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The Mini Pooper

This week our new puppy has been taking up every available (and not-so-available) moment of my time. As a result, I’ve accomplished very little writing, but lots and lots of puppy photography. So this post will focus (literally) on Mini’s first week with our family and her still tenuous relationship with big brother Gordie.

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She quickly discovered the fallen fruit from our apple tree. It’ll be great for playing fetch-someday. For now, she prefers just to chew it into disgusting, tiny bits.

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When she’s not chewing apples, she’s chewing Gordie’s tail.

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Or even herself.

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She also loves to skulk around in the tall grass

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and stalk poor Gordie!

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Born von Burlau Progress

            As my outline for Born von Burlau approaches 75 pages, I’m becoming increasingly anxious to actually begin writing it. I can understand the logic of mapping out a series before ever writing a word, but I have to confess that outlining a story is not nearly as fun or satisfying as actually writing one. So today I’m breaking the rules a bit and playing with my first chapter of the first manuscript. I’m planning it as a series of three books. I can’t wait to write the rest! Hope you enjoy it.

Chapter I

The Countess of Ardendoth vs. the Empress of Ireland

            The Countess Hilda von Ardendoth was enjoying her dream wedding, when her world was quite literally turned upside down.  One moment, she could see Peter waiting for her at the altar. The next, she was tossed ass over ankles from her bed amid an avalanche of pillows and blankets. Continue reading Born von Burlau Progress

An Unplanned Departure

Last night, my dog, Maggie, passed away unexpectedly. She lived a very long life and died peacefully at home, which is about as much as any of us can hope for, human or canine. Still, she will be missed. Her passing made me think of a short story I wrote about a year ago, when my sister’s dog, Bronco, was ill and we were afraid we might lose him. Fortunately, he recovered. Very unfortunately, their cat, Mad Max the Crazy Cat, also passed away just recently. Please keep in mind that the references to “Jack” in this story were written with love and affection. The story is called “A Saintly Mission”. Maggie may not have been a literal saint, but she was a saint to me.

Cadet F-Left lined up with the other members of her squad. She glanced around, searching for some clue of what was yet to come. Nervous anticipation made her stomach clench uncomfortably. The squad leader entered, consulting his clipboard as he strode to the head of the small group.

“Good morning, everyone,” he said.

“Good morning, sir,” the group chorused back.

“Today you’ll be making the jump to your initial rendezvous point. From there, you will each be transported to a separate family unit. Your coaches will be waiting for you once you arrive at your final destination. F-Back,” he said, addressing the cadet just behind F-Left, “your coach had to return to base a little earlier than anticipated, so you’ll be flying solo on this mission. I have every confidence in you. Just remember your training.”

F-Back appeared startled by this news, but nodded his understanding all the same.

“F-Right, your coach’s name is Gordie,” the squad leader said. “Don’t let his looks fool you, he’s actually very friendly. You’ll be in good hands.”

F-Right seemed both perplexed and reassured by this. “Yes, sir,” he said.

“F-Left,” the squad leader continued, consulting his clipboard again, “You’ll be with Coach Bronco,” he said.

“Bronco?” she repeated, struggling to suppress a giggle.

“Bronco,” he repeated firmly. “You could tease him about his name, but I wouldn’t recommend it. He’s nice enough, but he’s easily three times your size and very strong-minded.”

F-Left swallowed hard and nodded.

“F-Front,” he continued, “you’ll be with Coach Bailey. She’s a ten year veteran of the force, very solid leader.”

F-Front acknowledged this information with a curt nod.

“Remember, for your own safety, please wear your protective eyewear, as well as your earplugs, during and immediately after the jump. Both will disintegrate naturally once your body has adjusted to the new environment. Do not attempt to remove them prior to that point. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused.

“Any questions?” the squad leader asked.

The cadets glanced around at one another, looking disconcerted by what was clearly the forthcoming moment of truth. “No, sir,” they chorused back, although with less unity and conviction than before.

“You’ll be taking this chute here,” he said, pointing to a square void in the mist at their feet. “F-Front, you’re up first. On the count of three, ready?”

F-Front nodded nervously, stuffed his ear plugs into place, and donned his protective eyewear.

“One…two,” the squad leader counted down, holding his hand above his head as he spoke, “three!” he called, swinging his hand down on the final word. F-Front stepped forward and slipped through the mist and out of sight. “F-Left, you’re next.”

The cadet stumbled forward, stuck her ear plugs into place, and put on her protective eyewear. Immediately, her surroundings became muffled and hazy, as though she’d just been plunged into a pool of water. She took a deep, calming breath and, on the count of three, dropped into the chute at her feet.

The transparent tunnel enveloped her. Within it, all was calm and quiet. Just beyond the walls of the chute, misty blue and white shapes formed and then dissipated. She slid further and faster down the chute, until everything beyond it became a blur. After what seemed like a very long time, or perhaps no time at all, her rate of descent began to slow. The shaft ahead grew murky and dark. Trepidation crept back into the pit of her stomach. At last she came to a halt in front of a small, damp hatch. For reasons that she couldn’t explain, not even to herself, the hatch frightened her. For a moment, she considered staying right where she was. The chute was, after all, familiar and safe. She had no idea what lay beyond that hatch, and she was in no hurry to find out. What she failed to consider, however, was F-Right, who, moments later, came barreling down the chute behind her and knocked her quite unceremoniously through the hatch.

The light beyond was so bright that it easily penetrated her protective eyewear and made her eyes sting.  She stumbled blindly forward, her feet snagging on the uneven ground. Almost immediately, she crashed into, and then onto, a warm lump that she recognized at once as F-Front. “Sorry,” she muttered, feeling humiliated by this inauspicious start to the mission.

Her apology was met with the muffled sound of loud snoring. It seemed incredible to her that at a moment such as this, in the middle of an important mission, F-Front could be fast asleep. Nevertheless, she had to admit that she too felt suddenly very tired. She wondered briefly if this new atmosphere was having some sort of sedative effect on the unit. Dragging herself back to her feet, she stumbled in a circle around her fellow cadet and fell face-forward into a heap beside him. Moments later, she too was snoring loudly.

For what seemed like weeks, the cadets were dogged by this same, nearly overpowering, sense of fatigue. They slept day and night, waking just long enough to accept the food that was offered, before falling back into a deep and dreamless sleep.

On the fifteenth day of her mission, cadet F-Left was awoken, most unusually, by the clear and distinct chatter of her fellow cadets. Upon opening her eyes, she realized that her protective eyewear, as well as the ear plugs, had at long last disintegrated. Her body seemed finally to have adjusted to the new environment.

She rose at once and joined the queue for breakfast. Afterward, she and the others were led out into the exercise yard, where they passed their time playing ball. Although the staff at the rendezvous camp was helpful and friendly, life in the barracks quickly fell into a bit of a dull routine. Breakfast was followed by an hour in the yard, during which time they usually played ball or ran, after which they were shunted back into their increasingly cramped quarters. Lunch came next, followed by another hour in the yard. Dinner was followed almost immediately by lights out.

After a further six weeks of this monotony, the transports finally began to arrive. F-Right was the first to leave, followed the very same day by F-Front. F-Left’s transport arrived just two days later. The driver was an amiable, almost excessively enthusiastic woman by the name of Deb, who chatted at, rather than with, F-Left as they drove along.

“I just can’t wait to introduce you to everyone,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at F-Left in the back seat. “Roger won’t be back until this evening, but Andy and Katie will be home very soon and they’re just dying to meet you.”

F-Left felt no need to interrupt Deb’s exuberant monologue and so she simply listened.

“I hope you get along with Jack,” she said. “I don’t know why you would though, no one really does. He’s a bit temperamental.”

While F-Left was intrigued by this topic, it was Deb’s next sentence that really made her ears perk up. “I’m sure you’ll get along with Bronco though.” Here, finally, was some reassurance that her mission was back on track. She tried to imagine her impatient new coach and the thought made her wish, just for a moment, that she could return to the boring barracks.

Nearly an hour later, cadet F-Left arrived at her new home base, which was comfortably furnished, if not entirely well organized. Coach Bronco was waiting to greet them at the door. Advanced in years, but no less intimidating for it, Coach Bronco towered over his young student. “Bronco,” Deb said kindly, “I’d like you to meet the newest member of the family. What do you think?”

Bronco circled the new recruit, prodding her firmly as he went. His look was stern, but not unfriendly. F-Left stood poker straight, giving every sign of deference to his authority. Upon completion of this protracted inspection, he gave his approval with a snort and a nod.

“Why don’t you take him out back and show him the yard?” Deb suggested, holding the door open for them.

Coach Bronco led the cadet past Deb and into an expansive yard, which contained an assortment of exercise equipment, all of which F-Left recognized from her training sessions back at base camp. Once outside, the teacher turned to address his student. “Nice to meet you, kid,” he said.

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, again standing poker straight.  “Cadet F-Left reporting for duty, sir.”

The coach nodded.  “Yes, well, that’s just your temporary designation. Once the rest of the team arrives, you’ll be given your permanent designation.”

F-Left had been informed of this back at base camp and was looking forward to her renaming ceremony. It was often accompanied, or so she was told, by a silver badge engraved with the recipient’s new designation. She glanced upward and caught sight of her coach’s badge glinting in the sunlight. It was very fancy indeed, with his name engraved in silver on the front and a red and white enameled cross on the back.

“Can I assume you’ve been trained on the use of this equipment?” he asked, inclining his head toward the perimeter of the exercise yard.

She pulled her eyes away from the badge and met his gaze. “I have sir, yes.”

“Did they brief you about Jack?” he asked, in a warning whisper that made the young cadet glance around nervously.

“Only that he can be a bit temperamental,” she said.

The coach let out a derisive snort. “That’s the understatement of the year. He’s Satan in a fur coat.”

“How dare you, Bronco,” a silky voice behind them hissed, “to promote such libel even before I’ve been properly introduced.”

“It’s only libel if it’s a lie, Jack,” her coach retorted.

The cadet spun around so quickly that she accidentally fell into the new arrival, knocking him backward off his feet.

He jumped up in the blink of an eye and lunged forward in a retaliatory strike that took F-Left completely by surprise. She recovered herself quickly; however, and was preparing to defend herself when the coach stepped between them.

Deb stuck her head out the open window. “Jack, you be nice now, you hear me?” she demanded.

Jack turned his back on all three of them and slinked off, looking haughty even in retreat.

Once he was out of earshot and Deb had disappeared back into the kitchen, the coach rounded on F-Left. “Now you listen to me,” he said. “Under no circumstances whatsoever are you ever to become violent with a teammate while you’re on this assignment. Do you understand me?” he barked.

“But, sir,” F-Left whimpered, “he was going to…”

“I don’t want to hear it. Your responsibility here is to serve and protect this unit. Let Deb and Roger deal with Jack.”

The cadet seemed on the verge of another protest, but seemed to think better of it when Coach Bronco took a step forward and glowered down at her diminutive frame.

“Fine,” she conceded at last.

“Your role here is a vital one,” he continued, “and you cannot undermine it with petty squabbling. You will be responsible for keeping the family on schedule, supervising Andy and Katie on the equipment,” he jerked his head for a second time at the equipment that lined the perimeter, “and for ensuring that Roger gets his exercise.”

The cadet looked concerned. “How do I do that?” she asked.

“It’s not complicated,” he said. “There’s a rope in the utility room. When he gets home in the evening, you wrap it around his hand and pull him around the neighborhood for an hour.”

“And how do I keep them on schedule?” she asked.

“You’ll need to wake Roger every morning at six. I’ve found that actually jumping right on top of him is the most effective method.”

“Won’t he be angry?” she asked, looking startled.

“Oh, you’d be surprised. He knows what a vital role we play, so you’ll be able to get away with quite a lot. He needs you. Keep that in mind and you’ll do alright. Once Roger’s awake, the rest of the family will generally follow suit. If not, feel free to repeat the procedure with the others.”

She nodded again.

“Your most important role though is one of emotional support. You’re going to be seeing this family through some pretty tough times and it’s critical that you keep up their morale.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Do you have any advice on how best to do that?”

“Lead by example,” he said. “You must always be loyal and energetic, enthusiastic and loving. It’s not always easy, but you must make it appear so.”

“Understood,” she said.

“I’ll be around for a while longer yet, so I’ll take you through it all before I go.”

“When are you due back at base?” she asked.

“That’ll be for the family to decide,” he said.

“You mean you have to wait for their permission?”

“Not exactly,” he said slowly, as though searching for a way to explain. “Departures can be difficult for a family unit. We have to try to make the transition as smooth as possible whenever we can. Occasionally a coach has to make an unplanned departure.”

“One of the other cadets in my group didn’t have a coach because of an unplanned departure,” F-Left put in quickly.

Bronco nodded solemnly. “It happens, but it’s definitely not ideal.  That sort of thing can be very disruptive to the morale of the unit. Once you’re trained, I’ll start transitioning out, but we’ve still got some time.”

F-Left felt very relieved.  However intimidating her new coach was, she was grateful for the opportunity to learn from him before his departure. “Have you been given a new assignment yet?” she asked.

Before he could respond, however, the kitchen door flew open and two very loud, very enthusiastic children pelted toward them.

At first, F-Left felt an almost overwhelming urge to defend herself. Instead, with Coach Bronco’s warning still ringing in her ears, she decided simply to brace for impact. She soon discovered, however, that she need not have worried. Not only were her new teammates friendly, they were downright affectionate. Andy picked her up at once, spun her around and planted kisses on both her cheeks. Before F-Left could even respond to this rather startling gesture, Katie joined them and repeated it. Both, as though afraid they’d hurt his feelings, then rushed to greet the coach with an equally enthusiastic, if somewhat less physical, display of affection.

F-Left heard the kitchen door open and close again. She glanced around to see Deb striding toward them across the yard. “I see you’ve all met our newest addition,” she said. “She needs a proper name. What shall we call her?”

The cadet recognized the traditional start of the naming ceremony and quickly stood at attention beside Coach Bronco.

“I like Daisy,” Katie said at once.

“Too girly,” Andy protested. “What about Mustang Sally?”

Deb frowned. “We already have a Bronco. I don’t think we need a Mustang as well.”

“Princess?” Katie asked hopefully.

Both Deb and Andy rejected this idea at once.

“What about Willow?” Andy suggested.

“Willow,” Deb repeated, glancing down at F-Left as though for her approval.

The cadet risked a glance at her coach, who nodded almost imperceptibly. F-Left, now Willow, gave an enthusiastic sideways salute.

“Look, she’s wagging her tail,” Katie observed with a laugh. “I think she likes it.”

“New addition to the family?” an unfamiliar voice called from the other side of the yard.

Deb walked over to greet an elderly man, who was leaning against the fence. “Hi, Paul,” she said. “Yeah, I just picked her up this morning.”

“How old?” he asked.

“Eight weeks,” she replied.

“Same breed as Bronco?”

“Yep, another Saint Bernard.”

“What’s his name?” the stranger asked.

“It’s a girl,” Katie corrected him at once.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, smiling. “What’s her name then?”

“Willow. We just now named her,” Katie replied.

“It was my idea,” Andy put in proudly.

“Well, it’s a good one,” the stranger said. “Has Roger seen her yet?”

Deb shook her head. “He’s not home yet, but it shouldn’t be long now.” She glanced at her watch.

“Does he know about her yet?” he asked shrewdly, raising an accusatory eyebrow.

Deb glanced down at the young cadet. “Not yet,” she admitted, “but who wouldn’t love a face like that?”

The old man laughed and shook his head, before heading back toward his own house.

“Kids, please keep an eye on the puppy. I have to get dinner ready.” She spied Jack creeping back into the yard. “Andy, honey, grab the cat, please.  He was giving her a hard time earlier.”

Andy swooped down and picked up Jack, handing him over to Deb as she made her way back toward the kitchen.

“Willow, watch how high I can swing,” Katie called, running toward the exercise equipment. Both Bronco and Willow moved forward to watch.

“Everyone’s so friendly here,” Willow said to Bronco. “Isn’t it hard for you to think of leaving?”

“Harder for them than for me, I think. Don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly, noting the surprise on her face, “I love them all and I’ll definitely miss them, but I’ve been on this mission for seven years now.  That’s quite a long time for someone like me, and they’ve got you here to help now. I know you’ll take good care of them. That’ll make it easier for me to move on.”

“Time for a new mission?” she asked.

He smiled. “What can I say? I’m a Saint. We live to serve.”

 

 

Mermaid Dreams & Turtle Tales

This week, just a short story. Hope you enjoy it.

Bernard was lying on a stone, basking in the sun with his father, and contemplating his future. He had always wanted to live the life of a mermaid. Problem was, he was born into a family of sea turtles. His father was a sea turtle. His mother was a sea turtle. All of his brothers and sisters (and he had more than three hundred of them) were sea turtles. It was just the thing to do in his family, and why not? He had the flippers, the big shell, and the cold blood. He seemed born to it. It was indisputably the career path of least resistance. And yet…

As though reading his mind, his father asked, “So, Benny, any thoughts on what you want to do with your life?”

Bernard cringed. This same dreaded conversation had become a near daily occurrence in his life.

“Your sisters and brothers have been off on their own for years now-practically their whole lives. When are you going to get out there?”

Benny’s customary reply to this line of questioning was ‘I don’t know’, because the truth seemed too absurd to confess, and the status quo too monotonous to endure. This time, he simply blurted it out, “I want to be a mermaid.” The look on his father’s face made Benny draw into his shell.

Several long moments had elapsed before his father spoke again. “You want to be what?” he asked. His voice was not angry, just incredulous.

“Well,” Bernard began again, still in his shell, “I don’t mean I want to actually become a mermaid. I know that’s not possible. But I want to do what they do-to save people from shipwrecks.”

His father seemed to consider this. “Why on earth would you want to do that? People are such pests, always throwing their hooks and nets out in front of us. Why would you want to save them?”

Benny stuck his shoulders out so as to shrug them. “Well, yeah, some of them can be annoying, but have you ever been there when the mermaids set them loose on the beach? They look so happy, especially the little ones. It seems more gratifying than just migrating and mating, migrating and mating.”

“Hey, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it,” his father said.

“I don’t want to try it,” Benny replied. “I want to join the mermaids.”

“Why the mermaids? Why not the mermen at least?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re hunters. Can you see me trying to throw a spear with this?” Benny asked, extending his stubby flipper.

“You’re a sea turtle who wants to be a mermaid, but I’m the one being ridiculous?” his father shot back.

Benny shrugged and a prickly silence fell between them. It was his father who finally broke it. “Have you talked to the mermaids about this?”

The question came as a surprise. He’d always imagined his father rejecting the idea outright. “Not yet,” Benny replied.

“Why not?” his father asked.

Again, Benny was taken aback. Wasn’t it obvious, after all? “Well, it’s kind-of a strange ambition. I guess I was just embarrassed to say it aloud.”

“I can understand that,” his father said, “but you can’t let fear or embarrassment stop you. If you want to try being a mermaid,” his father cringed a bit as he said this, apparently unable to stop himself, “then best just to get on with it. It’ll either work, or it won’t. At least you’ll know.  At least you’ll have tried.”

The sheer logic of his father’s advice fortified Benny’s resolve. He nodded. “You’re right. I’ll talk to them today.” Then he sat there. The prickly silence returned.

“What are you waiting for?” his father bellowed. “Go, now, get it over with.”

“Oh, right,” Benny said, and he set off.

A feeling of dread crept into his belly as he swam toward the mermaid’s cave. He’d always enjoyed the fantasy of a life among the mermaids, but what if the reality didn’t live up to the dream? Or worse, what if the mermaids laughed and never even gave him the chance? What then?

Before he knew it, before he even wanted it, he’d arrived at the mermaid’s cave. A young, elegant maid with silvery white skin and auburn hair swam out to greet him. She seemed agitated, almost panicky to see him there.

“Where is it?” she asked, without preamble.

He was stunned. “Where’s what?” he asked.

“The ship wreck, of course,” she replied. “You have come to inform us of a ship wreck, haven’t you?” Her eyes were searching the sea’s surface as she spoke.

“No, no, not at all,” Benny replied at once. “Sorry, didn’t mean to cause a panic.”

Her gaze fell from the surface to him, and her countenance became calm and curious. “I beg your pardon. It’s an occupational hazard,” she explained. “Whenever we have an unannounced visitor, we assume the worst. How can I help you then?”

Now it was Benny’s turn to panic. “I’ve come to…to…sign up,” he said, flashing her what he hoped was a winning smile.

“Sign up?” she repeated. “Sign up for what?”

“To be a…ummm,” he couldn’t bring himself to say it. “To help,” he said at last. “I’m here to help the mermaids.”

“To help with what?” she asked.

“Saving people,” he said. “I want to rescue shipwreck victims, like you all do.”

Much to his own relief, she didn’t laugh or reject him outright. But she did seem uncomfortable. “I’ve never heard of a sea turtle helping with a rescue,” she said, “but hold on, let me ask my supervisor.” She disappeared into the cave and re-emerged a few moments later, followed closely by a surly looking maid with dark eyes and hair the color of steel, which was pulled back in a tight bun. The surlier maid glared down at him.

“I hear you want to be a mermaid?” she said, making no attempt to hide her disdain.

“I don’t want to become a mermaid,” he corrected her quickly. “I just want to work for them-for you-I mean.”

“Fine,” she said.

Benny and the younger maid exchanged a look of pure astonishment at the ease with which she’d agreed.

“You can be our scout,” she said.

Benny was overjoyed. “That’s great!” he exclaimed. “So I should just…?” He paused, hoping she would finish the thought. She did not. He tried again. “So why don’t I…umm?” She continued to stare blankly down at him. Finally, he gave up. “What exactly should I do?” he asked.

“Go look for shipwrecks,” she said.

“Right,” Benny said. “Will do.” He saluted the maids and swam off.

“That takes care of that,” the surly maid declared as she returned to the cave.

For more than an hour, Benny swam around, staring at the ocean’s surface. He was so intent on his mission, in fact, that he kept forgetting to watch where he was going and twice bumped into passersby. The first time he did this, he met a young sea skate, who urged him to abandon the hunt and come play with him on the ocean’s floor. But, determined as he was to prove his worth to the mermaids, Benny politely declined.

The second time he bumped into someone, he met an enormous blue whale named Pixie, who told him she’d seen something large and fleshy floating on the surface nearby. “I’m not sure if it’s a shipwreck,” Pixie said. “But you never know. Maybe you’ll get lucky!”

Benny thanked her and swam off in the direction she’d indicated. As he approached the surface, he did see something. He swam closer to get a better look. The person was huge. He’d never realized they could grow so big. He couldn’t tell at first glance if it was a male or a female. It didn’t seem to be in danger though. In fact, it lay so perfectly still Benny began to wonder if it was even alive. Perhaps, he thought, he’d arrived too late. He swam forward and pushed the thing with the tip of his snout.

The large lump turned and gazed at him. It seemed sleepy at first, but at the sight of Benny’s broad shell, which was more than eight feet across, the creature began to thrash and scream. The tiny, inflatable tube upon which it had been floating shot out from beneath its backside and the poor creature entered the water with a loud splash.

Benny was delighted. Perfect, he thought, I’ve found a shipwreck! Only then did it occur to him that the mermaid hadn’t told him what to do next. He didn’t know if he should go for help or try to save it alone.

As though the thought itself had somehow alerted them, several mermaids popped up beside Benny in the water. He was very impressed. “How’d you know?” he asked the closest of the maids. He realized with an unpleasant jolt that he was addressing the surly maid with steel gray hair.

“Are you deaf?” she snapped back. “Can’t you hear her screaming?”

“It’s a her?” he asked, looking at the flailing creature with new interest. “How can you tell?”

“Because the shell goes up past the chest. On the males, it stops at the waist,” she said quickly. “Now get out of my way.” She gave him a shove and swam past him toward the thrashing female, who screamed in terror as she approached. Benny couldn’t blame her. The female kicked the mermaid hard across the face and the surly maid sank like a stone, blood streaming from her now broken nose. The other mermaids looked in panic from the thrashing female to their sinking supervisor.

“You get the female,” Benny yelled. “I’ll get your boss.” He plunged into the depths of the ocean, where he found the surly mermaid sinking fast. He managed to get beneath her and she floated down onto his shell. He swam back with her to the surface, arriving just in time to see the mermaids shoving the doughy female back onto her tiny, inflatable tube. Far from looking grateful, the poor thing looked more terrified than ever. She flipped over onto her stomach and paddled back toward the shore quicker than Benny would have thought possible.

The mermaids cheered, the supervisor moaned, and Benny knew at last the thrill of rescuing someone from a shipwreck. From that day forward, whenever he came within fifty feet of the surly mermaid, she’d shout at him, “Go save someone else!” And he would.

A New Beginning, January 2, 2016

Melissa pulled a white photo album from the top shelf of a bookcase and glanced down at the words emblazoned in silver scrollwork across its cover, Our Wedding Day, then dropped it unceremoniously into the trash bag at her feet.

“Mom?” A soft voice called from the door.

She turned to find Jake standing there, staring down at the bag into which the album had just disappeared. She wondered how long he’d been standing there.

“Brian and I are finished loading the truck,” he said, pulling his eyes up to meet hers. “So we’re going to run this load over and then we’ll be back for more. Sarah’s still in the kitchen. She’s going to stay here and keep packing.”

Melissa smiled and nodded her agreement.

As he left the room, she pulled the album out of the trash and set it in one of the nearby moving boxes. The marriage that brought Jake into her life, she thought, was worth remembering.

Ten minutes later, Sarah entered the room. “I finished packing up your cookbooks,” she said.

“Thanks,” Melissa said. She was now seated, flipping through the pages of a dusty photo album. She held it up to show Sarah a picture of a plump toddler in a bouncy chair.

“Is that Jake?” Sarah asked, pulling the book onto her own lap for a closer look.

“Yep, he used to love that chair.”

“He’s very proud of you,” Sarah said. “For what you’re doing, I mean. He thinks it’s great that you’re brave enough to start a new life for yourself.”

Melissa smiled weakly. “Thank you, for saying that. I know divorce is never an easy thing on the kids.”

“He knew things weren’t going well though between you two. He mentioned it to me even before he went off to school.”

Melissa nodded. “Then, after he left…” She shrugged. “I would never want to say so to Jake-I don’t want him feeling like it’s his fault-but after he left, Marc and I just had no common ground at all.”

“I think he understood that, and I’m sure he knows it’s not his fault,” Sarah said. “He did kind-of wonder if,” she stopped herself, looking suddenly unsure.

“What?” Melissa prompted.

“If your time in West Virginia had anything to do with it,” Sarah said, her gaze now stubbornly fixed on the photo of Jake in the bouncy chair.

“I think so,” Melissa said.

Sarah looked up sharply, apparently surprised by the response.

Melissa had to stifle a laugh. “Not for the reasons everyone seems to think though.”

Sarah’s cheeks turned slightly pink. “I wasn’t trying to say…”

“I know what you were trying not to say,” Melissa put in. “But the truth is, in West Virginia, I felt like I had a purpose, like I was doing something productive with my life. I’ve missed that sense of being needed. When you devote your whole life to raising your kids and taking care of other people, their absence can leave you with a sense of…” she paused, looking for the a way to explain herself, “of ‘Now what?’. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think so,” Sarah said.

She didn’t understand, Melissa knew, not really. But then, how could she? “Tess, on the other hand…” Melissa began again, running a hand through her hair.

“I know,” Sarah said, standing up to pack the photo album into one of the open boxes.

“She keeps referring to my plan as ‘running away from home’. It’s because she’s so close to her father. I can understand that, I guess.”

“She’ll come around,” Sarah said. She turned back toward the door. “What do you need me to do next?”

“I’ve got a few boxes packed upstairs. Could you bring them down and set them by the front door? It’ll save time loading when Jake gets back.”

“Will do,” she said.

After she’d gone, Melissa sat back down and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. Since Marc’s tirade, she hadn’t received a single message from Steve, and all her calls and messages to him went unanswered. She’d hoped that moving forward with her own life would put an end to the infatuation. Now she knew better.

Marc had, of course, blamed Steve for what he referred to as Melissa’s ‘lapse into insanity’. Ironically, she thought, he never blamed it on any of his current or past mistresses. Regardless of the cause, he was certain that she’d ‘come to her senses’, as he put it, before matters got out of hand.

It was not until she actually signed the lease on a small bungalow cottage in nearby Walled Lake that the realization of his predicament finally began to dawn on him. He’d declared loudly and to anyone who would listen that by leaving the house, she was forfeiting her right to it, as though he’d suddenly become an expert on property law. How could she make him understand? She wasn’t interested in his home or his mistresses or any of it anymore. Her relationship with Tess was the only casualty that concerned her, and she felt confident that those wounds would heal in time.

For her, the future was a blank canvas and the prospect was both daunting and thrilling. While she packed, she thought about Steve and what he would say if he knew. Then she thought of Ana, and a wave of guilt and shame crashed over her. She returned her attention to the task at hand.

Vaughn

Vaughn Sherwood plucked the paper tip off the wrapper of his straw, leaned across the table and blew the remainder of the straw’s wrapper into the face of Anthony Whitaker. “Hello?” he said testily. “Any comment?”

Anthony slid a fingertip across his tablet, his lunch sitting untouched on the table in front of him. “Sorry?” he muttered, not even bothering to glance up from his work.

“This weekend? The game? Are you coming with me or what?”

“Oh, right, no,” he said, lifting his eyes just long enough to deliver the rejection before glancing back down. “I’m going to New York. Billy’s got a lead for me on a cartel-related kidnapping. I’m meeting with the missing man’s wife.”

Vaughn snatched the tablet away from his friend and held it just out of reach until Whitaker had resigned himself to the loss and slumped back in his chair, looking irritable. “Can’t you do it over the phone?” Vaughn asked.

“Real sensitive,” Whitaker said, rolling his eyes. He spread his fingers near his ear as though holding a phone receiver and said, “Sorry about your husband, Mrs. Johnson, but I’ve got another call coming in, can you hold?”

“You and this cartel stuff,” Vaughn complained. “I don’t suppose this one is actually for our paper?”

Whitaker shook his head. “It’s a freelance piece that I’m doing, but it could lead to something more.”

“Need a photographer?” he asked.

“Definitely not, you wouldn’t believe the fear that these cartels can instill in people. Their victims are terrified of being exposed, of having it somehow get out that they’ve spoken to the police or the media. It took me weeks to convince this woman even to speak to me. If she thought for an instant that I was going to flash her picture around…”

“Alright, alright,” Vaughn grumbled. “But you included a photo in that piece about the woman who went missing from the convenience store. Wasn’t that cartel related?”

Whitaker’s expression grew sheepish. “It was, but I don’t think they knew enough to be worried about it, and I know I didn’t, not then anyway. But I’ve done so many of these stories since then, I know too much now to ignore the risks.”

“Whatever happened to that woman?”

Whitaker shook his head, looking grim. “They never did find her. The boyfriend and the witness finally gave up and went home. Well,” he said, as though thinking better of it, “they went home at least. I don’t know if the boyfriend really gave up. They stopped talking to me after that first interview.”

“Because the feds got involved?”

“I think so,” Whitaker said. “I have to say though, I wasn’t too impressed with that agent’s so-called investigation. If anything, they seemed to…” he paused and stared blankly past Vaughn for a moment before pulling a small notebook from his breast pocket and scribbling furiously for several minutes. “Sorry,” he said, in answer to Vaughn’s quizzical look. “I’m just thinking it may be time for me to take another look at that story.”

“Do you really think there’s any chance at all that she’s still alive?”

Whitaker shrugged. “Who knows? You have to remember who her father is. I imagine there’s a lot of people-even in the cartels-who wouldn’t want to cross a man like that.”

“Good point,” Vaughn agreed. “So what’s your angle for the follow-up story?”

Anthony stared down at the notes he’d just written. “Good question,” he muttered, more to himself than to his companion.

Vaughn laughed. “Okay then, I look forward to reading it, just as soon as you know what ‘it’ is.”

Life Revisited

Steve sat on the soft, leather sofa in the living room of his Albany home, staring down at the text message that had just appeared on his phone. A hot flush of shame filled his cheeks. Since his return from West Virginia two weeks before, Steve had, he now realized, been clinging to Melissa as a drowning man might cling to a life raft. He clung to her memories of Ana, alive and unharmed in the convenience store. He clung to the comfort and support she’d given him during those awful first weeks, and he clung to the friendship that had seen him through more than one sleepless night. He’d clung to her so desperately, in fact, that he’d completely failed to realize just how much he was intruding on her personal life. Continue reading Life Revisited

Marc, October 1, 2015

Kurt Watley attempted to line up his shot, as Marc paced around the pool table. The former tried unsuccessfully to keep the peripheral movement from distracting his attention. Finally, he turned around and threw his friend a sharp look. “Would you mind?” he said.

“Sorry,” Marc replied, waving his hand apologetically.

“I don’t know why you’re letting it bother you so much,” Kurt said. “So Melissa’s working again. What’s the big deal?”

“It’s not just that. It’s everything. Ever since that incident in West Virginia, she’s been different. Why should the disappearance of some woman I’ve never even met cause such a disruption to my own life? It’s not as though she were my girlfriend, or even my wife for that matter.”

Kurt chuckled.

“The boyfriend sends her text messages constantly. I hear that annoying knock-knock ringtone at least ten times a day.”

“Whose boyfriend? Melissa’s?” Kurt asked seriously, fighting to suppress a grin.

Marc glared at him. “That’s what people are going to think, if she keeps it up.”

“Can’t she just tell him to stop?”

“I’ve told her that. Actually, I said, ‘Just ignore the texts. He’ll get the hint.’ But you know how she is. She’s such a soft touch. She just can’t bring herself to turn her back on him. He’s got no family of his own.”

Kurt, his back now turned to Marc, rolled his eyes. “What are they texting about?”

“Who the hell knows? The missing girlfriend, I suppose. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can see why he’s upset. They showed us a picture. She’s a real piece of ass that one, but still, what does it have to do with me?”

“Speaking of a piece of ass, how goes it with that little blond of yours? What’s her name again?”

“Angie,” Marc said moodily.

“Uh-oh,” Kurt said, “trouble in paradise?”

“Well, I’d been telling her that Melissa and I were on the verge of a divorce, so that stupid Williamsburg trip didn’t go over well at all.”

“I wouldn’t think so, no,” Kurt said.

“I thought I’d be able to heal the breach when I got back, particularly since Melissa stayed behind for a while.”

“But…” Kurt prompted.

“But she won’t pick up the damned phone!” His voice had grown to a near shout. Kurt glanced around at him, and he seemed to regain his composure.

“Your turn,” Kurt said.

Marc stepped forward and half-heartedly lined up a shot. “I think she’s got some other guy on the side.” His voice sounded defeated. “She’s surrounded all day long by college kids with more brawn than brains. I can just imagine her pressing her big…” He took a shot. The stick slipped off the cue ball, which spun feebly off in completely the wrong direction. He swore and reached for the chalk.

Kurt had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. “Well, you had to know that eventually she’d…” He stopped talking quickly at the sound of someone moving upstairs.

“Marc?” Melissa’s voice floated down the stairs to them.

“Down here,” Marc said, an irritated edge to his voice.

Melissa appeared at the base of the stairs dressed in a tailored skirt suit and looking tired. “Hello Kurt,” she said. Her greeting was neither rude nor warm.

“Melissa,” he said, stepping forward to kiss her cheek. “Nice to see you again.” He turned back to Marc and extended his hand. “I’d better be getting back. The wife will be wondering where I am.” The two men shook hands, and Kurt disappeared up the stairs without a backward glance.

“Where the hell have you been?” Marc demanded, as soon as he’d left.

“I told you,” she said. “I had a meeting with a client.” Her voice was a cold monotone.

“I see. Well, while you were meeting with your client,” he said this as though doubtful of the claim, “There’s been no dinner on the table-again-in a kitchen that looks like a bomb went off. Do you know how embarrassed I was to have Kurt see this place?”

“Then why did you invite him over?” she snapped. “And while we’re on the subject, why didn’t you make yourselves something to eat? I mean, it’s not as if …” her thought was interrupted by the sound of knocking coming from her purse. She paused, mid-sentence, to pull her cell phone from her bag and check the message that was waiting.

That, for Marc, was the last straw. He snatched the phone from her hand, shoved her aside, and quickly sent a reply: “Enough is enough. Leave my wife alone.”