Happy Monday

10 Aug

The sun has barely come up on a Monday morning and I’m already cranky, thanks to a human interest story on my local morning news. Maybe it’s because I haven’t had my second cup of coffee and I’m not thinking clearly, or maybe they were trying to fit too many ideas into too small a sound bite, but somehow, in 22 very short seconds, they managed to royally tick me off. Watch out, co-workers, I’m revved up and ready to go!

In a story about a community back-to-school event, instead of discussing the event itself, they expressed how the early morning start time of school is detrimental to minority children and causes them increased obesity because they are not sleeping well due to discrimination they suffer during the day, and therefore would benefit from a later start time. Uh… What?

That kind illogical conclusion is no different than saying, “This pill is purple, and this pill is poison. Conclusion; all purple pills are poison.” No! Not all purple pills are poison. And not all (or only) minority children need a later start time/suffer discrimination/have increased obesity/don’t sleep well at night. This is the all too common, lazy man/political compilation of unrelated facts, usually twisted in a way that ignites anger or fear, that passes as news these days and I’m really getting sick of it.

The way I see it, it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, male, female, old, young, rich, poor, Christian, Jewish, or Wiccan. Everyone needs more sleep. Everyone has suffered from discrimination or been bullied. And everyone has tried to eat, or drink, or smoke, or gamble, or shop away their hurt feelings. As long as we are human beings interacting with other human beings, we will have emotional reactions to those interactions. A later school start time will not solve this problem. What we need to do as parents and educators is teach our children by example and do everything we can to make sure their daily interactions are positive ones. It’s a very basic concept. In fact, we learned it once, back in kindergarten, and Sunday School, and at Girl Scouts, and watching Sesame Street…

“Be kind to one another.”

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A Different Direction

4 Jul

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted. I wish I had a good excuse for my absence, but all I have is the truth… Life is hard. Very hard, sometimes. Last summer was especially hard. I lost my mom. And my dog. My oldest graduated high school and moved off to college. My father-in-law moved into a nursing home.

It was too much loss, too much change, all at once. Suddenly, I felt very old, very tired, and very, very heavy. A year later, I still don’t feel quite like my old self. I don’t know if I ever will again. This is just who I am now. ‘Older and wiser’ feels inadequate. A little less impressed and a little more curmudgeonly, maybe? Either way, Life is too damn short to be nice to assholes. I’ve stopped trying to please the world, and I’m working really hard at finding my own happiness. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I’m trying.

I stopped doing all the things I hate, and started doing things I actually like. I’ve stopped coloring my hair and started drinking wine. I plant more flowers and ignore the weeds. And I have finally stopped listening to the Negative Nancy living inside my head and stopped trying to write “perfect.”

There is no perfect way to write, no perfect combination of words to use, no perfect character or story or idea because the world is not designed for perfect. The world is a beautifully imperfect, chaotic mess of crazy – and it works! All I can hope is that my writing, in all of its imperfections, reflects that.

It’s been a very long time since I have found joy in writing, mostly because of the pressure I put upon myself, especially when it comes to the sequel to Millie’s Rose. After years of beating myself up and tearing myself down, struggling for every single word on the page, I’ve come to the realization that I can’t finish this damn book because no matter the angle I approach it, it will be wrong. I’m trying to force the story into a straight and narrow, cookie-cutter format that I don’t want it to fit into. To me, Jimmy is not a book. Kylie is not a book. When I imagine their story, I see them as so much more than the telling of a singular life’s milestone. They are an entire journey of love, and loss, and of a life well lived. Like ours, their story writes itself in the bits and pieces of ‘everyday,’ one laugh, one tear, one kiss, one heartbeat at a time, until one day – hopefully many, many years from now – their story is complete. And that is exactly how I plan to write them.

In order to accomplish this crazy, impossible dream, I have removed Millie’s Rose from publication. Starting today, it will be re-imagined and republished in a weekly, serialized format on my sister blog, ALLMAN FALLS. It will be free to visit, free to read, and open for you to share your thoughts and comments as we go along.

If you have read Millie’s Rose, you’re familiar with the characters. In order to introduce new readers to their world, I found it easiest to start the posts in the same way the book began, with Dan Handley returning to Allman Falls following the death of his beloved Millie. It may feel a little like a rerun in the beginning, but very quickly the story will expand beyond Dan and Stacy’s POVs to include the lives of Jimmy and Brent, Aria, Kylie and Ashley, and even Chase. For lack of a better way to describe it, Allman Falls is becoming its very own soap opera, and its residents are the reluctant stars.

Olivia will remain on Amazon for the world to either passionately love, or vehemently hate. There’s really no in-between for that girl. Poor thing. And I plan to add more books to my published shelf, in my own sweet time. I have challenged myself to write 40 first chapters in my 40th year. Four months in I have written…. Zero! Ha! But I still have plenty of time. And I will publish them here for you lovelies to read first. Until then, I invite you to pop over to ALLMAN FALLS and catch up with some old friends.

Hugs, and happy reading!

Clouds of Doubt

22 Mar

I swear the calendar says it’s spring, but the skies are grey in Nebraska today. A fresh dusting of snow covers the still-dormant ground. There’s more snow in the forecast for tonight, and tomorrow, and probably the day after that. I feel like a little kid with my nose pressed to the window, wishing and hoping, thinking and praying, wondering if winter’s ever going to end so I can go outside and play.

Editing is a lot like winter. It’s a cold and miserable, grey-sky drudgery lacking the creative spark of spring, the warm waters of summer, the breathtaking colors of fall. Basically, it sucks. Big time. This winter of editing has been especially horrid for me, plagued with endless stops and stutters, rewrites, deletions and frustrated tears. Every time I think I’m done, those pesky clouds of self-doubt start rolling in again, and I’m right back where I started. But I do believe the clouds have finally parted, allowing those beautiful blue skies of completion to shine through. Hallelujah.

This book has seen so many rewrites I’ve been afraid to post any excerpts for fear they would end up on the cutting room floor. But then I thought, heck, why not let you read it anyway? What good are words if not to be read, right? The following scene has a 87.4% chance of making to publication. Pretty good odds, but you might want to read it now, just in case. 😉

***

Deep in a valley all but nature had forgotten, with the rising sun as their only witness, Jimmy had knelt upon the damp earth beneath the spread of a gnarled burr oak. The knees of his jeans had soaked up the morning dew. The collar of her shirt had collected her tears. In a shallow grave, they buried the final shreds of their youth along with the broken promise of two pink lines. He managed to hold his grief at bay until the sun kissed the tips of the branches. When it broke, the weight of its release drove him bodily to the ground.

If Marissa had ever returned, he did not know. He had been unable to stay away. More often than he should have in the first few months, he would find himself descending into the valley to sit beside the ground they had turned, the blemish healing with the passing season.

With his guitar in his lap, Johnnie Walker by his side, he pressed his back against the rough bark of the patient oak and called upon the melancholy companionship of Nick Drake and Neil Young, Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and others to carry him through what lay beyond the blaze of the setting sun. One song blending into another, he explored the depths of the starry night sky and prayed for the ever merciless God to finally take pity and allow him to make his escape, only to awaken hours later, wrung out and hung-over, pained by the beautiful stain of the sunrise.

As time passed, the lure of the valley eased and he lost his craving for death, but it was not the Lord who deserved thanks for binding his wounds and healing his broken his heart. It was his Martin. A 1993 OM-21, it had been well-played and slightly abused before it became his. He subjected it to more of both over the years. He’d play until the strings broke and his fingers bled, and then leave it to lie forgotten. He had celebrated with it, hidden behind it, and fallen asleep with it under his arm. It had explored back country roads with him, helped him pick up women, and had kept him company when none were available. It was the Martin that had lifted him from the valley, and many years later, it was the Martin he had sought solace from during the uncertain hours following his father’s first stroke. And it was the Martin that had bolstered his courage the night he confessed to Kylie his darkest sin.

On a New Year’s Eve he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, he found himself sitting in the Johansen’s living room, waiting on Ashley. Ordinarily, he would have left her behind, but when he walked into the house, he found Kylie gently swaying in the rocking chair, Brayden swaddled in her arms, nursing from a bottle.

“Ash might be awhile,” Kylie said, her whispered voice carrying a hint of amusement. “She just got in the shower.”

“I figured as much.”

“You want something to drink while you wait?” Dressed in yoga pants and a pale blue tank, she wore her thick hair in a sloppy knot and carried the weary expression of sleep-deprived mother, but she shined forever gorgeous. He had to force himself not to stare. “I’m sure Mom has a beer or two in the fridge.”

“Naw, I’m good.”

He settled into the far end of the sofa, one boot-clad foot on the coffee table, his guitar in his lap. As always whenever they were alone in a room together, an uncomfortable tension filled the air. Part desire, part something akin to loathing, Kylie’s conflicted feelings toward him tied his tongue with nerves. He never knew what to say, always felt as though he should be apologizing to her. For what exactly, he wasn’t sure.

“How was your trip to Florida?” she asked.

“Long.” He and his brother had flown out on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with their parents. His mother had fussed. His father had grilled him about his business decisions. He had spent as much time as possible out on the water, counting the minutes until he could return home.

“How’s your dad doing?”

“About the same.”

His fingers began to travel along the strings, playing a mindless tune as his thoughts strayed where he didn’t want them to go. James Rogan had looked good physically, his mobility and dexterity both vastly improved by a few months in the Florida sun, but his emotions had been all over the place. Angry one moment, crying the next, he had been accusational, augmentative. Jimmy could only hope his father hadn’t meant half the things he had said over Christmas dinner, but he feared James had spoken from the heart.

“Who taught you how to play?” Kylie asked, pulling him from his wanderings.

“Mom taught me the basics, enough to get me interested, and then she kind of let me do my own thing with it. I think she was looking for a way to keep me out of trouble.”

“Did it work?”

“Not really, but it gave me something to do while I was grounded.” As she laughed, he started playing Phil Keaggy’s “The Wind and the Wheat” to give Kylie a taste of the passion his mother had ignited in him. “I used to put Mom’s old records on and try to imitate what I heard. Drove everyone in the house crazy with all my squelching and squawking while I worked it out, but I didn’t care. I was obsessed.”

“You learned to play that by ear?” she asked in disbelief.

He shrugged. “I guess.”

The way she studied him did crazy things to his heartbeat and tripped up his fingers on the strings. He stilled his hands before he made a fool of himself.

“Does anyone else in your family play?”

“Mom can play any instrument you stick in her hands, and she’s always singing or humming something. Dad’ll sing at church, but that’s about it. Brent’s like Mom, singing all the damn time, but his voice sounds like two cats screwing or something.”

“Jimmy!”

“I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with him.”

Shaking her head, she tried not to laugh. “You’re awful.”

“It’s the truth! Come over sometime when he’s in the shower and you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about. But when your ears start bleeding, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

With a smile teasing her lips, she shifted her attention to the newborn sleeping in her arms. Gently, she wiggled the near-empty bottle from Brayden’s mouth. He continued suckling in his sleep, letting out only a tiny grunt of discontent when she lifted him to her shoulder.

As Jimmy watched mother and son, a phantom pain clinched deep inside his chest, lighting a fire of fear so hot he desired to run. Even more, he desired to reach out and touch her skin, glowing warm in the soft light of the Christmas tree. Instead, he closed his eyes and started to play the music of the valley.

Lulled by the quiet notes, the engrained movement of his fingers, he almost didn’t hear her say, “That’s beautiful.”

Though it was not his to take credit for, he nodded.

“Haunting, though,” she amended, her voice no more than a whisper. “Kind of painful, in a way?”

She said it as a question, as though unsure whether she had interpreted the music the way it had been written, or the way he had intended it to be heard. He had no desire to influence her perception, so he continued on without answering.

Her body absorbed the rhythm of each song, altering the pace of her rocking chair, the pattern of lazy circles she rubbed along Brayden’s back as he introduced pieces of himself through the music that had healed him.

Only once did she ask, “What’s this one called?”

“The Thoughts of Mary Jane.”

“Ah. A lament to your pot smoking days?”

Unable to match her smile, he gave voice to the lyrics, allowing them to explain what he could not say. She shifted Brayden in her arms and closed her eyes, settling in as she listened. With her no longer watching him, the air in the room expanded, turning the atmosphere fragile. Long after the song ended, he kept his fingers in continuous motion, drifting for as long as she was willing to stay afloat with him.

“You’re good.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean very good. So is your voice. You could play professionally.”

“That’s not my thing.”

“What is your thing?”

He raised one shoulder in a shrug. “What’s yours?”

“My son,” she answered easily.

“Before him?”

She paused for a few heartbeats, her chair falling still as she searched, and then shook her head with a frustrated laugh. “Honestly? I don’t remember. I have no idea what I used to want to do with my life before Bray came along. Everything else seems so unimportant right now, it’s like my dreams never even existed. Is that strange?”

“Why would it be strange?”

“Brayden’s barely two months old. How could I have lost myself so completely in that short amount of time?”

“You didn’t lose yourself, Ky. It’s all still there, just re-prioritized.”

She studied him, her brows knit, gaze intense, before she asked, “Who do you think about when you play?”

He had never intended to share with anyone other than Marissa the part of himself he had tucked into the valley, but something in the vulnerability of Kylie’s voice made him crave to know how it felt to be embraced by her absolute acceptance. From her, he desired intimacy in its entirety, and so he answered her with the truth.

“My daughter.”

“The rumors are true, then?”

“I don’t know what bullshit stories people are telling, but the simple truth is we were seventeen… stupid in our brevity…” His hands still, he ached to ease the tension in his chest with another dance along the strings, but he could no longer remember how to play. “I sold my pickup and bought Missy a ring because I thought that was what she wanted. I never knew for sure if it was. She miscarried before I got a chance to propose. To this day, my dad’s convinced I used that money to pay for an abortion, and nothing I can say or do will ever make him change his mind. I gave up trying long ago.”

Her eyes on Brayden, she asked, “Is that what you wanted? To marry her? Be a family?”

“I used to think I did, but I didn’t love her enough to put her grief before my own. I was too young, too selfish to love anyone back then, let alone be married.”

“What about now?” she asked.

“Now?” He cast a sideways glance to Kylie and answered in all honesty, “I certainly hope so.”

Welcome, Niecey Roy!

1 Feb

I’m brewing up an extra large pot of coffee this morning! Very good friend and fellow author, Niecey Roy, is stopping by to talk writing and share the fantastic news about her debut contemporary romance, FENDER BENDER BLUES. Like the fabulous characters she writes, Niecey is bursting with spunky, addictive energy. She makes me laugh, keeps me sane, and would totally sneak out in the middle of the night to TP entire neighborhoods with me!

ImageWelcome, Niecey! Congratulations on your brand new release!!

 Niecey: I’m so excited to be here today! Thanks so much for having me!

 Tell us a little bit about yourself. What are your passions?

 First, I’m a book lover…obviously 😉 I started reading at a really young age and that was the beginning of my ability to block out people around me. It annoys the hell out of my husband, but hey, when a book is good, distractions are evil!

 I also love to cook. I grew up with a Polish grandma who spent most of her time singing her face off in the kitchen, and I have a Filipino mother who loves to feed me whenever she comes to visit.  If you visit my blog, you’ll see some of the fun recipes I’ve shared. I promise there will be more to come.

When did you catch the writing bug?

 I realized about the third grade that I wanted to write my own books. I started writing short stories, I wrote poetry, and I kept reading anything I could get my hands on. I love the feeling that I get when I can put my thoughts on paper, and I don’t think that feeling or need to write will ever go away. Some people fix cars, some people make paper airplanes (fun!), and I write 😉

Your love of writing really shines through in the vibrant personalities you’ve crafted in Fender Bender Blues. Which character was your favorite to write?

 Of course, my very favorite character is Rachel, the female lead in Fender Bender Blues. But I really, really love Rach’s dad, Glen. There’s a bit of my own dad in him (ssshhh!!!), but it’s his love of his car that really makes him endearing. I grew up with a dad like that. After reading the book, write me a message on my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/NieceyRoyRomanceAuthor and let me know if you liked Glen, as well, or who your favorite character in Fender Bender Blues is.

 What are you reading right now?

 I’m reading How Hard Can It Be? by Robyn Peterman. I’m only a chapter into it and it’s hilarious!

What do you have planned next?

 I’m working on a humorous contemporary romance (I still prefer to say romantic comedy instead!), currently titled Woes of the Fabricated Relationship.

Come visit me at www.nieceyroy.com, find me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NieceyRoyRomanceAuthor, and I’m also on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NieceyRoy

Thanks so much for having me, Donna! This was fun 😉 Here’s a blurb and excerpt of Fender Bender Blues. Hope you enjoy it!

ImageBLURB:

 Her life took a wrong turn. He’s driven by success. They didn’t count on crashing into love…

Rachel Bennett loved her job until the day she finds herself doubting her choices.  Now she’s hunting for a new career, but starting over isn’t easy.  Her plan is simple—no distractions until she finds her dream job.  She didn’t plan on fate throwing her a curveball in the form of a fender bender with a sexy guy in an expensive suit.

Craig Larsen is a wealthy, successful business owner with a plan of his own: survive his current PR nightmare and stay away from his overly determined ex-girlfriend.  His need for control and personal success is turned upside down when he meets Rach, a sassy redhead who can’t drive.

Soon they find themselves battling with Rach’s grumpy old neighbor, toilet-papering the trees of a high school nemesis, and fighting over the last slice of pizza.  Can two very different people plus one fender bender equal a chance at forever?

EXCERPT:

“Now what?”

“Nothing.” Rach sniffed.

Craig shifted to eye her warily. “Since when do you answer me with single words?”

“Since I decided I’m not talking to you,” she answered with a shrug, crumpling up the white paper wrapper from her sub.

Craig leaned his face in close to her neck and enjoyed the startled jerk of her shoulders. Her eyes opened wide in surprise. His breath shifted a few strands of hair at the nape of her neck as he whispered, “Why, because you want me?”

“You’re incorrigible,” she said, breathless, her cheeks flushed.

She’s enjoying this. The thought pleased him. Rach was on her back beside him now, her eyes closed. He glanced around the park to see if anyone was watching. No one was. He could swoop in for a kiss and no one would catch him. No one would care, he told himself. She won’t mind

“I can feel you staring.”

Craig smiled down at her. “So what.”

She peeked at him with one green eye. “So stop it.”

“And if I don’t?” Maybe she’d tackle him, push him down on the blanket and…

She didn’t. She promptly closed her eye and went back to pretending indifference. “I’ll hit you, that’s what.”

“Not if I do this, you won’t.”

He’d only meant it to be a short kiss, but the pleasure of touching his lips to hers kept him there longer. Her tongue was velvet soft and warm against his and the slow mating of their mouths quickened his heartbeat even as he told himself, It’s no big deal, just a kiss.

She nipped his bottom lip and sent heat sliding through his body. The woman could kiss.

She whispered soft against his lips, “Now why don’t you admit that it’s you who wants me.”

FENDER BENDER BLUES, now available at Amazon.

Look! I’ve been tagged!

12 Dec

Tag, you’re it! Author Niecey Roy ‘got me’ with a new version of the game. The requirement is to copy several paragraphs from your current manuscript with the word “look” in it. Here it is!!!

 

With Stacy’s massive meal of fried chicken, corn on the cob, baked beans and potato salad weighing him down, Jimmy sat on the patio and watched his son chase Stacy’s hyperactive Chihuahua in dizzying circles around the backyard landscaping.

Stacy sipped on a glass of sweet tea, contentment lighting her eyes as she caressed her pregnant stomach. “Are you sure you don’t want a piece of pie?”

“Positive, Stace.”

“It’s apple. Your favorite.”

He smiled at her sweet tenacity. “Thanks, but no.”

“I have whipped cream,” she cajoled in singsong. “Homemade.”

Jimmy laughed. “Seriously, Stace, I’m stuffed.”

“I’ll take a piece,” Dan said.

Stacy shut down the charm and glared at him. “Get it yourself, dupek.”

“Oh, come on, Stace! I swear I didn’t look,” Dan insisted for what had to be the twentieth time that evening.

Jimmy bit back a laugh, hiding it in a cough.

Pushing up from her chair, Stacy snapped a retort entirely in Polish and stormed into the house, slamming the door so hard the windows rattled. Jimmy got lost in the literal translation, but not in the intention. She was not happy.

Dan cursed under his breath and took a swig of his beer.

Jimmy turned to make sure Stacy was out of earshot before he asked, “What did she say?”

“No clue. I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Uh oh,” Jimmy said, mimicking one of Brayden’s favorite sayings.

“You’re tellin’ me. I have a feeling that damn dog and I are going to be bunking together tonight.”

“Did you look?” Jimmy asked.

“No, I didn’t look,” Dan said. “And even if I had looked, I wouldn’t have known what the hell I was looking at.”

“Well, Dan, boys have a penis and girls have a—”

“I know that, smartass.” Dan laughed. “To tell you the truth, I had no clue what I was looking at the entire time we were getting the ultrasound done. The tech lady pointed everything out, and Stace ooh-ed and ahh-ed like crazy, but it was all blurry, mumbo jumbo to me. All I know is he’s healthy, and that’s all that matters.”

“Or she,” Jimmy said.

“He,” Dan insisted.

“So, you did look.”

Dan turned in his chair and scanned the house, double-checking the coast was clear before he leaned into Jimmy and whispered, “Okay, so maybe I saw something, but like I say, I don’t know for sure if it was what I think it was, or if it wasn’t… but I’m going with was.”

“Or maybe she got your nose,” Jimmy said, and then quickly ducked to avoid Dan’s backhand.

 

Author GM Barlean is joining in on the fun! Visit her blog to take a “look” her upcoming excerpt and check out all of her fabulous postings!

 If you would like to share a “look,” add a link to your excerpt in the comments below!

A Little Peek

19 Apr

The other day, I received a text from my aunt asking about the weather, which happened to be a little dicey at the time.  She lives many states away and I don’t get to visit her often enough, but she still watches out for me from across the miles, making sure the family and I are safe.  She loves me.  She worries about me.  She also has no qualms about giving me a little kick in the rear.  At the end of our conversation, she gave me a little stern advice:

“Quit reading, and get to writing!!”

Yes, Ma’am.

For my aunt, and for anyone else who fears I may be slacking (because, admittedly, I am), here’s a little, unedited peek at what I’m working on. 🙂

*   *   *   *

(excerpt contains strong language)

Prologue

“Jimmy?”

Jimmy Rogan sat on the porch steps and lifted his beer bottle to his lips as he stared out across the road at the palm trees swaying in the humid, nighttime breeze. The last swallow of beer was warm and flat and tasted like piss as it rolled across his tongue, but it was a comfort. He wanted more, needed it really, but instead of going in for another, he held the empty bottle loosely in his hands and picked at the label with his thumb.

“…So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you…”

The minister’s voice reciting Isaiah replayed relentlessly in his mind, but he found no more meaning in the words now than he had sitting in the front pew of the church hours earlier.

If he closed his eyes he could still see the vivid array of colors the sun had beamed through the stained glass window as it had slowly traveled across the afternoon sky. He had sat and watched the disjointed rainbow play across the base of the pulpit for forty-seven minutes while Reverend Pearce—a man Jimmy had never met before in his life—spoke about his father as though he had known him intimately. Everything the minister had said was accurate, but hearing James Rogan’s life story come from the mouth of a stranger had stripped away the true meaning, turning his father’s memorial into a farce.

“I will uphold you with my righteous right hand…”

“Bullshit,” he whispered aloud.

No one was holding him.

“Jimmy?”

“Yeah?”

“I asked if you wanted something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Kylie Johansen stepped out onto the front porch and closed the screen door carefully behind her. He didn’t know why she didn’t just let the door slam. The noise would have been lost under the roar of voices and music coming from inside the house.

“You should still eat,” she said, her voice gentle, careful, as she came up behind him. “It’s been a long day.”

“Not right now.”

Her hand ran across his shoulders as she settled onto the step next to him. Her feet were bare, her high heels cast aside as soon as they had left the cemetery, but she was still wearing the black dress she had purchased specifically for the occasion. It looked amazing on her, but Jimmy hoped he never saw it again after tonight.

“The breeze feels good,” Kylie whispered.

“Yeah.”

“It was getting hot in there with all those people.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed again.

Over a hundred people had shown up for his father’s funeral in Florida, but other than the handful of friends and family who had flown in from Nebraska, Jimmy didn’t have a clue who any of them were. He didn’t even know whose house they were at. He was surrounded by strangers on what should have been the most private day of his life.

As Kylie’s hand tucked up along his inner thigh, he slipped his arm around her slender waist, settling her body into the crook of his. They had sat the exact same way a million times before, looking up at the same stars in the same night sky, only they had been a thousand miles away, where the wind blew through the corn, and the world felt right.

“It was a nice service,” Kylie offered.

He didn’t answer her.

Pastor Tom should have presided over the service. Pastor Tom had married James and MaryAnn Rogan, and had baptized both Jimmy and his younger brother, Brent. He had coached Jimmy’s midget football team. He hunted with them every fall and they fished the same slushy waters in the spring. He had been the man sitting at James’s bedside in the ICU, praying over him continuously for four days after his first stroke three years earlier. He had continued praying for him long after James had recovered well enough to pack up and move to Florida, prematurely chasing down that elusive dream of retiring in the southern sun.

Jimmy hadn’t set foot in the little brick church on the corner of Sycamore and First in Allman Falls for anything other than weddings or funerals for over ten years, but Pastor Tom would always be family. Reverend Pearce was just a man.

James Rogan deserved better than to be put into the ground by ‘just-a-man.’ James Rogan deserved to have Pastor Tom standing at the pulpit. He deserved to be buried in the Allman Falls Cemetery, laid to rest next to someone he had shot the shit with at least once while he was still alive. He deserved a reception at the V.F.W. Social Hall with roast beef sandwiches and Nita Polinski’s kolaches. He deserved his real friends—the ones he had lived with, and worked with, and played with, and prayed with for his entire life—toasting his memory with whiskey, not the fucking red wine they were serving inside.

“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Jimmy looked at the empty beer bottle in his hand and thought if God truly wanted to help him silence his fears He would refill the bottle with that whiskey that was missing from the bar inside.

Kylie’s fingers played along the inner seam of his pant leg in an absentminded, habitual motion as she looked out across the foreign, tropical horizon. “Your mom pulled out some old photo albums and was passing them around.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah…”

He waited for her to say more, but she never did. Whatever thought she had been formulating got lost somewhere along the way. He left it to lie forgotten.

Laughter from inside the house rolled out onto the porch, bouncing along the wooden floor, Brent’s laugh rising high above the others. Jimmy wished, for not the first time in his life, that he could be more like his younger brother. The ease in which Brent navigated through the highs and lows of life was a trait he had inherited in full from their mother, one that had skipped over Jimmy entirely, leaving him mired in life’s shit.

“You never told me you and your dad were born on the same day,” Kylie said.

“Yeah,” Jimmy answered. He swallowed, but the lump in his throat remained lodged tight. “We were.”

Kylie shifted in his arms and ran her fingertips through his hair above his ear in a gentle caress. Her lips pressed against his cheek, her breath sweet with wine as it blew along his skin.

“Is that why he named you after him?” she asked.

“I don’t know… Maybe. He never told me why, and I never asked.”

“He loved you so much, Jimmy.”

He closed his eyes and leaned into her kiss.

“I was thinking maybe we could come back here on your birthday… sit and visit with him for awhile.”

“Yeah… Sure.”

“We’ll bring him a piece of that chocolate cake he loved so much,” she suggested in a light whisper.

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His body did both. The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile, but the noise that rose from his chest sounded like a sob. “He’d like that.”

Her lips left his skin as her hand came up to stroke his cheek. “We should go back inside.”

“In a minute.”

She turned in his arms to rest her head against his shoulder, the silk of her hair cool against his neck. His eyes remained closed, and he inhaled her scent, touched her skin, trailed his fingers across her wrist, feeling the familiar rhythm of her heartbeat in her pulse. He wished he could pretend they were anywhere but where they were, that the day had been nothing more than a dream, a false reality that would mercifully dissolve into nothingness as he gradually awakened in her arms. But when he opened his eyes, the palm trees still swayed, his father was still dead.

The screen door opened again and slammed shut, momentarily increasing the volume of Joe Walsh singing about how his “Life’s Been Good.” Jimmy turned and looked over his shoulder, but no one had come outside. The night air was warm, heavy and damp, but the sight of the empty porch behind them sent a chill rolling down his spine.

The song took him back in time, into a fuzzy, insignificant memory, one of hundreds that had played through his mind since he had received the call from his mother, her voice oddly serene as she said, “Come now, Jimmy. And hurry.” The song turned him seven-years old again, sitting on an overturned bucket in a garage, the smell of oil and paint thinner heavy in the air, watching as his father helped a guy pull the transmission out of a wrecked 1984 Ford Bronco. He couldn’t remember who the guy was, what he had looked like, or whose garage they had been in, but the scent of the memory was so strong he could almost taste it. Oil, paint thinner, a rusted, dark blue Bronco, and that song playing on the radio. It had been one of his father’s favorites.

Kylie lifted her head from his shoulder. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” he answered, and turned back to her. She looked tired, her eyes puffy and bloodshot from the emotion of the day. Her lipstick had worn off. Her thick hair was tangled from the afternoon wind and her worried hands running through it in nervous habit, but she was gorgeous. Her eyes, her mouth, the line of her jaw, the angle of her nose, the porcelain of her skin, the beauty mark at the corner of her eye—everything about her was perfection. She was too good for him. He’d always known it. Everyone did.

“I don’t know why the hell she loves you, Jimmy, but she does,” James had said to Jimmy the day before he died. Jimmy had been sitting at James’s bedside all morning, leaning in close as he strained to hear his father’s sometimes struggled words. They had talked construction and the business, politics. The same bullshit things they always talked about, as though it had been a normal day. But when the conversation switched to Kylie, James had motioned him in closer. His breath had felt damp, feverish against Jimmy’s skin, but his words and his mind had been clear as day as he said, “She deserves better than you, boy, but love makes even the smartest woman stupid. For her sake, and her son’s, promise me you won’t fuck this up like you do everything else…”

“We really should go back inside, Jimmy. We don’t want to worry your mom.” She moved to stand. Jimmy held her tighter, willing her to stay beside him.

“…Become the better she deserves.”

“On the morning of my eighth birthday, my dad took me to the hardware store…”

He could feel her breath catch when he started talking, and then her slow exhale as her body relaxed against his, settling in to listen. He had barely said two words to her since they had boarded the plane. Everyone else around him had done so much talking about his father in the past five days it was as though they had stolen all the words and there weren’t any left for him to thread together. But they didn’t know this story. He didn’t even want to know it.

“I was big into skateboarding back then, and I’d been begging him all summer to build me a half pipe in the backyard, but he’d never had time, you know? He was always working late, or off at the bar, out with his friends…”

She remained silent beside him, the way she studied him intense.

“It was the twenty-fifth of November. Cold as fuck. Snow all over the damn place, but it was my birthday—our birthday—and he had some downtime, so we went. We got the plywood and the nails…some two-by-fours… The cart was loaded full, and it was heavy. I remember having to push like hell to get it through the slush in the parking lot.”

Just shy of twenty years had passed since that birthday morning, but he could still feel the butterflies of anticipation dancing in his stomach, the vibration in the cart from the jittery front wheel.

“I was so excited, Ky, practically coming out of my skin, talking a mile a minute, annoying the hell outta my dad, but he was smiling. It was almost like he was excited, too. As we were loading everything into the truck, some friend of his came over and they got to talking. I don’t remember who it was. I just remember freezing my ass off, hopping around, wishing he would hurry it up. Finally, he told me to get in the truck and we headed home, but when we got there, he just pulled up along the curb to drop me off, and said he’d be back in a bit, after he helped that guy fix his heater… Shit, Ky, I must’ve sat in the living room waiting for him to come home for hours…”

Kylie’s hand tightened in his, squeezing him in reassurance.

“I think it was three or four when I finally gave up. I knew I wouldn’t see him again that night. Even if I did, it would be too dark to do anything when he got there. Or he’d be too drunk. I went up to my room and climbed out the window, onto the roof…” His eyes drifted out to the palm trees, wished they were cottonwoods. “I used to hang out there a lot when I was a kid. No one ever bothered me there… It was quiet, you know?”

“I do,” she said. He knew she would. She understood him like no one else ever could.

“I was pissed. Mostly at him, but also at myself for believing he would come through for me—just this one time… I was sitting up there, feeling sorry for myself, picking at the ice that was stuck to the shingles, and as I watched it slide down the roof, I got this stupid idea in my head that if I started at the peak and rode my skateboard down the roof I could launch off the edge like the ice was doing, and catch enough air to do a three-sixty before I landed in the snow bank next to the driveway.”

Kylie smiled the little smile that he loved. “Oh, my.”

“Yeah.” He looked down at her hand in his, her skin like soft cream, his already starting to age into leather from a lifetime of working construction in the sun. “Like I said, it was stupid. Hell, half the time I couldn’t even do an ollie, but I was going to be Tony-fucking-Hawk off the roof of my house. Dream big or go home, you know?”

“Please tell me your mom stopped you before you cracked your head open.”

“She had no clue what I was up to. If she had she would’ve whooped my ass just for being an idiot. It was a stupid, stupid idea, doomed right from the start… and in the back of my mind I must’ve known that because…” He paused as a wave of pain hit his heart, tightening his entire chest.

“Because what?”

“Because I made Brent go first.”

Kylie’s eyes grew wide in horror as she pulled out of his arms.

“He was six-years old… gullible as fuck… and I lured him out onto the roof with a piece of my birthday cake.”

“Jimmy…” she started, but she could only stare at him, her mouth open in disbelief. Disgust.

He deserved every thought he could read in her eyes. “I plopped him down on that board, and told him to hold on tight as I gave him a little shove… and away he went.”

He couldn’t remember if his brother had laughed or screamed on the way down. Maybe he had done both. But he will never forget the hollow, scraping sound the skateboard had made when it hit the concrete of the driveway below before bouncing into the snow. He looked away from Kylie, down at his hands, where he could still see his brother’s blood, bright red, warm and slick, coating his palms, his jeans, his mother shaking, her face deathly white, screaming at him as she cradled Brent in her arms, “What did you do? Oh, God, Jimmy! What did you do?”

“Broke his arm in two places… Gave him a concussion… Knocked out two of his teeth… Split his chin open… He was a fucking, bloody mess—crying so hard he wasn’t making a sound…” Jimmy closed his eyes, swallowed to force back the burning bile. “That morning, in the parking lot of the hardware store, was the very last time my father ever introduced me as James Junior… and I don’t blame him one bit.”

Kylie drew in a breath, her face a well of confusion, still searching for something to say to him.

“Marry me, Ky,” he whispered, the words sticking behind the lump expanding in his throat.

Her expression changed from worry to one of pity as she shook her head. “Oh, Jimmy, now’s not the time—”

“Damn it, Ky! Don’t say ‘no’ to me again. Not today. Forget about your sister and all her shit, and all the ways I’ve fucked us up in the past, and just say you’ll marry me. Lie to me if you have to—just please tell me you’ll marry me so I can get through this goddamn day.”

His eyes locked into hers in, refusing to allow her to look away. She stared back, motionless, unresponsive for so long it felt as though a lifetime had passed. Every breath of their lives together flickered behind her eyes as he held her captive—all of the tears he had caused, all of the love they had made, all of their arguments, all of her smiles in spite of the pain—every moment laid bare in brutal, naked honesty. He could read it all. He felt it all. He knew he had no right to ask her to entrust him with her heart. But, selfishly, he prayed for her to say yes.

Finally, she nodded. “Ok.”

He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding, and looked out onto the road. “Thank you.”

“No, Jimmy…” She turned into him and cupped his face in her hands, bringing their eyes back together. She looked deep into him, through unshed tears, past the mistakes and the heartache, and said, “I’m saying, ‘Yes.’ I will marry you… for real.”

“You will?” he asked, barely able to get the words out, his heart slamming in his chest, not daring to believe.

“Yes.”

 

Mary Elizabeth

22 Mar

What is it about love that drives even the sanest person stark raving mad? When love is brand new, you walk around smiling like a lunatic, giggling to yourself, in a perpetual state of ignorant bliss, one heartbeat away from busting out in spontaneous song and dance. You’re so in love with being in love that you develop an obsessive compulsion to play matchmaker. You want everyone around you to share in your delusional joy—your sister, your boss, the guy who picks up your trash. It becomes your mission in life to guide them toward their very own happily-ever-after, even if they don’t want to go there.

The very second you fall out of love, you come violently unhinged, desperate to make everyone else just as bloody miserable as you are—especially the two-timing whore you used to be so goddamn giddy about in the first place. Committing murder suddenly doesn’t seem so repugnant. It’s appealing, even. You plot. You plan. You turn stalker. You become obsessed and possessed. Your head spins in complete circles as you spew green bile whenever someone mentions your ex’s name. Complete strangers look at you like you’re off your meds, exactly as they had looked at you back when you were fresh in love and singing from the treetops, except this time they’re slowly backing away, dialing 911.

But you can’t sustain the adrenalized hatred for long. Eventually, you crash. And then you go numb. As your body and mind disconnect, autopilot kicks in and you enter a state of suspended animation. The world loses its color. Food has no flavor. There’s no hot or cold, no hard or soft, no good or bad.

Everything just… is.

The world spins. Time passes. You barely blink. You breathe in shallow breaths. You don’t laugh or cry or smile or feel pain. You can’t sleep. Or, maybe you sleep too much. It takes every ounce of energy you possess to occasionally shower and go to work.

Slowly but surely, as the days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, through innate self-preservation your sanity returns. A bird chirps, a brownie bakes, and you sense it. You almost feel normal again. So, you comb your hair, and take that first tentative step back into living.

You return phone calls, hang out with friends, go grocery shopping for something other than whiskey or ice cream. You let your guard down, run a marathon, join a garage band. You get a false sense of security that what had happened to you was a onetime thing—a fluke—a momentary weakness that will never, ever happen again. You’re smarter this time. Impervious to love. You flirt with the waitress. Ask her out. Take her home. But it’s all good. It’s just sex. Your heart is immune.

And then, when you least expect it, you gaze into a pair of baby blues from across the room—Bam!—your beige world turns Technicolor, and you’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs in love again.

For twenty-seven-year-old Nicholas Kelly, those blue eyes were hiding behind a pair of pink glasses perched on the button nose of a petite brunette who happened to be smack in the middle of a love-induced mental meltdown of her very own.

As the responding officer, he rolled onto the scene of the crime and paused to watch her under the flood lights of the Conoco gas station before climbing out of his squad car. She was full-on ape-shit, screaming like a banshee as she stood on the hood of a silver and black 1971 Chevelle SS, beating the hell out of the fully-restored classic with a metal baseball bat. She had the form and grace of a major leaguer, and the raw power of a woman scorned. Every hit was a home run. Glass shattered, metal crushed, and the poor sap who had pissed her off was forced to stand back and watch her destroy his manhood, one crack of the bat at a time.

Everything about her screamed perfection—from the braids in her hair that swung wildly, slowly coming undone, to the purple bra visible through her gauzy, white peasant blouse, down to her bare feet and matching purple toenail polish, she was perfect. She was tiny, elfish—adorable even—but she was dangerous. In a delicious kind of way. When she bent to smash the headlights, a trail of tattooed butterflies peeked out of the waistband of her shorts, fluttering up her slender, tanned back, and Nicholas came undone.

Aw, shit. He was in love.

~   *   ~

Submitted for this week’s Story Dam writing prompt, “Free Write.”

Ever have one of those stories that gnaws at the back of your brain stem, just dying to get out? Ever find yourself part of a writing group when this happens and you can’t tie that story in no matter how hard you try?

Us too.

So, let’s hope that you have one of these stories that needs to be set free!