Consequences Of: Precisely Why We (Freelancers) Write Contracts

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Contracts are important to your business.

Start With A Contract…

Every job — EVERY. JOB. — needs to start with a carefully detailed agreement between you and your potential client. That is: A contract.

Ideally, you’ll have a basic contract prepped beforehand so you don’t go through the trouble of having to write one from scratch (they take longer to draft than you’d think). From this basic form, you should leave blanks to fill in specific information regarding the particular project at hand. For example, duration/timeline, fees, name of the project, what you’ll do, and what you won’t do as the hired freelancer.

It’s critical that expectations for payment and related consequences for failure to pay are included in the verbiage.

I’ve mentioned before two ways you can protect yourself from non-payment: an arbitration clause in the contract itself and refusing to send the completed product to the client until balance due is received in full.

However, I have yet to address including accrued interest.

An Interest in Interest

Charging interest on fees unpaid is just a way of incentivizing prompt payment. Don’t get crazy here. This isn’t an opportunity for you to tack on an extra 25% to your bill and make money off of nothing but thumb twiddling.

Be reasonable and keep the interest rate to single digits, enough of a charge to be irritating but not enough to deter a client from wanting to work with you in the first place.

Also, consider the term: Are you adding the interest after a month, two months, three months? For me, I feel a month is more than enough time for a client to either pay up or get back to me either with requests for changes to the final product. So, once the bill hits its one month unpaid mark, I tack on the agreed upon interest and resend the invoice, making sure the client knows that they agreed to this increase at the start of the job (reference or quote the clause of the contract, if possible).

Issue Plenty of Reminders

Nobody likes paying interest, but nobody likes to be surprised with it, even if they agreed to it.

Send reminders for payment frequently after the initial billing to give the client plenty of opportunity to pay up. And, prior to tacking on interest, remind the client what will happen — what they agreed would happen — if they continue to ignore your request for payment.

For example, make this note on the invoice reminder just before adding the interest onto the bill: “The balance due will increase to $xyz after mm/dd/yyyy due to interest accrued per our contract (Section A, Line B).”

And if they still refuse to pay? Time to whip out the arbitration clause, and be ready to to take it seriously.

…End With A Contract.

Luckily I haven’t had to add interest onto my invoices except once. But I’ve always protected myself with the interest clause up front — just as I have with the arbitration clause and other contract terms — just in case.

Sadly, when unsavory clauses of contracts have to be utilized, that usually means the freelancer-client relationship is ending permanently. It’s like the nasty breakup of the freelance writing world.

You ain’t getting back together. Ever.

However, instead of mourning the loss of a client, remind yourself that it’s best to end it with this person anyway. Who wants to work for someone they have to beg for payment? Nah. Not me! No thanks!

There are plenty of jobs out there with clients who are more than happy to pay, and pay promptly, so don’t fret over losing a bad client. #Letthemgo.

Pebbles in a Stream – Part 11

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part X.)


By morning there was little left.

Looking at it from a distance, from safely behind the glass of Gayla’s bedroom, they’d underestimated how big the fire was, how fast the flame was moving, and how quickly they’d be overtaken. Even Greta’s hurried whiff of the night air didn’t garner them enough intel to make a good assessment of the danger.

Everything they’d discovered had come too late.

Had they known they’d only seen the flickering crest of the blaze peeking over the hilltop they might have planned their counterattack more appropriately, or foregone planning at all and saved the time. Greta gave herself mere minutes to rouse the farmhands and tend to the animals; seconds to throw on a coat over her nightclothes; precious seconds more to pull on the muddied boots waiting, silent and still, by the front door. The men who had been sleeping deeply from a hard day’s labor in the small one-room house next to the stables, were roused from their slumber by the woman as she burst in yelling, a lit lantern dangling, its wire handle squeaking, in a fisted, upraised hand, “Up! Up! Fire!”

Paul was the first to leap from bed. A lanky man in his mid-forties, Paul was an ex-military man, a grunt from the Army who’d been discharged on account of the shrapnel that nearly tore his thigh off the bone like a starving, deranged animal. By all accounts, war was such. Paul spent months in recovery and, when he was released by the doctors, was declared unfit for duty and was sent home with a thank you and a handshake. What remained of the incident was a lot of scarring he never let anyone else see and a torrid gimp in his step from the shard of metal still residing in his flesh. He never regretted the injury, though. Taking that hit had saved his buddy from death, though only temporarily. Months after returning home he got a call from his buddy’s wife to ask him to do the eulogy. Ironically, his comrade hadn’t died in arms, but from an episode of binge drinking while on a weekend leave. He’d been prone to binges before they’d even enlisted together. Paul had always told him the fucking stuff would kill him one day.

God, how Paul hated war.

Home was back in Nebraska. Paul came to California to get away from anything that reminded him of his childhood friend. He couldn’t, however, get away from the shrapnel.

Military training doesn’t die easily. Even after his discharge Paul maintained a strict lifestyle: he ate for sustenance, not for pleasure; he kept his hair immaculately short; shaved daily; always wore hats outside and never in; and rushed ahead to open doors for women.

Except, that is, for Greta.

To be fair, Paul was awake before Greta even came in. He was used to restless nights and this one was more restless than most, no thanks to the racketeering mockingbird outside. As he lay in bed, he heard the horses pawing and snorting in their stalls next door and the cattle moving restlessly in their pen just outside. He assumed it was the near full moon that was making the animals batty. Not twenty feet across the room the two younger hands snored or mumbled little nothings in their sleep. Bobby dreamt, from what Paul could deduce, about a redhead in a blue dress, and Chuck sounded as if he were choking on his own tongue.

It was a normal if not noisy night.

Then Paul heard the hurried footsteps of boots approaching, scraping the hardened clay dirt just outside the bunkhouse door. He recognized them as Greta’s.

“Up! Up! Fire!” She burst in with so much momentum that the wood door slammed back and hit its supporting wall, knocking a frame from its nail. The lady was disheveled; her hair was wild, her oversized linen pajamas visible beneath a tattered brown robe, its sash haphazardly tied about her robust waist.

Paul was up in an instant. His feet were in his boots before he realized it. He absentmindedly flung on his coat as he listened to Greta issuing orders and explanations. Chuck and Bobby were still untangling themselves from their sheets like monkeys from vines as she spoke, trying to figure out what exactly it was that had woken them from their peaceful slumber.

Greta looked to Paul, her green eyes blazing orange in the light of the lantern she held. “Get the animals to a safe place,” she demanded. He nodded, his eyes not moving from her. “Get as much tack and equipment out of the barn as you can get out quickly. Don’t linger and don’t go back for the heavy things.” She looked over to the young men, who were hopping over toward her, trying to put their boots on as fast as they could. “You hear me?” She looked back at Paul, sadness suddenly filling her eyes and a shake entering her voice. God, he loved her then. “It’s just stuff,” she emphasized.

He nodded to her again, understanding, his eye contact dropping just a bit as a mixture of embarrassment and respect flooded over him. Immediately the group separated and went to work.

While Greta and the men scrambled outside, Gayla, Trudy, and Daniel gathered what they could from the home and threw their bounty into the bed of Daniel’s Ford parked just outside the front door.

The Victor had to stay behind to burn, as did the mysterious woman in the gilded frame hovering on the wall above Mr. Masterson’s old writing desk, as did the vast collection of maps, charts, and books he had accumulated in his many years of expedition and local sleuthing.

Gayla was able to save one precious memento from the library: her father’s journal. It was the first and only thing Gayla had taken from her bedroom in her rush out the door to wake her sister. She stuffed the small book into an oversized inside pocket of her shearling-lined work coat on her run down the hall.

Upon waking and realizing her sister wasn’t playing a cruel trick on her, Trudy immediately ran out of her bedroom, down the hall, and into the study, where Daniel frequently spent the night on the daybed.

“Daniel! Get up!” Trudy shook him awake.

“What? What? Okay, okay! Stop!” She didn’t loosen her grip on his shoulder until he was seated fully upright.

“Where are your boots? Put on your boots!” Trudy scrambled around the room, scanning the floor frantically for her boyfriend’s footwear.

“What are you doing? What’s going on?”

“A fire, headed this way,” Gayla said, a twinge of anger in her voice. Daniel watched her enter the room, moving significantly slower than her sister but not without her own brand of haste. At the mention of fire, Daniel jumped up and peered out the nearest window, craning his head to see in as many directions as he could.

“From where? Are you sure?”

“I saw it and Greta told me to get us out of here. She’s gone to wake the hands.” She paused, leaning near him. She pointed out the window northward, making sure Daniel saw the ominous glow radiating from the horizon. It was significantly brighter now. “So, yes,” she said, “I’m sure.”

Daniel had experienced his share of fires. His father had been a fire volunteer for a number of years when they’d lived in the city. He stopped his volunteerism after his infant daughter, Daniel’s younger sister, died of pneumonia. Daniel remembered hearing his mother plead to his father about willingly heading in the danger, saying that she couldn’t stand to lose her baby to the cold and her husband to the heat.

But, before then, Daniel would ride in the fire engine alongside his father, then sit patiently in the passenger seat outside a burning house or barn, feeling the heat of the flames and hearing the roar of the hellish monster as it consumed everything it could with an unfathomable rage.

Trudy finally found Daniel’s boots and threw them on the floor in his direction. Within minutes he’d backed up his truck to the front porch and the three of them were chucking anything they felt they couldn’t do without into its bed: relics, cash, valuables, photographs, blankets, coats, food for the next few days.

It was about when the flames were licking the edges of the barn, when they could hear the men and Greta yelling and trying to gather the animals, that Gayla found herself standing blank-minded in the middle of the sitting room, staring at the old Victor gramophone.



It was all Bobby and Chuck could do to calm the horses as they watched first the stables then their living quarters then the barn and then the house itself go up in hellish flame.

Trudy wailed as the family huddled together on the wide dirt road, watching the show, her tear-soaked face illuminated and warmed by the inferno consuming all she’d known her entire life. The tear trails shimmered in the light and as quickly as Daniel could reach up from his embrace with her to wipe the wet from her cheeks they were replaced anew. Still, he persisted, not knowing what else to do and knowing there was nothing he could say.

She was still in her bed clothes. Her oversized cotton nightshirt that used to belong to their father—the one Greta shortened up last summer to Trudy’s shins after they found the clothing in a dusty trunk in the library—was dirty with soot and dust from scouring that same library for anything she might be able to save. Covering her sockless feet were her mother’s field boots. On her head, her father’s hunting cap. Around her wrist, the bracelet of faded shells stringed along a tattered hemp cord, a handmade gift she’d received from her sister for her tenth birthday. Around her neck, their grandmother’s pearls, stolen swiftly from amongst a dozen other adornments in their mother’s big free-standing jewelry armoire. The armoire itself and everything else it contained was sacrificed to the flame.

Trudy hadn’t a single thing on her that was not also someone else’s.

In those things her identity was now sealed. Something about their mismatchedness told the complete story of the quivering girl who’d saved them. Her past, her present, even a little of her future was embodied in the items. In their hurried and near thoughtless collection her world was declared—a mother’s protection, a father’s ambition, a sister’s love, a grandmother’s grace—and in that announcement, however unintended, a change had begun within her; a deep and provocative change that frightened her even more than the physical fire itself. She felt a drying up, an aging of sorts, within her as the shell of her childhood was left for dead and given up to ashes, crackling and popping it’s pain into the black night. She could feel the change in her bones as the dry heat of that consuming fire took away everything else she knew that didn’t really matter.

But she had thought they’d mattered. That was the trouble. Now, here she was, older, wiser, watching as the fiery-eyed child of herself was reduced to a smolder in a matter of hours.

The wailing slowed, the fear subsiding as it was replaced with understanding and, then, slowly, acceptance. She sensed a man standing beside her. She felt him her give her a little squeeze. She thought she heard him say something comforting but the sound was distant, muffled, incoherent. He seemed so far away. So… different.

She felt like she was watching her own funeral pyre.



What remained when the sun finally rose was a smoldering skeleton, unrecognizable even in arrangement upon the charred ground. The big chimney stood like a deathly column reaching to Heaven, its skin blackened from soot. It was the only thing left standing firm and it smoked dolefully as if trying to reignite memories held within its stone and mortar.

Gayla brushed her fingers lightly against the still warm stone as she stumbled her way through the charcoal rubble. She couldn’t find words or even whimpers to describe how she felt; there weren’t enough languages or emotions in Heaven or on earth to rightly express the shudder within her soul as she pulled her hand away from the pillar and looked at the black stains on her fingertips. The paleness of her skin flashed out from the recesses of her fingerprints, making the black all the more dark, and the reality all the more striking.

It was gone. All of it.

Something crashed and Gayla spun to see Daniel looming, his lanky frame slightly hunched and out of breath, over a fallen piece of burnt lumber that used to be the front door frame. Grey dust billowed out from the debris at his feet; Trudy was standing just an arm’s length behind him, watching, her eyes wide and pink-rimmed, her hands clutching one another in front of her mouth as her lips made motions without sound. Not quite a prayer but not quite a scream, Gayla thought. She knew the feeling.

Daniel stood up straight once the dust settled. He clapped his hands together to rid them of charcoal as he scowled at the fallen frame, his anger not quite yet gone but subdued enough for him to manage. He turned on his heel and marched off somewhere indiscriminate, passing the still mumbling Trudy with nothing but a quick glance. Gayla watched him go. She understood men did that sometimes—break things, or finish breaking them—when they didn’t know what else to do or feel.

“Is there anything left?” Trudy whispered over her sister’s shoulder. Gayla could only muster a shrug before she continued her march through the debris in search of a particular relic. She heard Trudy’s feather light steps follow hers.

Gayla soon found it: the gramophone, defeated in a crumpled heap of its own skeleton. She found it only by virtue of the brass horn that lay atop the rubble. It alone had kept its shape, but not its luster, through the heat of the fire. The box it sat on had burned and then collapsed in upon itself, the walls of the contraption looking like a blackened mouth attempting to swallow a veritable prize.

Gayla picked up the horn, twisting it from the other parts, and brushed off the ash and charred wood splinters still stuck to it. She turned the piece in her hands, holding it at a distance and inspecting it for she knew not what, then lay it gently at her feet as she reached out a second time to pick up the rectangular nameplate lying nearby. She was wiping it clean on her skirt, revealing the faithful pup engraved on its surface, when Trudy spoke up in a whisper. “What’s that?”

“It’s the plate to Mom and Dad’s gramophone.”

“No, no,” Trudy shook her head, then tapped her sister on the arm to get her attention. “What’s that?”

Gayla followed the line of her sister’s finger as it pointed to the gramophone skeleton. She shook her head. “What’s what?”

Trudy sighed and stepped around her big sister. She pulled pieces of burnt wood away from the remnant, tossing the charcoal chunks impatiently behind her. They fell to the ground with a hollow flutter. She reached her hand into the remains to pull out a small, tin container. Gayla’s eyebrows raised.

“How did you see that?”

Trudy shrugged and stood as she eyed her new little treasure. “I saw something glimmer.”

The box was an unassuming little container about two by three inches wide and long, and less than a half inch deep. It was built of thin metal—the kind used to make children’s toys—and was completely absent of embellishments that might tell of its origins or ownership. The box was neither painted nor engraved, and was not a particularly well-made container; the tin had a number of dents in its top and the edges didn’t fit together quiet right, though they managed to hold themselves together well enough. Whoever had constructed it had made an attempt at a pin hinge by use of what looked like a mauled paperclip unfortunately selected for the task.

Trudy turned the box over in her hands. Though it felt light as a feather, something rattled inside.

She looked over at her sister. Gayla urged her on. “Open it up.”

Trudy wedged a dirty fingernail into one of the small gaps between the box’s lid and bottom. The lid gave way without much effort at all, though its sharp edge made a good effort of slicing off a sliver of Trudy’s nail. Inside the container lay a square clay pendant about the size of a silver dollar.


Trudy and Gayla jumped when they heard Greta shout. They looked up immediately.

Greta was standing by Daniel’s truck. Her clothes were covered in ash and soot and her face looked no less bedraggled. She waved one hand eagerly at her charges, calling them to her, while the other rested on a hip.

“We have a visitor.”

The girls just then noticed the rumble of a hay truck coming up the driveway. It stopped momentarily by the pile of belongings stacked in the gravel where the Mastersons and company had camped out the night before. The driver leaned out the window and spoke briefly with Paul before tipping his hat and rolling slowly up toward the house.

Gayla recognized the vehicle and the man behind the wheel. “Come on,” she said to her sister. “Let’s go.”

Trudy closed the box and stuffed it into her skirt pocket before following her sister through the rubble. Though she could have easily trudged a beeline toward the truck, Gayla turned to follow the line of what used to be the hallway and stepped through where the front door used to be. It seemed wrong to do otherwise, as if, if she were to walk through the space where the walls used to stand, it would be a symbolic gesture of her acquiescence to what had happened.

As they made their way down the front stone steps a gangly old man hopped out of the hay truck to greet them. Another man, much younger but similarly featured, opened the passenger door and emerged but didn’t come down. He stood from the vehicle’s cab and leaned on the top edge of the door, as if poking out to disinterestedly watch a few lumbering cattle cross the road. Gayla did her best to avoid eye contact with him.

“Goodness, dearie,” the older man said. “What ‘appened?”

“Hello, Mr. Riley,” Gayla nodded at the older man, who slipped off his straw hat and held it in both hands, as if to honor the dead. “There was a bit of a wildfire.”

“So I see.”

The group stood speechless for a few moments while Hubert Riley gathered his thoughts and absorbed the scene.

In reality, Hubert Riley wasn’t too old—just under 50—but it was apparent that his family line didn’t age well. The man’s face was wrinkled and sagging like that of someone twenty years his senior. Greta, who was older than him by half a decade, appeared a spry hen in his presence, and she had decided long ago that a man aged like a raisin when he didn’t have a woman around to keep him from drinking and eating like a vagrant, filling his belly with nothing but whiskey and dried beef.

“Well,” Hubert stuttered. “Is there anything I can do? Any way I can help you out? I know we haven’t been too neighborly and I hardly see you—”

It was true. Gayla recognized the man only from passing because he often rode his tractor or truck to and from town, passing the Masterson residence on the way. She couldn’t recall any time he’d actually stopped at their homestead to greet or visit with them in any neighborly fashion. That he stopped at all today was a surprise to everyone, Gayla especially. After the confrontation with Mr. Palmer just a few days ago and his assurance that he’d get her help with Cherie whether she liked it or not, it was hard for Gayla to put anything—even sending an innocent old friend to do some spying or, Gayla cringed, setting a wildfire that put his own property in danger—out of that vile man’s capability. And Hubert didn’t know the Mastersons were aware of the marriage arrangement made between farmers over the young girl in question, so, whether he knew it or not, the elder Riley did have some interest in keeping on friendly terms with the Mastersons, if only because Gayla had been unwillingly recruited to fetch his betrothed. Gayla still wondered what Henry Palmer had to gain from the deal.

Still, Gayla tried to keep her suspicions in check. Though he was no friend, Hubert Riley was also no enemy, and neighbors out here were few and far between. When something happened to one, it usually happened to them all, and though Hubert had never stopped by exchanged friendly greetings he always waved as he passed and the townsfolk believed him to be as straight an arrow as they come. Awkward sometimes, and perhaps dull-minded and slow-witted, but well-meaning. Maybe even a bit of a dog, too, because he was said to unashamedly let his eyes linger on bosoms and ladies’ backsides longer than socially acceptable, but he was also a long-time widower, and even Gayla understood a man had needs. So this stopover could very well be a genuine act of good will, nothing more. Besides, Gayla knew Hubert had a deep emotional interest in the area: his father, a wealthy man by inheritance, was the original owner of this land. Every property within ten miles was purchased as a slice of the original Riley estate, including the Mastersons’.

“—but, Lord Almighty,” Hubert went on, “your place burning down like this.” He clicked his tongue and replaced the straw hat upon his head. “There’s little worse than losing your home to fire, I tell ya. I been there before, you know, when Amos wasn’t yet born. We had a fire come through after a dry summer, took everything. Even God himself couldn’t’ve stopped that blaze. Myrna, she—” His voice broke then, remembering his late wife. “Well,” he cleared his throat, “she came out of it alright, except for in the head, you know.” He tapped his skull with the end of a thick finger and shook his head, his eyes moist.

Gayla didn’t know the full story on Myrna Riley, but she’d heard rumors that the woman had had a bit of a crazed personality: erratic, loud, and hot-headed at everyone and no one. Perhaps her experience with the fire had broken something inside of her. All Gayla knew for sure was that Myrna Riley had committed suicide shortly after the birth of her only child, who now stood dangling out of the passenger door of a truck frowning at the backside of his father’s head, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.

“We appreciate your empathy, Mr. Riley, and for stopping to check in on us.”

“Anything I can—”

“I saw you were coming from town,” Greta cut him off. Her volume was tender but underscored with persistence. It was the tone the Masterson girls remembered from years of whoopings, or threats thereof. “Were you able to see where the blaze started?”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t. Of course, I was jabbering in the truck with Amos on the way and wasn’t much paying attention to the scenery. We was talking business and I was getting distracted with the conversation. All I know is I snapped out of a tirade and noticed the land was blackened on one side of the road. That’s when I stepped on the gas and hurried over this way. I was worried it had reached my place, but I saw from just down the road, at the crest of the hill, that it hadn’t.” He looked back at Gayla and then glanced quickly at Trudy standing behind her. The girl fidgeted when their eyes met. He looked away.

“It hadn’t?” Greta asked.

“No, ma’am. Looks like it burned itself out just at the far edge of the dead field there.”

Hubert gestured to his right, pointing toward the overgrown square of Masterson land that bordered his.

“So it stopped after it had burned everything of ours,” Gayla said, sourly.

The man winced, realizing the salt he’d put into Gayla’s wound, then nodded shamefully as he dropped his hand. He scratched his nose, pulling a rag out of his back pocket to wipe his brow. The sun was fully out now and beating down ruthlessly. It was the first time Gayla realized her family would have to find somewhere out of the sun to set camp, or else fry.

“Though,” Hubert went on, “that field on the other side was just plowed a day or so ago. So it’s topped with fresh soil, none of the brush that used to be there is exposed for burning. If it hadn’t been plowed the fire woulda run over it and straight through the next field to our place. Guess we just got lucky, huh, Amos?”

Amos snorted and disappeared into the truck like an irritated coyote into its burrow. But he didn’t close the door.

Daniel cut in, suddenly interested in the possibility of finding work away from the Palmer plantation. “Oh? So you’ll be planting that field again, then?”

Hubert shook his head. “No, not me. I actually sold it, not two days ago. That’s what I went to town for yesterday: to deposit the money. But Amos and I stayed the night. Got caught up in a game of cards, nearly lost the farm.” His face contorted into a grimace as he twisted around to issue a jabbing glare at his son. Amos was visibly uncomfortable, obviously overhearing the entire conversation. Gayla guessed it was the card game that had Hubert spun up on the return drive this morning.

“Sold it?” Daniel continued his interrogation. “To who?”

“Little Jimmy. He’s been saving up for a while, has been eyeballing for available land since he turned of age. He wants to start ‘imself off, you know. Settle down, have a family. Seems he finally arranged the money to buy the lot from me.”

“Little Jimmy? You mean James Richards, the kid who used to work for Palmer?”

“That’s the one. Nice boy, but hardly a kid anymore. A landowner! Can you believe it?” Hubert said, with a twinge of pride. “He works for me now, anyway. Hard worker, doesn’t talk much, just keeps his head down and gets his chores done, no questions asked. And—by God—what an ox! The man’s nearly as strong as a bear, though you wouldn’t know it as gentle as he treats the animals.”

“I didn’t realize he was on your staff,” Gayla said. Obviously she had fallen out of the loop of the neighbors’ business affairs. Damn Amrid and the distraction he’d caused. Had she known Jimmy intended to stay in the area after his being let go from Palmer’s—had she even known he’d been let go from the Palmer’s—she would have encouraged Greta to scoop up the young man for their operation. Paul was always saying he needed more help and Gayla would have gladly sold him their unused field when he came up with the money. The question was how much money could a nobody stable boy really get his hands on in a handful of years? It was well known Palmer didn’t pay much, despite his riches.

Hubert went on, undeterred by the change of atmosphere since mentioning the sale of his property. “I agreed to let him use my equipment to till his field, on his off days, of course. Looks like he tilled that field just in time to avoid the fire. Like I said, guess Amos and I just got lucky.”

Gayla scanned his face for any signs, but she couldn’t find any. The man didn’t understand, Gayla realized. He had no idea what was going on.

And now she had to have a talk with Little Jimmy Richards.



The Cookbook


There was a woman with an old, ragged cookbook. The cover was faded; what was left of the glue was dried and brittle. As she looked at the book, scanning for the night’s meal, she reflected on her family. Her children were grown and moved away, and her husband could no longer stomach some foods, but she still loved the old book with its many folded corners, stained pages, and penciled-in additions.

She decided she would have the cookbook rebound.

When she finally found a bookbinder, she went there with her cookbook safely stashed in her purse, zipped up in a plastic food storage bag to keep it from falling apart even more. The door struck a chime as she entered, alerting the man at the counter. He was a smart-looking man with spectacles and a plaid flat cap. “Hello,” he said, smiling. “How may I help you today?”

As she walked toward the clerk, the woman took notice of the shelves and tables overloaded with books. Some were new titles she’d never heard of. Many were obviously rebound, older volumes and classics: Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, even a few dozen academic books about physics and astronomy. All the books looked very important, maybe even stuffy.

“I need a book rebound,” the woman said plainly.

As she reached into her purse and pulled out the cookbook, the man’s grin went flat. She handed her possession over to him and he took it, uncertain. He thought it odd someone would want to rebind a cookbook. In his twenty years in the book business, he’d never been asked to do such a thing. On his shelves were works by the great names: Twain, Tzu, Hugo. But, Betty Crocker?

He couldn’t help but ask, “I can, ma’am, certainly, but it will cost a pretty penny. Why not just buy a new cookbook?” he said, shaking his head. “It’ll cost you more to rebind it than it’s worth.”

The woman thought a moment, then replied, “I’ve read many of the classics I see on your shelves: The Scarlet Letter, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jude the Obscure, Tom Sawyer…” She swept her arms around the room. “Even On the Origin of Species and Age of Reason.

“But,” she said, leaning forward, grinning, “The book that helped me to feed my family is no less important than the books that helped me to teach them.”

What do you think of the old woman’s philosophy?

By Chance – A script

I’m no director, but sometimes movies flash in my brain and I can’t forget them. They start as any number of things, but this one began as a dream I had a few nights ago. Granted, the script character, Howard, was played by Robert Downey, Jr., and the heroine (Pam) was, well, me, but, hey. Whatev’s.


We begin by seeing two scenes alternate on screen.

Subscene 1:

It’s a sunny, clear day on a residential street in San Francisco. We see a house, squished between other houses in typical San Francisco fashion, with a dull, red door and concrete steps leading up to it. The neighborhood is unassuming, but clean, and the home is fronted by neatly trimmed hedges. People are casually walking along the sidewalk as we zoom into the door. We get close enough to just see feet—a man’s feet – as he opens the door and exits. He’s wearing dark brown penny loafers and well-pressed brown slacks, but that’s all we see. He closes the door behind him and we overhear him say hello to a passing neighbor. Keys jingle as he turns the lock. He turns and starts down the steps; we hear him say another hello to a neighbor walking their dog, we see his hand briefly as he reaches to pat the dog in passing, but he never stops. His gait is sure, confident, quick. His heels audibly tap on the concrete sidewalk. He whistles for a cab. The vehicle stops and he gets in. The last thing we see are his shoes slipping in the car and the door slamming behind him.

Subscene 2:

Another door—this one is wooden, unpainted; it’s weathered but not uncared for—and a woman’s feet exiting the building. She wears black high heels; they’re stylish but not the stuffy, plain, office pump sort. She’s stepping out onto a brick walkway with tufts of grass poking out between the grout; she’s talking on the phone. She sounds persistent, but not angry.

[Woman]: No, Travis, I told you not Friday. I’m busy. … I don’t care. … Well, you’ll just have to reschedule. … There’s nothing I can do. I’ve had this planned for months. Jenna’s counting on me. … That’s fine. We’ll do it Wednesday. … Well, we’d better meet in my office. I’m sure as hell not going to Bakersfield…

As she talks, we follow her feet along the path to a rustic one-car garage. We hear a button click amidst her conversation and the garage door begins to open, revealing a bright orange 2010-era Camaro with black racing stripes. We hear her open the car door and watch her feet as they slip inside. She starts the engine.

[pan out] We see the garage, the path, and, finally, get a view of the house. It is a small, rustic cottage and sits atop a grassy knoll; the ocean is visible in the background. The front of the house is cascaded in magenta bougainvillea vines.

We hear the Camaro rev and watch as it pulls out of the garage and snakes down a long, paved driveway, eventually fading from sight. The camera pans up and, in the distance, we see the Golden Gate Bridge hovering over the Bay.


We follow the man’s shoes again. He’s in a building now, walking through a wide corridor. It looks like he’s in a bank—it’s cold, granite, shiny, clean—and his shoes click as he marches across the floor with haste. We’re behind him and see him approaching the glass doors of a conference room filled with suited, important-looking business people seated at a long table. He bursts into the room after a passive knock on the glass—a firm two taps with his knuckles—and interrupts the gathering.

By the look on the business people’s faces, our man was uninvited and unexpected. We’re still behind him and, as he stops and stands at the foot of the big table, the camera pans up his legs and eventually stops with us staring at the back of his head, looking at what he’s seeing. The dozen business people are staring, not speaking, looking at one another in confusion—some of them appear to recognize the guest, but don’t speak; instead, they cover their mouths and whisper to one another. A man stands at the head of the table, laser pointer in hand and a large poster board on display behind him. On the board are strips of fabric, a palette of colors, and a digital rendition of what looks like a well-decorated living room. The man is tall, bald, wears glasses and a displeased frown. He sighs audibly as he shifts his weight and addresses the unannounced guest.

[Man]: Howard, I thought we weren’t meeting until noon?

[Howard]: I couldn’t wait. I’m leaving town.

[B]: Surely it can wait just a couple…

[H]: I couldn’t wait.

The businessman purses his lips as he looks around at the other employees. He straightens his stance, apologetically waving his hands to his audience, and sets his laser pointer on the table.

[B]: I’m sorry. It seems I have an emergency to tend to. If you’ll all excuse me for a moment.

He walks toward Howard, gesturing toward the door, and they both exit.

When they’re out in the hall we finally get a look at our man: He is in his mid-40s, scruffy, dark-haired with an air of boyish bravery and rebellion. He wears an unbuttoned sport coat that matches his slacks, but the outfit is dated. The businessman makes a face at Howard’s clothes.

[B]: God, Howard. You dress like an old man.

[H] (looks down at his clothes): I like my clothes, Jerry. They’re comfortable.

[Jerry]: I miss the days when Megan dressed you. You were miserable, but at least you looked decent.

[H] (frowning): I don’t want to talk about her. (awkward pause) She finalized it. I found out this morning.

[J]: How? Did she call?

[H] (scoffs and shakes his head): She’s a cowardly bitch. Her lawyer hired a courier to deliver the papers this morning to my place.

[J]: That’s bold.

[H]: Hardly.

[J]: So that’s why you’re leaving? Because it’s over? Hell, we should go out for drinks.

[H]: Only partly. But, yes. Later.

[J]: The other part?

[H]: I’m going south to pick up Joe and bring her here. My flight leaves in two hours.

[J]: Here. You’re bringing her here.

[H] (nods)

[J]: Really? Can you do that? Did Megan…

[H] (nods)

[J] (after a pause): She is a cowardly bitch.

[H] (throws up his hands, exasperated)

[J]: Well, alright, buddy. I guess I’ll see you when you get back?

[H]: That’s the thing…

[J]: Oh, God. Please tell me you’re coming back.

[H]: Yes, yes, I’m coming back. Calm down. But I need you to fix up my house.

[J]: For Joe.

[H] (nods)

[J]: Okay… How old is she now?

[H]: Twelve.

[J] (whistles, then silent as he thinks): I can put Rhonda on it. She loves kids. What’s our timeline?

[H]: Wednesday afternoon. Late afternoon, probably. I don’t know.

[J] (nods): Colors? Preferences?

[H]: God, I didn’t know this was going to be an interrogation. (pauses; Jerry looks at him, irritated) Fine. Um, she likes horses, books, and teddy bears.

[J] (annoyed): That’s every other twelve-year-old girl in America. C’mon, Howard, this is your daughter. You can’t get a little more specific?

[H] (thinks, then snaps his fingers, pointing): She has a black guinea pig named Dozer and she wants to be a truck driver when she grows up.

[J]: A truck driver.

[H] (shrugs)

[J] Okay… I’ll put Rhonda on it.

[H] (gives a double thumbs up as he begins backing away, then turns to walk; several steps into it he spins around, shouting at Jerry): What’s this going to cost me?

[J]: A lot. If you blew this deal I was in the middle of, I’ll bill you. Or sue you.

[H] (laughs): I’ll send you a check.

We’re outside, watching as Howard exits the building and turns right down the street. He walks out of view as the camera pans up, revealing a multiple-story office building and the business sign of a luxury home interior design firm.


We watch the orange Camaro pull into a parking garage. The engine shuts off and the driver steps out. We watch her feet again as she walks through the garage to a door; we follow her through it into a restaurant.

The restaurant is bright, airy, unassuming but classy. Patrons are well-dressed and eat off of fine china and drink from crystal; tables are draped in white cloths and topped with bottles of iced champagne; the décor screams ‘70s-era fine dining. We hear a few waiters greet our lady as she passes by.

“Good morning, Pamela.”

“Hi, Pam.”

“Miss Heather…”

We follow her into a back room—a private smoking lounge furnished in plush, retro cigar chairs and a propane burning fireplace—and as she walks the camera pans upward, stopping at the back of her head. She’s a long-haired brunette wearing crisp, ironed clothes: a pencil skirt and white, loose-fitting blouse. Her hair is untied and unadorned and cascades over her shoulders and down her back; the employees and patrons smile at her as she passes. We hear her greet them. It’s obvious she is well-liked.

We follow Pam through the lounge to an office where a male secretary anxiously waits. This is Travis. He is young, clean cut, tall, and a tad on the meek side; he wears a striped Oxford shirt and black, horn-rimmed glasses. He tries being bold and opens his mouth to speak, but doesn’t say anything; its clear Pamela Heather intimidates him. He clutches a notepad as she approaches him, passes him without stopping (but while saying a hello), then proceeds to open one final door leading to her private office.

[Travis]: I was able to reschedule for Wednesday.

We finally see Pamela’s face as she sits down—sloppily falls into–her chair. She is in her mid-30s; she’s pretty, but not overtly beautiful. She wears minimal makeup, no jewelry, and her skin is tanned. She looks like a surfer. She smiles languidly at Travis as she leans forward on the blotter calendar covering the wide walnut desk. Behind her we see nothing but built-in bookshelves overfilled with books and a couple of windows.

[Pamela]: I knew you could do it, Travis.

[T] (sighing): It wasn’t easy. I had to offer Mr. Holt two cases of ’98 before he’d calm down.

[P] (laughing): Bah. A small price to pay for keeping a promise to a friend. (She points a finger at him) Remember that.

[T] (nods, jittery): And Ruth said another of the servers quit this morning. That makes two in two weeks.

[P]: Damn. Who this time?

[T]: Eric.

[P]: Really? (then whispers, looking away) I liked Eric.

[T]: Apparently it wasn’t mutual.

[P] (shrugs): This is business. He wasn’t here to make friends, and neither am I.

[T]: Maybe you should consider it.

[P] (scowls)

[T]: I’m just saying it’s pretty obvious to everyone that you don’t love this place.

[P] (leans back in her chair, playing with a pencil on her desk and gazing out a window): No, but I loved my parents, and they loved this place.

[T]: It’s not the same.

[P] (shrugs)

[T]: You know, Miss Heather…

[P] (rolls her eyes, sits up and looks at Travis): Travis, just call me Pam. Geez, five years you’ve been working here and you think you’d get it right. I swear you get too formal when you’re nervous. Just spit it out.

[T] (even more jittery than he was before, clears his throat): Your parents, sure they loved this place, but it was their dream. It isn’t yours. Surely they’d rather have you happy than be stuck here. You hate it here.

[P] (looking back out the window): This is my life.

[T]: It doesn’t have to be.

Silence ensues as Pam continues to look out the window. Travis stands there, awkwardly, waiting, fidgeting.

[T]: You know he’s going to offer again when he gets here.

[P]: What?

[T]: Mr. Holt. You know he’ll offer again.

[P]: Hm.

[T]: Are you even going to consider it this time?

[P]: We’ll see. (pause)

[T]: I see.

[P] (cheers up, looks over at Travis): Are you wanting to quit, too, Travis?

[T] (smiles shyly): No. I just want to see you happy for once.

[P]: I am happy.

[T]: You shouldn’t lie. My grandmother used to say lies make us older, that they punish us by taking away our youth.

[P]: She sounds like a smart lady.

[T]: She was.

[P]: Hm. (pause; she thinks, again looking out the window) I’ll consider it.

Travis nods and walks away still clutching his notepad. He closes Pam’s office door behind him ; we stay in the room. Pam starts shuffling through paperwork then, flustered, tosses a pen atop a pile, stands up and walks to a window.


[Joe]: Daddy!

We’re inside LAX at baggage claim. A young girl with a high-set ponytail runs across the floor and into Howard’s arms. He scoops her up, hugs her, and sets her back down. This is Josephine (Joe). She is spindly, tan, athletic. She has long, dark hair and wears tan cargo pants and a bright pink t-shirt; a neon green Monsters, Inc backpack is strapped to her.

[Howard]: Hey, pumpkin! I missed you.

[J]: I missed you too.

They continue to small talk as Joe’s mother approaches rolling a small, lavender, hardcase suitcase behind her. She is a busty, stern-looking woman; she grins cynically at Howard. He finally notices her and stands upright, his daughter still clutching at his side. Howard doesn’t look pleased to see her.

[Howard]: Megan.

[Megan]: Howard.

[H]: Thanks for bringing her on such short notice.

[M]: I expected little else when you got the notice this morning. (Howard winces) But don’t thank me yet. I doubt you’ll enjoy full-time fatherhood. It’s harder than you think. However, Donald advised me that it would be in Joe’s best interest to live with her father, since you are more financially capable of taking care of her.

[H](scowling): That has little to do with anything. I’ve always sent money. (He turns to Joe) Sweetheart, will you go grab my luggage from the roundabout thingy? I think I just saw it come down. It’s the little black one with the bright blue ribbon.(Joe nods and runs off; Howard turns back to Megan) And since when does your lawyer decide what happens in our family? Oh, right, since you slept with him.

[M] (shrugs): Still, he has valid points.

[H]: I’m sure he does.

[M]: Raising her will be harder than you think, Howard. You can’t just toss money at her like a servant. She needs attention. She needs love…

[H]: I told you I was sorry. But I quit the business a long time ago, remember? For you. I did it for you and then you slept around with… (sees Joe coming back, his luggage rolling behind her)

[M](before Joe reaches them): Believe what you like. I’m sure my daughter will be back with me within a month. (She turns to her daughter, feigns a smile) All set? Are you sure this is what you want, to live in San Francisco with your father?

[J](frowning): Yes.

[M]: Okay. (She reaches for a hug but Joe is reluctant and looks up to her dad; Howard hesitates, but encourages her; Joe rolls her eyes and hugs her mother. Megan pulls away and faces her daughter.) You call anytime you want, okay? You know the number.

[J]: Of course I know the number…

[M]: No need for sass. (huffs; faces Howard) She gets that from you.

[H]: Don’t start.

[M]: I’ll expect updates.

[H]: Every week, just like the papers said.

Megan nods, satisfied, then waves at Joe as she walks away, leaving the lavender suitcase behind. We watch her walk away and exit the building; she doesn’t look back. Howard sighs, then pats Joe on the shoulder.

[H]: C’mon, kiddo. We’ve got a rental to pick up.

[J](smiling): A rental? We’re driving to San Francisco? What did we get?

[H]: Something I’m sure you’ll like.


Howard and Joe are standing in a parking lot, their suitcases by their sides. Joe is making strange faces, as if she can’t decide on something. Howard’s brows are lifted as he eyes his daughter.

[H]: You don’t like it.

[J]: Well…

We see what they’re seeing: It’s a bright yellow Corvette.

[H]: Really?

[J]: It’s too… flashy.

[H]: I thought it would be fun.

[J]: Isn’t this what old men drive to make themselves feel better?

[H](sighing and crossing his arms over his chest): What would you rather have?

[J](looks around the parking lot and points, excitedly): That one!

[H](arms fall, flabbergasted): Really? That? (Joe nods; Howard shakes his head) Alright…

We see Howard and Joe loading their bags into a powder blue H2 Hummer. They get into the car and close the doors. Howard looks confused and slightly embarrassed; Joe is glowing. He throws a mapbook into his daughter’s lap.

[H]: You’re navigator, Navigator. Where to?

[J](unfolds the map and traces her finger along it, concentrating): Interstate 5, north.

Howard nods once, starts the engine, and pulls out of the garage.

(last updated October 14, 2015)

Pebbles in a Stream – Part 10

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part IX.)


There was no sense in going back. She was starting to see that now.

Cherie looked behind her toward the train station from where she’d stopped on her stroll alongside the tracks. Amrid had asked her not to go, to stay close by, but she couldn’t stand the suffocation of having him constantly beside her any longer. She’d insisted, and the look in her eye when she did so told him not to argue. He didn’t, saying simply that he hoped she’d at least stay within sight. She promised him that much.

The train wasn’t due for another hour but the pair had little left to do except wait, so wait they did. The summer sun was high enough to frighten most shadows to retreat as far as they could without disappearing altogether, and the midday bustle of the nearby roads—honking horns and backfiring engines; men shouting their expectations at one another; the loud, high-pitched laughs of chattering women; the occasional bicycle bell—made promises of good things for business that afternoon.

Cherie watched her partner as he sat on a wood bench worn to a glossy sheen by the hundreds of patrons come before them who had decided to settle themselves upon its offer of rest. Amrid was lanky and the seat was almost too shallow for him, but he reclined anyway, one arm lazily splayed across his lap and the other resting on the back of the bench, his coat unbuttoned and his collared shirt standing stark white and still against the stir of activity and city dust surrounding it.

She admired their progress so far. She admired him. They were getting quite good at playing the part of the eloping couple in love. Cherie was convinced she had her enamored giggle down to a tee because elderly strangers kept offering the two well wishes and marital advice, and young wives, clasping tightly to the arms of their oblivious men, blushed at the pair from beneath the narrow shadow of the hats pinned atop their heads. They must look the part well enough, Cherie thought, a crooked grin spreading its way across her tanned and tired face.

There was one catch, though. She didn’t like the new clothes she had to wear as part of their cover. In fact, she couldn’t stand them. They were tight around the waist, binding, and hot; the collars made her itch and the fabrics were coarse and stiff in their newness. The hats she could manage, though, since they hid the ragged mess of hair pinned atop her head. She disliked combs.

Most of all Cherie hated the shoes. The callouses she’d acquired on her feet from running barefoot on the farm and around the house were no match for the stiff soles and digging straps of women’s new-fashioned heels.

She missed being barefoot, missed wiggling her toes and stretching them and showering them in rays of warm sunlight. She missed the freedom of the lightweight, cotton country dresses her mother would buy for her. She missed, especially, slipping into boy’s pants and shirts every now and again, letting her hair go loose, to work and walk and hike and do anything and nothing without a skirt bunching up around her legs or tangling in the brush or tripping her feet as she walked up hills and stairs.

Thinking about how much she hated the clothes, she’d accidentally acquired a rigid scowl. A railroad employee who was inspecting the line of the track walked up to and then past her, nodding a pleasant hello and tipping his hat as he did so. When she turned her eyes to meet his, his smile immediately faded. He mumbled something apologetic about disturbing her peace, tipped his hat even lower over his eyes, and wished her a better rest of her day as he darted away.

Cherie felt bad. She’d have to work on her social face.

She looked back toward the station and noticed that Amrid had removed the fur felt hat from his head that had come with the new suit. The heavy bulb of dark grey material sat quietly atop their large suitcase; their large, mostly empty suitcase which served mainly as a prop to their cover. The bench Amrid sat on was in the shade, backed up against the Station building, so there was no need to cover his head except for that pesky social expectation. Cherie knew how much he hated it, both the attire and the social expectation. She shared in his resentment.

There weren’t many people riding their outbound train. It seemed these days most people were coming to San Francisco, not leaving it, which had made Cherie initially wonder why Amrid had devised this plan. Buy tickets to somewhere out of town where nobody would want to go in the middle of the day. Cherie thought such a plan would make them easier targets, easier to single out, easier to find. After all, here they were, waiting at a near-empty train station in broad daylight, ripe for the proverbial picking.

“That’s the point,” Amrid had said through gritted teeth. Whenever she argued with him about the escape plan he’d devised for them the vein in his forehead bulged. She thought it was funny. She never laughed. “We can see them coming. They won’t be able to get too close this way. In a crowd they’d be able to hide, pick us off, separate us, drag you or me away without too much trouble. This way they’ll have to work for it.”

Cherie didn’t argue further. She knew by name the men who had been sent to track them like deer across the wilderness of San Francisco. She’d seen their faces disappear then reappear in crowds; felt them peering at her from alley shadows; smelled their distinct, musky, tobacco odor wafting in their wake on sidewalks, the scent of her father’s cigar room, the smoke and haze of distinctly peppery imported tobaccos that he enjoyed with only his most trusted companions. Only of them had seen her see him. It was in the lounge of the hotel they were staying in.

A few days prior Amrid had accomplished quite a feat in a long night of poker against some San Francisco newcomers. The lot of them had claimed they’d won big at a poker tournament in New Orleans and were going to invest their fortune into one business or another in the Wild West. Amrid had been sitting quietly at the bar, drinking and escaping the musty air of the dumpy room he and Cherie had rented for the week, when he overheard the three men boisterously celebrating and wildly bragging in the dining room over a bottle of whiskey. He recognized them, he later confessed to Cherie, not merely by appearances but by the brothers’ characteristic snarling laugh. “Like hyenas after a kill,” he’d later said, though Cherie doubted Amrid really knew what hyenas sounded like. The brothers were from New Orleans for certain, but by no means rich by their prowess at cards.

Amrid had traveled to Louisiana once with his father on business over two years ago, when he was about 23. During that trip and following the conclusion of a successful business deal, it was demanded that Mr. Blaine and his son attend a soiree thrown by one of the more well-known families of the area. The family’s money, he’d been told, came from Pre-Civil War investments into cotton. That is, slavery. Amrid hadn’t cared enough at the time to confirm the tale.

The brothers were inseparable at the party and Amrid, in his usual fashion, stood off to the side and fumed as he watched the vultures torment the hired help and the invited guests. The sons of the hosts were as loud then as they were now. They spent the majority of the night spilling drinks, ordering more whiskey, caressing other men’s wives, and being all-around obnoxious. By the close of the night they’d thoroughly groped the mayor’s daughter—although Amrid couldn’t decide whether or not she was a willing party—and ganged up on a 16-year-old boy who was trying to defend his widowed mother’s honor. It was then, when the Dugas brothers pulled the boy into the street for an unfair fist fight, that Amrid had been forced to step in.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he’d said. The eldest of the brothers stumbled as he’d turned to see who was speaking. A crowd had gathered in the open road to watch the brawl and as soon as he noticed them he puffed out his chest like a strutting rooster. The frills on the front of his shirt, no doubt a fashion of the locale, didn’t help in making him look less foolish.

“Go ‘way,” the brother ordered. “Or you’re next.”

“Oh—” Amrid crossed his arms over his chest, smiling, “—I’d much rather be first.”

Some of the crowd laughed. The Dugas boys didn’t like that.

The youngest Dugas stepped up. Being smaller in stature and in build but not in arrogance, he was drunker than his siblings. Amrid assumed his condition was the result of a contest of wits with his older brothers. “You can’t talk to us like that,” he drawled. Amrid thought the kid might drool on himself.

“I just did.”

Adam stood up straighter, considering the fact, and looked back at his brothers for support. The victim of their game had all but been forgotten as he stood in the middle of the road, fists up, face ashen white, waiting for his certain death. Amrid caught his attention and, when their eyes met, he nodded toward the house. The kid didn’t waste one second darting away to safety.

From there things moved quickly. Amrid wasn’t prone to drinking on business trips—a tip he’d learned from his old man—but there was no way in hell he was going to miss an opportunity to kick the asses of some rich, snobby punks. In the condition they were in the Dugas brothers were easy enough to beat, and within a few minutes Amrid had them either knocked out cold or moaning in the middle of the street.

When Amrid turned from the fight his father was grinning, standing at the steps to the house with their coats and hats in hand. “Ready to go?” he said.

“Just about.”

It was when Amrid was slipping his arms through his coat sleeves that an older gentleman, a sickly looking man in his early sixties with a long black coat and ivory-capped cane, stepped forward from the crowd, a broad smile spread across his wrinkled face. He put his hand on Amrid’s arm. “Thank you,” he said.


The old man gestured toward the three young men scattered on the ground in front of the beautiful old plantation house. “Thank you. They needed that. God knows I can’t do it anymore.”

“And you are…?”

“Richard Dugas. Their father,” he said, pointing wearily at his offspring. “Welcome to my home. Won’t you come inside and visit with me a while?”

It turned out Mr. Dugas was suffering some kind of lung disease and was destined for the grave within the year. Doctors had directed the man to get his business in order in the meantime and in his weakened state his sons—Charles, Russel, and Adam—were taking advantage of their supposed inheritance.

“They’re not getting a damned dime of it, the stinking, spoiled lot of them,” Mr. Dugas said, venom in his words. “If their mother saw them today she’d roll over in her grave, bless her soul.” The host touched a hefty cigar lightly up to his lips. Apparently just to taste it, Amrid thought, because the thing wasn’t lit. “If it were up to those clumsy drunks they’d spend everything on a herd of riverboats where they could whore out women and gamble all day long.”

“So,” Amrid started, “they like female company, cards, and fine spirits? Sounds normal to me.”

“In excess, son.” Mr. Dugas grimaced and rolled the cigar between two fingers, admiring it.

“What do you suppose the boys will do once you pass, Mr. Dugas? Surely you wouldn’t toss your own sons out into the street with no money to get them going in life?”

Mr. Dugas looked up at Amrid’s father, who was standing off to the side admiring a shelf of leather-bound encyclopedias. “Not no money. Just not as much as they’d like.”

The three spent the remainder of the evening locked up in Mr. Dugas’ library, smoking cigars, drinking Scotch whiskey from crystal ware, and talking all things business and non-business. When Amrid returned to California, he kept in touch with the old man up until he died, never knowing where the money really went.


“So how did you know the brothers wouldn’t recognize you?” Cherie asked. She wondered how he’d gotten away with winning a satchel of cash and a couple of gold watches away from the three men.

Amrid laughed. “Mr. Dugas told me they have terrible bouts of forgetfulness when they drink. He let them sleep off their liquor in the middle of the road—to teach them a good lesson, he said—and, in the morning when they awoke and stumbled into the house they couldn’t remember a damn thing.”


“Not a thing.” Amrid smiled at the fact, his white teeth shining. “Mr. Dugas never told them what happened but let the rumors and stories around town solidify their humiliation. They know some guy from the West pummeled them in the street, but they don’t know my name, and they certainly don’t know my face.”


So that was how Cherie and Amrid ended up with enough money to buy new clothes, new cover, and a nice room at the Palace Hotel until they could come up with a plan to get out of town.

As Amrid checked them into their room at the Palace, Cherie wandered the grounds. She felt relatively safe there, especially with her revolver tucked into the pocket of her coat, but that feeling vanished when she saw one of her father’s stooges, Orval, loitering in the shadow of a white archway staring directly at her.

She could recognize that pockmarked face anywhere, but it was his characteristic frown and unkempt eyebrows that assured Cherie he was the man she thought he was. After the initial shock of seeing a familiar but unwelcome face in a strange city, Cherie stared back, refusing to break the gaze first.

So, her father had hired a mountain man to go after her? What for, her pelt? The way Orval stared it was obvious he intended to intimidate her. She was too tired to be intimidated, and instead snorted a little laugh and a smile as she looked into his cold, grey eyes.

The expression shocked him, causing him to break contact. Orval hardened his frown and motioned to disappear into the shadow of a heaven-white arch as if it were forest cover. It was then that Cherie noticed the hard black line of a long gun carefully tucked against the burly man’s leg and moving with him, as if they were one and the same.


Keep reading! Here’s Part XI!

Creative Writing (part 2): Why creative writing is better than journalism (and why it’s worse)

Last week I published a post introducing my thoughts on the differences between creative writing, english literature, and journalism. I wrote it because I couldn’t find an article to share that fully reflected the frustration I felt when talking to people about what I do.

If you haven’t read that article yet I suggest you do so now and then come back here to see what creative writing means to me and why I think it kicks journalism’s butt.

Creative writing: What it does, why it’s better, and why it’s not

As I mentioned before, some people don’t realize creative writing as a major — not a minor, not an extracurricular, but as a major field of study — exists. “Creative writing?” they say. “Is that like english composition? What do you learn in that?”

Quite a bit, actually.

What it does

A degree in creative writing prepares you to do two things well: write and read. That’s it. Anyone telling you different is wrong.

I’ve heard jokes about creative writing majors being right up there (or down there?) with liberal arts majors. I’ve read articles promoting creative writing like it’s some kind of magical, easy-to-pass stepping stone from college to employment in any field that utilizes reading and writing. So, um, anything? That’s helpful. Thanks.

Finally, I’ve gotten the, “Why did you spend all that money in college to learn how to write? Can’t you just learn that at home?” Well, sure, but technically you can learn anything at home. Why have culinary school if you can self-teach in your kitchen while watching how-to YouTube videos? Why should fledgling scientists and engineers bother taking courses if all they need to learn has been published in the oldest and latest greatest mathematical and engineering papers? I mean, just watch this insightful scene from Good Will Hunting:

So, why anything? Why does anyone bother with paying for college when we could learn everything we needed to learn to do what we wanted to do with $1.50 in late charges at the public library?

Because a formal education isn’t about learning which books to read. It’s about having mentors available to teach you what’s not in the books. And, if you want to get good at writing, you need to find those mentors and cling to them like dryer sheets on fleece.

Why it’s BETTER

If you’re a fledgling writer and you take a creative writing course, be prepared to have your heart’s work torn to pieces right before your eyes. If you can’t hack that, you’re not made for this.

On writing

Writing is different than, say, science. Science has equations and hard set rules of play. Writing does to some degree (e.g. punctuation), but there are limitless ways to add two components together. It’s not just two hydrogen plus one oxygen creates H2O. Writing is indefinitely more complicated than science if only because human behavior is. Sure, science is amazing. I’m not shrugging that off. I’m merely pointing out that understanding the human psyche enough to not only write about it but to communicate it and do it well is no small feat, either, and is worthy of it’s own due respect.

You can’t tell a story without understanding not only the rules, but also the how and why of the characters in that story. Storytelling is a vast word exercise in psychology. In speech alone, inflection, tone, mood, background, and a vast number of other factors play into conversation. And then there’s the choice of punctuation: should I use an em dash ( — ) or a colon or a comma or italics, and what do those things infer in writing? And, not only in writing, but in MY writing?

You can’t tell a story without understanding not only the rules, but also the how and why of the characters in that story.

I’ve spend weeks in classrooms working to simply harness the magic of dialogue. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. Some people are naturals at it; others will never grasp the concept and their characters will forever talk like robots. Some of my classmates just couldn’t figure it out and had to drop the course and, inevitably, change majors. It’s that important.

On reading

This isn’t reading comprehension. You want that, go take a literature course. This isn’t basic composition, either. You want that, go take an english course.

You want to know how to read something and strip it naked, remove it’s excesses, analyze what’s happening between the lines and behind the scenes of the characters, bring out the best in them (or the worst), and properly use a “red pen of death” on any piece of writing you get your hands on? You’re in the right place.

You’ll never read anything the same way again after you’ve learned what creative writing actually is. It’s being an author, editor, and reader all at once while simultaneously understanding that you can’t be all at once, that authors are inspired by other authors, that editors need editors, and readers can be really, really wrong.

Creative writing is being an author, editor, and reader all at once while simultaneously understanding that you can’t be all at once, that authors are inspired by other authors, that editors need editors, and readers can be really, really wrong.

Why it’s WORSE

Plainly: To a lot of people, creative writing isn’t a thing. It simply isn’t. It’s no more than an inflated hobby.

Say “I majored in journalism” and people are all over you, wondering what stories you’ve done and where you’ve traveled and if you have any particular topics you prefer to write on.

Say “I majored in english” and people are all over you, asking if you teach somewhere or what your favorite authors are and by the way would you recommend a great read?

Say “I majored in creative writing” and you either get a look as if you’re insane or eye contact suddenly breaks because the other person is (needlessly) embarrassed for you. Then comes the inevitable, “So what do you do with that?” Well, um, I write. And I read.

Writing and reading is nothing special, which is why creative writing isn’t taken seriously by the general populace. So, in conscious or subconscious efforts to lift the creative writer’s ego and spirits, we’re grouped with more “acceptable” fields of study, like journalism or english literature because, you know, people in those fields can DO things.

It’s the equivalent of a stay-at-home parent being offhandedly disrespected because they don’t hold a “real” job.

The other stuff

Taking creative writing courses taught me a lot more than how to write and read well. They taught me deeper lessons, like how to

  • be disappointed in myself and move on;
  • take criticism on something deeply personal (something drastically lacking in today’s world because, let’s be honest, we’re turning into a society of low-level narcissists) without exploding into a psychotic frenzy or collapsing into a depressed heap;
  • distinguish between worthwhile commentary and unworthy criticism;
  • be a critic without being cruel;
  • know when trying harder isn’t being productive, its simply creating more work;
  • know when giving up is okay and sometimes necessary;
  • know the difference between passion and necessity;
  • fail;
  • tell a story in a way that engages and, ultimately, changes people.

storytellersSomeone I greatly respect told me recently they always thought it would be great to be a writer because it allows you to affect and effect people. You can alter their viewpoint, make them feel something, create a passion, start a trend, spark an idea, and give people a whole other world to lose themselves in.

I couldn’t agree more.

For more on what makes creative writing different from journalism, read this interesting article in

Creative Writing (part 1): It isn’t english literature and it isn’t journalism, so stop saying that

Let’s get this straight: I didn’t major in journalism or english literature. I hold a degree in creative writing.

Some people don’t realize such a major exists. Sometimes friends forget I even have a degree because I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony and never threw a graduation party. Sometimes well-meaning individuals use these other fields as synonyms when they refer to my field of study. They aren’t synonyms, so stop that. Right now!

But, maybe you want to ask,

Why does it matter? The distinction isn’t important. What’s the big deal? There’s no difference.

Yes,  it’s important. Yes, there is a big difference. And I’ll start my explanation by saying this:

English Lit: I’m sorry, but I hate it.

I disliked reading every book shoved into my face as a high school student. I was a minimalist when it came to book reports and class discussions on Catch-22Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, variations of Shakespeare’s plays, and whatever else I was ordered to read that I can’t remember. Instead, I personally challenged myself with books like The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the objectivist and anti-altruistic controversy that is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainheadthe Apprentice Adept and Xanth fantasy series by Piers Anthony; and a handful of other not-so-well-known classics, like the All Things Great and Small autobiographical series by James Herriot.

I didn’t grow up loving any particular kind of reading. I disdained putting verses to memory. I don’t adore one era of literature over another. This is what english literature majors do: They love writing. That is, they love the study of writing. Every english literature course I ever took had me wanting to shoot myself in the head or at least beat it against a wall until I blacked out. I didn’t want to analyze verse and prose and dig further into the depths of what made Shakespeare funny and what made Faulkner different than the works of… pick your author. I didn’t want to talk writing. I wanted to actually write.

It's just blue, people.

It’s just blue, people.

Not to say english majors don’t enjoy writing — I’m certain many do — but that isn’t why they love reading. They read to study the writing itself: its style, verse, meter, prose, voice, the author’s “tics”, the history surrounding the time of the writing, and the peoples of those eras and histories. I can’t talk for two minutes on any one of those topics, they bore me so much. Really. If you want me to become instantaneously disinterested in creating a friendship with you, ask me what I think of any one of those subjects.

So, why did I and why do I read? To be told stories. That is, not to learn about people, but to experience them.

Journalists and creative writers: a comparison

Journalists write. I write, and sometimes do so in a very journalistic fashion.

Sometimes writing is like that.

Sometimes writing is like that.

Journalists have to research (or we hope they do) to assure their stories and articles are fact-based. I have to research to assure my stories and articles make sense and that I’m not ranting off some mindless drivel fueled only by my desire to be right. Or awesome.

Journalists and creative writers also both need to be quick studies on all topics that concern humankind. They need to inhale details and references and bits of fields to avoid sounding like a twit in their article or novel then quickly move onto the next thing. They have to be prepared with the right references and words, use the correct slang, and generally make sense to their readers.

But that’s where journalists and creative writers shake hands and part ways. The means to the task — writing — are very similar; it’s the ends that make the difference, and what a difference it is.

Journalists and creative writers: same skin, different animal

To recap, both journalists and creative writers

  • write as a profession
  • have to conduct research
  • are quick studies

But that’s it as far as I’m concerned.

I took a journalism class in college and learned a lot. Okay. That’s a lie. I recall learning precisely three things, and the last of those three dramatically changed the way I viewed, felt about, and read (past and present tense) journalistic media.

1. I learned how to arrange the words of a headline so that each line represents its own idea for easier comprehension. For example, here is a made up headline to show bad versus good word arrangement in a narrow, two-line layout:

Semi eases onto train

tracks, leaves 3 dead.


Semi eases onto train tracks,

leaves 3 dead.

See? Isn’t that second one nicer? What a useful skill…

2. I learned about the sweet spot in newspaper layout that catches the most attention and the most advertising dollars. (Hint: It’s not everything above the fold. Generalities will get you nowhere.)

This last thing was the kicker:

3. I learned the same facts can be twisted to mean anything you want it to as long as you use the right words in the right order. My journalism professor had the class take the same interview notes and create two completely different yet equally believable stories, proving that journalists can take the same fact or statistic and have it appear two different ways depending on what words he uses around it.

I was shocked. I thought journalism was about honesty and about getting the truth to the people, not about intentionally biasing a story based on the sociopolitical tastes of the newspaper by which the journalist in question was employed.

How’s that for “spin”?

This exercise in journalistic creativity was one of two reasons why I immediately changed my mind about wanting to work for a newspaper.

I don’t want to make people agree with me for the sake of my paycheck. I want my readers to have a passion for what I’m writing because my stories touch them at a level deeper than facts and figures and interviews ever could. That’s why…

Journalists are not always creative writers, but creative writers are always journalists

The second reason I stopped my pursuit of a career in journalism was because it simply bored me. I don’t revel in facts and statistics. I thrive on imagination and storytelling. Journalism is all of the first and little of the second. Creative writing is mostly the second with some of the first as support. It’s a lot like a good bra: It doesn’t create the bosom, but it helps lift it up enough for people to take it seriously!

Creative writing is like a good bra: It doesn’t create the bosom, but it helps lift it up enough for people to take it seriously.

And storytelling isn’t always fictional; there’s a lot of it in non-fiction as well. I’ve edited many manuscripts in which I helped the author take simple statements of fact (“I went to my aunt’s lake house for the summer”) and encompass more than facts into it, even by removing words (“My summer: the aunt’s lake house”).

Yeah. Not the way it works.

Yeah. Not how it works.

A common misconception is that writing better is always a task of addition — adding colorful words and more descriptive imagery, for instance — but frequently writing well means mastering the artful subtraction of words and the careful placement of punctuation to say something outside of the words themselves.

That’s why the journalist is not the same as the creative writer and vice versa. The first can do her job well, and that’s respectable. The latter, however, can do her job well AND the journalist’s job, too… if she has to.

Follow up with me next week on reasons why creative writing is better than journalism. Boo-yah!

Busting Up Your Writing: Finding Good Pieces in the Remnants of a Failed Story

Hubby and I have relocated to an amazing, truly God-given property in the rural hills of southeastern Minnesota. I’d post a picture of it here to share, but… well, there’s a reason we live away from the city, and it’s name is Privacy. (Sorry, folks.) Still, this little piece of our new found heaven came complete with creek, acreage, a rustic post fence, and an old red barn.

It’s the old red barn that struck my writing nerves this morning.

A Topic of Conversation

Sure, the barn is nice to have, especially to park dirty farm equipment in or house the rowdy donkey that I might decide to acquire someday soon whose job will be to eat the weeds.

But, we’ve just moved in and prior to this place we were renters. We don’t have farm equipment to park. I don’t have (yet) a donkey to eat my weeds. In addition, the barn’s condition is less than optimal. It leans. It’s foundation is cracked and bowed. It’s door is stubbornly heavy. It’s structural integrity is… questionable.

Suffice to say our home insurer had concerns about covering it.

This isn't actually our barn, but... close enough.

This isn’t actually our barn, but… close enough.

So, in our newfangled homeownershipness, Hubby and I were discussing the many to-do’s that have already piled up in our lives, me approaching the long list with giddy excitement while I could sense the anxiety, dollar signs, and man-tears welling up in my beloved’s brain.

One of the bigger tickets on that list is what to do with the barn: Do we patch it up, or tear it down and rebuild?

While I tend to have a love for refurbishing old things and maintaining the used in favor of cashing out for the new, there are some things that are just beyond repair.

And that’s where the barn and my writer’s brain intersect.

A Necessary Evil: Tearing Down to Rebuild

I was told early on in my UCR Creative Writing days from my still-favorite professor, Susan Straight, that the time would come when I’d realize I’d poured sweat and tears and endless hours and gallons of coffee into a nothing of a novel; that I’d be forced to face the fact that the work couldn’t be patched, couldn’t be fixed, and I’d have to start anew. Sure, I could throw more sweat and caffeine at the problem, but I’d do it all knowing I’d come out with a mediocre product.

And, to a writer, mediocre simply isn’t acceptable.

Same with this old barn: Hubby and I could tear out the rotted boards and replace them with new ones, we could replace the stubborn manual roll-up door with a new motor-operated one; we could even hire a fellow to come in and lift up the sagging concrete floor and another fellow to straighten up the walls that have suffered from said sagging.

But, after all the patchwork, it would still be a mediocre barn in need of a lot more work and a lot more investment. That it would be costlier to fix the current building than to replace it is questionable, but we’re guessing it would be a close call. Close enough that getting a new one is the more economical option.

Not only economical in regards to money, but practical in an investment sense. We’re investing that cost (cost = time + effort + money) into a product we expect to live up to our expectations. For a barn, that means it keeps things dry and safely housed for decades yet. For a book, that means a story that it impacts its reader.

And, sometimes, in order to get the full worth of your investment out of something you need to accept the fact that it’s not worth patching, scrap it, mourn that loss (if only a little), and then begin again.

Barn Busting


Demolishing a barn is no small feat. If you’re into quick, loud, and dirty, hiring a crew of husky contractors with heavy machinery to knock things down and haul it away is the way to go. I’m sure that was Hubby’s initial thought, and the concept of having dozen-ton vehicles driving across a narrow, sharp-cornered, gravel-laden culvert rated at only a a few tons made the veins on his already sweaty forehead pop out. The same thought made me cringe, but for altogether different reasons.

I, forever hopeful, envisioned all the good pieces of that barn — the brand new wall of two-by-fours and wiring installed just prior to our purchase to replace an old, snow-rotted wall; the good shingles; the fully functional single-car garage door; the stall doors; the five big overhead florescent lamps; the neat, rustic old windows; the big industrial heater installed to battle a Minnesota winter — going to waste. I pictured them being run over and broken and knocked down by a yellow bulldozer and then haphazardly scooped and poured into an unforgiving dump truck to be hauled away somewhere unspeakable.

“You know how they have barn raisings, where the community gets together to build a barn?” I asked, staring at the building in question. Hubby nodded. “What if we had a barn busting instead?”

The concept in my head was simple: gather folks together to bust up a barn and salvage the pieces to either sell to willing parties (or donate to helpers) or use on other projects that are bound to arise on our “farm” in the future.

I’d heard of people doing it. This guy actually has a passion for it; companies do it all the time. Even the wooden floors covering much of our home are old barn remnants and, lemme tell ya, a large part of the draw of the place for me during the first… and second… and third showings by the realtor were those old, glossy, squeaky barn wood floors. (Ain’t nobody sneaking up on me walking across those babies!) Here’s a neat time lapse of a barn busting by Antique Beams & Boards:

Barn deconstruction involves sorting, stacking, and re-purposing the good and usable pieces of the barn for other projects, like to construct a workshop, furniture, floors, fencing, or even another barn! The rest is discarded as it otherwise would have been in a standard demolition. It’s a win-win for the environment (no unnecessary cutting of trees! Yay!) and for the people who get to reuse those still-good pieces at a fraction of the cost of buying new materials.

Book Busting


“Ugh. My brain. Has stopped. Working.”

So it is with a manuscript sometimes. A writer needs to know when they’ve hit a wall and take the proper steps to either (a) demolish and totally trash the entire piece, or (b) deconstruct and re-purpose those good and usable parts while discarding the rest to where they rightly belong: the round file.

Let’s say you seeded this amazing idea for a novel weeks, months, or years ago and have been working to develop it ever since. Through sweat and obsessive note taking you built it up to be this pile of pages with it’s many chapters and multiple characters. You laid out a list of primary and secondary characters and have created deep and complex backgrounds for each of them. You create a fictional world that has a richly intense history. You write and write and write with fervor, but, after a while, you notice the momentum of the plot waning. Maybe it’s just because you haven’t slept well, maybe it’s other stresses making you imagine your story isn’t great. But it IS great, you tell yourself, and so you continue typing away.

In a temporary flash of sane consciousness you see your characters as flat. But you keep pressing on, hoping that more editing or more writing will fill them out, make them fat again. I just have to keep feeding it, you think.

Until the day comes when it slaps you in the face like a bad novel: your work IS a bad novel!


It’s a day of horror and (possibly literal) tears for every writer. All those hours laboring. All that cost, lost.

But, it doesn’t have to be.

Starting Over vs Starting Anew

To a writer, starting over and starting anew are two different things, so don’t get them confused.

  • Starting anew = starting again with all new pieces.
  • Starting over = starting again with the pieces turned over in a different light.

Sometimes a writer has no choice but to start anew. Maybe you’ve grown since that first spark of an idea came to you; maybe you’re not even the same kind of person who could appreciate that story that you imagined would be so fantastic. In that case, it’s time to accept you’ve changed, that you no longer hold the same interest in your story and it’s time to move on.

But, sometimes, a writer needs to take a little break and step away to gain a different perspective.

Take this quote from William Faulkner:

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

typewriterI’ve found my whatever peace, whatever solitude, and my whatever pleasure, and its in a little loft, reached only via circular staircase, with floors built from old, dismantled barn wood and a window that, when open, issues to me the sounds of a trickling spring. I’ve tried working hard in the wrong environment, my blood pressure running up and my frustration screaming out “Why the &#%$ can’t I write a &#%$ good thing today?!?”

And I’ve had to set those stacks of typed paper aside until a moment came when I could, with sanity and without wanting to burn them, accurately assess their necessity in the book that has already been written in my mind but has yet to make it onto page.

As for Hubby, I’m not quite sure he’s completely sold on my barn busting idea. I’m of the “if you build it, they will come” type (thanks, Field of Dreams). As my final sales pitch to him, I offered this thought:

“How often do people get to go over to someone’s house to break stuff?”

I’ll leave it to the little boy inside of him to decide whether having a huge party to break stuff is an awesome idea or not.


Some letters never get sent.



They say she’s crazy, that she’s lost her mind, her soul, because the love of her life left her. They say that after he was gone she wrote letters to him, letters that she never sent, and they say that, when she caught her maid reading the shoebox full of those letters, she started to scream and then suddenly went quiet. I guess she was so embarrassed, or maybe frightened, of what I wouldn’t know. They say she began wandering the city after that and, a few months later, her house got repossessed. Now, they say, she walks aimlessly holding a basket of flowers – dead and freshly plucked – that she pulls up from random places in the city. They say that one day she stepped onto the subway train – one man claimed she’d bought a ticket with a blood red rose – and after that nobody could find her.


It was long after the incident at the train station that I discovered her in the early morning light, wandering the alley behind my house near the beach of Staten Island, picking the dandelions growing in the cracks and crevices of the broken cement. That’s the day I took her in and gave her a Danish to brighten her face and some coffee to warm her soul.

She wouldn’t talk. I don’t know if she knew where she was, but she ate as if her body had been hollowed. I had to give her another pastry. Her shoulder blades stuck out from her back like the remaining stumps of torn-off wings and her dirty-blonde hair fell down, long and wavy, in tresses into a V reaching down to the small of her back.

But, like I said, she wouldn’t talk.

I asked her questions trying to get her to speak. I asked her where she lived, where she was from, if she had family, where she was going, why she’d been wandering the alley. I received my greatest response when I asked her why she was missing a slipper. She looked down at her naked foot and wiggled her toes, which had been kept disturbingly tidy despite their bareness. Her movement was endearing: unconcerned, innocent, sweet and slow. After this she simply looked at me, grinning, then giggled. I smiled back and decided not to ask anything else.

She was dressed in pajamas from who-knows-what-night. Despite their wear and tear they appeared sufficient, a light blue background dotted with haloes wearing wings or with wings wearing haloes, whichever way you’d like to think of it. One semi-fuzzy and very dirty bunny slipper dangled precariously from a flawless big toe. She smelled of saltwater and sand; impeccably clean and pleasurably fragrant for a homeless woman. Her scent brought back memories of walking along childhood beaches with the warm sand between my toes and that one hunt for seashells at ten years old when I found my first silver dollar. Except for the scars heartache left on her face, she glowed with a spectacular amount of energy. Around her neck hung a chain of thumbnail-sized shells strung together with a string of delicately braided angel hair seaweed. I admired the jewelry and its genuineness.

She caught me appreciating the necklace and laughed again, then nodded her head of tangled hair. When she stopped she looked around the room with the glazed eyes of a panther cub. They settled on a pencil lying next to the phone. Intrigued, I brought it to her. She grabbed the utensil excitedly and stared at the gnawed wood. She seemed content with simply sitting there admiring it, so I left her alone for a few minutes to use the restroom.

She was watching me as I came back into the kitchen; her blue eyes stared up at me like a child in need. I stood and looked at her, waiting for a sign. She broke the stare first, turning it to a scratchpad lying on the distant countertop near the phone. I fetched it and set the memo in front of her. She stared at the paper for several seconds with overwhelming interest – I suppose she was waiting for it to speak to her – but she wrote nothing down. It was sad: not even the pencil in her hand could talk. I turned my back momentarily to make more coffee (I had yet to drink my own cup). While I stood waiting for my brew I heard her shuffle in the chair. I turned to find her looking up at me, then glancing at the paper, then back to me again. I smiled. “It’s okay,” I told her. She touched the tip of the pencil to the paper. I waited in painful anxiety but the pencil didn’t move, only touched its point to the scratchpad, like a child satisfied with merely touching his mother instead of hugging her. Things were like this for a few minutes. After the first couple I gave up on watching and finished fixing my coffee then sat down at the table. Once I was seated, the pencil came to life: guided by a shaky hand, the lead tugged a centimeter to the left and stopped. It seemed she’d forgotten how to write.

They say the mind can only remember so much that’s important.


She stayed with me for the day. Once around lunchtime she followed me into the living room to watch me read. I fell asleep in the middle of Chapter 7 and, when I awoke, she was waiting patiently for me, sitting on the floor at my feet. On another occasion, when she wandered through the house alone for the first time, she had somehow gotten locked inside the hallway closet. After hearing insistent thumping from inside the walls I realized what had happened and rescued her.

Having her around didn’t make me nervous. It was nice to have the quiet, comfortable companionship of a somehow familiar stranger.

By sunset I’d gotten used to seeing her shadow stream across the walls. I wondered how long she planned on staying. Nighttime approached. The moon shone through my living room curtains like a spotlight, illuminating the mysterious scratchpad my visitor had left on the coffee table and the centimeter-long mark silently begging for completion. I looked at the lonely mark and wished she would finish it off. Or just erase it.

We watched television together. She preferred the floor to the sofa; I gave her a blanket to keep her off the cold hardwood surface. I fell asleep watching Frank Sinatra croon to a trumpet in old-time black and white…

The sound of papers fluttering in the kitchen and the cold freeze of the morning woke me. Some of the paper blew into the living room and down the hall, rustling and calling me to rise from the warmth of the couch. Scuffling into the kitchen I shivered from the intense cold. I found the backdoor wide open and the kitchen curtains waving in jovial good-mornings. Upon closing the door and hearing the click of the latch I felt a loneliness move over me: she was gone.

Although most of the paper had miraculously found a way into the hall, a single sheet captured beneath a dirty coffee mug. I picked it up, noticing the familiar one-centimeter mark. It was finished, composing the horizontal top to the ‘T’ at the start of the paragraph…


“They do not know the birds. They should know the birds. The birds understand me and they know what I am feeling. The birds can fly. They fly with me and I know that they’ll always be there flying with me. On the day the birds fly south I will fly south with them and at the end of it I will finally know what it feels like to rest and I will finally understand why I was put here and why it is that I must go. And when the birds fly north I will not fly with them because by then my wings will be broken and my will gone. I will not fly north, but stay in the south. Good day, Sir Moon. I have finally found you. I have been looking everywhere for you. Why do you not call on me? And why are you so far away, so hazy and gray and so much like the fog that disassembles me? I am disassembled…”


The rambling continued on in a similar fashion from line to line and page to page. I didn’t know what to do or think about it. I didn’t know what to do or think about her. I wondered if she would come back for more coffee this morning or the next or the next. But, after cleaning house the days whizzed by: Monday I went to work and suddenly, while washing my dishes, I stumbled upon Friday. I didn’t hear from her.

It was much later, when I went to dinner and a movie with a handsome and gentlemanly friend of mine in the city, that I noticed a familiar figure standing at the bank of a pond. We were taking a walk through Central Park after leaving the cinema, the chill of autumn pinching my cheeks carnation pink. The moon was full, lighting the city in fluorescent showers and sprinkling the river water with glitter. I kept my eye on her as my companion and I walked by. As we passed her I could hear her singing to herself a song made of the same babble I’d read before on the papers, the papers now hidden in the closet she’d once locked herself into.

“You know her?” my friend inquired, smirking and laughing all at once.

“Briefly,” I told him, consciously forgetting to mention the intimate day spent with the woman.

By then it was getting close to December. Winter was beginning to settle in as the final leaves dropped to the ground in silent surrender. The official start of the season was announced with the lighting of Christmas trees, the wearing of mittens and beanie caps, and the imitation Santas ringing their holly bells and Ho-Ho-Hoing on the street corners.

One afternoon my gentleman friend and I went ice skating in the park. We were having a comical time trying to stay on our feet. During intermissions we watched kiddies take steps onto Nature’s glass, then trip, stumble, slide, and get up again to prove gravity wrong. Everything was beautiful. I was thirty minutes into getting my balance right when I saw her again, standing at the edge of the ice, just a few dozen feet away. She’d acquired a new coat and a furry hat and a pair of snow boots since I’d last seen her, her lonesome bunny slipper long gone. She saw me see her and waved accordingly.

My friend asked me, this time without the smirk, “You know her?”

I waved to my old housemate and motioned to go to her. Before leaving I told him, “Briefly,” and smiled. “I’ll be right back.”

I more or less skidded and stumbled onto the shore, smiling at her. Her countenance had grown older since she’d stayed with me. Although she smiled with reflective welcome I gained no pleasure in her happiness as I had before. I must have looked perplexed. Taking her hands from her coat pockets, she placed both palms on my rosy cheeks like a grandmother would to a grandchild, momentarily warming my face. I breathed out and the heat from my lungs rose in the air in swirls; she watched it go up and laughed. She removed her hands from my face to pull a small purse from her pocket. I worried at first, thinking that maybe she’d stolen it from an unsuspecting donor. She saw my expression change and shook her head in rebuttal, pointing to herself and grinning proudly.

At that instant a flock of geese flew overhead, honking and squawking in familiar fashion. The nose of the fleet pointed south, toward warmth. We looked up to gawk at the sight as if we’d never seen anything like it before. Then, suddenly, she took hold of my hands and shook them anxiously, glowing at me with such excitement that I didn’t know whether to run in astonishment or do jumping jacks in celebration. Once she stopped her shaking she smiled even more fervently and looked at me, overwhelming importance dripping from her eyes. She was going to say something, I just knew, so I listened intently, staring back at her. It took a few moments, but when she was done ogling she stood up straight as a nun and nodded only once, still beaming.

“I have to go now,” she said. “Take care of my things, dear.” And she left.


“On the day the birds fly south I will fly south with them and at the end of it I will finally know what it feels like to rest and I will finally understand why I was put here and why it is that I must go…”


I took the purse home with me that evening, setting it on the coffee table that shared my pain. I made myself some tea before sitting down to examine the purse’s contents. When I was ready – when the windows were closed and the kitchen curtain was pushed back to allow the moon to shine through the frosted pane – I took a seat and opened the bag.

The first thing I pulled out was a picture of her and a man, his face worn down to nothingness by countless fingertip kisses; she was wearing a floral dress in faded creams and peaches and pinks. An Easter picnic, I guessed. I reached inside the purse again and pulled out a change wallet. It held three quarters, seven pennies, four dimes, two nickels, a diamond engagement ring and a man’s gold wedding band. I examined the diamond – it was set in either platinum or white gold (I’m no jeweler) and looked to be about a half-carat. I set the rings aside and continued digging. Only one item remained: an envelope folded into quarters, containing a letter for a man whom I guessed was the figure in the accompanying photograph. I removed the letter, handling it carefully in consideration for the feelings of the woman who had left it in my care. The letter was dated the previous spring, March, to be exact, and read like this:


Dear John,

I’m sorry that you had to leave me. I’m sorry that I couldn’t have done more to keep you here, but I suppose you needed to be somewhere else. I understand that. If only I could have had time to explain myself to you, maybe then you would have been able to stay longer.

I hope you found love here. I hope that you understand what love is. I know what it is for me, but maybe it’s not the same for you and maybe that’s why you couldn’t make yourself stay.

For me it is the total existence of all emotions. For all the emotions I am able to name, I can find in my memory somewhere a time when I felt that way about you. But I’m sorry for those times when I was trying too hard to make an impression upon you because, I realize now, too late, that you were already impressed with everything that I had in the first place, as little as it was.

So, all I can give you now is my love. Whether you are here or away I will love you.

I plan on seeing you again soon. I hope you’ll forgive my persistence, but I heard once that the thing people most regret is that they let the love of their lives slip away. That’s a terrible thing to regret and I refuse to stand for it.

Dear, I will see you soon enough. Don’t wait up for me.

Love, Your Wife,




They say she went crazy, but I know she never was. They say that she lost her mind, her soul, because the love of her life left her. I say she lost neither her mind nor her soul, only her desire, because when someone has learned to love completely there is nothing left to know. They say that after he was gone she wrote letters to him, letters she never sent. I know she never sent them not because she didn’t want to, but because there was no address to where they needed to go. They say that she disappeared one December evening and they say that’s when the dogs howled all night, because they watched her fly over the moon and wished her well on her trip.

I will miss Marabelle. But, even for the short time I knew her, she taught me all I need to know: love, the total existence of all emotions, unconditional, pure, real.


I keep her things in the purse and hide them in the closet with the rest of her papers. I don’t look at them anymore. I didn’t pawn the rings, didn’t keep the change. I had to make a box for her, to forget her. But, she’s hard to forget. The box sits, to this day, in my closet gathering dust. And every few months, while scrounging for something else, I stumble upon it and remember her all over again.

And full moons remind me, too, about the way she stared at it through my living room window, like a giant eye watching her. Every time it appears I wonder where she’s gone. I can’t forget her. Not yet. Why?

Because it’s Marabelle.




Did you enjoy this story? Perhaps you’d also like reading Adeline.

Pebbles in a Stream – Part 9

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part VIII.)


The day waned, welcoming night into the bosom of Mother Earth’s horizon. A mockingbird chanted from the roof of the barn; he perched from his usual corner of the tin roof sheeting nearest Gayla’s bedroom window and called for the shield of darkness to come forth, to bring the delight of coolness with it and the easy drift of an evening flight. He sang melodiously, in the usual form of mockingbirds, in a never-ending chorus of tunes and melodies borrowed from any number of creatures, living or not. Gayla swore the bird sometimes imitated the sound of her mother’s squeaky sneezes. She hated the bird for that, then loved it and yearned for it seconds later when it took a pause for breath and she was afraid it had gone away for good.

The bedroom was small—a ten by ten foot space with a view of the vegetable garden and barn through a solitary, single-paned window, now lifted open and held there by an opened agate geode, its innards sparkling in the lamplight, to let in the evening breeze—and housed only the essentials: a creaky bed; a lit and dusty oil lamp atop a nightstand hand-carved with finches and crickets dancing to a silent tune; and a small wardrobe in the corner partnered with, and somehow inseparable from, a delicate and cloudy copper-framed mirror which hung by a tiny nail tapped into the plastered wall.

It seemed a miracle to Gayla that the nail held on so furiously.

Whereas a window or bed is typically the focal point of a bedroom, in that tiny enclosure it was the nightstand.

The tiny piece of furniture runneth over in hardbound books covered in fabric spanning the hues of the fullest rainbow. Hardly an inch remained for anything else to reside there; even the lit oil lamp in its porcelain saucer sat atop a number of volumes stacked one upon another. Somewhere within the depths of that miniature library rested a tattered journal—her father’s—through which Gayla had read and cried and wondered over countless times. His entries were often dull, talking about weather and crop intake and failed farming experiments as well as the less dramatic affairs of managing a farm. Still other entries were saturated with intrigue and mystery, like the day back in August 1934 when Mr. Masterson, led by a new acquaintance of ripened years who swore his ancestors were natives to the area, went on a hike down into the valley and across the small stream near the back slope of the property that, at that time, cut the Masterson land in half. The hike was intended to last only an afternoon, but an unexpected bout of foul weather sent upon them a dangerous torrent and subsequent flash flooding which kept the farmer and his companion from crossing the swollen stream back home. They’d managed to find shelter in the arms of an old and gnarly oak—“…which looked as the Father of the regional growth,” Mr. Masterson whispered through his scrawl of now-faded penciling—and arrived at the house the next morning, soaked to the bone and with a great story to tell the hands and expectant bride, then six months pregnant with their first daughter, who were all hopefully and prayerfully awaiting their return.

Following that fiasco, Mr. Palmer and his companion never again ventured off; never again was the old, self-proclaimed Indian mentioned in the journal. Even in that single entry, he was only called once “Red Coyote”.


Gayla lay on the bed on her stomach, knees bent and feet absentmindedly kicking in the air just as her barren-footed ten-year-old self would have been. She propped herself on her elbows as she turned and inspected and turned again the stolen kerchief in her hands, intently inspecting the detailed embroidery woven between the fibers of the white cotton square. She followed the dyed threads with her fingers, tracing over the A.P.P. stitched into a corner amid fraying roses and daisies and unidentifiable vines. Just to the side of the monogram was inked with dark blue pen a terribly unevenly drawn heart and the scribbled initials A.C.R. The effort had been childish, yes, Gayla thought, but in the sweet, silly, and delicate kind of way that bumblebees fumble through the air as they fly.

Gayla hadn’t yet changed out of the dress she’d worn that morning to see Andrea Palmer. So deep was her mind and effort on trying to figure out the recent trouble that she’d missed the calls from the other side of the door asking her to come to dinner, and didn’t hear the hesitant taps on the adjoining wall from the room next door—from her sister’s room—to say goodnight in Morse, as they’d done since their Uncle Charlie from the Navy had taught them the trick.

It was nearly nine o’clock by the time Greta knocked on the door of the small bedroom. She cracked it open and peeked in without waiting for an answer from its inhabitant. By then the mockingbird had long since left his post and had been replaced in duty by an owl who’d made his home in the rafters of the creaky barn. His calls were more lonesome than the mockingbird’s: a soft, thoughtful baritone compared to the shrill excitement that the smaller bird produced, but more appropriate for lulling those on the verge of sleep over the crest and into a deep and happy slumber.

“You missed dinner.” Greta eased her way into the room and shut the door softly behind her, not wanting to wake the girl sleeping next door. She walked the two steps to the bed and stood beside the young woman lying there. Looking at her, she couldn’t help but see as her own daughter.

Gayla laid on her back now, arms up and hands cradling her head as she stared blankly at the ceiling, blinking only once in every great while. Her feet dangled over the edge of the mattress—she was almost too tall anymore to fit in this child’s bed—and her boots and socks lay haphazardly on the floor below her bare feet, no doubt lying where they’d fallen after being kicked and tugged off by their owner’s toes, as so often happened. “And lunch,” Greta added, smiling just a little at a hole worn into one of the red wool socks.

Gayla didn’t turn to acknowledge her visitor but pursed her lips a little instead. The two stayed quiet for a few seconds, contemplating one another, while the owl outside made his way through the last prolonged hoots of his nighttime ballad. The women listened to the bird’s claws scrape against the dry wood of the loft’s door frame as he took off into the night air, prepared and ready to wander the moonlit countryside in search of his evening’s morsel.

“I’m sorry,” Gayla said finally. “I wasn’t hungry.”

Greta nodded. “Well, we missed your company, even if you didn’t want to eat.”

Gayla nodded, reluctantly admitting to the quiet shame of a tiny lie. “I wasn’t feeling sociable,” she admitted.

Greta inhaled, ready to speak, but, deciding against it, held her breath at the peak of her lungs’ expansion. She released the air slowly through her mouth, blowing her worries across the room and into a dusty corner to be found and whispered some other day.

But Gayla must have heard them anyway, because she sat up abruptly and turned to her caretaker, legs crossed as she wrapped her strong fingers around the bony portions of her ankles and flung her long hair behind her shoulder.

“Amrid must know about it. That’s the only explanation.” Gayla’s eyes were vivid and clear when she spoke, sparkling with a revelation that was boiling up and over in her mind. Greta stared down at her, waiting, until the girl continued on in the soft and even tone that often came upon her when she was feeling certain of herself. With that tone, Greta knew: Gayla’s mind wouldn’t be changed.

Watch yourself, child, lest you get us into trouble too deep to dig out of.

“He’s so decent, always trying to be a hero, always trying to save everyone. He would do this—would leave me with a note and a shallow goodbye—knowing and trusting that I’d figure it out, knowing somehow that Mr. Palmer would come knocking and unravel the mystery for me. And he knows me, Greta. He knows I wouldn’t let allow that miserable old man do anything to us; he knows I wouldn’t back down or let them threaten push us around.

“That he knows me so well proves he loves me still, and I just can’t let it go.”

Gayla rubbed a thick, inch-long scar on her left ankle with the flat of her thumb. She pressed it and it turned white; as she released her finger, the blood rushed back beneath the thin layer of skin and brought its pink tint with it. She continued—press, release, press, release, press, release—as she contemplated out loud Amrid’s angle and Cherie’s situation.

“I still love him, Greta,” Gayla said, this time dropping her eyes and picking at a small thread that had wiggled its way from the seam of the bed’s quilted cotton top. The thread eventually gave way to the abuse: it frayed and broke about an inch from its end, leaving Gayla without a tether to carry her deliberations from one point to another. Lost floating aimlessly in a sea of thought, she gave up her quest and flicked the string onto the floor; it floated down on the thick summer air and disappeared under the bed, no doubt into a crowd of dust specks and cracker crumbs and dust bunnies already living there. The hands returned to their positions on the ankles and Gayla lifted her gaze again, her eyes not crying but damp with the emotion of longing, worry, and painful yet overdue relief. The light of the room’s single flame reflected on her dark pupils, imitating the sparkle of a childhood innocence not-so-long forgotten and the embers of a love which, though frustrated, still remained.

“I want him back. I can’t help it. I know it’s silly, but I do. I had almost given up, but this whole thing about Cherie got me thinking again about everything: about how there were no signs of a romance with Cherie to anyone, about how there was no goodbye, about this letter—” Gayla quickly looked over at an envelope resting nearby on top of the quilted bed cover, as if startled by its sudden materialization. She reached to take it in her hand, to test its tangibility, and then looked up to her stern and looming companion.

“I know with everything in me that there was a reason—a good reason—I shouldn’t let him go, a reason why something inside of me couldn’t accept that he’d leave me behind the way he did. I knew he couldn’t do that to me without cause. You know him, too, Greta. Even though you’re angry at him and you don’t want to believe he’s a good person, you know he is.” Gayla clenched her fist and with it crumpled the envelope. Still, the nanny looked on silently.

Sure, I know him. I know men, and their reasons are different from ours, my dear.

Gayla finally realized Greta would say nothing. She’d not voice her disagreement, but it separated them as plain as a mile-high stone wall. Gayla could see the restraint on her mentor’s face—the subtle tightening of the skin at her temples, the darkening of the eyes, the almost indiscernible downward tilt to her head though their eye contact never wavered—so continued declaring her case, hotly debating the way her mother always would when she felt alone in the world.

How like her you are, even though you’d rather have more of your father in you and less of her. If only you knew how much she wishes it, too.

“Amrid is no fool.” Gayla’s words remained whispers for the sake of her sister sleeping next door, but the timbre of her voice increased with the urging of the fire beneath it.

The owl returned, no doubt with his latest catch securely in his gullet, and fluttered and scratched his way to an ungraceful stop in the loft.

“He wasn’t raised a fool,” Gayla continued, “and I don’t believe there’s a single bone in his body, an ounce of blood in him, that can be called such. He’s too practical, too—” she struggled to find her word, “—calculating.” Her voice drifted as she raised her eyes toward the ceiling. The sparkle in them had grown brighter while the flame on the lamp’s wick had diminished.

Greta reached over and turned the knob on the lamp, urging more of the oil-soaked wick from its hiding place. There was nothing left to uncoil.

Gayla reached into the envelope and pulled out a tattered note that had the look of aged and bleached leather. It was crumpled beyond repair and stained by the many touches of fingers stained with dust and sweat and tears. Greta recognized it as the note slipped not long ago underneath the big oaken doors of the Masterson home. She inhaled deeply at the sight of it, hating for a moment its existence, hating for a moment the boy who’d scrawled his insufficient apology across it, then, after a moment, released her breath. It was only a slip of paper, after all. It had no motive or evil within it, no intention or loyalty to guide its path. But the ink on it breathed—words breathed—and the smell of them made Greta’s soul shiver when she thought of them.

“I’ve read this a million times,” Gayla continued, “and I’ve only just come to realize Amrid never explicitly said he was eloping with Cherie.” She paused again, rolling a top corner of the paper in between her thumb and finger. “Have you read it, Greta?” She didn’t hold out the slip or wait for the matron to respond, but kept on in a tired, excitable tempo. “He never mentioned her name. He never wrote that he didn’t love me or that he loved someone else. Those are things we all just assumed.” She paused, then added, “Things I assumed.”

No turning back, Greta stared back and forth at the two sparkles blinding and shining at her. There’s no turning back now. She reached her hand out to stop the restless thumb from continuing its abuse on the old scar. It seemed just as vibrant and red as it had been a year ago, when the bandages were freshly off and the old Indian ointment was still being laid on every night, at the suggestion of Maggie Mayweather. The scar hadn’t faded with the summer sun nor healed with the help of Maggie’s ointment, the one sticky as tar and which smelled strongly of pine sap and herbs and maple syrup, guaranteed to make the wound disappear from sight and, in effect, from mind.

But it was still there, boldly and brightly, like a beacon.

It was then that Gayla opened the note and began, softly and slowly, with careful diction, to read the words out loud. Greta ground her teeth, but listened, stone-faced:


Dearest Gayla,

You are so beautiful, so smart. You must know I love you in all practicality. But I have met with an impulse that is beyond practical. I must follow it. I hope you don’t hate me. I will care for you always, but we cannot be married now. I am sorry.

Your Amrid.


As she finished reading, Gayla looked up from the paper into Greta’s eyes and waited. Then she saw it: recognition.

“Let me see that,” Greta said smoothly. She took the note from the girl’s hands and raised it to her eyes so that she could read its scrawl in the dim yellow light of the single flame.

Like a silken veil falling softly across her weathered face, the housekeeper’s expression steadily traded coldness for inquisition, then inquisition for hope, then hope for regret as she read the lines over and over again, with each pass combing out more meaning, more code, while filtering out presumption and pride.

The girl waited longer still, knowing that after Greta’s regret faded anger would pour in to take its place, just as it had with her, but the anger wouldn’t aim its bared dagger at the hand that had composed the letter. No, that stab would instead jab both inward and also farther away, at hands unseen and evermore cunning that had crafted the situation in which they—Gayla, Greta, and Trudy—were now entombed.

Then—wait for it—yes! There it is! The spark! The spark of understanding lighted upon the matron’s face. Turning the words over in her mind, Greta heard an echo of what Amrid had been saying, heard the words as they were written, as they were intended, as Gayla now read and heard them.

Greta looked up at the girl and handed the note back without a word.

Is this truth revealed, or a new hope turned conviction? Neither of us will be able to rest until we know what’s real. That means you’re leaving Trudy and me, and I can’t protect you out there.

“You see it now, don’t you?” Gayla asked. Greta didn’t say anything, but turned her eyes shyly downward. “It’s me who’s been the fool.” Gayla stuffed the paper back in its envelope and then into her skirt pocket. She pulled her knees in toward her chest again, reassuming her position of quiet yet swift contemplation. “Never did he mention Cherie. Never did he mention he didn’t love me. In fact, he said he does love me. He didn’t say ‘we cannot be married ever’, or simply that ‘we cannot be married’, but that ‘we cannot be married now’.” The fingers absentmindedly traced the length of the scar. “If I know Amrid—and I know I do—he was very careful to write that word.”

Greta’s hope reached forward, wanting to believe. Her heart dove one moment—a cold skepticism and fear of the unknown dragging it down into her belly—and the next it lifted with the resilience of a mother, the optimism of a friend. It was a strange feeling; a confused feeling. She reined in her flighty spirit, remembering what Willard had often told her: ‘If you have to stretch yourself,’ he’d say, ‘it probably ain’t right.’

Greta inhaled deeply, setting the sound of his voice aside. “And the ‘impulse’?” she asked. The dull edge in her tone poked at the young lover, driving her on where it had intended to rein her in.

Gayla squinted at her caretaker, hearing the bitterness there. She lifted her hand from ankle to knee then moved both arms behind her to lean back upon them. “I should have seen it. ‘Beyond practicality.’ He got the saying from his father, who fought in the war: Honor is beyond practicality.” Gayla snorted a laugh, shaking her head as she slid off the bed to move toward the window. She crossed her arms and looked out from it into the deep black night. “He’s not chasing Cherie’s tail, Greta. I think he’s saving it.”

The two pondered silently as the flame ate away at the wick and the light faded ever so slowly. The mild smoke from the oil lamp gathered and swirled in the small space before seeping out into the world through the cracked window. The vapor lent an ethereal quality to the room; the edges of everything the light hit blurred as if they weren’t really there.

Maybe, Gayla thought, they weren’t.

Gayla stood and moved toward the window. Her arms crossed as she peered outside and looked at everything and nothing, on guard against an invisible foe lurking everywhere and nowhere. It was a habit she was prone to in those dark hours before action struck.

That action was what frightened Greta most, though she knew they couldn’t avoid it now, nor could she keep her brash young charge from diving head first into it.

Every now and again the incessant howl of a distant coyote followed swiftly by the echoing calls of his comrades would remind them that life still existed outside that small room. Though the coyotes were talkative, the owl had finally stopped his moaning, gone quiet for the evening to digest his meal. Greta looked up at the ceiling when she heard something scurrying along the roofline, no doubt a rat anticipating a meal from the unattended table scraps the humans had wastefully tossed away.

He only needed to find them, first.

As Greta opened her mouth to excuse herself to bed, the lamp breathed its last and the flame died. Greta sighed. “You need a new wick, dear.”

A pause. A quick turn to pull her eyes from the window and point an ear toward the voice. “What?”

“Your lamp,” Greta pointed at the device on the nightstand. “It’s gone out.”

Gayla turned fully from the window, her arms dropping slowly to her sides. In the softness of the faint moonlight the matron saw that the girl’s head was cocked and her brows were lifted, eyes wide.

Greta chuckled, unable to imagine why the girl would look so shocked. “What? You think I don’t know when a wick has gone cold?”

Gayla simply shook her head and pointed through the darkness at the white-painted lamp sitting atop its blue ceramic saucer. “I thought I was seeing the reflection in the glass.”

It was Greta’s turn to be shocked. She stepped quickly toward the window, moving one of the drawn curtains aside with the rushed swipe of a hand.

Then she saw it.

In the warbled lead glass floated a tiny orange flicker, like that of a candle flame, surrounded by nothing but its own pale glow and darkness. It didn’t seem to move, but would intensify for an instant, then return to its previous condition the next, then disappear for an instant and return again, as if sending out its own Morse signal to whoever might be watching.

Understanding struck. It wasn’t a reflection, but something outside and far away.

Greta stuffed her calloused fingers into the open crack of the window and pulled up the sash, shoving the stiff frame and its glass out of her way. She leaned her upper body through the opening, both hands firmly on the sill, and inhaled deeply through her nostrils.

She could smell it. She could vaguely taste it.

That was a very bad sign.

Greta pulled herself back into the bedroom and moved an arm to Gayla’s shoulder, shaking it with firm grip. Her eyes never left the distant assailant.

“Wake Daniel and your sister. I’ll wake the men,” she said. “There’s a fire coming.”

Keep reading! Here’s Part X!