Tuesday, March 30, 2010

As Young As We Feel - Chapter 1

As Young As We Feel
David C. Cook; New edition (March 1, 2010)
Melody Carlson

Chapter 1

Marley Phelps

Marley had hoped that her former high-school friends might’ve grown up by their thirty-fifth reunion. Unfortunately she was disappointed. Oh, most of them had matured somewhat, at least externally. She observed more bald heads, wrinkles, and gray hair than she recalled from their last gathering, and she was relieved to see that many had let go of old cliques and social boundaries. But others, like Keith Arnold, were still jerks. That surprised her, since rumor was he’d done time for embezzlement. Marley figured that alone would’ve knocked the former football jock down a peg or two, but once he’d poured a few Kamikazes into that paunch belly of his, he started acting like he was still the king of Clifden.

“It can’t be!” he said loudly as a heavyset woman entered the room. “Are you really Abby Franklin? !e cute little cheerleader I used to hoist over my shoulder?”

Abby did appear to have put on some weight since high school, but Marley wondered who hadn’t. Still, Abby looked uneasy as she glanced around the crowded lounge as if she wanted to make a fast break. And who could blame her?

“Hey, Abby.” Marley moved between Abby and Keith the Jerk. “It’s so good to see you again. You’re still living in town, right? How’s it going?”

“Pretty good.” Relief washed over Abby’s face.

“Don’t mind that big baboon,” Marley said quietly. “He’s been doing his best to offend everyone.”

“I almost didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did.” Marley nodded over to where Keith was ordering another drink from the bar. “I’ve observed that Keith has a pattern. He either insults you or ignores you. He hasn’t said a word to me. But since you were part of his crowd, he must’ve felt the need to include you in some good old public humiliation.”

“I feel so honored.” At the bar Keith and a couple of guys were gathered around a tall, attractive blonde. “Is that Caroline McCann?” “The life of the party, as usual.”

“I swear that woman never ages. She doesn’t look a day over thirty.”

“A lot of us look good from a distance.”

“Does she look worse close up?” Abby almost sounded too eager. Marley laughed. “Not really. Oh, a little older perhaps, but she’s still gorgeous.”

Abby eyed Marley now. “You’re not looking bad yourself. I like your hair.”

“Why thank—”

“Abby Franklin!” cried Caroline as she recognized her old friend. “Get yourself over here, girlfriend!”

“Oh dear!” Abby grabbed Marley’s arm. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Sure you can,” Marley assured her. “Just be yourself and let the good times roll.”

Marley felt mildly surprised that she’d actually had a conversation with Abby. They’d been friends once, long ago, back in grade school. But then Abby got popular and turned into a somewhat stuck-up cheerleader, whereas Marley had always considered herself to be more of a free spirit—at least back then. How times and people had changed!

“I don’t envy her,” commented a classmate that Marley barely remembered. !e slender woman nodded toward Abby, who was now socializing with the lovely Caroline and obnoxious Keith.

“I’ll bet you used to,” Marley teased.

She snickered. “Maybe so. It’s funny how the tables turn after high school. I just saw Brenda Jones in the bathroom, and let me tell you, that woman won’t need to use her AARP card for ID. It’s written all over her face. I suppose it’s nature’s way of leveling the playing field.”

“But underneath our older exteriors, we’re the same people,” Marley pointed out.

“Except that some of our exteriors just look better.”

“Right.” Marley couldn’t recall this woman’s name, and the light was too dim to read her name tag, but since she’d made so many catty remarks, Marley mentally named her Cat Woman. Cat Woman continued to make her witty observations, sparing no one. As Marley was trying to think of a graceful way to escape her, another woman joined them. It took Marley a moment to recognize her old friend, but then Joanna hugged her, and they exchanged greetings.

“It’s been so long,” Joanna said.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been thirty-five years.” Marley shook her head. “Honestly I just don’t feel that old.”

“I do.” Joanna made a weak smile.

“Some of our friends are a lot older than at our last reunion.” Cat Woman directed this observation to Joanna. “In fact I think the last five years must’ve been hard on certain people.”

“While others like Caroline McCann”—Joanna sighed in a tired way—“look as good as ever.”

“Can you believe we’re older than the president of the United States?” Cat Woman took a sip of her margarita.

“We need to quit focusing on age.” Marley stood a bit straighter. “Really, what difference does it make? Aren’t we as young as we feel?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling about eighty at the moment.” Joanna pointed to her feet. “And these shoes are killing me.”

“Take them off,” suggested Marley.

“If I take them off I might not be able to get them back on again.” Joanna frowned. “Ever since I entered menopause, I’ve had a horrible time with everything from hot $ashes to night sweats to water retention.”

Marley looked at Joanna’s puffy feet and nodded with sympathy.

“Why don’t you go sit down?” Cat Woman suggested.

Marley suspected that Cat Woman didn’t care to be seen with Joanna. !ere was no denying that Joanna had changed a lot. Marley found it difficult to believe that this woman with the frowsy gray hair and bad pantsuit had actually been hip at one time. Marley could still remember how the two of them used to hang out in the art department, sometimes sneaking around back to smoke a joint when Mr. Monroe was distracted.

“I think I will sit down and put my feet up.”

“And I think I’ll get another drink,” Cat Woman said.

“And I’d like to mingle a bit,” Marley added. Not that she needed anyone’s permission. Still, she felt a sliver of guilt for not joining her old friend as Joanna sat on the sidelines of The Cliffs Hotel lounge. But it seemed obvious that Joanna was not enjoying herself, and Marley had come here with the intention of having some fun. In fact she was overdue for some good times.

“Hey, it’s Hippie Girl,” said Caroline McCann after Marley squeezed in next to her to order a cabernet.

Marley forced a smile. “And it’s Cheerleader Girl.”

Caroline laughed. “Dang, I forgot my pom-poms again.”

Marley realized she was starting to act like Cat Woman now and decided to nip it in the bud. “Caroline McCann,” she exclaimed, “I just have to say, you look amazing. You haven’t aged a day since our last reunion. What’s your secret?”

Naturally Caroline beamed at the compliment. “Why, thank you, Marley. I guess it’s just good genes. But I could say the same thing about you.”

“You could.” Marley chuckled. “If you were a liar.”

“No, you really do look good. And youthful too. And you’ve changed your hair.” Caroline reached over and touched Marley’s spiky brown hair and giggled. “It’s so short, it must be easy to care for.”

Keith leaned into the conversation. “Watch out, Marley, you might be mistaken for butch.” He laughed like he thought that was funny.

Marley just rolled her eyes.

But Caroline punched him in the arm. “And if Marley was butch, what’s it to you anyway?”

“Then I’d just have to say you girls make an interesting couple.” Keith draped his arm around Caroline’s shoulders as he gave Marley the once-over. “But hey, I don’t recall you girls being friends in high school.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not in high school anymore,” Marley pointed out.

“I know that. But didn’t you used to hang out with that artsyfartsy crowd?” he said to Marley. “Kind of the dippy-hippie bunch?” Marley ignored him as she paid the bartender for her wine. Why bother to engage?

“For your information,” Caroline told him, “Marley and I have been friends since we were in first grade.”

“Well, sort of on-and-off friends,” Marley clarified.

“Do you remember the Four Lindas?” Caroline exclaimed suddenly.

Marley laughed. “Our secret club.”

“Huh?” Keith looked confused now.

“It’s a secret,” Caroline said in an almost-seductive voice. “If we told you, we’d have to kill you.” “So why don’t you kill me on the dance floor, baby doll?” Before Caroline could answer, he pulled her out to where several couples were dancing to oldies from the seventies. Marley watched for a bit, then turned to see Abby Franklin making her way toward her.

“Well, we’ve all survived Keith,” Marley said.

“Unfortunately what he said is true.” Abby patted her rounded hips. “I have put on a few pounds since our last reunion. Not that I need Keith to remind me.”

“And not that he has room to talk,” Marley told her.

“But I had been doing Jenny Craig back then, and I stayed busy with my garden and walking. Now it seems I sit around too much, and I probably enjoy my own cooking a little too much too.”

“So you like to cook?” Marley couldn’t even remember the last time she’d turned on her oven or enjoyed a home-cooked meal.

“I really do.” Abby nodded, then smiled. “I have to tell you, Marley, you’re looking good.”

Marley nodded toward the dance floor. “Not as good as Caroline McCann. Can you believe her?” Caroline looked as limber as ever as she moved on the dance floor. Her pale blue dress must’ve had some beads or sequins on it, because it sparkled from the lights bouncing o" the disco mirror ball. She really did look like Hollywood.

“No one looks as good as Caroline. And Paul can’t take his eyes off of her.”

“You’re still married to Paul?” Marley remembered how shocked she’d been when Abby and Paul married right after high-school graduation. For some reason she’d always assumed it wouldn’t last. Not that she was much of an expert on such things.

“Fiirty-five years in June.”

“Wow. Congratulations.”

Abby just shrugged. “How about you?”

Marley was tempted to lie, but then wondered, Why bother? “John and I divorced about four years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.” “Don’t be.” Marley held her head high. “It was for the best.”

“Well, it hasn’t always been easy for Paul and me either. But we’ve weathered the storms, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be growing old together. At least I hope so.”

“Is that him dancing with the class prez out there?” Marley asked.

“Yes, and it’s my fault.” She laughed. “I told Paul I needed a break, and I grabbed Cathy Gardener to take my place.”

“Does Cathy still live in Clifden too?”

“Yes. She’s been the city manager for more than ten years now, and she’s really quite good at it.”

“She always was a great diplomat.”

Abby nodded. “Class president, valedictorian, girl most likely to succeed. She’s sure lived up to the predictions. How about you, Marley? Do you still do your art?”

“Not like I wish. After the divorce I had to get a nine-to-five job. But at least I work in a gallery. Now instead of making art, I just sell it.”

“That sounds like a fun job. Sometimes I think about working outside of my home, but then I consider all that I’d miss: cooking, sewing, gardening. And I just can’t bring myself to do it.” She frowned slightly as she watched the dance floor. Marley followed her gaze, observing that the current song was a slow one. Abby’s husband had switched partners and was now dancing with the lovely Caroline.

“So is Caroline still doing the actress thing?” Marley asked.

Abby turned back to Marley. “She told me she hasn’t had any good roles for a while, but she still seems to be happy down there in LA. I can’t imagine it myself. I sometimes watch reruns of that reality series, the one with the housewives. And when I see the shows set in Orange County, I cannot believe what a rat race it must be down there. Everyone is so focused on looks and being skinny and rich. I swear I wouldn’t last a week.”

“So how about Clifden?” ventured Marley. “I assume you still live here?”

“Oh, yes. We finished our new house a couple years ago. It’s in North Beach—a new community that Paul developed.”

“Ocean view?”

Abby nodded. “And beach access, too. It’s quite lovely.”

“And you’re still happy to be living in Clifden?”

“Honestly there’s no place I’d rather be.”

“I noticed that town has some new shops.”

“Yes. They come and go.” Abby nodded at a tall redheaded woman who was just entering the room. “Isn’t that Janie Sorenson?”

Marley studied the elegant-looking woman dressed in a lightcolored two-piece suit. “I think so. I still can’t get over how much she’s changed since high school. Can you believe it?”

Abby nodded. “I remember that frizzy red hair and braces, and bad skin. Poor thing. I used to try to be friendly to her, but she was so shy, I could hardly get her to speak.”

“Except when it came to speech class and debates,” Marley reminded her. “That’s when the real Janie came out.”

Abby waved to Janie. “Paul told me she’s a partner in a big New York law firm. Who would’ve thought?”

“How we’ve all changed.”

Janie joined them. “Have I missed anything interesting?” she asked in a way that suggested she didn’t really care.

“Not really,” Abby told her. “Did you fly from New York today?”

Janie nodded with tired eyes. “I left Kennedy at seven this morning, then got stuck in Denver for nearly three hours. I almost decided to just spend the night in Portland, but then, here I am.” She frowned. “Although I’m not sure why exactly. I really wasn’t friends with these kids.”

“I’m glad you came,” Marley told her. “It does everyone good to see how people can change.”

Janie brightened slightly. “Yes. I suppose you’re right.”

“I was sorry to hear about your parents,” Abby said gently.

“What happened to your parents?” asked Marley.

“Mom passed away last February, and Dad followed her in July. I’m still working out the details of their estate.”

“I’m sorry.” Marley put her hand on Janie’s arm. “My parents both passed away about five years ago, within two months of each other.”

“It’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?” Abby sighed. “To love someone so much that you don’t want to stick around after the other one is gone. I think Paul and I might be like that.”

Janie took in a quick breath and seemed on the verge of tears.

“Are you okay?” Marley asked quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Abby said. “Was it something I said? I’m always sticking—”

“No, no, it’s okay.” Janie retrieved a handkerchief from a sleek brown bag that Marley suspected was terribly expensive. “It’s just that I lost my husband, too.” She dabbed her nose.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Abby put an arm around her.

“How long has it been?” Marley asked with concern.

“He passed on about six months before my parents started going downhill.”

“Wow, you’ve had a hard couple of years,” Marley said. “Are you holding up okay?”

“Not at the moment.” Janie glanced around uncomfortably. “But it might have to do with being back here. And I’m tired. I think I’ll visit the ladies’ room to freshen up, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Poor Janie,” Abby said after she was gone. “Seems she’s had it rough.”

“Did you notice how thin she is?”

Abby nodded. “And those dark shadows beneath her eyes.”

“I hope she’s not having health problems.”

“I shouldn’t have said that bit about couples dying together.” Abby shook her head. “Sometimes I just don’t think before I—”

“Is there a doctor in the house?” someone hollered from the dance floor.

“Call 9-1-1!” yelled someone else. “We need an ambulance!”

Abby and Marley both rushed over to see what was wrong. There on the dance floor was Cathy Gardener, eyes closed and motionless. Paul and a couple of others hunched over her, trying to help.

“Let me in!” demanded the bartender. “Everyone back up and give the lady some room to breathe!” !e young man pushed his way to Cathy’s side and, like a pro, immediately began to administer CPR.

“Come on,” the bartender said between breaths and counts. “Come on!”

“It looks like he knows what he’s doing,” Abby said quietly.

“Thank God for that,” Caroline said.

“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Marley stared down at the lifeless woman in the pinstriped dress, noticing that one of her shoes, a sensible navy pump, was missing.

“Let’s pray for Cathy,” Caroline said.

“Yes,” agreed someone else.

Just like that, several of them bowed their heads and actually began to pray out loud, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Marley stood among them, but praying was not her specialty. So she tried to send positive thoughts and good karma in Cathy’s direction. Before long she could hear sirens approaching the hotel, and then the paramedics burst into the lounge and took over.

“Everyone back off,” the bartender commanded the crowd. “Give the medics room to work.”

By now the house lights were on, the music had stopped, and everyone stood at the sidelines. Quietly they huddled into small groups. Some continued to pray. Others simply watched with helpless expressions, and a few talked in worried whispers.

Janie came over to stand with Marley, Abby, and Caroline. “Did you see what happened?” she asked quietly.

“She just collapsed,” Caroline explained. “One moment she was dancing with Keith, and then she just went down.”

“Do you think it’s her heart?” Janie asked.

“I don’t know,” Caroline said sadly. “Although she had a pained expression in her face.”

“I’ve never heard of her having any kind of medical problems before,” Abby told them. “She’s always been such an active, energetic person. I’m sure she’ll pull through.”

“I wonder if she has family or anyone who should be notified.”

Janie glanced around the crowd. “Is she with someone tonight? Her husband perhaps?”

“She’s single,” Abby explained. “She was married for a few years, but that was a long time ago. And I know she doesn’t have kids. From what I’ve heard, she’s always been married to her job.”

The paramedics had Cathy connected to machines now. With grim expressions, they lifted her onto the gurney, quickly adjusting the medical equipment and taping various tubes as they secured her for the trip to the hospital. But as they worked, Cathy’s face remained pale and her body lifeless. Marley thought the circumstances really did not look hopeful. !e entire lounge grew quiet as everyone helplessly watched their former class president being wheeled out.

After she was gone, the Clifden High School Class of 1973 looked at each other with expressions of shock and confusion. For some reason Marley thought everyone suddenly seemed strangely out of place in the starkly lit lounge. It was hard to imagine that just twenty minutes ago, they were laughing and joking. A few people moved to the door, gathering purses and coats as if preparing to leave. Others didn’t seem to know what to do, but everyone seemed equally uncomfortable. It was clear: The party was over.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa - Chapter 1

Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa

Summerside Press (March 1, 2010)

Melanie Dobson

Whoever does not wander through the dark wasteland
of his heart cannot enter into the new and peaceful land.
Christian Metz, 1833

Chapter One

July 1894, Chicago

The morning fog lingered in the alleyways and draped over the iron palings that fortified the row of saloons along Harrison Street. At the corner of Harrison and LaSalle, a gas lamp flickered in the mist, its yellow flame spreading light over the alley tents. Only a few more blocks until they were safe in the depot.

In the distance, the station’s clock tower glowed like a beacon, beckoning him to hurry, and Jacob Hirsch patted the back of his daughter, asleep on his shoulder, before checking his breast pocket. The two train tickets were tucked safely inside.

Adjusting the strap on his satchel, he took a deep breath and hur¬ried toward the train that would take him and his daughter far away from Chicago.

Cassie squirmed against his chest and lifted her head. “My throat hurts, Papa.”

“I know, Pumpkin.”

She tried to smile. “I’m not a pumpkin.”

“You’re my pumpkin,” he replied softly. He put her down for a moment to shift his satchel to his other arm before he picked her up again. Laying her head back on his shoulder, her breathing deepened as she drifted back to sleep.

Shivering in the morning air, he pushed himself to walk even faster to get her into the warm station. Almost a week ago Cassie had started complaining of a sore throat, and he felt useless to help her. His money was almost gone, and they were just two among thou¬sands who had no place to sleep tonight.

This city was the only place Cassie had ever known, but there was no future for them in Chicago. Tens of thousands were unem¬ployed—strong men willing to work and educated men who could no longer provide for their families. These men walked the dirty streets during the day, searching for work, and a tent housed them and their families at night.

A tramp lay sprawled across the sidewalk in front of Jacob, inches from the door of a saloon. He stepped over the man, but a familiar queasiness clenched his gut. So many people were struggling to sur¬vive while others tried to drown the country’s economic depression by drinking themselves to death.

He’d considered the latter himself, using the last of his money on liquor instead of train tickets, but the streets in Chicago were already crowded with children who’d lost both of their parents—he couldn’t think about what would happen to Cassie if he weren’t here to protect her from the scum who patrolled for orphans.

Jacob’s stomach rumbled, but he ignored it. Cassie was the one who needed to eat. Cassie and the other young victims of the finan¬cial tsunami that had hit the East Coast last summer and swept across the plains and mountains, devastating families and businesses and farms in its wake.

Jacob checked his pocket again for the train tickets. They were still there. He’d pawned the last of their furniture along with Katha¬rine’s wedding ring to buy these tickets and garner two additional dollars to buy Cassie food during their journey west.

Three months had passed since he’d lost his job at the bank, and almost a year had passed since he’d lost…

He shook his head, focusing on the depot’s bright clock tower instead of drowning himself in the past, for Cassie’s sake.

They would take the early morning train to Minneapolis and then on to Washington State, where there were jobs waiting for men willing to work. He was more than willing.

Someone tugged on his trousers, and he looked down to see a young girl not much older than Cassie’s four years. Her hair was matted against her head, and tattered rags hung over her shoulders.

“Can you spare a nickel?” she whispered.

Behind the child was a row of tents in the alley. “Where are your parents?”

Her scrawny finger pointed toward one of the tents. “Mama’s in there.”

“You hungry?”

She nodded, blinking back her tears. The New York Stock Exchange was eight hundred miles away, yet the impact from its crash trickled down to the least of these on the streets of Chicago. The pain wasn’t in their wallets. It was in their bellies.

He couldn’t spare a nickel but—

Cassie lifted her head in her sleep and snuggled into his other shoulder. What if it was his daughter begging for food?

The girl stepped back, her head hung with resignation, and he couldn’t help himself. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out one of his precious nickels and handed it her. “Buy some bread when the bakery opens.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, the strength returning to her voice as her fingers clenched the coin. “Thank you, sir.”

During the colder nights, swarms of homeless slept in the hall¬ways of city hall or in the basements of the saloons, and when those got overcrowded, the chief of police opened the doors to the station and crammed people young and old into cells alongside the criminals for the night.

A jail cell was no place for a child.

He shifted the leather bag on his shoulder again and Cassie stirred, coughing against his suit jacket. He rested his hand on her back until she stopped coughing and then turned the corner toward the station and the passenger train that would take them west.

A half dozen people crowded together on the corner in front of him, and Jacob shuffled across the street to avoid them. He’d read plenty about rings of thieves that stalked the night hours on the Near West Side. He couldn’t afford a confrontation this morning, nor could he afford to lose the last of his money or his train tickets.

A rough laugh passed through his lips at the irony of clinging to the two dollars in his waistcoat. A year ago, he’d been bringing home sixteen dollars and forty cents every week while employed as a clerk at Chicago’s prestigious Second National Building and Loan, and he’d been on his way up the ladder with his sights on becoming president one day.

“A promising future,” the president of the bank had told him in the spring of ’93, and Jacob believed the man. Back then, his future was full of promise. More responsibilities were ahead. A reputable title. And, if he kept working hard, a lot more money.

For most of his life, he’d respected the power of a dollar. Even more than providing for his family, it was his livelihood, and he thought he’d understood its worth. But he didn’t truly understand it until most of the bank’s reserves were washed away in the Panic of ’93 along with his salary. Never before had he known what it was like to have the future obliterated, to have only two dollars to his name. Nor had he understood real desperation—the need for money because of the love for his daughter and the hunger in his own belly.

And now here he was, on this chilly summer morning, afraid that thieves might steal a measly two dollars from him. And even more afraid that he might be tempted to steal like them if he didn’t find work soon and provide for his daughter.

Cassie moaned against his shoulder, and he kissed the lopsided part between her braids. The train station was only three more blocks away, straight down LaSalle. When she woke again, he’d feed her the crackers and apple his kind neighbor gave them last night.

The bell in the clock tower chimed five times. The train wasn’t scheduled to depart for an hour, but even so, he hurried toward the depot. They would be ready to leave whenever the conductor called for them to board.

Nothing would stop him from getting on this train.

Dim rays of sunlight began to clear the gray fog, and the LaSalle Street Station rose through the mist like an ancient castle. The place spoke of a time past. A time of money and power and prestige, when more people wanted to visit their great city than run away.

Ahead, forty or so men crowded around the depot, and at the front of the mob, a man in a black overcoat shouted and raised a shovel in the air. Jacob’s entire body tensed when the crowd raised their voices in response.

Why are they so angry?

Skirting around the group, Jacob pushed open a side door and shuffled into the marbled lobby of the train station. Golden ceiling tiles towered above them with a crystal chandelier that cascaded light onto the granite pillars below. Dozens of people slept on the stiff benches around the station, wrapped in blankets or covered with overcoats.

Cassie squirmed in his arms, lifting her head to take in the gran¬deur. “Where are we, Papa?”

His heart softened at her voice. “At the train station, sweetheart. You keep sleeping.”

“I don’t wanna sleep,” she said, nestling her head back into his shoulder.

“Of course not.” He laughed softly as her breathing slowed again.

Long glass windows overlooked the train platform on the far wall, and near the windows was the train counter. He rang the bell, and then rang it again when no one came to the counter.

A stout man slipped up beside him, a cigar hanging out the side of his mouth. His nose was swollen and red. “They’re all outside.”

Jacob turned toward him. “What’s happening?”

“The railway strike.”

“I thought the workers were striking down in Pullman.”

“That was last week.” The man blew smoke in Jacob’s face. “The bigwigs down there ain’t budging an inch, and now the union is wailin’ mad.”

“The trains—”

“A few of them are still moving.” The man slid the cigar out of his mouth and twirled it in his fingers. “Where you headed?”

“Minneapolis and then Spokane.”

He pointed his cigar toward the glass windows. “You best get yourself onboard. They’ll be leaving early today.”

Early? Jacob slid back from the counter, the man’s words propel¬ling him through the station and back out into the morning air. On the other side of the platform, five trains were lined up on a maze of tracks, and the train closest to him was a passenger train. The train taking them to Minnesota.

He scanned the platform for a brakeman or conductor to open the closed doors, but he didn’t see one. Turning, he watched the darkly cloaked man march onto the platform, thrust his shovel into the air, and shout about the Pullman dogs. The leader would be frightening enough by himself, but this morning, an entire crowd mimicked his tirade.

Dozens of men marched onto the platform brandishing shovels and pitchforks, and they were all chanting. “Strike. Strike. Strike.”


Jacob glanced into his daughter’s frightened eyes. He had to get her out of here.

The whistle blew on the passenger train, and he hopped onto the steps and tugged at the locked door. Something whizzed by his head, and the window beside him shattered. Floundering backward, he protected Cassie with his arms, and his chest muffled her cries.

More rocks followed the first one. More glass splintered onto the platform and the tracks. A rock clipped his ear, and he stumbled away from the firing line.

Shovels plunged into the windows of the depot, glass pouring to the ground—and then the train in front of him started to quake. Turning to the right, he sucked in his breath.

“Dear God,” he whispered. The mob was rocking one of the Pull¬man sleeping cars, trying to tip it over. No one from the station was even trying to stop them from overturning the car.

His ear stinging from the rock, he tried to back away from the madness, but they were trapped on the platform. A gunshot blasted through the station, and the throng of men spun into a rage. People scattered in all directions, screaming, but whoever was rocking the train car didn’t stop.

Steam puffed out of the engine on the far side of the tracks, and Jacob glanced around at the unruly mass. No one seemed to notice the steam. Covering Cassie’s head, he ducked through a pelting of rocks as he cut between the train cars. He didn’t care where the other train was headed. He’d get Cassie on it, and they’d escape this madness.

The freight train was thirty feet in front of him, the wheels already turning. He tripped over the tracks as he raced for an open boxcar, and Cassie cried out as they hit the ground. Quickly, he pushed up from the gravel, but as he started running again, someone shouted behind him. The mob had spotted the moving train.

The train’s speed escalated as it fled the station, and Jacob ran harder than he’d ever run in his life, over the gravel and rails, toward the boxcar at the end. His hat flew off his head, but he didn’t turn around. The crowd was swarming behind him now. He couldn’t stop, nor could he do anything to stop Cassie’s tears. He would get her on that train, and then she’d be all right.

A crashing sound exploded through the station, shaking the ground. For an instant, the noise seemed to paralyze the crowd. They stopped running. Stopped shouting. And then they began to cheer. The mob had crippled the passenger train.

“Stop that freight!” another voice yelled over the roar.

The train in front of him increased its speed, and Jacob sprinted beside the boxcar, sweat pouring off his face. No matter what, he would protect his daughter.

Swinging the bag off his shoulder, he thrust it into the open door.

Cassie clung to his neck, sobbing against his shoulders.

“C’mon, Cassie!” he shouted over the commotion.


There was no time to hesitate. He pried Cassie’s fingers and arms from his neck and swiftly pushed his daughter onto the train.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On The Road Home - Chapter 1

On The Road Home

Port Yonder Press; 1st edition (March 3, 2010)


Terry Burns

Chapter 1 - Logistics


Colonel Lionel Tucker paced the front of the briefing room, hands behind his back, his resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt not entirely an act of nature. He turned to face his regimental officers as a young officer scurried in to take his seat.

"Are we all present now? Good of you to consent to join us Lt. Baker."

"Sorry sir." Baker had boyish, everybody's favorite cousin sort of looks, and wore his new second lieutenant bars as if they itched.

"Never apologize, Lieutenant, it's a sign of weakness. All right, let's proceed to reports. Major Jackson, operations report."

The lanky officer stood and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. "D-day is June 16, sir. Orders have been cut and sent to all appropriate parties. The list of personnel has been obtained and has been checked in meticulous detail. The staging area is set, and the officer scheduled to conduct the exercise has been put on full alert."

"Very good, Major. And the primary leadership team is fully briefed?"

"Yes sir, but one is not fully . . ."

"Harrummmp - well, we don't need to go into that. Captain Scott, Transportation report."

"All necessary transport has been arranged, sir."

"Good. Let's hear from supply, Captain Wilson."

Wilson brought his considerable bulk out of the chair with noticeable effort. "I have a detailed list of the necessary items, sir, and it has all been procured and checked off item by item."

"Excellent, and the appropriate uniform sizes?"

"All correct and double-checked, sir."

"Lt. Nash, is the regimental band set to give us a good send-off?"

"Yes sir, we are standing by, and have been provided a list of approved tunes to perform. But I'm concerned about space, sir. Since it is to be indoors shouldn't we put together a small ensemble perhaps?"

"No, I want the full treatment, nothing else will do."
"Yes sir."

"Gentlemen, I'm very pleased. You all know what this operation means to me. It is terribly important that it unfold without the slightest problem. If I had left the planning to . . . well, some things are better left to professionals."

"Sir are you sure we ought to . . ."
"Lt. Baker, this is your first time under fire and some nerves are to be expected. Your role in this is simple, you just be prepared to be there on D-day and to face the task with courage and fortitude. Trust me, it will go off without a hitch."

He stood there and looked at the young man for a moment. The young lieutenant had no color in his face and in general did not look as if he felt well at all. The Colonel returned his attention to his officers. "Is that it then? Have we overlooked any conceivable details?"

"Well maybe just one or two." A small voice came from behind him.

"Carrie Sue, you shouldn't be here."

"I shouldn't be here when my own wedding is being planned?"

"Every detail is under control by some of the finest logistical support in the army."

"UNDER CONTROL? You consider sending government travel orders to guests instead of invitations under control?" Her face turned a shade of red that suggested eminent eruption.

"Carrie Sue, calm down, we'll discuss and slight modifications to the operational plan at home."

"We'll discuss them now, Lionel." An older lady with shadings of gray in her dark hair came in to stand behind her daughter. "Who picked out the horrible dress that just came to the house marked 'uniform of the day'?"

Captain Wilson sank in his chair and tried to hide behind the bulky figure of Captain Scott.

"Now see here, this is insubordination. We have planned this operation with precision and it will run like a well-oiled machine. If I had left it up to you the whole operation would still be snarled up in discussions of dress material, cake icing and who knows what other ridiculous details."

The eruption occurred. "RIDICULOUS DETAIL?" Officers scattered from the room like chickens from a henhouse with the fox in hot pursuit. All but the Colonel and Lt. Baker. Five foot two of full unabated fury advanced on them in full battle array. She gave her father a push surprising for her size and he landed unceremoniously in a chair.

"Now hear this, Colonel. Those ridiculous details are what a wedding is all about. For you men you just show up, mumble a few words, and it's all over. For us, the planning is far more important than the actual event. We delight in the details, bubble with enjoyment over looking at dress material, dress fittings and cake icing. We can spend hours selecting music, and it isn't going to be that silly regimental band. We are going to have to put up with your silly military shenanigans all of our married life, we deserve . . . no, we DEMAND the right to begin it our way."

"Well my dear, I had no idea you felt so strongly about . . . "

"You're absolutely right there, you have no idea. She turned on the lieutenant, who actually shrank from her. "And YOU. Robbie, I'm ashamed of you."

"But he's my commanding officer."

"Well I'm assuming command of this operation as of right now." She spun. "Isn't that right, daddy dear?"

"I was just trying to make it the best . . ."


"Yes, Carrie Sue, whatever you say, sweetheart."

"That's better. Now why don't you two run over to the officer's club, which is where I am sure those other cowards have hidden. There's no hurry for you to get home because the house will be full of bridesmaids and catering representatives and of course Reverend Burt. The real wedding briefing is about to take place, and we'll let you two know what we need you to do."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Heart Of Stone - Chapter 1

Heart Of Stone
Zondervan (March 1, 2010)


Jill Marie Landis

Chapter 1

New Orleans, 1853

Eleven-year-old Lovie Lane would never be certain what actually woke her the night she learned her life was to become a living hell.

She might have been unintentionally kicked by one of her three younger sisters, all crowded on the pallet on the floor beside her. Or it might have been the gnawing hunger in her belly. She could have been awakened by the sounds of her aunt and uncle’s voices raised in anger. Or a shout outside the shack where they lived. The Irish Channel — a New Orleans neighborhood home to penniless Irish laborers newly immigrated to Louisiana — was not known for peace, quiet, or abundance.

Whatever the reason, Lovie sat up. She pushed her matted hair out of her eyes and gazed at the tangle of limbs and threadbare nightclothes illuminated by the lamplight spilling in from the front room. Her sisters slept soundly, like angels, innocent of the tumult around them. Across the room her two male cousins, both older than she, also slept on.

The nasal whine of her Aunt Maddie’s voice easily carried through the thin curtain that hung in the doorway to the sleeping area. “We can’t keep ’em. Not with our own to feed.”

Lovie gingerly slipped out of bed, taking care not to waken her sisters. She crept up next to the curtain, moved it aside just enough to peer out without being seen. Her uncle shuffled to the table and pulled out a chair. He weaved back and forth before he finally sat, and her aunt shot him a dark scowl as she bustled about the stove to prepare him a cup of tea.

Uncle Timothy tried to shush her, but Maddie wouldn’t be silenced. “You’ve been drinkin’ again. I can smell it on ya.”

“I been out tryin’ to solve our little problems, is what I’ve been doin’.”

“Whiskey ain’t goin’ to help. We wouldn’t have our ‘little’ problems if it weren’t for your brother and his wife both up and dying on us.”

“Thank the angels they’re all girls. The Ursulines will take the two little ones.” His heavy sigh reached Lovie from across the room.

“And the other two?”

Lovie stifled a gasp, knowing she, and Megan, almost nine years old, were “the other two.”

“Found a place for them, too, I have,” he bragged.

When Ma lay on her death bed, Lovie had promised she’d watch over her sisters. Now they were going to be parceled out, given away like unwanted kittens. Separated for life.

Maddie set the tea down and shuffled back to the stove. She was rail thin, all elbows and wrists, angles and edges — no softness about her at all. She was nothing like the gentle, soft-spoken mother Lovie had known, the mother she missed so desperately.

“Is it a good place?” Maddie wanted to know.

“What do you care? Besides, they’ll live in a big, fine house.”

“Oh, really? And how’s that?” Maddie turned away and mumbled, “Maybe I should go me’self.”

“Don’t tempt me.” Uncle Tim burst into ribald laughter mingled with a phlegmy cough. When he stopped choking and slapping his knees, he settled back in his chair again.

“They’ll have three square meals a day, their own beds, and fine clothes.”

When her aunt glanced in the direction of the door, Lovie drew away from the crack in the drape. Aunt Maddie lowered her voice to a gravelly whisper. Lovie was too lost in her own speculation to concentrate on what her aunt might be saying.

Never having known what it was to not fight for pallet space, Lovie found the prospect of sleeping alone a frightening proposition at best. And fine clothes? It was hard to even imagine what exactly that meant, but it was tempting. What little girl didn’t want pretty clothes?

A chair creaked in the other room. Lovie peeked out and saw Uncle Tim fighting to stay awake. His head slumped onto his chest and his mouth opened on a snore. Aunt Maddie shook his shoulder with a rough jerk.

“Did you save any coin? We’ll need milk tomorrow.”

“Once I deliver the two girls in the mornin’, we’ll have plenty to spare. You get them washed up first thing. Have ’em lookin’ as presentable as you can. I don’t want to have to be bringin’ ’em back.”

“And the little ones?”

“Soon as I deliver the older girls, I’ll come back for the other two.”

Having grown up in the brisk chill of Ireland, Lovie was convinced she’d never grow used to the sultry Louisiana air. Tonight, though, she shivered despite the heat as she tiptoed back to the pallet and knelt down.

She stared at “the baa-bies,” as her Ma always called the two youngest girls. They were her babies now. Tears wet her cheeks and she pictured the coming morn. She and Megan were to be groomed and taken to a new family.

Were they even Irish? Would anything be familiar?

She wondered if she could somehow sneak all of her sisters out of the house, and thought about waking them. Within another breath she realized the idea was completely impossible. If it were just her and Megan, they might stand a chance of escape, but with a four- and six-year-old along? Impossible.

Besides, she barely knew the Irish Channel neighborhood and it only covered a few blocks near the docks. Ma had told her New Orleans was a huge, sprawling city, big as Dublin, with many, many streets and neighborhoods. Many dangers, too, if the stories her parents told were to be believed.

As Lovie lay staring into the darkness, she blindly reached for Megan’s hand. Though her sister slept, Lovie took comfort in slipping her fingers around Megan’s own warm ones. Eventually she fell asleep with her tears drying on her cheeks.

Before the light of dawn the next morning, true to her word, Aunt Maddie woke Lovie and Megan and filled a tub in the kitchen with lukewarm water.

She proceeded to have each girl stand in the tub as she sluiced them with soapy water and scrubbed their faces until they shone. She put their dresses back on them, then struggled to make some semblance of their tangled hair.

“Lovie, your hair is a rat’s nest.”

“Sorry, Aunt.”

Somehow Ma had always managed to tame her matted curls. Ma said she took after her English cousins, what with her dimples and hair the color of wheat straw. Megan, with her straight, dark-brown hair and dusting of freckles all over, looked Irish through and through. Lovie longed for straight hair and freckles, but had to settle for blonde ringlets and bright-blue eyes.

“Want me to get the babies, Aunt?” Megan asked. “They need bathed in the worst way, you know.” She’d been chatting happily all morning, and the cheerier she grew, the heavier became Lovie’s heart.

She has no idea

“I won’t be needin’ to bath them. But you’ll be wantin’ to go and tell them good-bye, I suppose, so you best get to it.”

“Good-bye?” Excitement dawned in Megan’s brown eyes. “Are we going somewhere? Just Lovie and me? Where, Aunt?”

“I don’t rightly know, but your Uncle Tim ’as a surprise for you and Lovie. You’ll be movin’ to a fine new place where they need two lovely lasses like you.”

Megan’s perfectly shaped brows drew together. A scar parted her right brow, a reminder of a fall she’d taken aboard the ship on the voyage to America. “But what of the others?” She glanced toward the other room where her sisters and cousins slept on in their innocence.

“They won’t be goin’ with you. They’ll be off to their own place, they will.”

“But . . .” Megan looked to Lovie for answers. “But Ma said we’d always be together. Didn’t she now, Lovie?”

“She did, Sis, but Ma ain’t here no more.”

Looking down into her sister’s trusting eyes, Lovie’s heart crumpled like a paper fan. No use in lying or trying to tell her it wasn’t so. A million and one questions crowded Lovie’s mind, but her uncle was short-tempered and impatient of a morning. He wasn’t civil until he’d had his first ration of whiskey for the day. There was no sense in asking him where they were going or if they’d ever see their sisters again.

The thought that she might never lay eyes on Katie and Sarahagain was unthinkable. Before their mother died, Lovie had promised not only to be brave and to do as she was told, but above all to watch over the little ones. She was the oldest, the head of the family. She was the one charged with keeping them together.

“Be good, Lovie. Do your best. Work hard. Keep the others safe.”

Theirs had been a difficult life. There was famine in Ireland and Da had had no choice but to come to America to meet up with Uncle Tim and seek his fortune. Uncle Tim was a slacker; Da had always said so. But they were brothers, after all. So Da packed up Ma andLovie and all the girls and, bringing only what they could carry, they’d sailed across the Atlantic in search of a better life.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Here Burns My Candle - Chapter 1

Here Burns My Candle

WaterBrook Press (March 16, 2010)


Liz Curtis Higgs

Night’s black mantle covers all alike.

Milne Square, Edinburgh
14 September 1745

Lady Marjory Kerr heard a frantic tapping at the bedchamber door, then her name, spoken with marked urgency.

“News from the Royal Bank, mem.”

At this hour? Marjory lifted her head from the pillow, her gaze drawn to the wooden shutters, closed for the night. The coals in the fireplace had faded to a dull glow. She squinted but could not read the clock on the mantelpiece. Had she slept at all?

“What is it, Peg?” Marjory called out.

Her maidservant answered in a breathless rush of words, “They’re moving the bank’s effects to the castle.”

The hair on the back of Marjory’s neck rose. Transporting money and documents from the foot of New Bank Close to Edinburgh Castle involved a long climb up a winding street where brigands and thieves lurked in the shadows. The Royal Bank would never embark on so risky a venture. Not unless the day’s alarming reports had proven true.

“ ’Tis the Hielanders,” Peg whispered through the crack in the door as if the word itself might bring a hoard of savages thundering up the stair, brandishing their swords. “Folk say the rebel army will reach Linlithgow by morn.”

At that, Marjory flung off her bedcovers, any notion of sleep forgotten. Linlithgow Palace was less than twenty miles west. The army was too near her door. And far too near her sons, one of whom stood ready to bear arms at the slightest provocation. Was there nothing she could say to dissuade him?

She hurried across the carpet barefooted, too distraught to hunt for her brocade slippers. All of Edinburgh had followed the ominous approach of the Highland rebels led by their bonny Prince Charlie. Determined to reclaim the British throne for his exiled father, James—Jacobus in Latin—the young prince and his loyal Jacobites were marching toward Scotland’s capital, intent on capturing the city.

“May it not be so,” Marjory said under her breath, then swept open the bedchamber door to find her maidservant perched on the threshold, her linen cap askew, her brown eyes filled with fear.

“What are we to do, Leddy Kerr?”

“Bolt the door at once.” Marjory tightened the ribbons on her sleeping jacket, warding off the night air that seeped in, however fast the shutters. Her trembling had nothing to do with the fearsome Highlanders, she told herself. Nae, not for a moment. “Make haste, lass.”

She watched Peg scurry through the darkened drawing room into the entrance hall, holding aloft her candle stub, which cast a pale circle of light on her tattered nightgown. Small for her seventeen years, with hair the color of a dull copper ha’penny, Peg Cargill was hardly a beauty. Her eyes were set unbecomingly close together, and her small nose disappeared amid a sea of freckles.

By the fire’s glow Marjory caught a glimpse of herself in the silvery looking glass by her side. She quickly turned away but not before her thoughts came round to taunt her. Hardly a beauty. She touched her thinning crown of hair and her sagging chin, then sighed, wishing the glass offered better news. Had it not always been thus?

In her youth few gentlemen had taken note of her until they learned she was the daughter of Sir Eldon Nesbitt. Even then their gazes had fallen on her father’s impressive property rather than on her unremarkable face or figure. Time had not improved matters.

Peg reappeared, bobbing a curtsy. “ ’Tis done, milady.”

Marjory gestured toward the adjoining chambers, where her sons and their wives had retired for the night. “Have you told the others the news?”

“Nae.” A faint blush tinted Peg’s cheek. “I heard them…that is…Mr. Kerr…”

“See they’re not disturbed,” Marjory said firmly, wanting no details.

“And keep the stair door bolted.” She dismissed the girl with a nod, then locked the chamber door behind her. Let the Highlanders storm the crumbling walls of Edinburgh. They would not gain entrance to the Kerrs’ apartments. Mr. Baillie, the merchant who owned her residence, would see to that.

Alone once more Marjory lit a candle at the fireplace, then drew a steadying breath and knelt beside the canopied bed, as if preparing to offer her nightly prayers. Instead, she reached down and loosened one of the boards along the edge of the thick, woven carpet. Her servants, even her family members, believed the Kerr fortune rested safely among the Royal Bank’s effects, now bound for the castle. She alone knew the truth. Lord John Kerr had never trusted banks.

The board gave way, revealing a musty repository between the joists. Marjory bent closer, her nose wrinkling at the dank smell, her eyes seeking a cluster of leather purses in the flickering candlelight. There. The mere sight of them put her mind at ease. Nearly two dozen purses lay hidden beneath her chamber floor—a tribute to God’s provision and her late husband’s prudence.

She chose the nearest one, taking pleasure in its weight before slowly emptying the purse onto her bedding. One hundred gold guineas poured out, each coin stamped with the profile of her sovereign, King George. Marjory counted the lot, then set aside a few guineas for the coming week’s expenses and returned the bulging purse to its nesting place.

Greengrocers and fishmongers expected payment upon purchase. But mantua makers gladly extended credit if the Kerr women might display their gowns at the next public ball. Although a nervous town council might demand its citizens remain withindoors, ending their festive Thursday evenings at Assembly Close…

Nae, surely not!

Marjory sank onto the edge of her bed with a soft groan. What a dreary social season lay ahead with the rebel army afoot! No weekly visits to Lady Woodhall’s drawing room to share cups of tea and savory tidbits of gossip. No rainy afternoons spent with Lady Falconer, listening to country airs sung by a daughter of the gentry. No rounds of whist in the affable company of Lord Dun. Nothing but royalist dragoons patrolling the High Street, bayonets at the ready.

A sharp knock at the adjoining bedchamber door made her jump, nearly spilling the handful of guineas from the bed onto the carpet. “Who is it?” she asked, unhappy with herself for sounding frightened.

“Donald,” came the low reply.

Lightheaded with relief and grateful for his company, Marjory deposited the money on her dressing table and ushered her older son within, then closed the door as quickly as she’d opened it. With no central hallway in their apartments, each room had adjoining doors, one chamber leading to the next. Even among Edinburgh’s wealthiest residents, privacy was rare.

“Forgive the intrusion, Mother.” He looked down at her, candle in hand, his smooth brow gleaming. The cambric loosely tied at his neck could not hide the sharp lines of his collarbones. Ten years of dining on Edinburgh’s finest mutton and beef, and still his frame remained as slender as a youth’s. “ ’Tis late, I know,” he apologized.

“The hour matters not.” Marjory touched his cheek affectionately, struck afresh by the family resemblance. Donald had the same long nose Lord John once had, the same thin-lipped smile. “Look how the father’s face lives in his issue,” she quoted, testing him. It was a favorite pastime between mother and son.

“Ben Jonson,” he answered, naming the playwright without hesitation.

Few gentlemen in Edinburgh were better read than Lord Donald. She’d made certain of it. Heir to the Kerr title and lands, he’d proven himself an attentive son and a faithful husband. If he was not yet a doting father, that was no fault of his.

“Still in your boots,” Marjory observed. “I thought you’d be off to bed by now.”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “I will be shortly.” He scanned the chamber, his gaze finally landing on the pile of coins glimmering in the candlelight. “Do you think it wise to leave your gold where anyone might find it?”

Donald not only looked like his father; he sounded like him. Marjory swept the coins into her silk-fringed reticule and pulled the drawstrings taut. “We have far greater worries this night. The rebel army is nearing Linlithgow.”

“Aye, Gibson told me.” The stoic Neil Gibson, manservant to the household, took pride in keeping Donald and his younger brother well groomed and well informed. “I’ve come to put your mind at ease, Mother.”

“I see.” She chose her next words with care, keeping her tone light. “Does that mean you’ll not be joining the Gentlemen Volunteers?” She watched his blue eyes for a flicker of interest. Hundreds of young men had enlisted in support of the royalist troops, many from Edinburgh’s finest families. Lord willing, her sons would not be numbered among the recruits.

“I’ve no such plans,” Donald confessed, “though I cannot speak for Andrew. You know his penchant for flintlock muskets.”

She did know, much as it grieved her. Lord John had urged their second son to pursue a career in the military, despite her motherly protests. Pistols, swords, and a dozen French muskets decorated Andrew’s bedchamber walls. Even walking past his many weapons unnerved her. Monsieur Picard, their fencing master, had trained the lads well. But he’d
done so for sport, not for battle.

That very afternoon Andrew had observed the Volunteers drilling in the College Yards. Marjory had counted the hours until he returned home for supper, then listened with a heavy heart as he regaled the family with stories of grizzled sergeants marching the lads through their paces. “Have no fear,” Andrew had said soothingly at table. “The Lord Provost took no notice of me, Mother.”

She was unconvinced then and even less so now, with his older brother paying a late-night visit. “I have your word?” she prompted Donald. “You’ll not encourage Andrew to take up arms against the Highland rebels?”

He brushed aside her concerns. “Whatever you say.”
Donald began circling her chamber, with its oil paintings and Chinese porcelain, its silk bed hangings and red lacquer commode. Piece by piece she’d had her favorite plenishings delivered from Tweedsford, their estate in the Borderland, until their rented Edinburgh rooms were filled to bursting.

When Donald paused at one of her windows and unfastened the painted shutter, Marjory’s breath caught. Might a Jacobite spy be abroad at this hour? Pale and fair-haired, Donald would be easily spotted from the High Street below.

“No moon in sight,” he observed, resting his forehead lightly on the glass. “No Highlanders either.”

“They’ll arrive soon enough.” Marjory extinguished the candle by her bed, shrouding the room in darkness. “Sleep while you can, Donald. And keep that bonny wife of yours close at hand.”

“Aye.” The smile in his voice was unmistakable. “So I shall.”

He left by way of the drawing room door rather than the one leading to his bedchamber. Bound for the kitchen, no doubt. He’d eaten very little at supper. Mrs. Edgar, their housekeeper, would not let him retire on an empty stomach.

Marjory closed the shutters, then returned to bed, determined to sleep however dire the news. Her beloved sons were safe beneath her roof. Nothing else mattered.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Once In A Blue Moon - Chapter 1

Once in a Blue Moon
B&H Books (March 1, 2010)


Leanna Ellis

Chapter 1

Here lies Obit writer Bryn
She should have stayed home
Instead of jumping in.

It’s the story of my life. I often jump before looking, much less thinking. But there it is. My life is an obituary-in-the-making. Scary, huh? It keeps things in perspective. But it’s not just me. I see others as a potential obit too. Professional hazard, I suppose. Friends text or email pictures of funny or unusual tombstones. One sent me this yesterday:

The children of Israel wanted bread,
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.

On Halloween to give everyone in the office a laugh, I dress up as the Grim Reaper. Every artist’s rendering I’ve ever encountered of the bleak goon in dark, heavy cloak resembles a tall, skinny scarecrow. That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. Minus the scythe.

Today, on assignment, dressed in fairly normal clothes (for Austin’s relaxed attitude but not necessarily Houston’s uptightness) of jeans, cowboy boots and T-shirt (which reads: Dead Men Tell No Lies, but their family will!), I stand in a long, snaking line of which I can just now see the front, waiting my turn (not necessarily patiently), and of course, my brain wanders as it is prone to do when it doesn’t have anything occupying it, my thoughts leaning toward the morose.

Most folks I’ve talked to this weekend celebrating the 40th anniversary at NASA have happy memories of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Astronauts, celebrities and the common folk who observe the stars above and dream of galaxies light years away have gathered at the NASA facilities. Their spirits are as buoyed as the gazillion red-white-and-blue balloons floating around the building, some bound together to form puffy rockets and planetary orbs. Visitors who were alive on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped on the gray surface of the moon want to share their memories of the event of the twentieth century. It’s a universal hobby this looking up at the moon, gazing into the depths of space and wondering if life on earth is all there is. Or if there is more, heavenward or in the opposite direction, if there are men from Mars, women from Venus or from some other galaxy. The stars spark our imaginations. The longer we gaze, the smaller and more insignificant we feel, and a craving to know there is something beyond us grows. “One small step for man …”

… a giant leap into the black hole of my past. I was just a nine-year-old kid busy with throwing a softball into my glove rather than listening to Walter Cronkite narrate the historic occasion, the night my mother stepped into the hereafter … a murkiness of darkness or light, whatever your beliefs might be. Mine bend toward a gray mist clouding over my heart, leaving me most often in the dark. The gravity of my mother’s death pulls me down into a mire of sticky emotions I usually avoid. Without even the spin of the simulator I’m waiting to ride, I suddenly feel my world reel and my stomach tilt.

To distract my wayward thoughts, I make up another appropriate obit:

Brynda Seymour
Took a turn in Zero gravity
She ain’t no more.

“Hey!” The stranger next to me who has been texting with his cell phone for the past thirty minutes leans torward me “What’s that?” He nods toward an orange pail outside the door we’ve anticipated entering for over an hour.

“In case we barf.”

“What?” His lips thin, and he loosens his narrow, gray tie. He seems the type to choose cremation rather than burial, maybe his ashes sprinkled over some cosmopolitan area on a cloudy day. “Have you seen anyone get sick?”

“Hard to tell. After the ride, victims …” I smile and edit myself, “… passengers exit a different door.”

At that moment, the metal door slides sideways. I crane my neck to see around the few guts-or-glory fools waiting ahead of me. Through the doorway, ten slightly dazed, pale tourists walk (or wobble) out of the simulator, their footsteps hesitant and unsure, their eyes glazed, their mouths pulled back in a grimace as if they’re still experiencing the full impact of the g-forces. I hold back a laugh. One young woman stutters, grabs a wall and is shown a wheelchair in which she flutters like a collapsed parachute into the sling seat.

“Not too late to change our mind,” the man shuffling along ahead of me says. He’s slightly older than me, maybe full into his fifties from the looks of his gray head. He’s dressed more casually in shorts and loafers. I imagine him picking out a plain, no frills casket for his future use.

“Oh, don’t worry. This will be fun,” I say. “Can’t be worse than HALO diving.”

The older man turns, raises his eyebrows which resemble tufts of gray clouds above his blue eyes. “What’s that?”

“High altitude low opening,” the suited guy behind me answers. Definitely top of the line casket required here – piped in music preferred. He looks me up and down, not checking me out for a pickup, but sizing me up and assessing whether or not he believes me capable of the edgy sky-diving. “You’ve HALO skydived?” Doubt permeates his whiney voice. “You military or something?”

“You mean, crazy? Nah, just a reporter.” As if that explains my penchant for the extreme. I’d tell him I’m an obit writer but that might make those in line even more nervous, like I’m scoping out new material.

“Me, too,” he says. “Houston Chronicle.” The lofty tone of his voice sets my teeth on edge. Even though Austin is the state’s capital, the larger metropolitan city reporters tend to look down their snooping noses at our smaller paper.

“Austin Statesman.” I give a tight smile and skim the warning signs posted outside the simulator room. If you’re pregnant … If you have back trouble … If you have heart problems … If you have second thoughts … Stay out. “You ever experience g-forces?”

“Once.” He’s young and fit, close to my daughter’s age, with a tanned face and easygoing smile. “Puked my guts up.”

“Don’t sit next to me then.” As I move toward the opening door, my step garners a bounce. The green light above flashes. All clear. It’s a go-for-launch.

After a brief introduction to astronaut training by a grim teenager who looks Vulcan minus the pointy ears. He tells how Buzz Aldrin puked during training. Then, we’re given one last chance to abort this mission. A thin, waif of a woman gives an ‘adios’ and is escorted out of the lockdown area.

“Are you ready then?” the Star Trek wannabe asks our small group of wary space travelers.

“Let ‘er rip!” someone behind me hollers. He, I speculate, will be the first to hurl.

“Okay,” Spock’s cousin says, “let’s blast off.”

I roll my eyes and follow the master of ceremonies to my personal docking station. I check the plastic cushioned seat for any unidentified stains or particles. All clear. I climb in, pull down the chest guard and strap the lap belt in place. “What happens,” I ask one of the young workers checking for secured seatbelts, “if we get sick during the simulation?”

“Bags are provided in the pouch in front,” she says as if she’s repeated the same phrase a thousand times today.

“No extra charge?”

She gives me a sideways glance, confusion darkening her brown eyes and her forehead puckering.

The older man behind me chuckles.

“Have many been used today?” I ask.

The young woman points to an overflowing trash can. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words.

Sitting quietly for one minute … two, I check my watch, tap my fingers against the metal handles latched to a fake electronic board providing lights and buttons for my enjoyment. The hatch descends over my head and clicks securely in place. The simulator jerks forward. A bumpy vibration begins in my backside and rattles up my spine. I draw in slow, regulated breaths, releasing the carbon dioxide in equal puffs. I lean my head back against the headrest and close my eyes. My cheeks begin to tremble and shake of their own accord as they pull back toward my ears in a smile that lacks humor or joy. Pressure against my chest builds like a hand bearing down on my heart. My mind drifts to those first astronauts. What fears did they face during training, during actual liftoff? Did they want to weep? Shout? Say, ‘Look, Mom, I’m flying to the moon!’?

And right then, my pulse starts racing as if past the speed of light. It has nothing to do with the simulator or the vortex it’s creating around me. My eyes open. I look around. The enclosed space seems smaller. Frantic, I hold the metal handrails. My breath comes out harsh, fast then stops. It’s as if I’ve stepped off the Eagle right along with Neil Armstrong onto the lifeless moon without my astronaut space suit and air pack and can’t draw even a single breath.

I wasn’t watching the television at the moment he set that spongy shoe on the rocky, dull surface but at my mother, watching her chest slowly rise and fall with each ragged breath. Soon my world began to spin out of control, out of orbit and ever since it’s never stopped.

Before the contents of my stomach start to rise, the simulator jerks to a stop. I sit there a moment, gather my thoughts back into myself, contain them in a tiny capsule, do a mental check of my body parts – arms, legs, stomach, all still with me even though I feel loose and out of touch. Nothing lags behind, not even the contrails of memories.

When the hatch opens, I hop out quickly, ready to escape my past, and give a forced laugh as my boots clunk on the linoleum floor. A retching sound comes from the simulator next to mine. Discreetly, I glance away from the young man in the suit but I can’t help looking around me at the other faces which seem drawn and shaded like the green men of a 1960s sci-fi film. I give a thumbs up sign to the older man who stood beside me for so long and who now seems steady on his feet. The young reporter crawls out of the simulator, hangs onto the edge and searches through his pockets. For his barf bag? But he pulls out his cell phone and texts a message. Probably: survived. It sounds more optimistic than his shaky reality.

“Where’ve you been, Bryn?” Marty Peters, my cameraman, rushes up to me.

“Taking a spin,” I thumb back toward the simulator.

He grabs my arm and tugs me out of the simulator room and into a crowded hallway. His camera bag bangs against my shoulder. He wears his Nikon around his neck with a long lens attachment. We seem to be swimming upstream. Marty’s long blond ponytail swings from side to side across his back.

I have an urge to grab the ponytail and slow him down. Whoa, boy. “What’s the hurry? Where are we going?”

“I’ve got somebody for you to meet. Might be your next article.” Article, not obit. I write inspirational true life stories for the Sunday paper – stories of life – overcoming, overachieving, survival tales. Ironic, huh?

Marty sidesteps a kid in a wheelchair and veers down a corridor, making me hop, skip and swerve to avoid getting my toes crunched under wire wheels. “Can’t we get something to eat first?” My stomach feels wobbly but not from the ride. “Didn’t I hear there’s cake?”

“Shaped like a moon. And nearly as big. But later.”

“So who is this person? Dead or alive?”

“Oh, he’s kicking all right. Could be a Sunday special. I told him about you. Said he’s a fan.”

“Of what?”

Marty pauses outside a doorway. Inside a crowd jumbles together in the oversized room. The din of voices swirls around me, and I feel nauseated. What’s wrong with me? Marty scans the crowd, stretching one way, then the other. “This guy worked in the Mission Control room from Gemini to Apollo 14.”

“Okay. But I need to eat.” I wonder if I should have taken the barf bag and tucked it in my hip pocket for insurance, like carrying an umbrella to scare off rain clouds. I spot the cake across the room and plunge into the crowd, my trajectory straight and determined. “What’s he do now?” I toss the question over my shoulder at Marty. “Is it an astronaut?”

“Retired, I think.” Marty catches up to me. “He’s old.” This, from a twenty-something’s perspective.

We weave through the crowd holding plastic cups of a lime green punch. I press a hand against my stomach just as I reach the table and grab a plate with a square of cake. The frosting is an unappetizing pale gray. A bit of red piped frosting bisects my piece. Must be a part of the American flag. Just as I shove a forkful of sugary sweetness into my mouth, Marty comes to an abrupt halt. I bump into his back, barely avoiding slamming my cake into his shoulder blade. He swerves around and stares at my mouth, giving me a look that says, ‘What are you doing?’

“Brynda Seymour!” A voice bursts toward me like a thrust of a jet engine. The man, as tall and slender as a flag pole, steps forward, hand extended toward me. “I’d have recognized you anywhere. Any where.”

I gulp down that bite of cake and shake the man’s hand a bit warily. Who would have heard of me? And why?

“Bill Moore,” Marty adds to clue me in.

Should I know that name? An ex head of NASA or astronaut? The older man with scraggly lead-gray hair that reminds me of the professor in Back to the Future also sports a handlebar mustache. He leans toward me, his glasses thick and making his eyes loom larger. His gaze aims at me like an intense laser. “That’s not my real name,” he whispers in a rushed huff, then glances over his shoulder. “But I must be careful.”

Surprised by his confession, I wait for him to explain but he doesn’t. “You were a part of all of this …” I swivel my wrist, indicating all the hoopla around us, “… forty years ago?”

Cragged and pockmarked as the surface of the moon, his face breaks into a smile, his mustache curving upward with his lips. “I was. I was. Amazing time. Truly amazing.” He surveys the room and from his high-perched vantage point, he should be able to see just about anything he wants. Suddenly, he hunches his shoulders forward and shoves his hands in his pants’ pockets. His casket, I decide, would have to be extra long. “We should have gone back before now. So much we didn’t do. So much we …” He waves away his statement like it’s a pesky fly circling my cake. “I’ve been contemplating writing my memoirs. You’re on the top of my list of writers. Top of my list.”

I arch an eyebrow at Marty. “That’s flattering, Mr. ...” I pause, not knowing what to call this strange man. “What should I call you?”

He glances sideways, then behind him. “Howard,” he whispers, his breath, a mixture of cigarettes and coffee, puffing across my face and making me take a step back. “I’ll explain everything—”

“I’m afraid you might have me mixed up with another reporter. I write inspirational profiles but mostly I’m an obituary writer.”

“Isn’t that all a memoir is? A long obituary?” His laughter is strange and awkward as if he’s unaccustomed to the procedure. Casually, he loops an arm around my shoulders, and I give Marty a look telling him through make-believe mental telepathy that he’s going to pay for this.

Marty jumps forward as if the point of my boot stuck him in the backside. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that particular pleasure. “Can I get anyone something to drink?”

I frown at him. If he leaves me alone with this guy—

“Do you know if they have lemonade?” Howard asks, his face scrunching into serious consideration. “Pink, not yellow.”

“Uh, I’ll check. But let’s get a couple of shots of you in the lobby. Maybe with a moon rock or next to that rocket.”

“No pictures!” Howard’s voice booms like a rocket on liftoff. He shakes his head vehemently, making his mustache quiver. “Thing is, Brynda,” he still has a hold on me, “my story needs to be told.” His breath puffs against my ear and the hair along my nape rises. I lean as far away from him as I can without tipping myself over, but Howard only moves closer. “It’s a shame it hasn’t been brought to light before now. But so many here … at NASA … don’t want the real story told. Others are afraid.”

I aim my fork at the space between his chin and mine. He backs up slightly, and I fork my cake instead of him. With more breathing room, I ask, “And why’s that?”

“Because they know.”

“Know what?”

“What was really found on the moon.”

I start to laugh but something in Howard’s clear gaze stops me. He’s serious. Or else an Oscar worthy actor. Carefully, I slide my gaze toward Marty and assess his reaction. He seems just as baffled. I shove my empty plate at Marty, cross my arms over my chest and meet Howard’s gaze again. “And what was found? No air? A lack of gravity?” I decide I need the last scoop of icing and cake and swipe it with my finger. “A bunch of rocks? Or cheese?”

“A crystal palace,” he states lucidly. Or so I presume.

I freeze, finger in mouth, and wait for Howard to laugh first. But he doesn’t. Not even a crack of a smile. His features remain solid, serious. The cake thickens at the back of my throat and I choke, cough, sputter.

Howard slaps me on the back and continues as if it’s quite normal to believe a crystal palace resides on the moon, like some exotic resort taking reservations for family vacations. Is it an all inclusive resort? “The evidence,” he says, “is quite clear.”

“Crystal clear?” I laugh at my own joke, but no one else joins me. I wrangle my humor, strapping it down as best I can. “And who lives in this palace? Cinderella?”

Howard’s gaze crackles like broken glass. He pokes his bifocals with his index finger back into place. “Obviously, we don’t know. Yet. But don’t you think more investigations should have been conducted rather than covering up the evidence?”

I slide my gaze toward Marty. His eyes widen as if to tell me he didn’t know Howard was a loon. “Okay, well …” I give Howard a careful smile. Time to go. But as with any crazy, I’ve learned to go slow. “Interesting. Definitely interesting. As you know, I’m not a scientific journalist, Mr. … Howard. I’m sure a solid foundation in physics …” Or psychiatry. “… would be beneficial.” Or even a rope to tether him to reality. “Good luck with your … um … project. Maybe you could get Will Smith to conduct that research for you.”

Howard or Bill or Howdy Doody slides a worn, raggedy piece of paper into my hand, pressing it against my palm. “This is my number. Don’t share it with anyone.” He squeezes my hand, and I get a cold clammy feeling in the bowl of my belly. “Do you understand?”

“Believe me,” I assure him, “I won’t.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hearts Awakening - Chapter 1

Hearts Awakening
Bethany House (March 1, 2010)
Delia Parr

Chapter 1

August 1840 Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

While other women her age were busy preparing a hearty breakfast for their families in snug, warm homes that crowded the city or dotted the outlying farms, Elvira Kilmer was hurrying down an unfamiliar roadway, hugging the woods along the eastern shoreline of Dillon’s Island to meet a total stranger.

The air was heavy with the sweet scent of apples that grew in the orchards filling the interior of the island. But it was not enough to ease the heavy resentment that beat in Ellie’s heart, and her thin, well-mended cape did little more to ward off the uncommon nip in the air than her tattered faith could warm the chill in her spirit.

Yawning, she caught a brief glimpse of the Susquehanna River through a break in the trees that lined either side of the roadway and wondered what it would be like to simply drift away to a place where she was the only one who had control over her life.

Ellie snorted, tugged her cape tighter, and trudged forward. She had just taken a couple of sidesteps to avoid a deep ridge in the roadway when a raccoon darted out of the woods right in front of her. Startled, she swirled about, tripped over her own skirts, and toppled into the brush, snagging her cape on a low branch in the process.

Thankfully, she found the wherewithal to grab on to a small sapling to keep from pitching forward and landing flat on her face. Swaying a bit, she gasped for air and wondered if her heart would burst before it stopped pounding in her ears.

When she finally caught her breath, she glanced down and saw that she had landed smack in the middle of a patch of blackberries. Relief that the thorns on the brambles had not pierced through her cape and skirts was short-lived, however, once she got back to her feet to see what damage she had done to her garments.

Her gloves, which had kept her hands from being scraped, were sticky with tree sap, and the mends she had made just the other day had torn open again, which meant the gloves were now destined for the trash pit. To make matters worse, there was a wide tear in her cape, just above the hem, and she groaned out loud. She could mend that tear easily enough, but the blackberry stains on her cape and her gray skirts would be almost impossible to remove.

Ellie yanked off her gloves and stuffed them into her pocket before easing back to the roadway. “I needed to ruin my cape and my work gown and my gloves? Now? When I’m due at Mr. Smith’s? I look like a . . . a ragamuffin!”

Chest heaving, she swiped at her tears and stomped both of her work boots free of dirt before resuming her journey. “I thought you were going to help me, Lord. I’ve trusted in you all my life, yet no matter how hard I’ve prayed or how hard I’ve tried to live by your Word, I always end up with . . . with nothing but disappointment,” she cried, giving voice to the despair that seemed to have found a permanent home in her spirit.

Apparently frightened by her cry, a trio of small birds burst out of a nearby tree and soared up toward the clouds. She paused to watch them, flying side by side, until they disappeared from view. And, despite the frustration and uncertainty that welled within, she prayed she might one day fully embrace His promise to protect all of His creations, even a trembling follower as she had become.

Ellie continued on her way and spied the rear of the small farmhouse at the southern end of the island, where a single wisp of smoke curled up from a chimney on the near side of the building. She approached the house with the hope that Jackson Smith would be so grateful she had arrived he would not be put off by her unkempt appearance and send her right back to the city—where she would no doubt receive another less-than-gracious welcome.

When she reached the kitchen door at the back of the house, she swallowed hard and paused to straighten the folds on her cape to try to hide the blackberry stains, but there were so many she soon gave up. After smoothing her hair one last time, she took a deep breath for courage and knocked on the kitchen door.

And then again. She was about to knock a third time but dropped her hand when she finally heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching the door. Her mouth went dry, but she kept her back straight and her shoulders square as she planted a smile on her face.

When the door finally swung open, she took a step back and stared up at the very attractive man standing there. To her surprise, he appeared to be only in his late twenties—a good three or four years her junior—but as she suspected, he wore the weathered tan of a man who carved his way through life by working outdoors in the orchards that covered the tiny island. His summer-bleached brown hair was cropped short, and the dark blue eyes staring back at her beneath heavy brows were fierce with pride and determination. The heavy crease across his brow, however, testified to his weariness, if not the sorrow of losing his wife scarcely six months ago.

“Mr. Smith? I’m Elvira Kilmer. I believe you were told to expect me this morning,” she said in a clear, steady voice, though her heart pounded against the wall of her chest. Either he would allow her inside or he would send her straight back to the city, where she would no doubt end up homeless and penniless by the time the sun set.


Go Here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/27469538/Hearts-Awakening for a much longer excerpt!