Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cold as Ice by M.K. Gilroy

Cold as Ice
Sydney Lane Press
by
M.K. Gilroy



Chapter 1

IT WAS FOUR in the morning in New York City, the city's quietest hour—perhaps only quiet hour. Francis "Frank" Nelson, Jr., stepped off the curb in front of the Dexter Arms on West 58th Street, and looked left and right. A cab was idling across the street, but still no driver behind the wheel. He had crossed the street a few minutes earlier to rap on the driver's window, but the car was empty then, too. That seemed odd, but what isn't odd at four in the morning in New York City? He looked left and right again, but still saw no sign of another cab. Preferably one with a driver.

Where is the driver?

He had been freezing his butt off for almost ten minutes now, and his impatience was beginning to ball up into a tight, throbbing knot in the base of his stomach. He wasn't a New Yorker, but he did enough business in the city to embrace the cynical and sometimes too true belief that the only time you can't find a taxi or a cop is when you need one.

Stage two hypertension. Doctor says I've got to manage stress better. If I don't get out of here I'm going to stroke out tonight.

He was tired and anxious to get back to the second floor of the brownstone on the east side of Central Park. Very nice but at twenty-five thousand dollars for the week it cost too much under the circumstances—his company was on the ropes financially. So was he. Everything he had was sunk in the company.

That is why I had to do what I did tonight.

Nelson was ready to scream with the tension. He was already irritated that no one was working the bell stand at the Dexter to make a cab appear right away. The young lady attending the registration desk, barely able to speak English and barely awake, he thought with a snort, assured him that she could get a cab in no time. Right. He paced inside the lobby and then paced outside on the street for as long as he could stand the cold. Not very long.

He had hired his own car and driver for the week, but he was cabbing it tonight because he didn't want his activities known. Nor did the people he was meeting with. The man in charge—not what he was expecting—said it would be much less conspicuous to catch a cab back to the brownstone at this time of night. He agreed. But where was the cab? Just how hard was it to get an open cab at four in the morning?

Okay, I know the cab across the street is open, but how about an open cab with a driver?

He was late to say the least, and if his wife, Justine, was awake or woke up with him coming back now, she would kill him. She would accuse him of cheating and drinking. Neither was true, of course. At least not tonight and not in the sense she would assume it.

But things could get bad, very bad, if she or anyone else began asking questions about why he was at the Dexter Arms throughout the night.

Nelson told her not to come this trip. That only made Justine more set on travelling with him.

She loves to disagree. I should have begged her to come.


•••


"Kristen, what are you doing? Tell me you aren't going out in this weather."

"It's my last chance to run in Central Park."

"It's below zero."

"Don't exaggerate, Klarissa. The weather guy said it would be at least five degrees this morning."

I can't understand what my sister just mumbled from under the covers but I don't think it was very nice.

Her head pops into view. "Really, Kristen? Really?"


I'm tugging my leggings up. "We grew up in Chicago, Sis, this is child's play."

"It's not even four in the morning, Kristen. Go back to sleep. Or at least get out of here and let me sleep."

"I'm going. Give me a sec. I'm going."

"Good."

"But not for real long. I've got to pack for my flight later this morning. Mom will be calling fairly soon to make sure I've given myself plenty of time to get to LaGuardia."

Klarissa finally sits up to glare at me. I stifle a smile. Her glorious mane of golden blonde hair looks as beautiful mussed as when it's done up for her television work. Women pay big bucks to have a stylist try to make their hair look like Klarissa's does with a simple toss of her head when she wakes up. My hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail for my run. Same as I wear it for work. Life's not fair.

"Okay, Kristen," she says. "You're right—like always. Far be it from me to argue. We grew up in a freezing cold city. So I guess that makes your obsessive . . . your obsessive stupidity toward physical activity understandable. Since you're crazy enough to run in this weather, at least be quiet about it so one of us gets some sleep," she finishes in disgust, rolling away from the nightstand light and putting a pillow over her head. "And stay warm!" she adds, muffled but loud enough to wake our wing of the Hilton.

I look over at Klarissa, her hair cascading from underneath the pillow. So beautiful. Always the princess. I'll never understand my sister. I lift the pillow, give her a quick kiss on the top of her head, smile when she mumbles something else, nice or otherwise, and head for the door.

Hey, what did she say about me being obsessive and stupid? And what's with giving me the business on being noisy? I was being quiet. I think. And what's with her claiming I always have to be right?

I've got to run. I'll argue with her later.

•••

After the door shuts behind Kristen, Klarissa sighs and gets up to go to the bathroom.

My sister. Is it possible one of us got put into our family by mis- take? Detective. Workout warrior. Fighter. Kristen isn't happy unless she's fighting or getting ready to fight. Or sweating. She doesn't have a clue how beautiful she is. I'll never understand my sister.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Once Upon a Summertime by Melody Carlson

Once Upon a Summertime
Revell (June 2, 2015)
by
Melody Carlson





Chapter 1


It had never been Anna Gordon's dream to work for a motel—certainly not the Value Lodge. And most definitely not in the same sleepy town she'd grown up in. But as her grandma had reminded her just that morning, "A job is a job, and I'm sure there are plenty of unemployed folks who would be grateful to trade places." Even so, as Anna walked the six blocks from her grandmother's apartment to her place of employment, she longed for something more.

As Anna came to Lou's Café, someone backed out the front door with a watering can in hand, nearly knocking Anna down. "Excuse me!" the careless woman cried as she slopped cold water onto Anna's good Nine West pumps.

As Anna caught her balance, she recognized the o ender. "Marley Ferris!" she cried out. "What on earth are you doing here in Springville?"

Marley blinked in surprise. "Anna?"

"I can't believe it's you." Anna stared at her old friend in wonder. Marley set aside the watering can and the two hugged—long and hard—exclaiming joyfully over this unexpected meeting.

"It's been so long," Marley said as they stepped apart. "Way too long." Anna slowly shook her head.

"And look at you." Marley studied Anna closely, from her shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair to her shoes. "So professional in your stylish suit. And still looking way too much like Nicole Kidman's little sister."

Anna smiled. "Thanks."

"What're you doing in these parts anyway?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing." Anna adjusted her purse strap.

"I'm just home for a few days." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "Helping out with my parents' café. My mom's laid up after back surgery."

"Oh dear. Is she okay?"

"Yeah. It was a ruptured disc, but sounds like they got it cleaned up. She just needs to take it easy for a few days." Marley pointed at Anna. "Seriously, what're you doing back in Springville, and looking all uptown too?"

Anna grimaced, wishing for a better answer. "I'm, uh, I'm managing the, uh, the motel," she mumbled.

"Oh?" Marley's brow creased. "A motel? In this town?" Anna tipped her head down the street with a somber expression.

"The Value Lodge?"

"Uh-huh." Anna glanced at her watch. "And I should probably get going."

"Oh yeah, sure." Marley looked doubtful, as if she was still processing this bit of news.

"It's great seeing you," Anna said. "You look fantastic."

"Hey, why don't you come back over here for lunch?" Marley said quickly. "Give us time to catch up. The Value

Lodge does give you a lunch break, doesn't it?"

"Absolutely." Anna nodded eagerly. "At 1:00."

"I'll be right here." Marley picked up the can and began to water the large terra-cotta pot by the front door, which was overflowing with colorful pansies and red geraniums. "I promised Mom I'd keep her plants alive until she gets back. Can you believe how hot it's been? And it's only May!" She plucked o a dried bloom, tossing it into the gutter.

"I adore your mom's flowers. So pretty and cheerful." Anna waved as she continued on her way. And it was true—she did love seeing the café's flowers. It was a bright spot in her day. The blooms reminded her of the small hotel she'd worked at during her college years. Some students in the hospitality management program had disparaged the old Pomonte Hotel by calling it the Podunk Hotel. But compared to the Value Lodge, the thirty-six-room Pomonte was quite chic, from its cast iron flowerpots by the door to the bubbling fountain in the lobby. It was true what they said: you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Anna felt a familiar wave of disappointment wash over as her destination came into view. The boring two-story motel had been built in the early eighties, and most Springville residents agreed it was an eyesore. Some more motivated citizens had even gone to the city council demanding improvements. Anna couldn't blame them. When she'd accepted the managerial job, she had convinced herself that she could make a difference in the humdrum lodgings—or she could move on after a year. Unfortunately, she'd been wrong on both accounts.

As she got closer to the building, her general dismay was replaced by some ironic gratitude—she was thankful that none of her college chums could see her now. It was bad enough having to confess her lackluster vocation to a childhood friend this morning. But if her college acquaintances knew—like her ex-roommate who now worked in Paris, or the ex-boyfriend who managed a Caribbean Ritz—Anna would feel thoroughly humiliated.

She wasn't a big fan of social networking, but she occasionally sneaked a peek at friends' Facebook pages—not for long, lest she feed any jealous green demons festering inside of her. Naturally, she never posted a single word about her own personal or professional life. Occasionally she was tempted to fake some exotic photos and falsify her whereabouts, just for fun, but really that wasn't her style. Better to remain honest and simply suffer in silence.

From across the street, she frowned at the garishly painted Value Lodge. Not for the first time, she wondered what idiot picked out those colors. The bright yellow and red stripes had always reminded her of a fast-food restaurant; they looked like mustard and ketchup, but much less appetizing. In Anna's opinion, almost everything about this motel was unappealing, from the "free continental breakfast," which consisted of small cardboard boxes of cereal and cartons of milk and juice, to the kidney-shaped swimming pool in its varying shades of blue and sometimes green, to the lumpy queen beds topped with bedspreads with a texture akin to fiberglass. For the life of her, she could not understand why anyone would stay here on purpose. Well, except that the Value Lodge boasted the "lowest rates in town." She would give the motel that much—it was definitely cheap.











Sunday, August 9, 2015

Hope Harbor by Irene Hannon

Hope Harbor
Revell (July 7, 2015)
by
Irene Hannon





Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Closed until June 13

Michael Hunter stared at the hand-lettered sign on the Gull Motel office, expelled a breath, and raked his fingers through his hair.

Not the welcome he'd been expecting after a mind-numbing thirty-six-hour cross-country drive to the Oregon coast.

And where was he supposed to stay for the next three weeks, until the place opened again?

Reining in the urge to kick the door, he leaned close to the glass and peered into the dim, deserted office. Rattled the rigid knob. Scanned the small, empty parking lot.

The sign hadn't lied. This place was out of commission.

He swiveled toward the marina down the hill, where boats bobbed in the gentle swells. The motel might be a bust, but at least Hope Harbor was as picturesque as promised. Planters overflowing with colorful flowers served as a bu er between the sidewalk and the sloping pile of boulders that led to the water. Across the wide street from the marina, quaint storefronts faced the sea. A white gazebo occupied a small park where the two-block-long, crescent-shaped frontage road dead-ended at a river. More shops lined the next street back, many adorned with bright awnings and flower boxes.

The town was exactly what he'd expected.

But with the only motel closed, it didn't appear he'd be calling it home during his stay in the area.

A prick of anger penetrated his fatigue. Why had the clerk let him book a room if the motel was going to shut down for several weeks? And why hadn't someone corrected the mistake in the thirty days since he'd put down his deposit?

If shoddy business practices like this were indicative of the much-touted laid-back Pacific Northwest lifestyle, the locals could have it—especially since such sloppiness meant he was now going to have to find another place to rest his very weary head.

He reached for the phone on his belt, frowning when his fingers met air. Oh, right. He'd taken it o as he'd rolled out of Chicago two days ago—a very deliberate strategy to make a clean break from work. Wasn't that the point of a leave of absence, after all?

But the cell was close at hand.

Back at his car, he opened the trunk, rooted around in the

smaller of his two bags, and pulled it out.

Three messages popped up once he powered on, all from the Gull Motel.

He played the first one back, from a woman named Madeline who identified herself as the manager.

"Mr. Hunter, I'm afraid we've had an electrical fire and will be closing for about three weeks for repairs. Please call me at your earliest convenience so we can help you find other lodging." She recited her number.

The second and third messages were similar.

So the shutdown had been unexpected, and someone had tried to call him.

Slowly he inhaled a lungful of the fresh sea air, forcing the taut muscles in his shoulders to relax. Driving for fifteen hours two days in a row and getting up at the crack of dawn this morning to finish the trip must have done a number on his tolerance. Giving people the benefit of the doubt was much more his style. Besides, he was used to operating on the fly, finding creative solutions to problems. Glitches never phased him. His ability to roll with the punches was one of the things Julie had loved about him.

Julie.

His view of the harbor blurred around the edges, and he clenched his teeth.

Let it go, Hunter. Self-pity won't change a thing. Move on. Get your life back.

It was the same advice he'd been giving himself for months— and he intended to follow it.

As soon as he figured out how.

Fighting o a wave of melancholy, he tapped in the number the woman had provided, his index finger less than steady on the keypad. For a moment he examined the tremors, then shoved his hand in his pocket. He was tired, that's all. He needed food and sleep, in that order. The sooner the better. Things would seem brighter tomorrow.

They had to.

If this trip didn't help him sort out his life, he was out of options.

While the phone rang, he looked toward the harbor again, past the long jetty on the left and the pair of rocky islands on the right that tamed the turbulent waves and protected the boats in the marina. His gaze skimmed across the placid surface of the sea, moving all the way to the horizon where cobalt water met deep blue sky. From his perch on the hill, the scene appeared to be picture perfect.

But it wasn't. Nothing was. Not up close. That was the illusion of distance. It softened edges, masked flaws, obscured messy detail.

It also changed perspective.

If he was lucky, this trip would do all those things for him—and more.

"Mr. Hunter? This is Madeline King. I've been trying to reach you."

He shifted away from the peaceful panorama and adjusted the phone against his ear. "I've been traveling cross-country and my cell was o . I'm at the motel now. What can you suggest as an alternative?"

"Unfortunately, there aren't many options in Hope Harbor. But there are a number of very nice places in Coos Bay or Bandon."

As she began to rattle o the names of hotels, he stifled a sigh. He hadn't driven all the way out here to stay in either of those towns. He'd come to spend time in Hope Harbor.

"Isn't there anything closer?"

At his abrupt interruption, the woman stopped speaking.

"Um . . . not anything I'd recommend. I could probably find you a B&B that's closer, but those are on the pricey side. Most people book them for a night or two at most, and I believe you intended to stay for several weeks. Plus, B&Bs tend to be geared to couples."

Good point. A cozy inn would only remind him how alone he was.

"Okay . . . why don't you line me up with someplace for a few nights while I decide what I want to do. Bandon would be my preference, since it's closer."

"I'll get right on it."

"Don't rush." He inspected the two-block-long business district, such as it was. "I'm going to wander around town for a while and grab a bite to eat."

"Sounds like a plan. And again, I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

Once they said their good-byes, he grabbed a jacket from the backseat and locked the car. The midday sun was warm, but the breeze was cool—by his standards, anyway. Perhaps a slight nip in the air was normal for Oregon in the third week of May, though.

Stomach growling, he started down the hill. If he weren't famished, he'd head the opposite direction and check out the big, empty beach at the base of the blu s on the outskirts of town that he'd spotted as he drove in. A walk on the sand past the sea stacks arrayed o shore would be far more enjoyable than wandering along—he glanced at the street sign as he arrived at the bottom of the hill—Dockside Drive.

The two-block waterfront street didn't take long to traverse, and by the time he was halfway down the second block it was clear his food options were limited to a bakery and a bait-and-tackle shop with a sign advertising takeout sandwiches for the fishing crowd.

All the real restaurants must be in the business district, one street removed from the marina.

Just as he was about to retrace his steps, a spicy, appetizing scent wafted his way. He squinted toward the end of the block, where a white truck with a serving window on one side was perched at the edge of the tiny waterside park with the gazebo. Charley's, according to the colorful lettering above the window where a couple of people were giving orders to a guy with a weathered face and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Another whi of an enticing aroma set o a loud clamor in his stomach.

Sold. Whatever they were cooking, he was eating.

With a quick change of direction, he stepped o the sidewalk to cross the street.

"Hey! Watch it!"

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jack Staples and the Ring of Time by Mark Batterson and Joel Clark

Jack Staples and the Ring of Time
David C. Cook (September 1, 2014)
by
Mark Batterson and Joel Clark






Chapter 1

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A blackbird fluttered through the open flap of an enormous circus tent. Only one boy out of the hundreds of men, women, and children sitting inside noticed. The boy was as thin as a rail with bushy brown hair and bright blue eyes. His name was Jack Staples, and today was his eleventh birthday. Jack sat sandwiched between his fourteen-year-old brother, Parker, and his mother, whose age he did not know.

No one else in the crowd had noticed the bird because their attention was drawn to the center of the tent where a girl in a crimson hooded cloak walked along a rope suspended between two platforms. The girl’s daring walk was only part of what had the onlookers so entranced. Not far beneath her tightrope, two lions— one with a golden mane, the other’s black—circled and snarled. As the girl walked the rope, the beasts leaped and swiped their razor- sharp claws, barely missing her feet. With each miss, they roared their frustration, and the crowd gasped in fear.

Encircling the lions was a blazing ring of fire. And just out- side the flames were four tumblers. Each held a torch and moved continuously, somersaulting and leaping about to ensure the beasts stayed within the circle of flames and away from the watching crowd.

Jack should have been mesmerized by the death-defying spec- tacle, yet he was becoming more irritated by the second. As the balancing girl neared the center of the rope, bringing the bottoms of her feet closer to the lions’ claws with every step, Jack couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting upward. The annoying blackbird was still flapping about near the tent ceiling.

This girl, thought Jack, is only moments away from being eaten, and here I am looking at a stupid bird!

Jack’s eyes shot downward as the crowd gasped. The girl flailed her arms, trying to regain her balance. Jack clutched his brother’s hand as the rope pitched and swayed beneath her.

Throughout the tent, the crowd shouted instructions and words of encouragement. Just as it seemed the girl was sure to plunge to her death, she stretched out her right leg and stood on the toes of her left foot. Amazingly, these movements allowed her to regain balance.

A collective sigh of relief rose from the stands as the balancing girl took the final step to the center of the rope. The beasts bounded upward, gnashed their teeth, and roared wildly. Outside the flames the tumblers flipped and spun as their blurred torches sent sparks hurling in every direction. Jack didn’t breathe. Even when something hard and cold bumped against his leg from beneath the bleachers, he barely noticed.

As the tightrope walker crouched low, she wrapped her crimson cloak around her body. At the same moment, the tumblers gave a final leap before also dropping to their knees.

The black-maned lion roared as both beasts bounded upward, snapping their jaws at the girl taunting them from above. Yet the girl also leaped high, spreading her crimson cloak wide and per- forming the most magnificent spinning backflip.

As she landed, the rope pitched dangerously beneath her, but she maintained her balance. And when she extended her arms wide, the crimson cloak enveloped each, making her look like a bird with wings outstretched. From beneath her hood, the girl grinned widely.

For a moment, perfect silence hung inside the circus tent. Even the stupid bird was quiet. And then, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the tightrope walker stood tall and bowed, giving an extravagant flourish of her cloak.

The crowd roared their praise; Jack let out a great sigh of relief. When the poised girl turned to continue up the rope to the opposite platform, she made it look as if the rope were as wide as a road and she didn’t have a care in the world. The applause grew to a crescendo as men threw hats and children high into the air.

“I was so scared!” Jack had to yell to be heard above the cheers of the crowd.

“Me too!” shouted Parker. “Did you see how close those claws came?” Parker made a growling sound and curled his hand into a claw, mimicking the lions.

Jack laughed as his eyes drifted to the ceiling once more. The blackbird was still flapping about and screeching loudly. As the girl continued her walk to safety, the ridiculous bird rammed into the ceiling one final time and then plummeted downward in a daze.

Crouched low on the sandy ground was the black-maned lion. Its eyes were also locked on the falling bird. With a new target in sight, the beast leaped higher than ever before. And though it missed the bird, it did manage to chomp through the tightrope.

Shrill screams erupted as the lion landed on the sandy ground. Fingers pointed toward the dazed girl who was now lying between the two beasts. The lions seemed puzzled at the girl’s presence, yet it was only when the four tumblers leaped into the ring of fire that the beasts became angry.

The tumblers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting as they whirled their torches with dizzying speed, thrusting them forward in a threatening manner. But the lions stood their ground. No matter how close the men came, the beasts refused to back away from the girl. They paced in front of her, roaring at the approaching men.

The tumblers were now so close to the lions that they could have touched the beasts with their firebrands. Yet the lions swiped at the torches, refusing to move. As the men took yet another step forward, both lions let out a defiant roar, then turned and took three running steps toward the now unguarded ring of fire … and jumped.

The crowd surged into motion, people screaming and running wildly in every direction. The lions’ roars were like thunder as they bounded into the mass of men, women, and children, nipping and swiping at anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way.

Jack was terrified. His mother grabbed his hand, as well as Parker’s, and began running toward the exit. Even without the lions, though, the run was perilous. The crowd had become frantic. Everyone sprinted blindly with no regard for those around them. It was chaos.

Jack’s mother skidded to a stop, knelt, and pulled both boys close. As the panicked crowd sprinted past, Jack could see where she was looking. On the far side of the tent, a young girl sat on the sandy ground, screaming. A short distance away, the golden lion stalked slowly toward the girl.

Jack’s mother placed Parker’s hand over his. “Parker,” she shouted, “take your brother and get him out of here. I need to go help that girl.” As the crowd rushed past, bumping and jostling them without care, Jack’s mother bent and kissed each of them on the forehead. “Make your way to the wagon, and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” Without another word, she gently shoved them in the direction of the exit, then turned and ran back for the girl.

Jack was panicked. Parker dragged him a few steps toward the exit, but Jack escaped his brother’s grasp and ran backward, desperate to find his mother in the crowd. What is she doing? he wondered. She’s going to be eaten by the lion!

Parker caught up to Jack and tugged his arm, shouting, “We have to keep running!” Jack hadn’t realized he’d stopped. Whenhe turned to continue his run, the fabric walls of the circus tent burst into flames. Someone must have knocked over one of the lampstands, he realized. Both boys shared a fearful look as the fire spread quicker than Jack could have imagined. They bolted forward again as the flames shot toward the ceiling and thick smoke filled the air.

Jack struggled to keep his feet as Parker was knocked to his knees only to get up again and continue running. Jack looked over his shoulder one last time in hopes of finding his mother, but she was lost amid the smoke and hysteria. As he turned back, he collided headfirst with someone’s elbow. Bouncing backward, Jack landed flat on his back on the sandy ground.

For a moment, everything went dark. Then, as his vision returned, he felt disoriented. He stared at the ceiling in a daze. It was positively beautiful. Bright flames danced far above as bits of fire and ash fell all around. He lay on his back watching in wonder, the flaming walls and ceiling seemingly spinning around him.

“Jack!” Someone’s scream interrupted his cloudy thoughts. “You put me down! Jack! Can you hear me?” the voice screamed again.

Why are the walls on fire? And why does my head hurt? Jack’s mind felt sluggish.

“Jack! Get up! I’m telling you, put me down!” The same voice shouted again, yet this time it sounded farther away.

I recognize that voice. That’s Parker! As he sat up to look for his brother, tears leaked from his eyes. The air was filled with billowing smoke that was growing thicker by the second.

“You let me go! That’s my brother in there! Let me go!”

Jack finally saw him; Parker was in the arms of a large man who was carrying him away like a sack of grain. His brother hit the man with his fists and continued yelling to Jack.

“Get up, Jack! It’s coming! You have to get up! The lion is coming!”

Before Parker could say more, the man had carried him out of the tent.

As fire exploded along the cloth walls, Jack remembered where he was. And with the memory came a paralyzing fear.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Ticket by Debra Jeter

The Ticket
Firefly Southern Fiction (May 20, 2015)
by
Debra Jeter

Prologue

PROLOGUE

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n
~John Milton(Paradise Lost)




My name is Tray, and I live in Paradise, Kentucky.

They say Kentucky is known for its fast horses and beautiful women. The joke is maybe it should be beautiful horses and fast women. Neither applies to the women in my family, except maybe Mama. She’s definitely beautiful, but she isn’t fast. At least not normally, though she can be when she’s in one of her manic states. But those aren’t beautiful. In fact, they are downright ugly.

“How’d this town ever come to have a name like Paradise?” I used to ask Gram when I was little. Enough times I got to know her version of the story pretty much by heart. It goes like this:

“It started at a crossroads where there was a little store owned by a man name of Sullivan, and folks just called it Sullivan’s Stop. Some folks got there by foot, others by stage coach, and a lot by horse and buggy. It was on the turnpike between Paducah, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee.

“One day, a rascal of a fellow came to Sullivan’s Stop and began challenging the men unlucky enough to be there that day with a pair of dice. Pretty soon he owned Sullivan’s store, and he discovered the men around there were such easy marks for his pair of dice, he started expanding. Before long, there was a blacksmith shop and a tavern, even a hotel. A bustling community, folks called it Pair o’ Dice.

“Then one day a traveling preacher came to town. He preached hellfire and brimstone, and showed the local folks the error of their ways: the sin of gambling. So when the church was built, they changed the spelling to Paradise.”

Even though I knew the answer to my next question, I’d ask it anyway. “Did you know those men yourself, Gram?”

She would laugh her deep-throated chuckle and her blue eyes would crinkle with amusement. “I may be old, child, but I haven’t lived forever.”

She changed up the words in the story a little from one telling to the next, but you get the gist. Now I don’t know if there’s any truth in the tale or not. But for a time the year I was fourteen, I thought the name might suit us after all. I’d never had much in the way of luck, and I was tired of being too tall, too bony, too uncoordinated. Then something unimaginable happened, and it looked like all our lives were set to change for the better.


Chapter One



“. . . The lottery was a great charity, the friend of the people, a vast beneficent machine that recognized neither rank nor wealth nor station … Invariably it was the needy who won, the destitute and starving woke to wealth and plenty, the virtuous toiler suddenly found his reward in a ticket bought at a hazard.” ~Frank Norris

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco
1899
Paradise, Kentucky
September 1975




I am content, curled on the sofa with the afternoon light streaming in through the picture windows, warming me as I allow myself to be carried away to Egypt, where I am a beautiful, dark-skinned, blue-eyed spy deeply in love with a dashing adventurer. But, even more, I am deeply committed to my cause and uncertain on which side of the political fracas my love’s true allegiance lies. I must not—I cannot—be swept totally by the passion that threatens to consume my soul …

So when my father charges through the door, reeking of stale coffee and fatigue, I momentarily forget who or where I am and am taken by surprise.

I look up, and our eyes meet. He sighs and turns away without a word. Then he whirls back to face me. He strides to my side, jerks the book from my hands, throws it on the floor so that I cry out.

“Why aren’t you outside playing like any normal kid?” he barks. “What’s the matter with you?”

Before I can think of a reply—I am still in transit, being jerked from the beauty and passion of the Nile spy to the awkwardness of my fourteen-year-old body—he is gone, leaving me bookless and defenseless. In that instant, the real me is back: pale skin splattered with angry, reddish acne spots, frizzy dark hair, long, narrow face, thin legs and arms.

I blink back tears and bend to retrieve the discarded book, smooth out the new crease in its spine. Then I fling it back to the floor, trying not to cringe when it slaps the worn beige carpet at a precarious angle.

“Gram,” I moan. My long skinny legs assume a life of their own, carrying me to the refuge of my grandmother’s room, where I flop onto Gram’s bed with a heavy sigh.

“What’s wrong, Tray?” Gram quickly hides her snuff brush and can, but not before I catch a glimpse and a whiff of tangy, gooey tobacco juice.

“Nothing.” I rise up on my elbows to look at her. She’s responsible for a lot of my features. The same long, narrow face, lined now with years of hard work and worry; the same thin legs and arms, beginning to sag the way mine probably will some day; the same dark hair, still thick, but threaded with silver.

Silence. Gram sews a while. Her fingers whip the needle in and out, in and out, of the tiny garment she is stitching. Gram’s sewing is not the greatest. She sews some of my school clothes. The other kids can tell they’re homemade, and they make fun of me. I hate those kids for the way they make me feel. And, even more, for the way I make Gram feel when I spew, “I don’t want your old tacky clothes anymore.”

I love it, though, when Gram makes doll clothes because, with a little imagination, they are spectacular. The dolls provide a perfect working model for my plan to be a fashion designer. I’ll create glorious ball gowns, like in a fairytale, and wedding dresses, and exotic dance costumes …

I tell my ideas to Gram. Sometimes I draw them too, though I’m not as good at drawing as I wish. Trying the clothes on the dolls to see how they fit is a lot like trying on different personalities for Gram. Some days I pretend to be a brainiac, testing my latest ten-dollar words from Dickens or Jane Austen. I would be afraid to do this with anyone else. But, with Gram, I can savor their flavor on my tongue.

Sometimes I pretend I’m the kind of girl who attracts all the boys. Like Scarlett O’Hara. I make up stories to tell Gram, about my beaus and what happened during recess. With Gram, I can be pretty and popular, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I know Gram sees right through my stories, but she never says so. Not like Mama, who calls me out if I stretch the truth one whit, who sees me as flawed in every way and reminds me of it every chance she gets.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

I consider telling Gram about Dad throwing my book on the floor, but there’s something else, something that bothered me even before I started reading.

“I wouldn’t want to go to their stupid party anyway,” I say.

“Whose party?”

I feel my lip curl. “Rita Davis, of all people.”

“What do you mean by that?”
“By what?”

“Of all people.”

“It’s just that—she’s—I don’t know—I mean, I do know, but it’s stupid. She’s even taller and skinner than I am. I bet her arms aren’t this big around.” I make a circle with my thumb and index finger. “One day last week she was talking about having this party, and how she was afraid nobody would come. She was talking to me. To me. I mean, why was she talking to me about it if she wasn’t even going to invite me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she decided not to have it or—”

“No, that’s not it. That’s what I thought at first, when I didn’t get an invitation. But then today I heard all these people talking about the party, and when I looked at Rita, she wouldn’t meet my eyes. And after I was so nice to her! I’m such a spaz. S—P—A—Z.” I strike my head with the palm of my hand. “I told her not to worry, that I would come to her party. Like she gave a flip if I would come or not. No, it’s the popular kids she’s after.”

“Maybe it got lost in the mail or something. Why don’t you ask her?”

“Are you kidding? That would be way too humiliating. Besides I know it didn’t. That crowd never invites me to their dumb old parties. I just thought—but I don’t know why I thought …”

“Thought what?”

“Thought maybe this year was going to be different.”

Gram looks over the top of her spectacles, which have slid down her rather large nose so they rest just above the small brown mole on the right-hand side, not far above the nostril. “Why don’t you have one of your own?”

I stare at Gram, feeling almost hopeful for a second. “Maybe I could have a party at the roller rink.”

Then reality hits me, and I can tell by Gram’s expression that she, too, is thinking of the cost. “It would probably be cheaper to have one here,” she says.

I glance around the familiar room, seeing it with new eyes. The worn rug, the circles on the ceiling from a variety of old leaks, the chipped paint on the little bedside table, the faded Bible, Gram’s snuff can and spit cup. Of course, we wouldn’t necessarily be in this room, but still …

I think of my mother. “It wouldn’t work,” I say, rolling over onto my back and staring at the swirly brown patterns in the ceiling, like spilled coffee on a dingy sheet. “Even if it weren’t for Mama, I don’t know if anybody would come. And if they did, and if she had one of her moods or something, I could never look at anyone again.”

“I suppose it’s too risky,” Gram says, and I can tell from the disappointment in her voice that she knows I’m right.

“They’re all so stupid anyway, with their expensive clothes and shoes, and their pretentious banter: Where did you get those buffalo sandals and toe socks—they’re out of sight!” I mimic one of the girls in my class, Debbie Worthington, making her sound even more nasal and ridiculous than she really is.

“What are buffalo sandals and toe socks?” Gram goes back to her stitching.

I start to explain that they’re these goofy leather sandals with wedge heels and four straps, but I figure Gram doesn’t really need to know the details. I break off and stare at her blankly, picturing the stupid toe socks in my mind, which are just what they sound like. Every toe has its own shape, like gloves for your feet. I wouldn’t wear them even if somebody gave me a pair.

“I tell you, Gram, it’s the dumbest fashion I ever saw in my entire life.” I sigh and roll over on my side to look at her. “Anyway, I wouldn’t have any fun if I did go to their old party. That’s why I said it was nothing. Because it is nothing. It just makes me feel like such a spaz remembering how nice I was to Rita.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being nice is not a sin, you know.”

“Yes, it is!”

“Come here, sweetheart.” Gram sets her sewing aside, pats her lap. I go to her and put my head in her lap, inhaling the familiar smells of Jergens lotion and snuff. She runs cool fingers through my hair, fingers that are beginning to gnarl like the old dogwood tree in our backyard.

“You’re going to be a knockout someday, you know. You just have to be a little bit patient. Your day is coming. I’m sure of that.”

“Oh, Gram, you always say that.”

“Only because it’s true. Now run along and do your chores.”

Someday. Someday. Doesn’t Gram know anything? Someday doesn’t matter. Someday isn’t here, may never be here. All that matters, all that I can feel, is now. And now is pathetic. Now stinks. What can I do about now?

Well, for one, I have chores to do. I leave Gram and saunter into the kitchen where I put away the last of the dishes from the drainer, slamming the cabinet door shut so hard the plates inside rattle. If only I had some decent clothes, something stylish, something that would deserve a grudging compliment, if not outright envy. We aren’t all that poor. I know we aren’t. My dad’s just stingy, and I hate him for it.

I return to my bedroom and switch on my turntable. I stand and gaze glumly into my closet. The rows of bargain basement clothes—their sleeves or legs too short—stare back. I reach for the well-worn catalog from Tall Sophisticates, which I hide under my bed like a boy hiding his dirty magazines, not wanting Dad to catch me lusting after that ridiculously overpriced merchandise.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of showing a favorite outfit to my mother. “Isn’t it cute?” I’d said, hoping for … what?

“Mm. A bit old for you, don’t you think? I mean, those models are fully developed. It wouldn’t look like that on you.”

I turn to the picture I’d once loved—a coppery shift that clings to the model’s chest and slim hips, catches the light and shimmers with a promise of gold, a hint of lavender.

That ensemble is tarnished now by the memory of Mama’s nonchalant dismissal, so I flip to another favorite. The model, tall and thin with dark hair like mine, leans casually against a fat white column. Her lips are parted in a dreamy smile and the soft blue cashmere sweater clings to the curves of her chest. Her breasts are small, yet alluring. Powder blue, the catalog says. I like the sound of that, though I wonder what it means. Who would put on blue powder?

I imagine myself as a famous designer, the head of a creative team. “I’m not sure about the neckline,” I say to those standing around, just waiting for my opinion. “Perhaps it would work better with something less round, something more angular, off the shoulders even, like this.” I quickly sketch the neckline as I envision it, and my assistants nod their approval.

I stand, catalog in hand, and walk to the mirror on my bedroom dresser. There’s an ugly pimple just below my lip. I dab a bit of medicated acne cream on the spot, crinkling my nose at the smell. Still clutching the catalog, I lift my shirt and stare at my bony chest. I suck in my stomach and expand my chest. I frown at my reflection; the effort only makes my ribs stick out more than they already do.

I look away, close my eyes and, inside my mind, my breasts swell to the size and shape of the catalog model’s. Okay, a little larger. For good measure.

The phone rings because, in my imagined world, the phone rings all the time. I snatch the receiver and say a casual hello.

“Tonight?” My tone says: short notice. “Oh, I don’t think I can make it. I’m pretty busy.”

A sudden rapping on my door causes me to start. My eyes pop open, my breasts deflate, and the imaginary conversation shrivels on my breath.

“Tray? Who are you talking to in there?”

Dad.

I tuck in my shirt hurriedly. The door swings open before I can answer, and he enters. His face wears the expression that means he’s trying to figure out how to say something, and I cringe at what’s coming.

“Nobody,” I mumble. “Must be the record player.” I look over at the turntable where Rod Stewart blares out a lyric about handbags and glad rags. I rush to turn the volume down.

“What’s that?” Dad points to the catalog.

Still clutching it to my chest, I look down guiltily. “This? Oh, this is—nothing, really. Just a catalog.”

Dad seems to accept this explanation, and I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

“Tray, the thing is … I don’t know how to say this, but … I’m sorry about—you know, earlier today. I guess I was just frustrated about something else, and I took it out on you.” He sits on the edge of my bed and fingers the quilt Gram made for my last birthday. It’s a wedding ring pattern and I have not told Gram that the thought of wedding rings depresses me because I know no one in his right mind will ever want to marry this bony-breasted girl.

I shrug. “It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t. I shouldn’t be so—I just want what’s best for you, and I worry that you read too much when you should be out having fun.”

“It’s all right,” I say again because how can I explain that I would like to be out having fun too but I have no one to have fun with?

“I worry that books are a way of escaping reality,” he continues.

Well, yeah … exactly. I look at my father’s handsome face, a faint vertical line marring his forehead now. He has no idea what it’s like to be unpopular. He and Mama, with their compact, attractive figures and natural good looks, have produced a changeling in me. I see no possible way to bridge the gap.

He rises from the bed and moves toward the door, straightening his shoulders just a bit as if in rebuttal of the defeat in his voice.

“I know, Dad,” I say, almost feeling sorry for him. Then I make an abrupt decision. I open the catalog at random. “Dad, do you suppose I might be able to order some new clothes?”

He turns back and glances at the catalog I’m holding out to him. He takes it and moves an index finger across the page to find the price. His eyes widen slightly, and I know he’s found it. He looks again, as if double checking the number of digits. He stands stock still. His silence strikes me as more expressive than words, as though he is listening with every fiber of his being. Like a cat whose fur lifts in the presence of an animal intruding upon his territory.

A page flutters to the floor, and I reach down to pick it up.

“What do you have there?” He glances at my drawing of a sweater with a different neckline.

I turn the page facedown on the dresser. “It’s nothing. Just some scribbles. The thing is—I do sort of need some new clothes. I know these are pretty expensive,” I rush to say, “but I thought—”

He slams the catalog shut with a grunt. “Tray, I wish we could afford to buy clothes like that. But we can’t. It’s hard for me to believe anyone can pay those kinds of prices.” He shakes his head, his face a mix of wonder and frustration, and I wish I had not asked.

“It’s okay, Dad.”

“I hate to tell you how many days sometimes go by before I get an insurance commission large enough to buy even one of those outfits.” He thumps the catalog, hard. “By the time I do, we’re behind on so many bills; it’s already spent.”

“I know you work hard,” I say.

“You’re darned right; I work hard. But that doesn’t seem to matter very much, does it?” He sighs. “I’m sorry for laying all this on you—you shouldn’t have to think about any of this, but it burns me—it really does—how many people there are who work no harder than I do and who can order clothes like that without thinking twice.”

He thumps the catalog once more and turns to go, his back conveying both indignation and disappointment. My eyes go to a spot on the back of his head where the hair is beginning to thin.

Alone again, I turn the volume up on Rod Stewart. I pick up the needle and set it back to the beginning of the song. In “Handbags and Gladrags,” the girl’s grandfather had to sweat to buy her stuff. My Grampa would have loved buying nice things for me, I just know it—if only he’d lived long enough. But he was taken too soon, from me and from Gram, before I was old enough to care a gritty Fig Newton about clothes.