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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gifts - 12/25

The old man staggered through the sliding doors, their glass clearer than the fog settling over his thoughts. Tinny music washed over him, mixing with the chill air pounding against his back. Glancing up, he winced and raised a hand to block the twinkling lights arching over the threshold.

"Excuse me," said a brisk woman in snow pants heaving at rickety cart.

"Pardon." The old man hobbled forward and angled to the side to give her room.

"Thanks," said the same woman, adjusting her purse on the cart's child seat as she pushed by. A pair of sparkling diamond earrings twinkled in the old man's thoughts like tiny stars in an otherwise empty night sky. Then the casters of her cart thunked over the entrance grate and hummed onto the tiles.

"Mommy..." said a little boy wearing a thick blue hat pulled low around his ears. He pointed one mittened hand at the old man while the other clutched his mother's knee length coat.

The image of a blue bike with a shiny frame and reflectors on the spokes burst into the old man's mind. He shook his head and the burnished tires and flame streaked handlebars faded.

"Come on, Eddie." Reaching down Eddie's mom snagged Eddie's hand and kept his pace from slowing.

The old man watched Eddie's mouth gape and eyes bug out above rosy cheeks. Eddie waved his other mittened hand.

Waggling his fingers, the old man found his hand covered in dark leather gloves with hand stitching. Downy fur the color of freshly fallen snow ringed his wrist. Rubbing at his temple, he brushed against soft fluff around his head and a pair of wire thin glasses.

"Are you alright, sir?" A uniformed clerk stepped slowly toward the old man. Her brown eyes sparkled with concern and reflected the blinking decorations. Her cherry red shirt carried a name tag with flickering lights around the letters CAROL.

"I'm afraid I'm a bit turned about," said the old man. He let out a low chuckle and felt his belly shake. Swirling into his thoughts came the image of a fireplace warming a cozy living room wrapped in mist.

"You look a little shaken up," said Carol, her frown fading slightly beneath a red stocking cap lined with white faux fur. She gestured toward a nearby bench roped in fake pine ribbon. "Would you like to have a seat?"

"Yes, I think I will." Leaning one hand against the concrete wall, the old man guided himself toward the wood slatted seat. His hand brushed aside plastic garlands and caused the ornaments to clink against one another. He hefted himself down onto the bench under Carol's watchful gaze.

"Is there someone I can call for you?" She smiled and dropped down into a crouch so she had to look up into his face.

Bubbling laughter and the scent of apple pie joined the hazy living room clinging to the old man’s thoughts. The old man stared down at his hands, blinking away the sudden image. In the place of the fading homestead, his bright red and furry pants came into view and disappeared into shiny black boots.

"Sir?" Carol tilted her head and her hat jingled.

The old man looked over at her and shrugged. The frown returned to Carol's tired eyes.

"I'm afraid I'm a bit muddled at the moment."

"Why don't you wait here and I'll get my manager."

"I think I just need to catch my breath."

"Take your time," she said, patting the bench railing. "I'll be right back." Carol straightened and took a few steps backwards before pivoting and walking briskly down the line of checkout stands.

The old man watched her leave and then trickled his gaze over the clustered registers. A few inquisitive faces turned toward him. The mouths of children hung open and a few whispers were exchanged along with credit cards and bills. Scattered images of video games, a crisp office, money, and distant destinations swarmed across the old man's mind as he lingered on various individuals in the checkout lines.

Shaking his head, the old man shifted his gaze to tiles between his boots. Lifting one foot, he found soot falling off in tiny puffs, leaving prints on the floor.

A pair of neon green rubber boots stopped next to his and the old man glanced up.

"Hi," said a girl with a pair of pig-tail braids dropping off her shoulders and a set of tortoise shell glasses perched on a stub nose.

"Hi there," said the old man. He caught his own reflection in her thick frames. His beard drooped onto the chest of a fuzzy red suit and a cap, like Carol's, sagged above a set of snowy eyebrows.

The little girl drew her mittened thumb to her mouth. A hazy image of a woman's face swirled in the old man's thoughts.

"Are you him?"

The old man managed a weak smile. "Him?"

The little girl leaned in conspiratorially and raised her other hand to her mouth. "Santa?"

A wash of ice and brisk wind, the smell of hay and horse, the sweet scent of cookies and pine plowed over the old man in a chilly wave. The fog hanging over his thoughts cleared as if swept away by swift broom. Another belly shaking laugh burst from him, his whole body wallowing in the jiggle.

"And what if I was?"

The little girl's sapphire eyes widened.

"Then maybe-."


Susan shot a quick glance over her shoulder and stopped her words by stuffing more of her thick mitten into her mouth.

Following her startled gaze, Santa spotted a man with hair as dark as Susan's in a wooly coat looking around the bustling crowd.

"Daddy!" said Susan with a timid wave. Her father wheeled at the sound of her voice and locked on to her with a similar set of bright blue eyes. Gathering his groceries into his arms, Susan's dad hurried over.

"Daddy," said Susan pointing, "look it's Santa."
Susan's dad squeezed Susan's shoulder while he hefted the bulging canvas sacks on his hip. "I see," he said with a weak grin. "Sorry about this," he said to Santa.

"No, no," said Santa. "It's quite alright."

Susan clutched at her father's hand and tilted her head far back so she could see his face. "Can I ask him daddy?"

"Susan..." Her dad winced and cast his gaze anywhere but his daughter’s upturned face. "I'm sure he doesn't have time..."

Santa held up a quieting hand. "Ask me what, Susan?"

Susan's eyes flickered with hope as her gaze bounced between her father and Santa. She chomped on her mitten before taking one small step forward, her other hand trailing on her dad's arm like an anchor.

"He's over here." Carol weaved through the clustered customers, a balding man in a thin suit coat scurrying in her wake. Slowing as they neared, Carol gave the father-daughter pair a small smile.

"Hello, Jim. Susan," said Carol, glancing between the trio.

"Hi." Jim's mouth hung open as if to say more but closed into a timid grin as the balding manager arrived.

"What's...going...on…here," huffed the manager.

"Nothing," said Jim. He rested his hands on Susan's shoulder while his smile steadied. "We're just fine."

Carol's cheeks flushed as she twiddled at the decorating on her name tag.

Santa gestured toward Susan. "This young lady was just saying hello."

"Um hum," agreed Susan, pulling tighter into her father's protective grasp. She stared up at Carol, eyes wide and resumed gnawing on her mitten.

"I thought you weren't on until tonight." The manager's broad forehead furrowed as he scowled.

"Well, tonight is very important," said Santa, giving the manager a merry wink. "But I couldn't help stopping by."

"Do you...ah...have a ride?" asked Carol.

"Yes, yes." Santa heaved up onto his heavy boots. "And I think I should be going."

Susan looked over quickly. "But Santa..."

"Susan," said her dad with a squeeze.

"I'm sure Santa's very busy," added Carol. She dropped down to one knee before Susan, the little girl following her movements like a hungry bird.

"I think my work here is done anyway." Santa chuckled and patted Susan's dad on his shoulder.

"Right, right..." said the manager, crossing his arms. "We should all be getting back to work."

Wincing, Carol stood.

"On second thought," said Santa. "I could use some help out to the parking lot." He wobbled and steadied himself on the bench's railing.

"Of course." Carol stepped up to catch his elbow.

"Me too," said Susan, hurrying to the other side.

"I think I'll be just fine now." Santa gave the manager a broad smile and started shuffling toward the door.

The manager snorted and scuttled back through the departing customers.

With Carol on one arm and Susan on the other, Santa reached the sliding doors. A brisk gust chilled his cheeks and Carol let out a small whimper at the cold smacking into her short sleeves.

"Here," said Jim. He stepped around Carol as if to take her place at Santa's side.

Santa however took two strides forward and slipped free of Carol's grasp. Susan clung to his other arm as he turned. Jim and Carol shared a glance and smile as his arm wrapped around her instead of Santa. After a moment, Carol dropped her gaze and rubbed at her bare arms.

"Thanks, Santa," whispered Susan.

Glancing down, Santa gave the little girl a wink and then patted her head. Santa put one finger to his lips and Susan nodded as she released her hold on his arm. Santa gave the two grown-ups a broad smile neither seemed to notice.

As he back stepped into the parking lot, Santa's boots crunched thickening ice and another cloud began to descend across his vision. The mist smeared over the neon sign set above the store's florescent doorway and obscured the departing customers bundled in their winter attire. A hazy circle wrapped around Carol, Jim and Susan like a soft halo until the fog thickened and took them out of sight.

"To all a good night," said Santa as the brisk winds swept him up and carried him like a dream, out into the growing night.

Watching the Game - 12/22

The door bell chimed.

"I got it!" Adam raced toward the front door with pounding steps and a football tucked in the crook of his skinny arm. Frames rattled and the dishes in the dining room cabinet clinked.

Burt set down the crudités with ranch dip and strode after his son.

"It's the Andersons," shouted Adam as a crisp fall wind stormed across the opened threshold.

"Hey, Martin," said Burt. He reached over Gavin's shock of red hair to shake Martin's hand.

"Hey." They entered and Martin helped tugged off Gavin's jacket while Burt shut the door.

"Come on," said Adam, yanking at the other boy's arm, "the game's almost started."

"Lay off the snacks until kick off ok?" said Martin.

"Yeah," said the boys in tandem as they ran back into the den.

"Violet's got more," said Burt as he hung the Anderson's coats onto the stand stuck in the corner.

"She's good like that."

Burt smiled and shrugged. "Where's Bethany?"

Martin winced. Burt cringed.

"Get you a beer?"


Leading the way around the corner and into the wood paneled den, Burt stopped short as the football flew through the air across his path.

"Hey boys," said Burt as Gavin fumbled the ball. "Take it outside if you're going to play."

"We'll stop once the game starts," countered Adam.

Burt waved the boys off as he stepped behind the bar and pulled two brown bottles from the fridge. He popped the caps on the inset opener and thudded Martin's drink onto the counter.

"Thanks." Martin took the middle stool and folded his hands around the drink as he leaned into the bar.

Taking a sip, Burt stared across the room where the pre-game speculation switched into a car commercial on the massive flat screen hung on the wall. The ball flew over the center couch and table, where Adam bobbled and then thudded into the bookcases lining the side of room.

"Careful," said Burt half-heartedly. "Your pick?"

Martin shrugged and continued staring down at the counter. "I hope it's not a blow out like last week."

"Doubt it," said Burt.

The door bell rang again.

"That'll be Paula and Jesse," said Violet from the kitchen. The floor creaked as she scurried to answer.

"Come in, come in," said Violet from the doorway. "It's freezing out there."

The pair of women let out a laugh while Jesse sauntered into the den.

"Started yet?" Jesse shook hands with Martin while Burt brought out another beer.

"No, almost."

Violet and Paula rounded the corner, the former with a basket of chips in one hand, salsa in the other. The flung football smacked into Pam's leg as Adam attempted a quick toss.

"Adam," scolded Violet.

"It's alright." Paula scooped up the ball and shovel passed to Gavin who gave a shy grin and prepared another throw. "No damage done."

Violet deposited the chips and dip onto the bar and accepted a drink from Burt. A quick round of greetings began as the grownups circled the counter and perched on the trio of stools.

"Where’s Bethany?" asked Violet.

Burt winced as Martin stared into his bottle. The room fell quiet, the commentator's debate and boy's throws filling the gap.

Martin heaved out a long sigh as the expectation grew. "She's not coming."

"She sick or something?" Paula elbowed Jesse in the gut and he sputtered.

Martin shook his head. "No, it's pretty much over."

"Over?" Violet laid a hand on Martin's shoulder and he looked up, fighting to smile.

"Apparently she found better options in LA."

"You mean she found someone else?" Burt sucked in a swift breath and then filled his mouth with a gulp before he could blurt out more.

"Yeah," said Martin, taking a swig.

A crash of leather into metal broke the tension along with the tinkle of glass onto the carpet. The five adult heads swiveled as one and found the football bouncing on the floor beneath the sputtering and darkened screen.

"I'm so sorry, mom," said Adam in a whispered rush. He stood frozen in the corner as if made of wood. Gavin's gulp was audible as he gripped the back of the couch and fought not to whimper.

Burt thunked his bottle onto the bar and Violet's mouth dropped.

"Wow," murmured Paula. Jesse let out a grunt as if punched in the gut.

Burt's thoughts stumbled forward as he staggered around the bar. "I told you boys to play outside."

"I know...but dad."

"Sit down."

"But dad."

"Sit down, now." Violet snapped, thrusting a finger at the couch cushions.

Adam yelped and plopped down, pulling his knees up to his chin and watching his parents cross the room with wide eyes.

"Dad..." whispered Gavin.

"You too," barked Violet, motioning toward the other end of the couch. Gavin sat, curling in on himself and hanging his head.

"Is it that bad?" asked Paula.

"There's a f-…hole in the TV," snapped Burt, barely managing to keep his vocabulary PG. His hands wavered over the busted screen as if unsure where to start.

"You can get it fixed," suggested Jesse.

"Just get a new one," offered Paula. "Maybe you can even find a deal with the holiday's coming up..."

Violet shook her head and waved the other couple quiet.

After a few seconds of heavy breathing from Burt and Violet's scowling at the damage, Martin let out a sharp chuckle. He descended quickly into rabid laughter.

Burt and Violet pivoted from the screen as Gavin turned away from his staring contest with his shoes.

"You ok?" asked Burt.

"You think that's bad?" Martin rubbed his sleeve across his eyes as his shoulders shook. "Not like you can't replace it," he said with a wave toward the TV. "Just go to a store, and poof," he snapped his fingers, "everything's back to normal."

Violet and Burt glanced at one another, their frowns melting. Their finger tips met and they let out their own soft chuckles.

"If you bring the chips and beer we can watch the game at my place," said Martin, hopping off the stool. “No one there’s going to mind anymore.”

"Yeah, alright," said Burt after giving Violet's hand a quick squeeze.

"You're just going to leave it?" asked Jesse, gesturing at the busted television.

"It's just a TV," said Violet, thumping Jesse's shoulder.


Burt wheeled and Adam cringed as Violet matched his stare.

"Grounded," said Burt.

"And you're going to be working this off for weeks."

"Give him a break," said Martin. He handed over the chips and salsa to Paula. "Come on kiddo."

Leaping off the couch, Gavin raced to his dad's side and hugged him around the waist.

"Don't get all mushy," said Martin, scrubbing Gavin's hair. "You're going to be helping him ok?"

Gavin nodded, rubbing his face into Martin's side. Martin looked over at Burt who had collected a case from the back of the bar.

"Good enough or are you going to lock them in the garage?"

"We've got duct tape," suggested Violet with a wink as the boys both gasped.

"I've got some old mix tapes too," offered Burt with a snicker.

Violet shook her head and hefted the tray of vegetables into Martin's free hand.

"Let's just go watch the game."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Secret Ingredient - 12/21

Staring down at his cutting board, Alberto sharpened his knife on a length of honing steel. His chef's jacket rustled with each sharpening stroke, wrinkling the spattered white cloth like a rolling sea. The grinding swish bounced against the metal counters and the opened shelves cluttered with plates and pans.

"That has to be done," said Francesca from the opposite counter. She wiped the tomato juice from her fingers onto her apron and bent down to the smoldering oven by Alberto's knees.

"Wait for the alarm," said Alberto. Lowering the steel, he inspected the knife's edge with his finger nail.

Huffing, Francesca tossed a dingy towel over her shoulder as rounded as the arm of an old sofa. Returning to her station with a single pivot, she chopped through a second cluster of tomatoes. Sliding the scarlet chunks against shreds of raw purple cabbage she began in on the pickled peppers.

They both glanced over as the swinging door creaked open. Tempered merengue and the steady rumble of conversation filtered in from the dining room. A burst of Vito's roaring laughter from his usual table made Alberto cringe.

Peppe stuck his gnarled head into the doorway, revealing the top of his waiter's coat and clipped tie. His gaze, like pitted olives, met Alberto's.

"Two minutes," said Peppe, his voice a hoarse whisper.

"It'll be there.”

"Better be. I can't take much more of him."

"One last night."

Peppe bared his teeth in a swift snarl before calming his ruddy features and slipping back into the restaurant. The door swung back and forth with protest from the hinges. As the panel stilled, Vito’s robust guffaw was blocked once more.

Alberto shook his head and set down his wide knife, forcing his fingers to uncoil from the hilt. He scooped up a live octopus the size of his hand from the tub at his feet. The suckers gripped his fingers as he thudded the cephalopod onto his cutting board. Hacking down, Alberto severed the head from the eight legs and the maroon limbs fell limp. Chopping the tentacles into bite sized pieces, Alberto tossed them into a sizzling pan popping with a puddle of butter and olive oil.

The oven gave a piercing ding. Francesca wheeled from her board and flung open the steel door. A wash of smoke and the smell of burning pine, flooded into the kitchen. Waving her towel to disperse the gray tendrils, Francesca scooped out the tray and set the smoldering beef medallions onto the counter.

"They done?" asked Alberto.

"Over done." She poked at the meat which barely budged under her finger and closed the oven behind her with a kick.

"He likes them that way."

"He better like them."

Francesca gave a mirthless snort and began plating on a square white dish. She piled the cabbage in a mound and then laid a thick circle of beef on top. Adding another two medallions to form a pyramid, Francesca scattered the tomatoes and pickled peppers before dribbling a red wine reduction artfully over the steaming meat.

"Ready?" asked Alberto as he shook his sizzling pan.

"Yes." Francesca wiped the edges of the plate and set the dish beside Alberto.

With another flick of his wrist, Alberto caused the lumps of octopus to jump. Sprinkling salt and pepper over the curling tentacles, he gave the pan a final shake.

“Now or never,” Alberto murmured before holding his breath. Pulling over a small ceramic dish waiting in an isolated section of the counter far from the rest of the spices, he poured a quarter cup of clear liquid into the pan. The last drop blended into the fat with a sizzle and final almond scented puff.

Once the aroma had faded, Alberto took a tentative breath. Finding himself still conscious, Alberto turned the plate so the bare spot Francesca had left beside the beef, faced him. Tipping the pan, the octopus tumbled down and wallowed in a pool of tainted butter.

Alberto chucked the dirty pan onto the cold back burner and poured the rest of the small bowl's clear contents into the front circle of blue flame. The gas perked with sudden intensity and then smoked with the smell of old shoes before calming.

Alberto wiped his hands on his white apron and looked up as Peppe slipped back through the door.

"Is it ready?"

Alberto tipped his chin toward the dish.

Peppe squeezed past Francesca and swung out the tray he carried beneath his arm. Loading the beef and octopus, he added the other prepared plates as well as a fresh bottle of Chianti.

"You're sure he won't notice?"

Alberto gave Francesca a stiff glare and she dropped her gaze. Returning to her station, she hacked through more tomatoes.

"I'll let you know when it's done," said Peppe, balancing the tray upon his shoulder.

"I'm sure we'll hear," said Alberto, turning the knob on the stove to kill the ring of fire sputtering beneath the burner.

"Right," said Peppe with a small snort. The stout man took a deep breath as he faced the swinging door. “Now or never," muttered Peppe and strode forward, leading with his shoulder.

Again the hinges moaned. From within the dining hall, Alberto spotted the circle of tables, their white cloths glowing in the candle light. Vito’s jarring laughter dissolved with Peppe's arrival.

"About time," bellowed Vito.

"Enjoy it," muttered Alberto.

Francesca spat a wad of saliva into the garbage and hacked into the peppers by her board.

"Five more minutes," said Alberto, gathering a clean sauté pan from the rack above the stove.

"I’ll wait for the alarm," Francesca muttered.

Alberto met her eyes and matched her grim smile before turning and beginning a less deadly dish.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Storm Warning - 12/20

Abigail sat at her desk, twirling her pencil in one hand, a long strand of her raven hair in the other. Out her bedroom window she watched the rain streak out of the steel gray sky and the wind rattle the bare oak. Drops smacked into the panes and raced toward the sill in sheets. Branches scraped against the glass like claws.

With a sigh, she turned back to the coloring book between her elbows. Scrubbing the dull, pale blue pencil she colored in the sky above an ocean cluttered with fish and whales. Trading blue for yellow, she filled in the sun.


Abigail stared at the coloring book as she heard her name said again. The multicolored critters on the page stared up with wide, friendly eyes and still mouths.


Glancing away from the book, Abigail looked over her shoulder. Her mussed bed lay empty and a scatter of stuffed animals lay strewn across the flower shaped rug on the floor. Her bedroom door hadn't opened and not even the drawings taped to the wall rustled. Downstairs she heard the floor creak as her mom bustled in the kitchen, washing dishes and making dinner.


"Here in the window."

Abigail swiveled slowly. Through the glass and rain she spotted a damp chipmunk perched on his back haunches on one of the thicker oak branches. His short tail and ears twitched and his head cocked to one side as his paws kneaded at one another. Abigail leaned over her desk, nearly pressing her nose to the panes.

"Hi Abigail." The chipmunk shook one paw as if waving in greeting.

"Hi..." Abigail frowned and scrubbed away the fog her breath left on the window. "Are you talking to me?"

"Yes, Abigail, I am." The chipmunk cocked his head to the other side.

"How do you know my name?"

"From your pictures." The chipmunk’s nose aimed toward the cluster of drawings and homework assignments taped to the wall. Abigail passed her gaze over the array where she had written her name in large, angular letters.


"I need your help."

"My help?" asked Abigail, turning back toward the window, her eyes widening.


The storm let out a rumble of thunder. Abigail cringed and the chipmunk ran a small circle on the branch.

"This storm has knocked down a tree by the Nelson River. The Anderson’s car has slipped into the flooding waters and they can't get out."

"Oh no," said Abigail, jolting upright. "Julia!"

"And her dog Bernie," the chipmunk added with a flick of his ears. "Can you tell your mom? Have her call for help?"

"Of course." Abigail hopped out of her chair and raced toward the door. Flying down the hallway, she tromped down the stairs, taking two or three at time while she gripped the railing.


"Abigail," said her mom from the sink, "don't shout."

"But mom." Abigail threw herself against the counter, panting from the sprint. "Julia's in trouble."

"Julia? Julia Anderson?"

"Yes. She and Bernie and her mom and dad are trapped in their car."

Abigail's mom frowned and stared down as she continued washing out the dishes from breakfast. "What are you talking about?"

"The storm knocked down a tree by the river and their car is stuck."

"Have you been watching TV?” Her soapy hands paused mid-scrub. “I told you no TV until after dinner."

"I wasn't watching TV, mom."

"Then where did you get this idea?"

Abigail thrust her finger at the window where the bushes threatened to overrun the sill. "A chipmunk outside told me."

"A chipmunk?" Shaking her head, Abigail’s mom resumed cleaning.

"Yes, please mom." Abigail tugged at her mom's sweater. "Julia’s in trouble."

"Abigail, don't be ridiculous. This is a scary storm but I'm sure Julia and her parents are fine."

"Then why would the chipmunk have told me they were in trouble?"

Abigail's mom stowed the last dish into the washer and turned off the faucet. Plucking a towel from the oven handle, she dried off her hands. "The chipmunk didn't tell you anything, Abby." Her mom squatted down and laid her hands on Abigail’s shoulders. The worried frown on her mom's face blurred as tears started to pool in Abigail's eyes. "Oh honey, I'm sure they're just fine."

"But..." Abigail wiped her running nose on her sleeve. "What if...what if..." She jumped as another round of thunder and lightning rattled the windows and sought out the chipmunk.

"How about we give them a call?” asked her mom. “Would that make you feel better?"

Abigail sniffed and bobbed her head.

"Ok." Her mom gave Abigail’s loose curls a gentle pat as she stood and collected the phone from its recharging stand. Sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, Abigail's mom flicked over the buttons and put the phone to her ear. Abigail hovered by the arm rest, clutching the wood with her stubby fingers.


Her mom held up a silencing finger as the phone rang and rang and rang. Abigail heard Julia's dad on the answering machine asking them to leave a message.

"Hi Mike. This is Rhonda. Abby was just worried Julia might have been caught in the storm and wanted to make sure she was ok. Give us a call back when you have a chance? Thanks."

"Mom," said Abigail as Rhonda clicked off the phone.

"Honey, I'm sure they're ok."

"Please? Julia's mom always answers her phone..."

“Alright.” Rhonda let out a sigh and dialed a second number from her phone's list.

Abigail squeezed the arm rest as again the phone rang and rang and rang.

"Any luck Abigail?"

Abigail squeaked and looked out the kitchen window. The chipmunk scurried forward and sat on the sill right by the panes.

"She's calling them," Abigail said and received a wave from her mom as a timid voice murmured on the other end of the line.

"Lelia?" Rhonda said into the phone.

Abigail wheeled around and found her mom's face wrinkled with a worried scowl, like when she had gotten so sick last winter.

"Are you ok Lelia?"

Abigail heard more low murmurs coming through the phone.

"No, it's Rhonda." Rhonda stood, her other hand tense against the table. "Where are you?" More mumbling rumbled and Abigail clutched her mom’s stiff arm. "Water? In the car?" Rhonda scooped up a crayon from the table. "Where are you?"

Abigail stared as her mom scrawled Pine and Meridian onto the back of an envelope.

"I'm going to call the police, Lelia."

Silence filled the phone.


Abigail backpedaled as Rhonda flung down the crayon and frantically dialed 911.

"Yes, this is Rhonda Berkeley. I think the Anderson family is hurt and possibly caught in the Nelson River by Pine and Meridian."

Abigail squeezed against to her mom's hip. Rhonda wrapped an arm around her, pressing her close.

"It's 332-4492. Please hurry, she sounded terrible."

The calm voice on the other end rattled off a long string of steady words.

"Thank you," said Rhonda and then she turned off the phone.


Rhonda sank back down into the chair and set the phone aside before wrapping Abigail into a hug.

"The police are going to go get them, Abby. They're going to be ok."

Abigail clutched her mom in a tight hug, her head on her mom's soft sweater.

Through the window Abigail spotted the chipmunk and managed a grin. "They're going to be ok."

"Yes, they are," said Rhonda, rocking them both slightly and pressing her ear against the top of Abigail’s head.

Spotting the chipmunk in the window, Abigail gave him a weak smile and a thumbs up.

"Thank you, Abigail," the chipmunk said with a little bounce. He flicked his ears and then leapt off the sill, vanishing into the rain.

"See you later," whispered Abigail, nuzzling back into her mom's embrace.

The Eavesdropper - 12/18

The CD felt like a brick in David’s hands but he managed a smile.


"I had heard you talking about them last week," Andie said with a shrug, “with Martin.” Her smile broadened and her cheeks blushed.

"Speak of the devil," said Martin, squeezing into the trailer's cramped kitchen and heading for the counter with his stained, ocean sized cup in his hand. The rumble of the crowd and warming concert faded as the door closed behind him.

"You mean after the Markee show?" asked David as Martin reached between them for the coffee pot.

"Yeah," said Andie.

"Right." David gazed back down at the glistening cover with neon swirls and crouched squirrels playing accordions.

"What's that?" asked Martin, leaning against the cabinets and peering down at the case with his brimming cup in hand.

"Nothing," said Andie, turning to add a creamer to her drink.

"Whoa." Martin deftly snagged the CD from David. "You trying to burn my eyes or my ears?" He chuckled. David gave him a sickly smile.

Andie snapped her gaze from her mug to Martin then David. "You guys were joking?"

David winced.

"Joking?" asked Martin.

"When we were talking about them earlier," explained David with a cringe. “Andie overheard us.”

"And what? You thought we were serious? Best new band of the year? These guys?" Martin gawked then glanced between Andie, the CD and a downcast David, and routed through the triangle again. The merry twinkle in his eye subsided a few degrees along with the curve on his wide lips. "Oh...Sorry."

"You're not kidding me are you?" asked Andie, covering her mouth with her hand.

David managed a weak half smile. "No. These guys are terrible."

"Awful,” agreed Martin. “Nails on chalkboard awful except worse. They're so bad..." Martin trailed off in his supply of additional analogies as David gave him a nudge in the gut. Shoving his coffee cup to his lips, Martin filled his mouth with the too hot brew.

An awkward silence hung as if trying to add another uncomfortable track to the CD.

"I'll see you on stage," said Martin to David. He gave Andie an apologetic grin. "Sorry again..."

She shrugged and then cast her gaze over the assortment of tea bags cluttering the counter while Martin stomped down the trailer and back outside. David delicately placed the CD on the tiled surface between them, as if the horribleness might come bursting through the shiny plastic.

"Really, thanks."

Andie waved off the gratitude and plucked up the CD like a dirty rag. "Please." She raised a skeptical brow at the squirrels and then flipped the case over to read the list of songs. "I was wondering..." She shook her head and lowered the CD, placing one hand on top of the plastic as if to make it vanish.

"What are you doing?"

"You said you didn't want it."

"Yeah, but..." David wiggled the CD free from her obscuring grip and took it back in hand. "You gave it to me. You can't just take it back."

"I have the receipt. Let me get you something that doesn't include 'Railway to the Nut-hole'."

"I don't know." David stared into the cover's neon swirls. "It's growing on me."

"Do you really want people looking in your CD collection coming across that? What would they think?"

"At least there's a good story to go with it."

Andie felt her cheeks warm and stared into her coffee mug where foam clung to the inside edges. The milky swirl seemed to shape into a furry, acorn craving rodent.

"Really," she said, gazing back up at David. "Let me get you something else, something decent for your birthday."

"There's no back-ses on gifts."


David sighed and ran his fingers around square edge. Andie frowned as a sly smile crept onto his lips.

"You have said you had the receipt right?"

"Yeah," she said slowly.

"Then how about we go together? You can return it and we see what else is there."

Andie tapped her fingers on her lukewarm cup in time with her rising heartbeat. "Alright. I guess that's fair."

"After the show?"

"Today?" Tucking away some strands of ragged curls, Andie looked down over her grungy jeans and faded sweater. ""

The door rattled again and Becky poked her head, complete with headphones and a wobbling microphone before her mouth, into the trailer. "5 minutes you two."

"Ok," said Andie and Becky jerked back outside, slamming the door closed.

"I should get going," said David.

"Yeah, they'll want you backstage."

David waggled the CD like a taunting toy. "I'm keeping this though."

Andie rolled her eyes but failed to suppress a smile as she followed David to the door. "Fine."

"Meet you in the booth afterwards?"

"Sure, if Martin hasn't turn me inside out for such a horrendous gift by then."

"This is probably the best they've ever done," said David, opening the door and motioning her out.

A blast of crowd noise and the wail of the opening band soared over them like a flood. Andie paused on the asphalt and glanced over her shoulder with a frown.

"What do you mean?"

"They may not play good music," said David, yanking the trailer door closed, "but they've gotten me a date with the prettiest sound engineer on the tour." Leaning in, he gave Andie a swift kiss on the cheek. "See you after?"

"Yeah," she said with a stutter.

David gave her a beaming grin and headed toward back stage.

"Three minutes," shouted Becky from the stage entrance.

Andie gripped her cup and scurried to the sloped booth nestled by the erected proscenium, squirrels against neon swirling in her thoughts.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Something Different - 12/16

"Keep them closed," said Alice. She gripped Jim's hands as she led him along the sidewalk, walking backwards in her heels.

"I feel ridiculous."

Alice winced and gave his hands a squeeze. "We're almost there."

Jim shook his head and let out a sigh.

Alice checked over her shoulder, her heart thudding beneath her slim dress. The twinkling lights around the restaurant’s awning glittered like a far flung galaxy. Through the open windows poured light-hearted chatter, the clink of dishes and silverware and buttery waves of tantalizing entrees.
"Ok," she said, halting at the front door laced with beaded strings and open against the summer heat.

Jim opened his eyes and his face froze. "What's this?"

Alice fought to keep her smile. "The Underground." She shrugged her near bare shoulders. "I thought it'd be neat. Something different."

Jim stiff expression lingered as he met her eyes. "Isn't this the place that does things with," he lowered his voice to a whisper, "you know...bugs?"

Alice rolled her eyes and slipped her arm through his. She pushed aside the beads and they passed through.

"Welcome," said the maitre’d. Alice matched his broad smile.

"Reservations for Tate."

He scanned down the fat book and hand written notes on the pedestal. "For two?"


Scooping up a pair of canvas backed menus, he gestured inside. "This way."

"Alice," said Jim, tugging at her elbow.

She sighed and tilted her head. "There's than that on the menu. I checked." She pivoted and strode after the maitre’d.

"Will this be alright?" he asked, motioning at the candlelit table tucked against the tan wall. The light flickered on a black and white photograph of a farm-scape and the crystal water glasses.

"Wonderful, thank you." Alice tucked her dress under her as she took the chair the maitre’d pulled out. She accepted the menu with another nod. Jim settled in across the table and held the offered list of dishes with both hands, as if the rectangle might warp into something vicious.

"Martin will be with you shortly. Just to let you know our specials for this evening are a tomato stew with squid and rack of goat with a fungus glaze."

"Sounds interesting," said Alice. Jim gave a gruff snort.

"Enjoy," said the maitre’d. He drifted back through the intimate clusters of tables, the hum of the diners blending together in his wake.

"You really didn't have to go through all this," said Jim, lowering the menu and his voice.

"I just made reservations," Alice said with a shrug as she perused the offerings.

Jim lifted his glass of water to the light, seemed to judge the liquid fit to drink and swallowed a gulp.

"I hear they do great things with potatoes."

"I don't like potatoes."

"Maybe you'll like these." Alice glanced over her menu, her head cocking to the side. "At least take a look?"

Jim let out a long breath before turning his gaze to the options. A few sips of water punctuated their reading until Alice set down her menu with a resurging smile.

"What have you decided?"

"The Verte Crisp I guess." Jim tossed the menu back to the table and cross his arm between his cutlery.

"The salad?"

"Yeah, the salad." He frowned. "Everything else has weird things in them. You can't tell me you're going to have one of those?"

"I was going to try the ravioli and that tomato soup special."

"The soup with the squid and that pasta with crushed seaweed and urchin?"

"Yes. I think it'll be interesting."

"At least it doesn't have beetles or something."

"It's better than a plain old salad."

"Hello there," said the waiter swooping to their table side with a burnished grin. He set down a basket of chestnut dark bread. "My name is Martin and it looks like we've made our decisions for this evening?"

"Yes," said Alice. They relayed their choices to Martin’s approval and he swept back toward the kitchen as if in the midst of a ballet, their menus clutched in his arm.

Alice reached across the table and placed her finger tips on the sleeve of Jim’s suit while his hands twirled his spoon. "Live a little."

"What’s that supposed to mean?" he asked with a scowl.

"Try something new. Live."

"I do live. Didn't we spend last weekend on Daniel's boat?"

"With every other person in the state."

"Oh so I just need to live differently than everyone else?"

"I don't know," said Alice, shaking out her napkin as she shook her head. "I just..."

"Just what?"

"I don't want to turn into Daniel and Marie." She looked up and found Jim's frown settling in deep ravines. "I don't want to be in the same rut week after week, day after day. They've got the money to do anything and yet they're always on that damn boat."

"It's a great boat."

"This isn't about the boat." Alice rubbed at her temple then matted down the disturbed tendrils of her honey hair. "I just want something different."

Jim sighed and leaned back in his chair with a toss of fondled cutlery. "I don't know if I can do different. I mean, besides this," Jim swept his hand at the restaurant, "things are great. Job's great. Condo's great. I thought you were ok with it all."

Alice took a deep breath and folded her hands in her lap. "I don't think I am, Jim."

"Here you go," said Martin, carrying a round tray at shoulder level. He set down the ruby soup before Alice, then the large salad in front Jim. "I'll be back with your ravioli in just a moment."

Alice nodded her appreciation and Martin swirled back to collect the promised dish.

Jim stabbed at his salad without look up. He pierced a tomato and while chewing, shoved the other ingredients aside.

"What the-." He lurched back, forktongs poised as if to land a killing blow on whatever hid in the leaves.

"What is it?"

"It's like a larva or a maggot or something." Jim scooped up the offending critter with his spoon.

"Is everything alright?" asked Martin. He set an amber cluster of ravioli beside Alice's soup.

"What the hell is this?" asked Jim, thrusting his spoon at Martin's nose.

"Cured anchovy."

"You didn't have that on the menu."

"Well, it's just a garnish really,” explained Martin. “Part of the dressing."

Jim tossed the clump into the greens and raised both his hands from the dish. "I don't want it."

"Come on, Jim," said Alice with an apologetic smile to Martin. "I'm sure you can eat around it."

"Who know what else they've snuck in here?" countered Jim.

"It's all organic and completely safe," interjected Martin.

"Right," said Jim, he raked his napkin across his mouth as if to take away a layer of skin.

"Maybe you can order something else?"

"Let me grab a menu," said Martin, deftly taking Alice's suggestion as a way out. He trotted toward the kitchen like a skittering rabbit.

"Screw this," said Jim, rising to his feet with a scrape of his chair against the earthen tiles. "I'm leaving."

"Fine, go." Alice gripped her spoon as she stared up from her seat.

"You're going to say?"

"Yes I am."

Jim tossed his napkin on to the table as if throwing away a poisonous rag. "Enjoy your something different."

"I will."

Alice gazed down at her soup as Jim stormed passed the tables. The beads clacked against one another as they settled across the entryway behind his exit. Meanwhile Alice took a tentative taste of the first dish. The blend of tomato and faint touch of the sea blended on her tongue, tickling each taste bud.

"Let me take this." Martin, his face full of concern and shoulders hunched like a wounded dog, reached out for the salad.

"No, please leave it." Alice gave him a wide grin and found herself giggling like a school girl. "It looks delicious."

Just Routine - 12/12

Jane tugged a shopping cart out of the tucked line of netted steel in front of the grocery store. The wheels rattled and swayed as if trying to drive themselves.

"Is there any way I can help?" asked Angelica. She clutched her purse in both hands, holding the tiny bag like a chipmunk with a sunflower seed.

"No," said Jane as she won the war with the cart's stubborn personality. She fumbled the list out of her puffy sage coat and offered the crumpled paper with a mittened hand. "Why don't you be in charge of this?"

Angelica plucked the scrap between her leather glove covered index and thumb. "Okay."

"Great. Let's get this done." Jane gave a heave and headed toward the automatic doors.

"You mean inside?"

"Of course,” she said, stripping her mittens. “That's where all the food is." Jane cast a broad grin over her shoulder and then maneuvered through the rush of departing customers.

"Excuse me," said Angelica, and then "Pardon," as she scurried to catch up, battering into most of the carts and shoppers along the way.

Reaching the warmed entryway, Jane slowed. "What's first?"

"Ah," said Angelica. She took the list in both hands and scanned the pen and pencil scribble as if deciphering a code. "Apples?"

"Isn't flour on there?"

Angelica scanned down the column. "Yes," she said with a grin, "there," she pointed halfway down the paper.

"It's heavy, let's start there."

"So you don't just go down the list?"

Jane barked a laugh and shook her head as she started toward the baking aisle. "No way. I'd be bouncing between aisles and half the produce would be crushed. Heavy. Cold. Delicate."

"That makes sense."

"I try."

Jane wheeled through the growing lines at the checkout stands and turned left as if running an obstacle course. A wall of spices created a cloud muddied with cinnamon, basil and curry powder. The sweet clusters of chocolate morsels gave way to the stale packages of concrete-brick sized flour.

"Careful," said Angelica as Jane bent to gather a ten pound sack. Jane dumped the load into the cart with a jangle.


By the time Angelica checked the list, Jane had a five pound bag in the cart.

"Why do you make the list if you already know what you need?"

Jane shrugged and headed toward the dairy section. "Just in case. It's good to check."

Angelica frowned as she paced beside the cart, the clack of her heels matching the casters.

From the cold chests, Jane plucked butter, orange juice and a gallon of milk, enough sandwich meats to feed an army and cheese to match. She set a dozen eggs into the cart's child seat and then swung around toward the produce section.

"Clementines," Jane muttered as she picked up a crate.

"Apples!" said Angelica.

"Over here," said Jane, stopping at the tower of green and reds.

"There are so many kinds..."

"Six of those," Jane said pointing at the Granny Smiths, "then half dozen Crisps and some Jonagold's."

Angelica stared at the slopes as if the apples might bite.

"Sorry," said a plump woman working her way to the Red Delicious.

"Oh, pardon," said Angelica. She stepped back and rammed into a tall man focused on the lines of vegetables.

"Watch it," he growled and lumbered forward with his cart.

Angelica hurried back toward Jane's side, one hand clutching the list, the other the edge of the cart. Jane laid the last handful of apples on top of the flour and sugar.

"Are you ok?"

Angelica swept a ringlet around her ear, causing the golden snowflake earring to jingle.

"I knew I would be in the way."

"What are you talking about? You're the list holder."

"Jane-". The bump of a cart against her long wool coat caused Angelica to jump.

The driver continued rolling forward while scolding the child trundling at her side.

"Everyone's just in a rush," explained Jane. She tugged on the cart to align with a cluster of untouched fruitcakes, making more room in the passageway through the section. "Are we missing anything?"

Angelica blinked her long lashes like a fluttering fan before checking the list. She flicked her gaze between the scrawl and the cart.

"The only item left appears to be bread."

"Great, that's on the way out."

Whirling around the fruit stand, Jane surged toward the shelves of loaves and plopped a pair of whole wheat logs over the eggs. Reaching the end of the aisle she slowed as if at a stop sign and allowed the perpendicular flow to pass by before jumping into a checkout lane. She started taking out each item, clustering similar products together and then dumped a trio of cloth shopping bags on top.

"You are amazingly efficient at this," said Angelica.

Jane shrugged and scanned over the titles of the tabloids. "This is just the regular routine." She pointed at a doctored photograph on the cover. The elegant couple walked side by side beneath the fiery header “TOGETEHR AT LAST”. "Can you believe that?"

"Hum," murmured Angelica as she followed Jane's finger. "That’s not right. They haven't been together in months."

"You know them?"

Angelica tilted her head in assent. "A bit. We go to the same aerobics class."

"Wow.” Jane flicked her gaze between Angelica and the magazine. “I didn't realize. When Danny said LA...I guess he really meant LA."

"It really isn't a big deal." Angelica scanned the other covers. "I've caught up with him at a shoot,” she said motioning to one photograph after the next. “She really does have the best salon and I met them at a holiday party last year. Terrific singer." Angelica blushed as she found Jane staring at her. "Just the regular routine."

Jane laughed and turned to the pockmarked faced cashier sliding the groceries across the scanner. The bagger divided up the items to properly weight each bag as Jane slipped on her mittens and dug out her wallet.

"Please," said Angelica, deftly handing over a gleaming gold credit card.

"Are you sure?" asked Jane, her wallet open now in her yarn covered hands.

"You don't know how educational this has been."

"If you say so." Jane stowed her fat bundle back into her coat. "When we visit you, maybe we can trade."

"I'm afraid grocery stores are harder to come by," said Angelica as she flowed her signature across the waiting display. "But I can take you to some wonderful parties."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Invitation - 12/10

Alice weaved through the bustling bistro toward their usual table.

"Here you are!" Rising, Paul opened his arms for an embrace. Alice hugged him, her cheek brushing his satin shirt. She dumped her weighty purse to the terracotta tiles as he settled back into his seat. Perching herself on the lip of the cushioned wire rimmed chair after tucking in her peach and sage flower print skirt, Alice took a swift swig of iced water.

"Bad day?" asked Meredith.

Alice held up both hands and inhaled deeply before destroying the folded bird of a napkin by laying it upon her lap.

"Alice," said Meredith as if her rushed entrance had not occurred, "this is my cousin Gail."

Alice felt her cheeks warm and match the floor. "I'm so sorry." She smiled at the wide eyed young woman to her left. "It's so nice to meet you."

"You too," said Gail, managing a weak smile surrounded by feathered blonde locks.

"You're staying with Meredith right?" Gail nodded. "How long will you be in town?"

"She's thinking of moving here," provided Meredith. Gail gave her cousin a steadier smile as if divulging the idea had taken a weight off her shoulders. "I'm trying to give her a taste of the big city so she can decide."

"You should see the schedule she has this poor girl running," said Paul.

"It's been great actually," said Gail. She quieted as the waitress drew near.

"The usual?" she asked although her pencil poised over a folded over wad of jotting paper.

"You know what I like," said Paul, handing over his closed menu with a wink and beginning the circular round of orders.

"Please," said Meredith.

"You, Ms?" The waitress made some ticks on the paper without looking down.

"The bruschetta with a side Ceaser salad?" asked Gail as if the waitress might say no.

"Excellent combination," noted Paul, toasting Gail with his glass. Gail’s blush contrasted with her beige blouse as the waitress scribbled.

Alice sighed and scanned down the menu as her turn arrived. "The ravioli, please." The waitress made a note while the table fell quiet. "And a chardonnay."

"A glass?" asked the waitress.

"A bottle," said Alice, flipping the menu closed with a clack of metal corners.

"Right away," said the waitress, harvesting the rest of the menus and making her way to the next table.

"What is going on?" asked Meredith. "You haven't drunk at noon since college, let alone ordered something soaked in butter and stuffed with ricotta."

Alice ran her finger along the drops of perspiration on her water glass. "I'm sure Gail doesn't need to hear my sob story."

"Allie," said Paul, grabbing her manicured hand in his. "It’s time to share."

Alice squeezed his hand and received a supportive press of his fingers in return. "I broke up with...this guy."

"I knew you had something going on." Paul tossed back her hand as if annoyed at being kept in the dark and leaned in his chair expectantly.

"Do we know him?" asked Meredith, angling over her bread dish.

Alice winced and nodded.

"Let me guess." Paul held up a silencing hand. "Joshua Baker."

"From the show?" Alice blinked thoughtfully then shook her head, tossing Josh's crisp country looks out of her thoughts.

"Vern Days?" suggested Meredith.

"Oh, is it?" asked Paul. “He’s dreamy.”

"No." Alice shook her head and reached for her water as if to wash her lips clean before speaking his name. "It was Tyler."

"Tyler Reynolds?"

"The Tyler Reynolds?"

Alice nodded and began playing with her fork as the table fell into stunned silence.

"Who's Tyler Reynolds?" Alice looked up to find Gail's cheeks flushed again with embarrassment but her eyes flittering around for an answer like a hungry hummingbird.

"He's an actor," said Meredith.

"He's THE actor for the moment," added Paul.

"Oh," said Gail, “I saw him in an interview, once.” Her curious gaze fell onto Alice's face. "He seemed nice. Why did you break up?"

"I like her," said Paul, leaning over the table and giving Gail a wink. "She gets right to the point."

Alice blew out another long breath and twirled her glass. "I just couldn't remember why I liked him so much."

"Well he is gorgeous," said Paul.

"And he's rolling in it," added Meredith.

"Isn't he married?"

"I thought he was separated?"

"Oh that's right, from that twiggy girl with the frizzy hair."


Alice ran her fingers around her glass as Paul and Meredith worked out their gossip.

"How did you meet?" asked Gail below the back and forth. Meredith and Paul quieted in order to listen.

"At work." Alice rubbed at her temple to order her thoughts as the young woman frowned. "I'm a make-up artist. I work for a lot of the productions on the strip and we…made things more serious at a party for the end of the Shew's run."

"Oh," said Gail.



“Master bath, actually,” said Alice, correcting Paul and Meredith, then cooling her blush with a sip of ice water.

"Is he really different when he's not on stage?" asked Gail.

"No," said Alice as she set her glass down like a weighted brick, "I think that’s what bothered me so much. He's always some character rather than being a real person. I felt like I wasn't with a guy but a bunch of masks."

"Ouch," said Paul. "So how did you do it?"

"I told him this morning, over breakfast at my place. You know, at least caffeinate them before you shove them out the door." She motioned her fork like a shovel before gazing around the table. "Do you think I did the right thing?"

"Sounds like it," said Paul. Meredith nodded her agreement.

Alice took another gulp of water then glanced over the bistro in search for her chardonnay. "I bet I was just a rebound for him anyway."

"You're one to talk."

"What?" asked Alice, staring at a bemused Meredith.

“Hmmm,” said Paul. "The Shrew ended what, about three months ago?"

"I guess so," said Alice, thinking back. She remembered wearing a low cut knit sweater and pleated slacks that helped hide ten pounds, both perfect for late winter.

Meredith rolled her eyes as Paul chuckled.

The waitress arrived with their drinks and Alice poured herself a glass. "I won't offer to share unless you tell me what you're snickering about."

"November 14th," said Paul and Meredith waved her hand like a circus master starting a show.

"You don't think me hooking up with Reynolds has to do with that?"

"I think it has everything to do with that," countered Meredith.

Alice stared down into her honey colored beverage.

"To do with what?" asked Gail.

"That's when a certain someone's getting married," said Paul with a feigned whisper.

"Oh," said Gail, clearing not quite grasping the insinuation.

"Alice’s old flame's getting hitched," provided Meredith.

"Oh," said Gail again.

"This isn't about Jake," said Alice, gathering the courage to meet the other eyes at the table.

"If you say so." Meredith and Paul shared a conspiratorial glance. "By the way, I got my invitation for the bridal shower today," continued Meredith as if flowing on with an entirely different conversation.

"He...She sent you one?"

"Yeah, I checked my mail before I left for lunch. Beautifully embossed. Same stationary as the invitation. My guess is her new colors are peach and sage."

"That's nice..." said Alice, taking a slight sip on her drink.

"Did you get one?" asked Gail.

"She’s definitely a keeper," murmured Paul to Meredith.

"I don't know," said Alice. "With everything this morning, I guess I didn't check my box."

"Well," said Paul, leaning back to allow the returned waitress the room to place his large Ceaser, "we'll have to see what happens after lunch then won't we?"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gram's Gift - 12/9

Bret lunged for the remote.

"Wait! Go back!"

"What?" Jill pulled back the clicker from her brother's demanding grasp. She lifted the remote over his head and pressed the channel button. Bret wheeled around to focus on the television again.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Bret leaned forward, his sweater covered elbows on his knees, mouth in a dopey grin.

"You know that's a car?"

"Shhhh," said Bret, waving her quiet.

Jill rolled her eyes and sagged back into the couch beneath her blanket.

On the screen, the silver sports car burst through a tunnel, seemingly without a driver. The car then cut along a curving edge of road hugging a white sand beach with tropical waters. Sunlight glinted along the rims and satin frame, twinkling on the glass and mirrors in an array of tantalizing winks. A surge of orchestra winds and brass followed the vehicle up an s-curve slithering through forested hillsides and then the drums rose with a vengeance as the car found urban streets at the same deadly speed. The car halted before a skyscraper and seemed to stare at its own glistening reflection. The commercial then cut to the odometer which peaked into the triple digits along with a rumble of the engine.

Bret winced as the price tag and the array of minuscule text dashed across the screen. "One day," he promised.

"You're going to have that?"

He shot Jill a glare over his shoulder. "Sure, why not?"

"Because you just got your license, like what three months ago, and asked me for money yesterday since you'd already spent your allowance on your homeroom's secret Santa." Jill shook her head, bouncing her pigtails and continued to flip through the stations.

"I'll figure it out."

"Is this because of Stacey Jackson?"

Bret scowled and watched the changing screen.

"You have to admit he has a nice car."

"Richie Rich is supposed to have a nice car." Bret cracked an errant pine needle in two. "I don't even have a clunker."

"And you think you can get that, drive up to school and what? She'll drool all over you?" Jill sniffed, settled on a program about the evolution on dogs and tucked the blanket up to her chin. "Give my sex a little credit."

"You shouldn't use that word," he muttered.

"What sex? Says the older brother with aspirations for a six figure car to impress the girl who doesn't know he exists. Who's the mature one now?"

Bret flung a pillow at her head until she squealed, and then rose to stalk from the pine scented living room.

"Good," said their mom, entering in a whirl. "Take this." She handed Bret a freshly opened cardboard box before he could slip out the other door. He staggered. Adjusting the weight with a knee, he gained a better grip on the frosted box. His mom returned with a smaller box a few seconds later, her cheeks briskly pinked. "Put those under the tree."


"They're presents from Gram."

"Presents?" piped up Jill. She clicked off the television and tossed the remote and blanket into the seams of the couch before scampering across the garland and light strewn room.

Their mom plucked open the folds in the similarly taped box she carried. A slight tip revealed wrapping paper in red, green and gold. "Those are wrapped too so don't go snooping."

"Mom," whined Bret. "I was going upstairs..."

"Come on. Give me a hand, for two seconds."

"He's just mad because his sports car won't fit into the box," said Jill, rising on her tiptoes to yank back one flap on the larger delivery.

"Shut up," said Bret.

"I'm sure Stacey Jackson isn't in there either," said their mom, moving over to the brick fireplace and quartet of red velvet stockings with cotton soft fringe.

Sighing with the weight of the world, Bret lumbered to the stout Douglas fir in the corner and set the box onto the evergreen skirt. A stir of pine tried pushing some holiday spirit into his thoughts. Jill plopped down on the opposite side, her ponytails swaying as they dug into the Santa-esque shipment tinged with Gram's lily perfume. Paper crinkled around probable sweaters or shirts. Heavy squares suggested books. A few oddly shaped items remained a tantalizing mystery. They tucked and stashed the crisply wrapped presents and then returned to the seemingly bottomless box for more.

"I have to run to the store," said their mom to the garland on the mantle.

Bret froze and whipped his head around. "Can I drive?"

"What happened to upstairs?" She tossed a cocked eyebrow over her shoulder as she slid another small present into Jill's stocking.

"Huh?" asked Bret. "Can I?"

"Finish with these," his mom said, pointing to the box on her hip, "and meet me in the kitchen in 5."

Bret leapt to his feet without bothering to use Jill's head for leverage as she pressed her cheek against a plump package. He took the half filled box from his mom and snagged the first labeled bundle. His mom scruffed his shaggy curls before leaving him to his task.

The stocking stuffers came in an assortment of shapes, but each so small, identification seemed impossible. Bret slipped one after another into the appropriate stocking, like a dealer passing out cards. His fingers scraped along the bottom by the time his mom shouted from the kitchen.

"Bret, finish up. I don't have all day."

"Almost done!"

Peering down, Bret found one last gift snagged in the corner. He wiggled the lump but the edge seemed caught on the tape wrapping the exterior. He pulled a little harder, wincing as he heard a tear and then the present came free.

The string of lights threaded through the garland on the fireplace winked off the small hole torn in the paper. Bret tossed the box to the floor and poked at the gap, widening the hole a bit further. A rounded metal tip met his finger and then a jagged edge with dull peaks disappeared into the rest of the wrapping. The weight felt right, so did the size. Bret checked the label as his heart began thudding. In his Gram's cursive hand and Sharpie, he read his name.

"It can't be," he whispered.


Bret stuffed the gift into his own stocking before whirling around. Jill stood with the large empty box dangling from one hand, her head cocked curiously.

"BRET!" called their mom.

Bret felt his smile grow until it might reach the North Pole.

"What?" asked Jill, stomping one foot. Then her eyes grew as wide as ornaments. "Is it for me?"

"Gotta go," said Bret. He yanked on one of her pigtails before trotting out of the room, a new found excitement for Christmas morning putting a merry bounce in his step.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Gardener's Interview - 12/4

Dust puffed around Rodney's feet as he plowed down the straight back road. The pale grains marred the shine he had polished into the cracked leather before he began his trek from town. By the time he reached the end of the brick wall lining the road and faced the pair of granite lions guarding the entrance, the dust reached up to his knees, sweat dripped down his back and his hair felt plastered to his head beneath his hat.

The Breckenridge manor house loomed atop the hillside. Grassy slopes, pockmarked with dead patches encircled the stone fortress. Overgrown rose bushes and a tangle of ivy crept up the front face as if straining to reach the sky. The spread of sagging oaks provided shade over the statuary erected on the front lawn.

Retrieving a grungy handkerchief from his pocket, Rodney mopped the sweat off his forehead. Lifting his wide brimmed hat, he raked a hand through his straight muddy locks then pressed the hat back into place. Burying the linen, he plucked the set of sealed letters from his vest pocket and began the last part of his journey.

Greek figurines in the shape of nymphs and mythological beings waded in bubbling fountains spewing out of mossy green pools. Shrugging his shoulders, Rodney tried knocking off their stony eyes as he reached the main entrance.

A trio of wide marble stairs brought him between columns capped with carved foliage and before a double oak door. With the letters in one hand, he smoothed down his vest with the other before rapping with the brass lion-shaped knocker the size of his head.

A steady gait began nearing the door after his third round of pounding. The oak divided with a groan, revealing the pinched face of a bald man. The butler, Rodney assumed, dressed in a snug black suit complete with tails. Rodney gulped as the servant's speculative gaze washed over him from sweaty brow to dusty shoes.


"Good afternoon." Rodney plucked off his hat and gave a little bow. "I'm here to see Mrs. Breckenridge about her advertisement."


"For the gardener?"

The butler gave a mild snort, and then motioned him inside.

Clutching his hat and letters, Rodney stepped across the threshold and into the coolness of the marble lined foyer.

"Would you wait here," asked the butler, "while I see if the Madame is interested in speaking with you?"

"Yes, sir."

The butler strode down one in the pair of checkered hallways, his crisp steps echoing against the tiles. The rhythm quickly dwindled behind mahogany paneling as he strode out of sight.

Rodney felt a chill beginning on his skin as the seconds stretched and his sweat began to cool. As his solitude continued, he felt the tension ebbing from his shoulders. Shaking out his limbs, he began passing his gaze around the room with more interest.

A pale mustard colored vase, as high as his waist stood to his right. An oval circle depicting a Great Blue Heron in a marsh had been painted onto the porcelain’s wide belly. A bouquet of sunny yellow peonies overflowed the rim. A matching the vase on the opposite side held amber mums.

Raising his eye from the flowers, Rodney found the wall between the corridors drooping with a pair of gilt lined paintings.

In the foreground of the first, a young man, with straight dark hair laced with a wire crown and dressed in a gold and buff tabard, stood holding a spear at his side. Behind him, an Arthurian style castle with flapping golden banners, poked out of evergreen hillsides beneath a spring sky.

In the other sat an elegantly dressed middle aged man, wearing a suit looking as soft as velvet, with a wire thin moustache and combed chestnut hair. One arm rested on a broad desk stacked with books and instruments Rodney failed to identify. One tome lay open on the man's lap. A beast with a broad dorsal stripe, identified in the image's caption as an onager, dominated the page.

Both men's deep eyes, the color of rich soil, shared Rodney's focus. As he stared he felt certain he had seen such eyes before.

"Would you come this way?"

Rodney jumped and cringed as the butler cocked a peeved eyebrow. "Yes, sir."

Following the butler down the second corridor, a sweet hint of roses reached Rodney's nose. By the time the servant paused at a set of doors, the hint had grown into a veritable storm.

A snowy haired woman as stiff as the tall arm chair she sat upon caught Rodney in a sharp amber flecked gaze as soon as the butler had slid open the entryway.

"Madame," said the butler, bowing at the waist.

"Show him in," she ordered, "this is not some social call."

The butler withdrew and clasped his hands at his waist. Rodney bobbed his head in thanks and stepped inside.

His feet sank into the plush cerulean rug laced with floral ivory swirls. The paisley verdant wall paper spun around the room, broken by a cluster of portraits similar to those in the foyer but smaller, and a single massive countryside landscape. A matching lounge chair and second arm chair identical to the one occupied by Mrs. Breckenridge, had curving cushions as crimson as newly split blood and mahogany limbs as lean as horse legs.

Rodney halted in the center of the room before Mrs. Breckenridge and fought a mix of dizziness and sudden apprehension.

"Tell Agatha I want tea," said Mrs. Breckenridge as her wiry hands clasped the bare knobs at the end of her chair’s arms. Emeralds, sapphires and a diamonds glinted on her fingers. Lace peeked out from the edges of her sleeves and the throat of her violet gown. A fist-sized topaz dangled below her chest from the gold chain encircling her neck.

Rodney dropped his eyes to his hands to keep them from staring at the gems. He felt Mrs. Breckenridge’s eyes bore into the top of his bowed head.

"Look up boy," she snapped.

Rodney forced himself to oblige and met her gaze. Her thin lips pursed as if she had sucked on a lemon and fine lines marred her pale brow.

"Your name, boy."

"Rodney Jones, Madame."

"Jones," she sniffed. "A rather common name."

"Yes, Madame."

"You say you are a gardener?"

Rodney nodded briskly. "Yes, I am."

"We shall see." She tapped at the arm rest with one bony finger. "With everyone in my employ, I demand a certain level of professionalism and respect. I do not endure any kind of thievery, heist or lacksidasicalness. Tasks are dolled out and expected to be completed efficiently. The gardener here will confront a variety of challenges by the surrounding terrain, from areas of overgrowth, drought and flood. Each needs careful attention to maintain a balance and regain the lush growth I am expecting." Her dark eyes narrowed. "Are you still interested?"

Rodney simply nodded.

"I assume you have some kind of letters vouching for the surety of your character?" She held out her hand with expectation.

Rodney took one long stride forward and deposited the slightly damp envelopes into her outstretched palm. Collecting a letter opener from the side table, she slit through the seals, removed the page within and methodically perused each note.

Rodney gripped his hat as his mouth turned dry.

"These are highly complementary," she said, placing the last upon her angled lap.

Rodney smiled but he muted his lips quickly as Mrs. Breckenridge scowled with disapproval.

"I like to believe I do good work, Madame."

"We shall see," she said again. "I expect you here in the morning. Agatha will supply you with a lunch at mid-day. You'll work again until dusk. You first task will be the fountains. I want them cleaned of weeds, moss and mildew by weeks end."

Rodney's mouth gaped while his heart soared. "Does that mean I have the job?"

"Is there dirt in your ears as well as under your nails, boy?"

"No, Madame. Thank you, Madame."

The clink of porcelain rattled behind him. A nimble young woman in a long black skirt and white blouse both covered by a crisp apron, maneuvered inside. Winding around Rodney as if he was a piece of furniture, she placed the tray on the side table and proceeded to add an exact amount of sugar lumps and pour from a tall silver pot.

"Thank you, Miranda."

Miranda bobbed a swift curtsy. Tendrils of her blonde hair swayed free of a tight twist and the ruffles on her apron rose like waves upon the sea. As she turned, Rodney caught a pair of sky blue eyes glance at him through a heavy set of lashes.

"Ms," said Rodney. He lifted one hand as if to tip his hat, then realized he held it in his hands.

"Mr. Jones," said Mrs. Breckenridge.

Rodney snapped his gaze back around as Miranda hurried off with a soft rustle.

"I have a few last questions before you leave for today."


Mrs. Breckenridge’s eyes narrowed like a cat contemplating a pounce. "Who was your father?"

Rodney winced. "My step-father was Wendell Taylor."

"Step father?"

"My father died before I was born. My mother doesn't like to speak of it. She married Wendell when I was a boy."

"And your mother?"

"Bethany Jones, Madame. She's lives up in Lockshire with my Aunt."

Mrs. Breckenridge's hands drifted toward her cup. She raised the porcelain to her mouth with methodical precision. Her near silent sip dominated the quiet falling upon the room like a swift blizzard.

"That will be all," she said placing the cup back onto the saucer. "Tomorrow, your work will begin and we will see how you fare."

"Yes, Madame." Rodney fumbled to bow as Butler Jenkins had. "Thank you, Madame."