Monday, June 24, 2013

Paige Torn by Erynn Mangum

Paige Torn
Think (May 1, 2013)
by
Erynn Mangum

Chapter 1

Living in Texas can be awesome. Or awful.

Like during the winter. I turn the car off and sigh at the blinking bank billboard across the street from the Starbucks parking lot that keeps repeating: 5:34 p.m. . . . 74˚ . . . 5:34 p.m. . . . 74˚.

So I am late, and snow is nowhere near the immediate future. It’s January for goodness’ sake. I climb out of my used Camry that I’ve scrimped and saved for two years to buy and trudge into the Starbucks where my best friend, Layla Prestwick, is waiting for me.

She has an enormous smile across on her face, and she doesn’t even bother with a greeting or volume control when she sees me. “Paige! I am getting married!” she screeches, grabbing me in a hug so tight I can’t even choke out a congratulations.

I grin just the same. I knew it was coming. I had an idea after reading her text that brought me here today.

YOU MUST MEET WITH ME @ STARBUCKS ASAP! HERE IS A CLUE: <>O

An inkling, anyway.

“I’m so excited for you!” I say, when she loosens her grip a little bit. “Macchiato is on me today.” I order us both caramel macchiatos while Layla talks a hundred miles a minute about how her used-to-be-boyfriend-now-fiancĂ©, Peter, proposed.

“So we were just sitting there on his couch watching a movie like we always do on Sunday nights and he is like hey Layla I love you and I am like yeah Peter I love you too and then he suddenly is handing me a ring and it is soooo special and I couldn’t believe it so I started screaming and I am pretty sure I woke up his entire apartment complex and then the cops showed up because his downstairs neighbors thought Peter had gone postal or something but they were really nice and then told me congratulations and here’s the ring!”

She shoves her left hand over to me, a solitaire, sparkling in the lights.

For all the zero-breaths-taken during Layla’s engagement story, I’m not about to confess to her I think Peter’s way of proposing is pretty lame.

The couch?

Compared to all of Layla’s passion and exuberance and romance, Peter is about the dullest person on the planet in my opinion, maybe right behind that Thinker statue everyone is so enamored with. I just don’t see what Layla sees in him. And I really don’t get the fascination with The Thinker either.
He is thinking. Got it.

It’s about the same reaction I had to Peter. For all intents and purposes, Peter will make a great groom. He is male, he will show up to the wedding, and he will have no opinions about the ceremony or reception. He is like a Ken doll with dark hair and without the great facial bone structure. I’d compared him to a head of lettuce before. Not to Layla, obviously. But to my mom.

My mother doesn’t think it’s very nice of me to compare one of God’s creatures to a head of lettuce. Until I pointed out that a head of lettuce was created by God too.

“Paige, he’s a person for goodness’ sake. You can’t just arbitrarily decide you don’t like someone.”

I’ve known Peter for almost four years. I am pretty certain I’m not being arbitrarial, or however you say that grammatically correct.

You know how there’s always that one person that you just don’t like, and you don’t really know why?

Mine is Peter.

All that aside, I’m happy for Layla. She’s been wanting to get married since we were eight and she was a flower girl for her cousin’s wedding.

She’s still talking. “We’ve already set a date.” She grins around her Starbucks paper cup. “It’s going to be this fall. October 25. And it’s going to be outside at that park with the gazebo at sunset. And then we’re going to have the reception somewhere where we can dance. And you have to be my maid of honor.”

I nod, because of course I will be her maid of honor. We decided this years ago.

I take a sip of my macchiato and pull my planner out of my purse. The cover is denim that I’ve sewn and decorated with daisy embroidery.

“Better use a pen to write that one down.” Layla giggles. “Because you are not rescheduling my wedding!”

Layla knows my habits well. I roll my eyes and dig in my purse until I find a black Bic pen and start writing.

Layla’s Wedding.

It looks weird writing it down. Weird and final.

Like when I finally paid attention to the expiration date on the milk in my fridge and realized I’d been drinking milk a week past due.

Layla is getting married. Married. Like a grown-up does. And instead of being overwhelmingly happy like I always thought I’d be, I suddenly just feel overwhelmed. And maybe a little sad. I am going to be twenty-three in three months. And while my mom likes to remind me that she had been married a year by the time she was my age, I am not ready.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pieces of the Heart by Bonnie S. Calhoun

Pieces of the Heart
Abingdon Press (June 1, 2013)
by
Bonnie S. Calhoun
chapter 1


June 15, 1938

“Corde-eel-ee, don’t be sil-ly. We’ll find you sooner or later!”

The taunt echoed down the alley, bouncing from building to building, at the same rate her heartbeat pounded in her ears. The voices pumped more adrenaline into her blood. Would they pop into the Court from Pine Street?

Cordelia Grace pedaled her red and tan Schwinn as fast as her legs would go. She sucked in short rapid breaths that burned her lungs. She took a glance behind. No one. She swerved avoiding the metal garbage cans in front of Stoney’s Garage. Panic raced through her throat as tears pricked at her eyes. Where were her two girlfriends? They were supposed to be right behind her. Now she was alone to face her tormentors.

She probably wouldn’t have run from them if she had “more meat on her bones” like Grammy said. Other girls had the weight and power she lacked. Why did she have to fight? Truth be told . . . she didn’t know how to fight. Her daddy was a preacher man, and her momma always said young ladies of good breeding didn’t act like street hoodlums. No one ever taught her self-defense.

She breathed hard, pulling in big gulps of air. Maybe they hadn’t seen her turn down Dix Court? Maybe she could make it home safely . . . today. The alley, wide enough for cars to pass in either direction, felt as though it were closing in on her, squeezing her into the dusty center. She prayed someone would be on their porch. Just one grown-up she could stop and talk with until the danger passed. But each house stood silent, each narrow porch empty. Rows of garbage cans lined impossibly narrow strips of grass like tin soldiers, but none offered protection.

The quarter-sized scab on her left knee caught on the hem of her play dress as her legs pumped the pedals. The tiny prickle pains from the pulled skin would be worth it if she managed to escape. She jerked her head around to look back again. Long skinny braids whacked her in the face and slapped her in the right eye. Tears spilled onto her cheek. Bitsy Morgan’s house marked the halfway point in the alley. Still no one in hot pursuit.

Her arms relaxed on the handlebars and her legs slowed. She back-pedaled to brake. The bicycle slid to a stop. Cordelia hopped off the seat, her legs straddling the “J” frame. Her lungs burned.

Five houses up, they emerged on the path leading to the avenue. The three bullies spread across the court, blocking her way.

Cordelia whimpered as dread clenched her belly. They found her. She tried to turn but the chain caught her dress hem, wrenching the handlebars from her grip. The bicycle fell and the chain dug into the soft flesh of her ankle. A trail of black grease tracked down her white sock. Ignore the pain. If they see tears, they’ll know I’m scared. She lifted her quivering chin and stared.

Two girls and a boy ran at her.

She bent over and raised her bicycle.

Two more girls raced toward her. The five Wilson kids trapped their prey. She tried not to let fear register in her eyes.

“Cor-deel-le, you belong to me.” Debbie Lu, the taller girl in the group had her nappy hair pulled back in a tight, short ponytail, that pulled back the corners of her eyes, adding to her sinister look.

Cordelia shrank back, choking her handlebars with shaking hands. She watched the Wilson girl approach slapping her fist into the palm of her other hand.

Debbie Lu charged and slammed into Cordelia with the full force of both fists.

Cordelia stumbled from her bicycle and skidded to the ground. Her palms raked over the graveled dirt of the alley. The sting forced tears into her eyes. She refused to respond.

A red flash streaked from the roof of the shed on the left side of the alley. A cute light-skinned boy landed on the ground beside her bicycle. He wore blue jeans and a bright red shirt opened down the front revealing a dingy T-shirt. Cordelia eyed him warily, another tormentor.

He didn’t join the bullies.

She looked him up and down. Who was he? Her heart pounding eased.

The cute boy stepped between her and Debbie Lu. “What’s the problem?” He thumbed back at Cordelia. “Did she steal your Tootsie Pop?”

“I’m gonna pop her all right. Little Miss High Yella’ doesn’t belong in this neighborhood with her light skin and good hair. She acts like she’s white people and better’n us,” said the dark-complexioned girl.

The cute boy turned away from Debbie Lu to glance at Cordelia.

Cordelia froze.

He raised one side of his lips in a slight smile and winked, then turned back to the menace. “In case you haven’t noticed, you should probably call me high yella’ too since my skin is as light as hers. Does that mean you want me out of the neighborhood, too?” He stepped closer to the girl. “See, I just moved here, and I don’t think my pa would want to leave, since he just got a job at the coal company.”

The girl scowled but lowered her fist and backed up.

Tim Wilson, the brother of the group, pushed Debbie Lu out of the way and stood toe-to-toe with the new boy. “Don’t you talk to my sister like that.”

“Or what?” The cute boy’s eyebrows furrowed and he lowered his head a tad.

Cordelia eyed the exchange. Her brain told her to run while she had the chance, but her feet stayed rooted to the spot. What did he think he was doing facing off with the Wilson kids? They were well-known scrappers.

Tim Wilson raised his left hand.

The cute boy’s right fist shot out and punched Tim square in the nose.

Tim’s hands cupped his nose as blood squirted down the front of his shirt and splattered his sisters.

The girls screamed. Both hightailed it down the alley.

Cordelia grimaced. An involuntarily sigh pushed from her chest. This boy wasn’t afraid of them.

“I’ll get you for this,” Tim warned in a nasal tone.

“Yeah, well, when you’re not bleeding and wanna stop playing house with your sisters, be sure and let me know.”

Tim pointed a bloody finger at the boy. “Hey, you take that back or I’m gonna beat your—”

“Oh, no! I’m sorry,” the cute boy interrupted, his voice pleading. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Cordelia’s heart sank. So much for her fearless hero. She couldn’t blame him, but somehow it felt worse than Debbie Lu’s fist in her belly.

Which way should she run before Tim called his sisters back to finish the job?

The boy added, “Yeah, I’m sorry. I meant to hit your sister.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fear Has a Name by Creston Mapes

Fear Has a Name
David C. Cook (June 1, 2013)
by
Creston Mapes

Chapter 1

The husky man lurking outside the front door of Pamela Crittendon’s house carried a black leather satchel, like a doctor’s bag.

Hiding behind a column between the foyer and dining room, Pamela could see the stranger through one of the narrow vertical windows situated on each side of the door.

His face was hardened and pasty, with tiny eyes and a thatch of curly red hair. He wore all black, from his T-shirt and leather vest to his jeans and cowboy boots. And he stood uncomfortably close to the door.

The doorbell rang a third time. Pamela’s head buzzed.

Backlit by the midafternoon sunlight, the man turned toward the street. Covering half his face with a blocky, gloved hand, he shifted his huge frame from one foot to the other. Then he turned and rapped hard at the glass, knocking the wind out of Pamela.

“Who’s at the door, Mommy?” Seven-year-old Rebecca appeared at the top of the stairs wearing pink plastic high heels, a red sequined dress, and a purple boa. Bumping into her from behind was her five- year-old sister, Faye, who wore a long white dress, a furry brown stole, and turquoise gloves that went up to her armpits.

“I’m not sure,” Pamela said, her voice constricted. “Go back to the media room and play. Hurry, go on.”

Taking a deep breath, she fought her way through a force field of fear to within three feet of the door and made herself yell deeply, sharply, “Who is it?” She searched the man through the glass.

He clamped the doorknob.

“Open!” The hardware made a sickening racket.

“Get out of here!” Her stomach turned. “I’m calling the police!” She rushed for the phone in the kitchen.

Boom!
Pamela halted, turned toward the noise at the door, and gawked in horror as the stranger bent over and drove his shoulder—the size of a medicine ball—into the door, splintering the wood frame.

BOOM!

“Mo-omm-my?” Rebecca cried from the top of the steps. She was clutching Peep, her favorite doll. “Who’s banging at the door?”

“Get down here, now. Both of you!” But as soon as the words left her mouth, Pamela realized she couldn’t wait. She shot up the stairs, swept up both girls, and plunged back down.

Each frantic step felt like an adrenaline-laced nightmare.

As they passed within four feet of the front door, the glass shattered.

“Ahhh!” Pamela shrieked, dashing away from the eerie close- ness of the intruder, hoping the girls wouldn’t see the man, but their little eyes were huge. Rebecca let loose a terror-ridden scream. Faye was frozen. Pamela kept going, like a soldier bolting through a minefield, with both girls locked in her arms, one thought in her brain: get out.

She heard the man reaching in, groping for the bolt lock.

This cannot be happening.

Dropping the girls to their feet, she flipped the lock to the back door and shoved it open.

She heard glass crunching beneath the man’s boots. “Wait!” he called.

Pamela grabbed the girls’ little hands and rocketed through the door onto the screened porch.

She could feel him coming, maybe fifteen feet behind. She kicked the screened door open.

They hit fresh air. And grass.

Run.
Faster than you ever have.


Pamela flew toward the neighbors’ house, ripping at the girls’ hands, feeling as if their little legs had left the ground, as if they were the dollies now.

Across the flat green lawn they dashed, the girls whimpering and squealing with each panicked stride.

Without knocking, Pamela tried the handle, found it unlocked, and burst into the Sweeneys’ house with the girls—slamming the door and dead-bolting it behind her.

Tommy Sweeney shot out of his office then stopped when he saw them. “Pamela? What on earth is going on?”

“A man broke in … while we were there …” It was difficult to breathe. Her heart hurt. Her brain banged against her skull. Her neck and shoulders felt torn from the weight of the girls. “He may be coming … check, Tommy. He was right behind us.” She stroked the girls’ hair with trembling hands and drew them tight against her body.

Tommy darted toward the kitchen window, reaching for the phone on his belt clip. “I see him out back. He’s turning around … He’s going back in.”

Pamela could only nod, relieved that at least someone else had seen him.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now.” Tommy punched at the screen of his cell phone and looked out the window. “Tell me what happened.”

“He rang the doorbell a bunch, then pounded. I told him to go away, that I was calling the police—”

“Did you?”

She shook her head. “No time. He broke the glass at the front door and came in.”

When he’d shattered the glass, found the bolt lock, and entered, there must have been only ten feet between them. Ten feet and how many seconds? Three? Maybe four? If she’d delayed only that long in getting the girls, the monster would have had them. And done what? To her? To them?

“Jesus took care of us,” she whispered and nestled the girls close. Tommy was still peering out the window, focused on her backyard.

“Do you see him?” Pamela asked.

“No. He’s still inside.” He held up an index finger and spoke into the phone. “Yes, ma’am, we’ve had a break-in next door to the address I’m calling from … I will in a minute, but you should know the intruder is still on the property … hurry.”



Sunday, June 9, 2013

An Open Heart by Harry Kraus

An Open Heart
David C. Cook (June 1, 2013)
by
Harry Kraus



Chapter 1

Jace Rawlings, MD, sat in the damp Kenyan jail with his back against the stone wall. He leaned forward, his once-defiant posture erased as he slumped in defeat. He looked at his watch. His fall from promi- nence as a much-sought-after cardiothoracic surgeon in Virginia to the sweaty holding cell in equatorial Africa had taken exactly thirty- seven hours, twenty minutes.

Another inmate, one of some thirty-odd men in a fifteen-foot square cell, leaned against him and smiled through green juice drip- ping from his chin. Jace recognized the man’s striking mix of Arabic and African features—he was Somali, and his vice was khat, the addictive stimulant plant chewed for pleasure.

Jace counted. He was one of thirty-four men being held in this cell at a Kenyan police station in Uplands, a town on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Perhaps he should be thankful for the crowded cell. The sun would soon set, and at their present altitude, just under eight thousand feet, human flesh would provide the only defense against the cold.

The Great Rift Valley etched a ragged scar from the Middle East through the top half of the Dark Continent, parting Africa in much the same way as the corrupt politics, tribalism, and poverty divided its people into haves and have-nots. Renowned for its rich animal life, Africa spread a veneer of beauty over a landscape of blood, military rebellion, and HIV.

Jace averted his eyes from a man relieving himself into a bucket in the corner of the room. The overpowering odor indicated the single waste bucket was at least half-full.

Not half-empty as his estranged wife would have seen it. He winced as he thought of her, and in spite of being an ocean away, he could feel her judgment over his current predicament. Always trying to save the world, aren’t you, Jace? Well, look where it’s gotten you now.

There was one window in the cell, a good eight feet from the ground, opening to a sky colored by the setting sun. The walls were unpainted stone, drab gray except for a brown section of mud beneath the window. Jace heard a whistle outside and the unintelligible sounds of a tribal tongue. Two prisoners jumped to their feet. One stretched high and grabbed the window bars, trying to see out as his feet scrambled up the muddy stripe on the wall.

A moment later, the prisoner dropped back to the ground, hold- ing a small black plastic bag retrieved from the other side. He ripped it open and smiled as he pulled out fresh chapatis, the fried-bread staple famous in Kenya.

A fist dissolved his smile. The man dropped to his knees as a flurry of blows bloodied his face. The chapatis now belonged to a muscled man whose wild look of determination warded off any challenge. Jace studied the new owner of the bread. He wore a shuka, the traditional dress of the Maasai tribe. His earlobes dangled, pierced with holes large enough to accommodate a plump carrot. The man sat against the wall next to Jace. I must look like the least likely threat to his prize.

The occupants of the room seemed to be settled along tribal lines. The dark-skinned, wide-nosed Luos gathered at the far corner. Others with lighter skin and sharper features kept to themselves. Jace recognized them as Kikuyus, the tribe of Kenya’s president. Jace, the room’s only mzungu, or white person, huddled in a corner with the rest of the minorities: a few harsh-tongued Somalis and the chapati- bearing Maasai.

He closed his eyes. Think, Jace. How are you going to get out of this?

If-onlys crowded out hope. If only he’d upgraded to first class,
maybe he wouldn’t have arrived so sleep deprived, and his reactions would have been quicker. If only he’d let someone else pick him up at the airport instead of agreeing to drive a friend’s Land Rover. If only that last goat hadn’t tried to cross the road. He slipped his hand into his suit-coat pocket and closed it around a small wad of shillings, the local currency. If only he’d been willing to pay the bribe, he could have avoided the whole mess.

He should have known that the crowd that gathered around his Land Rover would have sided with the locals. “He was speeding,” they had all agreed. Kikuyu mamas with colorful clashing sweaters and headscarves. Barefoot children pushing roasted corn beneath his nose, hoping for a sale. An old man on a donkey cart had rubbed his gray chin-stubble and nodded with apparent wisdom. “Shouldn’t race on our roads.” Everyone claimed it was Jace’s fault.

The goat had broken from the herd on the side of the road at the last moment. Jace, who knew his speed was slow compared to the matatu drivers who had passed him on the road, had had no time to respond. He’d slammed the brakes, but nailed the goat. Crunch. An unforgettable sound.

Nor could Jace dislodge the image of the goat. Gray and brown splotches over a base coloring of white. A gray patch in the center of a brown circle. Right before impact, Jace had thought, Looks just like a target.

He shouldn’t have stopped.

Stopping had caused all the problems.

A boy claiming possession of the goat had demanded ten thou- sand shillings. Jace wasn’t aware of the current market price for goats, but he was sure that the boy had jacked the price at least fivefold after seeing the color of his skin and the newness of the Land Rover. At that point, Jace let his determination—a quality his wife called stubbornness—rule. He wasn’t about to cave in to that kind of extortion.

A police officer arrived. “I am authorized to mediate a solution.” Jace shook his head. “His goat should not have been in the road”

The officer smiled. “Give him something for his trouble.” He eyed the Land Rover. “My mediation fee is two thousand shillings.”

Jace shook his head again.

The officer drove Jace’s Land Rover to the Uplands Police Station.

If only Jace had paid the bribe. If only.

He slumped against the wall as the chill and his fatigue began exacting a toll. But despite his predicament, he steeled his resolution. He had right on his side.

But this was Africa. As they say, TIA. This is Africa. He smiled. Yes. Africa. After twenty-two years, he was home.

Mzee Simeon Okayo’s forehead wrinkled beneath a white afro. Behind him, a four-story hotel under construction dwarfed his small duka advertising herbal cures for HIV. As a town elder of Kisii, Okayo was respected and feared.

For more than fifty years, Okayo had practiced traditional witchcraft, serving a clientele both common and elite. He feared he might need to move his shop soon, but so far, the large Nairobi construction firm responsible for building the hotel next door had been unwilling to cross him, fearing a further slowing of their progress. If you could call the inertia surrounding the five-year project progress. He looked at the trees lashed together, forming a tenuous scaffolding that surrounded the building site, a curious mix of traditional and modern. He shook his head. Another worker had fallen to his death just last week. No surprise to the witch doctor. They should have been paying him for protection.

He’d spent most of the day planning a cleansing ritual. It seemed the body of a Kisii tribesman was refusing burial. Two hearses car- rying the body had attempted the one-hundred-fifty-mile journey from Nairobi, heading for Kisii, a bustling town nestled in the hills of southwestern Kenya. The first became hopelessly mired in mud. The second was sideswiped by a speeding matatu—a bus—and ran into a ditch, dumping the red, black, and green casket onto the

roadside in the process. Okayo planned to chant, dance, and sprinkle a secret mixture of herbs over the colorful coffin to pacify the soul of the dead.

But a call from a minister of parliament in Nairobi had diverted his plans, demanding that he assist in another more urgent mat- ter. A matter to be managed with discretion. He smiled. At least this business could be accomplished from his shop. He would not have to change into business attire and work in the presence of the minister. Although he moved with ease between the two worlds, he much preferred the simplicity of animal skins rather than a three- piece suit.

He moved about his one-room shop with methodical slowness, selecting seeds from one large basket, bones from another, and a dark liquid from a hollow gourd. His “office” appeared disorganized to others, but to Okayo, everything was in the perfect place.

Behind a glass counter lay his most valuable medicines. On a marred wooden table, a note was fixed to the back of an aging cash register: “Current prices set by management.”

The outside of his little duka was coated with a thick slathering of orange paint. Green lettering on the wall next to a solitary window advertised the most frequently used services. Communication with the dead. Relationship consultation. Cancer treatments. Cure HIV. Break curses. Send curses.

Across the street, a woman selling soapstone carvings cackled over daily gossip and hoped a white tourist would buy. “Looking is free. Come into my shop. Special price for you.”

Okayo spent several minutes mixing a dark powder and then poured it into a glass bottle. He rolled a newspaper photograph and slid it, too, into the bottle. He inserted a cork and lowered him- self onto a stool in front of his shop, leaning forward over a small charcoal fire. He muttered a series of words in his mother tongue, then heated the bottle, waving it above the glowing coals. When the powder began to smoke, he screamed and threw the bottle against the rutted clay roadside.

A curious tourist across the street fidgeted with a large bag and began to lift a camera—but halted when Okayo met her gaze.

He turned his attention back to the mess at his feet. “Be free,” he whispered.

Beneath his feet, smudged with black powder and laying among the shards of glass, was a photograph cut from Nairobi’s largest news- paper, The Standard. A man wearing a white lab coat. A caption read, “Dr. Jace Rawlings, US heart surgeon, to return to Kenya.”

Jace awoke with a start, his face stinging. He touched his cheek and looked into the face of his attacker, a large Kenyan with his hand raised above his head.

Jace covered his face with his arms and felt himself being lifted to his feet. There was something wet on his lip. Jace touched his nose. Blood. He tried to focus. More blood dripping on the floor at his feet.

A bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling behind his foe—a dark, menacing silhouette with breath worse than burnt rubber. “Take off the coat.”