Ordinary Thoughts, Essays and Short Stories

Category: Short Stories

The Letting Go


The hotel looked out over the Eastern Seaboard, but Rebecca was oblivious to its panoramic view of the ocean. She didn’t even notice the sounds of the waves crashing outside her open window. Her gaze was focused on a painting that hung above the bed’s headboard in her tiny room. It was a cacophony of primary colors that was probably the product of some struggling abstract artist but, to the untrained eye, it could just as easily have been created by an overly excited five-year-old. As for Rebecca, she had no opinion one way or the other as to whether the art was good or bad. She was staring at it, yes. But she wasn’t really seeing it. Her mind was elsewhere. 

Her mother, strict and imposing, was under the impression that Rebecca was on a little getaway with her best friend. Her best friend, loving and loyal, would take this secret to her grave. In truth, Rebecca was off on her own for the next two days. It wasn’t so much a getaway as it was a journey of solitude…a necessary reprieve from her daily normal so she could set things right in her heart without interruption. 

Tugging her suitcase up to the bed, she unsnapped it and pulled out her bathing suit, robe, and sandals. Ten minutes later, she was ankle-deep in the Atlantic, watching the gulls fly overhead. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and had no intention of going out much farther, but the shallow water was warm and soothing and, for the moment, slowly strolling back and forth was exactly what her soul needed. 

It was the middle of the week, and the beach wasn’t crowded, but several other bathers were scattered up and down the shoreline. They were far enough away that Rebecca could just barely make out the drone of laughter and conversation. As she willed her mind to be silent, she soaked in the world around her. There would be plenty of time later to delve into the mental work that awaited her. For now, it felt luxurious to simply be. 


Leaving the water behind her, Rebecca spread her robe out on the beach and lowered herself down, being careful to keep her wet, sand-covered feet off the fabric. She wrapped her arms around her bent knees and raised her face to the sun. It was no longer possible to keep her thoughts at bay, so she opened her mind and allowed them free rein. It was time to begin what she’d come here to do. 


Three years prior, in the fall of 1943, Rebecca and her mother had been standing next to a small bonfire in their backyard. Rebecca’s trembling hands held a stack of envelopes tied together with a blue ribbon. Tears streamed down her face as she looked pleadingly into her mother’s eyes. 

“Girl, you’ve wasted enough time. I’m not going to tell you again.” Her mother’s lips were set in a thin line, and her eyes held no hint of affection. The balled-up fists resting on her hips obliterated any hope for mercy. 

Rebecca had always been a daddy’s girl. Her father was warm and funny, and his love for her felt endless. He would never have stood by and let this happen. But a stroke had stolen him from her two years earlier when she was only eighteen, so now it was just her and her mother. And her mother was a harsh woman who either couldn’t or wouldn’t love her the way her father had. 

Standing here now, knowing what was expected of her, Rebecca’s stomach was filled with a sour hatred for the woman who had brought her into this world. They’d been together twenty years, but her mother had always been a stranger to her. And now this stranger was destroying the only happiness she had known since before her father passed away. 

Rebecca hugged the bundle to her chest. Her voice, quiet and rough from crying, broke the malignant silence between them. “Mother, please. Please don’t make me do this.” She knew it was pointless, but she couldn’t stop herself. 

“Young lady, if you don’t do as I said…and right now…I will do it for you.”

Slowly raising the bundle to her lips, Rebecca kissed the ribbon and tossed her hopes for a happy life into the flames. She glared at her mother, who merely nodded, and then Rebecca ran sobbing back to the house. 


Wiping tears from her cheeks, Rebecca came back to the present. She stood up, looked out over the ocean, and could tell more time had passed than she realized. From where the sun hung in the sky, it appeared she’d been woolgathering for a couple of hours, and now she was bound to be sunburned. She grabbed her robe, chastised herself for not finding a shady spot, and trudged through the sand toward the stairs to the hotel. 

After a bath to soothe her red shoulders, Rebecca put on a yellow floral sundress and straightened the seams in her stockings. She then tied her brown wavy hair back with a white ribbon and wandered down to a diner near the hotel. After ordering a ham sandwich and a Coke, she settled back in her chair and looked around at the other patrons. There was a young couple at a table across the room, and they sat side-by-side with their heads leaning in toward one another. They were talking and smiling, and Rebecca could sense the depth of their romance. It brought a smile to her own face, but hers bore a hint of sadness as her mind traveled back in time.


James had been a marine. Tall and muscular with a sandy-haired buzzcut, he’d approached her in front of the Morehead City Five-and-Dime and asked for directions to the library. As fortune would have it, that just happened to be where Rebecca was heading, so she invited him to walk with her. 

In the time it took to stroll the three blocks from the store to the library, Rebecca learned that James grew up in Nebraska, had been in the Marines a little over a year, and was stationed at Cherry Point. While whispering in the library, she discovered his favorite color was green, his favorite singer was Bing Crosby, and his favorite food was fried chicken. By the time they were back in front of the five-and-dime a few hours later, Rebecca realized she was falling in love.

James had to return to base the next day, but he wrote to Rebecca at least twice a week, and he came back to town on every leave. They took the bridge to Atlantic Beach a month after they met and, while staring out across the ocean, James declared his love and gave Rebecca a Marine insignia charm on a silver chain. Six months into their courtship, he learned he was being transferred to the west coast. Rebecca was heartsick, but James assured her nothing would change. And, for a short while, he was right. 


“Care for a piece of pie or maybe some ice cream?”

Rebecca jumped and knocked her fork off the table.

“Sorry, miss. I didn’t mean to startle you.” The waitress bent down and retrieved the fork from the floor.

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry,” Rebecca said. “I was so deep in thought I didn’t hear you walk up. What did you ask me?”

The waitress slipped the fork into her apron pocket and smiled. “I just wondered if you’d be interested in some dessert.”

Rebecca looked at her half-eaten sandwich and shook her head. “As good as it sounds, I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought I was. Could you please bring me the check?”

“Of course, sweetie. I’ll be right back.”


The sun was setting, and the walk back from the diner was much cooler than the walk there. Rebecca crossed her arms over her chest and wished she’d grabbed her sweater on the way out earlier. As she approached the hotel, she noticed the same couple from the diner entering the large double doors. Apparently, they were guests there, too. She wondered if they were married or just dating and if their stay at the hotel was one of total intimacy or one of careful closeness. Her times there with James had always been the latter. The temptation was there, of course, but she was protective of her honor, and James respected her principles.

Once back in her room, Rebecca opened her suitcase again and removed a small leather case. She settled back against the bed’s headboard and let the contents from the case spill out onto the spread. There wasn’t much…just a couple of pictures, some movie ticket stubs, and a tiny box.

One of the photos showed her with James at the county fair a few weeks after they met. The other was taken when they were here at the hotel shortly before he left for California. It had been freezing then, and they looked a little silly all bundled up on the beach, but the ocean behind them was as beautiful as ever.

Rebecca ran her fingers over the photos and let her heart remember the thrill of spending time with James, the heartache of having him move across the country, and the despair over having to devastate him with a “Dear John” letter. A letter she never would have written had it not been for her mother.


After the incident in the backyard, Rebecca had been lying on her bed when she heard the screen door slam and her mother’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Her bedroom door was open and she stiffened as the footsteps stopped at her doorway. She raised up on one elbow, wiped her tears, and faced her mother. But she didn’t speak to her.

“Get up now and come down to the living room. The letters are burnt, but there’s one more thing that must be done. And it must be done now.” Her mother didn’t wait for a reply before turning and going back down the stairs. Rebecca sighed. There was nothing left but to follow.

Sitting at her father’s writing desk, she pulled a sheet of stationery from the drawer and picked up the silver fountain pen she’d given him for his birthday shortly before he died. She didn’t look at her mother. She simply sat there with the pen poised over the paper.

“You are going to write a letter convincing that young man that you never want to see him again. He is not to try to contact you, and he is never to return to Morehead City.” Her mother emphatically tapped her finger on the desk blotter as she spoke. “You will tell him you’ve moved on without him and do not want him to embarrass himself by attempting to pursue you. Do you understand? Do you have any questions?”

There was a part of Rebecca that wanted to scream at her mother that she had a thousand questions. That she didn’t understand why her mother was brutalizing her this way…why she was so hell-bent on ruining her daughter’s life. She’d tried over and over to explain that the nights with James at Atlantic Beach were innocent, but nothing she said ever made a difference. Now all she could do was shake her head. The time for pleading and questions was over. Another person – someone more spirited – might have rebelled against the unfairness of it all by slamming out of the house and never looking back. But Rebecca wasn’t another person. She was who she was. Her father had loved her fiercely, but he also instilled in her the importance of respecting her parents…both him and her mother. No matter how horrible it felt, this was the way it had to be. She had to honor her mother.

Taking a deep breath, Rebecca put pen to paper and composed an unequivocally persuasive farewell. More than once while writing it, she had to turn her face away to avoid staining the stationery with her tears.


Rebecca set the photos down and wiped her eyes. Picking up the little box, she gently tossed it back and forth and let her mind wander over all the times she and James had laughed and danced and reveled in each other’s company. She pressed her fingertips to her lips as she thought back to those kisses full of love and desire. Then she lifted the lid from the wooden box and took out the charm that rested on its velvet lining. The chain was gone…having been broken when her mother, in a fit of rage, tore the necklace from around Rebecca’s neck. Now, the only things she had left from that relationship were her memories, a few mementos, and the tiny charm James had given her when he asked her to be his girl. 

But she wasn’t his girl anymore. Her mother had seen to that. And while a part of her would never forgive her mother’s cruelty, she couldn’t deny that what came next was much better than anything she could have hoped for.


As life tends to do, the world moved on after Rebecca’s mother sent that letter. She’d done it herself because she didn’t trust her daughter to follow through. If James ever did try to reach out, Rebecca never knew about it. It wouldn’t have surprised her, of course, if he had and her mother intercepted his attempts. But what was done was done, and she set her mind to moving past it.

A couple of years after ending things with James, Rebecca was chatting with some girlfriends in a coffee shop when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and found herself staring straight into a pair of sparkling blue eyes. They seemed to possess a bit of mischief, and the attractive young man attached to them introduced himself as her future husband. Rebecca was vaguely aware of her girlfriends’ giggles as she peered up into that semi-serious face. She furrowed her brow and tilted her head, but she said nothing. Frankly, she was at a loss for words. He smiled, gallantly kissed her hand, and walked out of the shop. Rebecca stared after him, completely dumbfounded. She’d halfheartedly dated a few men since James, but this was the first person to truly pique her interest. Now he’d all but vanished and she had no clue who he was. 

The small accounting office where Rebecca worked was right across the street from the coffee shop, and she’d eaten her lunch there every day since the encounter with her mystery man. She hadn’t been able to get him off her mind, and she felt both excited and pathetic over the fact that she kept coming here in hopes he’d return looking for her. On the fourth day, when she’d just about convinced herself that she was wasting her time, she looked up as the bell rang above the door. There he stood. Thick dark hair, a rather sheepish grin, and those remarkably bright blue eyes. He strode quickly over to her table.

“Is this seat taken?” he asked.

“No, but I’m just about to leave. My lunch hour is almost over.” She didn’t have to be back for a good fifteen minutes, but she didn’t want to seem eager.

“Oh, well, uh, okay. I just wondered if…” All the bravado from the other day had disappeared. Now he didn’t even seem to be able to form a complete sentence.

“Listen, I really should go.” Rebecca started to get up but the man gently placed his hand over hers.

“Wait. Don’t go yet.” He was actually blushing. “Look, I’ve been trying to get back here for days to see if I might run into you, but my job’s had me working out of town. I just got back this morning and took a chance you might be here. I think I’m still sort of stunned, though, that you truly are. Here, I mean.” He flashed a broad smile, and Rebecca felt her resolve melting away.

“So,” she said. “What exactly is it you do that kept you out of town for days?”

“I’m a reporter for the local paper. And a photographer, too.” There was that sheepish grin again.

“Impressive. I’ll have to start reading the news. But seriously, I really do have to go.” Rebecca stood and grabbed her purse. The man got up and stepped aside.

“Before you leave, I’d like to properly introduce myself.” Then, as if he feared she’d flee before he could finish, he inhaled deeply and rapidly blurted out, “My name is Alexander Reeves. My friends call me Alex. I work at the paper like I said, and I live in an apartment above the five-and-dime. I like to fish, I play the mandolin, and I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I do go sometimes.” He paused to take a breath and then said, “Oh, and I’d very much like to take you to dinner. This Saturday, if that works for you.”

Rebecca couldn’t help but laugh. She hadn’t been this drawn to a man since James, and it felt nice. Reaching inside her purse, she drew out a pencil and notepad. She scribbled something and tore off a sheet. “Here,” she said, handing him the note. “This is my address and phone number. You can pick me up at six.” She left the shop and was halfway across the street when she realized she hadn’t even told him her name. Well, she thought. I suppose he’ll figure it out.


Alex did figure it out. He knocked on Rebecca’s door promptly at six. He’d actually arrived a good ten minutes earlier and had been lurking just beyond a tall bush until it was time to pick her up. Rebecca knew this because she’d been ready at least fifteen minutes early and had been peeking out her bedroom window. She watched as he stood out there kicking pebbles. One hand was shoved deep in his pocket, and the other held a beautiful bouquet of daisies. She was tempted to go on out and tell him it was okay to be early but, for reasons she couldn’t explain, Rebecca found his efforts to be johnny-on-the-spot quite charming, and she didn’t want to break the spell.

At the sound of his knock, she hurried to the door before her mother could answer it, and she slipped out onto the front porch.

Alex held the flowers out to her. “I hope you like daisies. I don’t know why, but you just strike me as a daisy kind of girl.”

“Thank you. I do like daisies, and these are especially pretty.” Rebecca didn’t want to go back inside and risk running into her mother, but luck was with her. There was a half-full pitcher of water on the table next to the porch swing. “I’ll just put them in here for now and find a vase after I get home.” She plopped the flowers into the pitcher and turned back to face Alex. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” he said as he rested his hand under her elbow and led her down the steps. “I hope you don’t mind walking. My car has a flat. I thought maybe we could go down by the water to Becker’s Inn. If you don’t think it’s too far to walk, that is.”

Rebecca slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and said, “Not too far at all.”


Becker’s Inn was the first of many, many dates. Alex and Rebecca ate lunch together often, went to dinner at least twice a week, went to the movies almost every Saturday night and, several times, they found themselves having impromptu picnics in the park a couple of blocks from where Rebecca lived. Alex was witty and self-deprecating and, as the weeks turned into months, Rebecca found herself falling head over heels for this wonderfully shy reporter. And, miracle of miracles, even her mother seemed to approve.

One day after coming back from a Sunday drive, they settled down into Rebecca’s porch swing, and she asked him how he’d managed to come up with the nerve to introduce himself the way he did back when they first met.

“Honestly?” He sort of chuckled. “I almost didn’t introduce myself at all. I’ve never been one to just go up to a girl and start talking. But when I saw you, I knew you were special. Much too special for me to simply pass by. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I said what I did, but it was the only thing that came to mind.” He took her hands in his and gazed into her eyes. “It still comes to mind. A lot.”

Rebecca blushed but didn’t look away. “Alex, what are you saying?”

He was blushing now, too. In one swift move, he slid off the swing, dropped to one knee, and pulled a ring box out of his pocket. He popped it open, revealing a dainty white gold ring with a modest diamond set between two small sapphires, Rebecca’s birthstone. “What I’m saying is…or I guess, what I’m asking is…Rebecca Parker, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”


Rebecca had everything loaded into the car before daybreak. She strolled around to the back side of the hotel and gazed out over the vast ocean one last time. The sun was rising up out of the water as though being slowly lifted by some invisible string. Her heart had lifted, too. Just like all those letters that had been tied up with blue ribbon, Rebecca had tied up the memories of her time with James. The letters were gone. That relationship was gone. And, now, so was the pain. She was finally able to tell James goodbye, and it was time to go home. As she walked back to the car, she dropped the little leather case – with all of its contents – into the waste bin next to the hotel.


Driving back over the bridge to Morehead City, Rebecca felt only excitement about the life that spread out before her. She’d hated the fact that she couldn’t give Alex an answer to his proposal right away. But she knew she had some emotional housecleaning to do before she could agree to be his wife, and he didn’t question her when she asked for a little time to get her thoughts in order.

It wasn’t that she was unsure about her feelings for Alex. She knew she loved him, and she never once compared him to James. They were two entirely different people from two entirely different chapters of her life. It was just that she needed to shake out those old thoughts and let them go. Her love for James had been real, but it never fully took root. Her love for Alex was deep and strong and ran through the very marrow of her bones. Even though it had been painful to lose James, she’d learned she could live without him. But the very idea of not having Alex in her life was utterly unthinkable. 

Now, as she cruised along, she held her left hand up over the steering wheel and imagined that lovely ring on her finger. The ring Alex had so thoughtfully chosen specifically for her. The ring that would join them together forever. There wasn’t a doubt in Rebecca’s mind that the life she was heading for was the life she longed for. She had no regrets.

James was her put-to-rest past.

Alex was her bright and beautiful future.

And it was a future that sparkled even more radiantly than the brilliant North Carolina sun.

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Darcy’s Dastardly Deed


A study in professional perfection, Darcy stands before the elevator doors. Holding a supple leather bag against her tailored suit, she gently taps her right toe against the marble tile. The Italian pump makes tiny, rhythmic clicks while her beautifully chiseled features mask her agitation. It takes great restraint not to bolt for the stairs.

Darcy hopes no one notices her fidgeting. Chances are, no one does. Most people wouldn’t pay much attention to one businesswoman waiting for an elevator in a high-rise. There are a dozen offices on this floor alone, and she could have come from any one of them.

Waiting for the elevator to arrive, she allows her thoughts to drift back to the events that brought her to this point.


Earlier that day, Darcy settled in behind her desk to check her messages. There was only one, but the hair stood up on the back of her neck as she listened to the hostility pouring from the voice of her husband’s best friend. His message was brief but clear.

“I know what’s been going on and I’m not gonna let you make a fool of Pete. I plan on telling him everything, but first I want to hear what you have to say for yourself. Call me.”

Darcy rose from her chair and walked slowly over to the window. Staring out across the city, she pondered the implications. So, he knew. She really shouldn’t be surprised. She was, after all, fooling around with one of his associates. Stupid on her part, for sure, but what was done was done. Time for a little damage control.

Walking back to her phone, Darcy dialed his number from memory. When he answered, she said meekly, “Alex, it’s me. Don’t say anything, just listen. I got your message and, you’re right, we do have to talk about this. I don’t know if it will do any good, but I need to try and make you understand. I’ll be there in an hour.” She hung up before he had a chance to respond.

Darcy then called her secretary and said she’d be holed up in her office for the remainder of the day and was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Grabbing her tote bag, she made her way down the back hall to the company lab. Luckily, it was lunchtime, and the staff was nowhere to be seen. Opening and closing various unlocked cabinets – their internal security wasn’t the finest – she soon found what she needed.

Taking the back stairs to the basement, Darcy slipped through the shadows and softly opened the maintenance manager’s door. As usual, he was leaning back in his chair and snoring to beat the band. She was able to sneak over to his tool bench and grab what she wanted without him so much as changing his rhythm.

Traffic was light and she made it to Alex’s building sooner than expected. When Darcy exited the elevator on his floor and started down the hall, she could see through the glass doors that his reception area was empty. Feeling rather charmed, she darted around the secretary’s desk and tiptoed down the short corridor to Alex’s office. The door was ajar, and he was on the phone with his back to her. She stepped in quietly and closed the door, careful not to let the latch click. Just as she was reaching into her bag, Alex turned around. He nearly dropped the receiver as he was hanging up.

“Hey! How long have you been standing there? Why’s the door shut?”

“Relax, Alex, I just got here.” Gesturing toward the door, she said, “Considering the delicate subject matter, I prefer your secretary not overhear. She wasn’t at her desk, so I just came on back. Please…I hope you don’t mind.”

The uncharacteristic softness in her demeanor seemed to throw him off a little. “Uh, no…no, it’s fine. You just startled me, that’s all.”

Darcy stood just inside the door and smoothed the side of her hair with a shaky hand. “Alex, would it be okay if I sit down? I’m a little nervous about this. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Of course,” he said, gesturing to one of the guest chairs. “Look, Darcy…this isn’t easy for me, either. But Pete and I go back to when we were kids, and I’m just looking out for him.” Alex seemed to relax a little when she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “I don’t want to be a hard ass about this, but something’s got to give.”

Darcy let out a heavy sigh and nodded. “You’re absolutely right. He deserves better. A lot better. I don’t know what I’ve been thinking lately. I’m coordinating a new research project that’s got me under a lot of pressure and, with all of Peter’s late meetings, we hardly see each other anymore. I guess I was looking for some way to vent my frustrations. But, believe me, Alex, I know that doesn’t justify an affair.” Dabbing her eyes again, she went on, “For what it’s worth, I’ve broken it off, and I really do want to make our marriage work. I just don’t know if that’ll be possible if you tell Peter what I’ve done. He’ll never forgive me and, in the end, he’ll be miserable, too.”

Darcy got up and walked around Alex’s desk to look out the window. Keeping her back to him, she held the bag in front of her and slipped her hand inside.

Alex came over and stood next to her. “This is a side of you I’ve never seen before. Listen, I know we’re not exactly close, but maybe I haven’t given you a fair shot. I’d like to change that.”

Smiling slightly, Darcy turned and hugged him. Just as he was releasing her, she jammed the needle deep into his neck. A slight gurgling sound was all he managed as he sank to the carpet. His stupefied look caused her smile to widen.

“Alex, Alex, Alex…I feel it’s my duty to tell you that you really should be more careful about who you trust. But don’t worry. The effects only last about an hour, and this won’t take nearly that long. Of course, if you’re still mentally in the here and now when this stuff wears off, you’ll wish you were dead. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d stayed out of my business.” She wasn’t sure he could even hear her at this point – it was an extremely powerful paralytic, after all – but she kept talking. “You know, Alex, you’re not a horrible person, and I kind of hate having to do this. But…sadly…you gave me no alternative.”

Darcy reached inside the bag once again and, this time, pulled out surgical gloves, a disposable coverall, a scalpel, and a bolt cutter. After donning the coverall and snapping on the gloves, she knelt down and thought she saw a gleam of terror in Alex’s eyes as she leaned closer to…


 DING!” The elevator doors open just as a woman’s piercing scream travels down the hall from the vicinity of Alex’s office. With a hint of a smile, Darcy enters the elevator.

Back on the main floor, she strolls to the restroom and goes in, locking the door behind her. Lucky for her, Alex was old-school enough to use a paper calendar. From inside her bag, she draws out the page that has her name scribbled on it, crumples it up, and tosses it into the toilet. The coverall and implements of destruction are stowed inside a large zip-lock baggie that she’ll dump on the way back to work, but there are a few other items she decides to discard before leaving the building. Reaching back into her bag, Darcy pulls out a second baggie, mentally inventorying the contents as she drops each item into the toilet. She hits the flush lever and purses her lips as she watches eight fingers, two thumbs, two eyeballs, one tongue, and one nose swirl swiftly out of sight.

That last souvenir wasn’t particularly necessary, but she simply couldn’t resist. Including it with all the others gives her a great deal of satisfaction. There are those who would disagree with her assessment, but Darcy doesn’t consider herself a monster. No, not at all. If anything, she’s a public servant. Because of her diligence in leaving no stone unturned, Alex will not be sticking his nose into anyone else’s business ever again.


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Christmas with Frank


If just one more person accosted him with a Happy Holidays, a Merry Christmas, or a Season’s Greetings, Frank Gentry’s head was literally going to explode. At least that’s what he kept telling himself as he maneuvered his way through the dinner crowd and last-minute shoppers on Poplar Avenue. If only half these happy idiots had planned ahead, his unexpected run back to the office wouldn’t be so unbearable. Not only were there a blue million of them, but they were all so freaking cheerful. Frank couldn’t fathom how that was even possible. Christmas was a mere two days away, so you’d think these people would be in a panic. But, no. They were smiling and laughing, and believe it or not, some were even singing. Singing! It felt as though his quiet little world had morphed into some Dickensian nightmare with none other than himself cast as Scrooge. Frank shoved his gloveless hands deeper into his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and mumbled profanities as he pushed his way through the throng.

The outside noise dipped to a low roar as the heavy glass doors closed behind him. With a curt nod to the security guard, Frank walked to the bank of elevators and hit the up button. The digital readout informed him the elevator was making its way past the 6th floor, the 7th, the 8th, etc. His office building had 22 floors, so this could take a while. There were three other elevators, but they sat like silent sentries with “Closed” signs in front of them. It was a quarter past seven and he’d missed the cut-off by a measly fifteen minutes. Had he remembered his blasted cell phone a bit sooner, he wouldn’t be listening to seconds of his life tick by while the only running elevator was slowly transporting some fortunate souls to their upper-floor destinations.  

Frank glanced past the security desk at the entrance beyond and saw what looked like a small terrier sitting outside one of the glass doors. Its fur appeared to be dirty and matted, and even from this distance, Frank thought its eyes looked sad and rather tired.

“Hey, Chuck!” Frank had to yell to be heard over the floor sweeper down the corridor. “Any idea who that dog belongs to?”

“What dog?” The security guard asked before he saw where Frank was pointing. “Oh, that fella? He started hanging around a couple of days ago. Nobody can get close enough to see if he’s got any tags, and we just haven’t gotten around to calling animal control yet. You know, what with the holidays and all, everybody’s too busy with this, that, and the other. Why, just this afternoon….”

The elevator announced its landing with a loud ding, saving Frank from having to listen to the guard’s replay of the day’s events. “Sorry. Got to get up to the office.” Before the doors slid closed, Frank heard Chuck say something about a drunk Santa and an elf threatening to press charges.

Fishing his keys from his pocket, Frank let himself into his company’s lobby and hit the light switch. He passed the vacant reception desk, turned right, and walked down a short hall. Stopping at the last door, he unlocked it and entered his office without bothering with the lights. This had been his daily hangout for nearly three decades. He knew every inch by heart and imagined he could find whatever he was looking for with his eyes closed. He wasn’t put to the test, though, because the city lights shining through the large window bathed the entire room in a warm glow. And right there in the center of his desk blotter sat his phone. Staring at it, he fought the urge to go around the desk, sit down, and start working on something. Anything. The idea of spending the evening here focusing on some random client’s account was tempting. It was certainly a lot more palatable than going back to his empty apartment, nice as it was. The lack of another heartbeat was sometimes too much to bear, and at this time of year, that never-quite-gone pain seemed to get a macabre kick out of ratcheting itself up a few notches.


Madison Gentry had died on Christmas Eve three years ago. Some days it seemed like ten. On other days, such as this one, it seemed like only yesterday. Cancer showed up uninvited and ravenous, and once it latched on and began feeding, it refused to leave. One day Maddi was deep in discussion with the decorator over whether to redo the kitchen or the master bath. The next, she was being poked, prodded, and tested for God knows what because something odd showed up in a routine exam. Five months later, Frank stood alone at his wife’s bedside, staring at the dead monitors and trying to come up with the words for a fitting goodbye. There were no words, though. How do you say goodbye to someone who’s been breathing life into your very existence for over three decades? It wasn’t possible. So, he stood there holding her cooling hand and wondered if maybe…just maybe…he could wake himself up from this soul-shattering dream. 


Standing here now in his ethereally lit office, Frank shook off the memory and grabbed his phone. Maddi had done a lot of talking during those last months, and she forced Frank to do a lot of listening. Besides the utilitarian subjects like where to find the bed linens and how much cash the nieces and nephews were to get on their birthdays, she talked about her expectations for Frank after she was gone. She said she wouldn’t make him promise to find a new love – although she hoped he would because she didn’t like the thought of him being alone – but she made it clear on multiple occasions that she’d come back and haunt him if he used her death as a license to bury himself in his work. She mandated that he was to live his life, not just be a bit player in it.

Frank wasn’t very good at doing that, especially during times like this when missing Maddi was so amplified, but he did have a small circle of friends who managed to get him out and about now and then. Generally, he wasn’t this surly curmudgeon that reared its ugly head during the holidays. Any other time of the year, Frank was an affable fellow with a wicked good sense of humor. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, though, he had to gird his loins to get in the spirit of things. He was glad he didn’t have any social plans this particular evening because the foul mood had taken root so deep he feared it might never leave. Still, he could at least respect Maddi’s memory enough to take the night off, go home, and relax. One of his clients had given him a bottle of Knob Creek for Christmas, and he thought a glass or two might help drag him out of his current funk. Maybe he’d stop at the deli on the way back home and pick up a sandwich and some soup. He might even go so far as to surf Netflix for a sappy Christmas movie. A tantalizing evening if ever there was one. Maddi might have even half-heartedly approved. At least he wouldn’t be holed up in his office.


 A gentle snow had begun by the time Frank started the four-block walk back home. When he’d gone about halfway, he became aware of a tapping noise behind him. Whether it was new, or something that had started when he was still in the midst of the noisy downtown crowd, he couldn’t say. But it was quieter where he was now, and the tapping was quite pronounced. Frank stopped short, and after a couple of additional taps, that sound stopped, too. Turning around, he was surprised to see a little dog sitting on the sidewalk. But it wasn’t just any little dog…it was the same one he’d seen gazing through the glass doors of his office building earlier. That gaze continued now, and once again, he was struck by how sad and tired the animal looked.

Glancing around to see if anyone was nearby, Frank bent over and spoke to the dog. “Who are you, and why are you following me?”

The dog tilted its head to one side and let out a barely audible whine. It shifted its front legs back and forth a bit but never took its eyes off Frank.

“Considering you aren’t wearing a collar and you look like you haven’t had a bath in a year, my guess is you have no owner. And to go a step further, I’ll bet you smell my dinner and would love nothing more than to claim it as your very own.” Frank surprised himself by this one-sided conversation, but he felt compelled to continue. “You can’t have it, you know. But if you’re still on my tail once I hit my doorstep, I might give you a little taste.” At that, Frank turned back around and continued on his way. In very short order, he heard the tapping again.

“Just so you know,” Frank called over his shoulder, “I’m no softie. You’ll get nothing more from me than a couple of chunks of roast beef. It’s my sandwich, not yours.”

There was that faint whine again, but the tapping didn’t let up.


 Frank took the three steps up to his building entrance and turned around. The dirty little dog sat in front of the bottom step and stared up at him. “Well, crap,” Frank said as he looked up at the increasing snow. “I don’t want to fumble around out here breaking off bits of meat, so you might as well come in. But it’s just for a few minutes.”

The dog’s ears perked up, and as though it understood every word he said, it bounded up the steps and sat beside Frank’s right foot while he unlocked the door.


Frank’s apartment was on the 5th floor – was the 5th floor, actually – and it had its own dedicated elevator. His gig as a financial consultant was quite fruitful, but most of the resources that paid for the apartment came from a large inheritance Maddi received when her parents died more than twenty years ago. Up until that time, Frank and Maddi had a tidy little home in the suburbs just outside the city. She never much cared for the cookie-cutter houses and the overly manicured lawns, and most of their neighbors had kids which meant block parties, trick-or-treaters, and skateboarding in the streets. Maddi made a few friends in the neighborhood, but she always felt a bit out of place because she and Frank were childless except for Lilah, a feisty little beagle they’d adopted from the animal shelter. On the occasions when they did participate in neighborhood activities, Maddi would put on a happy face and pitch in wherever needed, but she admitted to Frank that it often felt like a lot more effort than it was worth. She’d been raised a city girl and suburbia simply did not fit her.

When the money entered their lives, Maddi told Frank she’d like to move someplace where they’d be within walking distance of the shops, restaurants, and theatres that made their city such a wonderful place to live. As far as Frank was concerned, he’d have been just as content staying where they were, mainly because he hated all the hassles that came along with moving. Regardless, Maddi was excited about the idea, and her happiness was always his top priority. So if she wanted to move, they’d move. And thanks to the inheritance, they were able to snag an apartment in one of the nicest co-op buildings in the area. Social status held no importance to either of them, but they jumped on the grand apartment as soon as they saw it. The location was perfect, the building had top-notch security, and due to the recent passing of its previous owner, the apartment was priced to sell. They lived there for nearly two decades before Maddi died, and Frank believed it was accurate to say she loved every minute of it.


When Frank stepped into the elevator, the little dog hesitated. “Well? What are you waiting for? Come on.” Frank gave a short whistle, and the dog dashed in and once again sat by his right foot.

Exiting the elevator took no convincing at all. When Frank opened the main door to the apartment, the little dog scooted inside ahead of him.

“Don’t go making yourself at home. I told you I’ll give you some food, and then you go on back to where you came from. Understood?”

The dog ignored him and wandered around the huge living room, sniffing table legs and cushions and stretching up on its hind legs to check out the ting-ting in a vase beside the fireplace. It then trotted over to the door leading to the kitchen and looked back at Frank.

“OK, fine. I’m coming.” Smiling at the dog’s lack of subtlety, Frank went into the kitchen and set the deli bags on the island. He grabbed a couple of shallow bowls from one of the cabinets, unwrapped his sandwich, and began tearing off small pieces of beef. He dropped those into one of the bowls and added some leftover chicken from the refrigerator. He then took the other bowl over to the sink and filled it with water. The little dog sat motionless just inside the doorway, silently watching and waiting. Frank placed the bowls on the floor and gave another short whistle. The dog sprinted to the food bowl and began eating like the starving little creature it was.

Frank sat on one of the kitchen stools and watched the dog devour its food before finally taking a bite of his sandwich. It was a bit lighter on meat than it was when he bought it, but he didn’t mind. Someone else who needed it more than he did was enjoying every morsel.


Frank finished his sandwich and placed his almost-empty carton of soup on the floor next to the dog’s food dish. A dish that had been licked spotlessly clean. The little dog unceremoniously dipped its face into the soup carton and went to work on the remains. Frank watched a moment, then poured a short glass of bourbon and went back into the living room. He switched on the gas fireplace and walked over to the vast floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over the city park. The wind had picked up, and in the short time since he and his unlikely house guest arrived home, the snow had blossomed from a gentle winter wonderland to a raging whiteout. Had he not known a park was across the street, he would have assumed he was looking at the side of a snow-covered mountain. A tiny whine caused Frank to look down, and there by his right foot sat the dog. It, too, was staring out the window. Frank squinted and saw that the little guy was shivering.

“Well, I can’t very well send you out in that mess, can I?” Frank bent down closer to the dog. “I guess you can hang around in here until it lets up. I don’t think it’ll snow much longer.” Frank had no clue why he said that. He hadn’t paid attention to the weather reports lately, so for all he knew, they could be in for the storm of the century. Looking from the dingy little dog to the pristine upholstered furniture that Maddi had so thoughtfully picked out, Frank was sure of one thing. If Fido here was going to stay for a bit, he was getting a bath.

“Come on, you,” Frank set his glass on a table by the window and picked up the dog. Holding it at arm’s length, he said, “I want to introduce you to some soap and water.”

Once in the bathroom, Frank closed the door to ensure there wouldn’t be a drenched escapee tearing through the apartment. He set the dog down next to the toilet and turned on the tub faucet. He half expected the little mutt to start clawing at the door to get out, but it simply sat down next to Frank and waited.

Satisfied with the water temperature, Frank placed the dog in the tub. He set the hand shower to a gentle spray and rinsed as much muck off the dog’s fur as he could. He then grabbed his bottle of baby shampoo – the secret to Frank’s soft and healthy, albeit gray, hair – and began soaping up the little dog. Although they had just met, it was a labor of love. It had to be. Otherwise, he might have given up well before getting the job done. It took four cycles of rinse, soap, scrub, and rinse again before Frank finally had the pooch looking somewhat presentable. Through it all, the dog never uttered a sound or attempted to flee the scene. Frank thought back to Lilah’s bathing fiascos and couldn’t believe the difference in the dogs’ personalities. Grabbing a bath towel from the rod, Frank wrapped up the dog and carried it back into the living room. He sat down on the rug in front of the fire and gently patted the dog dry, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.

“Old Chuck was wrong about you,” Frank said as he finished drying the dog’s hindquarters. “You’re not a he at all.” The dog nudged her head under his hand, and he laughed as he rubbed behind her ears. It was the first non-forced laugh he could remember since Maddi died. And it felt good.


Frank jolted awake, and for just a moment, he wasn’t sure where he was. Feeling around him, he realized he’d fallen asleep on the sofa. The living room was dark except for the flames in the fireplace, and Frank could just barely make out the little lump of fur curled up on the rug in front of the fire. He tapped the front of his phone and the screen lit up, showing it was almost midnight. Thinking the snow had surely stopped by now, Frank stood up, cracked his back, and looked out the window. It was no longer a blizzard, but the snow was still falling with some serious gusto. The streetlights weren’t bright enough for him to see how deep the snow was, but if it had been coming down nonstop since he got home, it had to be pretty substantial. He glanced back at the dog and decided there was no way he could turn her out into that awful weather. Frank decided she could stay here tonight, and in the morning, he’d figure out what to do with her. As though she’d read his mind, she stood up, stretched, walked around in a tight circle, and laid back down. Resting her chin on her front paws, she gave a little snort and closed her eyes. Frank decided she had the right idea, so he went to his bedroom, and after stripping to his briefs, climbed into bed and quickly fell back to sleep.

In what seemed like minutes, Frank’s alarm announced it was time to rise and shine. The sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window was nature’s way of telling him it had been hours not minutes since he’d hit the sack. With a protesting groan, he pushed himself into a seated position and ran his hands through his hair. A small snort caused him to turn around, and there in the middle of his bed lay the sleeping little interloper. At some point during the night, she apparently decided his downy quilt would be a lot more comfortable than the living room rug.

Frank took a quick shower, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and after a glance to confirm the dog was still asleep, he called his secretary to say he was taking the day off. Being Christmas Eve, they were only going to be open until noon, anyway, and he had no appointments on his calendar. Might as well take advantage of the situation. Once he had that out of the way, Frank went to the storage room beyond the kitchen and took a box down from one of the top shelves. It was labeled “Lilah.” He blew off the dust, opened the flaps, and began rifling through the contents until he found the items he was looking for. He grabbed them and headed back to the bedroom.

From the time he woke up, Frank had been harboring a weird, yet somehow familiar, sensation deep in his gut. He’d had no intentions of taking this dog in permanently – had actually planned on turning her over to the animal shelter this very day – but he knew he was outnumbered. He couldn’t recollect anything specific, but he kept catching fragments of a dream he’d had during the night. Maddi was in it, and so was that scruffy little dog, and without understanding how or why, he believed without a doubt that Maddi was responsible for bringing this canine into his world. What was it she kept hammering him about before she took her final leave? She said she wanted him to be fully present in his own life. His friends were a nice distraction on occasion, but Frank still gave more attention to working than he did to living. He knew it, and on some unearthly plane, so did Maddi. And as he recalled, she did threaten to haunt him if he didn’t do her bidding. He just didn’t expect her to do it with a dog.

As if on cue, the terrier jumped to the floor when Frank walked into his bedroom. He stopped, and she trotted over and sat by his right foot. Squatting down, Frank rubbed behind her ears and said, “Look what I found.” He held up a small harness and a retractable leash. “Your bladder is probably about to burst, so we need to take a little walk. Then, when we get back, I’ll rustle us up some breakfast. What d’ya say?”

The dog nudged the harness with her nose and let out a little yip.

“Oh, that?” Frank looked at the engraved L on the front of the harness. “This once belonged to a very spoiled beagle named Lilah. And now it belongs to you.” The dog tilted her head, then nudged the harness again and gave another yip.

“Ah, I get it,” Frank said. “You can’t wear something with someone else’s initial on it.” He picked up the dog, sat her on the bed, and put the harness on her. “That’s not a problem. This isn’t Lilah’s initial anymore. It’s yours. I hereby dub you Lily.”

Lily licked Frank’s face, jumped off the bed, and bolted out of the room. Calling out her new name, Frank ran after her and found her sitting by the front door.

“Okay, okay! Let me get my boots and coat on. You may be ready for that frozen tundra out there, but I’m not.” When Frank bent down to tie his bootlaces, Lily licked his face again. He couldn’t help but laugh, and it was that genuine laugh again. The one that came naturally, just like it had the night before. He scratched Lily behind her ears and looked heavenward. “Maddi, if you can hear me…and I think you can…thanks for the Christmas gift. It’s nice to see you still know what I need better than I do myself.”

Clipping the leash to Lily’s harness, Frank reached into his pocket and pulled out one more thing he’d retrieved from Lilah’s box…a doggie Santa hat. After he placed it on Lily’s head, she looked up but didn’t try to shake it off. He gently patted her side and said, “Good girl, Lily. Santa would be proud.”

Frank opened the door and breathed in the crisp winter air. “Come on, girl. Let’s go piddle. While we’re out, I’ll tell you all about the lady who introduced us. And when we get back, you can help me unearth the Christmas tree she used to put up every year. It’s time to get back to tradition.”

Care to Share?

The Journal – Part 2



Melissa bumped the car up over the curb and, as she drove through the gravel parking area, she noticed a figure down by the creek. When it turned and ran, she realized it was Brett. Throwing the car into park, she whipped open the door and jumped out, yelling his name. He didn’t stop, so she tore off after him. She never would have caught up if he hadn’t tripped and fallen by the edge of the creek. She reached him just as he got to his feet and, before he had a chance to make another run for it, she grabbed the hem of his tee shirt.

“Brett, stop it! Turn around here…and…look at me!” Melissa yelled between puffs of breath. Lowering her voice, she said, “Please.”

Brett stopped struggling, but he wouldn’t look at her. Melissa took hold of his shoulders and gently turned him toward her. “Sweetie, I know what happened. I know you read my journal. We need to talk about it.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Not to you. Not to anybody!” He tried to jerk away, but she held tight.

“I don’t blame you. What you read was some pretty bad stuff. You were never supposed to see it.”

Brett’s resolve melted and he started to cry. “I wasn’t snooping, Mom. Honest. I just needed some old magazines, and so I got into that drawer, and that’s when I saw it. I know I shouldn’t have read it. Please don’t be mad. I’m sorry.” He was fairly sobbing at this point and they both dropped to their knees.

Melissa tentatively reached for Brett’s face and, when he didn’t pull away, she wiped his tears. “Brett, I’m not mad at you. I’m not thrilled that you went through my things, but I’m not mad. You know what you did was wrong, but that’s not what’s important right now. What matters now is what you read. I need to explain it to you.”

“No, you don’t.” A little of his fire returned. “I’m not a baby. I know what you were talking about. What Dad and Aunt Kat did. I don’t need anybody to explain that.”

“Well, we still have to talk. It goes way beyond what happened between them. But, come on, I don’t want to do it here. Let’s go home and I’ll do my best to help you understand this.” Melissa stood and held out her hand. To her relief, Brett took it.

As they strolled side-by-side toward the car, she glanced up at the soft clouds and breathed a prayer for guidance.


The ride back to the house held a funereal silence and, when they got there, Brett went inside first. Melissa called out to him as he headed for the stairs.

“Brett, don’t go up to your room yet. I meant what I said about talking to you. The sooner we get this out in the open, the easier it will be.”

“Mom, why do we have to talk about it? I mean, it doesn’t have anything to do with me, right?” He followed her to the sofa in the family room. “Or…are you guys getting a divorce? That’s it, isn’t it? Dad’s not hunting with Uncle Jake. He’s not coming home!” Tears sprang anew as Brett allowed himself to be drawn into his mother’s embrace.

“Brett, no…no. We are not getting a divorce. I don’t want you thinking that. Dad will be home tomorrow afternoon, probably with a half-dozen squirrel carcasses.” She tried to sound light and cheerful but didn’t quite hit the mark.

“Well, I just figured, if Aunt Kat was Dad’s girlfriend, you guys would be getting divorced and they’d get married.” His voice sounded small and frightened, and he rested his chin against his chest while he picked at a hangnail.

Seeing her son so dejected broke Melissa’s heart, and she had to push down the old familiar anger that sprang up in the back of her mind. “Brett, nothing like that is happening. I don’t know where you got that idea, but Dad is not leaving, and he most certainly is not going to marry your aunt.”

Brett looked up into his mother’s eyes, as though searching for the truth…something safe to latch onto. “For real? I mean, one of the girls at school got a new stepdad when her mom cheated on her dad.”

“Brett! Where did you learn such talk?”

“I told you, Mom, I’m not a baby. I know what…well…what sex is. And I know you’re only supposed to do it with who you’re married to, and if you do it with somebody else, you get divorced. At least, that’s what happened to Mindy.”

Melissa sighed heavily and leaned her head back against the cushion. “Sometimes, in some families, that is what happens. Because sometimes the mom and dad can’t fix the problems that led to the…the cheating as you so aptly put it.” This time she gave Brett a genuine smile. “But that’s not the case with me and your dad. We’re not getting divorced, and nothing bad is going to happen.”

“How can you be so sure?”

With a quiet, controlled voice, she said, “Because your dad doesn’t know that I know.”

Brett’s look of incredulity came dangerously close to making Melissa burst into laughter. What must this kid be thinking? That his mom has gone full tilt bozo? That she’s been living in the “Land of Denial” for the past four years? She reined herself in and said, “It’s true, Brett. If you read that entire passage, then you read what I said about not wanting anyone to know what I’d seen.”

“But why not? Aren’t you and Dad always telling me that if someone does something wrong to me, I should let you know?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well, what Dad and Aunt Kat did was wrong, and if you didn’t tell anyone then you just let them get away with it. You just let them think what they did was an okay thing to do and so they probably did it over and over. If Aunt Kat hadn’t moved away, they’d probably still be doing it!” He was getting excited again, and Melissa pressed her hand down on his knee as she shushed him.

“Honey, it’s different with grown-ups. I mean, yes, you’re right. We do want you to be open with us if someone is doing something that upsets you or could hurt you. We’re your parents, and it’s our job to look after you.” At this, Melissa’s stomach knotted a bit because it was her own written words that were hurting her son now. She pushed the guilt aside and continued. “I can’t explain everything to you so that you’ll completely understand, but I can tell you this. I felt that, in order to protect you, I had to keep what I had seen to myself. It was hard, Brett. Really hard. I won’t kid you about that. But it was what I knew I had to do. And even though you found out about it, I still believe I did the right thing. Way back when it happened, if I had let it fill me up and control me, it might have destroyed our whole family.”

Brett was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “Did you forgive Dad? And Aunt Kat? I mean, you wrote that you hated them.”

“Yes, that’s true. I wrote it and, at the time, I felt it. Maybe when you’re a lot older, I’ll tell you more about that. The important thing for you to understand now is that I learned some things that helped me accept what had happened. Not to like it, mind you, but to accept it. And, yes, in time I was able to forgive both your dad and your Aunt Kat. Now I’m hoping you’ll be able to do the same thing. Not only that, but I hope you’ll forgive me for hurting you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Hey, buddy, just because you were reading something that was never meant for your eyes doesn’t mean it didn’t affect you. You discovered some pretty disturbing stuff today about people you love. I know how hurtful that is, and I’m so very, very sorry you had to find out. If I hadn’t left that journal there, you would have never read it. But, right or wrong, you did. And now we have to deal with it. So,” Melissa said as she chucked Brett under the chin and placed her forehead against his. “I need you to promise me something.”

“What…what do I have to promise?”

“When Dad gets home tomorrow, don’t let on that you know any of this.” She could read his confusion and hurried on. “I don’t mean ever. I just mean when he first gets here. Like I said, I never told Dad that I knew about what happened between him and your aunt. You don’t want to blindside him the way you were blindsided when you read my journal. I just want you to give us some time alone so I can tell him everything. It’s going to be a lot harder for him than you realize. That journal entry made your dad out to be an awful monster. It’s not a fair description of how things really were at the time. So, can you promise me?”

“Yeah, sure. But Mom…after you talk to Dad, do you think he’s gonna make me talk about it with him?” Brett had a look that bordered on nausea.

“Probably so. But it’ll be okay. Dad loves you very, very much. And no matter what you think right now, he loves me, too. Trust me on that.”

“Okay. Can I go back outside now?”

“Of course. But stay in the yard. I’ve had all the adventure I can take for one day. I’ll call you in when supper’s ready.”

They both walked to the door and Melissa watched as Brett ran to the middle of the yard and grabbed his football. Then, she turned and went upstairs.


Brett was far too young for the details, but everything Melissa told him was true. Incidents and events that transpired after that dreadful summer day had allowed her to come to a sort of peace with her husband’s infidelity. She didn’t like it, but she was able to move past it.


That first evening had been brutal. James came home totally unawares and, while he and Brett teased each other over pizza and corn chips, Melissa forced herself to toss in playful little remarks. After enough time had passed to make it appear normal, she excused herself, using the oncoming cold ruse. Back upstairs, she readied herself for bed and settled down with a book.

She was still staring at the same page she’d opened it to when James came in a half hour later.

“Brett-Man is all settled in for the night. You want to go make sure I tucked him in right?”

“What do you mean by that? I’ve never criticized how you take care of Brett!” Melissa felt a blossoming fire deep in her gut.

“Whoa, there! I didn’t mean anything by it. Man, you really don’t feel good. I think you’d better take something for that cold and get some sleep.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. You’re right, I’m just feeling lousy.” Melissa slipped out of bed and went down the hall toward Brett’s bedroom. As she got closer, she could hear the faint melodies of Mozart. From the time he was an infant, they’d played classical music to help calm him at night. It was something she was glad he hadn’t yet outgrown.

Tiptoeing to his door, Melissa peeked in. Brett’s eyes were shut, and his breathing was steady. Already sound asleep. She crept in and knelt beside his bed, gazing at his perfect seven-year-old face. She would lay down her life for this child. Putting up a front…even if it was denial…was something she could do if it meant saving Brett from growing up without both his parents.

As she headed back to her bedroom, James came out and said he was going out to his workshop for a little while. He kissed her on the forehead and went down the stairs. She stood there until he got to the bottom and turned out of sight, then she went into their room and sat on the edge of the bed. She didn’t cry. She was cold and confused, but she was also all cried out. Turning out the light, Melissa started to climb back into bed but then stopped and turned toward the bedroom window. She walked over and looked down at the garage. The light shone through the garage window, and she watched James walk into view. He simply stood there for a few minutes, and then he picked up the phone on the workbench and punched in a number. Melissa raced over to the bedside phone and quietly lifted the receiver. She held her breath and listened.

“Kat, it’s me. We’ve got to talk about this afternoon.” James’s voice sounded almost hoarse.

“Oh, James, I’m a mess. I can’t even wrap my head around what we’ve done to my sister.” The unmistakable sound of weeping surprised Melissa, but her anger was full throttle. Holding her palm firmly over the bottom of the receiver, she continued to listen.

“Kat, I’ve never done anything like that before. I swear. Things haven’t been great around here for a while now, but it’s not Melissa’s fault. Work’s been crazy, and we’ve been putting in ridiculous hours with nothing to show for it. I know she wants me home more. Hell, I want to be home more, but I’ve been stuck at the shop night after night. Then, today when I ran into you outside the shop…I don’t know. Something just snapped.”

“James, it was obvious you were upset about something. What’s happening with your dad is terrible. You just needed someone to be there for you.”

“That may be true,” James said. “But that someone should have been my wife. Not her sister.”

Melissa could hear Kathryn’s choked sob. “I know…I know. My god, what have I done? What if she finds out? Oh, James, she’ll never forgive us. Just the other day, she was confiding in me, telling me about her doubts and concerns because you were gone so much. I just…I just…” At this point, the sobbing was uncontrollable.

“Kat, hey, listen to me. We’re equally guilty here. Neither of us had any right to do what we did. Not only are we married, but we’re married to good people. People who don’t deserve this.”

“Well,” Kat said, calming a little, “Melissa is a good person. Todd’s another story. He left me, James. A couple of weeks ago. Melissa doesn’t even know about it. I’ve just been floundering and, I don’t know, maybe that’s why I was so drawn to you today. But still…it’s no excuse.”

“I am so sorry. I’m sorry about Todd, I’m sorry about what we did, and I’m sorry I didn’t call Melissa as soon as I found out about my dad. Nothing like this would have happened if I’d just picked up that phone. She’d have been there for me in an instant.” Melissa watched as James paced back and forth, running his hand through his hair. “You know what’s even worse? She actually did come by the shop today. Randy told me after I came back in from…well, you know.”

“Oh, James. What if she’d seen us together? Oh, God…” Another fit of crying.

“Hush, now. Listen, I have to go. Melissa’s not feeling well, and I want to get back in there and check on her. I just wanted to call and tell you we’ve got to keep this to ourselves and put it behind us. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost Melissa…and Brett. I couldn’t live with that. I love them both so much.” Even though Melissa couldn’t see his face, she could tell James was crying now, too.

“I’ll die before I say anything. If I could, I’d turn the clock back and never come by the shop at all.” Then she asked, “Did you tell her about your dad?”

“No. I put on this big show of being the happy working stiff. I just have too much going on in my head tonight. If I’d started telling her about Dad, I might have blown it all and told her everything. No, I’ll talk to her tomorrow. Put some space between what I did to her today and what I have to tell her about Dad. That alone is going to wreck her. She loves my dad like her own.” With that, he hung up the phone. Then there was a click as Kathryn’s line disconnected.

Melissa stood frozen for a few moments, the receiver glued to her ear, before her wits returned and she hung up. She turned back to the window and looked toward the garage. James was standing at the workbench. Hunched over, was more accurate. She could see his shoulders heaving as he continued to cry. She felt a sudden release of tension and was struck by the dissolving anger that had, just moments before, nearly consumed her. She was hardly aware of returning to bed and climbing under the covers. Her last thoughts before drifting off to sleep were of her father-in-law and what possibly could be so traumatic that it would drive her husband into the arms of another woman.

The following few days put things into a clearer perspective. James’s father had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and his prognosis was bleak. Six months at best. James was right when he told Kathryn that Melissa was devoted to her father-in-law. The news devastated the entire family. She shoved the episode between James and her sister into the furthest corner of her mind. She’d deal with it later. Right now, her family needed her.

A couple of weeks passed before she heard from Kathryn. After making a perfunctory call to tell her about James’s father…she couldn’t let on to anyone that she was aware Kathryn already knew about it…she’d wiped her sister from her mind. So, when Kathryn did call, Melissa was taken aback.

“Hi, Melissa, it’s me. Listen, there’s something I need to tell you. I’ve been putting it off, especially since I learned about your father-in-law, but I really need to let you know what’s going on.” Melissa’s chest tightened as she realized her sister was about to confess everything. She couldn’t face this. Not right now. But before she could change the subject, Kathryn went on. “Todd left me a few weeks ago. He filed for divorce yesterday.”

Relieved to know her sister was not about to make a pronouncement of her brief liaison with James, Melissa warmed a bit. “Kat, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

Kathryn told her about Todd’s supposed need to go off and find himself, and how he had never really been happy in the marriage. Supposedly no one was to blame, but he just couldn’t be tied down. Kathryn went on and on, but Melissa only half-listened. Her thoughts returned to her father-in-law and how she needed to end this conversation so she could get on with the important business at hand.

After deftly extricating herself from the phone call, she realized her feelings toward her sister were rather hollow. She didn’t hate her anymore, and she wasn’t particularly angry. She just felt a sense of apathy. Considering where she needed to be directing her energies, she decided that was just as well.

Four months later, James’s father was laid to rest. As the cold November wind cut through the tent at the cemetery, Melissa stood between James and Brett, holding both their hands, and she promised herself that she’d do everything in her power to keep her family together.

Time and quiet contemplation assisted Melissa in her quest for normalcy. Eventually, she was able to put that summer, and all the pain it evoked, behind her. Shortly before James’s father died, Kathryn took a job out of state. As far as Melissa knew, she and James were never again alone together. At family gatherings, they acted like polite strangers. Civil, but aloof. That made it a bit easier for Melissa to let go of the memories. After a year or so, it seemed as though the entire incident had happened to someone else. Every day, it became easier to be just James’s wife and Brett’s mom. No pretense. No paranoia. She had almost been successful in convincing herself that she would never have to confront James with what he had done.


Melissa walked into her room and picked the journal up off the bed. She started to open it, then reconsidered and went to her closet. Way back behind her out-of-season clothes stood a stack of boxes labeled “Shoes” and “Purses.” She took down the top two boxes and removed the lid from the third. Lifting out a couple of purses, she came to a bundle of old journals and notebooks with curled edges. She put the incriminating journal in with the rest, replaced the purses, and closed the box. After putting the other boxes back, she closed the closet door behind her and walked out of the room.

Sounds drifting down the hall told Melissa that Brett was back inside and playing a video game. She went into the bathroom, shut the door, and opened the linen cabinet. Reaching behind the large stack of towels, she retrieved her current journal. As always, her trusty ballpoint was attached.

Dear MAT,

 This has been the hardest day of my life. I would have sworn that nothing could have been worse than that awful summer day so long ago, but I was wrong. Today I let the most precious person in my life get hurt. Because of my carelessness, Brett had his world thrown into a tailspin. I think he’s going to be okay, but it’s not over. Tomorrow, I have to tell James that I know. That I’ve known all along. I’m not sure how he’ll react. My guess is, he’ll feel ashamed and humiliated. And probably very, very scared. Four years ago, I might not have minded that so much. Might have even relished it. But now, I need to assure him that as hurt and disappointed as I was, I’ve long since reconciled myself with it.

 I always thought I’d be afraid if I ever had to confront James about this. I thought it might spell the end of our marriage. But I’m not afraid now. If anything, I’m kind of relieved. I love James, I know he loves me, and we both love our son. We’ll work through this together.

 I realize tomorrow’s going to be tough, yet I feel more at peace than I have in years. It won’t be the end of our marriage, but it will be the end of one thing…the hidden secret. Getting it all out in the open is going to make our marriage, and our family, stronger than ever.

 And I don’t just hope this. I know it.

Care to Share?

The Journal – Part 1

From the time she was a gangly 12-year-old, Melissa had allowed her private thoughts to fill notebook after notebook. She was always careful to keep them hidden. Those journals were secret places where she recorded her feelings…her thoughts. No one else had a right to read them. Even when her girlfriends would share their diaries with one another, giggling over adolescent confessions, Melissa kept hers to herself. She manufactured a little lie, telling her friends that she didn’t even own a diary and, if she did, she’d probably just forget to use it. Sometimes she felt guilty about that…as though keeping her journals a secret was disrespectful to the bonds of friendship…but she stuck to her guns. And it wasn’t simply because the entries were for her eyes only. She didn’t want to risk being judged by how others might interpret her thoughts.

She never began her entries with “Dear Diary.” She wrote “Dear MAT” because those were her initials. Even after she got married and those initials changed, she kept the salutations the same. MAT was who she was addressing…then, now and always.

Melissa’s journals were constant companions throughout high school, college, a stormy engagement and a shaky marriage. Tattered notebooks detailed the highs and lows in her life:

Her first prom – Brian was 10 minutes early picking me up and had to sit in the front room with Daddy. I almost laughed out loud when I got down there and saw how scared he looked. He gave me the most beautiful wrist corsage. It has little pink roses and baby’s breath. And when he brought me home, we snuck around to the dark end of the porch and he kissed me!

The crush on her psychology professor – I’m gonna ace this course. I just know it. Professor P. really likes me. I can tell because he always asks me if I’m enjoying his class. And he is so, so cute!

Her confusion about whether to marry – I don’t know if James is ever going to understand me. He keeps saying how great our life is going to be, but he never wants to listen to my thoughts on the kind of house I want, or kids, or anything!

And her doubts about her husband’s fidelity – This is the third time this week that James has called to say he’s working late. I just don’t believe him. They’ve never had this much extra work before. And he’s been so distant lately.

Some of her journals held questions as to how her life might have been different if she’d made other choices along the way. She allowed herself to wonder, in the confines of those pages, if becoming a wife and mother had kept her from pursuing a career that might have made life more interesting. Of course, those thoughts were transcribed on the days when the baby wouldn’t stop crying or the water heater burst or the casserole dried out waiting for James to come home. Cheerier moments produced entries written in an upward, flowing script that exuded her excitement about Brett making the Honor Roll or when she finally got her hyacinth to bloom or James surprising her with tickets to the theatre.

These books were Melissa’s therapy. They provided a haven where she could say anything, think anything, wish anything…with no fear of reprisal. After an argument with James, she’d close herself up in the bathroom and draw her journal out from behind the stack of towels in the linen cabinet. She kept a ballpoint pen clipped to her notebook, having learned long ago that tears cause felt-tip ink to run. Sitting on the floor, she’d hastily scrawl the thoughts that crowded her mind. When finished, she’d lean back against the tub…close the journal without reading it…and then stash it back in the cabinet. Only then could she return to the world outside of that little room, prepared to face whatever waited on the other side of the door.


Returning from a long walk on this wondrously warm fall day – where the crackle of leaves underfoot caused her to smile, and the high noon sun made her cheeks glow – Melissa’s thoughts focused on how she could put it all into words. What exactly could she say to adequately paint this perfect picture? Once inside the house, it became a moot point. When she entered her bedroom, she stopped short with eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Lying in the middle of her king-size bed – splayed like a woman offering herself for consummation – was one of her notebooks. Momentarily unable to breathe, she approached the bed and stared down at the words on the pages. She knew immediately that this wasn’t one of her recent journals.

Melissa’s hands were shaking, and her heart felt like it might beat out of her chest as she bent to pick up the notebook. She sat on the edge of the bed and read the entry.

 Dear MAT,

 I don’t even know how to begin. Part of me knew this was going to happen, but I guess I didn’t really let myself believe it. No one can ever know about this. Since Brett is visiting my parents, I decided to swing by the shop to see if James was free for lunch. Randy said he was out on a job and didn’t know when he’d be back. As I was driving away, I saw James’s truck parked in the back lot. That made me suspicious, so I drove up a little way and parked out of sight. I walked back and slipped around behind the little work shed at the rear of the parking lot. I could hear sounds coming from inside the shed, and when I peeked in the window, I saw them. James had his shirt off and a woman was up against him, kissing his neck. I ducked down before getting a look at her face. The window was partly open, and I could hear them shuffling around and moaning. I still have a bruise from biting my fist to keep from sobbing. And then, when I heard her voice, I nearly fainted. It was Kathryn. Kathryn! I couldn’t help myself and looked in the window again. Neither of them saw me. I probably watched for five full minutes before I got my wits about me and ran back to the car. I cried and cried while I drove, not even thinking about where I was going. I just now got home, James is due in less than an hour, and I still can’t stop crying. How did this happen? And with my own sister! I don’t know which hurts more…James being unfaithful or Kathryn’s disloyalty. I’ve always turned to her whenever I needed to talk to someone. She sat right at my kitchen table, not three days ago, and let me pour my heart out to her about James. She knew I suspected he might be having an affair, and she just kept trying to convince me that I was imagining things. Now I know why she was defending him so hard. It’s been her all along! Right now, I hate them both so much! If it weren’t for Brett, I’d leave James today. But I can’t do that. Brett idolizes his father. What’s worse is, he idolizes his Aunt Kat, too. Damn them both!


Melissa let the journal drop to the floor and stared across the room at nothing in particular. Tears coursed down her cheeks and she felt paralyzed. Each heartbeat struck like a hammer, and for a moment she thought she might pass out. The light dimmed around the edges of her eyes and there was a loud buzzing in her ears. Lowering her head between her knees, she willed herself to breathe. When she felt steady enough, she raised her head a bit and looked again at the journal. She picked it back up and turned it over to look at the date, although there was no need. The passage she read had brutally propelled her back to that summer four years ago. She tossed the book onto the bed.

A quick scan around the room revealed that her bottom dresser drawer was partially open. That’s where this journal had been. Not stored away in the back of her closet with all of her other old notebooks, but underneath some old magazines in her drawer. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember why that particular journal hadn’t been with the others. The reason wasn’t important, though. After all these years fiercely protecting her innermost thoughts, she’d gotten careless. And there was only one person who could have found this. James was away on a hunting trip with his brother, so it had to be Brett. Precious, trusting Brett.

Melissa found her legs and ran from the bedroom, calling out her son’s name. She threw open his bedroom door, but he wasn’t there. Running down the stairs, she tripped and fell the last couple of steps. She ignored the rug-burn on her knee and ran into the family room. The television was on, but Brett wasn’t there. She halfway registered schoolbooks spread out on the coffee table as she whipped around and sprinted toward the kitchen. Empty. She ran back through the house and looked into the dining room and the living room. No one. Standing in the living room doorway, she listened to the house. It screamed silence. Melissa realized she was holding her breath and began to feel dizzy again. She stepped into the living room and dropped to the sofa. Where had he gone?


Brett finally stopped running when he reached the creek three blocks from his house. He bent over, hands on his knees, and surprised himself by vomiting. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tee shirt and stumbled over to the edge of the creek. Leaning against an old poplar, he squatted down and crossed his arms over his knees. He stared at the rippling stream of water and tried to clear his head. A loud caw drew his attention to the treetop where he saw a crow perched on a broken branch.

“Go away!” he shouted. The bird stared at him.

“Go!” Brett picked up a clod of dirt and chucked it up toward the branch. It fell far short, but the crow took heed and flew off.

Brett’s mind kept replaying what he had read just minutes earlier. He hadn’t been snooping in his mom’s things. He was working on a project for school that required pictures to be cut from magazines. He knew she kept her old ones in that drawer and he didn’t think she’d care if he took a few. It was when he was taking out a stack of magazines that he saw the journal. He grabbed it and dropped the magazines back into the drawer. He knew he shouldn’t look at it. Even an 11-year-old kid knew better than to go reading someone’s diary. But he couldn’t seem to help himself. He was, after all, an 11-year-old kid. It wasn’t as good as finding his dad’s Playboys, but it still tugged at his curiosity.

So, he opened it. The first couple of pages were pretty boring. His mom wrote stuff about her garden and about some shopping trip she’d taken with his aunt. She also went on and on about how hard she was trying to stay on a diet because summer vacation was coming up, and she wanted to look nice in a bathing suit. He began flipping through the pages and was just about to put it back when his eye caught his own name. It was at the end of a long entry. It said something about how much he idolized his dad. And it mentioned his Aunt Kat, too. He decided to go to the beginning of that entry and see what his mother had written about them. Now he wished he hadn’t. He wished he’d never gone up to his parent’s bedroom. He wished his mother didn’t keep her old magazines in that drawer. And, most of all, he wished he’d never seen that journal.

Brett sat there, picking at his lower lip, and uttered all the curse words he could think of. All the words he’d get grounded for saying if his parents could hear him. Right at that moment, he didn’t much care what his parents liked or didn’t like. Well, his dad, anyway. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his mom. He was at that age where he was hell-bent on earning his way into teen-hood while still needing occasional hugs of reassurance from his folks. The two people he had counted on all his life. Now he didn’t even know them. How could his dad do that? How could he hurt his mom that way? And with Aunt Kat, no less. Brett may have been young, but nothing in his mother’s entry got by him. He knew exactly what she was referring to when she wrote about what she saw in that shed. His stomach was a gnarled chunk of hatred toward his father. There was no ambivalence there. If he’d been face-to-face with his dad at that moment, he would have hurled himself at him and pummeled until there was no fight left. What he couldn’t identify was how he felt toward his mom. He didn’t know why but, for the life of him, he felt like she’d let him down somehow.

The cawing was back and Brett glanced up to see what looked like the same crow sitting on a branch just a few feet above his head. All his anger and confusion came boiling out of him. He stood up, grabbed a fallen limb, and slammed it against the branch where the bird was perched. The crow took off a split-second before impact and disappeared up through the leaves. Brett knelt down at the base of the poplar and laid his head on the ground, sobbing.


Melissa realized she was accomplishing nothing by simply sitting there in her living room. She had to figure out where Brett might have gone. As she ran a mental tally of his closest friends, she decided that Justin wasn’t an option because he was away at his grandfather’s funeral. Seth might have been a possibility if he and Brett hadn’t gotten into a fight yesterday over a soccer game. Maybe he went to Tanner’s. Brett was closer to him than the other two and would probably feel most comfortable confiding in him than anyone else.

Melissa had a cell phone but, out of habit more than anything else, her family still used a landline in the house. She ran to the phone in the kitchen and rifled through the notes tacked up on the small bulletin board. Finding Tanner’s number, she shakily punched it into the keypad. After the third ring, his mother’s voice came on announcing that Robert, Lisa, and Tanner were unavailable at the moment and to please leave a message. Melissa slammed the receiver down and started searching for Seth’s number. She dialed, and he answered immediately.


“Seth, this is Brett’s mom. I’m trying to find him. Is he over there, or have you talked to him this afternoon?”

“Nope.” A boy of few words.

She ignored his cool tone and hung up.

Pacing back and forth across the kitchen floor, she wracked her brain for ideas. Then it hit her. From the time Brett was allowed to venture alone beyond their front yard, he’d taken to going down to the shallow creek that ran through Marlow’s Park. He loved to explore along the bank, digging bugs from the soil or capturing crawdads at the water’s edge. She couldn’t count the times she’d found mud-caked creatures in his dirty pockets. That creek was his favorite hangout, and Melissa was suddenly certain that that’s where she’d find him.

It was only a few blocks away, but the car would be quicker than running, so Melissa grabbed her keys and charged out the door. As she backed out of the driveway, she made a concerted effort to calm herself. If she did find Brett there, the last thing she wanted was for him to see how shaken she was. She had no idea what she was going to say to him, or what he might say to her, but she knew she had to find him. No kid that age should ever have to try to digest the ugly information that was contained in that journal. He’d obviously read it, though, so it was going to be up to her to guide him through to some level of understanding. This thought did nothing to ease her shattered nerves. After all these years, even she wasn’t sure she understood it all.

Melissa couldn’t stop her thoughts from diving back to that summer, that awful day when her life turned black and cold and completely unfamiliar.


Icy fingers clutched her heart as she heard James’s truck pull into the drive. The opening and closing of the kitchen door announced his entrance and she pulled herself to the bathroom sink to assess the damage. The mirror reflected a red, swollen face with dirty tear tracks down each cheek. Without thinking how odd it might appear, she grabbed some facial cream and slathered it over her face. She blew out a big breath and, after taking one last look in the mirror, left the bathroom and headed down the stairs.

James turned his attention from the contents of the refrigerator when he heard her come into the kitchen. His eyes got wide and he started to laugh. “What in the world is that?”

“This? Oh, I read about a new skin care treatment and thought I’d give it a try. I have to keep it on for another half-hour.”  She surprised herself by how calm she sounded. Her voice didn’t betray her fragile heart the way the man standing before her had done just a few hours earlier. He didn’t suspect a thing.

“So, what’s for supper? I’m starved.”  James shut the refrigerator door and leaned against the counter.

“I haven’t started anything, yet. I thought maybe we’d just order pizza. Brett would get a kick out of it and, frankly, I just don’t feel up to cooking. I think I’m coming down with a cold or something.”  Amazing how quickly her brain was working to make all of this plausible. Little did he know the time she would have spent preparing dinner had been occupied by mindless driving and hysterical sobbing.

“Yeah, sure, pizza sounds good. But I’ll call. You’ll get that junk all over the phone if you do it.”  He laughed again and grabbed the phone book.

“I’ll be upstairs.”  Melissa said as she turned and headed for the hall. Unbelievable!  He acted as though this was just any other day. Of course, now that she thought about it, maybe this was just any other day to him. Surely this wasn’t his first little escapade. He’d probably been at it so long it was becoming a natural state of being. The hate that boiled up in her throat scared her a little. She never knew she could feel this way about anyone…least of all the man she’d promised her entire future to.


Brett raised his head and brushed the leaves out of his hair. He looked around to be sure no one had been watching him and was relieved to find himself completely alone. Even that stupid crow had finally gotten the hint.

He stood up and walked down to the creek’s edge, gazing into the water without really seeing anything. His jumbled mind was on fire. He didn’t know how to separate his anger from the confusion, so he just stood on the bank and let the breeze wrap itself around him. Were his mom and dad going to get a divorce? That’s what happened to Mindy Everson’s parents when her mom got a boyfriend. He remembered how she’d sit in the back of the classroom and cry. Oh, she tried to hide it, but even kids their age could figure out when someone was messed up. Mindy stayed messed up for what seemed like forever. Now, she only got to see her dad a couple of times a month and her mom was married to that other guy. Mindy made no secret of how much she hated him.

Once again, Brett heard cawing and he looked up into the tree branches. There it was. Like a soldier standing guard on top of a castle. He didn’t try to chase it away this time. The crow wasn’t the problem. His dad was the problem. His aunt was the problem. And maybe even his mom was the problem. But not the crow. It was just a dumb bird. And a hundred rocks thrown at it wouldn’t make him feel any better. He turned away and started to walk along the bank.

The crunch of gravel got his attention, and he looked back in that direction. When he saw his mom’s car pull into the parking area, he swung around and took off running in the opposite direction.

[To be continued…]

Care to Share?

Edna and Harold

There were three types of people Edna Withers despised…solicitors, nosy neighbors and relatives. That didn’t leave many on her list of tolerable folks, but she had no problem with the teller at Old Birch Bank or the bagger at the Thrifty Spend. And that pretty much covered it. She could do without most of the others. Which is why, when her doorbell startled her out of a late afternoon doze, she was more peeved than curious.

As she debated whether or not to just sit there until her unwelcome caller got tired of waiting, she heard what sounded like glass smashing. For the first time in a long time, the hair on the back of Edna’s neck bristled in fear. Someone was breaking into her house.

Fueled by anxiety-driven adrenaline, Edna’s 84-year-old body stood and quick-stepped over to the edge of the doorway that led to the front hall. Her breathing was so rapid and harsh that the crotchety part of her mind wondered if a heart attack would kill her before the intruder had a chance to slit her throat. 

There was a mirror on the opposite wall that reflected a bit of the entry way. Edna peered into its glass and could see nothing amiss so, clutching the front of her housedress, she eased her head around the corner. The short hall and entry way were empty. There was no place for anyone to hide unless they found a way to get into the coat closet that had been locked – and the key lost – for over a decade.

Edna forced herself to take a deep breath and then stepped into the hall. She slowly made her way toward the front door, one hand still grasping her dress front while the other slid along the faded wallpaper for support.

With eyesight as sharp as a person’s half her age, Edna immediately noticed the corner of a slip of paper sticking out from under the front door. She also noticed the chain lock was still in place. With a cautious glance toward the closet, she continued on to the door and placed her right toe over the paper. Pressing her foot down, she eased it back and revealed some sort of flyer. At the same time, she glanced out the sidelight and saw that one of her flowerpots was shattered.

“Infernal advertisements,” she muttered as she strained down to retrieve it. Talking to herself was a practice Edna had perfected over the years. “Bad enough they bother an old lady with trash like this, but they vandalize property when no one answers the door. Got to be a phone number on this thing. I’ll show ‘em what happens when you harass Edna Withers.”

Adrenaline gone, she straightened up and read the front of the ad as she carefully moved back toward the living room. Coming to a dead halt, Edna’s hands began to shake and she leaned against the wall…barely aware she was losing altitude.


The afternoon light had been reduced to dusky shadows by the time Edna came to. She found herself crumpled up against the wall in the hallway and there was a piece of paper clutched in her hand. Disoriented, she peered around, trying to make sense of what had happened. She looked down at the paper again and it all came back. Whimpering, she wadded the flyer into a ball and tossed it on the floor.

Although scampering was beyond Edna’s physical capabilities, she made an impressive effort of crawling the rest of the way into the living room. Laboring to breathe, she grabbed the chair arm and pulled herself up to a kneeling position. She cast a furtive glance at the paper wad in the hall and then heaved herself to her feet. A cold, clammy sweat bathed her forehead and made her sagging breasts stick to her chest. She swayed slightly as the room began to spin, but she grasped the back of the chair for support and regained some sense of stability.

“How can this be? No one knew about it. No one was there. No one,” she mumbled as she dropped into the chair, gasping when her inflamed joints protested. “I never told a soul. Not a single soul.” Hitting the heel of her hand against her forehead, she gritted her teeth and said, “Think back, Edna, way back. You must’ve let it slip. Sometime back when you still talked to people. But, who? Who would I tell? And why? No one was to ever, ever know.”

Without realizing it, Edna had begun to weep. Not a sob…just a soft, tearful moan that left her drifting off into nothingness.


Edna awoke to screams of pain emanating from her back and hips. The room was dark now but for the faint illumination from the small digital clock on the side table. It declared the time to be 2:13am. The sound of crickets filtered in through the open windows, and the cross breeze was still almost as warm as it had been during the day. Edna wasn’t one to turn on the AC unless it was blistering hot and now, sitting here drenched in sweat, she regretted that decision. 

With an anguished groan, Edna managed to stand and make her way into the small kitchen just off the living room. Her medicine bottles stood in a tidy row on the windowsill above the sink. Having convinced the druggist years ago not to use those blasted childproof caps, she popped the lid off the bottle containing her pain medication and dry swallowed two pills. She then lumbered back through the living room and entered the tiny bathroom. Trembling fingers flicked on the light and, momentarily blinded by the fluorescent attack, she stumbled against the toilet. Steadying herself, she lifted the hem of her housedress and gingerly sat on the seat.

Once that business was finished, Edna shuffled to her bedroom. Without bothering to turn back the spread, she curled up on top of the covers and immediately fell back to sleep.


 “Wha…what is it? Who’s there?” Edna sat straight up in her bed and hugged herself tightly, her heart jackhammering through her chest. She stared into the darkness and willed herself to be still. She listened. There was nothing but the hitching sound of her own breathing, so she slowly got up and crept out of her room. The living room shades hadn’t been drawn as they were in her bedroom, and the faint light of dawn filtered in through the window.

Edna looked around the room and then on farther into the kitchen. Every shadowy shape was familiar. Heart still thumping, she tiptoed through the living room and peered around the corner into the hallway. Empty. Or almost empty. There on the floor, just inches from where she stood, was the wad of paper.

Edna’s eyes filled with tears as she carefully bent to pick it up. “Time to face the music,” she said to no one. “Pay the piper. Strike up the band.” She started to cackle and then collapsed on the floor, hiccupping, tears streaming down her lined cheeks. “Oh my, oh my, oh my…” She smoothed the paper out over her outstretched legs. “There it is, for all to see. Edna’s sin.” She leaned her head back and shook it side to side as her cackles took on a slow crescendo.

Edna’s laughter died as suddenly as it started and, ignoring the stabs of pain, she got to her feet and made her way into the kitchen. Tossing the paper on the counter, she opened the refrigerator and took out the orange juice. She got a glass from the drainer and filled it half-full. “Shaky ol’ fingers’ll slop it everywhere if I pour too much. Ain’t that right?” she asked the empty room. She grabbed the flyer again and sat down at the kitchen table.  

“Well now, let’s take a good look at this.” Edna flattened the paper as best she could, staring at the picture and what was printed above it. “Yep, it’s all there. Everything spelled out in just a few words. How many of these adverts were passed out around town? Probably hundreds. Thousands, maybe. And so now everybody knows. I was crazy to ever think I could keep it a secret.”

Edna quickly glanced at the other side of the flyer.  There was something printed there, too, but she didn’t bother to read it. Nothing it said would be news to her. “Almost made it, though. Thirty years before they caught on.” She struggled up out of her chair and turned toward the kitchen. “Wonder how they found out? Don’t matter, I guess. It’s done now, that’s for sure. It’s done and so am I.”

Edna walked to the sink and stared out at the pond beyond the back yard. She could just barely make it out in the early morning light. Oh, how her Harold had loved that pond…fishing, skimming stones and feeding the ducks that chose it as their summer getaway.

He was mighty proud of it, too. Dug it himself during the tenth year of their marriage. He’d hauled in tons of rock from the riverside, spread it along the edge of the pond and then surrounded it all with weeping willow saplings. He even stocked it with bass and blue gill. That pond – half the size of a football field and 20 feet deep – was quite impressive for a backyard endeavor. If he’d ever loved anything in his life, it was that little body of water.

Harold spent a lot of time out there over the years. He even had a tiny boat he’d row back and forth just to feel the water flow underneath him. As a matter of fact, the last time Edna saw Harold, he was in that boat, frantically waving his arms and hollering for her to help him. His little boat had sprung some leaks, likely due to the holes Edna had thrust through its bottom with Harold’s awl. Just as she’d anticipated, it didn’t really start to take on much water until it had labored under Harold’s huge frame for a while. By then, he was sitting well out in the center of the pond. Seeing as how he’d never learned to swim, and he thought life jackets were for sissies, Harold was up the proverbial creek with a paddle that was about as useful as tits on a boar.

Momentarily transported back to that fateful day – the day after their 30th wedding anniversary – Edna recalled how she watched her husband from the kitchen window. Watched as he flailed about, teetering back and forth in his sinking vessel. Watched until the white tips of his fingers were the only things visible. Then they, too, disappeared beneath the water’s surface. She remembered reaching up to push an errant strand of hair from her face and wincing as her hand brushed against the newest bruise. Only a few hours had passed since that last beating, but her left eye had already swollen shut.

People talk about memories flooding back, but that wasn’t the case here. This one was always milling around in her mind, just under the surface. Funny how the sheriff’s office never did much back then about her husband’s “disappearance.” Edna was always too scared to press charges, but they all knew Harold liked to knock her around, and they were pretty sure she miscarried her only two pregnancies with a little help from his size 13 work boots. In those days, the good old boy network was alive and kicking in their little town and, when it came to domestic violence, the authorities generally turned a blind eye in hopes the problem would remedy itself. So, even though Harold Withers was officially listed as a Missing Person, they likely figured she was better off with him gone. Why rock the boat? No pun intended.

Now, as Edna pulled down the window shade, she felt more at peace than she had in three decades. Everybody knew now, and it was just a matter of time before they did more than merely ring the bell and stuff notes under her door. “That’s fine,” she sighed. “Let ‘em come. I’ll be waiting.”

Edna took her medicine bottles from the windowsill and carried them over to the table. Settling back into her chair, she lined them up in front of her.

“Well, now. Don’t we have a pretty bunch of pills here? We’ve got blue ones for the ol’ ticker, yellow ones for thick blood, purple ones for heartburn, pink ones to sleep and white ones for pain. All those happy colors. And always there when I need ‘em.”

One by one, Edna picked up the bottles and popped off each lid. They were all fairly recent refills and the contents filled her palm. But Edna was a tough one. She managed to swallow every last pill without draining the juice from her glass.

Picking up the flyer once again, Edna stood and – shuffling more slowly than usual now – she returned to her chair in the living room. She eased herself down, took the remote from the side table, and turned on the TV. “Oh, good,” she whispered. “The Today Show. I like that nice weatherman.” She let the wrinkled paper drop to the floor and hugged the remote to her chest while she smiled at Al Roker.

Six Days Later

“Man, Potts, I can’t believe this stench!” The young officer turned his face and gagged.

“Yeah, well, now we know why people around here have been putting up such a fuss on the mayor’s hotline.” Potts’ words were muffled from behind the handkerchief he held over his nose and mouth.

“Why do we always get the shit detail? That’s what I’d like to know.” The first officer was huffing out breaths like he was practicing Lamaze.

“Andrews, quit your bitchin’ and just ring the doorbell.”

“Okay, fine…don’t get your panties in a twist.” Andrews hit the button and then wiped his sleeve across the sweat that clung to his forehead. A mid-August sun beat down on the pair as they stood on the roofless porch.

When no one answered, Potts said, “Maybe the old lady’s asleep. Try again.”

Andrews held his finger over the button, hearing the doorbell chime repeatedly until he let up. They waited an interminable three minutes and Andrews turned to the other officer. “There’s no answer. Let’s just let ourselves in and get this over with.”

Potts nodded and stared expectantly at Andrews. Andrews stared back. Potts tilted his head to one side and said, “Well, are we gonna stand here making googly eyes at each other all day or are you gonna open the lock?”

“What? I don’t have the kit. I thought you had it.”

“Jeez Louise!  So, what…we have to go back to the station and get it?” Potts looked heavenward and sighed. “I just want to get in and get out and go have a damn beer!”

“Fine, fine, I’ll bust the sidelight. We’ll tell Chief it was already like that when we got here.” Andrews bent down and picked up a loose brick from the step.

Looking down at the ceramic shards near the door, Potts said, “We can chalk it up to vandals. Looks like somebody already did a number on one of her flowerpots.”

“Probably just a cat or something. Stand back.” Potts moved to the edge of the porch while Andrews tapped the corner of the brick against the glass. It broke easily. “Wow, a gust of wind could’ve cracked that sucker.”

“Single pane, but no surprise there. It’s a pretty old house.” Potts stepped back up behind Andrews and said, “Okay, no stopping now. Let’s get in there.”

Andrews knocked aside a few glass fragments and reached through the window to undo the locks. He swung the door in and both men staggered as the putrid air swirled around them.

“Aagghh…oh, man…where’s my rag?” Potts covered his face again and, blinking back tears, he stepped into the hall. Andrews followed.

“Mrs. Withers?” Potts called. “It’s the police, Mrs. Withers. We got a call that you might need some assistance. Are you able to answer?”

No response. But then, they didn’t expect one. The steamy, fetid air surrounding them didn’t bode well for any signs of life.

Andrews and Potts walked down the hall to the living room and there, bathed in warm sunlight, sat Edna Withers. Purple, swollen twice her normal size and smiling.  Edna was as dead as a skunk on a highway and smelled twice as bad.

“Well,” Potts mumbled from behind the kerchief as he walked to the kitchen, “let’s call it in. The coroner can take over from here. And it doesn’t look like foul play. Check out these prescription bottles. All empty and, from the dates on them, they should be at least three-quarters full. Looks like Old Lady Withers sent herself home to the Big Guy in the sky.”

“Yeah, looks like,” Andrews said. “Hey, what’s this?” He bent down and looked at a piece of paper on the floor by Edna’s foot. “Looks like some kind of flyer.” He read it and shook his head. “Huh. Wonder what it says on the other side.” He started to pick it up when Potts yelled at him.

“Don’t touch that!  It’s evidence. You know we can’t rule out homicide until the coroner gives the green light.”

“Fine, I won’t touch it. I’ll just flip it over with my shoe.” He slipped his toe underneath the paper’s edge and exposed the other side with a quick flick of his foot. “Oh, big whoop. No mystery here. Didn’t have anything to do with Mrs. Withers buying the farm.” Andrews started for the front door. “You’re right. We need to get this called in, but let’s do it from the car. I gotta get away from this smell!”

As they were heading down the walk, Potts asked, “So what was on that flyer, anyway?”

“Nothing pertinent. It was just some cheap ad. The front had a picture of a guy up to his eyeballs in water, and it said ‘It’s no secret. Everybody knows.’. The other side said something like ‘Drowning in debt is no fun. Let Johnson Finance save you.’ It sure didn’t cause that old lady’s death.”

“I don’t know,” Potts said as he opened the driver’s side door. “Maybe that is what killed her. You know…death by junk mail.” He waved his hands around his head and whistled a very bad rendition of The Twilight Zone

Andrews rolled his eyes and both men laughed as they climbed back into the cruiser. 

Care to Share?

Being Basil

Basil was often considered – and perhaps unfairly – to be an odd child.  Unusually quiet, she was a bit of a loner and nearly always had her nose stuck in a book.  Her name didn’t help matters, either.  It originated, not from an affinity for the actor Rathbone, but rather a particular fondness for the herb, and it had been thrust upon her by a domineering grandmother.  Basil’s father died before she was born – apparently a freakish accident involving an abandoned quarry, a pogo stick, a bet and a great deal of gin – and her mother was a nonconfrontational little creature with an inability to stand up for her convictions.  Had her mother been a bit more strong-willed, Basil might have answered to a more mainstream name like Kimberly or Nicole, thereby avoiding a plethora of unpleasant playground taunts.  She never cared much about the opinion of others, though, so her mother’s failure to insist on a more pleasing moniker was a moot point. 

This morning, as she lingered in the sunbeam shining across her bed, Basil thought about the day’s possibilities.  It was the first day of summer vacation and, at the moment, Granny hadn’t made any demands for her time.  That would come soon enough, but right now it felt luxurious to burrow into her pillow and watch the dust bits dancing in the sunlight. 

The sounds and smells of breakfast made it hard to stay in bed long, so Basil threw back her sheet, stretched her legs up and pointed her toes at the ceiling.  She scissor-crossed her ankles a couple of times and then flung her body sideways, rolling off the mattress and landing quietly on her feet.  She took off her nightgown, folded it and put it under her pillow.  After quickly making her bed, she ran a brush through her hair, pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, and strolled barefoot across the room to the door.  It was open a few inches as always – Granny didn’t allow anyone full privacy – and Basil paused as she reached for the knob.  The phone was ringing.  She leaned closer to the opening and listened. 

Before it had a chance to ring a third time, Basil heard her grandmother’s firm voice.  “Yes, who’s calling?”  After a few seconds of silence, there was a gasp followed by the clatter of something landing on the oak floor below.  Basil tiptoed out of her room – instinctively knowing where to step to avoid the creaky floorboards – and she leaned over the railing that ran the length of the upstairs hall above the foyer.  She watched her grandmother slowly bend down, pick the receiver up off the floor and place it back on the phone’s cradle.  Granny used the small hall table for support as she straightened up fully, ran her hands along either side of her head to smooth her hair and then walked back toward the kitchen. 

When the sounds of breakfast preparations recommenced, Basil padded down the steps and gave the phone a passing glance before making her way to the dining room.  Granny had the table set for three, as she always did, and Basil took her usual seat, facing the door to the kitchen.  She was barely settled in her chair when Granny came through the swinging door with a large tray in her hands.  After putting it down where there was no place setting, her grandmother took a large, covered bowl from the tray and placed it on the table.  She then set two covered plates next to the bowl and carried the empty tray back through the door to the kitchen.   

Basil silently counted the seconds – 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, 4 Mississippi, 5 Mississippi – and watched the door swing open again revealing Granny holding the same tray.  Only this time it held two glasses of juice, a glass of milk and a steaming cup of what Basil knew to be creamed coffee.  Granny never deviated from her routine.  She would ready the tray with the breakfast food and bring that out first, then it would take her exactly five seconds to walk briskly back into the kitchen, place the prepared drinks on the tray and set the door to swinging again as she made her way into the dining room for the second time.  The old woman may have seemed ancient, but she moved fast. 

Granny set a glass of juice and the glass of milk at Basil’s place setting.  She then set the other glass of juice and the cup of coffee by the place setting at the head of the table.  There were no beverages for the third place setting.  Basil pretended not to notice.  Clearly, her mother hadn’t come home last night.  It was something that happened often and always went without comment. 

After Granny situated herself in her chair, she placed her napkin in her lap.  She waited for Basil to do the same.  Once satisfied, she bowed her head and, with a side-glance to her right, she nodded sharply for her granddaughter to follow suit.  Basil closed her eyes and bent her head down until her nose touched the rim of her plate, causing her to stifle a giggle.  This time it was Granny who pretended not to notice. 

“Lord, bless this food for our nourishment and watch over this unabashedly irreverent child.  Amen.” 

Granny lifted the cover from the bowl and spooned a large helping of scrambled eggs onto Basil’s plate.  She uncovered the two plates which contained bacon and buttered toast and served two slices of each to Basil.  She repeated the process for herself and quietly began to eat.   

With the exception of the nudging glance before saying grace, Granny had not made eye contact with Basil.  This was also routine, along with eating their meals in silence.  But Basil broke the pattern this morning. 

“Granny, who was that on the phone?”  She carefully watched her grandmother’s face to see if her expression might give away what surely would be missing from her answer. 

Granny set her fork down next to her plate, looked Basil squarely in the eyes and said, “Curiosity killed the cat.”  She then retrieved her fork and went back to eating. 

About the only thing of interest that Basil saw in Granny’s response was that her mouth twitched, ever so slightly, before she looked up and spoke.  That, and her hand shook a bit as she raised the fork to her lips.  The meal continued on in silence. 


As expected, once the breakfast dishes were cleared and the day was truly underway, Granny handed Basil a sheet of paper. 

“Get started now so you can be finished by lunch time.  I’ll be checking to see how you’re coming along.”  Granny’s tone was never overly harsh, nor did it contain any hint of affection.  She spoke with a matter-of-fact flatness that gave no indication of how she felt one way or another.  Basil turned the paper over in her hand and read the list. 

  1. Bring in the newspaper. 
  2. Dust the downstairs furniture. 
  3. Vacuum the downstairs carpets. 
  4. Sweep the front and back porches. 
  5. Take out the trash. 

Lunch would be served promptly at noon which gave her four hours to finish everything on the list.  Piece of cake.  The dusting took the most time, and the vacuum cleaner was heavy and hard to handle, but that was no problem.  Basil had been doing chores since she was old enough to hold whatever implement was needed to complete the task.  Now 12 years old, even the vacuuming was getting easier. 

After lunch, Granny would hand Basil a list very similar to the first one, but it would be for the upstairs.  Instead of the newspaper, she would need to bring in the mail and, instead of sweeping porches, she’d be cleaning bathrooms. 

This would be repeated every weekday during summer vacation.  Why her grandmother felt the need to give her new lists every day was beyond her.  Basil knew the chores by heart, but it was another routine that never changed, and she’d learned long ago to simply play along.  Granny didn’t allow others to work in her kitchen, though, so that was one area Basil didn’t have to think about.  She didn’t have to worry about outside chores, either.  Granny relied on Harlan Thomas, a local handyman, to do the yardwork and any other maintenance the old white farmhouse required.  Lucky for him, he was dependable and very good at his job.  Granny was exceptionally particular and not the least bit shy about pointing out inefficiencies in others. 

On Saturdays, Basil was allowed to do as she pleased and, although she did have to attend church every Sunday morning with Granny, her Sunday afternoons were free, too.  As she started on her morning list of chores on this sunny Monday, Basil made a mental note that freedom was only five days away, and her first order of business on Saturday would be to go to the library.  No amount of reading ever felt like enough to her.  There was only one place she’d rather be than searching those dusty old shelves for her next great escape, and that was a quiet corner where she could curl up and lose herself in a good book.  Smiling at the thought, she hummed quietly as she went out to get the paper. 


Routine fell by the wayside just before noon.  The trash cans were behind the garage and, as Basil started back toward the house to return the empty wastebaskets, she saw a black and white sedan pulling into the drive.  She didn’t need to read the writing on the side or make out the person behind the wheel to know it was Sheriff Peterson.  While their little town did boast a sheriff, two deputies and a middle-aged frump who answered the station phone, Basil was well aware that no one but the sheriff was allowed to drive that car.  The deputies had to use their own vehicles which, to her, always seemed a little unfair. 

The sheriff got out of the car and motioned Basil over to where he was standing.  “Hello, there, young’un.  Nice day for chores, isn’t it?” 

Basil wasn’t accustomed to adults making small talk with her, so she simply nodded her head and squinted up at him to see what else he might have to say. 

“Not much of a talker, are you?”  He tilted his head and then nodded up at the house.  “Is your granny inside?” 

This time, Basil figured it might be wise to at least try to be polite.  “Yes, sir.  She’s probably in the kitchen.  I can go get her for you.” 

The sheriff shook his head and smiled.  “No, no, that won’t be necessary.  I’ll go on up and knock.  But I need you to do me a favor.  Can you do that?” 

Basil continued to squint up at him.  She wasn’t being intentionally rude, but he was a lot taller than she was and the sun was right over his head.  “Sure, I guess so.” 

“Great,” he said, as he bent down to her eye level.  “I need for you to find something to keep yourself busy outside while I go in and talk to your granny.  It’s grownup stuff and we can’t be interrupted.  Do you know what that word means?” 

“Interrupted?  Uh…yeah,” Basil replied, not even trying to hide her annoyance.  

The sheriff laughed and ruffled Basil’s curly brown pixie before he headed to the porch.  When he got to the top step, he turned and hollered back at her, “Remember what I said.  You just stay outside.” 


Basil counted to a hundred, then snuck up under the front room window and pulled herself up enough to peer inside.  Granny was sitting on the sofa with her head bent down while the sheriff sat next to her.  Basil couldn’t hear what he was saying but, from the looks of things, it wasn’t anything good.  She stayed low and tiptoed along the front of the house until she was out of their view, and then she walked over to the garage to wait.   

She waited a long time.  From the way the sun had shifted, she figured the sheriff had been in with Granny for almost an hour.  For most of that time, Basil sat in the shade with her back against the side of the garage, thinking about what kinds of books she wanted to check out on Saturday.  After a while, her butt got numb, so she pulled herself up and began pacing back and forth in the driveway.  At that point, instead of daydreaming about the library, she was trying her best to ignore the rumbling in her stomach.  Lunch was always at noon – even at school – and when a body got used to that, a delay like this was downright bothersome.   

She was considering going over to the outside spigot for a drink when she heard the squeak of the front screen door.  Granny was standing too far inside for Basil to see her, but she watched as the sheriff tipped his hat to her grandmother and then made his way off the porch.   

Losing any hint of deference to authority, Basil ran over and blocked the door to the sheriff’s car.  “You were in there a really long time.  What’s going on?” 

“Whoa, there, missy!  That’s no way to talk to me.”  The sheriff crossed his arms and stared down at her.  “Didn’t your granny ever teach you to respect your elders?” 

Thinking she might have gone too far, Basil stared at the ground and nodded.  “Yes, sir, she did.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that…” 

“I know,” he gently interrupted.  “It’s scary to have the police come to your house and not know why.”  Bending down, he looked her in the eye the way he had earlier.  “Like I said before, we had grownup things to talk about.  We’re done now, though, and I know your granny is waiting for you to come in so she can explain everything.  It’s her place to tell you, not mine.  Does that make sense?” 

“Yeah,” Basil said.  “I guess so.” 

“Good,” he smiled and stood back up.  “You go on inside now.” 


Basil walked softly through the shadowed foyer and glanced into the front room.  Not finding Granny there, she went through the dining room and listened outside the door to the kitchen.  She heard the refrigerator door close, then a drawer being slid open and suddenly the clanking of some sort of utensil hitting the floor.  She pushed the door open and saw Granny leaning back against the counter with her face buried in her hands.  The carving knife was lying on the linoleum next to her feet.  Basil walked over and picked up the knife, pretending not to notice as her grandmother turned away and wiped her eyes. 

“Granny, I can make the sandwiches.  Why don’t you go sit at the table?”  Basil had never been allowed to do much in the kitchen, but she’d watched plenty of times when her grandmother – and sometimes even her mom – went about the business of sandwich assembling.  It didn’t look very complicated. 

Keeping her back to Basil, Granny nodded and said, “That would be nice.”   

Frowning, Basil watched her grandmother disappear into the dining room, and then she turned back to the task at hand.  The bread and leftover roast were already out, so she rinsed off the knife and set to work, carefully slicing off enough meat for two sandwiches and spreading mustard on the bread before putting it all together.  Placing the sandwiches on small plates and adding one cookie to each, she set the plates on the tray and carried it into the dining room.  Her grandmother was sitting in her usual place at the head of the table, simply staring out the window.  After setting one plate in front of Granny, and the other at her own place at the table, Basil returned to the kitchen and filled two glasses with lemonade.  Not trusting herself to balance those on the tray, she carried them back by hand.  Granny appeared not to notice as Basil set a glass down in front of her.   

Once in her own chair, Basil started to reach for her sandwich and stopped short, realizing Granny hadn’t said grace.  Several seconds passed before Basil cleared her throat and asked, “Aren’t you going to pray, Granny?” 

Granny slowly turned to face Basil and said, “No, child.  It won’t change anything.” 

Trying to force the lump in her throat back down into her stomach, Basil looked at her plate without seeing it.  Her appetite was a fading memory.  She didn’t know what was going on, but she knew it was bad.  And for the first time since she was a little kid imagining monsters in the dark, she was very, very scared. 


It was an unseasonably hot day for this early in June, and Basil tugged at her dress collar as it clung to the back of her neck.  She so badly wanted to put on shorts and go outside, disappearing into the cool shade of the tree grove beyond the back yard.  She wanted to pretend all of these people weren’t milling around her house, shaking their heads and wiping their eyes.  She wanted her mother to come bouncing down the stairs like she had so many times before – giggling for no apparent reason and offering to take Basil to town for ice cream. 

But Basil’s mother would never bounce down those stairs again.  Not ever.  Five days earlier, the sheriff had made a visit to their home that spoiled everything.  A visit to confirm what he’d called about that same morning.  He brought news that was like a cancer to their very existence and now nothing would ever be the same.   

Dead.  Basil’s mother was dead.  She’d been out with one of the locals who was known to play fast and loose with the speed limit, and one small mistake sent them sailing off a sharp curve into Tannon’s Quarry.  The same quarry that took Basil’s drunken father all those years ago.  When the police arrived at the scene and struggled their way down to the huge rocks below, they found a smashed-up Corvette and, ironically, two completely sober bodies. 

Still a young, pretty woman who liked to go out and party, Basil’s mother did the best she knew how.  She was a constant disappointment to Granny but, when it came to Basil, she loved spending time with her daughter.  It wasn’t necessarily what you’d call quality time – Basil never really felt like her mother understood her or the things she was interested in – but it was always fun time.  Like going for ice cream on a whim, playing Crazy Eights on the back porch or racing down the long gravel drive to the mailbox.  Basil knew she was more mature than her mother in many ways, but that didn’t make her love her any less.  Now she guessed all she had left to love were the memories.  The thought of that just made her feel worse. 

Continuing to pull at her collar, Basil tried to be invisible by sitting in a shadowed corner of the living room.  She didn’t want all those people there, but they were there all the same, and she was powerless to do anything about it.  Most of them were friends of her grandmother’s, but there were a few who were closer to Basil’s mother’s age.  Some of Basil’s classmates were even there with their parents.  She didn’t have many true friends, but there were a couple of kids Basil sat with at lunch.  Millie Andrews was one of them, and Dustin Shutt was the other.  They were there now with their parents and heading her way.  Basil’s stomach was a knotted ball of barbed wire, but she sat up in her chair and tried to look normal.  Not because she cared one way or the other about what people thought of her, but she knew it was important not to embarrass her grandmother.  Granny was dealing with enough as it was, and the last thing she needed was to have to explain why her granddaughter was hiding in the corner like some scared animal. 

Millie was the first to speak.  “Hi, Basil.  Sorry your mom’s dead.”   

“Millicent!”  Her mother’s face reddened. “You apologize this instant!” 

Basil surprised herself by smiling.  “It’s okay, Mrs. Andrews.  She’s not wrong.  My mom is dead.” 


Basil and Granny stood on the porch and watched as Harlen, the last mourner, drove away in his work truck.  The heat had let up a little and it wasn’t as humid as it had been earlier.   

“There’s a cool front moving in,” said Granny as she walked over and sat down in one of the porch rockers.  “Go up and change into more comfortable clothes, and then come back down to sit with me.  I know you’ve been feeling downright tortured having to wear that dress all day.” 

Basil didn’t move.  This was the closest to a friendly encounter she’d ever had with her grandmother.  It felt foreign, and more than a little awkward, but it was also sort of nice and she didn’t want to do anything to break the spell.  She looked at her grandmother – really looked at her for perhaps the very first time – and noticed how fragile she appeared.  Sitting there, still wearing her funeral garb, she wasn’t the stoic woman Basil was accustomed to.  She seemed frail and sad and maybe even a little lost. 

“Go on now, child.  And maybe you could bring out a couple of glasses of lemonade when you come back down.  I sure do think that would hit the spot.”  Her grandmother rocked slowly back and forth, a hint of a smile on her tired face. 

“Uh, yeah, sure…I can do that.”  Basil gave her grandmother one more glance before running inside. 

Upstairs in her room, Basil threw her dress into her hamper and put on some jeans and a fresh tee shirt.  Her mind was whirling.  She shoved her own sadness aside and thought deeply about what her mother’s death meant to her grandmother.  Basil always felt like her mom never quite lived up to Granny’s expectations.  But then, Basil never felt like she did, either.  She often wondered if there was anyone on the planet who could measure up in Granny’s eyes.  She hadn’t stopped to think about what her grandmother must be feeling right now, though.  To lose your only child – even if that child caused you many disappointments – why, that must be just awful.  Horrible, actually.  If Granny’s heart was hurting anywhere near as much as Basil’s, then it was a pain that was deep and dark and endless.   

Basil had been suffering that pain all week.  She’d cried herself to sleep each night since they got the news.  Granny hadn’t given her the usual chore lists, but Basil did every task each day anyway.  She needed to keep busy because it was the only thing that helped to blunt that deep, dark, endless pain.  She caught her grandmother silently watching her at times, and she almost felt like she was being spied on, but now she thought it was probably something much less sinister.  Maybe Granny was just working through her own pain as best she could.  Once she considered that, Basil was ashamed that it never occurred to her before.  She slipped her tennis shoes on and hurried back downstairs. 


Remnants of an orange sunset were barely visible above the trees and two empty glasses sat in sweat rings on the floorboards between the rockers.  Besides a “Thank you” and a “You’re welcome” when the lemonade was presented, neither Basil nor her grandmother said anything until now. 

“Basil,” Granny gazed down at her hands, now folded in her lap. “I owe you an apology.” 

Shifting in her seat, Basil looked at her grandmother.  “Why?  What for?” 

Granny sighed and looked back at her granddaughter.  “Child, I know I’ve never been very welcoming.  Not to you.  Not to anyone, for that matter.  It’s a part of my nature that I’ve always hated but never knew how to fix.  Your mother, God rest her soul…well, she took the brunt of it.  She walked a path I didn’t approve of, but she never deserved the way I treated her.  There are reasons for me being the way I am, but those aren’t for your ears.  At least not until you’re older.  It’s too late now for me to tell my sweet daughter how sorry I am, but I want you to know I’m going to try to do better.”  Shaking her head, she continued, “No, that’s not right.  I am going to do better.” 

“Uncomfortable” didn’t even come close to describing what Basil was feeling as she watched her grandmother wipe the tears away.  But she was pretty intuitive and had a good instinct about what she needed to do in that moment.  Granny was baring her soul and, more than anything, she wanted her grandmother to know it was safe to do so.   

Basil got up and knelt next to the other rocker.  Putting a hand on her grandmother’s shoulder, she said, “We can probably both do better, Granny.  I mean…I know I’m not perfect.”  Basil’s voice caught as she went on.  “I really miss mom and I know you do, too.  But we’ve still got each other.  I guess we’re really about all each other has now.  Maybe we can figure out a new normal for the two of us.” 

Touching Basil’s face, her grandmother smiled.  It was a warm, genuine smile that reached all the way to her tear-damp eyes.  “I like the sound of that, Basil.  I really do.  Any ideas on how to make that happen?” 

Basil looked out at the fireflies and took a deep breath before answering.  Turning back to her grandmother, she said, “Well, for starters, maybe we could ditch the chore lists.  I mean, Granny, I already know what needs to be done.  I’m not a little kid anymore.” 

Granny’s eyes grew wide, and she put a hand over her heart. “The…the lists?  You want me to do away with the lists?  Oh, child, what are you trying to do to me?”  Before Basil could take back what she’d said, her grandmother pulled her into a tight hug and began to laugh.  “I’m just joshing.  Of course, we can…as you say…ditch the chore lists!” 

Warm tears streamed down Basil’s cheeks as she hugged her grandmother back and, somewhere in the back of her mind, she wondered why they had never done this before.  It was one of the sweetest feelings she’d ever known.  No matter what the future held, she wanted to make this moment last as long as she could.  Her mother may be gone, leaving behind a hurt that would never go away, but Granny was still very much here.   

And, as impossible as it would have seemed a week ago, this Granny was someone Basil couldn’t wait to get to know. 

Care to Share?


The waxy layer quickly melted off the wick, allowing a mild aroma to waft through the kitchen and into the front room while Mozart played softly in the background.  That was one of the great things about open concept living…fewer walls to block scents and sounds.

Stella dropped the lighter into one of her tote bags and pulled out a stack of brochures.  She placed them on the island and surveyed the kitchen.  Too much stuff sitting out on the counter, she thought.  Grabbing the toaster and blender, she stowed them inside a lower cabinet next to the mixing bowls.  She left the stand mixer, coffeemaker and utensil crock where they were, but something else was needed on the counter to create a feeling of warmth.  Stella unzipped her larger tote and pulled out a woven basket and a bag of rather convincing faux lemons and limes.  Dumping the pretend fruit into the basket, she set it on the counter near the sink and stepped back to take it all in.  Much better.

A quick visit to each of the other rooms in the house resulted in additional tweaks.  Toss pillows fluffed, towels refolded, slippers stowed in the closet and dirty clothes spirited out of sight inside the washer.  Once Stella was satisfied with the tidy reset, she went out to her car, opened the trunk and pulled out a lawn sign.  After inserting it firmly into the ground with a single thrust – Stella had wicked upper body strength – she went back inside to wait.


As the sun slipped behind the neighboring rooftops, Stella pulled her car into the garage.  Vacillating between whether to haul the tote bags into the house or leave them in the back seat, she chose the latter.  Order was important to her, and everything had its place, but it had been a very long day.  She was spent and wanted nothing more than to go inside and become one with the sofa.  The bags could wait.

Stella kicked off her shoes, poured herself a generous glass of wine and nestled into one end of the couch.  The open house had bustled with potential buyers and she intuitively knew multiple offers would be rolling in within the next 24 hours.  This was one of those times when she marveled at her good fortune because things hadn’t always been easy.  The man-child she married couldn’t handle fatherhood and flew the coop before their daughter’s first birthday, and being a single mom had been fraught with challenges.  But Carla was the light of her life and Stella’s ultimate goal was to make sure she never questioned her mother’s love…whether that meant the best bike on the block, pj dancing before lights out, or the perfect destination wedding. 

Stella worked hard to get her realtor’s license and, with a lot of late nights and determination, she managed to carve out a nice, comfortable life for daughter and herself.  When Carla made Stella a grandmother, it was hard to imagine life getting any sweeter.  Little Emily was a miniature version of Carla, and they gave Stella more joy than any human deserved. 

Of course, when Stella found herself cheerfully basking in her own happiness, her mind would often conjure up her father…a man she hadn’t spoken to in over two decades.  Dredging up the past was the one act of self-sabotage that no amount of introspection could conquer.  Stella learned long ago that it was useless to try to distract herself, so she reluctantly allowed her thoughts to wander back in time.


The youngest of two children, Stella grew up a bit spoiled.  Not necessarily in a bad way but, after a string of miscarriages, her mother was ecstatic when Stella entered the world and she absolutely doted on her.  She gave plenty of attention to Stella’s brother, too, but he was several years older and spent most of his time playing sports and hanging out with his friends.  As far as Stella’s father went, the car dealership he owned always took top priority.  When it came to spending time with the family or attending any sort of school functions, Cyrus Buckingham was generally a no-show.  That never really bothered Stella when she was growing up, though, because her real bond was with her mom.  She was happiest when they were together…just the two of them.

When Stella was a freshman in high school, her brother quit college and joined in the Army.  Stella remembered how upset their mother was over the prospect of her only son putting himself in danger as a soldier, but he seemed to thrive in the military.  While the letters he sent home were few and far between, when he did write he sounded optimistic about his future…excited even.  He said he was actually looking forward to returning to college after his enlistment ended. 

That never happened.  Shortly after Stella graduated high school, her parents were notified that her brother’s entire squad had been decimated during an air strike.  It seemed as though the world as they knew it came to an abrupt halt that day.  When Stella and her parents returned home from the funeral, her mother retreated to her bedroom and refused to communicate with anyone for weeks.  Ultimately, she was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital and, three days later, a nurse found her dead in her bathroom.  She’d ripped her hospital gown into long strips, braided them together and hung herself from the shower head. 

At age 18, Stella suddenly found herself motherless, brotherless and, for all intents and purposes, fatherless.  Her dad had never been one for conversation but, after this double tragedy, he threw himself even further into his work and Stella rarely saw him.  Whenever they were together, she tried to get him to interact with her, but he wouldn’t engage with anything more than one or two-word answers.  They became nothing more than strangers living in the same house so, after about a year, Stella took her small inheritance and moved to a studio apartment across town.  She made sure her father knew how to contact her, but he never called. 

Over the next few years, Stella attempted to stay in touch.  On the rare occasions when her father actually agreed to meet up, his discomfort was palpable.  He was all the family she had left, but he might as well have died with the rest of them because, even when he was there, he wasn’t really there.  Eventually, he stopped accepting her invitations altogether.  He missed her wedding and, when she called him after Carla was born, he congratulated her but never came to see the baby.  For a while, Stella continued to do whatever she could to bridge the gap between the two of them, particularly after her marriage ended.  She pleaded with him not to shut her out, but nothing she said seemed to make any difference.  Stella never stopped hurting over the loss of her mother and brother, and the continuous rejection by her father became too much to bear.  His apparent lack of interest broke her heart and her last conversation with him, one-sided as it was, ended in an eruption of all the pain and resentment she’d been harboring.  Before she could stop herself, she was screaming at him, spewing horrible things she didn’t truly mean because she wanted to hurt him as much as he was hurting her.  It wasn’t her proudest moment. 

Stella later regretted all those things she’d said, but she never apologized.  She never reached out to her father again at all.  In an effort to protect herself, she cut all ties and directed her energy toward creating a life without him.  Stella gradually found contentment, and she kept her hurt and disappointment about her father closed up in a little box in the back of her mind.  Only occasionally did she find herself lifting the lid to peer inside…like today.


The old grandfather clock in the corner began to chime.  Stella rubbed her hands over her face and let out a heavy sigh.  She hated that residual sense of melancholy that always accompanied those trips down memory lane.  Her wine glass was empty and, with the exception of those ten tubular tolls, the house was quiet.  Stella got up and went into the kitchen to rinse her glass.  Just as she was putting it in the dishwasher, her phone rang.

Stella hesitated to answer because she rarely got calls this late and didn’t recognize the number, but the chance that it might have something to do with Carla or Emily made her pick up.  “Hello?”

“Stella?”  The male voice on the other end sounded old and weary.

“Yes,” she said.  “Who’s calling?”

“This is Daniel Peterson.  You may not remember me.”

Stella’s brain went into file retrieval mode and she quickly realized the name was familiar.  “Mr. Peterson?  From the old neighborhood?”

“Yes, that’s right.  It’s been a long time,” he said, his voice perking up a little.

She hadn’t thought about Daniel Peterson in ages and couldn’t fathom why he’d be calling.  Unless, of course, it had something to do with her father.  That was an unnerving thought and she said, “It’s nice to hear from you, Mr. Peterson, but it’s pretty late.  What’s going on?”

After a slight pause, he said, “It’s about Cy…your dad, I mean.  He’s in the hospital.”

Stella took a deep breath and held it a moment before quietly letting it out.  “What happened?”

“Heart attack.  We were taking a walk like we do every Sunday afternoon and he just collapsed.  Up to that point, he seemed fine, but he was admitted several hours ago and is still unconscious.  Since I’m not kin, they aren’t telling me much.”

The room began to close in on Stella and she started to sweat.  Somewhere in her mind, she realized she should say something.  She just couldn’t seem to form any words.

“Stella?”  Mr. Peterson sounded a bit alarmed.  “Are you still there?”

Stella leaned against the kitchen counter to steady herself.  “Yes, sorry.  You just caught me by surprise.”  Without even thinking, she added, “I’m on my way.”


The pale man in the bed looked so very small.  He lay motionless, wires running from under his gown to a monitor by the head of the bed.  Stella moved from the doorway to the side of the bed and gently touched the back of his hand.  The soft, wrinkled skin was dotted with little age spots and blue, crooked veins.


No response.

“Dad, it’s me.  Stella.”  Still no response.  Feeling that old familiar stinging behind her eyes, she looked up at the ceiling as she tried not to cry.  She felt she barely knew this man and was surprised by the rush of emotion.


She flinched and turned around to see an elderly man standing just outside the door.  Glancing back at her father, Stella stepped away from the bed and left the room.

“Mr. Peterson, right?”  She held her hand out.

Daniel shook it and said, “Guess I’ve changed a little since you saw me last.  How old were you then?  Twenty or so?”

“That sounds about right,” Stella smiled and followed Daniel to the small waiting room down the hall.

“How about a cup of coffee?” Daniel asked as he gestured to one of the brown vinyl chairs.

Stella shook her head as she sat down.  “Thanks, but I’m jumpy enough as it is.  Seeing Dad like that…so vulnerable…I don’t even know how to process it.”

Daniel took the chair across from her and leaned forward.  “Listen, I know you and Cy haven’t been in touch lately, but…”

“Lately?”  Stella interrupted with an uneasy laugh.  “You can say it, Mr. Peterson.  My father and I have been estranged for more years than I care to think about.”

Daniel’s face reddened a bit.  “I’m really sorry, Stella.  I don’t want to cause any more bad feelings than there already are.  I just felt you have a right to know your dad is sick.”

Stella regarded this man who had been her father’s friend for as long as she could remember.  He was alert, but the dark circles under his eyes and the rasp of his voice told her he was bone tired.  She didn’t know if that was from all the events of the day, or life in general, but she was grateful that he’d reached out to her. 

“Mr. Peterson, you have nothing to apologize for, and I’m very glad you called.  Dad and I have our issues – no doubt about it – but, right now, that’s not important.  The important thing is for him to recover.”  Stella reached over and laid her hand on top of Daniel’s.  “Have you been here ever since they brought him in?”

Daniel nodded and smiled.  “He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my best friend.  I wasn’t about to just up and leave him here by himself.”

They sat in silence for a few moments and then Stella said, “Thank you for sticking around, but you really ought to go home and get some rest.  I’ll check in at the nurse’s station to see what they can tell me, and then I’ll just kick back in Dad’s room for the night.  Assuming they’ll let me, that is.”

Daniel didn’t move to get up.  “Before I go, there’s something you need to know…about your dad.”  He proceeded to tell Stella about all the times Cyrus had secretly checked in on her and her family over the past couple of decades.  He told her how her dad would sit on a park bench day after day in the hopes of catching a glimpse of his granddaughter and great-granddaughter when Carla took Emily to playground.  He told Stella her father even did that way back when she used to take young Carla to the park.  When she asked how it was possible she never noticed him there, Daniel explained just how good Cyrus was at not drawing attention to himself.  He didn’t want to be acknowledged.  He just wanted to be nearby.  Daniel even broke his friend’s confidence by telling her that Cyrus didn’t blame her for shutting him out of her life.  He understood why she did it, and he accepted full blame.

After saying their goodbyes, Stella stood at the waiting room door and returned Daniel’s wave as he stepped onto the elevator.  She stayed where she was, completely lost in thought, long after the doors slid closed.


Early the next morning, Stella awoke feeling stiff from sleeping in the chair next to her father’s bed.  She rubbed her eyes and looked over at him, listening to his soft breathing as he slept.  He was still so…still

Stella stood up, arched her back until she heard a pop, and began to pace around the room.  Remnants of a dream punched through her thoughts and she knitted the fragments together in her mind.  She dreamed she was 8 or 9 and had just won 2nd place in the art competition at the 4-H Fair.  Her entry was a watercolor of a grinning frog sitting on a purple lily pad.  In the dream, the fairground morphed into her father’s office at the dealership, and she saw her painting hanging on the wall behind his desk.  Her dad was in his chair, smiling and pointing at the picture, clearly proud of her accomplishment.  The more Stella pondered the dream, the more certain she was that it wasn’t a dream at all.  It was a true memory.  One she had tucked away and replaced with mental reenactments of all the times her father had disappointed her.  Who knew how many other good memories might be hiding back there?  She absently wiped a tear from her cheek as she started out of the room and nearly bumped into Daniel when he walked up with a cup of coffee in each hand.

“Mr. Peterson!”  Stella stopped short.  “Sorry.  I almost ran you down.  What brings you back here so early?”

“Please, call me Daniel.”  He grinned, looking a hundred times better than he had the night before.  “When you get to be my age, sleep abandons you a lot earlier than you’d like.”  Daniel offered Stella one of the cups and nodded his head toward Cyrus’s room.  “So, how’s he doing today?”

“There doesn’t seem to be any change.  I was just getting ready to find the doctor to see what the prognosis is.  Thanks for this,” she said as she accepted the cup of coffee and breathed in the aroma.  Stella tried to meet Daniel’s smile, but couldn’t quite manage it.

Stepping around her, Daniel started through the door to her father’s room.  “I’ll sit with him while you look for the doctor.  Might even talk to him.  Listening to me ramble on might be just enough to wake the old fart.  If for nothing else than to tell me to shut the hell up.”

This time Stella did smile.  She liked this man.


After a brief consultation with Cyrus’s doctor, Stella returned and found Daniel waving his arms around while regaling her father with some story from their younger days.  She coughed lightly and Daniel turned around and laughed.  “You caught me!”

“I did at that.  That must have been some tale you were telling.”  She walked around the bed and sat in the other chair.  “I appreciate you staying with him while I was gone.”

Daniel regarded her father and said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”  Looking back at her, he asked, “Were you able to talk to the doc?”

Stella nodded.  “I was.  He’ll be in shortly but wanted to assure me that it isn’t all that uncommon for a patient not to wake up right away after a heart attack.  And, fortunately, the episode itself wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.  He said if Dad hadn’t made it to the hospital when he did, it might have been fatal.”  Stella shook her head and sighed.  “Daniel, you may have saved my dad’s life.  I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that.”

“Aw, shoot, Stella.  He’d have done the same for me.”  Daniel sniffed and looked back at his friend.  Just as he was about to say something else, he heard a groan.

Stella was up in an instant.  “Dad?  Dad, can you hear me?”  She leaned over the bed and took hold of one of Cyrus’s hands.  “You don’t need to talk, just nod if you hear me.”

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Cyrus nodded.  One eye opened, then the other and, as he seemed to focus on the figure in front of him, his eyes grew wide.  “Stella,” he whispered.

“Shhh…you need to save your strength.”  Looking at Daniel she asked, “Would you mind finding the doctor and letting him know Dad’s awake?”

Without a word, Daniel was up and out the door.  Stella looked back at her father and saw that he was still staring at her.

“Is it…is it really you?”  His voice was low and shaky, but his words were clear.

Stella swallowed the lump in her throat and simply nodded.  Having her father awake and talking brought forth so many emotions, she didn’t trust herself to speak.  But she smiled.  A big, genuine smile just for him.  That was something she couldn’t recall ever doing before.  And then something happened that caused her heart to burst into a thousand happy pieces. 

He smiled back.

Care to Share?

The Silver Pin

Jacob leaned his forehead against the cool glass as he peered through the display window.  Tomorrow was Anna’s birthday and his pocket held exactly seven dollars and thirty-four cents.  Realizing there was no point wasting his time at Waldmann’s Jeweler’s, he wiped the smeared glass with his sleeve and turned to walk away.

“See something that interests you?”  The grinning proprietor popped his balding head out the front door.

Jacob jumped a little, and then shook his head.  “Oh…no, thanks.  Just daydreaming.”

“Ah, I know that look.  Something in my window has caught your eye.  Which piece?  Tell me.” Mr. Waldmann stepped outside to stand beside Jacob.

Pointing to a silver, dove-shaped pin in the back of the case, Jacob shuffled his feet and said, “My wife has admired that for ages.”

“Good eye, your wife.  That’s an estate piece.  A real bargain for two hundred dollars.” Mr. Waldmann’s grin exposed flawless false teeth.

“Don’t suppose you’d take seven,” groaned Jacob.

“So, it’s like that, is it?”  Mr. Waldmann’s expression didn’t falter.  “Tell me, you and your wife, how long together?”

Jacob couldn’t help but smile.  “Almost eight years.  She’s an extraordinary woman.”

“And for this extraordinary woman you offer less than one dollar a year?” Mr. Waldmann shook his head, but he smiled warmly and motioned to Jacob.  “Come.  Inside.  We will find a way to make your extraordinary wife a very happy lady.”

With nowhere else to go, Jacob shrugged and followed Mr. Waldmann into the shop.  The old varnished floor creaked with every footstep and, although the ambient lighting was dim, each individual display case was brightly lit, creating a silent symphony of shimmer and shine.  Glancing around at the jewelry and fine porcelain, Jacob was sure of one thing.  There wasn’t a single item he could afford.  No doubt about it.

Mr. Waldmann spirited the pin from its resting place and brought it over to the counter.  “Look how it sparkles under the lamplight.  The carvings look just like diamonds, don’t you think?”

“It’s beautiful.  But, Mr. Waldmann,” Jacob tilted his head and met the old man’s gaze.  “I have seven dollars.”

“You also have the pain in your eyes of a man who has been dealt a few bad hands in this life,” Mr. Waldmann said as he laid the pin on a velvet pad.  “What is your business?”

“I’m a carpenter.  But, with the economy as it’s been, there just hasn’t been much work lately.  Anna, that’s my wife, she even had to go back to waiting tables.” Jacob’s jaw clenched as he spoke.

“Times are hard to be sure.  My business is certainly not what it used to be.  You see this counter?”  Mr. Waldmann ran his crooked fingers along the wood trim.  “See how it has splintered along the side?  I cannot even afford this simple repair.”

Jacob’s expert hand stroked the wood.  It was a beautiful, smooth mahogany.  A simple repair, indeed.  He looked at Mr. Waldmann and decided he liked this man.  “Sir, I’ve nothing else going on right now.  If you want, I could have this fixed in a couple of hours.”

“Yes?  And how much to fix my wounded cabinet?” asked the old man.

Not wanting to create a hardship for the shop owner, Jacob did a quick mental calculation and said, “If you could see your way to pay twenty dollars, that would help me a lot.”

“Well!”  Mr. Waldmann clapped his hands together.  “What smart businessman could turn down such a fair offer?”

“My tools are in the truck, so I can do it right now.  That will give me time to go to the boutique next door and maybe find a little something for my wife’s birthday.” Jacob glanced back at the counter, his shadowed eyes reflecting the light as it glinted off the silver pin.

“Excellent!” said Mr. Waldmann, seemingly ignoring Jacob’s pained expression.  “As you can see, there are no customers to have to work around.  I will just stay out of your way.”  The old man walked over to his desk, sat down, and said no more.


As Jacob applied the last bit of varnish to the cabinet, Mr. Waldmann leaned on the opposite end.  “Looks good.  You got a real gift there.”

“Thanks,” Jacob said as he wiped his brow.  “Everything I know about woodworking, I learned from my dad.  He taught me there’s nothing better than the feeling of raw timber taking shape under your bare hands.  Well, almost nothing…” Jacob’s voice trailed off as he fingered his wedding band.

“Like the light in your wife’s eyes when you come through the door at the close of the day, yes?” Mr. Waldmann said as he came around to Jacob’s end of the counter.

Jacob sighed.  “Yes.  That’s really the best feeling I’ve ever known.”

Mr. Waldmann laid a hand on Jacob’s shoulder.  “I know something of that fine feeling myself.  My Clara, she made my heart sing.  May she rest in peace.”

Jacob’s eyes followed Mr. Waldmann’s gaze to a picture behind the counter.  “Is that her?”

“Yes.  My beautiful Clara.  Our life together was a good one.  Even during the leanest of times, all we needed to be happy was each other.  I miss her.” A solitary tear stole down Mr. Waldmann’s cheek, but his smile remained.  “Lucky for me, I am an old man.  Soon I will be joining her and nothing will ever separate us again.”

Jacob smiled at Mr. Waldmann.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Ah, for what are you thanking me?”

“You reminded me how lucky I am to have a wife who’s content to share a simple life with me.  I can always buy her a nicer present once business picks up.  It won’t be that beautiful pin, but I’ll come up with something.  For now, I’ll make do with a little gift from next door.”

As Jacob gathered up his tools, Mr. Waldmann pressed a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill into his hand.  “You did a fine job here.  I will be sure to tell my customers about the wonderful carpenter who repaired my cabinet.  Maybe some more work will come your way.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Waldmann.  I’ve got to say, I feel a lot more hopeful now than I did a few hours ago.”

The two men walked to the door and shook hands before Jacob stepped out into the early evening air.  Mr. Waldmann watched him enter the neighboring boutique, then hurried back to his desk.  He dialed the phone and, after a few seconds said, “Elena?  Otto Waldmann.  I need a favor.”


Jacob walked over to a display of accessories and began sifting through an assortment of delicate scarves.

“Sir, I have to step out for just a moment, but Lily here will assist you.” The boutique owner gently nudged the frail teen towards Jacob.  “I won’t be long.”

Blushing, the girl took a hesitant step forward.  “Um, uh…is there something special you want to see?”  Clearly nervous, she cleared her throat and said, “It’s my first day, so I don’t know where everything is, but I’ll do my best.”

“Well, Lily…it is Lily, right?”

“Uh, yeah, it is,” she said, turning a deeper crimson.

“These scarves are really nice.  I just can’t decide which one my wife would like best.  What do you think?” Jacob held up two lengths of filmy fabric.  One was pastel blue with faint swirls of white and silver threads running through it.  The other was a deep shade of plum with gold diagonal stripes.

Lily shyly pointed to the blue scarf.  “That one makes me think of a clear summer sky.  The purple one is just so dark.” She noticed the owner returning from the back room and hastened to add, “But they’re both very pretty.”

Jacob laughed.  He felt lighter than he had in a long time.  “I agree with you, Lily.  The blue is perfect.  It’ll be a nice compliment to my wife’s beautiful blue eyes.  How much is it?”

Lily looked behind the display of scarves and said, “These are all priced at $30.”

Jacob’s face fell, but before he could say anything, the owner said, “Oh, Lily, I forgot to mark down that blue one.  It’s half-price.”

“I’ll take it!” Jacob didn’t even bother hiding his relief.

Lily led the way to the cash register, and the owner stepped forward.  “I’ll take this in the back and wrap it while Lily rings up your purchase.  Am I correct in assuming this is a gift?”

Jacob nodded.  “Yes, tomorrow’s my wife’s birthday.”

“You’ve made a fine choice.  Your wife will be very pleased.” She disappeared into the back room, and Lily began ringing up the sale.

“Will that be cash or charge?”

“Cash.”  Jacob handed over the worn bill that Mr. Waldmann had given him.

The boutique owner soon returned holding a tidy package with a silk ribbon tied around it.  She handed it to Jacob as he dropped his change into his pocket.  “Thank you,” he said. “That looks really pretty.  My wife will like the wrapping almost as much as what’s inside.”

The owner smiled and nodded toward the package.  “That’s very nice of you to say, but I have a feeling your wife will be overjoyed with what’s inside.”


Anna woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee.  She yawned, stretched her arms out in front of her and turned to see that Jacob’s side of the bed was empty.  She grabbed her robe and pulled it around her as she padded barefoot into the tiny kitchen.

“Happy birthday, Your Highness.” Jacob gave an exaggerated bow and pulled a chair away from the table.  “Please be seated, and I will serve your first course.”

Anna laughed.  “My, aren’t we formal today?  And…first course? There’s hardly anything in the cupboard.  This can’t possibly be more than a bowl of oatmeal.”

“You are mistaken, my lady,” Jacob said as he placed a cup of coffee and a bowl of fresh fruit in front of her.

“What a surprise!  This looks wonderful, but where’s yours?”

“I already ate,” he said and sat down across from her.  “You need to eat up, though.  I have a surprise for you, but you don’t get it until after breakfast.”

Anna simply shook her head and smiled.  After a meal of fruit, scrambled eggs and pancakes, she leaned back in her chair and sighed.  “I don’t remember the last time I felt this royal.  Thank you, Jacob.  This was so nice.”

“Oh, it’s not over yet,” he said as he reached under the table and brought up the wrapped gift.  “Happy birthday, honey.”

Unable to hide her astonishment, Anna said, “Jacob!  You shouldn’t have bought me anything.  This breakfast was more than enough.”

Putting his finger to her lips, Jacob said, “Just hush and open it.  It’s not a lot, but I do think you’ll like it.”

Anna’s fingers trembled as they traveled lightly over the package.  She untied the ribbon, then carefully unfolded the paper and laid it aside.  Lifting the lid from the box, she pulled off the tissue and gasped.  “Oh, no!  What have you done?”  Tears filling her eyes, she pleadingly looked up at Jacob.  “You have to return this.  It’s too much.  It’s beautiful and, oh, I do love it…but it’s just too much.” Gazing back down at her gift, she began to cry softly.

Shocked by her reaction, Jacob rushed over and put his arm around her shaking shoulders.  “Anna, honey, it’s just a scarf.  It really wasn’t all that expensive, and I earned some unexpected money yesterday from…”

He stopped short and stared into the box.  The lovely blue scarf was folded neatly within and, nestled on top, was the pin.  The two-hundred-dollar silver dove pin.  Sunlight streamed in through the window and bathed the pin’s etchings, making them sparkle…just like diamonds.

“Jacob, I know you want me to be happy, but we just can’t afford this.  Please, you have to get your money back.” Anna’s tear-streaked face was ashen as Jacob shook his head.

“I can’t get my money back,” he said, not taking his eyes off the pin.  “I didn’t buy it.  I don’t have any idea how it got there.”

“Stop teasing me,” she said, offering a weak smile.  “You’ve really got to take it back.”

“Anna, I swear to you, I did not buy that pin.  I wanted to.  You have no idea how much.  No one deserves this more than you, but I couldn’t buy it.  I just didn’t have the money.” Running a hand through his hair, Jacob fought his own tears as he struggled to understand how this happened.  It was obviously a mistake, and he had no choice but to take the pin back to Waldmann’s shop.  But seeing it here, in his precious wife’s hands, made it so hard.  She did deserve it.  And if he weren’t such a poor provider, it would be hers.

Before he could say anything else, there was a knock on the door.  Anna wiped her cheek and asked, “Are you expecting someone?”

“No, nobody.”  Jacob straightened up and started toward the hall.  “I’ll be right back.”

When he returned a few moments later, his face was pale, and his hand shook as he handed a note to his wife.  She ran her eyes over the scrawled handwriting.

“My Dear Carpenter Friend, Jacob.

I am hoping this will reach you after you have presented your lovely wife with her birthday gift.  I did not tell you this, but I have seen her many times, gazing into my shop window.  I always knew which piece it was that drew her eye.  I have had several opportunities to sell it, but could never bring myself to do so.  You see, before my joints betrayed me, I was a silversmith, and that beautiful pin was a gift I crafted for my beloved Clara.  I gave it to her on our first anniversary, and she wore it proudly every day for over fifty years.  Before she died, she made me promise to give it to someone worthy.  Someone who would wear it with the same love that she did.  Someone who could look beyond its outward beauty and see the devotion with which it was created. 

I never found that someone…until yesterday.  You, my friend, are myself as a young man.  Struggling every day to do the very best for the one person who makes your heart sing.  Your eyes spoke to me of hardships that I, too, have known.  While you were here, my sweet Clara whispered to me, ‘This is the one.’  And I never second-guess my Clara.

I ask but one thing.  That your wonderful wife wear this pin often.  It needs the sunlight to show its beauty.  And, perhaps from time to time, you will take a moment to remember an old man’s love for his own special angel.

May your days and years be filled with the magic of each other’s devotion.

Your friend,

Otto Waldmann

P.S.  Some old friends visited me last evening and noticed your handiwork.  They were quite impressed and will be in touch with you soon.  They are in need of a fine carpenter such as yourself.  I wish you much luck.”


Anna let the letter drift down to the table as she picked up the silver pin.  Walking over to Jacob, she said, “I don’t understand.  What handiwork is he talking about?”

“Nothing much.  I just did a simple repair to his display counter.  But, Anna, something special happened while I was there.  I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say he opened my eyes to the riches in my own life.  He reminded me that the only thing of any real importance is our love for each other.”  Jacob glanced over at the letter.  “If we can be as happy together for as many years as Mr. Waldmann and his Clara were, then we’ll know we’ve been truly blessed.”

Jacob took the pin from Anna and gently placed it on the lapel of her robe.  Drawing her close, he kissed her hair and whispered, “I love you, Anna, and he put it better than I ever could.  You really do make my heart sing.”

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Clutching What Little Remains

Cyrus leaned back on the bench and kept his faded blue eyes on the little girl in the sandbox.  Seemingly unaware she was being watched, the child bit down on her lower lip in deep concentration as she created grainy mounds with a paper cup.  Midway between Cyrus and the sandbox, a sparrow danced around, picking at a discarded candy wrapper.  Orange and yellow leaves spiraled in the crisp breeze and gathered around the old man’s feet.

“Back at it, I see.”

Cyrus flinched and turned to see a familiar face.  “Aw, cram it, Daniel.  No harm in me sitting here enjoying the autumn air.”

“Autumn air, my ass.  Ah…” Daniel gingerly lowered his 78-year-old frame to sit beside Cyrus.  “You’d be bundled up here in a foot of snow if that little young’un was out there.  When are you gonna get it through that thick skull of yours that you’re wasting your time, Cy?  And precious time it is, at our age.”

“I don’t know what you’re babbling on about.” Cyrus shifted a bit and turned his attention back to the sandbox.  He watched the little girl jump up and run toward the parking area.  An attractive young woman, arms outstretched, was crouched there by a large oak tree.

Daniel gestured toward the woman and the little girl.  Although he couldn’t make it out from this distance, he knew that they each bore a slight resemblance to Cyrus.  “Do you ever think about how long you’ve been doing this?  Just sitting on this bench, watching first one little girl and now this one.  You think that, by some hook or crook, that woman over there is gonna holler this way and invite you home for the holidays or something?  She probably thinks you’re a lonely old fool with nothing better to do than loiter in the park.  Or worse, some creepy old perv that warrants a call to the cops.”  Daniel’s voice was stern, but his eyes were kind.  “Cy, you’ve been at this off and on for over twenty-five years.  And in all that time, have you ever once said a single word to either of them?”

Cyrus braced his hands on his knees and let out a grunt as he slowly stood.  With a half-turn to Daniel, he said, “You know as well as I do, I can’t do that.  It was the one promise I made to Stella that I intend to keep.  God knows, I broke all the others.”  He shook his head and watched as the woman took the little girl’s hand and led her to a car parked near the old oak.  “Just look at them, Daniel.  Carla sure did grow up into a real pretty woman.  And that little Emily?  Why, she looks just like Carla did when she was that size.  Just like Stella did, for that matter.”

Carla maneuvered the car along the lane through the park and stopped less than twenty feet from where the two men were talking.  She glanced over at them and politely smiled before pulling into the street.

Both men watched until the car turned out of sight, and then Cyrus shuffled toward the sandbox.  His knees sang like firecrackers as he knelt to retrieve the paper cup.  Carefully flattening it, he slipped it into the safe confines of his jacket pocket.  Cyrus didn’t turn when he heard the leaves rustle under Daniel’s footsteps, but he nodded to acknowledge the hand on his shoulder.

“Why do you put yourself through this, Cy?  I’ve been your friend for half a century, but I just can’t understand why you do it.  If Stella can’t forgive your mistakes, so be it.  Why go through this torment…spending your days spying on people you can’t have?”

Letting out a soft moan as he rose, Cyrus studied the clouds for a moment and finally glanced over at his friend.  Speaking slowly, as if to a child, he said, “Daniel, you’ve got the same wife now that you hoodwinked into marrying you more than fifty years ago, three kids who still call on Father’s Day, and I don’t know how many grandkids and great-grandkids.  Somehow, through all the years, you’ve managed not to screw it up.  You have a family, Daniel.  People who will sit at your deathbed and weep over the prospect of a life without you.”  Cyrus slipped his hand back in his pocket and fingered the rim of the paper cup.  “And what’ve I got?  I’ve got the wretched memories of a son who was blown apart a week before his tour was to end and a wife who hung herself in a mental ward because she couldn’t live without her boy.  I’ve got a hostile middle-aged daughter who blames me for everything that’s gone wrong in her life.  And I’ve got a granddaughter and great-granddaughter who probably don’t even know I’m still alive.”

In all the years Daniel had known Cyrus, he’d never heard him talk so much at one time.  Not wanting to jinx it by responding, he simply gestured to where they’d been sitting earlier.  Cyrus continued talking as he and Daniel headed back toward the bench.

“Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not crying foul.  I know better than anyone that I was a lousy husband and a worse father.”  Cyrus looked up at the tree leaves straining against the wind and then leveled his gaze to his friend’s lined face.  “Stella washed her hands of me because the one true thing she could count on was disappointment.  I did her wrong so many times, Daniel.  No one can fault her for not trusting me anymore…or for keeping me from her family.” 

The men let out simultaneous groans as they settled back down on the bench.  At some point during their walk back, Cyrus had pulled the flattened paper cup from his pocket.  Absently turning it over and over in his hands, he said, “Funny how a man doesn’t recognize what a dang fool he’s been until it’s too late to change things.  But I’m not about to go through life without at least seeing what’s left of my family now and then.  Even if it’s from a distance.”  Cyrus let out a small sigh and regarded the now empty sandbox.  “I may never get the chance to say a word to them, but I can still look at their faces and remind myself they’re real.  Call me a crazy old coot if you want to, but that gives me something to toss around in the dark when I’m lying awake at night.”

A single tear worked through the stubble on Cyrus’s cheek as he looked back toward the street where Carla’s car had turned.  “So, do you get it now, Daniel?  Do you see why I come here?  Even if I don’t have them, I’ve got the idea of them.  It’s a whole lot better than nothing.”

Daniel followed his old friend’s gaze.  Shaking his head, he shoved his hands deep inside his pockets.  “Sorry, Cy.  You’d think as long as we’ve known each other, I’d have figured all that out by now.  Guess I’m a bit slow on the draw sometimes.”

“A bit?  Hell, Danny-Boy, any slower and you’d be thinking backwards.”  Cyrus straightened his back, clapped his hand down on Daniel’s knee and forced a smile.  “So, old man, what do you want to do today?  Anna Peterson stopped by on her walk earlier and said Louise has fresh apple cobbler at the coffee shop.  How’s that sound to you?”

 “Sounds like a plan, Cy,” Daniel said, patting his friend’s hand.  “Sounds like a real good plan.”

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