schoolchildren, which I rather enjoy. I paint, though I’m terrible at it. I have a collie named Jasmine and a nephew named Paul, and I love both of them dearly."

I ignore the wave of embarrassment I feel over the bits of autobiography that tumbled from my mouth without forethought. "It's your turn."

“Fair enough.” He thinks for a moment. “I live in Manchester. I’m a civil engineer for the city, as is Tommy, whom you met this afternoon. I have four sisters, two older and two younger. I have a spaniel named Devlin. He’s my bird hunting partner even though he’s fairly useless. I’ve vacationed here in Hampton Beach with my family every summer of my entire life except when I was eight years old and sick with the measles. I almost didn’t come this summer, but I am exceedingly glad I did now.”

My cheeks blush madly and I’m thankful for the low light of the lanterns in the courtyard behind us.

“I do have to add one more thing.”

I wait.

Michael fiddles with the buttons of his jacket, diverting his eyes from mine. “I’ve been watching you all week.”

My mouth drops open and I take a step back. “Excuse me?”

“No! No, I said that all wrong.” He half groans, half laughs. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’ve seen you around the town throughout the week. I mean, I’ve noticed you several times this week.”

I bite my lip, unsure if this is an improvement.

Michael leaves his seat on the fountain and stands in front of me. His voice softens. “I first saw you on Sunday, walking with your aunt on the boardwalk and wearing a blue hat. I was drinking coffee at an outdoor table at a café. You passed right by me," he refuses to drop his eyes from mine, “and I wanted to follow you then and there. You were conversing with your aunt, but your eyes watched everything around you. You looked like you wished for nothing less than adventure.”

I remain stunned and speechless, but also thrilled in a manner that makes me anxious.

“Then you were in the crowd at the concert in the park on Tuesday evening, and I saw you again the next day when you were eating lunch with your aunt and someone else, one of her friends, I guess, at the same café where I had coffee on Sunday. I just finished brunch with my parents and aunt and uncle when you arrived there. That’s when I promised myself I’d speak to you somehow the next time I saw you.

“I waited for my next opportunity, watched for you everywhere we went. I had Tommy on the lookout for you too,” he says with a chuckle. “You can imagine how relieved I was this afternoon when I realized it was you and your aunt walking so closely behind us on the boardwalk. I’d begun to wonder if you’d left town already.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice me even once before this afternoon, did you?”

“I’d be lying if I said I did.”

Nerves threaten to disband the gumption I’ve somehow possessed since meeting Michael today. Behind the fountain is a gravel footpath extending away from the house and toward a manicured maze of tall hedges. I walk to the path without a word and hear Michael follow. Our feet crunch on the stones covering the narrow lane. Rosebushes laden with late summer blossoms in an array of hues – red, pink, white, orange, yellow – line the length of the path. I stare at one perfect, pink bloom and am overcome by the beautiful unexpectedness of this night.

Before we reach the entrance to the hedge maze, I stop and Michael comes around in front of me. I want to tell him every thought in my head. I want to tell him I’m flattered, but that is an entirely inadequate word for what I feel. I want to say I wish we’d met on the first day I arrived instead of a week into my stay. I want to ask if he ever visits Boston for any reason at all, and if I might be a reason to visit if he does not. My search for words lasts longer than I’d like.

“Have I scared you off?” he asks, hands in his pockets and eyes on his feet.

I inhale the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers, then I lay my hand on his smooth cheek. The feel of his skin against my palm startles me, as if I didn’t realize I was touching him. He frowns when I drop my hand back to my side. I do not want to make him frown.

“Does your invitation to dance still stand?”

The party, the patio, and the band are all behind me. He looks over my shoulder and asks, “You want to go back?”

I shake my head.

He surveys our spot here on the white gravel path, with its rosebush walls and high-rise, starry ceiling. His smile reappears and, with a deep bow, he extends a hand. “Would you do me the honor, Miss Harper?”

Mirroring the smile while suppressing a giggle, I curtsy. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”

We sway and turn with the distant music. His hands, one wrapped around my fingers and one on my waist, are warm, like the inside of my chest where my heart beats at a doubled pace.

“If you tell me you are going home tomorrow, my summer will be utterly ruined,” he declares.

I laugh aloud, setting a sparrow flying from its hiding spot in a hedge. “We are here another week.”

He twirls me out and back in again. “May I take you to lunch tomorrow?”

I nod.

“Tomorrow, I’ll ask to see you on Monday.”

I nod again. Anticipation tingles in my fingertips.

We slow our dancing though the music’s rhythm does not change. “On Monday, I’ll ask for Tuesday, and then for each day that remains.”

“We’ll have a splendid week.” I am breathlessly aware of how near his face is to mine. I almost ask about after, about letters or telegrams or visits, then I tell myself to enjoy tonight. Tomorrow, I will enjoy tomorrow. I’ve never felt that the days ahead must be known before they arrive, and I don’t wish to start now.

As if reading my thoughts, Michael winks the way he did in the first minute of our first meeting. “Maybe I’ll take piano lessons in the fall, in Boston.”

The song comes to an end and we stand still. Statues sculpted in a dance. I try to remember what it was like to be unfamiliar with his smile. We are both holding our breath until we laugh in unison at ourselves. He releases my hand and my waist.

“Would you like to return to the party? You haven’t even tasted the food, have you?”

At the mention of food, I realize I am famished. Back at the hotel, Aunt Rita only ordered a light supper for us while we prepared for the party. Knowing all I know now, I realize she was likely too anxious to eat.

“Food does sound good, thank you.”

Before we can step from the shadows of the tall hedges though, we hear footsteps. Two people deep in conversation, and clearly assuming they are alone, approach on the gravel path. I freeze.

“It’s okay, Mary. We won’t be in any trouble for walking back here.”

I shake my head. I know immediately the identity of one of those voices, and I feel certain in my guess at the other. Grabbing Michael’s wrist, I pull him through the entrance of the maze. There are only the stars to see by now, tucked away behind the eight-foot-tall, two-foot-thick hedge.

Michael peers at my face in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”

How can I explain? I cover my face in my hands, realizing how ridiculous I must seem. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “It’s my aunt and Miles Coleman.”


To be continued.

Read Part Four here

The Summer Holiday - Part Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

“Are you certain?” Michael tries to peek around the leafy wall.

I tug on his arm to come back. “I’m certain.” My brain holds an open debate on the best next move.

“And why is it that we’re hiding from your aunt and my cousin?” he asks in a whisper.

Sighing over the impossibility of avoiding an explanation, I step further into the corner we are tucked into just inside the hedge maze. The close quarters do not appear to bother Michael. Even in the filtered moonlight, I observe the playfulness in his eyes. He takes my hand and it takes everything in me to stay on task. I need to explain before Rita and Miles get any closer. Already, their words are becoming discernible. I can only suppose ours will soon be overheard by them as well. In haste, I deliver a summary.

“Rita and Miles knew each other many years ago. They were once engaged but Miles broke it off. They have not seen or spoken to each other since. Rita decided to seek him out here tonight.”

Michael’s eyebrows are arched high on his handsome face. He releases a low whistle that I silence with my fingers over his lips, which makes him smile.

“Sorry,” he says, “but this night keeps getting more interesting.”

“Tell me about it. I knew nothing of this until we were driving up to the party.”

“I still think we could have greeted them and went on our way, Mary.”

I shake my head. “Maybe, except it took every bit of courage for Aunt Rita to come here and speak to him tonight. That much was clear. I could be wrong, but I have a hunch that if they are interrupted before Rita says whatever it is she hopes to say, she’ll lose that courage.”

Michael nods.

“Couldn’t we walk further into the maze?” I ask.

He stares into the blackness of the tall, perfectly pruned hedges. When he turns back to me, his brow is creased with concern. “That isn’t a good idea. There is no lighting in there, and this maze has won awards for its cleverness and difficulty. I’ve ventured into it plenty of times and I still would not do so at night.”

I cover my face with my hands.

Michael squeezes my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mary. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to eavesdrop. Nonetheless, it seems our only options are to wait them out here or mysteriously appear back on the path with them.”

We are silent as Miles’ and Aunt Rita’s footsteps come to a halt on the other side of the hedge. Their voices reach our ears clearly now.

“I can’t believe this,” we hear Rita say.

“Neither can I,” Miles replies. “You really never knew I didn’t marry her? That I never married at all?”

“How could I have? We didn’t exactly live in the same social universe, Miles. My family and friends knew nothing of you, and I wasn’t one to read the society pages in my father’s newspaper.” After a pause, she adds, “Besides, my only aim was to avoid every thought of you.”

There is the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. Michael and I exchange a hopeful glance and put our faces up to the wall. It takes a moment to find adequate spaces between the leaves and branches to peer through to the other side.

“Are we in the clear?” I whisper.

Michael shakes his head. When I find a sightline through the hedge, I see it is only the sound of Miles pacing while Rita stands still with her eyes on him. The moment gives me an opportunity to observe him. He is of average height and a slim build. His face is pleasant and attractive. There is a peppering of gray throughout his black hair. He wears a black tuxedo, like Michael, but his bow tie is a bit askew. I see why when he tugs at his collar more than once.

I know I should back up, give them at least that much privacy, but I can’t look away from the quiet pain on my aunt’s face.

She swallows hard, wrings her hands, and asks, “Why didn’t you marry?”

Miles stops in front of her. He reaches for her hands but she folds them behind her back. Her expression clears and she lifts her chin. I see in her posture all the strength I used to mistake for mere hardness.

“I didn’t marry her, or anyone else, because she wasn’t you.”

“There had to be more than that. There had to be. We were so young.”

“Don’t do that.” His voice is harsh. “I had to hear all of that from my parents, non-stop until I gave in to their demands. I was so ashamed of myself, Rita. That’s why I didn’t contact you immediately after I ended the engagement they’d arranged for me. I couldn’t imagine you forgiving me.”

He pauses but Rita holds her tongue, so he continues. Regret laces through his words. “By the time I did seek you out, I discovered you were to be married that very week. It was too late. I did my best to accept it. In the next couple years, I checked up on you a few times. I told myself it was to make sure you were okay, that you were content, after what I’d done to you. Really though, I wasn’t ready to let go of you. I stopped after I got word your first child was born. I’ve known nothing of your life since then.”

“You checked up on me?” She looks stunned.

They watch each other, uncertainty filling the silent air between them until Miles asks, “Were you happy, Rita? With your husband, were you happy?”

“I was,” she says quickly, then adds, “eventually.” She swipes at her cheeks for tears that I cannot see from my hidden vantage point.

“I’m so sorry, Rita. I have never stopped regretting my choice.” He takes a step closer to her.

“We were so young.”

“I loved you. You loved me. That’s what is true.”

Rita releases her hands from behind her back and he immediately takes them in his. A smile breaks across his face.

“I remember these hands in mine. It’s like arriving home for the first time in over thirty years.”

She doesn’t match his smile though and he loses his.

“My love.”

Rita’s eyes widen at his words. “Am I, though?”

“Of course you are.”

“We have lived whole lives since then, Miles. So much has happened and changed. How can I be?”

“Did you love me?”

“With all my heart,” she admits without hesitation.

“And that heart is still in you.”

A smile now tugs at her lips and she stares up at the stars. “Maybe.”

Miles touches her chin, leading her to meet his gaze again. “You owe me nothing. Nothing. I understand if you never want to see me again. I understand if you wanted an apology tonight, and nothing more. Considering that you thought I was married all these years, I suspect that’s all you thought you might receive tonight.”

Rita nods.

“If, however, there is anything in you inclined to see me again, to speak with me again, I only ask that you consider it. Please. You say the word, and I will not contact you or try to see you for the rest of our years. Say otherwise, and I will be grateful for any time you are willing to give me.”

I glance at Michael beside me, having nearly forgotten his presence. I feel the sting of tears in my eyes. He grins at me before we both resume our watch through the wall of foliage.

Rita lays her hands on Miles’ cheeks. “It’s hard to say what I expected to gain by coming here tonight, but it was not this.”

His arms encircle her waist and draw her to him.

She hurries to add, “And I don’t know what to expect going forward. I don’t know.”

“I don’t need to know. There is possibility, and that is enough.”

Miles kisses her. It is a firm, needful kiss and when Rita’s arms wrap around his neck, I force myself to step back from the hedge.

Michael is grinning again and I cannot help but do the same. We stand side by side when, overhead, fireworks begin to fill the sky. I jump as the boom of the first ones catch me by surprise. A chorus of cheers floats to us from the party up near the house.

“Wow,” I whisper. Even when Michael takes my hand, I do not look away from the bursts of fiery color.

He kisses my cheek and I do look at him then. “Mary.”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad I pretended to know you today.”

I cover my mouth to silence my laughter. “Michael, it has been an unexpectedly splendid night.”

“The best?” he asks.

I lean into his side and he slips his arm around my waist. A red firework cascades across the sky, its sound thrumming in my chest. “The best so far.”

The End.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Turning: Hodgepodge Thoughts on Birthdays and Our Unwritten Stories


Let's review the week, shall we? Two days ago, my daughter turned 2 1/2. Yesterday, my son turned 4. Tomorrow, I turn 36. These realities march through my brain and I find myself stuck on the word "turn."

There are numerous meanings of the word (dictionary.com listed 40 definitions in the "verb (used with object)" category alone!), but the ones that initially come to mind when I think about "turn" have to do with a change in direction.

Turning a corner.
Turning around.
Turning toward.

Turning causes a tangible change. It involves a departure from one direction or place and an arrival in or movement toward another. But the turning of age? Intangible change.

We can turn another year older yet turn no corners, take no new directions, nor move toward anything different. Unless we choose otherwise, a birthday will do nothing but advance a digit on our annual odometer.

More than I typically do at birthday time, I am reflecting on all the turning that happened in the past year. Tangible changes abounded during this trip around the sun.

The big standout is the change from a writer continuing to wonder if she'll ever publish her novel that she started ten years ago to a writer publishing her first novel. This birthday is the one year anniversary of my first attendance of a writer's conference, which included a pitch meeting with the acquisitions editor of Bold Vision Books, which led to a request for a full book proposal, which led to a publishing contract offer, which led to my current state as an author about to be published. Honestly, I went to that conference simply hoping to feel like I belonged in that club of writers who are serious about their writing. The experience exceeded my measly expectation by a million miles.

(Side note: I don't know if any other christian writers read this blog, but if so, I recommend considering the Maranatha Christian Writers Conference in Muskegon, MI.)

Beyond this dream-fulfilling turn during age 35, I also began a new position with my company (which I kind of love), lost more than fifteen pounds, ran my first 10K and a couple more 5K races, created a Facebook Author page as a home base for promoting my writing, entered the Twitter world as another online presence as an author, transitioned to primarily blogging fiction pieces, and, you know, continued to learn how to love my husband and raise my children.

It's been a year to remember. A year to celebrate. A year to motivate.

The truth is, for the very first time, I have not looked forward to my birthday. The very first time. 30 didn't bother me. 35 didn't bother me. 36, however, has bothered me. When I set out to choose some words for a post here, that was the primary force behind it: I was feeling bothered. The discontented thoughts were muddled and emotional. After writing a few paragraphs, I stopped. I deleted it all. I forced myself to turn my mind from those thoughts and gain a more reasonable perspective.

This post is not what I originally conceived it to be. Instead, this is me on the last day of 35, ready for what's next. My discontent and dread regarding my birthday has turned into excitement and ambition for the potential of the next 365 days. They are 365 pages of my story unwritten thus far. I'm ready to write and turn each one.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Summer Holiday - Part Two

Read Part One here.

We hear the music before we see the estate. Trumpets from the band herald the night’s arrival. A sumptuous night it is, too. Sky thick with stars, the day’s heat still hanging about but tempered by the salted breeze off the ocean. It is end-of-summer splendor.

Our hired driver putters up the driveway, behind and before at least a dozen other cars delivering guests to the soiree. The scene unfolding with each forward movement sheds new light on the preparations Aunt Rita insisted upon in the last several hours: new gowns in the most current style; hair curled and pinned to perfection; polished shoes and glittering, albeit modest, jewels.

I have spent the time trying and failing to ask my aunt not only why the party necessitated such measures, but why we are attending this party at all. Though the name feels intangibly familiar, I am not aware of any personal connection to the Colemans. I am certain Aunt Rita has never mentioned them before. Yet here we are, pulling ever closer to the front steps of their impressive mansion, readying our skirts and shawls to emerge from the car into the glittering crowd milling about the lawn.

Finally, entirely too close to our exiting the vehicle, my aunt rushes to explain.

“The Colemans,” she begins with a clearing of her throat, “reside in California. Their home, Grove Palace, is a vineyard. Their wines are among the most superb wines currently being bottled. This is their vacation home.”

I gaze out of the automobile’s rectangular window. Only two vehicles remain ahead of us. I can see the valets ushering the guests from their cars. The mansion is larger than any I’ve seen in the region. Three stories, a pillared façade, and as wide as the full city block that contains my family’s home in Boston. Candlelit lanterns flicker in every window and line the paved path to the lawn. Guests adorn the courtyard and gardens like sprinkles on a cake.

“Do you know them?” I ask.

When Aunt Rita doesn’t answer, I look her way. She bites her lip. She is lovely tonight - a description I have never applied to my aunt. Her usually stern features are softened by the dusting of powder and rouge, as well as the fetching arrangement of her hair. Looking past me and out the window as we roll forward, she sighs.

“I knew them.”

“When?”

“A lifetime ago.”

We move again and before the wheels are still, a man in a tuxedo opens my door and offers his hand.



We keep to the edge of the activity. I feel like a moth in a butterfly garden. A footman presents a tray of beverages. Aunt Rita chooses a red wine and I pick a crystal glass filled with pink punch. The first sip tells me it is not merely punch. It burns deliciously in my throat.

My eyes roam. Face after face, glowing in the lantern light, beautiful but unfamiliar. I watch for Michael and wonder if I’ll recognize him. His smile is the most lasting impression left from our boardwalk encounter.

Aunt Rita interrupts my search, “Miles and I were to be married.”

“Miles?” My deceased uncle, my mother’s brother, was named Otto.

“Miles Coleman.”

I stutter over this bit of information. “What, what do you mean?”

“We weren’t publicly engaged, but privately.” Aunt Rita purses her lips. Her eyes look wet. “Privately, we were promised to each other.”

I face her, the strangers’ laughter and conversations fading to the background. She has never spoken to me of her younger years. She is still staring into the crowd, or perhaps beyond it. For a moment, my eyes see her as a woman I do not know, another stranger at this party. She is not old, though I think of her as such. Fifty-two, healthy, her body trim and her hair still dark and full. It is her frowns and general air of disenchantment that ages her. And her walking cane. Her use of it is only a habit after requiring it for a year after an injury to her foot. She does not need it, and for the first time, she left it at the hotel tonight.

“I summered here for two years when I was very young, seventeen and eighteen, with my dearest friend and her family. They owned a cottage in Hampton Beach. I met Miles my first week here that first summer, and spent every possible minute with him. I loved him with my whole, naïve heart. For the year in between our two summers together, we wrote letters. Dozens of letters. Before the end of the second summer, he proposed to me. He was twenty at the time. We decided we would wait to announce it, we would wait to marry, until he finished university. He had two years of schooling left before he was to join his family’s business. That was the plan. That was the promise we exchanged.”

The remembrance, the revelation, thickens her voice. One shaking hand she presses to her chest while the other lifts her wine glass tremulously to her lips.

“What happened?”

“Three months after his proposal, he told his parents our plans. They objected. With each month that he insisted on marrying me, their objections grew stronger. Eventually, they demanded he make a marriage that was advantageous to the family. My middleclass roots and my father’s unremarkable financial standing didn’t fit the bill. They pressured. He slowly weakened. We were thousands of miles apart. There was little I could do. Nine months after his proposal, he undid our arrangement. Three months after that, he wrote a final goodbye and informed me of his upcoming marriage to the daughter of a family friend. I have not seen Miles Coleman in thirty-two years, Mary, but I will see him tonight.”

I try to respond. I try to sort out the right thing to say but my tongue is dry and my thoughts are foggy. The pink punch and the revealed secret are a heady combination. “Why now? You take your holiday here every summer. Why see him now?”

“Do you know why I take my holiday here every year?” She doesn’t wait for a reply. “To remember that girl. To remember that version of myself from those memories really existed, and to feel I might still be her. I come here to remember I did love like that once. I need to remember.”

Aunt Rita sips her wine, wine that, I assume, is a Coleman Family vintage. “I never tried to see him though, not once in the sixteen years I’ve come here. So, ‘why now’ is a terribly good question, Mary. Of course, the notion crosses my mind each and every year. To what end, though? That is the question that stops me each year.”

“Except for this year,” I say.

“Yes, except for this year.” She sips again. The glass, as she tips it to her mouth, seems to catch the moonlight itself and sets her visage aglow. Her eyes are dry now, and open wide. “When your acquaintance, who is clearly not your acquaintance,” she smiles a little, “asked if we were attending tonight’s soiree, I decided then and there it is time to meet Miles again. I cannot explain it better than that, I’m afraid.”

“You aren’t asking yourself, ‘to what end’ this time?”

“Oh, I certainly am. I stopped caring about the answer though. Even if it is only to see his face again, or,” she swallows hard, pushes out her next words, “or maybe meet his wife, I need to be here.”

As Aunt Rita falls silent, I see him. I recognize his smile in an instant, then every feature of his handsome face.

“You knew Michael was a stranger?” I ask.

My aunt casts a sideways glance at me. “I was not fooled.”

Michael is only steps away.

“Guard your heart, Mary, but not too tightly.”


To be continued.

Read Part Three here!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Blocked

Let me take a break from pulling my hair out to state the obvious: writer's block sucks. I do not succumb to it often, but the last week has been one of the rare exceptions.

I've tried everything. Staring at a blank notebook for endless minutes; switching between typing and longhand; rereading the previous paragraphs to set off ideas for the remainder of the story; jumping ahead to write later scenes. All to no avail. I've also tried stepping away from it to do anything else before returning to the story: reading, running, yoga, classical music, shopping, TV, sex (Calm down, I'm married with two children. No surprises here.), a hot bath, and more reading.

The words are hibernating somewhere in the recesses of my imagination. I know they exist, but they are avoiding me like an acrophobe avoids the Empire State Building. So, I thought perhaps taking a break to write about writers block might unblock the block. Time will tell.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Summer Holiday, Part One


We are here for the day. Had rather be with you.
Mary H.

I scrawl the message in haste and add the stamp to the card. I’ll post it with the hotel clerk when I return there tonight. There is much more to say, but not on a postcard. Ann will understand, assuming she can manage to read my handwriting.

The scene along the seaside boardwalk differs little from the one captured on the postcard: busy, crowded, overdressed. I do not understand why people put on their best to visit the beach. Sand belongs between toes and dusted around damp ankles. Folks in their suits and dresses and high laced shoes can't possibly enjoy the beach the way it deserves. My aunt, much to my dismay (though not my surprise), is one of those folks.

A week ago, I came up from Boston to accompany Aunt Rita to Hampton Beach. It is her annual summer holiday. The one about which we receive a four-page letter at the close of the summer, detailing every morning, noon, and night of her two weeks there. My mother insists on reading the letter in its entirety to the family. I have the same thought every year: Lord, if I ever can manage to take an annual seaside holiday, please don't let it be as a dreary as Aunt Rita's.

Now, here I stand, staring at the crowds and motor cars on the boardwalk, waiting for Aunt Rita to finish perusing yet another shop in which she will buy nothing and critique everything. The breeze is light today; too light. The humidity and heat of the unobstructed sunshine make me wish for my swimming costume and a dip in the water. My straight, auburn hair slips repeatedly from its pins. Pieces stick to my damp neck and cheeks. I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief and shade my eyes against the sun. It can be lovely here, under the right conditions. These are not quite the right conditions.

When Aunt Rita exits the shop, I supply a bright smile. I know she doesn’t want me here, so the least I can do is be cheerful. She has openly loved her independence since her husband’s death sixteen years ago. (Amazing how the possession of money renders such independence an enviable blessing, whereas my own state in life evokes only pity.) When her children insisted that this year she allow someone to accompany her to the seaside, Aunt Rita reluctantly agreed. At twenty-six and unmarried, I was the naturally chosen companion.

This is why the terribly short note on the postcard to my lifelong, dearest friend Ann will speak volumes. She knows. I don’t need to explain.

“They need to dust their shelves every day,” Aunt Rita says when she rejoins me and we step back onto the boardwalk. “Everything in there was gray with dust.”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Don’t mumble.”

My eyes flit between the blue water to my left and the two men in front of us on the walkway. They stroll at a pace too leisurely for Aunt Rita. She supplies a series of supposedly inconspicuous huffs and sighs as we slow our own steps behind the men. I tune my ears to the foamy waves instead.

Within a few yards, her less than subtle hints must be heard by the men, for they step aside and tip their hats as we pass. Yet, once we take the lead and regain Aunt Rita’s standard march, the men do likewise. I turn my head enough to be sure it is them so close behind us. The man behind Aunt Rita winks before I face forward again, and I cringe, imagining the lecture on rudeness that Aunt Rita will likely deliver if she realizes these young men are amusing themselves in such a manner. I walk a tad faster.

She taps her walking cane against the boards. “Mary! Whatever is your hurry?”

“Yes, Mary,” says the winking man. “How can you enjoy the views at such a speed?”

There is a sparkle of fun in his brown eyes. His smile is wide and unashamed.

“Do we know you, gentlemen?” Aunt Rita demands.

A blush spreads over my already hot cheeks.

“We’re friends of Mary.” Another wink comes my way.

A thrill with which I’m unacquainted possesses me and I play along. “Of course,” I say with barely managed confidence. “This is Mister…” I let my voice fade and he jumps in.

“Gable. Michael Gable.” He bows toward Aunt Rita. “This here is Thomas Lafferty, my colleague.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. Lovely to see you again, Mary.” Thomas plays along too, though with less ease than Michael.

I nod. “Yes, it is lovely. It has been a long time since we last met. This is my aunt Rita.” There is no accounting for how widely I am smiling. I imagine describing it all for Ann in a proper letter.

The introductions complete, I am left wondering where we can possibly go from here. Michael continues the ruse without hesitation.

“Was it in New York that we last saw you?”

“No, no,” I say, aware that my aunt knows I haven’t been to New York in many years. “It was in Boston.”

“Christmastime, last year?”

“I believe you’re right.”

Michael frowns, though it is an expression in danger of reverting to a smile at any moment. “How is your mother?”

“She is well. It is kind of you to ask.” I mirror his seriousness.

Aunt Rita watches with her wrinkled mouth agape.

“How fortunate that we would see you here!” Michael says. “We must catch up properly. There is a soiree at the Coleman estate tonight. Will you ladies be attending?”

To this, I can make no reply, for Aunt Rita is the guardian of the daily schedule. When I chance a look at her though, it is clear Michael has peaked her interest. We all wait for her to speak, a collective suspense in the humid air.

“Coleman, you said?” Aunt Rita asks.

“Indeed.”

“The Grove Palace Colemans?”

“The same,” Michael confirms.

Aunt Rita smooths her skirt. “Yes, Mary and I plan to attend.”

“We do?” I ask.

“Yes, we do.”

“We do.” I repeat.

“That’s splendid.” Michael claps his hands together. “We will arrive by nine o’clock. I shall keep an eye out for you.”

I only nod, equal parts delighted and stunned by the exchange.

Michael lifts and kisses Aunt Rita’s hand. He takes mine next. His fingertips press into my palm while his thumb massages in a circle below my knuckles. He plants a soft kiss on the same spot. When he stands straight again, he tucks a loose piece of hair behind my ear. Aunt Rita clears hear throat.

“Until tonight, Mary.”

The men enter a shop after another tip of their hats.

Aunt Rita fires forward on the boardwalk, her cane tapping out her cadence. “Oh, we must hurry, Mary. There is much to be done.” I hear her whisper into the August heat, “A soiree at the Colemans. Surely, he’ll be there. Finally.”

To be continued.

Read Part Two here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A to Z Flash Fiction: Catharsis

C: Catharsis

I walk two blocks west from my hotel and spot the wooden sign for The Griffin. When I asked the front desk attendant for a recommendation of both the best Reuben sandwich and the best whiskey old fashioned, this was his immediate answer.

As I push open the door, I loosen my tie and undo the top button of my white oxford shirt. I scan the
room. It’s large. Dark, polished wood, red accents, and brass hardware under dim, golden light create a weighty ambiance. There are about a dozen patrons inside, each silent or conversing in their lowest voices. The mahogany bar runs the full width of the front of the room. I pick a stool near no one and order my first round from an indifferent bartender. He keeps his eyes on a muted flat screen television on the adjacent wall. It’s a re-broadcast of this afternoon’s Dodgers-Giants game. While I sip my drink and peruse the kitchen’s menu, a man sits on the stool to my left.

The bartender immediately hands him a Budweiser without a word from either of them. He’s about my age, I discern from a sideways glance. His hands look older. Their calluses and knobby knuckles remind me of my father’s hands. My father was a union man in an iron foundry for forty-two years. I wonder briefly what this man does for a living, but the curiosity passes. There’s only one thing that occupies my mind tonight. One person.

My food order taken, the bartender brings me a second cocktail. I turn the glass in my hand. The slick condensation transfers from the glass to my fingers.

“Ricky?”

My neighbor on the next stool is peering at me with bloodshot eyes.

“Ricky! What’s it been?” he slurs. “A few years, I’d say. How you been, man?”

“I’m not Ricky, sir.”

His raspy laugh turns into a cough. “What are you going on about, Ricky? I’d know you anywhere.”

“My name is David. I’m not Ricky.”

“Aw, don’t be like that, man. It’s good to see you.” He swats my shoulder and almost slips off his stool.

I decide to ignore him. My brain returns to the same questions plaguing me since I flew to this city on Monday. It’s Thursday now. How’s it going to be when I get home? More of this? What do I want it to be like when I get home? That last question is the one I know I need to answer.

“You heard what happened, I’ll bet.” The man is teetering on that thin line between thoroughly intoxicated and sloppy drunk.

I stare into my glass after taking another swig.

“Yeah, of course you heard what happened to my Jenny.”

He doesn’t seem to care that I’m not responding. I look toward the bartender for aid but his eyes are on the already played ballgame.

“Can I confess the truth?” The man leans in as if he’s whispering, though he is not. “Sure, sure, I can. You’re an old friend. You won’t tell.”

I shake my head, wishing I’d stayed in and order overpriced room service.

“I think I killed her.”

My fingers stop tracing the rim of my glass. I turn my head a little and meet his eyes. They’re wide and bleary. He waits and I find my voice. “Listen, sir. I’m not Ricky. Maybe you need to have a water, or a soda, and sober up a little.”

It’s as if I didn’t even speak. “Geez, it feels good to admit that. Really good. I mean, don’t call the cops or nothing. I didn’t kill her.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“But still, I think I killed her.”

He goes silent for more than a minute and I hope it’s over. It’s not.

The man downs the last of his beer. “She only took drives like that when I made her mad. Fast. Old roads. Curves and hills.” His voice fades out. There are fat tears on his cheeks. I doubt he even knows they’re there. “‘You’ll kill yourself, driving like that, woman!’ That’s what I used to tell her. ‘Good,’ she’d say. ‘I have a way to do it then when you make me want to.’”

I shudder at the darkness of this exchange he had, more than once, with Jenny, whom I assume was his wife. It sounds outrageous. Even as I think this, I am flashing back to the bitter words that filled the air of our living room Sunday night, and the cold indifference Josie and I maintained on Monday morning until I left for the airport. No calls, no texts. None, this whole week, and tomorrow I fly home.

“I made her so mad that night. Madder than I’d ever seen.” He pounds on the bar and the bartender looks our way. “Another, ya’ lazy barkeep!” he chortles.

The bartender shakes his head. “No can do, McNeil. I already called your cab. I warned you that bottle was your last for tonight.”

McNeil scowls. Then his expression clears and his focus is back on me. “Do you think she meant to do it, Ricky?”

My mouth is dry. My drink is empty.

“Do you think she meant to hit that tree? Maybe, man, maybe. Either way, it’s on me. I knew what I was doing to her. I knew. I killed her.”

“Cab’s here,” the bartender interrupts.

“I could’ve stopped her, Ricky. I could’ve made it good.”

He stands and wobbles in his steel-toed boots. I see the grief, the self-loathing, in the lines of his face and the drop of his broad shoulders. He’s a large, muscular man, but he walks like a weaker, older version of himself.


After I watch him go, I rest my elbows on the bar and my head in my hands. Josie’s face fills my vision. The bartender slides my plate in front of me, but I stand up and mumble that I’ll be back in a minute. I reach for the phone in my pocket. “I have to call my wife.”


*****
Let's get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I'll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I'll consider it for a prompt.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Because the Saints Said So: Find a Friend (St. Thomas Aquinas)


Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

"Even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious." Isn't that the truth? What is your agreeable, tedious pursuit? That aspect of life that is rich with worth, a source of joy, yet as days pass there is an element of the mundane. For me, it is motherhood and writing. Both endeavors are reservoirs of goodness in my life, but, boy oh boy, can they become tedious. The nitty gritty becomes a nuisance. The repetitive details become boring. The depth to which I must dig to find my motivation becomes deeper.

With friends, though, what a difference there can be.

Friendship is indeed a source of great pleasure. Genuine friendship is life-giving. It builds up. It highlights and enhances your strengths, while meeting you in your weaknesses. Friendship finds common ground in the agreeable, yet tedious bits of life. Besides that, friendship is just plain fun! It offers laughter, smiles, mutually loved activities. Friends are shoulders for leaning, hands for holding, minds for collaborating. "Iron sharpens iron; one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).

I don't think I need to expound on this much further. It rings too true for us all to require a lot of explanation. I'll only add, say thank you to a friend today. Or two, or three. Love them, and be grateful.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hello There, August


You guys, it's August. In case you haven't checked your calendar, now you know. It's August. When it arrived yesterday, I thought all my usual start-of-a-new-month thoughts: How did this happen? Where did last month go? This year is disappearing! Those bounced rapidly through my head, then cleared out for a new thought:

We are a full month closer to the release of my debut novel. Yes, that's right. It's getting so close that I have a small fit of nerves followed by giddy smiles each time I think about it.

The manuscript has been with my editor for a month now. In another 1 to 2 months, I'll begin the work of reviewing changes suggested or requested. It's been even harder than I expected to keep my hands off the manuscript in the meantime. When you're accustomed to working on something that you love, it doesn't come all that naturally to suddenly label it off-limits. The silver lining is how much I'm looking forward to collaborating with the editor on final changes. Based on experiences of fellow authors, that process can be a bit painful, so I'm glad to go into it with anticipation rather than dread.

Until the book comes in December, I'll do my best to provide other sources of reading pleasure. Keep coming back here for flash fiction pieces and attempted insights into the mystery that we call life. In one form or another, I do hope to share a short story with you soon, and you can always find me by following my Facebook author page.

August is full of heat, sun, thunderstorms, beaches, and reluctant preparation for autumn. It is a month of vigorous tug-of-war between lingering in one season while tipping toward the next. Thank you for spending a bit of these days, heady and sweet, with me on my rambling written excursions.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Do Not Laugh - Thoughts on Compliments, Selfies, and Psalm 139:14

My three and a half year old son walked into my bedroom as I finished combing my hair. Mentally, I was running through what remained of readying ourselves for the day. I was distracted and about to send him back out with instructions to brush his teeth so we could leave on time.
 
He cut me off with his words, "Mommy, you look beautiful. You should take a picture."
 
Immediately, a voice spoke in my head, "Do not laugh."
 
I had to close my mouth because that was the exact response I was about to make. I looked my son in the eye and smiled. I said, "thank you, peanut," and put my comb away.
 
He remained at my side, waiting. "Take a picture."
 
The voice was there again. "Do not laugh."
 
Don't laugh at his admiration for you. Don't dismiss the clarity with which he sees you; clarity that is fogged up in you by years of insecurities. I didn't laugh. Instead, I took the picture. He asked to see it. Satisfied, he gave me one more heart-stealing smile, then bounded away to see what his sister was up to elsewhere.
 
Honestly, I almost deleted the photo. What did I need it for? I saw the roundness of the belly where I'd love for it to be flatter; the softness of the arms where I wish they were toned. I saw the gray hairs I don't pull out anymore. I saw the migraine behind my eyes, and the thick glasses because I didn't feel like putting in my contacts when I could barely stand to have my eyes open in the daylight. I saw the awkward half-smile because selfies seem meant for younger, perkier people.
 
Why didn't I delete the photo? I didn't delete it because of a hunch that every mom ever caught off guard by their child's admiration could relate to the thoughts filling my head. I even had a feeling that the dads out there can relate to it all, perhaps when their children look at them with unwavering confidence in their strength and capabilities. I didn't delete the photo because, while the things I saw in it are real and true, the things my son sees are real and true as well.
 
I not only saved the photo, but decided to share it here because of Psalm 139:14, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it well."
 
Years aged.
Extra pounds carried.
Hair grayed and thinned.
Body tired.
Pains and illnesses endured.
Patience lost.
Voice raised.
Mistakes made.
Weaknesses experienced.
 
None of these eliminate the truth my child sees and accepts about me, or your child about you: that I am, and you are, "fearfully and wonderfully made."
 
The next time you encounter that truth, whatever the source, don't laugh it off. Don't dismiss it or argue against it, mentally or aloud. Hear it. Be grateful for it. Let it sink in until you can say, "my soul knows it well."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Under Time's Thumb

We are perched on the peak of summertime. It is the start of the weeks of heaviest heat, with air that wets your skin when you exit the air conditioning. It is now, at the height, that the signals of summer's temporary condition begin appearing. The longest hours of daylight undetectably recede. The hayfields are cut and rolled into buffalo-sized bales. Cornstalks reach shoulder height and store's stock harvests of school supplies.

This time of year always, always brings restlessness. My spirit is swirled up in a mixture of urgency to savor now, and serene anticipation of the transition that is ahead. I hesitate to admit that autumn will be welcome on my doorstep, not wanting summer to think I wish it gone.

Is that the way of all things? All the things under time's thumb?

Maybe I play the comparison game too readily. When it's something so entirely out of my control as the movement of the seasons, does it matter which is better? Or which I prefer? All that matters is what is.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A to Z Flash Fiction: Bisou (Kiss)

B: Bisou (Fr: Kiss)
Photo Prompt: The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, by Robert Doisneau

I sit at my usual table by the sidewalk, facing the Hotel De Ville. I drink my usual coffee, and take slowly paced bites of my usual croissant. People pass in their usual way, silent beside the street filled with noisy motor cars. All is as usual.

Then, it is not.

A couple appears. They are young, considerably younger than I. Pretty, but still blending with the stream of pedestrians. In front of the table beside mine, he stops. His arm is around her waist, so she stops too. He moves his arm to her shoulders, drawing her into his side as he dips his head toward her. Her graceful neck stretches, turns to match him. His lips meet hers, urgent and sincere. It is beautiful.

"The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville" by Robert Doisneau, 1950
It all happens in a matter of five seconds, maybe fewer. The kiss lasts as long, then his arm slides back to her waist and they walk on. Phantom smiles on their lips; a blush upon her cheekbones; and with no notice of the other persons in the flow that they rejoin on the sidewalk, they are gone.

My hand trembles around the porcelain coffee cup. The only thought in my mind slips through my lips in a whisper, "How long is it since I've been kissed like that? Have I ever?"

A memory flashes like a film reel. Yes, I have.

It is night, more than ten years ago. We walk beside the Seine. There is space between us, and then there is not. He takes my hand, pulls me in, and kisses me for the first time - the only time - for he is my friend and nothing more. His kiss is earnest. I feel his fingers tighten with mine.

I hear his voice in my head and I close my eyes to listen.

"I needed to do that," he says.

But I am too stunned to speak.

"Should I apologize?"

"No," I manage.

My fingertips rest on my lips, although I do not remember lifting my hand there. Every emotion, every sensation, returns to me, in the aftermath of those strangers' kiss. How had I forgotten?

No, I did not forget, but I had not remembered either.

I lift my coffee for a drink, my hands no longer shaking. A smile teases at my lips. I reckon it is a match for the smile the woman on the sidewalk wore after being kissed like that, after being kissed like I have been before.


*****
Let's get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I'll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I'll consider it for a prompt.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A to Z Flash Fiction: Aspire

A: Aspire

"What do you aspire to be?"

The odd question echoed over the noise in Sasha's head.

Raina waited as patiently as a therapist.

Sasha waited too. She tucked her errant curls behind her ears. She crossed her legs under the table. She waited for an answer to come. The question made her want to laugh. Aspire? I'm not sure I remember the meaning of the verb. 

Raina finished waiting. "You know I love you, right?"

She nodded. "That's usually what you say before you tell me I'm a fool."

"You're a fool."

She did laugh a little then, and it felt like the first time she'd breathed today.

"You made me promise to tell you when you're being a fool, ever since you almost switched universities to follow that chump Carter."

"Carter was not a chump."

"Carter couldn't spell chump."

Sasha stared at her chicken entree, fighting a smile.

"His brain tree was more of a shrub."

There was no helping the laughter now. She caught her breath. "Mother of pearl, he was hot though."

Raina smirked over her glass of iced tea. Drops of condensation fell to the table as she took a drink.

They sat on the patio of their favorite pub. Sasha had called the emergency convocation over her dilemma. When in doubt, consult Raina. It'd been her policy since sophomore year - the year of the infamous Carter. Raina never failed her in the seven years since.

"So, my fool of a friend, whats your answer?"

Sasha paused, her fork hovering at her lips. "Answer to what?"

"What do you aspire to be?"

"That's  a job interview question."

Raina shook her head. The ends of her sleek amber hair swung in unison around the base of her neck. Her eyes moved from Sasha to the view across the street. A mist floated over the bay tonight, not thick enough to be called a fog. The oscillating lamp of the lighthouse cut through the mist to the open water. An empty fishing trawler, tied to the dock, bobbed on each swell and fall of the water in a hypnotic rhythm.

Her eyes still on the water, Raina said, "You asked me that question once. It was during finals week, first semester junior year."

"I did?" She couldn't summon the memory.

"It was during your annoying step-by-step planning phase."

She did remember that part. "I was not annoying," she objected even as she laughed knowingly.

Raina raised her eyebrows. "You planned everything. Everything. 'Nothing will happen if you don't make it happen!' That was your motto. It drove me crazy. One of the times I complained, you asked me what I aspired to be."

"I was clueless." Sasha shrugged.

"You were," Raina agreed without apology. "But you changed the course of my life."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm not!"

Sasha took another bite. She watched her best friend, wondering what Raina was trying to convince her of with this claim. Raina was the poster girl for following your passions, naysayers be damned.

"I blew off your question but I couldn't get it out of my head over Christmas break. When I came back in January, I decided I'd had enough of the coasting I'd been managing since starting school. If you remember, that's when I switched over to the biomedical engineering program. So, yeah, changed the course of my life."

"I had no idea," Sasha said, mulling this over.

"Maybe you need to tap into that annoying, ambitious version of you from years ago. When's the last time you aspired to be what you actually want to be? That's all I'm asking. You don't even have to answer me, but promise you'll think about it as you make this decision."

"I promise."

"Good." Raina took another drink. Her voice still reflective, her eyes back on the mist over the bay, she said, "Carter really was hot. What do you think ever happened to him?"

Sasha lost her breath laughing.


*****
Let's get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I'll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I'll consider it for a prompt.

Friday, June 30, 2017

On Camera - Book Update

It was late. I was tired, and feeling all the feels. Here's a video update on this week's big step toward getting my novel, Full of Days, to you all. Click here: Late Night Confessions (i.e. Book Update)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Take Out

She'd overcooked the pasta. It was pitched in the trash. The empty kettle landed in the sink with an echoing clatter. She lifted herself with some difficulty onto the countertop, and sat. The burner on the stove still glowed red as fire. Of course she'd forgotten to turn it off. Of course.

"Andrea?"  Leo's voice floated toward her from the hallway.

Typically, she turned on the light over the front steps before he came home so he could unlock the door without fumbling in the dark. Of course she'd forgotten that too.

"I'm here."

Leo draped his suit jacket over a dining chair and came to stand before her. He rested his hands on her knees. She lightly bounced her heels off the cupboard below her. He smiled, leaned in for a kiss.

"I ruined dinner."

She watched his nose wrinkle, then he covered the last two inches between them, claiming his kiss.

"I don't care," he whispered.

"I can't focus today. The whole day," she said emphatically.

"We'll order take out."

He went for a second kiss but she leaned past his face to lay her cheek on his shoulder. She inhaled his scent. Leo wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her from the countertop. She draped her arms around his neck and pressed her knees against his hips. His muscles tightened to hold her steady while he walked to the sofa. When he laid her down there, she saw a wet circle on his shoulder. She hadn't realized she was crying.

"I left the stove on."

He returned to the kitchen, then back to the sofa a moment later. "You rest. I'll order our food."

Andrea closed her eyes. The resulting darkness was speckled with prismatic lights; beautiful lights she wished she could stop seeing. "I don't know if I can do this," she whispered. Opening one eye, she focused on the framed snapshot of her and Leo hiking Mount Moriah. "I have to do this."

Leo was on the phone, muffled through the walls between here and their bedroom. He'd be changing into jeans and a t-shirt. She remembered the warmth of his chest against hers as he'd carried her from the kitchen; the steadfast beating of his heart. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. She envied it. Her heart raced and stuttered more every week.

"It's the medication," the doctor always answered with a wave of his hand. The irregular heartbeat; the shaking hands; the pain in her legs; the lights in her vision; the inability to focus her mind; everything had one of two answers: "It's the medication. It's the tumor."

"Are you resting?" Leo called from the bedroom.

"Mmmhmm," she responded, far too quiet for him to hear.

She felt sleep approaching. Each night she welcomed it with a vague thought that it might be perfectly okay if she did not wake up. Come morning, when her eyes opened and she saw Leo on the pillow beside her, she felt overwhelming relief that it had not been her last day. Would that morning sentiment eventually dissipate? This was the question she pondered as she drifted out.

When Andrea woke, moonlight filled the gap in the curtains. It was a spotlight on Leo, slumbering in the leather easy chair beside the sofa. His neck would be sore from the angle of his surrender to sleep. His plate and fork were on the coffee table, empty but for a few bits of rice. A clean fork and knife
were on the table in front of Andrea. Their arrangement suggested a plate had resided between them, until it'd become obvious she wouldn't be roused from her sleep. She knew she'd find it carefully wrapped and stowed in the refrigerator.

Propped against her fork stood a small rectangle of paper with red lettering: the slip from inside Leo's fortune cookie. Andrea picked it up. She stood, slowly, and moved to the shaft of moonlight to see the words he'd wanted her to read.

"A true companion journeys to the same destination, and will carry you when your feet will not."

Andrea clutched the paper in her fist. With a kiss to his forehead, she woke Leo. He stood, lifted her in his arms, and carried her to their bed. She rested her ear on his chest, seeking that reliable rhythm from inside of him. She rubbed her thumb against the soft stubble on his jaw, and prayed she'd wake up again tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Paper in My Purse

There's this paper that I keep folded up and tucked away in my purse. It is a bit of treasure that I bring with me practically everywhere. I think I've gone through five purses in the last seven years, and that paper has found its place in each one. Today, I unfolded it for the first time in perhaps a year and read each beautiful word printed upon it.

The black ink is still clear on the paper, but the yellowing of its edges has begun. The creases are tearing. It felt a bit delicate in my fingers today. 


The lines that fill this page were written by my husband, long before he was my husband. I still remember my awe when he sent me the first two stanzas, a mere two weeks after our first date. If I've ever come close to swooning, that was the moment. Here I was, lingering in the dawn of our coupledom, wading in and testing the waters. Then, he offers this collection of words born in his heart and pulls me under.

Love requires taking chances. It requires wading into deeper waters and losing sight of your former shore. My husband more than anyone else has taught me this. Love also, for me, requires words. Words of beauty and truth. Every time I look at this worn page in the pocket of my purse, I'm thankful my husband understood that from the start.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Heart of Life is Good

This is one of my favorite photos. Sure, I have others that better capture my children's faces and smiles. This one, though, captures life.

Some things have me thinking hard on the matter of life. It started with the suicide bomber cruelly choosing the concert in Manchester as his target and killing twenty-two adults, teens, and children. It continued with the news of the twenty-eight adults and children violently martyred in Egypt when they refused to deny their belief in Christ. Numerous others were injured in these attacks. Countless more were directly affected and traumatized.

And so, I think about life. Life as it is now, in this world in which my husband and I are raising our little children. In the midst of this thinking, I came across that photo. It's a recent one, taken at my kids' first time at a major league baseball game. All I have to do is look at it and I relive that night. We bought the tickets on a whim when we saw a low cost deal for some upcoming games. I was excited, as I always am when I attend a baseball game, but I was also worried. Would the kids enjoy themselves or be overwhelmed by the size and the noise of the place? Would they get bored and whine? Would they complain about having to stay in their seats for too long? Would they be too tired the next day? Typical motherhood worries.

My worry was silenced by their wonder: the wonder on their small faces when we entered the stadium; when the crowd stood clapping for the first time; when the fireworks were lit to celebrate each home run; when my son kept his eyes on the pitcher and batter as I explained  a little of the game and he was rewarded with witnessing a hit to the outfield; when the racing sausages and the 7th inning stretch brought everyone to their feet in unity. The pair of them enjoyed every minute. They were thrilled at being part of something so much bigger than themselves.

So many things could have gone wrong. They didn't, but they could have. I think of the dozens of concerts my friends and I have attended from the time we were teenagers to the present without a doubt that we'd arrive back home safely. I think of the pilgrimages we've made to churches and retreats without the looming threat of being attacked for our beliefs. I think of the number of people in that baseball stadium with no thought of whether or not someone might make us a target. So many things could go wrong.

If the fears and worries win, we must withdraw from what is bigger than ourselves. That's what it comes down to, I suppose. Being part of what is bigger than ourselves is at the heart of life, and life cannot be sustained without the heart.

There's things you need to hear
So turn off your tears and listen
Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No it won't all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
John Mayer

Friday, May 26, 2017

On the Pier

Photo by Carrie Sue Barnes, Location: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior
 
The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake's surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.
 
Bare footed, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.
 
"Do you come every morning?"
 
The bird like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.
 
"Mamma says you do."
 
"Bit early for ya', isn't it?" Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat. "Why aren't ya' sleepin'?"
 
"Because I'm awake." The girl's answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.
 
The old pier stood between his house and the girl's. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.
 
"It's my birthday," she whispered. 
 
"Mine, too."
 
Brown eyes widened. "Ooooh," she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, "How old are you?"
 
He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. "Old."
 
"But how old?"
 
He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face. "Eighty-four."
 
"That's old." She bobbed her head at him. "I'm five today."
 
The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.
 
"Are you having a party?" he asked.
 
"I am!" Her feet danced a two second jig. "Are you?"
 
"Oh, no party for me."
 
The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he'd picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.
 
"You can share mine."
 
"That's kind of you, but I don't need a party."
 
"Every birthday deserves a party," she said. She pushed her hair back from her cheeks. "That's what my daddy says."
 
He didn't argue, hoping she'd believe it for all her years.
 
In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.
 
He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday's newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he'd watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.
 
The neighbor's back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe dry a plate in her hands.
 
"I made them save this one," the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch. She waited there.
 
Hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked. She'd brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.
 
"Well, you're a sweet girl, I must say." There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.
 
"Do you like chocolate?"
 
"It's my favorite."
 
"Mine, too."
 
He accepted the plate.
 
"Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up."
 
"You best go and do that." The old man nodded. "Thank you for the birthday cake. I'm sure it's delicious."
 
"You'll eat it?"
 
"Of course, I will."
 
"Can I watch the sun come up with you again?"
 
"If you're awake, you're welcome to join me."
 
She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question. "And if I'm not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?"
 
"Yes," he smiled, "another day."
 
Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.
 
The old man walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.