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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!

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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!

New Release ~ Olivia

21 Mar

So, there I was, stumbling my way through the humdrum days of post-Christmas winter, hammering away on a dead-end rewrite, praying for inspiration to strike, crying into my coffee cup that my muse was MIA, questioning my sanity, my talent, when I received an email. Short, sweet, to the point: “Did you finish Olivia? Do you want to publish with me?”

Uh…. Hellz yeah!

Sorry, Jimmy Rogan, but your moody butt is being sequestered to the confines of my dusty hard drive. Olivia Hanson, put down that beer, girl, and get the heck over here. It’s your time to shine!

I mentally shifted gears, ran a comb through Olivia’s hair, and hired an editor (correction–an amazing editor), Carol Weber. Carol is not only grammatically gifted, she is also refreshingly honest and forthcoming with her opinion, a quality I treasure. Olivia was more of a mess than I had remembered her being, so I also called in the heavy artillery–Niecey Roy–a fabulously talented up-and-coming author with a wicked sense of humor and a keen eye for detail.  Six weeks of no sleep, continuous editing, emailing, and one massive re-write later, Olivia was ready for the public.

But, first, there was a little hiccup.

Long story short, I did not publish Olivia under the name of the independent press as I had originally planned. After much debate and a minor (major) panic attack, I decided it was best go the self-publication route with the novel. My reasoning is this: I love to write, and I’m all smiles when people tell me they enjoy reading what I have written, but I am terrible at self-promotion. Honestly, it makes me uncomfortable. I’m trying really hard to let go of my shy-girl mentality, but haven’t had a lot of success so far. For now, I prefer hanging out in the affable glow of “off-Broadway,” where I can do what I love without constantly fretting about sales numbers and rankings, and whether or not I am squandering someone else’s money.

Since this was my first foray into the intimidating world of formatting for Smashwords, Kindle, CreateSpace, etc., I called in more help–good friend and Nebraska author, G.M. Barlean–who, in turn, called in the self-pub pro, NYT best-seller, Victorine Lieske. On a sunny, unseasonably-warm Friday afternoon, the kind of day when a normal person would have been playing hookey from work so they could be outside enjoying Mother Nature’s rare gift of summer in late-winter, we three sat indoors, huddled around a laptop. Never said I was smart, but I am determined. That determination, plus the wisdom and guidance (hand-holding) of G.M. and Victorine, paid off.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce…OLIVIA!

(Now available in e-book format. Paperback coming soon!)

Excerpt: Chapter One

The first time Olivia Hanson fell in love it was with a boy named Paul Peters. He stood a few inches taller than Olivia, had blonde hair and blue eyes, could hit a baseball over the back fence at Harris Field, and had the unfortunate nickname of Pee-Pee. His parents weren’t rich, but they were on their way. He lived on the good side of town, which, in Juliette, Nebraska, was anywhere north of the tracks. When Olivia fell in love for the final time, it was with another sandy-haired, blue-eyed guy. In between the two, there was Mitch.

Mitchell “Mitch” Toler was a dark-haired, brown-eyed boy. Like Olivia, he hailed from South Juliette. He was a little bit older than her twenty-five years, and they met by chance at the Get ‘n Go on a Tuesday afternoon at exactly 1:55 p.m.

He was “getting” and she was “going,” and she was going fast. She was going so fast she didn’t look behind her and backed her rusty, red Buick Century right into his brand-new, black Dodge pickup parked at pump number four. She slowed down long enough to throw her insurance information out the window, and then she got going fast again. As usual, she was late for work and had only stopped at the gas station to buy a pack of Marlboro Reds and a giant, fountain Dr. Pepper.

Those two essential, daily purchases were the only things that got Olivia through her ten-hour shift as quality control at Garretson Enterprises. Every day, from two until midnight, she sat on a hard, metal stool and spot-inspected stamped metal that ran past her on a conveyor at speeds that had to be topping a hundred miles-per-hour. She had never asked how fast it was going, and had never clocked it herself, but judging from the cuts she got on her hands if she forgot her Kevlar gloves, it was flying pretty damn fast. She hated her job, as did everyone else who worked at Garretson, including her best friend, Isabel “Izzie” Bergman.

Newly-married and annoying about it, Izzie was the person responsible for Olivia being condemned to a life of misery at Garretson in the first place. Olivia and Izzie crashed into each other on the AYSO soccer field when they were nine-years old, and had been inseparable ever since—mainly because Izzie hated to do anything by herself, including filling out a job application. On the morning Izzie went to apply at Garretson, she sat in her car in Olivia’s driveway, laying on the horn, dressed in her Sunday-best, begging Olivia to come with her. Since Olivia was already up and somewhat dressed, and had nothing better to do that day anyway, she tagged along.

When the HR manager told Izzie what the starting pay was at Garretson, Olivia quickly calculated it as her way out of South Juliette and across the tracks to the greener pastures of Northside in no time at all. Without thinking it through, or even bothering to ask what the job entailed, Olivia quit her minimum-wage, cashier gig at Dickie’s Drugs via text message and signed her life away alongside Izzie.

Olivia worked one day and loathed every second of it. It was dirty and loud, the room sweltering hot. The metal dust in the air coated her teeth with grit. Everything about the job sucked—big time—but worst of all, the smock they issued her smelled like Corn-Nuts. At exactly midnight, she ripped off the stinky smock and peeled out of the parking lot, diving straight into oncoming traffic and swearing at the top of her lungs that she was never going back there again. Ever.

But she did.

She went back the next day, and the day after that. She never stopped going back. On their five-year anniversary at Garretson, Izzie baked a cake to celebrate their accomplishment, and dished it up in the break room during lunch. Olivia didn’t see five years of her life wasted at Garretson as an accomplishment. It felt more like a death sentence. She swore with a wave of her fork around a mouthful of rum cake that, seriously, she was never coming back.

Yet there she was, two weeks later, still half-asleep and hung-over at 1:55 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of August in 2007, the Year of the Pig, buying smokes and sixty-four-ounces of watered-down Dr. Pepper in a super-size Styrofoam cup, rushing off to Garretson to the job she hated when she slammed right into Mitch’s beautiful truck.

She never looked at him. She didn’t have time. She spewed out an apology that sounded half-hearted even to herself, scratched out her name and her insurance agent’s information on an old Taco Bell receipt, shoved the scrap of paper into his hand, and pulled out onto the highway before he said a word. She wouldn’t have heard anything he might have said anyway. Her stereo was cranked and blasting out Godsmack’s “Sick of Life” at high volume through her crappy speakers. It was her personal theme song.

Olivia clocked into work at exactly 2:05 p.m. and her boss, Sam Dubaugh, called her into his office exactly one second later. Olivia loathed Sam, as did everyone else who worked at Garretson, except for Stephie Klinger who was screwing him in a desperate attempt to be promoted to the front offices. Stephie was the only one dumb enough not to realize Sam would never give up a free piece of ass just to make her happy and promote her. If she was too stupid to figure that out, that was her problem. It wasn’t Olivia’s responsibility to spell it out for her.

“Olivia!” Sam called out again when it took Olivia too long to snap to his command.

“Alright, alright,” Olivia muttered under her breath. She slid her timecard back into its slot in the metal rack and crossed the narrow hallway to Sam’s office.

As always, the room smelled like Sam’s feet.  As soon as she crossed the threshold, she became a mouth-breather to avoid the worst of the stench. He glared at her as she plopped onto the plastic chair that sat across from him. She hated that chair. Sitting in it made her tummy feel flippy like it used to whenever she had been called into the principal’s office when she was a kid. She’d hated that butterfly feeling back then, and she hated it even worse now, but she played it off as if it didn’t exist as she glared back at him over his cluttered, metal utility desk and waited for her daily butt-chewing to begin.

Sam’s office was barely big enough to swing a cat in, made even smaller by stacks of paper covering every available flat surface in the room. He had production reports on the file cabinets, quality reports on the floor. Personnel files perched precariously on the corner of the desk by his elbow. Those stacks of paper were Sam’s life. One good gust of wind from the barrel fan that always blew on the production floor would destroy the man.

Olivia dreamed of wheeling that fan in and watching him crumple.

Sam leaned back in his chair, the tension spring screaming for mercy as he crossed his meaty arms over his chest and scowled. “You’re late.”

Sam was always trying to look big and badass, but Olivia didn’t know why he thought he needed to. He was a huge son of a bitch, standing six-foot-six and made of rock instead of flesh. He didn’t have to try to intimidate. He intimidated everyone simply by breathing. Everyone, except Olivia.

“Sorry. It won’t happen again,” she promised, not sounding the least bit sorry as she sucked on her Dr. Pepper. They both knew damn well she would more than likely be late again before the week was up, but this routine of theirs was scripted, and that was her line. She was obligated to say it. “Can I go now?”

“That’s your fifth tardy this month.”

“Sixth actually, but we’ll go with five because it wasn’t my fault this time. Honest.”

Sam grunted. “Uh-huh.”

He never believed her.

“Seriously! I got into an accident at the gas station.”

“You back into the pumps again?”

“No,” Olivia grumbled. “This time it was a Dodge pickup.”

Sam’s frown deepened as he stared her down. She stared back. Neither of them said a word as the second hand on the ancient, electric clock hanging on the wall above his desk silently swept two full rotations around the number plate. Without breaking eye-contact, Olivia brought her lips back to the straw sticking out of the gigantic Styrofoam cup, and sucked.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Sam finally said, dismissing her with a wave.

He was a pushover.

Olivia took her time putting away her purse and putting on her smock, and then took a potty break. She didn’t need to go, but she was right by the restrooms, so she went. By the time she perched on her little stool it was 2:17 p.m., and Louise tsked in disapproval.

“Sorry.” Olivia tried her best to look apologetic, but as soon as the old woman turned her back, Olivia stuck out her tongue.

Louise hated Olivia with a passion, and the feeling was more than mutual. The woman was older than dirt and truly believed her shit didn’t stink. Olivia had no clue if Louise’s shit did or didn’t stink, and she had absolutely no intention of ever finding out.

Carla Rain snickered at Olivia nanny-nanny-boo-boo’ing the back of Louise’s head, hiding the laugh in a cough. Carla was a five-foot-tall, ninety-five pound, fifty-five-year-old alcoholic with a dirty mouth and no kids. She said if God wanted her to have children He would have handed them over to her fully potty-trained and old enough to drive her to the liquor store. She tried marriage once and didn’t like it, but she was too cheap to get a divorce. The last time she saw her husband was in 1994. As far as she knew, he was still alive. No one had ever told her otherwise.

“Spring washers today?” Olivia groaned as she grabbed her calipers. She hated the little parts, especially when she had a hangover. She’d be cross-eyed and half-blind before ten.

Carla dipped her gloved hand into the fast moving conveyor trough. “Only for another few hours, and then it’s battery contacts.”

“Awesome,” Olivia said, heavy on the sarcasm.

Garretson was top of the line in all of its manufacturing practices, except one—quality control. Old Man Garretson insisted the human eye was better equipped to find flaws than a fancy piece of machinery with lasers and a computer program designed to find the flaws and reject the pieces as they were made. Until he kicked the bucket and his son took over the company, Olivia and the other girls made up the entirety of the quality control department.

Armed with nothing more than a pair of calipers and a thick book of CAD drawings, they sampled less than one-half of one-percent of the product going out the door. Since the production machines were so much faster than they were, if they happened to find an issue with one of the parts, pretty much the entire order was already packed and strapped to pallets. It went out the door anyway. Most days Olivia just tried to look busy. Her job was pointless.

“Looks like someone had a good time on her blind date last night,” Izzie said with a smug smile. Of course she was smug. She was the one who had set Olivia up. Knowing Izzie, she’d probably spent her entire evening planning Olivia’s wedding and naming her first-born child.

“Good drinks, shitty time.”

“What was wrong with Ryan? He’s a nice guy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and he’s a Northsider—everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Quit being so picky.”

“Have you ever actually talked to the guy?” Olivia asked. “He could put Ambien out of business.”

“Well, no, not exactly… He’s a friend of John’s. They golf together.”

“Since when does John golf?” Olivia laughed at the mental image.

Izzie’s husband, John, worked as a trash man for the city of Juliette. Tall and wide, with biceps the size of ham hocks, every inch of John’s body was covered in tattoos. He shaved his head bald, bought all his clothes at the Harley-Davidson store, and sported a goatee that hung down to the middle of his chest. Basically, he was a really scary-looking dude. But, somehow, he came across as cute and cuddly at the same time. It was weird.

“I don’t know…” Izzie thought about it, causing her perfectly-plucked brow to furrow and her pretty, little nose to wrinkle. “Three weeks ago maybe?”

Izzie was so pretty and perfect it made Olivia gag. Mainly on her own raging jealously. Izzie had it all—a beautiful face, a killer smile, a musical laugh. Her boobs were perfectly aligned and looked fake even though they weren’t. She was the kind of girl who could wear a mud mask, flannel nightgown and foam curlers to a wedding and still draw all the attention away from the bride. Compared to Izzie, Olivia felt like the turd floating in the punch bowl.

“Why were you late today?” Stephie butted in. Since Stephie was screwing the boss, she thought that made her the boss, which pissed Olivia off.

“None of your business,” Olivia said.

“Sleeping off your hangover?” Carla guessed.

“No, I backed into some guy at the Get ‘n Go.”

“Was he cute?” Izzie asked.

“I have no idea.” She hadn’t looked at him. For all she knew, he had three heads and a forked-tongue. “Knowing my luck, he was probably hot as hell, and I just smashed up his truck.”

“He was probably your Carl Jr.,” Melanie Neilson chimed in from across the room. She sighed with a dreamy, little smile as her hands fluttered up to her heart. And then her eyes teared up and she started to sniffle. Her chin began to quiver. Her hands fanned her face as she tried to fight it, but as usual, she lost the battle and ran for the restroom. No one followed her. That was just Mel. She cried all the time.

Mel was twenty-five, the same as Olivia, and already married and divorced with four kids. Her ex, the aforementioned Carl Jr., was supposedly a good man who just couldn’t kick a meth addiction. Mel was certain one day he would find the Lord and get clean.

Their love for each other bordered on obsession. She only divorced him to get better government assistance after their fourth child was born. What little income Carl Jr. did manage to bring home—whenever he wasn’t high—was just enough to disqualify her and their children for most assistance programs. And they desperately needed the assistance. With bills mounting, a stomach filling with ulcers, and an eviction notice on her door, Mel had given Carl Jr. an ultimatum: kick the habit and hold down a job, or she’d kick him to the curb. He chose meth—or, more accurately, meth chose for him—leaving a heartsick Mel with no other option but to end their marriage. If she had waited a few more months to file she would have received the assistance anyway. Carl Jr. was arrested a few miles outside of Omaha for driving the wrong way on I-80, nearly killing a family of four from Maryland on their way to a family reunion in Colorado. He was sentenced to five-to-ten in the state pen for possession with intent to sell, and Mel was lost without him.

Izzie drew in a deep breath. Before Izzie could exhale, Olivia rushed to pop her ear buds into her ears and hit shuffle on her crappy, ancient mp3 player. Whenever Izzie took a deep breath she was about to delve into a long and winding, painfully-tedious story about John and how fabulously wonderful he was. Usually it was one Izzie had already told Olivia the night before, either over the phone or between shots at Kitty’s, the bar they currently favored because George Gregory Valish was the bartender and he was hot and made their drinks strong. Olivia would give her first-born son to the devil for one night in heaven with George, and she told him as much late one night after way too many whiskey sours. He had yet to take her up on the offer, but she was holding out hope.

The night limped along and Olivia ran out of Dr. Pepper by the third hour. She took two extra smoke breaks to make up for it. Stephie made a point of marking an obvious note on her clipboard both times Olivia came back through the door, but she had clocked out so Stephie could kiss her ass.

What Olivia did off the clock was none of Stephie’s business. Besides, Olivia knew for a fact that Stephie didn’t bother to clock out when she and Sam disappeared into the back corner of Shipping and Receiving for upwards of an hour every night to inspect product. Everyone knew exactly what they were inspecting, and it most definitely was not included in Garretson’s vast product line.

Izzie and John were trying to make a baby, so Izzie rushed home at exactly midnight. Carla had a crush on Gregory House, MD and had a new episode on her DVR calling her name, so that left Olivia on her own as she walked into Kitty’s with plans to suck down as many beers as she could before last call. She threw a quarter into the jukebox, eliciting a collective groan from the room as the first bars of John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” played.

George slid a bottle down the bar to her. “You need to pick a new favorite song, Liv.”

“Aw, you all love it and you know it,” Olivia said with a smile before chugging half of her beer. She always smiled whenever she looked at George. It was an involuntary, knee-jerk reaction to how incredibly hot he was. Dark hair, tan skin, the face and body of a Roman god—mmm, doggy! The man was sexual perfection.

She set the bottle down on the bar and danced around the room, clapping her hands in time to the music. As usual, Kenny Waters played the part of ‘Jack’ to Olivia’s ‘Diane,’ Lonnie Otts performed the drum solo, and the entire bar sang the choir. Most nights George came out from behind the bar to dance with her, but this time he simply watched her hips sway to the music.

When the song ended she perched on the stool at the end of the bar and pointed to her empty bottle. George handed her another one and leaned into her. The glorious scent of “sexy” filled Olivia’s senses, and she breathed deep, inhaling his essence.

He swatted her with the towel he always wore draped over his shoulder. “So, whaddya know?”

“Nuttin’, honey,” she said. “Same as yesterday.”

“Who’s the guy you were with last night?”

“Jealous?”

“Maybe.”

“Some guy, Ryan, that Izzie hooked me up with,” Olivia said with a roll of her eyes.

“What was wrong with him?” George asked.

“Dull, dull, boring, dull—the guy owns a cat, for goodness sake.”

“Ah.” George moved down the bar without another word.

“You really were jealous of him, weren’t you?”

George smiled and Olivia felt a rush of warmth. Damn, he was hot.

“So, when are you gonna grow a pair and ask me out?” she asked.

“Someday, Liv,” he promised with a wink. “Someday.”

She rested an elbow against the bar, and as she drank her beer, she surveyed the thin crowd. Kitty’s was packed on Fridays and Saturdays, but on a Tuesday night it was dead, save for a handful of alkies and other nightshift workers like her. The majority were holdovers from the previous owner of the bar, Helen Pochop.

When Helen had owned the place it had been called, appropriately, ‘Helen’s Place.’ Helen had been a bitch who had not-so-lovingly referred to her five, grown children and their spouses as “those greedy, bloodsucking leeches.” She had not only cut all of them out of her will, she had also specifically mentioned that they were not to inherit one red cent of her fortune. When Helen died, her fortune, after years of back taxes were paid, amounted to just under sixty-three dollars in cash, and the bar. She had left it all to her cat, Miss Kitty Cat.

Even though George couldn’t stand his Aunt Helen, he was the only relative whom Helen had tolerated, and she had named him executor of her estate. Out of some misguided sense of loyalty, he had volunteered to run the bar while the lawyers fought out the ownership rights in court, and he left a fairly good-paying job in Omaha in order to do so. As a joke, he had crossed out Helen’s name on the sign above the door and changed the name of the bar to Kitty’s Place. It caught on.

He changed a lot of things about the place, slowly turning a seniors’ hangout into a fairly-lively weekend nightspot for a little town like Juliette. Olivia knew George secretly wished he would be granted ownership of the bar, but she also knew he was not the type of person who would ever ask for it. Unless some sort of miracle happened, one day in the not-so-distant future, he’d be gone, and a bloodsucking leech would be manning the bar.

Olivia pulled her eyes away from George and smiled at Kenny Waters as he slid onto the stool next to hers. “Kenny G. My man.”

“Whuzzup?” Kenny asked in a slow drawl.

“Not a damn thing. What’s up with you?”

Kenny dressed and acted like a thug, but he was all heart under his wife-beater tee. He sent his wife flowers for no reason and bought her jewelry ‘just because.’ His kids were cute, always clean, and actually said “please” and “thank-you” without prompting. On weekends, he coached Little League and loved to throw a barbeque. He worked with Olivia at Garretson, but whereas Olivia’s quality job was a joke, Kenny’s maintenance job was very real. As the only maintenance man on second shift, the poor guy was solely responsible for ensuring the entire plant remained up and running between the hours of two p.m. and midnight, and he worked his ass off to make sure that happened. Of any of the Southers, Kenny and his family were the only ones who deserved to move to Northside, but he never would. He actually liked living in South Juliette. It was his only flaw.

“Saw your car out in the parking lot. Back into the movie drop-box again?” he asked with a teasing grin.

She rolled her eyes. “As if.”

Olivia’s car and the movie-return box at Movie Mania had an unnatural attraction to each other. She had backed into that stupid metal box not once, not twice, but three times. The poor box looked like crumpled, rusted soda can because of her. After she backed into it the second time, Charlie Wayne, the owner of Movie Mania, had Rogan and Sons Construction out of Allman Falls install thick concrete barriers around the box. But Charlie was an idiot and wouldn’t let the Rogans bolt the barriers through the concrete of the parking lot. The third time Olivia backed into the drop box she not only bent the frame of her car but also managed to shove one of the concrete barriers through the side of the box. Olivia had paid for the damage, but Charlie had pocketed the money and left the barrier impaled through the box. It wasn’t her fault the movies got wet when it rained, but Charlie sure did love to blame her for it.

“I backed into a pickup at the Get n’ Go,” she said.

“You know that little mirror on the windshield is for more than putting on lip gloss.”

“Seriously?” she asked with mock surprise. “Huh. Who knew?”

“How bad’s the truck?”

She shrugged. “I have no clue, but I’m sure I’ll find out when my rates go up again.”

“Your insurance guy must absolutely love you.”

“Oh, Reggie hates my guts. He’s dying to drop me, but I pay my premiums so he’s stuck.”

“He could drop you if he wanted to.”

“I know.” She poked his arm. “I heard you’re gonna be a daddy again. Congrats, man.”

“Thanks, Liv.”

“Maybe you’ll get your boy this time.”

Kenny crossed his fingers as he took the last drink of his beer. With three little girls already, the poor guy was drowning in pink ribbons and baby dolls. “I’m gonna head out, catch some z’s. See you tomorrow, Liver.”

“Same time, same place.” She watched him make his way to the door, pausing to talk at every table along the way.

George picked up Kenny’s empty. “Last call, Liv.”

She held up two fingers as she downed the last swallow in her bottle.

“You know you can’t do that.”

“The other one’s for Kenny,” Olivia lied.

“Fine,” George said with a sigh. “You’re lucky Kenny’s still in the bar.”

“And he will be for the next twenty minutes. He’s just starting to say his goodbyes.”

“Then he can drink his own beer.”

“Don’t mess with me.” Olivia cocked an eyebrow, giving George her best impersonation of Sam’s intimidation expression. “Hand ‘em over, bucko.”

George laughed and handed her both beers. “You know if you quit spending so much money here every night you’d have been able to move to Northside a long time ago.”

“So you’re saying I should quit tipping you?”

“When have you ever tipped me?” George asked.

“Start bartending with your shirt off and I’ll start tipping you.” She wiggled her eyebrows as she threw some money at him to pay for the beers. What she really wanted to do was tuck the dollar bills into his underwear, after she ran her hands all up and down his oiled, muscular body. But, alas, he was fully dressed. It would seem weird.

“You’re too much sometimes, you know that?” His tone played irritation, but he winked at her. Oh, yeah. He liked it.

The patrons slowly trickled out, each of them calling out a goodbye to Olivia as they left. Bar regulars are a bit like family—you can’t pick ‘em, you can’t get rid of ‘em, and if you ever make the mistake of borrowing money from one of them, heaven knows they’ll lord it over you for the rest of your natural-born days. For the most part Olivia liked her bar family better than her real one. They actually talked to her, and seemed to care if she were still breathing.

After the last customer left, George turned the chairs onto the tables then headed into the backroom to get the mop bucket. “Time to go, Liv.”

“But I haven’t finished my beer yet.”

“Drink faster!” he called out over the sound of running water.

She ignored him and grabbed the broom from behind the bar. She wasn’t ready to go and he wouldn’t force her out. He gave up trying to enforce Kitty’s posted hours on her months earlier. As they did almost every night, Olivia swept and George mopped, then they both washed the last of the glasses. He handed her another beer, grabbed one for himself, and they went into the office so he could do the books. She flipped through his CDs until she found The Killers and slipped it into the stereo, cranking the volume up. George frowned. She turned it back down, one bar at a time, until he stopped frowning.

George started sorting the day’s receipts and asked the same question he always asked, “How’s your dad?”

She gave her standard answer, “He’s good.”

George and her father, Eugene, had sat on her deck drinking together once. Neither man had spoken a word to the other while George polished off a six-pack of Bud and Eugene nursed a two-liter of Coke and chain-smoked Camels, but apparently the experience had bonded the men for life. Guys were weird like that.

Olivia’s tummy growled. “Do you have anything to eat around here?”

George opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a half-eaten granola bar. He tossed it to her and she finished it off in two quick bites.

“Got anything else?” she asked.

“No, but I hear the grocery store does. It’s that big building on the highway with all the lights, and tons of food on shelves.”

“Hardy har.” She stretched out on the saggy, plaid sofa in the corner of the office. It smelled like an ashtray dipped in rancid fryer grease from living in the bar for the past twenty years, and was still harboring stray tufts of Miss Kitty Cat’s fur under the cushions, but it was comfortable.

“I also hear they have stuff you don’t have to cook. Why don’t you go check it out?”

She lit a cigarette. “I’ll have you know I’m a very good cook, thank you very much. I just choose not to do it.”

“Warming up SpaghettiO’s doesn’t count. And put that out.”

She rolled her eyes and took a drag. George hated when she smoked in his office, but she didn’t see why. It wasn’t like one cigarette’s worth of tar was going to further ruin the upholstery. “You got any job openings?”

“No.” He waved futilely at the ribbon of smoke drifting his way, but returned his attention to the stack of receipts in front of him without another admonishment.

“Not even for me?”

“Especially not for you.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

George looked up at her with a sigh of exasperation. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“As a matter of fact, it is.” Olivia smiled. “You wanna come tuck me in?”

“Go home, Liv.”

She watched him punch numbers into his adding machine, his fingers dancing across the buttons like child’s play. He could type words blazing fast as well. She was more a hunter and pecker of the keyboard herself. He’d told her once what he used to do for a living when he’d lived in Omaha, before he’d moved to Juliette to run Kitty’s, but she couldn’t remember what he’d said. Insurance, or sales… finance, maybe. Whatever it was, she was sure he’d been really good at it. Try as she might, she couldn’t picture him wearing a suit and tie to work every day, but she wondered if he missed it.

“Hey, George?”

“Hmm?”

“What did you think of that Ryan guy from last night? He texted me this morning and wants to go out again.” She tapped her ashes into the mouth of an empty beer bottle sitting on the end table. “Do you think I should say yes?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t like him,” George said.

“How come?”

“No reason.”

“Izzie thinks he’s perfect for me.”

“Izzie’s wrong.”

Olivia smiled. They’d known each other for less than a year, but George knew her better than anyone else in the world. It was almost instinctual.

They fell into silence as George concentrated on his bookkeeping and Olivia finished her cigarette and sipped her beer. It was late, the time most people were tucked tight into their beds, fast asleep, but Olivia was a bundle of energy. The longer they sat without talking, the antsier she became. Her knee bounced, her tongue clicked, her fingers drummed anxiously. Before long, every molecule in her body was buzzing and hopping and popping and dancing the Watusi.

“Oh, my gaaawd, I’m bored,” she cried to the ceiling when she couldn’t take the Killers-laced silence any longer.

“Then go home.”

She hopped off the sofa. “Dance with me.”

“Not tonight.”

“Come on, George, just one little dance. Please, please, please.”

Olivia was in love with George for many reasons, but numero uno was the way the man danced. His ass was hot when he stood still, but when his hips were tucked up against hers and her hands were on those amazing cheeks and their bodies gyrated together… mm, mm, mm. She was horny just thinking about it. She should’ve put in a little Missy Elliot or a slow jam instead of synthpop. He’d have been out of his chair and wrapped around her body without her even having to ask.

“It’s never one dance with you,” George said. And he was right. Dancing with George was like eating potato chips—once Olivia got the taste of his body in her mouth, so to speak, she couldn’t stop until she ate the whole bag. If they started dancing now they would dance until dawn. He looked tired so she changed tactics.

“Then take me for a ride in your truck.”

“Go home.” George picked up a pile of cash. He rapped it on the desk twice, then licked his thumb and forefinger and started counting bills just as fast as he had tapped buttons moments earlier. The man had mad skills.

“Come on, George.” She bounced around to his side of the desk. “Come out and play with me.”

“I’m busy. Go home.”

“Let’s go TP Louise’s house.”

“No.” He let out a whispered curse, and started counting the cash over again from the beginning.

“Come on, Georgie. When’s the last time you threw a roll of toilet paper into a tree?”

“Not since I was eleven, and I don’t plan to do it again.”

“Come out and play with me.” She leaned over his shoulder and gave him a cheeky grin. “I promise I’ll be on my best behavior.”

He set the money down with a sigh and scrubbed his face with his hands. “You don’t know how to behave.”

“Sure I do.” She pulled his chair away from the desk and swiveled him around until he faced her, then grabbed his hands and tried to pull him to his feet. But he wouldn’t budge. She pulled and tugged and grunted and pulled some more, but he stayed glued to his chair and glared at her.

“Are you done yet?” he asked.

She shifted her grip and pulled harder. “Nope.”

She grunted and tugged, putting all her weight into it this time until she was practically sitting on the floor, but he remained solidly seated in his chair.

“God, you’re a pain in the ass.” He gripped her hands and jerked back on his arms so hard she popped up off the floor, and slammed into his chest with an audible oof! He locked her in tight with his arms as his lips came crashing down onto hers.

Oh Lordy-be, he was an amazing kisser. She couldn’t help but whimper out in wanting when his tongue slipped inside. He responded immediately, intensifying the kiss until her insides dissolved into liquid fire.

When he finally pulled away for a jagged breath, she smiled. “You love me anyway.”

“Heaven help me, I do,” he whispered, his eyes dark with wanton lust.

Her lips returned to him to nibble and tease his neck as his hand slipped under her shirt and blazed along her skin. He tasted so good he was like candy—hot, sexy, melt-in-your-mouth, man-candy. When her lips settled on the sweet spot below the square corner of his jaw, he breathed out a heavy sigh that turned into a groan of un-masked pleasure. It vibrated under her lips and undulated throughout her body.

Her lips worked a little magic on him. His hands worked a lot of magic on her. He got hot. She got hotter. His lap got quite crowded. And then, when she least expected it, he shoved her off his lap, and onto the floor. She landed square on her rump with a solid thud. Damn.

“Now, go home. I’ve got a ton of shit to get done and you’re bugging the hell out of me here, Baby Girl.”

“One of these days you’re not going to be able to stop kissing me.” She bounced back up to her feet and leaned over him, the tip of her nose kissing his. “And I won’t stop you either.”

“Go home, Liv.” He was still breathing a little hot and heavy, but he didn’t make a move to take her back into his arms. He was done for the night.

Olivia let out a sigh of disappointment as she straightened. “See you tomorrow.”

“Same time, same place.” He winked and turned his chair back around to face his desk.

Olivia left Kitty’s with George’s kisses still hot on her lips and perpetual disappointment in her heart. She only had herself to blame for the lovesick feeling. No matter how much she wished otherwise, she knew George would never go beyond kissing her. She wasn’t his type.

She was average height, average build with smaller than average breasts and unruly, mousey-brown hair that poofed like cotton candy in the humidity. The more she worked with it, the more it misbehaved, so she usually made do with twisting it into a clip and hoped it stayed in all day. When she bothered to put on make-up she ended up looking like a two-dollar hooker, so she didn’t bother. Her wardrobe consisted mainly of athletic clothes that she’d never sweated in and cheesy t-shirts. Basically, she was a mess. And not even a hot one.

George liked athletic. George liked stylish. George liked rich, caramel skin tones and thick, dark hair. And she was almost one-hundred-percent certain that, despite his obvious physical response to their kisses, George preferred his women to be of the male persuasion—but she was holding out hope that she was wrong.

Approximately a month after George moved to Juliette, he had taken her completely by surprise with an invitation to his place for a late dinner and a few drinks. This was a few days after she had drunkenly revealed her willingness to make a deal with the devil for a night of passion with him. She had been in high-heaven, convinced he planned to take her up on her offer.

While he had been busy whipping up something in the kitchen that smelled wonderful and had a French name, she had been busy snooping through his personal effects. In his bathroom she discovered his addiction to dental floss. In his bedroom she found out he preferred boxer-briefs to boxers or briefs. And in his office she uncovered a framed photo he had hidden underneath a package of printer paper.

The photo was of George and a man with a deep tan who was as ruggedly handsome as George, maybe even more so, standing in front of a cute little bungalow with green shutters, a pink crabapple tree in full bloom and a “Sold” sign in the yard. George and the man weren’t touching each other in the photo, but something about the way they stood next to each other screamed intimacy in a way that a blatant kiss could not. It was the exact same feeling she got whenever she looked at pictures from Izzie and John’s wedding or walked into a room that only they had occupied a moment before. The love they shared was so undeniable it seemed to ooze out of their pores, spilling into the world around them.

Disappointed, but not defeated, Olivia had tucked the photo back where she’d found it and returned to the living room. She never made mention of it to George, and she never changed the way she threw herself at him with obvious disregard to common decency. She never wanted him to know she had discovered his secret. If he wanted her to know, he would tell her. She also knew that even though the majority of the world didn’t care about sexual orientation, Juliette, Nebraska was not in the majority. For that reason alone, he probably wouldn’t be telling her any time soon, no matter how much he trusted her.

Olivia climbed into her Buick and drove the few blocks from Kitty’s to Valley View Trailer Court where she was the not-so-proud owner of a 1950-something, Atlas mobile home on Lot Number 14. The trailer was more a glorified camper than a house, but the woman who had owned it before Olivia had spent a fortune encapsulating it in its 1950’s glory.

When Olivia bought the home, it came fully-furnished in pieces actually from a 1950’s Sears catalog, and was decorated in an oddly-comforting array of clashing colors. The kitchen walls were painted baby blue, the upper cabinets sunflower-yellow. The base cabinets were white, topped with fire-engine-red countertops. The living room was also blue, the bathroom sea-foam green, and the bedroom an almost-indescribable shade of pink. Rainbow Brite would’ve been in hog heaven living there.

Seven trailers had been for sale in the court when Olivia first began looking. Of the seven, two had been in her price-range. The other one had been bigger, and had two full bedrooms as advertised, instead of trying to pass off a closet as sleeping quarters like the Atlas owner had done. The other trailer had also come fully-furnished, decorated in neutral tones. Olivia had disliked them both, but she had ended up choosing the 1950’s flashback simply because it was located clear on the other side of the trailer court from her father, Eugene.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from visiting, as evidenced by the fact that he was sitting on her deck, chain-smoking and bouncing his knee up and down in agitation when she pulled up to her home-sweet-home and parked in the carport.

Her father was a tall, thin man with long, thinning hair, thick glasses and a goatee. She used to tell people she was adopted, but no one ever believed her. Other than the fact that she probably outweighed his scrawny ass by a good fifteen pounds, Olivia looked exactly like him—minus the facial hair, of course.

“Hey, Eugene,” she said on a heavy sigh.

The excess of energy she’d had at Kitty’s had disappeared on her drive home. It took everything she had to pull her heavy body up the steps to the wooden deck attached to the trailer. She didn’t move in to hug her father, and he didn’t get up from the plastic lawn chair he was sitting in to hug her. Her family did not touch.

“Chester ran away,” he said without making eye contact. Her family didn’t look at each other, either.

“He’ll be back,” she assured him, same as she always did.

Chester was her father’s horny Boston terrier. The dog could smell a bitch in heat anywhere within a fifty-mile radius, and had sired over a hundred offspring before the humane society finally convinced Eugene to have the dog neutered. It stopped the unwanted puppies, but not the incessant humping of every female dog in Juliette and the tri-city area. Even without fully-functioning balls, Chester still ran away at least once a week to get his groove on.

Eugene didn’t hug or pet or cuddle Chester, but it was obvious in the way he said the dog’s name that he loved the horny little bastard more than he loved Olivia. Depressing, yes, but Olivia had come to terms with that sad fact of her life a long time ago.

Olivia unlocked her front door. “You want to come in for awhile?”

By way of answer, he took a long drag off his cigarette and his boney knee bounced away.

“Ok… Good night, then…”

Olivia waited for a response, but she shouldn’t have bothered. Eugene wasn’t much of a conversationalist. He was a little like Rain Man, but with a milder case of obsessive compulsive disorder. He wouldn’t look at you, touch you, or really talk to you, but he had never met a broken small appliance he couldn’t fix better than new.

Eugene spent his days, and a good portion of his nights, repairing toasters and coffee makers and waffle irons for people who were too cheap or too poor to fork over the thirty bucks at Walmart to buy a new one, but he refused to take any money for it. He’d been collecting disability for as long as Olivia could remember, and he worried Uncle Sam would find out about the extra income and throw his ass in the slammer. Due to his deep, debilitating fear of forced human contact that jail would entail, Eugene insisted all payment for repairs made come in the form of one of the three C’s—Camels, Coca-Cola, or Cheez Doodles—or a combination thereof.

Because of Eugene and his phobias, Olivia learned how to clip coupons before she mastered coloring inside the lines. Eugene had done the best he could to raise her, but he was wired for living a solitary life, preferably in a cave somewhere. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, he just didn’t like them being anywhere near him. How Olivia had managed to be conceived in the first place was one of life’s greatest mysteries.

Her mother, Camille, was a bit of an enigma. Olivia knew for a fact that she existed, but that was pretty much all she knew about her. Olivia didn’t even know if Camille was her mother’s real name. No one ever talked about her, especially Eugene, which had made her even more intriguing to Olivia as a child.

Olivia was born at the Women’s Correctional Facility in York, Nebraska, where her mother had been imprisoned for fraud and embezzlement. Other than the five minutes her mother had held her immediately after she was born, Olivia never saw her again. When Olivia was a little kid she used to tell people she was an ex-con released on good behavior, like her mother, but once she realized how pathetic she sounded, she decided to quit talking about her con of a mother and the story of her birth altogether, and has since kept that bit of information to herself.

Olivia gave up on waiting for a response from Eugene and went inside. George’s granola bar had done nothing to fill her up, so she made a bowl of cereal and flipped channels while she ate. Nothing was ever on in the wee hours of the morning, except infomercials. She had her choice of learning about a mop that could suck up a swimming pool amount of water or how to Be-Dazzle pretty much anything. She chose the mop.

Not long after she finished her cereal, Eugene came in and sat on the opposite end of the sofa from her. She pulled a half-eaten bag of Cheez Doodles out from under the coffee table and tossed it to him. They sat in silence, except for Eugene’s incessant crunching, and watched the overexcited television host pawn his wares until dawn.