Anthrocide

Anthrocide.net is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

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The Fortuneteller

The weather forecaster’s voice burst out of the alarm-clock radio.

“Oh, God,” moaned Phil Walters into his pillow. “Is it really Monday?”

Olivia turned her head toward him and opened one sleepy eye. “Yeah,” she said.

Phil frowned at her and sat up on the edge of the bed. “Great,” he groused, adding a sigh. “I guess I’ll have to make the best of it.”

He had to fly to a conference that morning, something he truly disliked. He got showered, shaved, dressed, and mostly packed and headed for the kitchen for a quick cup of coffee. His wife Olivia was dressed and sipping a cup when he arrived in the kitchen.

“Liv, where is my—”

His words were cut short by the arrival in the kitchen of his 16-year-old daughter Samantha.

“You’re wearing that?” he asked her.

She frowned and examined herself. “What? Wearing what?”

“Those—” he grappled for a descriptive word— “pants,” he said finally pointing at her worn-out looking jeans.

“Wha-ut?”

He turned to his wife. “I thought you were going to get her some new ones.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Those are new ones.”

“Those? They look like they’ve been dragged behind a truck. You mean you bought them looking like that? Where? At the Goodwill?”

Samantha sighed exasperatedly. “No, at Target.”

Now louder he said, “You mean you paid retail price for something like that?”

“They were on sale,” protested Samantha.

“On sale? I’ve thrown pants in the dumpster that looked better than that. How much?”

“Oh Phil,” said Olivia. “For heaven’s sake don’t start.”

He stepped toward Samantha and said emphatically, “How… Much?”

She gulped. “Seventy-five dollars.”

“Seventy-five dollars?” He whirled around to Olivia. “Are you two out of your ever-loving minds? It doesn’t surprise me for dimwit here to do something like that but I’d expect you to know better.”

“Well thank you for holding me to such high standards,” Olivia snapped. “You haven’t the first clue about what teenage girls wear, so if she’s happy wearing them what do you care?”

“I care $75 of my hard-earned income, that’s what I care.”

Our income,” she corrected him. “I draw a paycheck too, you know.”

“Well it certainly isn’t her income. She doesn’t lift one finger around here to earn her keep. Just sits around on her lazy duff all the time wiggling her thumbs on that stupid phone of hers. Am I the only one in this family with any sense?”

“Yeah, Dad, you’re the only one,” said Samantha holding her palm up toward her dad and walking away. “I need to go.” She picked up her backpack and said to her mom, “I’ve got soccer practice tonight so I’ll be late.”

“Soccer,” groused Phil, sitting down and pouring coffee. “Why does someone with so many C’s on her report cards waste her time on soccer? Maybe if you stayed home and put that silly phone down and applied yourself to your studies you’d have a chance at college and could make something of yourself. Unless you’re so wonderful at soccer you expect that to be your life’s work.”

“Pfft, like you’d know,” Samantha muttered as she headed for the door.

“Sam, honey,” said her mom, “it’s too early for the bus. Where are you going?”

“Over to Danielle’s to wait for the bus.”

“Why?” said Phil. “Because her place is more suited to your expensive tastes?”

“No,” she said glaring at him. “Because there isn’t any screaming at her place.” She stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

“Don’t you slam that door, young lady,” Phil shouted after her as he jumped to his feet.

“Phil, sit down,” said Olivia, running her fingers wearily through her hair.

“I don’t know why you’re raising her to be so disrespectful.”

“Well, respect is a two-way street, you know,” she said.

“There, you see? Always taking her side. That’s why she is the way she is. You let her get away with murder and then undermine my authority when I try to talk some sense into her.”

“Phil, we’re going to lose her. If you keep riding her day and night like this she’s going to run off Lord-knows-where and get into some serious trouble. Compared to a lot of kids she’s a really good girl. But I don’t know how much more she can take.” She turned away with a distant look. “For that matter,” she said quietly, “I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“Meaning what?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Nothing.”

Suddenly Phil put his cup down. “Oh, Lord, look at the time. I started to ask you, where’s my white shirt? The one with the French cuffs?”

Olivia thought for a second. “In the washer. I just started a load a few minutes ago.”

“The washer? Liv how could you be so stupid? You knew I was heading to that week-long convention this morning. That leaves me without enough shirts.”

“What time is your flight? You never told me.”

“I’ve got to be out of here in 15 minutes. What am I going to do?”

“Did you pack the light blue one?”

“It’s got a button missing that, even though I mentioned it, someone couldn’t be bothered to fix for me.”

She gave an irritated sigh. “Well, if you’re just one shirt shy you should have enough time to get one at a Wal-Mart or somewhere while you’re there.”

“Buy one; oh sure, that’s your answer to everything, spend thirty bucks on a new shirt when ten cents’ worth of laundry soap done intelligently would work just as well. I swear no one else in this family has the brains God gave a turnip.”

“Yeah, well, you certainly have,” she said as he headed for the bedroom.

When he came back out with his suitcase, Olivia was sitting at the table wiping tears from her face.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked gruffly. “Aren’t you going to work?”

She nodded absently.

He hesitated. “Well, I’ll be home Saturday. The conference ends on Friday but my stupid cheapskate company makes us fly on Saturday so they get a cheaper rate. Anyway, I’ll see you then.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I don’t know if I’ll be here when you get back. I’ve taken about all the verbal abuse I can stand, Phil. I’ve just about had it.”

“Verbal abuse? So now we’re getting all politically correct, huh? As if you’ve got anywhere else to go. Look, I don’t have time for this now. I’ve got to catch that plane.” She used a Kleenex on her eyes and his voice softened. “We’ll—we’ll talk after I get back. Okay?”

He took a step toward her to give her a goodbye peck, but without a word or even looking at him she got up and went into the back part of the house. He stormed out the door, slamming it as he left.

The airport hassles and cramped, packed airplane left him in an even fouler mood by the time he arrived at the convention. It was boring as usual. The main purpose in him going each year was the networking and supplier contacts he made in the evenings. The company would pay for his meals, but since these were not clients, he could not put any extras on his expense account. As a result, a Wednesday night group trip to a comedy club ended-up setting him back $80 by the time all was said and done. At least he had not needed to buy a shirt. Fully three-quarters of the attendees were business casual so he decided that on the Friday he could just wear one of the sport shirts he had brought.

He had texted Olivia a few times during the week and she had responded, albeit without much enthusiasm in her words. He wondered if she really might be gone when he got back. He decided they probably needed to have a heart-to-heart. There was altogether too much conflict in their home—it was pushing him over the edge. If he could just get her and that lazy daughter of his to come around on a few basics maybe they could have a somewhat enjoyable home life. However, he worried that getting through their thick skulls might be asking too much.

The convention wrapped-up on Friday afternoon and all the other attendees—the ones that worked for “real” companies—headed to the airport to catch their flights. He, however, would have to sit around until the next day. In keeping with its austere policies, his company had also booked him in a hotel across town rather than the more expensive one hosting the convention. So every day he had to drive back and forth. As he headed back, he read a billboard he had not paid much attention to previously. It was for the Mason County Fair in a smaller city less than an hour away. Hmm, he thought. I haven’t been to one of those since I was maybe eleven or twelve years old. His mind took him back to funnel cakes and shooting galleries, to rides on the Ferris wheel and the scrambler.

Why not? he thought. I could use some stress-free “me” time and it sure beats sitting around the hotel watching TV. I could easily get there, kill some time, and get back to the hotel before 9 p.m. I wonder if they still sell corndogs. Boy-oh-boy, I remember slathering one of those with mustard and being in hog-heaven. That’s it. I’m going to do it.

The sun was setting by the time he arrived. He was not happy about having to pay both for parking and admission, but he decided just to make the best of it. He spent only a few minutes wandering through the exhibit buildings near the entrance; he wanted to get to the midway.

Once he got there it was not long before he found Mecca: a food trailer selling hot-dogs-on-a-stick. He marched up to the window where a heavy, jowly woman in a grease-stained black tee shirt said, “Can I help you?” unenthusiastically.

“Yeah,” said Phil brightly. “I’ll have a corndog and, um, a Coke, I guess.”

“Large or small?” she asked without interest.

“Um, small I guess.”

She scooped a cup full of ice and began dispensing the soft drink. “That’ll be six dollars,” she said.

“Six dollars?” shouted Phil. “Are you serious?” He looked around at the two people in line behind him. “Six bucks for a corndog and a Coke?” He turned back to the woman. “I can’t believe that.”

She sighed. “Look, do you want it or not? ‘Cause if not I’ve got other customers.”

He frowned heavily and fished a five and a one out and plopped it on the windowsill. She stuck a straw in the cup and said automatically, “Anything else?”

“Are you kidding? I’d have to get a second mortgage if I ordered anything else.”

Totally unamused she handed him his items and said to the next person in line, “Can I help you?”

He walked over to a small table containing napkins and large plastic ketchup and mustard jars with pump handles and squirted out a generous amount of mustard. There being nowhere to sit, he headed down the midway munching on the corndog which, he had to admit, was nowhere near as good as he had remembered them. Even mustard could not hide that the hot dog beneath the coating was not only something other than all-beef, it was questionable whether it was even all-food. The rides all looked like they had seen better days. Most looked to be in such disrepair that he quickly dispatched any notion of getting on one. The carney barkers clearly spent far more on tattoos than dental work and, although their shouts urged him to try his luck at their games, their faces were etched with profound boredom.

He made the circuit of the midway feeling more and more disillusioned with every step. He was starting back toward the exhibition buildings when he passed a “House of Mirrors” and a “Beer ‘N’ BBQ” lunch-truck snack stand. Between the two was a tiny metallic-gold-painted trailer with “Madame Vorza” emblazoned above the door. A sandwich board stood beside the door noting: Knows All – Sees All. Fortunes Told. Past – Present – Future. In smaller letters at the bottom of the sign it read: Find your road to love, wealth, fame! It was not the trailer or the signs that caught his attention, however. It was the woman standing out front—presumably Madame Vorza herself, given her stereotypical Gypsy garb. Yet, although she was quite attractive—even reminded him of a Hollywood actress he particularly liked—even that was not what captivated him. It was the look she gave him. Her dark eyes pierced him with such intensity that he came to a complete halt, unable to keep from staring at her.

After a long moment he finally managed to divert his eyes and sort of came-to. He tried clearing his mind with a head shake and started to continue on. But he could not help sneaking a look back and, as he did so, she once again entranced him with those eyes of mystery. She walked toward him, and he immediately wanted to turn and power-walk away.

“You,” she said from twenty feet away. “You must come.”

He looked around half-embarrassed. “No,” he said with a short laugh. “No, not me. I don’t—”

“Yes,” she said as she strode directly up to him. “You must. There will be no charge.” She spoke with the requisite eastern European accent.

Again he gave a little nervous laugh. “I—um—no, I—I don’t need—”

“It is you; no one else,” she said. “You must come. Please.” She reached out and gently took hold of the back of his arm, guiding him toward the gold trailer. Her hands had multiple rings on each finger and her arms jangled with an array of golden and bejeweled bracelets. She wore large earrings that would have sat on her shoulders were it not for her long, graceful neck. Several heavy-looking ornate gold necklaces served to partially hide what her low-cut dress could not.

He shrugged. “Okay, sure, why not? I’ve got nothing else to do tonight. And besides, you did say it was free, right?”

His lighthearted attitude was in stark contrast to her continued intensity. “That is correct. Free. For you only.”

“Wow. Well, I guess that makes me feel pretty special. All I’ve got to do is listen to a 45-minute presentation on lakeside condominiums, huh?”

She did not comment further but led him into the dark trailer where she had him sit at a heavy, round wooden table. The tasseled, embroidered tablecloth was, as was everything else inside, crimson and gold. In its center sat the proverbial crystal ball.

Phil raised his eyebrows with a sardonic smirk. “Oh brother. Seriously? A crystal ball?”

Madame Vorza looked only slightly embarrassed. “It is…what people expect.”

“Yes. And I’m sure that what people expect is quite important to your success here. Isn’t it?”

“I see you are, what is called, a skeptic.”

“Mm, well, a skeptic is one who doubts.” He gave her a sympathetic smile. “I’m afraid I’m way beyond merely doubting.”

Her eyes continued to pierce him. “So, you think me a charlatan, Mr. Walters?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I—wait, what? How do you know—?” He reached in his pocket and retrieved his wallet, then searched it quickly.

Madame Vorza gave a gentle laugh. “I assure you, Philip, I have not touched your wallet.”

He tucked the wallet away and pulled out his phone.

“Or your phone,” she added.

He looked at her with a slight squint. “Okay, I’ll admit it. You’re good. Very good. If you took my wallet or something and got my name and put it back, I didn’t feel a thing. Still, if that’s supposed to convince me you are not just some sleight-of-hand artist…” He just shook his head.

“I will be truthful with you—may I call you Philip?”

He gave a little shrug. “You can call me Phil.”

She smiled slightly and with a nod said, “Phil, then. For some who come to me, I receive no inspiration, no insight. For those, you are quite correct, I deceive them. I tell them general things, things they want to hear; enough to satisfy them but I know it is all make-believe. For others, there are impressions—things I perceive about them and their future that I pass along, hoping my words are of help. But, for a very few, the moment I make eye contact with them I know these are the special ones. The ones for whom my mind, heart, soul, and spirit immediately swarm with images and knowledge—from where it comes I cannot say. Since I was a little girl I have wondered and, at the same time, feared how this power comes over me. You, Phil, are one of those about whom the flood of perception is as strong as any I have ever felt.”

He tightened one corner of his mouth and sat back, leaning on the arm of the chair. “So my aura is running amok, huh? Look, I’ve got an early flight tomorrow so it’s probably time I run along. You’re a lovely woman and it’s been kind of fun but—”

“Still not convinced, I see. Very well. I guess I will have to be more convincing. The message I have for you is too important. You must not only hear it, you must believe it.”

He folded his arms and tilted his head to one side.

“All right,” she said. “Suppose I tell you something about your past. Would that convince you to listen and believe what I have to say about your future?”

His mouth gave a cynical little shrug but he said nothing.

“Give me your hand,” she said, reaching across the table.

“Oh come on, you’re not really going to read my palm are you?”

Her perfectly shaped eyebrows gave a slight frown. “No. I need to touch you; to hold your hand.”

He gave it to her but looked askance at her. “At least I’m not wearing a watch.”

She caressed his hand with both of hers, their softness causing him to wonder if he might ask her to go have a drink with him later. With large, crimson lips and metallic gold eye shadow she was hauntingly beautiful.

She looked directly into his eyes as she spoke. “Your father, Eldon was his name, had a very quick and explosive temper.”

Phil sat up and spoke slowly. “Now, you could say that about a lot of dads, of course, but how could you know his first name?” He began mentally searching his wallet and phone for anything in there that might have had his dad’s name, but without success.

She continued, “Forgive me for what I say next; I know how painful it is for you. But you simply must believe in me. When you were a very young child you had a dog. As an only child in a rural area, it was your closest companion and playmate. A little black dog you named Shadow.”

Phil’s eyes widened. “Now wait a minute. You—how?—how can you possibly know that?”

She did not react but continued on. “One day Shadow chewed one of your father’s expensive new boots and ruined it.”

“Okay, now, wait,” said Phil. His face felt hot and his mouth went dry.

“In a fit of rage your father took his rifle and, as you looked on in horror…”

“No! That’s enough! No more!” He tried to pull his hand away but she gripped it tighter.

“…He killed the dog and buried it in the far corner of your property—a corner you never went near again.”

Phil pulled away and jumped to his feet. “Look, I don’t know who you are or how you know all that but I don’t want to hear any more. If you don’t stop I’m walking out of here right now.”

“Please, Mr. Walters, please sit down. I know how painful that memory is for you. But, not only is it the key to you believing what I say, that incident has colored your entire life from that day to this. You have harbored a seething anger inside that has affected all of your relationships. Deep down you fear betrayal from all who are closest to you.”

“Look, Madame whatever-your-name-is, I didn’t come here to be psychoanalyzed. I came here to—well, now that I think about it, I don’t know why I came here.”

“To hear a vital message about your future,” she said calmly. She pointed to the chair and said again, “Please.”

Reluctantly, he again sat in it. Deep in thought his whole demeanor changed from fear and anger to wonder. “Madame Vorza, how can you know these things? I’ve never told anyone about Shadow, not even Olivia.”

“Your wife. There are many things about which you and your wife do not communicate. Indeed, very little real communication happens in your family, including with your daughter, Samantha. Mostly yelling, I think.”

He gaped at her for a moment, and then sighed. “That’s certainly true. Okay, Madame Vorza, you have convinced me. So, what is the message for my future?”

“This will be difficult for you to hear. But everything in your life is about to change. By this coming Monday, for you nothing will be the same.” She paused and looked away.

He swallowed noisily. I bet it’s Liv, he thought, she’s going to leave me. “Okay. Go on.”

Her eyes darted around the room, refusing to lock with his. “It is difficult,” she said hesitantly.

“Please, Madame Vorza.” His voice was soft and pleading. “Take my hand again, if it will help. I’ve got to know.”

She did not take his hand but stared at the center of the table. “By this coming Monday, you will have died, Philip Walters.”

He sat in stunned silence for a bit. Then he said. “The plane. It’s going to crash, isn’t it? But what if I drive or take the bus or maybe stay here through Monday? Can I change my fate?”

“No!” she said sternly. “You must take that flight. There you will meet someone of great importance to you. You must listen to what he says.”

“If I’m going to be dead in less than a week, what could anyone say that would be of importance?”

“Nevertheless, you must be on that flight. You will arrive home safely.”

Phil sat staring into space. “I don’t know what to say—what to do.”

“It will all become clear to you as it unfolds. Now, I am extremely tired; this takes a great deal out of me. I can do no more tonight. I must ask you to leave. Now. You have been given the rare privilege of knowing how much time you have left. Use it wisely.” She rose wearily to her feet. “Good night, Mr. Walters.”

“But, Madame Vorza, I—”

She ignored him and held the door open to the deepening twilight. “Good night, Mr. Walters.”

He stepped out and she quickly grabbed the sandwich sign, took it inside and closed up the trailer. He walked in a daze toward the exhibition buildings and the exit until finally his mind began to function.

How will it happen? he wondered. If it’s some sort of accident, could I just stay indoors in bed and change my fate? I mean, even doing that I could die of a heart attack or something. But if I knew it was something preventable, maybe…

He turned around and began hurrying back toward her trailer. So what if she’s tired; she’s the one who collared me. I deserve to know the rest of the story.

When he arrived at the House of Mirrors it was standing directly next to the Beer ‘N’ BBQ. Madame Vorza’s trailer was nowhere to be seen. He walked all around them, even among the cables and generators behind them but the camper-sized gold trailer was not there. He waited in line at the BBQ and when he got to the front a thin, weather-beaten woman asked what he wanted.

“Uh, nothing to eat. I just want to know where Madame Vorza is.”

“Who?” said the woman.

“The fortuneteller, Madame Vorza. The trailer that was right next to you; right over here. Apparently she’s packed up for the night and moved her trailer, but I need to see her, just for a moment.”

“I’m sorry sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about. The place next door is the House of Mirrors. Always has been. Maybe you need a beer. Or, maybe you’ve already had a few too many?”

A large sweaty teen with a thick mop of dirty blond hair was putting barbecue beef sandwiches together behind her. “Hey, fella,” Phil called to him. “You know who I’m talking about. Madame Vorza, good-looking Gypsy babe with the trailer next to you. Right? You know where she went?”

He shrugged. “I got no idea what you’re talking about, man.”

“Look,” said the woman, “there’s customers behind you. Either order something or get lost will ya?”

Furious, he slapped his hand against the side of the food truck and stormed off. A janitor-type was sweeping debris into a long-handled fold-down dustpan in front of the House of Mirrors. “Hey, buddy, you been around here long?” Phil asked him.

“Every night so far,” he answered.

“Good, then you must know there was a gold trailer here—right here—earlier this evening, right? Madame Vorza, the fortuneteller?”

The man frowned and slowly shook his head. “Mm, nope. Don’t remember there bein’ no other trailer here. Just the House of Mirrors and the barbecue place. That’s it.”

Phil stood dumbfounded as the man walked away.

Across the walkway from the barbecue truck was a canvas-tarped pavilion with, at the near end, one of those games where one knocks stacked bottles over with a baseball. Next to it was a ring-toss game. The huge, bearded baseball-throw barker looked like a cross between a professional wrestler and a biker-gang leader.

As Phil approached, the barker said, “Three tries for a dollar,” and held three baseballs out to him.

“No,” said Phil. “I’m looking for someone. Someone who works here: Madame Vorza.”

The barker showed no reaction.

“Y’know, the good looking Gypsy fortuneteller who had the gold trailer right over there earlier.”

The barker frowned his confusion.

Phil made an archway motion with his hands toward where the trailer had been, outlining the sign that had been on it. “Madame Vorza, knows all, sees all?”

The barker turned down the corners of his mouth and shook his head. “Nobody like that been around here. Maybe you were somewhere else. It can get confusing here. Sometimes people come here looking for a booth that they saw on the other side of the midway. Although, I know everyone in our troupe and there ain’t no Madame—what did you say? For-juh?”

“Vorza,” said an exasperated Phil. “Madame Vorza. Are you all blind? She was right over there not 15 minutes ago. I know. I went in and saw her. Then I left but I wanted to ask her a question and now she’s not only gone, nobody even remembers her being here. Or is this all some sort of trick to maybe get me to wander off into the dark looking for her so you low-life’s can jump me for my wallet or something.”

The barker’s eyes turned to steel. “Okay, buddy, I’ve heard about enough. I don’t take kindly to people calling me names and accusing me of bein’ a criminal. If it wasn’t for all the families with little kids around here I’d climb outta this booth and take you off into the dark and teach you some manners. Now there ain’t no Gypsy trailer over there, not now, not ever. Whatever you’re smokin’ you best go someplace else and have your hallucinations.”

“Hallucinations?” Phil’s demeanor softened. “Hallucinations. You know, that must be it. I—I’ve been under a lot of stress lately—work, home, travel, that sort of thing. I guess my mind was playing tricks on me.

“Listen,” Phil continued, “I’m really sorry sir. I had no right to talk to you that way. I guess I better go and get some rest and forget all this fortuneteller nonsense. I really do apologize.”

The barker relaxed. “S’okay. Life just kinda gets to a person sometimes. Could you move over, though? I got customers.”
Phil turned to see a teenage couple standing ready to try their hand at the baseball throw.

“Oh, sorry,” mumbled Phil as he walked to the far side of the booth. He stood and shook his head. “Wow,” he said quietly to himself. “Imaginary people—fortunetellers no less. I must be going over the edge.” He looked back at where he had thought the trailer had been and shook his head. “Madame Vorza. Where would my imagination even come up with something like Madame Vorza?”

The thin, craggy-faced barker for the ring-toss leaned against the post between his and the baseball booth, a few feet from where Phil was standing.

Without looking at Phil he said, “Looking for Madame Vorza?”

“What?” said Phil. “You’ve seen her?”

The barker now looked at Phil. “Yeah. I seen her. Can’t miss a gorgeous doll like her.”

“Then you know where she is? Please tell me. I’ve got to find her.”

“I think she’s done all the free fortunetelling she’s going to for one night.”

“But I’ll pay. If money’s the issue, I’ll pay. Gladly! There are some things I’ve simply got to know.”

The barker calmly shook his head. “You know all you need to. Just let things play out like she told you.” With that he walked toward the middle of the booth and called out to a young boy with his mom and dad.

“Five rings for a dollar,” the barker said to the boy.

“Can I, Dad?” said the boy.

The dad handed over a buck and the boy was given five rings.

Phil ran over and grabbed the barker by his denim sleeve. “Look fella, just tell me where she is. If she doesn’t want to talk to me, fine. But I’ve just got to see her.”

The barker fixed Phil with an icy stare and slowly looked at the hand gripping his shirt. Phil followed his eyes and released his grip, looking apologetic.

“See who?” said the barker stoically.

Phil’s shoulders slumped. “Madame Vorza.”

The barker shook his head. “Never heard of her,” he said.

“What? Of course you have. The fortuneteller.”

The barker pulled his chin back with a look of disgust. “Fortuneteller?” He looked around as if Phil were a lunatic.

“There ain’t no fortunetellers around here. Not at this carnival.”

Just then the boy ringed a toy car, cheering excitedly with his parents.

“Hey! Another winner!” cried the barker, turning away from Phil. “How old are you son?”

“Ten.”

“There you are folks,” he shouted. “So easy to win a ten-year-old can do it. Five rings for a dollar. Come give it a try.”

“Come on, fella,” said Phil to the barker. “You’ve got to help me. Just tell me where she is.”

“Look, mister, I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t want to know. Now either buy some rings or get out of the way so other people can play.” Two college-age girls walked up and handed him a buck each as the barker frowned Phil out of the way.

Phil stood to the side dejectedly as the barker handed the girls the rings.

“You best move along, buddy,” said the barker. Phil turned to go. “Besides,” said the barker, “that plane leaves pretty early in the morning and you don’t want to miss it.”

One of the girls squealed excitedly.

“Hey, another winner!” shouted the barker.

Phil stared at him for a long moment and then headed for the exit in a daze.

He scarcely slept that night, pondering his future that consisted of one or, at most, two more days. He had never really thought about what he would do if he somehow knew in advance when the inevitable grim reaper would arrive. People talked about bucket lists but not only did he not have one, there was too little time anyway. All he could think to do was check that his will was made out when he got home and hope that however he met his demise it would not violate any terms of his life insurance policy.

What if it’s something violent, like a burglary gone bad or something? He thought. What if it puts Olivia and Samantha in jeopardy as well? Maybe I should send them away, although they wouldn’t understand why.

A key question was whether he should tell them at all. They had a right to know. But they would think he had a cracked block if he told them he was all lit up over something he heard from a carnival fortuneteller—a vanishing fortuneteller at that. No, he would just have to—how had the guy put it?—let things play out and decide what to do as they unfolded.

His date with destiny hung so heavily on him that he could not eat any of the hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast. Instead his stomach was tied in knots. At the boarding gate he carefully eyed each prospective passenger wondering who this mysterious messenger of great import was. No one stood out or paid any attention to him.

He was among the earlier passengers to board and his was a window seat. The plane was getting pretty full by the time anyone else sat in his row. A twenty-something blonde sat nervously on the aisle but kept talking, as best she could among the parade of boarding passengers, to a young man of corresponding age across the aisle and two rows up. From the gist of the conversation it appeared the young woman was not a fan of flying. Why the young man was not sitting next to her, Phil could not guess. As the final stragglers rushed onto the flight, the seat next to Phil was occupied by a middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt with the mascot of some high school on it. He scarcely acknowledged Phil but apologized to the woman in the aisle seat for having to climb over her. He had no carry-ons and busied himself with the sky-mall magazine until they were well into the air. The only time he looked up was to respond to the flight attendant’s question about what he wanted to drink. He ordered coffee, the same as Phil.

Eventually he put the magazine away and took out his phone. Phil tried not to be obvious but was curious what the man was looking at. After all, this guy was supposed to have words of eternal consequence for him, wasn’t he?

About that time the flight attendant brought them their coffee. As the drinks and napkins were passed along, Phil caught a glimpse of the man’s phone. It was a picture of a teenage girl in a fancy burgundy dress. The man noticed Phil’s interest in the picture and held it up.

“That’s my daughter,” said the man proudly, “in her prom dress. Isn’t she beautiful?”

To Phil, she was just okay. The dress was nice on her, but the prettiest thing was her beaming smile of genuine joy.

“Very lovely,” said Phil, “especially the smile.”

The man grinned widely. “I had just told her that the only time I had ever seen anyone more gorgeous was her mother on our wedding day. I really meant it, too.”

“Well, she seems pleased at the compliment.”

“Of course,” said the man. “A dad’s opinion of his daughter can make or break her self-esteem. I think the world of that young lady and I make sure she knows it. You have kids?”

“Um, yeah, a daughter, about her age.”

“Ah, then you know what I’m talking about. I tell you, she and my wife scoured the town looking for that dress. Took this picture when she showed it off to me for the first time.”

Phil smiled. “Very pretty. Bet it cost pretty penny too, huh?”

“Oh, man, that was a bit of a shock all right.” He shrugged. “But, seeing that joyful smile on her face made it worth every cent. Her success in life is so important to me. I want to make sure I fulfill my responsibility to get her there. It’s really not that hard.”

“Not hard?” said Phil.

“Not really. See, every daughter needs to hear three things from her father, stated directly to her out loud—he can’t just assume she knows them: I love you, I’m proud of you, and you’re really good at—well something she’s really good at. He needs to say it and mean it.”

“Proud? Really good at—but what if she’s, y’know, sort of just average at school and not particularly industrious?”

The man shook his head quickly. “My daughter’s not an honor student. She really struggles with history—dates and such. I tutor her, of course, to help her pass her history classes but it’s still a struggle. And it’s sometimes a challenge to get her to keep her room clean. But, you know what I compliment her about? She’s a really caring person. She befriended a girl no one else in school had any use for at great risk to her own reputation among her classmates. But that’s how her heart is. I’ve told her on many occasions how proud I am of her for how she treats people. Everyone has a strength somewhere. It would be a pretty pathetic dad who could not find something good to say about his child.

“It’s funny,” the man continued, “fathers often understand their importance in the lives of their sons, but too many fail to realize that they’re every bit as key to their daughters’ future. Many girls yearn their whole lives to hear those positives from their dads until one day the dad dies and it’s no longer possible. Those wounds, especially if the dad is harsh and critical, go deep and often cause the daughters to act out in a lot of destructive ways including, as the old song says, looking for love in all the wrong places.”

At the words “the dad dies” Phil blanched and felt his heart double-pump.

The man flipped past some other pictures of the daughter and dress to one of his daughter with an older woman whom Phil assumed to be the man’s wife. She was hugging the daughter from behind, cheek to cheek, and both were smiling delightedly.

“As you can see I took several pictures. My wife, Arlene, asked me to pick one to have printed and framed. I’m torn between that first one and this one. My wife would humbly not prefer this one but, I’m kind of partial to it. The two people I love most—except for the Lord of course—in a picture of joy and love. Hard to beat that, don’t you think? If she doesn’t want it to be framed I might make it my wallpaper on all my devices.”

Phil was starting to get a bit irritated that this guy seemed too good to be true.

“So, let me guess,” said Phil. “You and your wife never fight. Am I right?”

“Hmm, I guess that depends on what you mean by fight. Do we disagree? Sure. We’re unique human beings with different tastes, ideas, thoughts, and opinions about a lot of things. But we don’t see any need for screaming and berating each other like so many couples do. I’ve never understood why people will treat those they are supposed to love most with hatred and venom that they would not dream of exhibiting toward a stranger, an acquaintance, or even an adversary.”

Phil sighed deeply. “And I suppose there are three things a guy’s got to say to his wife, too, huh?”

The man raised his eyebrows and gave a light laugh. “Well as a matter of fact there are, but they’re not easy for most guys to say: I was wrong, I’m sorry, and please forgive me.”

“I figured as much,” Phil grumped. “But what if you’re not wrong?”

“Phfft,” said the man with a wave of his hand. “Being ‘right’ is so overrated. Fully half of the things couples squabble about have no right or wrong side. They’re matters of opinion, viewpoint, or preference. And as for the rest, in nearly all those cases who is right doesn’t make a lick of difference or is far less important than maintaining a good relationship with the love of your life.”

“Okay,” said Phil. “I’ll grant you that. But not everything is trivial. Some things really do matter how they get settled.”

“True. But that’s when you realize you’re partners, not enemies. You’re a problem-solving team that can do wonders by working together.

“Look,” the man continued, “I’m not going to pretend my wife and I never irritate each other. But when that happens I just remind myself of O’Brien’s.”

“O’Brien’s? What’s that?”

He gave a quick laugh. “It’s the restaurant where I proposed to Arlene. I think about how desperately I hoped she would say yes. If she had said, ‘Yes, but only if you will accept the fact that I…’ whatever it is that she’s doing that is irritating me, I would have agreed without hesitation. And if that was true then, why would I let that destroy our relationship now? I certainly don’t love her any less. Besides, 99% of the time if I talk with her about what’s bugging me, we find a way to work it out anyway. Same if she has a complaint about me. Truth is, she doesn’t complain nearly as much as she probably has a right to.

“I don’t know,” the man continued with a sigh, “a lot of couples spend an awful lot of time bickering, but that’s not how she or I want to live. Life’s way too short for that.”

Life! Too short! Phil suddenly felt a chill run down his back and nearly hyperventilated. This mysterious man seemed to have a lot of answers. Phil wanted to get more from him and maybe ask if he knew he was an “important messenger” to a dying man.

But before he could, the man said, “Wow I guess that coffee went right through me.” Then to the young woman on the aisle, “Excuse me; I’m very sorry.”

The girl gave a forced smile but was clearly still not happy about being in the air. As Phil’s “messenger” left, the young man from two rows up came back and talked with her, obviously trying to soothe her nerves. He even stepped in and sat in the messenger’s seat and held her hand. When the messenger returned, the young man stood.

“Sorry,” said the young man. “She was concerned about flying for our honeymoon and it turns out she was right. Guess I should have listened, especially since we couldn’t get seats together.”

“You’re on your honeymoon?” gasped the messenger. “Now you just stay right where you are young man and take care of your bride. I’ll gladly trade seats with you. You should have asked sooner.”

“Thank you very much, sir. We really appreciate it.”

“Not at all. And it sounds like you’re well on your way to learning the three most important phrases all husbands should know.” The young man looked at him quizzically.

“Ask him,” said the messenger pointing at Phil. “He can explain it.”

Once the plane landed Phil decided he would catch up to the messenger as they exited the plane and ask his questions. But a short, elderly man in the row directly in front of him had protracted difficulty getting his too-large carry-on out of the overhead bin and by the time Phil reached the gate, the messenger had disappeared.

Phil’s mind was reeling as he drove home. The Gypsy had said he would arrive home safely. Somewhere between that event and Monday morning he would meet his Maker. Besides the stress of knowing the end was near, the messenger’s words kept replaying over and over in his mind.

As he turned down his street he wondered if Olivia really would be gone. He heard himself begging God that she be there. He could not face his demise without her. He pulled into the driveway and rushed into the house without bothering about his luggage.

“Liv! Liv? Are you home? Liv?”

“In here,” she called out from the bedroom.

He ran in and swept her into his arms, holding her for all he was worth. “Oh Liv, you’re here. It’s so good to see you, to hold you. Please don’t leave me, please. I can’t make it without you.”

She hugged him back and smiled as tears welled up. “I’m not leaving,” she said quietly.

“Oh Liv, I’ve been such a moron. You’re the love of my life and I’ve treated you so badly. I’m so sorry. That was terribly, terribly wrong of me. Please, please forgive me.”

Now she looked at him with a mixture of suspicion and concern. “Phil, honey, what’s happened?”

“Happened? I—well—I just—I met someone—on the plane. A guy that helped me realize what is really important in life. And it’s you, Liv. You are important, the most important thing in my life. You—and Samantha. Oh Liv, I’ve got so much to tell you. To tell you both, and so little time.”

Still perplexed, but not at all unhappy, Olivia said, “Little time? Oh, you mean because of Sam’s game. Yes, I have to take her—she needs to leave in about five minutes—but I guess I wouldn’t have to stay. I could ask one of the other moms to give her a ride home after.”

“No! No! We have to go. Both of us. I want to see her play. I’ve…” he hung his head “…I’ve never seen her play before.”

Olivia furrowed one brow slightly. “Yes. I know.”

At that moment Samantha stood in the doorway. “Ready to go, Mom?” Then almost with embarrassment, “Oh, hi Dad.”

To her shock he rushed to her arms and hugged her like she might vanish. “Oh Samantha, my sweet, precious daughter.”

Samantha flashed a confused look at her mom who could only shake her head, smile, and shrug.

Phil backed away and brushed a curl from Samantha’s forehead. “Would it be okay if I come watch you play, ‘Mantha?”

Still wearing a look of incredulity she said slowly, “Sure. But ‘Mantha? I haven’t heard that since I was, what, three?”

He hugged her again. “You’ll always be my little ‘Mantha.”

“Well, we’d better get going,” said her mom.

The game was scoreless until near the end. Although Phil didn’t know much about soccer he felt pretty sure that Samantha was playing well. Then, with amazing agility she picked the pocket of an opponent and sent a perfect pass to a teammate who outran the lone defender, feinted the goalie out of position, and buried the ball in the net.

Phil found himself not only cheering fanatically, he could not seem to stop yelling, “You’re awesome Samantha! Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!”

The remaining couple of minutes were played in the middle of the field until the game ended with much jubilation by Samantha’s team. Phil ran up and put his arm around her and simply would not let go. As teammates and their parents came to congratulate Samantha he kept saying, “Isn’t my daughter terrific? Did you see that play? She’s amazing.”

As they headed for the car he turned to her and said, “I love you, you know. Always have. I am just so, so very sorry I haven’t shown it. I am so proud of you, and not just because of how well you play soccer, although you’re one fantastic player. But even if you never played another game, I’d still be so proud that you’re my daughter.”

Samantha burst into tears and sobbed like he had never heard her. She hugged him with every ounce of strength she had and wept in his arms for a good ten minutes. She tried a few times to talk, but the most she could get out was “Daddy.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart, I know,” he said. “And from now on I’m gonna…” Suddenly that chill came over him. It was so tangible even she felt it and backed away.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“Nothing,” he said, trying to sound casual. He put his arms around Olivia and Samantha and walked them to the car. “Hey, how about we go out and eat? ‘Mantha since you’re the star player, you get to pick.”

He opened the door for Olivia but before she got in he kissed her passionately.

“You guys,” said an embarrassed Samantha with a laugh. “Get a room.”

While at the restaurant, Samantha, trying to sound matter-of-fact said, “Oh, Mom, Danielle asked me to go to church with her in the morning. That okay?”

“Sure, honey, what time do you need to get up?”

Church. God. Phil remembered his quick plea to God that Olivia would be home; and how she had been. “Samantha,” he said before she could answer her mom. “Could we all go? Together?”

Very slowly she said, “Yes. Okay, who are you and what have you done with my dad?”

He laughed, and after the tension and emotion of the past 24 hours, it felt good. “Honey, I’m determined to make a drastic turnaround in my relationships. With you, with your mom, and with God. I don’t know much about God, but I’m ready for a crash course.” Oops, he thought, poor choice of words.

That night at home he relayed to Olivia the things he had heard from the messenger but nothing about the fortuneteller. The problem was that he kept wanting to say how things were going to be so much better from now on and how he would try so much harder going forward. But there was no forward. Maybe, if he was lucky, one more day. Or maybe he would not even wake up tomorrow.

But he did, much to his relief. They all went to church to the delight of Danielle and her family. The sermons were not often overtly evangelistic but this one walked through the gospel as if it were intended directly for Phil. He had assumed going-in that God would have a tough time accepting an eleventh-hour convert like himself with no godly deeds and no way to make up for lost time. But when he heard that Jesus had opened the way for anyone who would come to Him he was thrilled that even he could have eternal hope. He went forward at the invitation and had a long talk with the minister after the service.

“I want to be baptized,” said Phil, “like, right now.”

“Okay,” said the minister. Then to Danielle’s family, Olivia, and Samantha, he said, “I assume you’d all like to stay and watch.” They all agreed readily.

As Phil stepped down into the water the minister said, “Baptism is a reenactment of the death burial and resurrection of Christ. You die—that is, the old you dies—you’re buried in the water, and then raised a brand new person in Christ.”

“Did you say that I die?” said Phil excitedly.

“Yes. Symbolically, in a spiritual sense, that is.”

“But in God’s eyes I’m dying right?”

“Um, yes, in a way.”

“And it’s before Monday!”

The minister gave a confused frown. “Yes, Sunday is before Monday and this is Sunday.”

“Fantastic!” said Phil. “Let’s get on with it!”

That night he must have told both Olivia and Samantha that he loved them two dozen times. As he climbed into bed Olivia said, “Phil, I’ve got to ask you something.”

“Okay,” he said cautiously.

“I know you told me about the guy on the plane and all, but Phil, something else must have happened. I’ve been married to you for 18 years and I know there’s more to the story.”

“Tell you what, Liv. If I have the chance, maybe I’ll tell you tomorrow. Good night. And, Liv, I love you.”

He lay in the dark wondering what was in store. Maybe this “new creation” idea was what the Gypsy had meant. Or maybe he would never awake this side of heaven. There was no way to be sure. Lord, he prayed silently, I know that among all the people facing death this very night, I’m probably the least deserving of another day of life. But Lord, I’ve got so much to make up for. Please, if You could somehow see Your way clear to not take my life tonight, I promise to live every additional day that You give me doing everything I can to be the kind of husband, dad, and Christian You would have me to be. But if not, thank You for giving me a home with You in heaven. Just, please, take care of my wife and daughter.

The weather forecaster’s voice burst out of the alarm-clock radio.

“Oh! God!” shouted Phil. “Is it really Monday?”

Olivia turned her head toward him and looked at him quizzically. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Phil kissed her and sat up. “Great!” he said. “And I’m going to make the most of it.”

A Short Circuit

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The Hitch

Though she had no way of knowing for sure, Mia guessed that it had been at least three hours since she had been left there. The broiling sun had moved enough that the small overhang in the front of the time-ravaged building no longer provided any shade, no matter where she positioned herself.

Shawn was not coming back. She was convinced of that now. She should have known better than to accompany him. Actually, she had known better. The squabbling, bickering, and fighting had become not merely a daily occurrence, but pretty much continuous in the weeks leading up to the trip. She had decided against going and was even looking forward to a couple weeks of peace while he was away. But in one of their rare quiet moments he had convinced her that he needed her with him and that a change of scenery would breathe fresh life into their crumbling relationship. At the last minute she had given-in, thrown some clothes in a bag, and gone along. Now that bag, as well as her purse and cell phone, were halfway to who-knew-where.

The trip had started out okay, but by day two they were back to their old ways. It was out on these deserted back roads that their latest raging quarrel had reached such hysteria that, upon spotting a gas station, she had demanded at the top of her lungs that he let her out. She had even grabbed the steering wheel, receiving a backhand in response. She could not remember ever being so furious. When he had jammed on his brakes she had immediately jumped out. But before she could reach back in to get her stuff, he had squealed off, nearly dragging her along. After she had regained her balance, she had seen him slow the car after about 100 yards to reach over and pull her door completely shut, and then squeal off again, disappearing into the distance. Tears formed in her eyes as she once again rued the day she let herself get mixed up with such a self-centered jerk. He hadn’t even had the decency to throw her purse out the window. Her dad had warned her that she should stay away from Shawn; that he was bad news. Much as she hated to admit it, Dad had been spot-on.

So here she sat on the ground, arms around her knees, back against the dingy, once-white stucco wall: no purse, no personal items, no ID, no credit cards, no money, no phone; nothing. In her rage she had failed to notice that this “gas station” was long-abandoned. Given that she had only seen four vehicles—a pickup, a semi, and two cars—go by all the while she had been there, it was no wonder that it had gone out of business. As each of those vehicles had approached, she had hidden behind the decaying remains of what had been the tiny station, fearing that someone creepy might see her and stop. But, as the hours crawled by in the stifling heat, she was reconsidering that strategy. There was nothing else around, no other buildings of any kind from horizon to horizon; only treeless open space and the straight, lone, gray strip of two-lane highway. Each end of it shimmered in a silent heat mirage in the distance with no cars approaching in either direction.

Maybe I should have hailed one of those cars, she thought. She knew the incredible dangers of anyone, especially a young woman, hitching a ride out on a lonesome highway. But now she was pondering the dangers of staying put. Since no one except that lunatic, Shawn, knew that she, or that anyone, was out here, logically no one would ever look here for her. The sun was baking her and there was no shelter, no food, not even any water as far as she could tell. The only respite from the unbearable heat would be nightfall. But that would be hours from now and would introduce a whole new set of dangers. What kinds of beasties might prowl around this godforsaken wilderness in the dark?

Sweat dripped off the tip of her nose and she, for the third time, walked over to the door and the lone window in the front of the building. The steel door was solidly padlocked. The window had originally consisted of 12 small panes in a wood framework that only gave the slightest hint that it had once been painted. All of the panes had been broken inward and she could see some sort of ledge inside that was covered with the shattered glass. The frames themselves still retained shards protruding like sharks’ teeth, warning her against any thought of trying to get in through them. Besides, from what she could see, the building was just an empty shell. While getting inside would get her out of the sun, it would amount to little more than moving from burner to oven. There were the remnants of two gas pumps out front and a retracted awning along one side of the building that she guessed was the closest the place had come to having a garage. She figured the proprietor had probably done minor repairs and tire changes under it, but extending it required some kind of crank, which she did not see anywhere. When looking around out back earlier she had seen a six-foot-tall by four-foot-square outbuilding that contained a vertical tank and what was probably a well-water pump, from which some wires ran up to an insulator. But the wires were no longer connected to the utility pole beside the road. Around the front of the station next to the door was the only other fixture: a gutted, old-fashioned, chest-style Coke machine almost totally devoid of red paint.

Noticing it reminded her of her raging thirst and, ironically, her need to pee. There were restrooms around back: the women’s was padlocked shut, but the door to the men’s had been broken open with a huge rock—by some desperate person who had been in the car too long since the last outpost of civilization, no doubt. She had ignored it during her earlier exploratory trips around the building, but now it took on renewed importance.

The restroom door was jammed partially open providing barely enough room to squeeze in, which she did, and barely enough light to see once inside. There were no fixtures, only pipes with nothing attached. In the stool’s place was just a hole in the floor. It had been covered with a piece of plywood but someone, probably Mr. Desperate, had somehow torn it off. There was an unpleasant odor emanating from what now amounted to a “squatty potty,” similar to those she had seen in a documentary about rural areas in Asia, but she decided something was better than nothing. As her eyes adjusted to the tiny, darkened room, she could see various bugs and spiders reacting to her intrusion. It gave her the willies so, hoping that speed would be her friend, she unfastened her jeans in record time. Even so, she could not help but imagine all sorts of crawlies skydiving from the ceiling onto her tee shirt or into her long, brown hair as she squatted motionless, pleading with her bladder to hurry-up and empty. Movement in the corner, where the sink had been, caught her eye. It was a small lizard scurrying after an insect, making her heart pound as she frantically pulled her jeans back on and ran outside. Only then did her mind have the misfortune to wonder what might have crawled into her pants while she was in such a vulnerable position. Despite the oppressive heat, she shuddered.

That was it; she could not stay here. No matter what vehicle came along or which direction it was heading, she would hail the next one down and ask for a ride—somewhere, anywhere. Maybe fortune would smile upon her and the next vehicle would be driven by a silver-haired grandmother who, along with her two kindhearted daughters, would take Mia to their home, lend her a phone to call for her dad to come get her, and treat her like royalty. Or maybe a police car would come by.

Or perhaps Shawn would have had a change of heart and come back to get her. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be such a good thing. What kind of scum leaves his girlfriend abandoned alongside a road, even if he does come back three hours later? In three hours she could have been savaged by some animal, ravaged by a gang of rapists, or abducted by some serial killer. Then a cold fear gripped her: any of those things might happen yet.

She again plopped her slim, 5’7” frame down and leaned back against the building. Then she began to cry. Her perspiration along with her thirst prevented an excessive amount of tears, but she sobbed aloud for a good five minutes. As she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, she realized she was starting to feel light-headed in the smothering heat. What a horrible place, she thought. Not even a single tree in sight to provide a little shade. I can’t believe hell is much worse than this. She wondered if she should get the rock that Mr. Desperate had crashed-in the restroom door with and see if she could break some of the front window frames. At least inside she might avoid heatstroke.

With great effort she got to her feet and, for no real reason, dusted-off the back of her pants. Although she assumed it was futile, she first staggered out to the edge of the road and looked down it, first west, then east. She blinked and shook her head to ensure her mind wasn’t playing tricks. Some object was shimmering in the distance to the east end of the highway. She compared it to the west horizon and when she looked back again, sure enough, something was approaching. It appeared to be a silver vehicle. She remembered reading somewhere that women preferred silver cars more than men. That was a hopeful sign. She stepped one foot onto the pavement and began waving her arms as a person having car trouble would do. To her great relief, the silver sedan slowed way down and then stopped beside her. The person inside was wearing a stained John Deere baseball cap, and leaned over to crank-down the passenger window.

“Need some help?” asked a 30-ish man with a brown stubble beard.

Mia gulped. This was not the grandmotherly type she had hoped for. “Um, yeah,” she said hesitantly.

The man looked all around her. “Car break down?”

“No. I don’t have a car. Um, could I maybe just use your phone?”

“Well, I mean, you could, except I don’t have it with me. I let my mom borrow it this morning and drove off without it. Sorry. I don’t usually do that. Could I give you a ride somewhere? I’m headed to Bald Rock.”

Her nostrils flared as she felt like she might start crying again. “Um, no offense, sir, but could I maybe ride in back?”

“Well, I mean, unfortunately it’s all full of stuff. See?” He pointed and, as he had said, the rear seat and floorboard were covered with boxes, books, some sort of shelving, a lamp, and various other garage-sale type items. “It’s my mom’s stuff. I’m moving her in with me and had to get everything out of her apartment by today. This is the last load. But you can sit up front. I mean, I don’t bite, and don’t have rabies or nothin’ even if I did.” He gave a quick laugh.

Mia bit her lip and wrung her hands with indecision. There was something about this guy she didn’t like. One of those women’s intuition things. He didn’t leer at her or anything, and had not done or said anything particularly creepy. Except that unlikely-sounding story about his phone. Her stomach tightened with fear and her lower lip began to tremble. “Sir, could you maybe just go somewhere and call 9-1-1 and tell them I’m out here and need help? It’s nothing against you or anything, it’s just that I’m really frightened.”

“I mean, I could do that, but Bald Rock’s a good 45 minutes away; ‘n then by the time I got there, made the call and someone got back here… How long have you been out here?”

“I don’t know; two, three, maybe four hours.”

“Ma’am, it’s almost a hundred degrees out here and getting hotter every minute. I mean, I know you’re reluctant, what with me being a stranger and all, but judging by the perspiration and how red you are in the face, I really think you need to get out of this heat. This old car has a lot of miles on her, but the air conditioning works fine. Look, I can take you to my place—my mother will be there—and you can use my phone, or, I mean, if you’d rather to go someplace public, I can take you to the truck stop out on the Interstate. I mean, we’d pass right by my house, but if that’s what you’d prefer, that’s what we’ll do.”

He keeps mentioning his mother, she thought. That might mean he’s okay. Finally, she nodded, took a deep breath and pulled the door open. The gust of air conditioning that hit her as she sat down caused her to close her eyes, loll her head back against the headrest, and blow out her cheeks with relief.

As she buckled-in and the car started moving, the man said, “Y’know, that air will work a lot better if you close up your window. This car don’t have no fancy push button windows, you gotta crank it shut.” She nodded and did so. “You can readjust them vents any way you need to so’s you can cool off.”

She gave him a quick half-hearted smile. “They’re fine, but thank you.”

Then she noticed the large plastic fast-food cup in the console cupholder. He saw her look at it and said, “I expect you’re probably thirsty, huh? That’s still half full. It’s just root beer. I mean, if you want you can just take off the lid and straw and drink it straight from the cup. That way it won’t have too many of my germs.”

Her mind raced with thoughts not unlike those she’d had about bugs having crawled into her pants but, desperate times… “Maybe just a sip,” she said. With great hesitation she removed the lid, set it aside and sipped-in a tiny amount of the potentially germ-riddled liquid. But its icy, sweet wetness was so wonderful that her mouth would not allow her to stop until she had taken four large gulps. She pulled the cup away and again closed her eyes as she caught her breath. When she opened them, the man was smiling. She didn’t like his smile. Not that there was anything sinister in it, she somehow just didn’t like that he was smiling.

“Go on ahead,” he said. “Have some more. Drink it all if you want. I don’t need it.”

Having already doomed herself by ingesting God-knew-what kind of diseases, she decided to just go for it. “Thank you,” she said quietly as she tipped the cup up and took a half dozen more swallows.

“By the way,” he said, “my name’s Lenny; Lenny Buckweiler. I live up here in Bald Rock.”

“I’m Mia,” she said. She stared out the windshield as if hoping it would curtail further conversation.

“Mia?” he said. She nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Mia.” She gave a slight smile and nodded again. They rode in silence for few minutes and then Lenny said, “You live around here somewhere?”

“No, I’m from—” Then she caught herself. Maybe letting him know that help was a long way away was not a good idea. He looked over at her with knitted brows, waiting for her to finish. She cleared her throat. “I’m… from out of state.” As soon as she said it she realized how foolish it was. Given the size of this state and where they were, that automatically meant her “people” were hours away at best, no matter where she was from. Irritated with herself, she decided that there was no use trying to be circumspect about it. She sighed and said, “Oklahoma. I’m from Oklahoma.”

“Ah,” said Lenny. “I got a cousin lives in Oklahoma; Miami. It’s spelled like Miami in Florida, but they insist people pronounce it Miam-uh. Don’t know why.” There was another long pause as he waited for her to pick up the conversation, which she did not. He tried again. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you end-up stranded way out here all by yourself with no car or nothin’? I mean, it doesn’t look like you even have a purse or anything. It’s pretty rare nowadays for a person, especially someone young, to not at least have a phone with her.”

She sighed. She didn’t owe this guy her life history. But then, he was helping her by giving her a ride; he wouldn’t have had to. She decided to give him the condensed version. “I was traveling with my boyfriend—make that my ex-boyfriend—to Las Vegas. We’ve been doing a lot of fighting lately and we got into another one. It turned out to be a doozy and when I saw that gas station, I demanded that he let me out. He did and then took off with all my stuff. Only after he left did I realize the station was all closed up.”

“Yeah,” said Lenny, “that place has been shut down as long as I can remember. So, your boy—ex-boyfriend just drove off and left you? Out in the middle of nowhere? I mean, that ain’t right; I don’t care how upset a guy gets, you just can’t treat a lady that way.”

She smiled slightly and the tension in her stomach eased a bit. Still, she thought, that could just be him trying to get on my good side so that I’ll let my guard down.

“I’m curious,” said Lenny. “If you’re headed to Las Vegas, what were you doing on this road? I mean, the Interstate isn’t that far away and would get you there a whole lot faster.”

“I know. That was one of the many things we were arguing about. Shawn had this screwy idea that he could make better time by avoiding all the road construction on the Interstate. I tried to tell him we were going way too far out of the way, but he just shut me down. Like he always did.”

“Yeah, far as I know the only road construction in these parts just slows you to 55 for five or six miles. Coming this way must have added quite a bit of time to your trip.”

“Not to mention that there aren’t any places to stop going this way,” said Mia. “We didn’t even get breakfast.”

“Wow, and here it is almost 2:30. Well, don’t worry about that. We’ll get you something to eat. Now, once you get to a phone, I mean, is there somebody that can come help you?”

“Yeah, my dad.”

“He in Oklahoma?”

“Yeah, Tulsa.”

“Hmm,” said Lenny, “once you call him, even if he left immediately, he wouldn’t get here till three, four tomorrow morning. You’re gonna need someplace to stay.”

She gulped. “Is—is there a hotel nearby? My dad might be able to reserve a room for me with his credit card.”

Lenny paused for a bit. “I mean, there’s not anything in Bald Rock. It ain’t much more than a spot in the road. The Long-Haul Truck Stop is the only business there to speak of. There’s a Super-8 about 30 miles on down the Interstate. But, now that Mom’s moved into my place, her old sofa’s in the spare room. I mean, you could sleep there till your dad got here.”

Mia was still suspicious and did not particularly like the idea of even going to Lenny’s house, let alone sleeping there. But at least they were progressing toward something resembling civilization, so she would deal with the specifics when the time came. She decided to try getting a better read on this Lenny character. “So, you say you’re moving your mother in with you?”

“Yeah. I mean, she’s not really that old; only 58. But she’s been hit hard by arthritis sort of all over her body. She has to use a walker to get around. She’s always been pretty independent, but it’s gotten so bad that even she had to admit she can’t live by herself anymore. So, I fixed her up a place in my house where she can be comfortable and I can look after her. Also, her sister, my Aunt Lorene, recently moved to Bald Rock, so that helps. I work for the county doing inspections, so I end up driving around a lot. Having my aunt nearby helps ensure my mom is taken care of. Fact is, Aunt Lorene would have had Mom move in with her, but the only place she could afford wasn’t big enough.”

“I think it’s very kind of you to take care of your mom that way.”

“Well, a guy has to take care of his mother, right? What could be more important than that?”

Mia suddenly had the fruit cellar scene from the movie Psycho flash through her mind.

Lenny asked, “You’d take care of your mom if she was not able to do for herself, wouldn’t you?”

“I assume so. My mom passed away a few years back.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, it was tough. So, you married?”

He cleared his throat. “Naw. I was once, but she cheated on me—several times before I found out—so I ended it then and there. I mean, that is one thing I just will not tolerate.”

There was nothing wrong with what he said, but the sternness with which he spoke gave Mia the chills. She tried to lighten the mood. “Um, how about pets? You have any?”

He gave a quick laugh. “I do now! Mom has a cat, Queenie, that pretty much rules the roost wherever she is. It’s taking some gettin’ used-to. I mean, I’m okay with animals and all, but not when they get up on the kitchen counter or the dining table. That is something I simply will not abide: an animal around my food and dishes! I told Mom, ‘Keep that cat off the counter and the table.’”

His heightened agitation caused Mia shrink from him a bit. “Has she been able to do that?” she asked.

“Well, it’s only been a few days, but between Mom and me keepin’ after her, I think Queenie’s getting the message.”

“Lenny, you mentioned a truck stop just past where you live. Does it have a restaurant?”

“Yeah. Food’s pretty decent.”

“Then I assume it’s open all night. Maybe after I call my dad I could just wait there until he comes.”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I mean, you could, but I wouldn’t advise it.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, see, Bald Rock and the Long-Haul Truck Stop and all are pretty far out in the sticks. Not much of what you’d call police presence. A lot of truckers park their trucks there overnight and, I mean, there’s this woman named Ruth that has a group of girls that provide, I guess you might say, a service to the truckers, if you get my meaning. The county sheriff’s office has tried to bust Ruth a couple of times, but they’re spread pretty thin and didn’t make no arrests or nothin’. Anyway, a pretty young woman like you sittin’ all by herself at the Long-Haul in the wee hours, well, people—including the truckers—might just assume… Y’know, what I mean?”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Mia was disconcerted at how Lenny thwarted every effort she made to avoid going to his house with him. I better be greeted by his silver-haired mother in a walker when I get there, that’s all I’ve got to say, she thought.

They traveled for a good half hour before the first house appeared off in the distance to their left. Then, a few miles further, another appeared, nestled in a small grove of trees off to their right. Then houses dotted the landscape until, at last, a 35-mph speed limit sign appeared accompanied by a tiny green “Bald Rock” sign amidst a little knot of houses and a couple of cross streets. Lenny had been correct; the town did not amount to much.

Lenny pointed to a miniscule light-green, shingle-sided cottage on their right that could not have been more than one bedroom. “That’s my Aunt Lorene’s house.” As they approached an intersection, he pointed down it to the left. “That road takes you to the Interstate and the Long-Haul.” Then he pointed to a house on the immediate right. “This is my place.” Compared to most of the other houses in the town, his was much newer and better kept up. He pulled well into the driveway, opposite the house’s back door. Mia breathed a slight sigh of relief that at least he hadn’t taken her out to some spooky old farmhouse miles from the nearest neighbor. Still, in the deep recesses of her mind she could not help fearing that the house had a basement full of shackles, meat hooks, and torture devices.

Lenny shut the car off, got out, and headed to the back door of the house. Mia considered waiting in the car and asking him to just bring her his phone, but the car interior began to heat up the instant the air conditioning stopped. He opened the door to the house and then looked back to her, his raised eyebrows beckoning her to come with him. She reluctantly opened the car door and was reminded of the scorching heat as soon as she got out. There was a small ramp in lieu of steps up to the back door. Her stomach was tight as he held the door for her and she entered first a laundry room and then the kitchen.

The kitchen seemed clean and the appliances were reasonably nice; nothing to immediately suggest he was an axe murderer. It was a modest-sized kitchen, but had a long counter separating it from the dining room which made it feel larger. She only took a few steps in and stood there as he closed both doors behind them.

“Mom?” he called as he headed into the interior of the house. Mia heard him call out twice more. She nervously took stock of her surroundings. Although there was a dishwasher next to the stainless-steel sink, a dish drainer on the counter held a coffee mug, a plate, and a fork. Hmm, only one of each, she thought. But aren’t two people supposed to live here? Behind the plate was also a skillet, a spatula, and a butcher knife.

Lenny returned from the back part of the house. “Humph,” he said, “she must’ve gone someplace; don’t know where, though.” He started to come back around the end of the counter.

Mia’s heart pounded with fear as she grabbed the butcher knife and held it out front of her. “I thought you said she could barely walk! How could she just go off someplace?”

Lenny stopped short and backed up putting the counter between him and her, his hands up in front of him. “Now, just take it easy, Mia.”

She was on the verge of tears. “I want your phone. Right now!”

“Mia,” he said gently, “I already told you, I don’t have it. My mom has it.”

“What mom? I don’t see any mom. You’ve been lying to me this whole time!”

“No, Mia, I haven’t lied to you.” He was using tones one would use around a frightened child. “It’s true, she couldn’t have gone anywhere by herself. Aunt Lorene probably came and took her over to her house; y’know, the one I showed you on the way. Now, why don’t you just put that knife down and I’ll take you over to Aunt Lorene’s.”

“No! No more strange houses.” She held the knife up and pointed it at him threateningly. “I—I want to go to that truck stop; if it even really exists.”

“It does, Mia, and, if that’s what you want, I’ll take you there, right now. Only let me leave a note for my mom and aunt, okay?” Still holding the knife out front of her like a sword, she nodded for him to do so. He dug into a small pile of junk mail and found an ad with a blank back side. He wrote:

Mom/Aunt Lorene,
Please come to the Long-Haul ASAP and bring my phone.
– Lenny

He pulled out a push pin that held a small calendar on the wall. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll take you there, but I want you to walk out to the car ahead of me and put that knife in the passenger-side door pocket before you get in. I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m just a stranger to you, but you’re a little too jumpy with that thing for my liking. Okay?”

She nodded and went back out to the car, looking back every few steps to see if he was up to anything. She opened the car door and saw that he was attaching his note to the back door with the pin. If this is all a ruse, he’s making quite a show of it, she thought. It relaxed her enough that she put the knife in the pocket like he had asked. He opened the driver’s side, but before he got in, he said, “No knife?” She shook her head and held up her empty hands. “Okay, good,” he said with a sigh of relief and got in.

He turned left at the nearest corner, and within a few minutes the sign for the Long-Haul Truck Stop came into view. When he parked, he said, “Now, if you’ll leave that knife in the car, I’ll take you in and buy us some dinner while we wait for my mom to arrive. That okay?” He smiled, but she still did not like his smile. She nodded and they went into the restaurant and sat in a booth, with Mia making sure she had a view of the door.

A middle-aged Latina waitress appeared as soon as they sat and handed them menus. “Anything to drink?” she asked.

“I’ll have a root beer,” said Lenny.

“Just water,” said Mia.

“Very good,” said the waitress, “I’ll be right back with those and get your orders.”

Lenny studied the menu for a few seconds. “I’m partial to the country fried steak here.”

“That sounds good,” said Mia absently. She was watching a table right near the door. A matronly, silver-haired woman, nicely dressed, was at a table with two young women who, Mia thought, just could be her daughters. Mia began formulating a plan; then she saw the waitress hand the older woman some money and a receipt before heading back over toward Mia’s booth. The women at the table all stood up, preparing to leave.

“Lenny,” Mia said quickly, “I need to use the restroom. Um, just order me what you have.” She got up just as the waitress arrived.

“We’ll both have country fried steak,” he said.

“I’ll have that right out for you,” said the waitress.

The three women had already exited. Mia took a few steps toward the restrooms and then pivoted and hurried for the door of the restaurant. The three women were just getting into a car as she came up to them.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I hate to bother you, but I’m stranded here, and I really need to use a phone. Could I borrow one of yours?”

The older woman said, “Of course, hon.” She turned to one of the younger women. “Serena, you drive.” Then opening the back door, she said to Mia. “Let’s get in the car out of this heat. You can use my phone.” Mia got in and the woman closed the door, then hurried around and got in the other side.

“Where should I go?” said the driver.

“My place,” said the woman.

“N-no,” said Mia, her voice shaking, “I don’t need to go anywhere, I just want to use a phone.”

“Yes, I understand,” said the woman. The car backed out of the parking place and Mia heard a click in the door. The car started forward and Mia’s stomach was doing flips. “No, no I just—”

Suddenly the car halted as a man had run out directly in front of it, waving his hands for them to stop. It was Lenny.

“Hold it!” he yelled. “Let her out of there!”

The driver said, “Ruth, what should I do?”

“Ruth?” said Mia, her eyes wide. She tried to open, then unlock, then open the door, but it would not open. “Let me out of here!”

The driver lowered her window and, after a string of expletives, told him to get out of the way.

“Just run him over,” said Ruth. “When he feels the car moving, he’ll get out of the way.”

Lenny shouted, “The sheriff just pulled-in at the side of the building. You better let that girl out of there!”

Ruth let out her own stream of expletives, then added, “Unlock the doors, Serena, and let her out.”

As soon as she heard the click in the door, Mia escaped. Lenny came over to her and the car peeled out of the parking lot. Mia turned and ran toward the side of the truck stop, with Lenny behind her calling, “Mia! Mia, wait.”

She came around the side of the building, but did not see a police car of any kind. “Where’s the sheriff?” she cried. “You said the sheriff was here.”

“He’s not. I just said that so they’d let you out.”

A small SUV pulled into a handicap parking space right in front of them.

Mia burst into tears and began backing away from him. “You lied! I knew it! It’s all been lies!”

“No, Mia, I never lied to you.

The door of the SUV opened, and an older woman got out. “Leonard Buckweiler, what on earth is going on? And what are you doing to that young woman?”

“Nothin’, Aunt Lorene. She was abandoned on Bald Rock highway and I’m just trying to help her.”

“Well, it looks like you’re scaring her half to death. Get your mother’s walker and help her out of the car.” Lorene approached Mia sympathetically. “You okay?”

Mia gulped in surprise and wiped her eyes. “You mean you really are Lenny’s aunt?”

“Yes. I’m Lorene.”

Lenny had extricated the walker out of the back and helped the car’s other occupant out. He stationed her behind it as he closed the car doors. “Lenny, what’s going on and who is this?” said the woman.

“Mom,” he said as he guided her and the walker toward Mia, “this here is Mia. She was stranded out on Bald Rock highway and I gave her a ride. She needs to use my phone to call her dad to come help her, but you have it.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, Lenny. I completely forgot to give it back to you.”

She reached into her purse and handed a phone to Lenny. He, in turn, handed it to Mia. “Here you are,” he said. “Now you can make that call.”

Mia took it slowly and stared at it as if it were the Hope Diamond. “So, you’re Lenny’s mom?”

“Yes, I’m Eileen Buckweiler.”

Inexplicably Mia stepped forward, put her arms around Eileen, and wept on her shoulder for half a minute.

“What is it, dear? What’s wrong?” She directed her attention to Lenny and said sternly, “Lenny, why is she so upset?”

Before he could speak Mia released Eileen and said, “Oh, it’s nothing about Lenny. He’s—he’s been a perfect gentleman. It’s just that I don’t have any purse or ID or phone or anything and I’m just really scared.”

“Aw, I understand,” said Eileen. She reached up and embraced the taller, slenderer Mia again.

“Oh,” said Mia, wiping her eyes again, “I’m not hurting you, am I? Lenny told me about your arthritis…”

“No, dear, hugs never hurt.”

Lenny spoke up, “She needs to call her dad to come get her, but he lives in Tulsa. So, I told her she could sleep on your sofa we put in the spare room till he gets here.”

“Leonard Ray Buckweiler!” snapped Eileen. “She will do no such thing! What’s the matter with you?” Mia released her and wore a look of grave concern. Eileen’s countenance softened and she said to Mia, “Lenny will put clean, fresh linens on his bed, and you can sleep there. Lenny, you can sleep on my old sofa. For heaven’s sakes, I thought I taught you better manners than that.”

“Oh, no,” objected Mia. “I couldn’t do that.” She smiled at Lenny. “He’s been very kind to me this whole time, even when I wasn’t very nice to him. I couldn’t make him have to give up his own bed.”

“No,” said Lenny, “Mom’s right. I mean, I don’t know what I was thinking. Anyway, why don’t we go inside out of this heat and you can make your phone call. Besides, I think our dinner’s probably ready. Mom, Lorene, come on in with us and I’ll buy yours, too. And as soon as you’re done with the phone, Mia, I’m gonna call the sheriff’s office about that Ruth. Something has got to be done about her.”

“Ruth?” said Lorene. “You mean that—that—”

“Yes!” said Mia. “Oh, you should have seen it. They tried to abduct me, and then Lenny, well, he was so brave. He risked his life to save me. He was wonderful.”

“Okay, okay,” said Lenny. “Let’s don’t overdo it, now. I mean, I’m just glad you’re safe and—” he gave a short laugh— “not threatening me with that butcher knife no more.”

“Butcher knife?” said Eileen. Mia cringed with embarrassment.

“It’s a long story,” said Lenny, “but let’s tell it inside out of this heat.” He held out his arm to Mia. “Shall we?”

“I’d be delighted, Mr. Buckweiler.” She took his arm and, looking up at his smiling face, smiled in return. She liked his smile.

A Short Circuit

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Oh, What a Night

This had to be the worst night of Randy’s life. He flung himself onto an empty seat midway of the bus although he would have preferred riding home in the luggage bin underneath. He did not want to sit at the back where the guys whispered about girls and told jokes. He was in no joking mood. He certainly did not want to sit near the front where the coaches and cheerleaders were. He turned his face toward the window and hoped no one would sit next to him. The bus had not been full so there was no need for anybody to do so. He did not want to talk to anyone—not about the game, not about Del Monte High’s now-ended season, not about basketball in general, and most of all he did not want anyone trying to console him. He wanted to be left alone to wallow in his own misery. When the bus started rolling, the seat beside him was still empty. At least something had finally gone right on this wretched night.

One lousy free throw, he thought. Two shots and all I had to do was make at least one stinking free throw. Down by one point with two seconds left, if he had made both he could have been a hero; make one and at least the game could have gone into overtime. I’m a freakin’ 68% free throw shooter for crying out loud. He used his 4.0 GPA math aptitude to do a quick calculation. That means the odds of me making at least one of them was just a hair under 90%. Ninety stinking percent! When he had bricked the second one in a row off the back rim, Jackson had gone over the back of Crockett High’s big oaf of a center in a desperate attempt to get the rebound. Then, with the Del Monte supporters heading for the exits, Randy had been forced to watch that lummox with the 40% free throw average sink both ends of a one-and-one. Talk about in-your-face.

Randy usually only played four or five minutes per game to give Donovan, a legitimate star, a breather. But when Donovan had rolled his ankle with eight minutes left, it was up to Randy to get the job done. He averaged about two points per game, but he had actually played pretty well. He had scored seven points, had two assists and a steal that led to them being only down by one. But he knew what everyone on the bus—and everyone else driving home from the tournament—was thinking. If that had been Donovan at the line, Del Monte would be on its way to its first trip to the state quarterfinals in nine years.

“Mind if I sit here?” came a voice from the aisle. He turned, ready with his prepared, “I’d rather be by myself if you don’t mind” reply when he saw who it was and stopped short. It was Megan Sanchez. He barely knew her, but she was just about the only person on earth he would not send away. She had caught Randy’s eye last year when she was a freshman even though none of the other guys ever mentioned her when listing the cutest girls in school—something they did often. This year they had begun to notice her, especially when she joined the song-girls pep squad. Randy had been wracking his brain for weeks to come up with some way to strike up a conversation with her. Now, here she was with that gorgeous smile and those dark, captivating eyes. And she apparently had decided to move from where she had been sitting with the other girls to sit with him.

He sat up straight. “Sure, feel free. Only I’m afraid I won’t be much company.”

“Yeah, tough loss,” she said as she swung into the seat. “But at least you played well.”

Randy stared at her in shock. “You’re kidding, right?”

She frowned one eyebrow in honest confusion. “No, not at all. You came in for one of the league’s best players and did him proud. You scored, what, seven points? Plus a couple of assists and that steal, wow, that got us close enough to at least have a chance to win.”

“Humph. Yeah, a chance I blew at the free throw line.”

Ran-dy,” she scolded. He had not been sure she even knew his name. He liked that she did. “Until you drove for the basket with three seconds left, everyone else was just standing around looking confused. You drove in, got fouled, and got to the line.”

“Yeah, but…”

She leaned close to him and looked right into his eyes. “There are no ‘buts’ about it. Tell me honestly, if you could go back and replay the last two minutes of that game, would you have done anything differently?”

Her closeness was so intoxicating he nearly forgot the question. Megan, I think you might just be the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, he thought. Then he forced himself to snap out of his reverie.

“Differently? Well, yeah—I’d make those blasted free throws!” he said laughing. A short time ago he had been certain he would never laugh again.

She leaned back and slapped his arm playfully. “You know what I mean, silly. You did exactly the right things and up until then had not missed a shot. Who else on the team went three-for-three plus a free throw in eight minutes?”

Now it was Randy who moved closer. “Megan, I’m noticing two things about you.”

“Oh?” she said with a demure smile. “What might those be?”

“First, you really know a lot about basketball. I mean, you’re talking about assists and driving to the basket and all. I hate to sound sexist, but most girls aren’t that into it.”

She laughed. “I love basketball; have since I was a little kid. I’m pretty good at it, too, if I may say so. But, at five-three and not likely to grow much more, I’m pretty much left to watching and an occasional game of HORSE.”

“Oh, then we have got to play,” he said. “I must have played a million games of HORSE in my life. The gym is open on Saturday mornings; we could play on one of the practice courts. You free this Saturday? I’ll pick you up.”

She flashed a delighted grin at him. “I’d like that very much.

“Anyway,” she continued, “that’s one reason I joined the song-girl squad—so I could attend all the games.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. And you look great in that outfit.”

“Thanks,” she said, beaming. “So, what’s the second thing you noticed about me?”

He cleared his throat, and then spoke slowly and quietly. “You seem to have followed me pretty closely. I mean, I doubt if even my mom and dad know I had seven points and two assists. So, either you are a walking sports statistics reference or…” He did not quite know how to finish the sentence.

“Or,” she said nervously, looking down at her hands, “I’m very interested in you.”

He gulped audibly to keep his pounding heart from exiting his throat. The bus was pulling into the Del Monte High parking lot. “Megan, could I take you home? I’ll need to know where you live anyway if I’m going to pick you up on Saturday.”

“Sure. I’ll just need to tell Lindsay I won’t need to ride with her.”

As they exited the bus, she pointed toward her older sister who was one of the cheerleaders. “There she is. Linds!” she called out. She took Randy’s hand and hurried over to her.

“Randy’s taking me home, so I won’t need a ride.”

Lindsay eyed the two of them standing hand-in-hand and smirked. “Okay, but don’t be long or Mom will freak. Oh, and Randy, great game. Thanks to you we at least had a chance to win. I hope you’re not all upset. You have no reason to be.”

“Well I was.” Impulsively he put his arm around Megan’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “But things have taken a definite turn for the better.”

As he took Megan to his car, her arm looped through his, he could not help thinking this had to be the best night of his life.

A Short Circuit

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Till It’s Gone

Jan felt fortunate to spot what appeared to be the lone unoccupied seat in the entire Gate 32 waiting area. Her carry-on was not that heavy, but lugging it all the way from the security screening area had been hard on her 63-year-old knees. The seat was on the end, next to a woman of similar age. Unlike Jan, whose dark hair had streaks of gray, this woman’s was snow white. She was sitting next to another woman whose obviously-dyed pinkish hair could not disguise the fact that she, too, was easily in her 60’s. A lean, elderly man sat on the other side of her, his foot in a medical walking boot, a metal cane across his lap. Jan heaved a sigh of relief as she sat down and put her carry-on and her purse at her feet. She smiled at the white-haired woman next to her and received one in return. The man leaned over toward the pink-haired woman, apparently his wife, and spoke softly.

His wife responded loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear. “Harvey, I told you to do that when we were on our way to the gate. Now you’re going to have to walk all that way back down to the restroom.”

The husband again said something quietly.

“Of course there’s time,” she announced with great exasperation. “They won’t even start boarding for another half hour. But you won’t have time if you just sit there.” The man struggled to his feet and hobbled off slowly down the main concourse. His wife shook her head and then turned to the white-haired woman and rolled her eyes. “Honestly, he never listens to a word I say. By the way, my name’s Margie.” She held out her hand.

The white-haired woman took it, smiled, and said, “Barbara. And I know what you mean. My husband is exactly the same way.”

First Margie, then Barbara turned and focused their attention on Jan. She smiled gently and said, “Jan,” as she took each woman’s hand briefly.

Margie nodded and then began again. “I told him that he should stop off at the restroom on the way here, but he insisted we find seats first. Now he’s having to limp all the way there and back.”

“Well there weren’t very many seats here,” said Jan. “I was lucky to get one. What happened to his foot?”

Margie tightened the corners of her mouth and shook her head again. “Oh, he was putting Christmas lights up on our house. I told him to find some neighborhood kid to do it for him, but he wouldn’t listen. Then he thought he was on the last rung of the ladder but was on the next-to-last and stepped off and rolled his ankle. I found him on his hands and knees trying to get up. I told him that’s what he deserves for not listening to me. Now he has to wear that boot for two more weeks. Men, honestly.”

“Oh,” said Barbara, “and they’re such babies when they’re not well. My husband got the flu last month and you’d have thought he had malaria along with the bubonic plague. I mean, it wasn’t stomach flu or anything, just headache, chills and fever, that sort of thing. He’d lay there and call out for me to bring him something to drink, or to adjust his pillows, or bring him a headache pill. He even asked me to make him chicken soup, for heaven’s sakes.”

“Well, you know,” said Margie, “it wasn’t so bad when Harvey was working and gone most of the day, but now that he’s retired he drives me crazy. He is constantly underfoot. At least he used to go golfing but now, with his foot, he—well, listen to this: just before we left to spend Christmas with our kids, I found him out in the garage, still in that boot mind you, sitting on one of my nice kitchen counter stools sawing wood. I asked him what in heaven’s name he thought he was doing and he said he was making a picture frame for me to put our grandkids’ latest picture in. I told him that for heaven’s sakes I could buy a picture frame at a yard sale if I wanted one and for him to get back in the house while I cleaned up the stool and put it back inside where it belonged. I can’t imagine how he even got it out there.”

Barbara sighed and shook her head. “I know. I used to be able to go to the grocery store and just get what I wanted. Now my husband tags along and he’s always asking if we really need this or if we should get the cheaper brand of that. The last time we went, I had to leave him for two minutes to use the restroom and when I got back he had put a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the cart. I asked him what he thought he was doing since the doctor had said he needed to watch how many sweets he ate. You know what he said? ‘I like mint chocolate chip.’ Just like a little kid. ‘Well, you’re just going to have to get over it,’ I said and put it right back in the freezer. And speaking of kids, he’s just as bad as my son was when he was a teenager about leaving stuff strewn all over the place. Every night while we’re watching TV he kicks his shoes off and leaves them right in the middle of the living room floor where anybody can stumble over them. And do you think he’d be the one to pick them up? Ha!” She looked at Jan. “What about you, Jan? Your husband ever leave clothes and shoes scattered around?”

Jan nodded and said, “Yes.”

Just then an announcement came over the PA. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. At this time we are ready to begin pre-boarding for Flight 1521 to Phoenix for families with young children and those who need assistance in boarding. Our regular boarding groups will begin in just a few minutes.”

Margie half stood and looked around. “Tsk, where is Harvey? I told him he needed to hurry because our flight would be leaving any minute. Now he’s going to make us late.” She sat back down and shook her head. Then she looked at Barbara. “You know what else drives me crazy about him? The toilet seat. I must have told him a hundred times to put it down when he finishes his business and every single time I go in the bathroom, there it is sticking right straight up in the air.”

Barbara laughed. “It’s the same way at my house.” Then she turned to Jan. “What about your husband, Jan? You’ve been pretty quiet.”

“If I got home to find my husband had left his things all over the place, I’d be the happiest woman in the world. You see, my husband of 39 years died seven months ago. I would give anything to be able to pick up after him and to loop my arm though his and walk by his side at the supermarket. And he could buy all the mint chocolate chip ice cream he wanted. If he were here to make me a picture frame, I’d put it in the most prominent place in the house, even if the corners didn’t match up. What I would give to, just one more time, hear his voice calling to me to bring him a drink or fluff his pillows. And if he wanted chicken soup, I’d run to bring him the best bowl of chicken soup he’d ever had. Oh, how I wish he were underfoot, as you put it, and that I could once again go in my bathroom and find he had left the toilet seat up. It’s… not so much trouble to lower it, after all.

“I’ve just been at my daughter’s and she keeps telling me it’s time to move on; that I need to seek companionship and maybe even romance so I won’t be lonely. But I’m not lonely for companionship or romance. I’m lonely for the man I loved so very much for 39 years.”

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, we are now ready for Group A to proceed to the boarding area and line up according to the number on your boarding pass. That’s Flight 1521 Boarding Group A.”

“Oh,” said Jan. “That’s me.” She gathered her purse and carry-on, stood up, and said to Margie and Barbara as she hurried away, “Nice meeting you.” After lining up to board, she checked back over her shoulder and saw that Barbara was on her phone and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. She then caught a quick glimpse of Margie hurrying toward Harvey limping along some 20 yards up the concourse.

The gate attendant scanned Jan’s boarding pass and she headed down the gantry. I’ll take a window seat, she thought, just in case there’s a couple that would like to sit together.

A Short Circuit

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Hail! Hail!

Oh brother, an entire week of misery. Keith forced himself not to react to his mom’s announcement. He knew that if he expressed what he was thinking, his parents would get hyper about how his attitude was going to ruin their trip. He did not want to start anything with them. It would get him nowhere anyway. His mom so looked forward to time with her sister, Keith’s Aunt Jessica, she would not take any negativity well, which in turn would anger his dad.

Aunt Jessica had married a divorced man with a daughter Keith’s age 11 years ago and moved a 12-hour drive away. The families tried to get together every couple of years, usually just for a weekend. That was tolerable. But now they had cooked up a full week at a lakeside mountain cabin out in the middle of nowhere. It was the lake his folks had taken him to on a day-trip last summer. Keith was in maximum dread. The lake was nice. He liked his Aunt Jessica well enough. His Uncle Brad—with whom his dad was good friends—was okay. It was the daughter that put Keith under.

Coleen was not a horrible person. At least, not in the classic sense. She was pretty—not gorgeous, but attractive: slender, shapely, athletic, blue-eyed with light brown hair. In fact, she would have been more tolerable if she were homely or something. But, no, not Ms. Perfect. At only 16 she was already one of those valedictorians-in-waiting: Straight-A college-prep student permanently affixed to the Honor Roll, elite choir ensemble member and frequent soloist, leading lady in two school plays and a community theater production, French Club president, Scholarship Federation vice-president, honorable mention all-star regional tennis player, Sunday School teacher for 4- and 5-year-olds, and on and on it went. She was everything Keith was not. Not only was she a model daughter, but a charter-member of the “in” crowd. Actually that was not quite true. She was not a member; the in-crowd formed around her.

Keith, in contrast, was completely ordinary. His GPA hovered between a C+ and a B-, he was a bench-warmer on the JV Football team, and had no special talents of note except as a passable rookie guitar-player. He was not a bad kid—never gave his parents any worry; at least nothing they knew about. He was not part of any clubs and such; he and his buddies just hung out. Listening to a steady stream of how Coleen got another award for a speech at the Lion’s Club, or about her organizing the collection of shoes for orphans in Mexico, wore him slick.

Then there was Coleen herself. She did not behave snobbishly. Nor was she overtly conceited. But neither did she shun or renounce all the awards and accolades that came her way. She just accepted them with grace and gratitude. To be truthful, he had to admit she was sort of in a no-win situation. If she had put-on a bunch of false humility about how she was so undeserving, everyone would have gagged at how phony she was. Still, between her and her parents no one could be around long without getting an earful of her latest achievements, even if spoken in a non-boastful, matter-of-fact way.

As for how she treated Keith, she was courteous and nice around him but it was about a millimeter deep. Thinly disguised just below the surface was, he felt sure, her disdain for him. She never said or did anything condescending toward him but, to him, it was unmistakable. He had tried now and again to strike up a friendship with her, but she remained cool and aloof to him, although to all external appearances, i.e. their respective parents, pleasant. If he talked about his school’s league tournament victory, she talked about hers’ State Championship. If he mentioned a movie he liked, she had read the book—autographed by the author, of course. If he expressed like for a particular song, she had seen it performed live at a concert.

Thus he now faced the prospect of an entire week of his summer spent in stiffly uncomfortable close proximity with Miss Teen America. He had tried numerous angles to get one of his buddies to come along but the few not already committed elsewhere could not devote an entire week to the trip. Besides, bringing one of them along would probably have been a tough sell to his parents anyway. “Coleen will be there, and it would be impolite to ignore her,” they would have said.

Keith was sure that by the end of the week he would be on the brink of insanity, or terminal boredom, or nausea, or perhaps all three. Yet, for the sake of peace in the family, he pretended to be fine with it. Not that he showed any enthusiasm; he was not that good an actor. But he gave no external evidence of discontent and his parents were more than willing to read that as approval of the vacation. The one silver lining was that there was a chance that “the guys” (his dad, his uncle, and he) might go fishing by themselves leaving the gals to occupy themselves separately. This would afford a lengthy reprieve from dealing with Her Excellency. His one fear was that she would tag along. Visions of her hauling-in a record-setting trophy catch while he drowned worms to no avail kept playing over and over in his mind.

The first night at the cabin went okay. There was enough commotion with getting rooms and bedding sorted out that little else happened. As for Coleen, she was much the same except that she had become prettier and shapelier than the last time he had seen her. It bugged him that the ice queen was now even more physically attractive to him.

The next morning the fishing plans got derailed when the boat motor was found to have a problem. His dad and uncle would need to head to the closest (which was not close) sizable town to get it repaired. The only thing Keith could imagine more boring than sitting around with the insufferable Coleen was sitting around watching some shade-tree mechanic trying to fix an outboard motor.

Unfortunately, shortly after the men left he discovered that this lake was in the only location in the state that had no mobile device access—no texts, no email, no social media, no videos, no way to download games, nothing. There was also no TV—by design; this was to be a place to “get away from it all.” Before the guys had left, Keith had found a battered acoustic guitar in a closet but it was missing the D-string. He had asked his dad to see if he could get one while they were in town but that was iffy and for now it was useless to him. So he put his earphones in and listened to music while playing solitaire with an old ratty deck of cards and silently lamenting not having gone with the guys.

There was an old radio in the cabin and while his mom and aunt yakked with each other they had it on some local talk station. He only knew that because he took his earphones off to go to the bathroom. The radio people were going on and on about some wealthy local woman named Farrah Dunhill having disappeared the day before with only an unfinished ransom note left behind. It caught his ear because of the name. Keith remembered seeing an ancient poster among his dad’s memorabilia of some big-haired hottie actress named Farrah-something. Odd name. He returned to the couch, the earphones, and the deck of cards to go stir-crazy while the women blabbed on incessantly and The Princess, also wearing earphones, was absorbed in a New York Times bestseller.

His mom was perceptive enough that after a half-hour or so of listening to him shuffle cards she piped up with a suggestion.

“Keith, honey?”

He cringed. Did she have to say it that way? “Mmph?”

“Brad and Jessica brought two mountain bikes with them. Why don’t you and Coleen ride some of the trails around here?”

Keith noticed Coleen look up from her reading. She raised her eyebrows with a pleasant little “You want to?” look.

Boredom can cause desperate behavior. Before he realized what he was doing he heard himself saying, “Sure. Good idea.”

Coleen put her reading down and seemed so delighted with the idea that he immediately began to worry. I’ll bet she’s in training for the Tour de France, he thought cynically, amid images of him being left in the dust.

“Mom, are the helmets in the van?” said Coleen. Her use of the term “mom” reminded Keith of her situation. Her biological mom had abandoned her husband and daughter and run off with some loser when Coleen was not quite four years old. He did not know for sure, but had the impression that she had not seen the mother since. About 18 months later Coleen’s dad had married Aunt Jessica and it would be hard to imagine a more doting stepmother. To Coleen she was “mom” in every sense of the word. Still, Keith had to admit that it was pretty impressive for Coleen to be as together as she was with something like that in her background.

“Yes, sweetie, under the blanket on the left side,” said Aunt Jessica. Keith hated bicycle helmets, believing that it was impossible not to look like a dork wearing one. It was not as if they would be in danger of being hit by a car; most of the trip around the lake was hiking trails. What did they need helmets for? Rogue pinecones? And who would turn them in for not wearing one out here in the sticks? Still, as he walked out of the cabin Coleen handed him one and began to strap hers on so he just went with the flow and followed suit.

“Just be careful and don’t get lost,” called Aunt Jessica.

“We won’t,” said Keith. “I hiked the whole trail last summer.”

The two women stood at the door and waved good-bye. “Considering they’re the same age,” Keith overheard his mom say under her breath to Jessica, “those two don’t really seem to get along very well, do they?”

“Oh they’ll be fine,” she answered.

“Which way?” asked Coleen as they got the bikes.

Keith pointed off to the right. “We follow the road for about a quarter mile then there’s a hiking and bike trail that follows the shoreline all the way around the lake.”

“Great, let’s go,” she said climbing onto hers. Her energetic enthusiasm reminded Keith of his “Ms. Tour-de-France” concerns.

“Okay, but since there might be hikers, we really shouldn’t go too fast.”

“Oh, no problem. Nice and easy is fine with me. I just love being out in the woods like this.”

They rode in silence until they turned onto the trail at which point it became uncomfortable silence. The trail, though twisty, was wide enough for them to ride side-by-side. Finally Coleen tried some conversation.

“So, got your license yet?”

“Nah. Just my permit still. Every time I plan to go take the test my parents are unavailable or something else comes up. Like, I was going to do it this week but, well, now I’m stuck here.” He immediately felt embarrassed at how that sounded—like he hated being with Coleen. She seemed not to notice.

“I totally get it,” she said. “I had hoped to get mine when things slowed down this summer but I’m still waiting for that slow-down to happen.”

“It makes it rough, not being able to drive. I mean, like, how can a guy ask a girl to a movie or anything if he can’t drive?” He suddenly felt awkward talking about dating to Coleen.

“Keith, mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Go ahead,” he said nervously.

“Do you have a girlfriend? Y’know, someone you especially like?”

He cleared his throat. “No. I mean, I did; her name was Lesley, but it didn’t work out. How about you?” Then he shook his head. “Oh, never mind, dumb question.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, I mean, you’re Ms. Popularity. You’ve probably got guys lining up for a chance to, y’know, go out with you.”

“Humph, you’d be surprised. Truth is, guys all seem to avoid me.”

“What? No way! You’re, like, perfect.”

She slowed her bike to a stop and so did he. She glared at him and said with deep sincerity, “I’m not perfect, Keith. Not even close. I guess that’s part of the problem, though. I get recognition and achievements and stuff and people think I’m stuck-up.” She cast her eyes downward and looked as if she might cry. “Maybe even you have thought that at times.”

Stung with guilt, Keith evaded the question, speaking very gently. “Funny thing about that. I was just thinking the other day how all the honors and awards and accolades puts you in a no-win situation. I mean, you can’t very well refuse them, and if you put-on a bunch of fake ‘Oh, I’m so unworthy’ baloney everyone would know it wasn’t true. So about all you can do is what you do. Accept it graciously and just be your sweet self. Anyway, I don’t think you’re stuck up.” He left off the last part of the sentence, “…like I did earlier this morning.”

She beamed a beautiful smile. “Thank you Keith. Coming from you that really means a lot to me.” As she spoke she reached over and gave his hand a little squeeze.

That did it. He was hooked. He had now completed the warp-speed journey from grudgingly tolerating her, to genuinely liking her.

As if from some telepathic signal they both mounted their bikes again simultaneously and continued down the trail.

“I’m really not conceited,” she said. “I don’t consider myself any better than anybody else.”

“Of course not,” agreed Keith sincerely, his opinion on the matter having taken a rapid and dramatic shift.

“Want to know why I’m involved in so many activities and stuff?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“This is not something I’ve told hardly anyone else.” That she was getting ready to bare her soul to him caused a lump in his throat. “You know how my mom—my birth mom—left when I was three, right?”

“Yeah. That must have been horrible for you, Coleen.”

She nodded and it took her a minute before she could continue. “Well, when I was about ten my mom—that is, your aunt—and dad told me she had died and took me to the funeral. They later told me they had tried several times before that to get her to just see me but she refused. So this was the first time I had seen her since she left. Despite what morticians try to do to make someone look their best, she looked horrible. She looked 80 but she was barely 40. Hardly anyone else was there.

“On the way home I remember Dad and Jessica talking to each other about how she had totally wasted her life drugged-out on crystal meth and that she had been no good to anyone. I made up my mind then and there that no one would say that about me. I was going to make a difference in the world.

“Keith, do you believe in something being a ‘God thing’? You know, something that God arranges in just a certain way?”

“I don’t know. Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that happen.”

“Well I did. That very Sunday the minister at our church preached on Ecclesiastes 9:10 that says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom’ and Colossians 3:23 that says, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.’ He said we only have a short time on this earth and we need to not waste it but make the world a better place for our having been here. I felt like God was talking directly to me and I never forgot it. So ever since then I’ve gotten involved in as many things as I can handle and when I do I give it everything I’ve got. I want to experience as much of life as I can. If there’s a book I like, I want to meet—or at least text—the author. If there’s a singer I like, I want to see her live.” She gave a little chuckle. “Of course, sometimes my dad complains that one of these days I’m going to bankrupt him with that kind of stuff.

“Anyway, that’s what motivates me. I want to be as involved in my life as I can be and not just be a spectator watching my life pass me by.”

Keith rode in silent contemplation for a bit, then said, “Wow. Yeah I see what you mean. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you’re fantastic at everything you try.”

She laughed. “Not hardly! I took up violin a while back and after six months of listening to me screeching on that thing my parents practically begged me to take it back to the rental store. I can sing, but musical instruments are not my thing.”

Keith laughed, then rode for a while before finally breaking the silence. “You know what, Coleen? You have inspired me. I hadn’t really ever thought about life that way before. I think I’m going to stop just hanging out and wasting time on video games and stuff. I’m going to push myself to make a difference, too.”

She slowed to a stop. “You really mean that Keith? I mean, seriously? I’m—I’m an inspiration to you?”

He looked deeply into her, what he now considered, gorgeous blue eyes. “I really, really mean it. You are an inspiration.” Now he reached over and took her soft, dainty hand. “You’re pretty terrific, you know that?” Her smile of delight made his heart skip and he would have tried to hug her if not for their stupid bikes being in the way.

With a huge grin she began riding again, and as he again took his place beside her she beamed a look at him that took his breath away. He was no longer merely hooked; she had landed him and brought him into the boat. But what added fuel to the growing fires of infatuation was that, from what he could tell, she was experiencing the exact same feelings toward him.

They rode on for quite some time deep in thought, punctuating their contemplations with occasional glances and smiles at each other. At length he was able to pick the conversation back up.

“Y’know, you talked about musical instruments. There’s an old guitar at the cabin and I asked my dad to get the missing string for it. I know you’re an awesome singer. Maybe when we get back we could—”

His words were cut short by a loud, deep rumbling very nearby that went on for almost a full minute. Eyes wide, they both stopped and looked behind them.

“Keith, look at that sky!” It was the color of charcoal and ahead of them where the sun had been was now also dark gray. “I guess we were so busy talking we didn’t even notice how dark it was getting.”

There was a brilliant flash behind the trees to their right. Keith counted, “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three—” The ground shook from the ferocious boom. “It’s not even a mile away; I didn’t get to five.” A sudden gust of wind came up from behind them. “Uh oh, that means it’s going to start pouring any second now. We better find some shelter quick.”

“How far from the cabin are we?”

He looked through the trees to their left out across the lake. He pointed to a section of the shoreline far ahead and to the right. “See that building way off over there? That’s the boat ramp area. Our cabin is maybe another half mile on around the lake from there. I’d say we’re a little more than halfway around the lake from where we started.”

A huge raindrop splashed on his hand where he was pointing while two others landed on Coleen’s back and shoulder. The sky lit up with an even closer bolt of lightning.

“We’ll never make it back,” said Coleen. “We better get moving and hope we find something…” Whatever else she said Keith could not make out amid the deafening thunder.

Just as they got underway a torrential downpour began in earnest. They rode as fast as they could, although it was hard to see through the driving rain. They managed to spot a side-trail forking off from the main one they were on. No use wandering around unfamiliar trails, thought Keith. Apparently Coleen felt the same way as she raced past it scarcely slowing at all.

He was convinced he could not have gotten any wetter if he had been riding through the lake instead of around it. He was beginning to think it was useless looking for shelter when he noticed that the raindrops were beginning to sting. Hail! he thought and at that instant saw another side trail, but as he passed it he noticed the silhouette of a small building a short distance up it. It wasn’t a trail; it was a path to a cabin of some sort.

“Coleen! Wait! This way.”

She stopped and turned around, as did he. At that moment the slushy rain turned to pea-sized hail. He led her to the little pathway as the hail now turned to marble-sized. As he got to the cabin he jumped off his bike. As she was getting off hers he draped himself over her back to protect her from the now-golf-ball-sized hailstones. They rushed up the steps to a tiny two-foot-wide porch over the door and one window. At least they were out of the pounding hailstones. The cabin looked abandoned and had a large padlock on the front door. The upper half of the window had a sizable triangular piece broken out of it large enough for him to reach in and unlock the lower half. He opened it and they both climbed through.

Coleen removed her helmet and he did likewise. “Good thing we had these,” he said. Then, putting his hands on her shoulders he looked at her with great concern. “You okay, Coleen?”

“Yes,” she said, wrapping her arms around him and laying her head on his shoulder. “You were wonderful, shielding me like that.”

He squeezed her tightly, loving her softness despite her being sopping wet. “I’m just so glad you’re okay,” he said, looking into her face and tenderly brushing a wet lock of hair from her eyes.

“I must look a fright,” she said.

“I think you’re beautiful.” Impulsively he gave her a quick, but to him heart-pounding, kiss. Then he felt sudden shock that he had been so bold. A guy could get belted for something like that.

But to his relief she smiled with delight and then spun around toward the interior of the cabin, taking his hand. Their eyes were adjusting to the cabin’s darkness. “Looks like it’s completely empty,” she said.

Keith nodded then noticed something under the small window on the far wall. “Except for this.” He led her over to a small wooden bench, on which he noticed the dust had been wiped away by two people’s bottoms. “Someone has sat here recently.”

Coleen shrugged. “At least it’ll give us someplace to sit while we wait for the storm to pass.” She tried to look out the window but it was mostly covered by overgrown shrubbery. “From the sound of it, it’s just rain now.”

As they sat on the bench Coleen’s foot kicked something. She reached down and picked up an old fishing rod with a severely tangled line that had a couple of lead-shot sinkers but no hook. She tossed it aside and sat down next to Keith.

“Wow,” he said. “I don’t think we could get any wetter. Are you cold at all?”

“Maybe a little.” He put his arm around her and pulled her close.

“Better?” he asked. She smiled sweetly and nodded.

“You know,” he said, his speech somewhat halting, “you had asked me back there if I had a girlfriend, someone I especially liked. Well, I do. Want me to tell you about her?”

“Sure.”

“Well, for one thing she’s totally gorgeous.”

“Oh?” she said with a sly grin.

“Oh yeah, even when her hair’s all wet. And smart? She’s like an A+++ student. She’s going to have scholarship offers from every university in the country begging her to attend their school.”

“Real-ly?”

“And did I mention how cute she is?”

“You might have.”

“Well she’s absolutely beautiful. And she’s really talented. She sings like an angel, gets all kinds of awards in speech and debate, is a terrific tennis player, and is the best actress around.”

“Have you actually seen her in one of her plays?”

“Well, no, but I’m going to see her next one, no matter what it takes to get there.”

“Wow, sounds like you’re pretty stuck on her,” she teased.

“Oh, you have no idea. In fact, neither did I till today. But now, I’m just nuts about her.”

“I don’t know; a lot of people think she’s pretty snooty.”

“No, no, no. You misunderstood. Pretty, not pretty snooty, just pretty. I did tell you what a hot babe she was, didn’t I?”

“Mm, now that you mention it… So what’s this chick’s name?”

“Coleen. Coleen Michaels. Surely you’ve heard of her. She’s practically famous.”

“Oh yeah, her. Well, I hate to break it to you, mister, but she’s already taken.”

He gulped, unsure whether she was still teasing with him or not. “Oh?”

“Yep,” she said. “She’s becoming hooked on some guy named Keith.”

A big grin bloomed on his face. “Yeah? Where does she know him from? I’m gonna punch his lights out.”

“Well he’s her—” Suddenly she stopped and pulled away, a look of grave concern on her face. “Keith?”

“What is it?”

“Are we, you know, related? I mean, we’re like step-cousins or something aren’t we? Is that a problem?”

He thought for a minute and then frowned. “Nah, it’s not a problem at all. For one thing I don’t think there even is such a thing as a step-cousin. And for another, we’re not blood related in any way. Your dad happened to marry my aunt, long after you were already on the scene. Look at it this way. Suppose we had fallen for each other first, maybe went together for years and even gotten married.” Her eyes widened. “Just an example,” he added quickly. “Suppose then your dad and my aunt got married. Would that mean something that was perfectly okay would suddenly be wrong?”

She shook her head.

“So see? We’re fine.”

Satisfied, she smiled. Then she said, “Still, what do you think our parents will say about you and me?”

“Well, my mom thinks you practically walk on water. I think she’ll be fine with it. Will yours?”

“Hard to say. Just in case, I guess we better keep any displays of affection to a minimum when we get back—give them time to warm up to the idea.

“Speaking of getting back,” she added, “looks like the rain has stopped. The sun is even coming out.”

The sunshine brightened the cabin enough that they could see more of it. Not far from where she sat Coleen saw something sticking up between the floor boards. “Hey look,” she said. It was paper of some kind and when she tugged on it the board next to it moved. She lifted the board and pulled out a spiral ring binder. Or, at least, the front and back cover of one. All the paper inside was gone. The back was gray pasteboard and the cover was red on the outside and white on the inside. As she sat back on the bench she saw that something was scrawled on the white section.

“Look,” she said holding it under the light from the window. “Looks like a kid wrote something; it’s so light and the printing is so bad it’s hard to make out.”

Keith, who at first had not shown much interest, looked at it more intently.

Coleen tried reading it aloud. “The first word is definitely ‘Help.’ But I can’t make out that second one. Looks like ‘Houston-something?’”

“No,” said Keith, “there’s an ‘E’ and a ‘B’ in there; House-something.”

“Houseboat?” said Coleen.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Then this at the bottom, fuh-RAH or something.”

Keith’s eyes got big. “Farrah! It’s the name, Farrah!”

“Farrah?” said Coleen, not comprehending.

“The missing woman! I heard it on the news on that radio this morning. A rich lady named Farrah was kidnapped around here yesterday and whoever did it left an incomplete ransom note. Her name was Farrah; Farrah Dunhill, I think.”

“That would explain the bad writing,” said Coleen. “She was probably tied up.”

“And probably used one of the lead-shot sinkers to write with.”

Coleen grabbed the fishing pole and inspected the sinkers. “Look, Keith.” Sure enough one of them had a shiny worn spot.

“We’ve got to contact the police and get this to them right away,” said Keith.

“But there’s no reception up here,” said Coleen, frustrated. After a moment she grabbed Keith’s shirtsleeve. “Where are there houseboats?”

“Remember where I pointed-out the boat ramp? I remember a couple of ramshackle houseboats just this side of it.”

“We have to go that direction anyway,” said Coleen. “Maybe we can find her and help her somehow. If not we’ll just have to send our parents for the police when we get back to the cabin.”

They both hustled back out through the front window and onto their bikes. They rode in silence a long while until they caught a glimpse of two houseboats about thirty yards apart moored a short distance ahead of them. Between the two was a small inflatable raft with oars and a tiny trolling motor. Keith pulled off the trail and they hid their bikes in some bushes. They stayed behind trees and brush until they came to the closest one. It was clearly not in use; one could see clear through the windows. It was just a hollow shell.

Suddenly a loud engine noise like a chain saw got their attention off past the second one. They worked their way around and saw a gaunt, unkempt man in boots and overalls using a leaf-blower inside a pickup. Its windshield had been broken, probably in the hailstorm, and the guy was apparently trying to blow the glass out of the cab with the leaf-blower. This worked to Keith and Coleen’s advantage in two ways. One, it made a lot of racket. Two, he had both pickup doors open and, since the truck was facing the second houseboat, he was less likely to see them. One thing gave Keith a chill, though. There was a rifle in the back window of the pickup.

“We have to go on board and see if she’s in there,” said Coleen. Keith nodded and they crept toward the water under as much cover of foliage as they could until there was nothing left but ten yards of open space between them and the second houseboat.

“One at a time,” he whispered. Coleen did not hesitate but started to go immediately. Keith wanted to argue about who should go first but there was no time. “If he spots you, I’ll create a diversion.” She nodded and quickly took off.

Without taking her eyes off the pickup she hurried across the clearing, onto the pier, and boarded the boat. She quickly got to the opposite side from the pickup and pressed herself up against the wall like in the movies. Good! thought Keith. Now she’s out of his sight. She nodded for him to come and Keith exactly duplicated her movements. They both crept up to a window and looked in. The interior was a reeking mass of filth but amid all the clutter sat an elegant-looking woman tied to a chair and with duct tape across her mouth. When she saw them her eyes got wide and pleading.

“Farrah?” mouthed Coleen. The woman nodded frantically. Coleen placed her finger on her lips although telling the woman to be quiet was unnecessary given her situation. Coleen and Keith ducked down and headed back to the stern of the boat.

“How are we going to get her out of there and past that guy?” whispered Keith. “He’s not going to run that thing forever.”

Coleen looked at the inflatable boat. “Maybe we won’t have to. I’ve got an idea. Go get those oars from that raft while I untie the houseboat. We’re not going to separate her from the boat, we’re going to separate the boat from him.”

Keith zipped off the boat and grabbed the two oars, one under each arm. He put them on the houseboat and helped Coleen unhitch the last mooring line. She put her hands on the stern of the boat and her feet against the pier. Keith followed suit. “Now push!” she said. They did with all their might and the boat began moving out into the lake. She jumped aboard, grabbed an oar and lay down on the starboard side so she could reach the water with it. She started paddling for all she was worth. Meanwhile Keith dug his feet into the sandy lake bottom and kept pushing the stern of the boat till he could not reach bottom anymore. Then he climbed aboard and did the same as Coleen on the port side. The pontoon houseboat was anything but streamlined and making progress was slow going.

Suddenly there was silence. The leaf-blower had stopped. A few seconds later the air was blue as the kidnapper used every cuss word imaginable to say, in essence, “Hey, come back here.” They were about 50 yards from shore as he sloshed in and began swimming after them. The combination of him being only a mediocre swimmer plus overalls and boots left him unable to catch up as Keith and Coleen paddled for all they were worth. By the time he made 50 yards they were yet another 30 yards away from him and he was tiring. He turned and headed back to shore.

Coleen ran over to Keith’s position. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, I’m all right.”

“If you can, keep at it while I untie Farrah, okay?”

“Okay, but it will make the boat turn.”

“Well, isn’t our cabin off to the right a ways?”

“True enough,” he answered. “Okay, go turn her loose.”

********************

Coleen entered the nasty houseboat cabin and quickly removed the duct tape from the woman’s mouth. “Oh, thank God,” said Farrah. “Who are you and how did you get here?”

Coleen was trying to undo the Gordian knot of ropes that bound her to the chair. “I’m Coleen and that’s my—my boyfriend Keith out there supplying the muscle to keep us moving. We found your note in the cabin.”

“Oh, then there really is a God. That has to be a miracle. I didn’t think that had any chance of working, but I had to do something.”

“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” said Coleen.

“I think you’ll find a large knife in the sink over there; that is, if you can find the sink.” Coleen looked for a few seconds then held it up. She came back and started cutting Farrah’s arms loose.

********************

Just as she finished and they both began working on freeing her legs, Keith, near exhaustion, came to the door. “He’s in the raft. He’s only got a trolling motor but he’s gaining on us. And he’s got a rifle!”

Farrah’s legs were at last free and she stood up. “If you two will just keep rowing for a bit,” she said, “I’ll take care of him!”

“How can you do that?” asked Coleen.

“Because my captor is an idiot.” With that she opened a cabinet and pulled out a large caliber revolver. She ran out of the cabin and up a ladder to the roof.

Coleen and Keith resumed their paddling stations. Just as Keith did so he caught a glimpse of the kidnapper, now less than 50 yards behind, trying to draw a bead on him with his rifle. The earlier storm had made the lake a bit choppy so that was no easy task. As he lay down to paddle he heard a shot as a bullet tore into the wall less than two feet above him. He did not know whether to run to the other side of the boat or stay where he was.

Just then he heard four shots ring out right above him. It was Farrah Dunhill. Keith looked back and saw the kidnapper spinning his boat around to head back to shore but in seconds it sank beneath him. He discarded the rifle and began swimming back toward the pier. Keith let out a whoop.

“Great shooting, Ms. Dunhill!”

“Well, I didn’t have to be too good, just needed to hit the boat. And it’s Farrah. And you’re Keith, right?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said as she descended the ladder and Coleen joined them.

“I cannot thank you and Coleen enough. You—” Suddenly she burst into tears. “You risked your lives to save me.” She hugged them both and wept as all the terror she had experienced the last two days washed over her.

“Look,” said Coleen pointing ahead of them. A motor boat was speeding toward them from the rough vicinity of their cabin.

“It’s a water patrol boat,” said Keith. In less than a minute it approached them; two officers on deck had their weapons drawn.

“We heard shots,” said one. “Prepare to be boarded.”

“I’m Farrah Dunhill. These two wonderful people just rescued me.”

“Farrah Dunhill? The kidnap victim?”

“Yes, that Farrah Dunhill.”

They put their weapons away as one of them boarded the houseboat. “You okay, Ms. Dunhill?”

“Yes, thanks to these two brave souls. Oh and, by the way, my captor is back at the houseboat landing, assuming he didn’t drown trying to get back to shore.” The officer barked some orders about calling dispatch.

“You Keith Wagner? Coleen Michaels?” The two nodded. He got a look of relief.

“We’ve been looking for you, too.” He tossed a line from the houseboat to the patrol boat. “We’ll tow you back to your cabin.”

As the houseboat was towed across the lake, Keith and Coleen slipped away to the stern and stared into each other’s eyes.

“So I’m thinking we make a pretty good team of detectives, huh?” said Keith.

She took both his hands and put her face up close to his and spoke softly. “I’m thinking we make a pretty good couple,” she said. Then she kissed him, longer, softer, and sweeter than his impulsive kiss at the cabin.

Someone directly behind Keith cleared her throat loudly. He whirled around to see Farrah standing there with a smirk on her face.

“If you two love birds can tear yourselves away from each other, we need to switch over to the patrol boat.”

In the confusion that occurred once they got ashore, it took quite a while for everyone to get a clear picture of what had happened. When the two moms finally understood the dangers their loved ones had faced they both wept openly. Meanwhile the police took statements and asked redundant questions for what seemed an eternity. When they finally prepared to go, and to take Ms. Dunhill home, she once again told the parents how proud they should be of their brave teens.

“And, I have to say, they make the cutest couple,” she added. This caused them all to look at Keith and Coleen walking slowly side-by-side toward the cabin, arms around waists.

“Don’t they though,” said Keith’s mom as the others exchanged glances, wry grins, and raised eyebrows. “And to think, I was wondering if there was a way to get them to talk to each other.”

A Short Circuit

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The Bench Warmer

There were butterflies in Elmer’s stomach as he sat and watched. And waited. And worried. It had been four days now, and he feared the worst.

He sipped his coffee and looked over at the other to-go cup sitting next to him on the park bench. Two creams, three sugars; just the way Lillian always liked it.

He watched a harried lawyer-type in a pinstripe suit bull his way into Gladwell’s Pharmacy across the street. The guy was so busy on his cell phone he did not even notice that he nearly bowled over a young mom with her little boy as they were exiting the pharmacy. The man’s rudeness irritated Elmer, which was a good thing. It gave him a ten-second respite from worry. But only that, because as he checked his battered Timex he began his worrying anew.

Something’s happened to her; I just know it, he thought. She was fine on Monday but here it is Friday and I’ve heard nothing since. He had called her so much and left so many messages he was embarrassed. He stayed close to his phone, too, only venturing out for their morning meeting time here at the park. If she had called back he almost certainly would not have missed it. For the first time in his life he regretted not having one of those cell phones. But Social Security and his pension did not provide enough for such luxuries. Not to mention that, at his age, he was certain he would not be able to figure out how to use one.

Maybe she somehow realized I was about to finally ask her out to dinner—a formal date—and decided to just end the relationship. But no, he thought, she would never be that way, not Lillian. She had far too much class to just disappear and, besides, if she had wanted to end their relationship she would have said so. She was never one to hesitate speaking her mind.

Hah! Speaking her mind. He smiled thinking about it. Lillian would definitely speak her mind, and anything else she could find to speak. From the moment he met her it was clear that speaking was her specialty. She talked and talked and talked.

It was stereotypical to refer to women as doing a lot of talking, but in Lillian’s case it was absolutely true. But unlike the sexist jokes always made it sound, Elmer loved it. He loved the sound of her voice, her animated mannerisms when she spoke, and was genuinely interested in all she had to say.

He had been so lonely. A year ago at this time there had been George, Walt, and him—three close companions. They met for breakfast every morning, helped serve lunch at the soup kitchen, and played cards in the evening, except when an OSU game was on TV. But then George had the stroke. Walt and Elmer had visited him faithfully in the hospital for weeks even though he was unresponsive. When his kids moved him to the extended care facility, the visits stopped. Neither Elmer nor Walt had a car anymore and there was no other way there. Not that it mattered much. George had passed away within a couple of weeks of being moved.

But there had been a silver lining. Elmer and Walt could go fishing a couple of times a week—something George had never wanted to do. They had developed an enjoyable routine until one evening Walt’s son Gary called to say Walt was in the hospital and offered to take Elmer to see him. Gary said the doctors were not too worried, something about excess fluid. When he got there, Elmer made the standard jokes about Walt doing anything to escape his own cooking. Walt had laughed, but much less heartily than usual. As the visit went from one hour to two, Walt had begun to deteriorate noticeably. Gary’s wife had run to get a nurse. Less than an hour later they were prepping Walt for emergency surgery. When Elmer had said goodbye as they were wheeling Walt away, he had somehow known it would be his final words to his dear friend.

Loneliness characterized the months that followed, the worst part of which was the absence of conversation. Elmer would turn the TV on just for the sound of voices, and talk now and again to Frodo, his cat. But he would go days on end without a single conversation with another person. He looked forward to his trips to the market just so he could exchange pleasantries with the checkers.

Three weeks ago, to the day, he had come to Gladwell’s for a refill. There he and a small but feisty lady of about his age had been told their prescriptions were not ready and they would have to wait an hour. After giving the pharmacist a piece of her mind, the lady, Lillian, had asked Elmer if, on such a pretty morning, they should perhaps wait on the park bench across the street. He agreed and found her to be absolutely delightful. She talked nearly incessantly but yet also asked him questions and gave him a chance to converse as well. It had taken all the nerve he could muster, but before she left that day he had asked her if she would meet him at the bench the next morning, and offered to bring her coffee. And so their daily rendezvous had begun. They talked and laughed and reminisced about their younger days. He had learned quite a lot about her past but surprisingly little about her present. He never got around to asking her things like her current address or whether she had family in town. She did on one occasion point-out a bright yellow Jeep going by and mentioned that it was her 20-year-old granddaughter Tanya. She talked with sadness about Tanya’s wildness and her having “hooked-up” with some guy of very dubious character. But beyond that, and her phone number, Elmer knew next to nothing about Lillian’s current life.

And now he was left wondering what had happened to this lovely lady. And she was indeed lovely. She was petite, but not in the shriveled, hunched-over way of many elderly women. No, she was naturally petite and, despite her years, still pretty—at least Elmer thought so. He remembered their last conversation on Monday. They had been discussing their former occupations: she an insurance underwriter and he a math teacher. They had done a lot of laughing and, as always, they had talked and talked and talked.

It was during that conversation that he had become aware that Lillian was more than just someone to talk with. He really, really liked her, in a way that he had not felt about a woman in a very long time. It was then he began hatching a plan to invite her to dinner. But to his place? He was only a so-so cook. He would be willing to splurge and take her to a restaurant, but that would require a cab. This was not New York where one could just hail a cab anywhere any time. How would they get home? Better plan this out a little better and ask her tomorrow, he had thought at the time. But when the next day had come, she had not. Nor Wednesday. Nor Thursday.

He reached over and picked up the now-tepid coffee he had brought for her. The butterflies turned to a knot in his stomach as he got up to toss it away just as he had the last three days.

A bright yellow Jeep caught his eye as it pulled into the pharmacy parking lot. His heart raced as, still holding the two coffees, he half-trotted across the street and up to the brown-haired girl climbing out of the Jeep.

“Excuse me,” he said, smiling so as not to alarm her. “Are you Lillian’s granddaughter?”

The young woman had studs piercing one eyebrow, a nostril, several around each ear, and two in the right corner of her lower lip. She looked a bit puzzled.

“Yes.” There was caution in her voice.

Elmer struggled to find a polite way to ask about Lillian. Finally he just held up her cup.

“I have her morning coffee and—”

A light of understanding came into Tanya’s eyes. “Oh. You must be Elmer.”

He nodded.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “We didn’t know how to reach you. Only that Grandma had talked about this really nice man she had met named Elmer and…” Tanya’s eyes reddened as she continued. “Grandma passed away Monday night. She called my dad to say she felt strange. He called 911 and rushed over there but she died on the way to the hospital. Her funeral was yesterday. I’m sorry. If I had known how to contact you…”

Elmer’s lip began to tremble and a large tear ran down his cheek. His eyes darted around as he searched for something to say.

“I guess,” he said haltingly, “I won’t be needing this, then.” He held the cup out toward Tanya. Purely from reflex she took it and shook her head. Then her face puckered and she began to cry. Elmer did as well and gently held her and patted her back as one does an infant while the two of them wept for a long moment.

When their crying subsided she dug into her small purse and pulled out a Kleenex for each of them. She took a drink of the cold coffee through the sippy hole in the lid.

Elmer gestured toward the park bench across the street. “Would you sit with me? Just for a minute?”

Still dabbing her eyes, she nodded and smiled. As they walked to the bench he said, “I think I might have loved her if we’d had more time.”

“I’m sure of it. I know I did.”

As they sat down, Elmer said, “She mentioned you when you drove by in your Jeep one morning when we were sitting here.”

Tanya looked away. “I’m sure she didn’t have much good to say about me. I know I was a real disappointment to her. My dad always said she was the wisest woman he ever knew. Of course, he also says I’m a lot like her and, well, those two things cannot both be true. I mean, she always seemed to do the right thing. No one could say that about me.”

Elmer started to console her but did not get the chance.

Tanya looked him right in the eyes. “But after she died I decided that, in her honor, I was going to turn things around. First I walked out on that worthless boyfriend of mine. Do you know he actually said he was glad she was gone? He didn’t even want me to go to the funeral. Can you imagine? My own grandma? I know they didn’t have much use for each other, but still, to say something like that about her. I guess you know I told him where to get off and how long he could stay there! Now I’ve moved back home and applied for college.”

“Bravo! Tanya that’s wonderful. Your grandmother must be smiling down on you for sure.”

She nodded and laughed lightly and then looked down at the coffee cup in her hands.

“Yeah. Only…”

“Only?”

“Only, I’m afraid I won’t make it in college.”

“What? Oh, nonsense. If you’re anything like your grandmother you’re plenty bright enough to get any degree you want.”

“Maybe, except when it comes to math. I have to pass algebra and I’m horrible at math, just horrible.”

“My dear, this is your lucky day. I taught algebra for over 25 years and never had a single student fail, not one. I would consider it an honor and a privilege to be your personal tutor and I guarantee you a passing grade.”

“Really? You would do that? That’s awesome. How do I get ahold of you?” She pulled a smart phone out of her purse. “You have one of these, don’t you?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Too expensive and much too complicated.”

“Too…? Don’t be silly. Look, let’s go to my house and see about getting you a phone on my dad’s plan. It’s really cheap to add an additional phone, and we could consider it pay for my tutoring. And if you can teach someone as math-phobic as me algebra, I’ll guarantee you I can teach you how to use one of these.”

She scooted closer to him and turned the phone where he could see it. “See, just using it as a phone is really simple, but there’s a whole lot more you can do.”

They talked and talked and talked.

A Short Circuit

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The Kentonsville Town Council

Jake stared at the horizon behind them for a good ten minutes. No dust. No one coming. No one following.

The ever-fidgety Chet was pacing his horse, up a few steps then back to the others then ahead again. It was as if he was trying to illustrate to Jake what moving forward meant. He could not abide just waiting around. He had asked twice if Jake was ready to go. The ominous “hush up” he had received in reply the second time made it plain there was to be no third.

Not that Chet was afraid of Jake, exactly. He was not afraid of anybody. His lightning-quick draw and pinpoint accuracy saw to that. He was never intimidated; he was the intimidator. He loved the sport in bullying some poor sap until one of two things happened. Either the fool made some threatening move with gun or fist and wound up dead, or used those wonderful words Chet loved so well. Words of cowardice; words that always meant, “You are the master, I am your patsy.” That was not what they said but it was what they meant. What they actually said was, “Look, I don’t want no trouble, mister.” Every time he heard some guy say that, it reinforced his position of invincibility. It always brought a smile of deepest satisfaction to his face. The only thing on earth that could top it was if the guy saying it was with some gal. That, thought Chet, means somewhere deep inside her she knows that I’m more of a man than the yellow-belly she’s with—and secretly wishes she was with me. Chet knew that if it ever came to a showdown he would pump three shots into Jake before the latter’s gun cleared leather. So, no, he was not afraid of Jake. Not exactly.

But Jake called the shots and whether Chet agreed or not he never countered him. Jake was too crafty, too calculating. He was always five steps ahead in planning what they would do and always ready for any contingency. Jake could not outshoot him, but he was certain that if Jake ever took a notion to kill him it would happen—while Chet was asleep likely as not. When he had first become acquainted with Jake, a fellow inmate named Dawkins had appeared to be Jake’s close friend. But, as Dawkins had no skills that would assist Jake’s escape plans, he had not been invited to join them. The day before the breakout, Dawkins threatened to blow the whistle unless he was included. Jake gave-in to the threat seemingly with no ill will. Then, when they were scarcely outside the prison walls, Jake had slit Dawkins’ throat from behind with a shard of broken glass leaving him writhing and strangling to death in his own blood. The obvious message: Nobody threatens Jake Cummings and nobody better cross him either.

So, Jake had companions but not friends. He was with Chet and Jesse because they were of use to him. Nothing more. They, of course, were with Jake for the same reason. He had masterminded the escape and would be clever enough to get them out of the reach of the law. Once that was done, the three would part company—assuming none of them had been killed by the others first. For the present they were companions with a common goal. That kept them civil to one another and able to work as a unit.

Actually, they were quite a formidable unit. Chet had entertained ideas of them sticking together as the terrors of the Territory. No one would be able to withstand them; most would be too afraid to try. They could have their way with the yokels all through these parts taking whatever they wanted, doing whatever they wanted. But Jake was too much of a loner and Jesse had a whole different agenda.
Where the battle-scarred Jake would have looked at least 60 were it not for the complete absence of gray in his black hair and beard, and the weather-beaten Chet looked every minute of his 40 years, Jesse looked like everyone’s kid brother. Sandy-haired and baby-faced he fancied himself a real ladies’ man. Truth be told, Chet was certain that before it was over some woman would be Jesse’s undoing. The kid was obsessed with anything in a dress and rarely took no for an answer. He would spend their brief rest stops lifting boulders and setting them down again, which seemed crazy to Jake and Chet. When they had asked him why, he had removed his shirt and flexed his bulging muscles.

“Show me a gal that won’t slobber all over herself to wrap her arms around this body, huh?” he had said. Chet had shaken his head and chuckled. Jake had squinted one eye and glared his disapproval causing Jesse to put his shirt back on. Nonetheless, his brute strength had proven invaluable during their escape. Two guards with quietly busted necks—courtesy of Jesse’s bare hands—had bought them valuable time that blaring pistols would not have allowed.

“Okay,” growled Jake finally. “They’s nothin’ coming. Guess we’re clear for now.”
He squinted at the sun off to the west. “Not more’n an hour of daylight left. We better find a place to camp. Down in that ravine, yonder. It’ll hide our campfire case anybody comes along.”

Chet grimaced that they were not going to push ahead more. If they kept at it, in a few days they could be across the border. At this rate it would take more than a week. Of course, he had more at stake than the other two. Unlike them he had been awaiting execution for murder. The sooner he got out of the reach of the law the better. Jesse had been sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder. He had beaten a man to death in a fist fight—over a girl, of course. As Jesse told the story, witnesses claimed he had pummeled the victim with over a dozen punches to the head after he was already unconscious. Only the fact that it had started as a “fair” fight between the men kept him out of the hangman’s noose. Neither Chet nor Jesse knew why Jake had been imprisoned or what his sentence was. Only that no man was ever so desperate to get out.

“You sure we shouldn’t go some after dark, Jake?” asked Chet tentatively. “If anybody’s huntin’ us they won’t figure on that, so it’d put a whole ‘nother hour or more between us and them. ‘Sides, we ain’t got nothin’ to eat for supper. There’s a town up ahead and—”

A squint-eyed glare from Jake told Chet he had talked enough. The two stared at each other for several seconds before Jake’s features softened a bit. “You good enough with that pistol to kill one of them jackrabbits yonder?”

Chet’s face twitched several times into a smirk. He turned his horse slowly toward two large buck rabbits at the edge of a clump of brush some 50 yards away. His pistol was still in the holster. The horse drew a few steps closer to them when the closest rabbit bolted. One leap and it was dead before it landed. For good measure Chet killed the second an instant later before it could dash into the brush for cover. He brought the two by the ears back to Jake, each with a hole directly through its heart.

“Man oh man,” shouted Jesse. “That’s some shootin’. Hoo-wee! I ain’t never seen anybody that fast and that dead-center. You gotta teach me that.”

“Can’t be taught,” mumbled Chet as he looked pridefully off toward the horizon. “You just gotta have talent for it.”

“You ever see shootin’ like that, Jake?” asked Jesse.

Jake grinned a little. “Now let’s git us a fire goin’ and eat them critters,” came his low, raspy voice.

While the two skinned carcasses roasted on a makeshift spit, Jake handed each man a small strip of jerky made with an overabundance of pepper. The spicy meat would make them feel fuller than the meager meal could and would compensate for the unseasoned rabbit. Each drank from his canteen.

“Y’know, Jake,” said Chet, “we got a ways a’ ridin’ to go yet till we reach the border. We’re going to need some supplies. We can’t count on finding jackrabbits handy every time we got to eat. Besides, we ain’t even got coffee or nothin’. There was a sign a ways back about some town up ahead somewhere. Kentonburg or Kentonville or something; it can’t be much of a town, I never even heard of it. Probably ain’t got a sheriff or even a telegraph office. We could load up some supplies and be on our way ‘fore anybody even knew we’d been there.”

Jesse brightened. “Yeah, maybe they got a general store where we could get us a pan and a side of bacon and some biscuit fixin’s. Who knows? It might be run by a lonely young gal stuck out here in the middle of nowhere pining away to meet a real man.” Jesse gave a short laugh then caught a severe look from Chet. He was ruining Chet’s chances of persuading Jake. Assaulting some gal would not help them remain anonymous, something Chet was sure Jake wanted.

“We ain’t going to spend enough time there for anything like that,” said Chet, his mouth twitching. “Just get what we need and move on; nothing suspicious.” He looked down at the canteen with the Confederacy’s markings on it from last decade’s war, half full of tepid water. “Just so’s we get some grub and coffee.”

Jake, who had appeared not to be listening, rubbed his stubble. “Coffee?” he growled. Chet started to make a defense when Jake continued. “I need me a shot of rye whiskey.”

A smile gradually twitched itself onto Chet’s face. “Yeah,” he said laughing. “Yeah, that too, a good shot or two to hold us over, right Jesse?”

Jesse’s eyes brightened at the possibilities. “Yeah. They’re bound to have a saloon. Where else are these cow-farmers going to clear the sod out of their throats?” He got more excited. “There might even be a little saloon gal or two. Hey, Chet, how far you reckon it is to this here Kentonburg?”

“Can’t rightly say. Sign didn’t say how far, just said ‘To Kentonburg.’ Tell you one thing, though. This must not be the main road into town. We ain’t seen another soul on this road all day.” The others nodded. Chet tried not to look too excited. He had gotten his way and they were going to stop in town. But it would be more than just a quiet trip to the general store and a couple of quick belts at a saloon. Despite their desire to keep under cover, people would know they had arrived. They would have to because, Chet knew, he and his cohorts would have their way with this Kentonburg or whatever it was. They did not have one cent among them so they would either steal what they wanted or, more likely, take it by force. These Territory farmers would try to stop them and the three outlaws would leave a bunch of grieving widow-women in their wake—at least one of whom would have been ravaged by Jesse in all probability.

“Them rabbits about done?” said Jake.

********************

It was not much after sunup when Tad Peterson pulled the buckboard up in front of the Kentonsville Mercantile. He needed fence-building materials for a corral to keep his two newest colts from wandering off. Of course, he did not need to get them this early. There was another reason for that.
He walked across the dusty street at an angle from the Mercantile to the Stagecoach Inn. He could smell biscuits baking before he even reached the door. But as he entered, it was not the aroma of food or even fresh coffee that was the focus of his attention.

“Mornin’ Tad,” said Dinah with feigned surprise. “Awful early for you to be here, ain’t it? A body’d think there was something special you’re here to see. That or you smelled my biscuits a-cookin’.”

The young man laughed. “Phooey on your biscuits, I’ll show you why I’m here.” With that he reached a big arm around her tiny waist and pulled her to him.

“Tad,” she cautioned in a stage whisper. “One of the guests might be coming down.” She put her hands on his chest but made no real effort to push him away. He looked off toward the stairway that led up to the rooms from the little combination restaurant and hotel lobby.

“It’s clear,” he whispered. Then he pulled her to him and kissed her quickly.

As soon as they parted she looked behind her conspiratorially and then did push him away gently. “Now you come sit yourself down over here and I’ll bring you some coffee.” She guided him to the table nearest the kitchen and plopped him in a chair, then stuck her nose up in mock petulance. “‘Sides, I got no time for such foolishness; too much work to do.”

He grabbed her arm and stopped her, looking deeply into her smiling, coal-black eyes. Given her long, silky hair of the same color one could almost surmise that she was part Cherokee. That is, except for her fair skin. In this scorched climate most women’s skin weathered and tanned till it looked like saddle leather. But, although by no means a homebody, Dinah’s was delicately white with a hint of natural blush. Contrasted with her black hair and eyes it made her a young lady of stunning beauty.

“Dinah,” he moaned. “Why do I have to wait three more weeks yet before we can get married? Can’t we just do it Sunday?”

“Tad Peterson I’ve told you a dozen times. It’s because the preacher won’t be back from Abilene till week after next.”

“But I hear there’s a preacher upstairs; came in on the stage. Why can’t he do it?”

“He ain’t going to be here Sunday; he’s leaving tomorrow.” She got a more serious look. “‘Sides, there’s the wedding dress, too. Seein’ as how Ma died in the fire when I was a baby, I got no dress handed-down to me and nobody to sew one for me. So, I’m having to make my own. Even with Mrs. Stroud’s help it’ll still take some doing.” She put her hand on her hip and wagged her finger in his face. “And it ain’t going to get done by Sunday.” She smiled and tenderly stroked his hair. “You’ll just have to be patient,” she said softly. “Waitin’ for something you really want makes it that much better when it gets here anyway.”

“Oh, Dinah, it don’t need to get no better.” He sat her lightly in his lap. “I just think sometimes I’m gonna perish from wanting us to start our lives together. It’s like each day don’t mean nothin’ by itself, only that it’s one day closer to us belonging to each other forever.”

“I know,” she sympathized. “I feel the same way most of the time—like I’m going to bust open like one of them popcorns on a fire if that wedding day don’t hurry up and get here. But it’ll get here, and when it does we’ll be the happiest people in the territory.”

They kissed again then she jumped up. As she did he grabbed her by the apron but she pulled it out of his hands.

“Nope,” she said. “No more time for that. Got guests that’ll be wanting their breakfast and I imagine you’d like some eggs and grits too, right? I got to get back to work.”

As if on cue the handful of guests at the inn began gathering in the dining room. Kentonsville was in the middle of farm and ranch country (or as the more cynical put it, the middle of nowhere) with no other industry to speak of. But it happened to be at the crossroads of the southwest-northeast stagecoach route that terminated in St. Louis and the north-south route through Abilene. It was a transfer point for some passengers and that kept a small but continual influx of guests at the inn as they waited anywhere from overnight to as much as three days to catch their connecting coach. There was also a road that entered town from the northwest but since the Wyoming cattle drives no longer came this way it was seldom used.

The guests there awaiting their connections exchanged pleasantries and arranged themselves at tables in the dining room. At the table to the right of the outside door sat a middle-aged couple whose travel was necessitated by the death of the woman’s mother, almost as beloved by her son-in-law as by her own daughter. Hence, the long, rough trip was made even less palatable by the pain and loss that would reach its pinnacle upon their arrival at their destination. The woman, Abigail Post, had soft chestnut hair and blue eyes that might have made her pretty were it not for her perpetual frown of worry. Her husband Mitchell’s graying temples had seemingly become more pronounced since the trip had started as he was continuously aflutter over how to soothe his wife’s grief.

Sitting with them was a meticulously groomed aspiring preacher named Charles Redden scarcely 25 years of age on his way to his first ministry: circuit preaching for a group of farming communities near Springfield. He had endeared himself to the couple by offering God’s comfort in their time of emptiness. The experience had been a blessing for him as well. He had quickly come to realize that people suffering over the death of a loved one did not need platitudes about how much better-off the deceased was or how God used difficulties to toughen His people up or discipline them. Initially he had not really known what to say except that the dear departed must have been a wonderful person for her passing to bring such emotion. Then, his loss for words being perceived as wisdom beyond his years, he listened intently as mile after mile of delightful memories were shared by the couple. They even had managed an occasional smile or chuckle. He had restricted his comments to a few prayers for God’s strength and comfort for the couple and to note that, having heard such stories, he truly wished he had known her. He was astute enough to grasp through this experience that grieving people did not want answers—indeed it was plain to all that there were no satisfactory answers. They just needed someone to listen, someone to understand, someone to care, and the assurance that God’s love remained. Such a discovery at the outset of his ministry could only prove invaluable as his distant, rural destination would undoubtedly have its share of deaths attended by despondent loved-ones. For all that, though, there was a question that Abigail asked repeatedly for which Charles truly wished he had an answer. Why did her generous, kindhearted, God-fearing mother die so soon while so many vile, wicked people continued to thrive and plague their fellow men?

At the table nearest the other side of the door there was a sweet, silver-haired matron named Penelope Holmes. She was escorting her seven- and nine-year-old granddaughters back to their parents after a summer-long visit. The girls were as well-mannered as their ages would allow and were rewarded with their grandmother’s doting smile and general joy of life. She engaged in a near-continuous dialog with the talkative children but never once did her mind wander or did she disregard a single word from them, no matter how childish the prattle. If one could neither see nor hear the three in conversation but only read a transcript of it, the natural conclusion would have been that they were all of about the same age. Her son had often teasingly accused her of never having grown up. The girls delighted in having an adult so interested in their every word—as if they were not just kids but were important. For her part, being with the girls served to further revitalize her youthful spirit. Though she was well along in years her only obvious wrinkles were the laugh lines around her eyes.

The inn, which was both the only hotel and the only restaurant in town, only ever served one breakfast: eggs, grits, ham, and biscuits with butter and sorghum molasses. But, lack of variety notwithstanding, even the pickiest eaters raved about Dinah’s cooking. She had run the place by herself as desk clerk, maid, cook, waitress—whatever needed doing—ever since her father had died suddenly two years before. The very afternoon before Tad had proposed to her, an Irishman named Patrick O’Rourke, a coach passenger, had shown an inordinate amount of interest in the place. He quizzed her on how much it brought in, how much work it took to keep it running, and how accepting the town would be of immigrants. Liking her answers, he offered to buy the inn from her. He said he’d had enough of factory work in the crowded city and, having come into a small inheritance from a distant relative in Dublin, he wanted to bring his family out to the wide-open spaces. His offer was near the low end of being a “fair price” but truthfully Dinah had been longing for someone to take the responsibility and demands of the place off her hands. That became even more important when the next day Tad asked her to be his wife. He told her that, based on prayer and faith alone he had built a new home for them out on his and his brother’s spread southeast of town. She and Tad were convinced that the offer coming out of the blue was no mere coincidence but was God’s hand at work arranging their future together. Mr. O’Rourke had made a sizable cash down payment and left to bring his family back by the end of the month—a few days before Tad and Dinah’s wedding date. Yes, it would not be for much longer that she would have to cook a dozen or so breakfasts every morning but, for the present, she needed to get busy.

********************

The terrain ahead was flat almost to the horizon, devoid of the rolling hills the three had seen the day before. Beyond where the wagon ruts in the road merged into a single line due to the distance stood a tiny clump of something too squared-off to be a grove of trees. It was Kentonsville.

“Wonder if they got a bank in this burg,” said Chet.

“Wonder if they got a cathouse,” said Jesse. “We could take the money from the one and spend it in the other!” He laughed loudly.

Chet half grinned and shook his head. “You rob a bank and then, ‘stead of gettin’ away you go visit a cathouse, you’ll wind up back where there ain’t no women!”

“No.” It was Jake’s voice—cold, stern, final. “I ain’t never going back to jail. Never. If they want to kill me, so be it, but I ain’t never going to be behind bars again. Not never.”

It was the most impassioned oration either of the other two had ever heard from Jake.
Chet twitched his face nervously. “Heh, kill you? They’d be the ones kilt more like.”

“‘At’s right, Jake,” said Jesse. “Betwixt the three of us I don’t reckon nobody’s going to be puttin’ us in no jail; if that place has even got one. Might be needin’ a bigger cemetery, though, if they tried any such foolishness.

“Looka there,” Jesse said pointing at a ranch house in the distance off to their left.
“Ain’t nothing but plow-farmers and cow-ropers around here anyhow. I’m sorta hoping they do try something to rile us. I’m tired a’ being chased. ‘Bout time we showed folks who’s in charge. Ain’t that right, Jake?”

When Jake gave no answer, Chet twitched his face into a spasmodic grin. “Right enough, Junior.” The wildness of his eyes and his twitching grin almost convinced Jesse that Chet was about to leap from his horse, tear off his clothes, and go raving and shrieking into the distance.

Instead he voiced the performance being staged in his tortured mind. “Then you can go find you a pretty gal and take her right off her beau’s arm. And when he starts to be a hero, I’ll show him my gun barrel.”

Chet’s pistol was drawn so quickly and so smoothly that a person could have debated whether Chet’s arm had even moved or if it were some kind of magician’s trick. Chet gave a short, hysterically high-pitched laugh, then said, “Then the hero says, ‘Listen mister, we don’t want no trouble.’ A-ain’t that great? That means he’s surrendering; begging, ‘Take my gal and do with her what you will only just don’t kill me.’”

The words hung there with Jesse waiting for the punch line. When none came, he asked, “Then what?”

Chet glared at him wild-eyed as a grin twitched across his face. “Then we kill him anyhow.”

He laughed insanely for a moment. “‘Course, you do what you want with the gal. ‘N me too. Maybe even old Jake there if he’s a mind to.”

“‘Et’s enough!” ordered Jake. “We survive long’s we keep our wits. Fancyin’ on about such makes you feeble so’s you start making mistakes. ‘N that gets you caught.” He clearly did not need to reprise his feelings about getting captured.

They pressed on in silence until they reached the outskirts of the tiny town.

“Looka there,” mumbled Jesse uneasily. The very first building they saw was not to their liking. It was not much bigger than an outbuilding made of rough stone, but it had two tiny barred windows and a heavily bolted door.

“Humph,” grunted Chet. “Don’t look like such a much. Probably for cow-ropers that gets a little too much Saturday night in ‘em. ‘Sides, don’t matter if there ain’t nobody alive to put you in it.” He twitched a grin and winked at Jesse who smiled back and seemed to relax a bit.

It was a good quarter of a mile to the next group of buildings, the actual center of town. Along the road they were on were only some houses and a smithy until they reached the intersection of the roads that defined the town. Most of the businesses ran along the northeast road that headed toward St. Louis. Prominent were the Stagecoach Inn, the only two-story building in town, and across from it the Kentonsville Mercantile, the largest building overall. The Mercantile was on the corner with a tiny building next to it with simply the word Saloon over the door, as if the town were embarrassed to have one. The Stagecoach Inn was flanked on one side by the Building and Loan and on the other by the Wells Fargo stagecoach depot itself. At the far end of the street they could see a modest church steeple and across from it the Post Office with the tell-tale wire leading to a pole indicating a telegraph office.

In his typical well-studied manner, Jake sat motionless atop his horse for several long minutes taking it all in. It was still very early so there were few people about and very little activity.

“Think we should take this Building and Loan first?” asked Chet, antsy to do something besides standing still. “Bet they got cash money on hand.”

Jake turned to him and curled his lip the way one does when watching a dog vomit. “They ain’t even open yit.”

Chet’s face flinched a dozen different ways at once. He let out an exasperated sigh. “Well then, what are we going to do?”

Jake deliberately stared up and down the street a good minute before he spoke, as if purposefully bringing Chet to his maximum irritation point.

“Okay,” he said authoritatively. “First we’re going to go into that inn and have some grub and coffee. Jesse, you get finished first and while Chet and me’s still eating go down yonder and rip down that telegraph wire. If anybody raises a ruckus kill ‘em quiet-like the way you know how. I got no problem killing folks what needs it, but I’d sooner not tip our hands till we get what we come for.”

Jesse grinned with pride at being considered so trustworthy for the “boss.”

“A bit after Jesse leaves, I’ll head over to that general store there and get us some supplies. Chet, you just have yourself some more coffee like as if you was going to pay for all of us. Jesse when you’re through at the telegraph, come help me load the horses. Chet, keep an eye out and when you see Jesse over there, send everybody in that inn up to the top floor and tell ‘em you’ll kill anybody that comes back down or looks out a window for the next ten minutes. Anybody gives you grief, you kill ‘em. Then get over to the general store and join us. If the owner squawks, put a bullet in him. Oh, and if he ain’t got any rye whiskey Chet you go get some from that saloon—same rules. Then we’ll hightail it out of town on the southbound road. Now, everybody clear?”

“Yep,” said the others.

“We’ll hitch our horses by the store there,” said Jake.

“Jake, there’s a buckboard there by the store,” said Jesse, trying to help with the planning. “Reckon we could get plenty of supplies on it.”

Chet expected Jake to dress Jesse down but good. Instead he just shook his head.
“Too slow,” said Jake. “No good with the law or a posse on our tails.”

They hitched the horses beside Tad’s buckboard and walked across to the inn. Their olfactories were treated to the aroma of ham, coffee and biscuits as they opened the door. Dinah was just setting plates of food in front of Penelope and the girls.

“Mornin’, gentlemen,” said Dinah, the joyfulness of her greeting waning as she got a better look at the dour, unkempt gunmen. “Just have yourselves a seat. I’ll be with you quick ‘s I can.”

Their preferred tables—those nearest the door—already taken, they sat at the table one over from where Tad sat next to the kitchen. As they sat, a grinning Jesse could barely navigate his way to a chair, his eyes glued to the lovely Dinah, something not missed by her or by Tad.

Remaining upbeat despite her sense of foreboding, she brought cups for the three and began filling them from a huge metal coffee pot.

“Ham, eggs, and grits okay?” she asked.

Chet, scanning the room, merely nodded while Jake grunted an okay. Jesse was about to crawl out of his skin.

“Well now, little lady, I reckon I’d like anything you got to offer,” said Jesse as he stroked his hand down the folds of her skirt. Dinah, who might well have been tempted to pour the boiling coffee onto his head, instead brushed her skirt away from his hand and stepped away.

“I’ll bring y’all’s food once I get these other folks taken care of. It’ll just be a few minutes.”

As she headed back toward the kitchen she exchanged glances with Tad’s smoldering eyes and, with a furrowed brow and a shake of her head, begged him to let it be.

In record time she brought breakfasts for the Post’s and Rev. Redden. As she rushed Tad’s out to him a lock of her hair fell across her eyes. She brushed it back with the back of her hand and called to the other table, “I’ll have y’all’s next.”

“Well, now, little lady looks like you’re a-working way too hard,” said Jesse with a lecherous grin. “I imagine you could use some extra hands out there in the kitchen. And I can put my hands anywhere you’d like.”

Tad jumped to his feet. “That’s enough! You have crossed the line, sir! I don’t know how y’all treat ladies wherever you’re from, but hereabouts we behave like gentlemen. You will apologize to Miss Dinah at once or I’ll have my satisfaction.”

Jesse stood with a gleeful look. “Hear that boys? This here cow-farmer is a-wantin’ to tussle. Just what I ‘uz a-hopin’ for. So tell me, cow-farmer, is she yourn or are you just aiming to defend the fair lady?”

“Both, I reckon.” Tad was a good five inches taller than Jesse but clearly nowhere near as muscular. Plus, he had not been in a fistfight since he was a schoolboy. “She’s to be my wife, but I’ll not sit by while a ruffian the likes a’ you insults any lady.”

“Nor will I!” said Charles snapping to attention.

Jesse’s eyes and his grin widened. “Now, preacher-man, don’t go thinking I won’t whup you without a shred a’ mercy just ‘cause you got that backward collar on.”

“Then you’ll have to contend with me, too, sir,” added Mitchell, also rising.

“Well now,” said an eager Jesse. “Three of you, eh? That suits me real fine.” He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and began rolling up a sleeve.

“Jesse,” commanded Jake. “Not yit. Jest set and eat like we agreed.”

“Aw, but Jake, this’ll be fun. And when I get done with ‘em there’ll be two gals for us.” He leered at Abigail.

Tad stepped toward Jesse, but Dinah grabbed him. “Tad! I don’t want no fighting in here a-bustin’ things up. Got to keep it presentable so’s it’ll sell. Just sit and I’ll get their food and be rid of them.”

She looked over at Charles and Mitchell. “You fellas, too. I been talked to a lot worse. No use a-startin’ a brawl in here.”

“Dinah, this ain’t for you to decide,” said Tad more sternly than she had ever heard him speak to her. His eyes never left Jesse and he started forward again.

“Jesse,” barked Jake. “I told you to set!”

Chet sprang up and his gun materialized in his hand. He wore a twitchy grin. “I reckon they is too many people a-standin’ up in here. I suggest ever-body just ease back into your chairs. Trying to be a hero is a good way for a feller to get hisself kilt.”

All three of Jesse’s opponents stared at Chet’s pistol.

“You talk pretty brave with that gun in your hand,” said Tad. “Folks don’t walk around Kentonsville wearing sidearms. You going to shoot unarmed men down in cold blood?”

“Without no hesitation,” said Chet gleefully. “And if y’all don’t quit standing there you’ll find out firsthand. Now sit yourselves down.” The wild-eyed look on his flinching face quickly convinced everyone he was indeed as menacing as he seemed. He clapped Jesse on the shoulder. “You, too, Junior. There’ll be time later. For now, do like Jake says.”

The four men sat in unison, then Chet did, too, his gun back in the holster. Dinah stormed off to the kitchen to prepare three more plates. The reference to there being time later had registered clearly on the faces of her and the others.

The girls, who had been holding their breaths in shock and fear, now looked at Penelope and began to tear-up. Penelope stood up and took each of her granddaughters by the hand.

Instantly there was a metallic click and she turned to see Chet pointing his pistol at them.

“What do y’all think you’re doing?” Chet asked.

Penelope’s face showed no expression. “I’m leaving with my two granddaughters. If you’ve a mind to shoot an old woman and two little girls in the back, then go right ahead. But I will not let them sit in a place where cowards wave guns around.” With that she turned to leave.

“Hold it,” ordered Jake.

Penelope paused and looked back, clearly determined to do as she had said.

“Okay,” said Jake. “You can go, but not outside. You got a room upstairs?”

She nodded.

“Front by the street or back?”

“Back. It’s Room 3.”

“Go on up there then,” said Jake. “But don’t try sneakin’ out or nothin’.

The grandmother and girls turned and headed up the stairs as Chet once again holstered his gun and sat.

“And don’t none of the rest of you think of trying anything like that. Nobody leaves this room till…” Jake thought and chose his words carefully. “Till all of us is done eatin’.”

“Reckon I better go see what that little filly is doing so’s she don’t run out a back door or something,” said Jesse standing. Tad also stood immediately and for a moment it looked as if the earlier scene would repeat itself.

However, at that moment Dinah came out with their plates and distributed them, being careful to stand between Chet and Jake putting the table between her and Jesse’s roaming hands. It did not, however deter his eyes which never left her nor ceased undressing her.

To remove herself from his leer she headed back toward the kitchen announcing, “I’ll get everybody some more coffee.”

An instant later she reappeared with the large metal coffee pot and began pouring for Tad when the front door opened. A squat older man in a pin-striped suit entered noisily, a shock of white hair revealed as he removed his hat.

“Morning, Dinah. I’m headed over to Sweetwater so I thought I’d get some coffee ‘fore I left.” He headed toward the table that Penelope had vacated as Chet’s hand instinctively found his gun.

Dinah’s eyes widened and she licked her lips thinking how to react. “I’m sorry, Farley,” she said too loudly. “I’m all out of coffee.” She waved the coffee pot back and forth as if illustrating it was empty. “I was just pouring the last dregs out.”

There was a silent pause with all eyes on Farley, and with no one eating or drinking, the tension in the air was palpable.

“Well,” he said good-naturedly as if trying to calm the room, “I’m not in such a hurry I can’t wait till you make some more.”

“Th-that’s just it,” said Dinah, half-shouting, “there ain’t no more. I’m plumb out. Don’t know why I was so foolish as to let that happen.”

His eyes surveyed the room suspiciously. “Would you like me to go over to the Mercantile and get you some?”

“No!” She forced herself to speak calmer. “I-I have a list for Tad to take over there shortly.”

Farley lifted an eyebrow and reversed himself back toward the door. “Oh. Okay. Tad, here you’re not even married yet and sounds like she’s already gettin’ you henpecked.”

Tad gave an obviously forced grin. “Yeah, reckon so.”

Farley hesitated a beat waiting for some further comment but was met with only thick silence.

“Guess I’ll head on over to Sweetwater then.”

“Oh, one thing,” said Tad as Chet and the others snapped their heads around redirecting their stares at him—stares full of warning. “The mayor wanted me to tell you there was to be a meetin’ of the town council soon as possible.”

Farley, hand on the doorknob, turned with both eyebrows raised. “The mayor did?” He gave a facial shrug. “Hmm. Okay I’ll see to it ‘fore I leave.

“Ladies,” he said replacing his hat, and exited.

“Reckon I ought to go after him?” asked Chet.

Jake thought for a long moment then shook his head. “Nope. We’ll stay with the plan.”

At the reference to “the plan” Abigail gripped her husband’s hand tighter and her perpetual look of worry was multiplied tenfold. Charles, noticing this, spoke up so all could hear.

“Mrs. Post, since we have gotten acquainted you have asked me one question several times in the wake of your dear mother’s passing. And it is a question that, till now, I have been hard-pressed to answer. But I believe I can now make an attempt.

“Your question has been why a wonderful, saintly, kindhearted woman such as your mother would be taken from this world while evil, low-down scoundrels—like these desperadoes here—are allowed to live and make life miserable for other folks.”

Chet and Jesse exchanged sardonic glances while Jake just glared unbridled hatred toward Charles.

“And, now, just why might that be?” asked Jesse with a wider grin.

“Love,” said Charles simply. There was an extended pause as he sipped his coffee casually.

Never good at waiting, Chet could bear it no longer. “What?”

“Love. God’s love. It’s because of God’s love in two different ways. See, Mrs. Post here had a dearly beloved, God-fearing Christian mother. Her passing is deeply regretted by all who knew her and will miss her. But she, herself, is in the most wonderful, glorious place there will ever be. She is, even now, rejoicing in the warm comfort of her loving Savior. Tears, pain, sorrow, disappointment, loss, and unhappiness are all forgotten. She raised a family in the Lord, showed Christ’s love to many, many people. She had fought the good fight and finished the race. Now she’s home.

“But as for you desperadoes, God shows His love for you by letting you live. Not so’s you can bring pain and fear to others. But every sunrise He gives you is one more chance for you to accept the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that can be yours if you turn to His Son. See, He lets you live another day, another hour, that you might come to know Him and, at last, really live.”

Jesse flashed a sardonic grin at Chet. Chet, however, was transfixed on Charles. Jake’s eyes were lowered, his countenance softened.

“Well now,” Jesse half-shouted, “that there was a right nice sermon, preacher-man. Too bad we ain’t got a pump organ we could sing us some Bible hymns. Right, Chet?”

Chet gave a thoughtful snort. “Yeah, too bad it ain’t Sunday,” he said halfheartedly.

Jake seemed to snap out of his reverie. “Jesse, you ‘bout done eatin’? You got a chore to do if you remember.”

“Yeah, but first I’m going to have something sweet—kinda dessert-like.” He leered at Dinah. “And I ain’t never seen anything as sweet as you little darling.”

The tension in the room went off the charts but before Tad could respond the door opened and four wranglers strode in noisily and sat at the table Penelope had previously occupied. They all carried bedrolls or saddlebags.

“Mornin’ Dinah,” said one as they all doffed their hats.

“Got some coffee for us?” said another.

“Need me some of them grits,” said a third.

“Mmm, smell that ham and biscuits,” added the fourth. “Get us some plates a-goin’. This’ll be one of our last chances at your cooking ‘fore Tad there gets it all to hisself.”

They all laughed good-naturedly apparently oblivious to the drama into which they had walked.

Dinah looked at the strangers’ table helplessly. That out-of-coffee routine just was not going to work this time.

“Morning gents,” she said nervously. “I-I’ll get started on that right now.”

“You’re a lucky man, Tad,” said the oldest one of the four with a gravelly voice. He was short but husky with a bald head, a bushy white mustache, and skin that looked like old leather.

“Thanks, Wilbert, and don’t I know it.”

The four went on talking and laughing with each other. Tad’s demeanor was noticeably less tense than before, and Jake’s eyes narrowed. He glared at Jesse then leaned close to him and spoke in a low murmur.

“You need to get on down the street like I told you.”

“No, Jake,” hissed Jesse. “I ain’t had me a woman in eight months and I’m takin’ that one upstairs ‘fore I do anything else.”

Jake’s stare seared Jesse’s face like acid. This was the first time one of his cohorts had disobeyed his orders. He narrowed his eyes ominously. “Follow the plan, boy.”

“No,” he stage-whispered. “I’ll have me that woman and I don’t care how many cow-farmers there are in here. I’ll kill the whole dang bunch of ‘em if I have to.”

“Junior,” said Chet quietly. “Do like Jake says. We’ll get her and take her with us when we come back for the whiskey. Wunst we get her out of town you can do as you please with her.” A grin twitched onto his face. “Shoot, we all will.”

Jesse started to reply but the door again burst open and four more men of varying ages entered. One was clearly the town’s barber and the others looked like professional men: bankers, lawyers, and such.

“Mornin’ Tad, mind if we sit with you?” said the one that looked most like a banker. “Looks a mite crowded in here today.”

“Not at all,” said Tad. “Have a seat.”

They all sat at Tad’s table and were again each carrying a briefcase or bag of some kind.

Jake leaned across the table to his companions. “I got me a bad feelin’ about all this. Jesse get on down the street like we agreed. Now.”

Jesse hesitated, pouting.

Dinah brought a tray of cups and the big coffee pot to the table with the first group of four. They all stood and asked if they could help her distribute cups or pour.

“Go on, Junior,” whispered Chet. “My idea will work. Wait and see if it don’t. Now get going.”

Jesse thought for a moment then, a look of resignation on his face, started to get up.

Again the door opened and in walked a large, powerfully built man accompanied by none other than Farley. The two of them closed the door and stood directly in front of it.

“Mr. Mayor,” announced Farley as the whole room went quiet. “Believe there’s a quorum present.”

“Thank you, Farley,” said Tad.

The three ruffians looked at each other in confusion. Chet, his brow furrowed, mouthed, “Mayor?” Then he noticed that the group that had stood up for Dinah had not sat back down but now stood all along the far wall with their hands behind them.

Tad stood up and all his table companions stood as well. They then formed a picket fence between the Post’s table and Jake’s gang.

“Very well,” said Tad. He rapped his spoon on the table. “This here meeting of the Kentonsville Town Council is now in session. Before we do anything else, Mr. Sanderson would you escort the folks at this table out the back way along with Miss Dinah?”

The big guy at the door nodded once and went around behind Tad’s former table companions.

Chet sprang to his feet, pistol in hand. “Y’all just hold it right there.” From the other side of the room came the sound of hammers cocking. The three villains’ heads whipped around to see each man with a rifle or pistol except for Wilbert who held a ten-gauge sawed-off shotgun. All were aimed at them.

Wilbert spoke calmly. “Reckon you oughta put that gun away, feller.” Then, much louder, “Now!”

Chet hesitated and wondered how many of these yokels he could kill before they got off a shot.

There was the sound of an explosion and Chet’s pistol flew out of his hand. He turned to see smoke rolling from a pistol held by the barber on Tad’s side of the room. An instant later he felt a sting in his gun hand and saw blood flowing out of it.

“Oops,” said the barber. “Didn’t mean to hit your hand; little rusty I guess.” The others on that side of the room also had pistols trained on the gang.

“Hey!” cried Chet. “Y’all got no right—”

Jake jumped to his feet, his voice booming with fury, “What’s goin’ on here? What’s this all about? We ain’t done nothin’ but come in here and eat our vitt’ls. We’re paying customers same as anybody else. Y’all better be puttin’ them guns away unless you’re intending that a whole bunch of you end up dead on the floor here.”

“Jasper,” called Tad.

“Yes Mayor?” said a blond man in his thirties with a rifle trained on Jake.

“We got any kind of ordinance agin’ three des-pa-ray-does that don’t live in these parts a-wearin’ guns in town and threatening folks?”

“Don’t recollect as we do, Tad—um—Mr. Mayor. But I’ll make a motion.”

“Make it,” said Tad. “And Mr. Sanderson, go on ahead and escort them folks out the back like you was going to. Oh, and then go up and get that nice lady and her granddaughters and take them out the back way, too. Ain’t good for them young ‘uns to hear a bunch of shootin’.”

The burly man hurried the Posts, Charles, and Dinah off toward the kitchen. Tad nodded at Jasper.

“Okay. I move that whenever there’s three des-pa-ray-does from out of town here in Kentonsville a-wearin’ guns and threatening folks they got till the mayor’s count of three to throw all their weapons on the floor or they are to be shot immediately by a firing squad made up of this here town council.”

“Sehh-cond,” intoned Wilbert.

“Okay,” said Tad. “Y’all heard the motion. Those in favor?”

“Aye,” said a chorus from around the room as they all aimed their weapons at the three.

“Anybody votin’ agin’ it?”

“Now hold on here,” started Jake.

Wilbert growled, “You ain’t allowed to talk less’n the mayor calls on you.”

That’s right,” said Tad. “You ain’t votin’ members. Motion passes.”

He gaveled his spoon on the table and looked directly at the three.

“Y’all got till I count three to throw all your weapons on the floor or we aim to kill the lot of you. One.”

“Now look-a here,” said a panicked Jesse, “we ain’t hurt nobody. We ain’t done nothing to nobody.”

“Two.”

“Jake?” said Jesse.

Tad’s tongue was behind his front teeth ready to say, “Three” when Jake shouted, “Okay! Do like he says.” He immediately unbuckled his gun belt and threw it to the floor some six feet from him.

Jesse followed suit albeit not as quickly. Chet stood frozen, his eyes darting over to his pistol on the floor to his left.

“Do it!” Jake shouted at him.

Chet squinted at him and then at Tad. “I ain’t got no weapon. It’s laying on the floor over yonder.”

“Don’t matter,” commanded Jake. “Take off your gunbelt and th’ow it down like we done.”

“Jake, you going to let a bunch of cow-farmers take our guns?” asked Chet as he slowly undid his belt.

“It’s just temporary,” said Jake. “We ain’t done nothing so we’re going to be leaving this town and never come back.”

Chet tossed his belt with the others.

“Just have yourselves a seat for a bit,” said Tad.

“Now look!” roared Jake. “We done just what you told us. Now let us be on our way.”

Tad’s voice was low and ominous. “I said sit down. ‘Cept you,” he said to Jake. “You lay on your belly across that table there and keep your hands flat on it up above your head.

“Farley, check his clothes, his pockets, his boots, everything for any kind of weapon at all. If you find even a pocketknife, just get away quick ‘cause we’re going to shoot him. The ordinance was for them to throw down all their weapons.”

“Hold it!” said Jake. He reached down into his boot top and produced a six-inch stiletto. He tossed it down with the belts. Then he looked at Chet and nodded.
Chet frowned but then unbuttoned his cuff and unclipped a derringer from a strap above his wrist. He angrily threw it down.

“Never mind, Farley, I think we made our point,” said Tad.

Tad then turned toward the men surrounding the room. “Things being the way they are, I reckon we’ll dispense with the reading of the minutes and the fi-nance report. Guess we just need to figure out what to do with these here des-pa-ray-does.”

“Well, we could hang ‘em,” suggested Jasper matter-of-factly.

“Naw,” rumbled Wilbert. “We already got our guns on ‘em. Be easier just to go ahead ‘n shoot ‘em.”

Jesse was getting jumpy. “Looka here. We never done nothing and we didn’t hurt nobody.”

“That’s right,” added Chet. “You got no right to be talking about executin’ us.”

The barber spoke up. “Fella, we all seen you pull a gun and aim it at Harold over there. No question you’d a-shot him if I hadn’t shot that pistol out of your hand. Oh, and sorry again about nicking you. Anyways, that’s attempted murder.”

“He pulled his gun on me and Dinah and all of the guests, too,” added Tad.

The barber nodded. “That’s two counts of attempted murder.”

Tad then pointed to Jesse. “That’n there was just fixin’ to try to defile Dinah and kill anybody what tried to stop him when y’all came in. That a capital offense, Farley?”

“Reckon it oughta be,” said Farley. “We could make a motion.” He pointed to Jake. “And that one there is the ringleader. That’s conspiracy. I think that might already be a hangin’ offense.”

Chet’s face was twitching more than ever. “Wait now, ain’t there no law, no sheriff, no judge in this town? Y’all can’t just be a lynch mob.”

Tad looked thoughtful. “There’s a U.S. Marshal over to Sweetwater makes his regular round here in two days and the circuit judge will be here, when?” He looked at Farley. “Next Tuesday-week?”

“Yep.”

Wilbert looked impatient and waved his shotgun at the three. “Yeah, but they won’t know no different if we kill and bury this bunch today. And I’m going to guess there ain’t nobody going to be pining away if’n these des-pa-ray-does just ups and disappears. Let’s execute ‘em and have done with it. I got things to do today.”

Several council members nodded in agreement and Chet spoke with his voice at a higher pitch. “Now look, mister. W-we don’t want no trouble. We was just sorta funnin’ around. I wasn’t going to shoot nobody. Fact is, if I’d intended to, I’d a-done it. And Jesse here, he just likes pretty girls and fightin’. What real man don’t? But he was just talking when he said he was gonna git her. All’s we was going to do is get some supplies and head out. A-a-ain’t that right, Jake.”

“S’right,” growled Jake. “Y’all got no call to be threatening us. I know enough about the law to know we ain’t done nothing more than a two-dollar fine’s worth if that. Why don’t you just let us be on our way and we’ll all git on with our lives. And you and that little filly can get hitched like you’s aimin’ to without no worries of us wantin’ revenge.”

“Hmm,” said Tad. “I hadn’t thought about revenge. But it’s clear it’s on your mind. And I’d bet my ranch that if we sent y’all off without no weapons you’d come back to town tonight and try to kill us all in our sleep.”

Jasper sighed. “I make a motion that we execute these here three des-pa-ray-does here and now and be done with it.”

“Sehh-cond,” rumbled Wilbert.

“Now hang on boys,” said Tad. “Farley already said we ain’t got a law yet says we can execute ‘em.”

Jasper sighed again. “Want me to make another motion says what they done is capital crimes?”

Jesse’s fear now made him furious. “What kinda law you got in this town? Ain’t there nobody makes real laws here?”

Tad frowned in thought for a bit. “Nawp. Just the Kentonsville Town Council. We make the laws as we need ‘em. Anybody bring any rope?”

“You brung some didn’t you Buck?” said Jasper to one of the men against the opposite wall from Tad.

“Yep,” came a sleepy-sounding drawl. “You want us to hang ‘em Tad?”

Jesse’s eyes widened and he shouted at Tad. “Looka here! Y-y-you can’t hang a man just ‘cause he flirted with your gal. We got rights. Don’t there gotta be a trial with a real judge and such?”

“Yeah,” said Tad. “I know. Rope ain’t for hangin’. Buck, you and Harold tie these yay-hoos up so’s we can take ‘em over to the jail. We’ll let the Marshal take ‘em into custody when he comes. I’ll telegraph him before he gets here, in case he needs to bring more help.”

“Y’mean you’re going to let ‘em live?” asked Buck somewhat disappointedly as he cut three segments off the long, thick rope.

“Yeah, unless there’s any resistance from them. ‘Sides, there might be a reward. I got me a feeling they might be escaped convicts or something; look at them shoes on the young one. Yeah, might be a real nice reward, maybe enough to re-roof the schoolhouse.

“Buck, go ahead and tie ‘em up.”

He approached Jake with a piece of rope.

“NO!” fumed Jake. “Ain’t nobody putting me back in no prison! I’d rather die first!”

With that he shoved Buck down and grabbed the rifle out of a surprised Jasper’s hands. He whirled around and pointed it straight at Wilbert when the room shook from the thunder of the ten-gauge. The force of it lifted Jake back across the table causing its far legs to collapse. Chet barely managed to jump out from under it and Jesse yelped from being hit in the arm by a couple of stray pellets.

In the shocked silence that followed, all eyes were on the motionless Jake whose now-sunken chest became a puddle of blood.

The barber strode over and felt Jake’s neck. “Dead,” he said nodding.

“Reckon the Marshal will be upset that I killed one of ‘em?” asked Wilbert as he put a new shell in the shotgun.

“Not the way I see it,” said Buck picking himself up off the floor. “Not only was it self-defense, the feller said he’d ruther be dead than in jail. You done just what he asked for—sorta granted his last wish, you might say. I reckon you done the poor guy a favor, Wilbert.”

Wilbert pondered that for a moment. “Yeah, well, I reckon I always been kinda soft thatta way; y’know, helpin’ folks out when they ask.”

Then he looked at Tad. “Tell Dinah I’ll replace the table and fix any pellet holes in the wall over yonder. Oh, ‘n I’ll scrub the floor where he’s a-bleedin’.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell her, Wilbert. Duncan? You being the undertaker, you and Harold want to take that body over to your place for now? The Marshal will probably want to see him ‘fore he’s buried.”

The two men nodded and hauled the body out the door as Tad looked at Jesse and Chet.

“Either of you other two yay-hoos want to die now ‘stead of going to jail?”

Jesse gritted his teeth and shook his head. He held out his hands for Buck to tie them.
Chet stood and stared as if in a trance. He spoke in a monotone. “Don’t much matter to me. I’m dead either way. You’re right; we escaped from the penitentiary a few days ago. I was in there waiting to be hanged.”

Tad’s eyes showed a bit of sorrow for him. “Jonas,” said Tad quietly to the barber. “Feller’s a-bleedin’ from his hand. Reckon you could bandage it ‘fore we tie him up?”

“Sure.” He reached into the bag he’d brought in and found a strip of cloth. “Here, let me see it,” he said to Chet. “Real sorry about the hand, fella.”

Chet stood stoically as, the bandaging finished, Buck tied his hands. As the Council began to lead the two of them out toward the street, Jesse turned to Tad.

“Could I make a request?”

Everyone stopped and Tad gave a slight nod.

“Could that gal of yours—Dinah?—could she do the cooking for us whilst we’re in your jail?”

Tad’s eyebrows rose.

“I-I mean she don’t have to come around us or nothing. It’s just that she’s a real fine cook. She’s going to make you a real fine wife. You’re a lucky man. Sometimes I wisht I’d-a… Well, could she? Cook for us, I mean?”

“Yep, she always cooks for the prisoners—till early next month, that is.”

Then Chet spoke quietly. “One more thing. You reckon you could send that preacher around to the jail ‘fore he leaves? Reckon I might want to hear some more of what he’s got to say.”

“I’ll see to it,” said Tad. Then, looking around he added, “Gentlemen, this here meetin’ of the Kentonsville Town Council is adjourned.”

A Short Circuit

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The Mirror

“Brenda, are you sure this is the right address?”

“Yes, Conrad, this is what I got from accounting as Tony’s mailing address, and it matches what’s on the mailbox here in front.”

“Boy, you talk about out in the middle of nowhere. Why would anybody want to move out to a dilapidated old place like this?”

“I don’t know, but that’s his pickup parked there beside the house, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, no mistaking that old rust bucket. And this house looks like it was built by an amateur. Anyway, let’s go see if he’s here. I mean, it’s not too unusual for Tony to miss a submission deadline, but to go completely silent and not answer my calls or texts, I’m just worried something might have happened to him. Or that he might be cracking-up, especially given that last screwball message I got from him. He sent me a link to a digitized newspaper article from way back when and asked me what it said. Then, after I responded, no further communication at all.”

“Well, you being his editor, you know him better than I do, but I get the impression he didn’t have much in the way of family or friend connections. Anyway, I think it’s really caring of you to drive 50 miles all the way out here to check on him, especially since he’s just a freelancer.”

“Yeah, we’ve worked together ever since he got out of high school, so I know him about as well as anyone, I guess. Recently I’d gotten the impression things weren’t all that good in his personal life and I’d hate it if anything happened to him, poor kid… Hmm… there’s no bell. I guess we just have to knock… Hello?! Tony? You in there? I don’t hear anything, Brenda, do you?”

“No. But if that’s his truck he must be home.”

“I’ll try the knob… Humph, how ‘bout that; it’s not locked. What say we have a look?”

“Con-rad! Are you sure it’s okay? Just walking in like this?”

“Why not? We’re not here to rob the place. Man, that door could use some WD-40… Wow, talk about Spartan décor. This place is practically barren.”

“Yeah, well, I gather he’s only lived here a couple of weeks. Hel-LO-oo! Tony!? Tony, are you here? Oh, Conrad he’s not answering, so either he’s not here or—ew, I don’t even want to think about—”

“Now just stay calm. Tell you what, you wait here in the living room and I’ll check the rest of the house.”

“Okay but if you discover his corpse or something, I don’t want to see it!”

“I can’t say I’d be too keen on the idea either. All right, here goes… Hmm, not much of anything in the dining room… I think over here might be the bedroom… Bed is ruffled a bit but empty… Kitchen is just a kitchen… Bathroom’s empty… Now, let’s see what’s in here… Aha… Hey! Brenda! Come here, I’ve found something.”

“Oh! Is it—I mean, is he…?”

“No, no, nothing bad. It’s just a large broken mirror and a note… sort of. See here? Have a look.”

“Hmm. Pretty long for a note. Where’d you find it?”

“Here on his printer. Let’s read it together.”

********************

To whoever finds this:

My name is Tony Cameron Alba. Perhaps you have read some of my magazine articles. Or, more likely, you have not, since they may not even exist. Either way, it is of no consequence, as I am no longer here—at least, not in this world, your world. But, I must not get ahead of myself. Let me tell you how it was not long ago; that is, from your time and place.

As a writer, my creative juices had gone completely dry. I’d had a messy breakup with a cheating girlfriend, a financial catastrophe over a scam artist’s investment scheme, barely escaped incarceration due to my involvement with a couple of so-called friends, and my health was deteriorating, probably due to stress. So much worse was my situation than anything I had ever experienced, and so deep was my despair, I began to have extremely dark thoughts about how I might finally and permanently escape all the turmoil my life had become. If an alternative were to exist, it would require that I get out of the city; out away from all the chaos; out where there was fresh air and I could be alone, be at peace, and get my mind refocused on the story my editor, Conrad, was clamoring for. But where? Where was this haven of calm and comfort? I had not the vaguest notion.

Then came the letter. Yes, an actual letter. I mean, who writes letters anymore? It was from my somewhat estranged brother, and only living relative, Dean. I say “somewhat estranged” because it was not that we were deliberately not speaking to each other, only that we had nothing to say. Dean was 16 years my senior, independently wealthy, and had always considered writing to be a foolish way for a man to earn a living. Given my financial situation, I had begun to think he had a point. In the letter he described his plans for relocating abroad with his family and his desire to rid himself of a piece of, what he considered, useless rural property some 50 miles from where I was. I think he had inherited it from our late father’s spinster sister who had put Dean in her will before I was even born. He told me I could have it for the cost of paying the back taxes and utilities on it, which totaled less than one month’s rent on my city apartment. Given that one month’s rent would exhaust my meager finances, that sounded like an excellent deal to me. He pulled no punches in describing the place: a small, overgrown lot with a rundown, albeit livable house on it. Included with the letter were all the necessary documents to transfer the property to me, plus the front door key to the house.

Here it was! The very thing I most needed: a quiet country location to soothe my troubled soul and get me back into my writing. Furthermore, it had come exactly as the lease was running out on my apartment. I initially chalked the whole thing up to fortunate coincidence, but as my tale will indicate, coincidence played no part in it.
If you have discovered this document, you are familiar with the property, but in case the document is taken elsewhere I offer the following description: The house sits at the dead end of Squatter’s Trail, a narrow, often-patched country road, a quarter mile or more from the nearest neighbor. It seems as though this little lot was an afterthought once all of the adjacent properties had been plotted-out. The modest-sized house itself is quite old with dark brown wood shingles for siding, some of which are missing. The windowsills and door frames are in need of paint and, in a few cases are actually rotted.

When I first arrived, I found that the front door was splintering at the bottom and groaned as if in pain when I opened it. Inside, the rooms were bare except that the kitchen had an old refrigerator and an ancient gas stove. The floors were all old, worn linoleum and the ceiling lights in most rooms were single-bulb fixtures with cheap plastic covers that had become discolored from heat and age. The front door opened into the living room and a hallway led out the other side. To the right of the hallway were a dining room and the small kitchen beyond it. At the end of the hall was the bathroom. To the hallway’s left were first the bedroom and then a room with a fireplace. I was not sure what that room was. At first, I thought it might be another bedroom, but the fireplace and the adjacent wall to its right filled with bookshelves suggested it had been a den or study of some kind. The books were all hefty tomes, and the few I gave a cursory look were boring texts of county easements, population statistics, and other such reference books from many decades ago. The fireplace looked in desperate need of cleaning before anyone dare use it. The wall opposite the bookshelves was barren except the one small window covered by an old, stained rollup shade. On the wall opposite the fireplace hung a four-by-six-foot mirror in an ornate frame. It was the only decorative item in the entire house and, to my surprise, was perfectly clean without a single fingerprint or smudge. Overall the place was dusty but not filthy so, undaunted, I hauled my meager belongings and furnishings in and set them up. My futon and wooden rocking chair were the extent of the living room’s furnishings. I put my double bed and small chest in the bedroom, and set up a card table and two folding chairs in the dining room. After bringing in my clothes, towels, dishes, and basic supplies, I placed my computer desk with lamp, laptop, and printer on it in the “den” against the wall facing the mirror, rolled my desk chair up to it, and considered myself moved in.

I had already had the utilities resumed and the first night was uneventful. On day two I spent part of the time connecting-up to slow, but functional, internet service and spent the rest of the day cleaning the place and buying food and other necessities in the town some ten miles away. That evening I settled down in the den, turned on the lamp and my laptop, and set to work on my long-neglected article. If one’s quest were peace and quiet, this was certainly the appropriate place. So much so, that, as I typed on my computer, the silence began to feel palpably heavy, as if even a scream would only carry a few feet and then die out.

I had just decided some music might be a nice way to lighten the atmosphere when an odd light made me look up at the mirror. For an instant I was not able to determine what had caught my eye. Everything seemed normal. Then I realized what I had seen. A flickering fire was reflecting from the fireplace behind me. But, wait! I had not built a fire. Indeed, I had not gotten around to cleaning out the fireplace yet. I turned around and looked. The fireplace was cold and dark as ever. I looked back at the mirror, and no fire could be seen. I shook my head and shrugged it off, but my mouth had gone dry, so I went into the kitchen for something to drink. Upon my return, I inspected the fireplace, but it had obviously not been used in quite some time. I sat back down and refocused on my computer screen.

There it was again. From the angle where I sat, the mirror only showed the very top of the fireplace opening, but the tips of dancing flames were visible. I stood up to get a fuller view, and indeed there was a hearty fire atop two large oak logs, filling the fireplace. I whirled around to, once again, find it cold and inert. As I spun back around to the mirror, it too, now reflected no fire, only the empty wall and unlit fireplace behind me. I gulped and felt my stomach tighten as I looked from one to the other and back again for some minutes, but nothing changed. I sat back down, thinking perhaps the passage of time would renew the phenomenon. Not that I was eager for this bizarre, seemingly supernatural event to recur, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it, to find the rational explanation, and put it to rest. I forced myself to resume my writing, although I cannot say the results were worth much. I kept eyeing the clock and, every few minutes, returning my gaze to the mirror. A couple of times I even stood up to get the full view, but the strange occurrence did not repeat itself. After half an hour or so, a call of nature bade me leave the room for the bathroom. Once again, as I reentered the room, I checked the fireplace and it was just the same. I took a deep breath and turned around to look in the mirror. As before, it “reflected” a blazing fire.

I had now realized the pattern. Looking back at what was reflected would break the “spell” so to speak, and it would not recur until I had left and reentered the room. I then wondered whether this manifestation was just visual or whether it had substance to it. I stepped backward slowly, never diverting my eyes from the mirror, holding my hands behind me. To my further amazement, I could feel warmth as my hands neared the fire.

I stared at the fire in the mirror for another couple of minutes, when it occurred to me that, perhaps, that might not be the only difference between the reflection and reality. I studied it carefully. The chimney, mantle, and hearth had been barren and without decoration, save an old box of wooden matches on the mantle, and that is how they appeared in the reflection. The wall and corner behind my right shoulder showed nothing, with only a small tear in the peeling wallpaper breaking the monotony of bare wall. The corner to the left, where the bookshelves adjoined the fireplace wall, however, was not empty. I noticed a dark heap on the floor in that corner. It seemed to be just a smallish pile of clothing. Now my mind began struggling to determine if this was really different. Was it possible that this nondescript pile of rags had been there all along? After all, it would not have been particularly noteworthy. Maybe it had been there, and I had just looked past it. But I didn’t think so. I did not want to take my eyes away from the mirror, but I had to be sure. I twisted quickly to my left and saw the empty corner. When I turned back toward the mirror, it now reflected nothing but what was actually there: a fire-less empty wall and corner. I exited the room so the mirror could do a “reset,” but as I did so, another question arose. Had the pile been in the reflection all along or had it just appeared this most recent time?
It was getting quite late and this whole thing was giving me the creeps. I considered just going to bed and wondered if these visual tricks would still be there in the daylight. But I knew I would never get to sleep with this mystery at play, so I returned to the room.

An idea hit me as I did so. I turned on the room’s overhead light and then got out my phone and turned on its light. Then, without concerning myself about what images were in the mirror, I decided to lean it away from the wall and check behind it. Maybe there was some sort of projector behind it and this was all just a silly practical joke. The light revealed nothing but a sturdy picture wire hanging the mirror from a large fastener screwed into in the wall. Maybe, I thought, it’s not a mirror, but a monitor. There were no cables for power or anything else, and the mirror was just the thickness one would expect. In addition, its front was unquestionably made of glass. As far as I could determine, it was just an ordinary mirror, nothing more. I walked back around my desk and looked into it. There again was a pile of old rags and a crackling fire. Wait. Crackling? No, oddly, the fire made no noise whatsoever, even from the occasional sparks that could be seen popping and disappearing up the chimney.

“Okay,” I said aloud. “Suppose this is some sort of supernatural phenomenon. Suppose there is some significance to seeing a nonexistent fire and a pile of old laundry. What’s the point? Am I just supposed to stand here and look at it all night? To what purpose?”

At that instant the pile of clothing moved.

I am not ashamed to admit that my eyes widened with terror as I debated whether to run out of the room. But I kept as my fallback the knowledge that I needed only to look away from the mirror at the wall it reflected, and the nightmare would cease. So, with sweating palms and dry mouth, I held my ground and watched for what manifestation might reveal itself next.

My first inkling was that the movement was, perhaps, that of a cat, now awakened, that had been sleeping among the pieces of fabric. But as I watched, the movement was much too slow and, rather than something crawling out, the entire pile was rising vertically and rotating back, reminiscent of time-lapse films of a seed opening and sprouting. Gradually I perceived that this was no unruly pile of rags but was, in fact, the clothing of some humanoid creature which had been huddled in the corner, now rising to stand erect. Two bony, gnarled hands emerged from long sleeves with broad cuffs. Next, I could see wisps of scraggly white hair peeking out from under a dark hood. Then, at last, grayish, wrinkled flesh stretched across a toothless skull appeared with two milky eyes devoid of irises and with the tiniest of pupils, and a vile, warty protuberance one could only assume to be a nose. It was a specter more horrifying than anything even my own fertile imagination could have conjured up. I was on the brink of panic and ready to flee when the creature gestured with its skeletal hand, scrunched its face and leaned forward as if planning to approach me. That was enough. I bolted from the room of horrors and all the way out to my pickup truck. I closed and locked the door and sat trembling, trying to think of a place to which I could escape. I checked out the windows and in my rear view mirror again and again to be certain the phantom was not approaching. After many long moments, something resembling rational thought returned to me. According to the pattern, the actual corner in which the creature appeared was, at this very moment, empty. As long as I avoided the accursed mirror, the evil apparition had no existence. Although that all made reasonable sense, I still had no intention of reentering the house. I decided that even the uncomfortable confines of my pickup’s driver’s seat offered a better option for sleeping than that eerie building. As keyed-up as I was, however, sleep was not going to overtake me anytime soon. The visage that I had witnessed replayed itself over and over in my mind. That hellish creature’s utter repulsiveness made me shudder and wish that I could purge it from my thoughts, but no distraction could restrain it for long. I turned on the radio in the truck and looked around on my phone, but nothing could prevent my mind from returning to the revolting image.

Then it occurred to me that something, some unexplained force, was compelling me to think about the ghostly vision I had seen. So, rather than continue to resist it, I yielded to it. I searched my mind for every detail and realized something I had missed before. There was meaning of some kind in the hand gesture and facial expression the “thing” had evidenced just before I had escaped the room. Neither was intended to be menacing. No, quite the opposite. Both were appeals for me not to do the very thing I did. The creature was wanting me to stay put, that it might, somehow, communicate with me. My cynical side wondered if permitting communication with—with what could be some sort of demon, was the ultimate in foolhardiness. However, my curiosity and desire to bring this insanity to some conclusion overrode such concerns and I decided to go back inside. First, though, I grabbed the lug wrench from my pickup. If things became too dreadful, I would simply smash the mirror. That, of course, according to superstition, would invoke seven years’ bad luck. But I was hard-pressed to imagine any worse luck than living in a haunted house.

Wrench in hand, I reentered the sinister room. I strode over to the corner where I had seen the creature and felt all around, even stomping the floor where it had been. Nothing, but empty space. I turned and, eyes lowered, walked back over to my desk. I took a deep breath, steeled myself, and looked up into the mirror. There again was the horrid specter, standing on trembling legs. The thing then pressed the palms of its hands together, as one would do if praying, and knelt down, shaking its hands toward me. It was as if it were pleading with me in some manner.

“Are—are you trying to ask me something?” I said into the mirror.

The thing pointed to its ears and shook its head, then pointed to its eyes and circled its toothless mouth with a gnarled finger.

“You cannot hear me?” I asked, pointing to my ears.

The creature nodded that I was correct.

“But you can read lips?”

It nodded, but then made a gesture indicating it could do so only a little.

I began to speak slowly with exaggerated mouth movements, taking care to use the simplest phrases I could. “What…do…you…want…from…me?”

The thing clasped its hands in front of itself again as if begging and mouthed with a look of anguish, “Pi-ty…me!”

“Pity you?” I asked.

It nodded and shook its clasped hands toward me again.

“How…can…I…help…you?” I asked.

Still on its knees, the thing crawled forward a step closer, which put me on full alert. However, that was as far as it came. It lowered its head and hands for a moment so that only the clothing was visible then lifted its head again. To my surprise, the face was not so horrible. It was that of an extremely aged woman, in her nineties or beyond. The countenance was not fearsome, but kindly and yet a bit sad. The woman mouthed, “Please sir, rescue me.”

“You…you…are…a…woman,” I said.

“Yes,” she mouthed, as apparently she could make no sound. She stood, with considerable effort, and something resembling a hopeful smile crossed her countenance. “I am…” I could not make out the rest of what she was trying to say.

“You…are…what?” I said. “I…can…not…read…your…lips.”

She looked a bit frustrated for a moment then began drawing letters in the air. M-I-N-E-R-V-A. Then she pointed to herself and mouthed the word.

“Minerva?” I said. “Is…that…your…name? Minerva?”

She nodded so enthusiastically, I could not help but smile. I then said, “My…name…is…Tony.” She looked sort of sad and shook her head indicating she could not understand. I repeated slower, “To…ny.” She squinted, still not sure. An idea came to me. I grabbed a piece of paper from my printer and wrote TONY on it with a pen. I held the paper up to the mirror. Minerva was still there. Apparently looking away from the mirror did not break the spell so long as I did not look directly at the places the mirror was reflecting. She smiled but spun her finger indicating I needed to turn the word around. I then realized that the mirror made it backwards. I rewrote the word so that it would be correct in the mirror.

“Tony!” she mouthed joyfully.

“Yes…that’s…right!” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Pleased…to…meet…you.” The look of joy on her face was far more than what I would have expected. She then lowered her head again so that I could see only the hood, and took another small step forward. I was less unnerved at this movement now than before. When she again looked up, she was still an older woman, but no longer ancient—perhaps what one stereotypically thinks of as a grandmother. I decided that writing would be better for less obvious communications, so I wrote, as best as I could mirror-image it, the following: MINERVA, WHO OR WHAT ARE YOU? DO YOU REALLY EXIST? WHY CAN I ONLY SEE YOU IN THE MIRROR?

Using a combination of mouthing words and “air writing” she said, “I am trapped here.”

“Trapped? In the mirror?”

She nodded.

I wrote: HOW? WHY? WHEN?

Her answer was, “Over a century ago.” Then with her fingers she displayed the numbers 1-8-9-8.

“Eighteen ninety-eight? You mean the year 1898?”

She nodded.

Once again I pointed to the words, WHY and HOW. It took a lot of time and effort for me to grasp the words she revealed next, but by me writing down each letter as she air-wrote, I finally got the words: A sorceress.

I wrote: THERE REALLY ARE SORCERESSES?

“Yes!” she mouthed. “She used a spell from that book,” she mouthed again, pointing to the bookshelves.

Without thinking I turned toward the shelves and then toward her place in the room and said, “Which one?” Of course, when I did so, I was speaking to an empty room. Minerva was gone. I left the room and realized how hungry I was, so I hastily made a peanut butter sandwich, then, after answering another call of nature, I went back into the room with my sandwich and a glass of milk. I found myself worrying that she might not be there. I resumed my place behind my chair, facing the mirror, and to my relief found her waiting patiently. I quickly wrote: I’M SO SORRY MINERVA. I FORGOT AND LOOKED AWAY. SO GLAD YOU’RE STILL HERE.

She smiled warmly at me and mouthed, “My friends call me Minnie.”

MINNIE? I wrote. She nodded. So I wrote: AM I YOUR FRIEND?

With a smile and a pleading look she mouthed, “Oh yes, I hope so.”

I wrote: THEN MINNIE IT IS.

She smiled delightedly, lowered her head and stepped forward again. She was now just beyond arm’s length of where I stood. When she looked up, she had become some 25 years younger. She had light reddish-brown hair and lovely blue eyes. She was absolutely stunning. I stared at her reflection, mouth agape, for a long moment
before hurriedly writing: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!

She beamed with joy, looked away shyly for a moment and then mouthed, “Thank you, Tony.”

I smiled, rubbed my chin, and then wrote: YOU WERE ABOUT TO TELL ME ABOUT A BOOK WITH SPELLS.

Her eyes grew wide and she nodded eagerly. She turned toward the bookshelves and pointed with her finger across a couple of rows of them before settling on one. She turned to me and started to say something when suddenly she looked over her shoulder at the wall opposite the bookshelves. Her eyes widened and she mouthed,

“No time. I must go. No time.”

“Wait! Minnie! What is it? What do you mean?” I looked at the wall and saw a pale halo of light around the window shade. It was dawn. I had been up all night. I looked back at the mirror and it was, once again, just a mirror reflecting my concerned look and the empty room. “Well,” I said aloud, “I guess that confirms that the magic only works at night.” Magic. I pondered that word. Was this indeed really magic? All at once I felt completely exhausted. I staggered to the bedroom, removed only my shoes and, without turning down the bed, collapsed onto it and fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke rather disoriented and it took me a several minutes to realize that it was late afternoon. I had slept nearly 12 hours. I went into the den, but it was quiet; all was normal even in the mirror. I made myself something to eat and then decided to take a bath. There was no shower, just an old clawfoot tub. As I sat in the warm water, I began to calculate how long until it got dark and I could see Minnie again. I wondered if she would come near enough to touch me this time. Would she be even younger? Even more beautiful? What was it that triggered her changes? I couldn’t wait for nightfall. Then I began to worry; would she still be there or was it a once-only phenomenon? If so, I, whom she sought as her means of rescue, had let her down.

I entered the room, sat down at my computer and began writing an entirely different article than I had originally planned, parts of which are contained in this document. Then I thought about the mysterious book Minnie had been indicating. Which one was it? Should I just look through all of them, or wait for her to appear? While trying to decide, I went over to the window and could see it was becoming dusk. I walked over behind my desk to the front of the mirror but kept my eyes down. I was so afraid the magic might not happen, my heart pounded as I at last looked up. To my great relief, there she stood in the mirror, just as I had last seen her.

I had already written down what I wanted to say to her. MINNIE, I AM SO GLAD YOU’RE STILL HERE. I FEARED YOU MIGHT NOT BE.

She smiled sweetly and mouthed, “You missed me, then?”

“Of course,” I said aloud.

“Then, you care about me?” she mouthed.

“Yes,” I said, “very much.”

A look of unbridled joy came over her. She lowered her head and stepped forward. When she looked up, she was a young woman of perhaps 20 years, breathtakingly beautiful but with an endearing sweet innocence and purity. It took all the willpower I could muster not to turn around and try to look at her directly. Then, as she was mere inches from me, I felt her hands rest upon my shoulders, and saw them in the mirror. I reached across with my right hand and felt the delicate softness of her fingers on my left shoulder. She leaned forward and pressed her cheek against my head just behind my ear. She spoke and, though I could see her mouth move in the mirror, I did not hear her words so much as “receive” them in my mind.

“I care very deeply for you, too, Tony. But our feelings cannot find expression until I am free of this curse.”

“Yes,” I said aloud, “tell me about the curse. Oh, and are you able to hear me speaking now?”

“Yes, I am, Tony,” she said. “It is somewhat muffled, as if you were in another room, but I can hear you at last. As to my story: My older brother Samuel had a close friend, Franklin; they had been inseparable since childhood. Franklin was engaged to a young woman named Emma Wilhelm. I tried my best to like Emma, but she was always very aloof towards me and seemed somewhat suspicious of me; for what reason I cannot say. She was also a very secretive person and always quite serious, even intense. Anyway, one day in early June, I needed to visit a friend at a farm some distance from Canton, Ohio, where we lived. Sam and Franklin said they would take me in our open carriage, so off we went. We had traveled quite a ways when there was a sudden cloudburst. I had never seen such a torrential downpour. Besides us all becoming soaked to the skin, the back-country dirt road we were on turned into a quagmire. Soon one of the carriage wheels stuck fast. As the rain continued, the gentlemen tried various attempts to pry the carriage free only to severely damage one of the wheels. Sam decided to unhitch the horse and ride it bareback into town to get help. Franklin and I waited for a while in the deluge until it turned to hail. We ran for shelter into an old barn a short distance away and waited perhaps a couple of hours until Sam returned with help. During the wait, we talked at length about his upcoming marriage and his plans for his and Emma’s future. I swear to you that nothing else happened whatsoever. After Sam returned and we all at last made it home, the three of us recounted our adventure to Emma, thinking it insignificant but droll. Instead of amusement, however, she exhibited a cold stoicism until the tale was completed. Then she smiled and asked me if I would accompany her to her home as she had something she wished to show me. Innocently and, still wishing us to be friends, I readily did so. She took me to a locked room deep within her house and opened the ancient book I mentioned previously. The page was titled “Confining an Enemy into Two Dimensions” and it contained strange instructions along with many Latin phrases. It took me a while to realize what it was. Once I understood it was a book of sorcery, I turned to her to caution her against such evil involvements only to find her pointing a revolver at me. Then, at gunpoint, a victim of her unfounded jealousy, I was forced to obey her wicked instructions; the result of which was my imprisonment in this mirror as you see me now.”

“How, then, can I help you, dear lady?” I asked.

“I recall clearly her unjust and unkind words to me. She said, ‘You whose wiles seek to lure men to you, if you can provoke sufficient love in the heart of one called ACA to risk joining you in your captivity, then shall he join you in your freedom, as then and only then, may the two of you return to your life in this time and place.’ In other words, the one known as ACA must love me deeply enough to join me in the mirror and that love will free us both to return to my life where it stopped.”

“ACA?” I said. “What does that mean?”

“I do not know, Tony. But you can find out for me; I know you can. You must. After so long, you are my only hope.”

“I—I want to help you,” I said, “truly I do. But, ACA, I mean, I don’t… Wait! Tony is my nickname; my actual name is Anthony. Anthony Cameron Alba. ACA are my initials! Minnie, it’s me! I am the one whose love can rescue you. It has been destined for all these years. How? How do I proceed?”

“You must get the book. It is there on the third shelf down, fourth book from the left; the big thick one. Stand and back toward the shelf. I will guide your hand so that you need not turn around.”

I did as Minnie instructed and obtained the book. It was incredibly old; its binding was nearly in tatters. The pages were brittle and browned with age.

“It is page 176; I shall never forget. On that page is the original spell and also the means you may use to join me. Then, if you can truly find it in your heart to love me, we shall both escape this curse and be together back in my normal world.”

I gently turned to the page and then her last words struck me. “Your normal world?” I asked. “The world as it was in 1898?”

“Yes, Tony, my world, my time. I know it will be unfamiliar to you, but your willingness to leave all that you know and risk entering my world would prove your love for me beyond question.” Then she added with a slight tremor in her voice, “That is, if you are willing.”

That tremor made my heart lurch. How could I refuse her? But then I began to think more deeply about the implications of my making this radical leap of faith. “Minnie, my dear lady, I am indeed willing to do so for your sake, but I am concerned that it might be more complicated than we realize. For example, if I enter the world of 1898, I will know things—things no one in that year should know. I’ll know that, in only a few years, our country will join a horrific war in Europe. And the stock market! I’ll know that it will crash in 1929 leaving millions of people destitute. At my current age, I should still be alive when Hitler rises to power and when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Will I seek to interfere in such events? Will I stand by silently knowing the impact of these events on human history? And what of us? Forgive my presumption, but suppose we were to marry and have children?”

She smiled broadly. “I would be most positively disposed to being your wife and bearing your children, Tony.”

“I know—that is, I understand. But consider the implications. Any children we would have are outside of the timeline of today’s current world. What might change because of their introduction into the time-space continuum? Even if they only live quiet lives and have children of their own, could that not, somewhere downstream, cause significant—even horrible—unintended consequences? Minerva, we must think this through.”

She began to weep. “I do not know about all of that, Tony. It is true the world could be changed, but perhaps the changes might be for the better. Is your world so perfect now that a different outcome in your time could only be worse?”

“Well, no, but still…”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I understand your fears. If you feel that you dare not help me, then I would ask only this one last favor. I saw that you brought a large iron tool in last night. Please, if you cannot help me, I beg of you, use it to smash the mirror and end my miserable existence once and for all.”

I reached back over my shoulder and laid my hand upon hers. “No, my darling, no! I could never do such a thing to you. You’re right. I’m so truly sorry. This is a matter of life and death for you. Please forgive me.”

She thought for a long while and then got a pensive look and said, “No, dear Tony. It is I who must apologize. This is an enormous step I am asking you to take with lifelong and possibly frightening consequences. It cannot be a decision you enter lightly. In fact, I insist that you wait until tomorrow night. Take the entire day to think it through completely and thoroughly and whatever you decide, I will accept. Now, close your eyes and turn toward me.”

I did as she asked and heard her say, “Until tomorrow night, then, my love.” Then her soft, wonderful lips pressed against mine and she said, “Now open your eyes.”

I did so and, of course, she was gone. I could have gone out and reentered the room, but I decided to do as she asked. The hour was late, and I felt a tiredness beyond anything I can remember experiencing before. I would sleep on it and, perhaps, all would be clearer in the morning.

I awoke the next morning secure in the absolute certainty that I would join her, help her, rescue her. After all, what was there here, on this side of the mirror, to hold me? Conversely, on the other side was the love of my life. I stopped short. How could it be that I had fallen so deeply in love with her so quickly? We had spent but a few hours together and even then only in the most bizarre of circumstances. Still, that I loved her was beyond question. As for the possibility of wreaking havoc with space-time, I would leave it to the Creator to determine if divine intervention were needed to prevent the violation of His ultimate cosmic plan. And, if so, He could do as He saw fit. As for me, I considered no risk too great to save the woman I loved. I would eagerly join her.

Anticipating that someone at some point might possibly wonder what had become of me; I sat down and spent the day writing most of what you have read here thus far. That is, until I reached that last sentence in the above paragraph. Then, all at once, I sort of snapped out of it. “This is crazy,” I said aloud. “A magic mirror, a sorceress spell, talking to people over a century old who don’t exist? Am I hallucinating? Am I having some sort of mental breakdown? I mean, seeing and talking to people who aren’t there that’s—” I stopped short, and then said the words that caused me to shudder. “That’s schizophrenia.” I sat and thought about it for a long time. Could that be it? I had heard that it was often a genetic disorder caused by parents who had a child when quite old. That certainly fit my case. I had also read that it often became evident when a person was in his twenties. That also fit me. It is hard to put into words how discouraged I felt. My sweet Minerva, just a figment of some mental illness? I realized how much sense that made. Far more sense than some silliness about being trapped in a mirror. I mean, how ridiculous. Sure, I had felt her touch, the warmth of the fire; I had heard her voice. But could not my sense of touch and hearing be as easily hallucinated as my sight? I went into the den and looked at the book. Didn’t that prove that what I had seen was real? Perhaps not, I thought to myself. Perhaps this thick book that my twisted brain tells me is a book of sorcery is, in reality, just an old dictionary or some textbook from years gone by. This whole mirror and magic experience could be but the delusions of an unsound mind. Not only did that seem possible, it was far more plausible than what my likely misguided, deceived senses were telling me. But now, what was I to do about it? What means did I have to determine reality from misperception? I looked out the window in the den and the sun had just set. It was with a heavy heart that I sat at my desk and lifted my eyes to the mirror. There was Minnie, so beautiful, so sweet, so gentle, but yet, just a fantasy of my mental illness.

“Oh, Tony, you have come back. I am so glad, my love; I was so worried that you might not.” She hugged me from behind, pressed her cheek against my head, and kissed and even nibbled my ear. Her eyes swam with tears. “We will be so happy together; I am certain of it.” Suddenly her eyes widened and her demeanor changed. “What is it, Tony? Something is wrong.” Her tears of joy became those of fear, and her lip trembled as she spoke. “You have changed your mind, haven’t you? You have decided not to join me; that the risk is too great. That is it, is it not?”

“Not exactly,” I said quietly. “It’s not that I fear the risk—I’ve moved beyond that. It’s—something else.”

Tears were streaming down her face. I reached back and laid the crook of my index finger against her incredibly soft cheek and then studied the teardrop on my finger. If only it were real.

“What, Tony? What is it?”

“Minnie, it’s that this is all too bizarre, too crazy, too unbelievable. I mean, sorcery? A damsel in distress? A magic mirror? Incantations from an ancient book? It’s straight out of some fairy tale. No, my dear, it’s not that I fear risking my life; it’s that I am all but certain that all of this, including you, is not real. It’s all just my mind playing tricks on me—a product of my own mental illness.”

She tented her hands over her nose and mouth. “Oh no! No Tony, no! You mustn’t say that. You mustn’t think that. I am real! I am! I swear it. I know it all seems as if it were some fantasy, something that cannot possibly be, but it is. Oh Tony, please, I beg of you, please do not abandon me.”

Now I was crying. “Minnie, don’t you think I want this to be real? Don’t you realize how painful it is for me to know that this most precious, angelic woman I have ever known exists only in my imagination? I would give anything if only I could know that you truly exist. If only someone else could verify what I see—” Suddenly I stopped short. “Wait! Maybe that’s it. I could call someone and have them sit here with me and see you! That would prove that you’re real!”

Her countenance dropped and her shoulders sagged. “No. That will not work. My curse is that I may manifest myself to only one person until that person either comes to my rescue or abandons me—as three others have done over the years before you. If you bring or send someone else to see me, I will not be able to appear.”

“Humph. Very convenient. And these other three, did you proclaim your love for them as well?”

“No, Tony. The two females were too frightened and ran away. I pleaded and pleaded with the man to come to my aid. He listened for a while but eventually he also ignored my pleas, never to return. But only you have I loved, Tony.”

“Then I am at a loss, Minerva. If only there were some proof that at least some part of your story were true…” Slowly an idea began to form in my mind. “Minnie, when this Emma woman trapped you in the mirror, wouldn’t your family have wondered what had happened to you?”

“Yes. Without question. I have often agonized at how distraught my father and brother must have been wondering what had become of me. Their perception would have been that I had gone to Emma’s house and then simply vanished.”

“That’s right; you would have suddenly gone missing. A missing person! Wouldn’t they have conducted a search, contacted the police?”

“Yes, I feel certain that they would have.”

“Minnie, was there a newspaper back then? One that contained local news? One that might have a report of your disappearance?”

“Yes. It was the Stark County Democrat. But how can you find a copy of it after so many years?”

“Well, this will require some luck on our part, but it’s possible that it has been digitized and made available online.”

“I am sorry, Tony, I do not understand anything you just said.”

“Yes, sorry about that. Let’s just say I might have a means of finding it on this device you see in front of me.” I performed some quick searches and, to my great relief, found exactly what I had hoped. “Minnie, I found it! The Stark County Democrat has copies online going back beyond 1898. What was the date when all this happened?”

“It was a Thursday; June 8, 1898.”

“Okay, and—oops—Minerva, I don’t know your last name.”

“It is LeDoux: L-e-D-o-u-x.”

“Perfect, let me do a search on your name.” I did so and was thrilled at what I found.

“Ha! Look there! Can you see my screen?”

“No. I can only see what the mirror sees.”

“Okay, this is from the Stark County Democrat, Canton, Ohio, June 9, 1898, and has the headline, ‘Young Woman Reported Missing.’ Let me read it to you:

“A missing person report was filed with Constable Henry regarding Minerva LeDoux, age 19, of Canton. Miss LeDoux was last seen heading north on Market Avenue Thursday afternoon by a friend, Emma Wilhelm, whose home she had been visiting. According to Miss Wilhelm, Minnie was taking the short walk of less than half a mile to her home. Miss LeDoux’s father became concerned later that evening when his daughter did not arrive and began a search involving friends and neighbors, but no trace of the missing woman could be found. The following morning the report was filed. The police investigation is currently ongoing. Anyone with any information regarding Miss LeDoux’s whereabouts is requested to contact the Canton police department.”

“Oh, Tony, then this proves my story? That I am real?”

“Yes! It—well—no, not really. If my mind is really inventing its own reality, this article might not say what I think it does at all.” Minnie’s countenance fell. “But,” I said, “there might be a way to verify it. I’ll have a friend of mine look at it and see what he says about it.”

I then sent a link to my editor, Conrad Bybee and asked him to tell me if there was an article on that page about a missing woman and, if so, what her name was. Although it only took him a few minutes to respond, it felt like forever. All the while Minnie kept kissing and caressing me from behind. She even spoke a quiet prayer that I would receive the answer we so desperately needed. At last the text arrived saying, “Yes, it’s an article from 1898 about a Canton woman named Minerva LeDoux reported missing. But, Tony, what’s this all about? How is this relevant to the article I need from you? Are you okay?”

Amid much rejoicing, I set my phone aside and, ignoring that someone kept trying to call me on it, I reread the ancient book of spells and incantations regarding breaking Emma’s curse on Minnie. After several odd ritualistic behaviors, which I have now done, it said I must place my palms upon the mirror as Minnie placed her hands on mine from the other side, and repeat the following Latin words continuously until the transformation occurred: accipere mihi etiam. And so, before doing so, that others might understand my disappearance, I have written what you are now reading. I will print it and then perform that final step. If afterward I am still here, no one will need to read this; I will know it was all in my mind. If I am gone and you are reading this, as incredible as it may seem, I have been transported to the year 1898 with my beloved and apparently the impact on time and space has been somehow tolerated. If what I am doing turns out to be in league with the powers of darkness, may the Lord have mercy on my soul.

********************

“Wow, poor Tony. He must have really gone off the deep end.”

“What do you mean, Conrad? Isn’t it obvious that he really did transport back in time?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. This note is clearly the ramblings of a tortured mind. Even he suspected it. I mean, come on, Brenda, a magic mirror? Besides, see how it’s been broken? He probably said those magic words and smashed it in frustration when nothing happened.”

“It is cracked all over, but it doesn’t look like someone smashed it; there are no pieces of glass on the floor. And besides if it didn’t work, then where is he?”

“I dunno, probably ran off into the woods back behind the house and, well, I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we found him, y’know, hanging from some tree or something.”

“Oh Conrad, don’t even think it. Look here, his laptop is still plugged-in and—look, the browser is open to that newspaper, the Stark County Democrat. Is it true that he sent you a link to it?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“Was the article about a missing woman named Minerva?”

“Yeah, but don’t you see? He happened upon that article somehow and then his mind just made up all the rest.”

“Conrad, how come I don’t see the article here? Isn’t this the right date? Do you still have the text he sent you? Check on your phone.”

“Brenda, you need to stop all this. I’m telling you—”

“Just do it. It can’t hurt to look can it?”

“Oh all right… Here it is. Only, humph, I don’t see the article.”

“Yes, your screen looks just like the one on his laptop. Where on the page was it?”

“It was in the lower right. But all I see now is an item about how a bridge washed out the day before.”

“That’s it!”

“That’s what?”

“There is no article about her missing because, once she and he returned to her time, it was as if she had never disappeared. Don’t you see? It means she made it back. Or rather, they both did.”

“Aw, come on Brenda. This is—is—is crazy. There must be some other explanation. We must have gotten the page or the date mixed up or something.”

“Here, then, let me try one more thing. I’m going to search the paper for Minerva LeDoux for any date… Okay, here goes… Omigosh! Look! It’s from September 14 of that same year. Look what it says!”

“Hmm… ‘A marriage license was issued to Mr. Anthony Alba and Miss Minerva LeDoux, both of Canton.’”

“They made it! They made it back and got married!”

“O-okay, whatever. Look Brenda, that’s the story you can tell your grandkids some spooky night around a campfire. I’m still betting that someone finds his body out back there somewhere.”

“But Conrad, can’t you see? It has to be that he transported back with her.”

“Let’s just get out of here, okay? This place is creeping me out. Just leave everything the way we found it. I’ll call the police later and let them deal with it. Let’s us just get out to the car as quick as we can. Here, ladies first…”

“Whoa! Oh—oh my… Conrad, what was that? Did you feel that—that sort of whoosh as we left that room?”

“Yeah, I sure did. Wait, Brenda, I’m feeling kind of disoriented; sort of like dizzy, but that’s not quite it.”

“I feel the exact same thing… Um, Conrad? I’m very confused. Where—where exactly are we?”

“Whooh—I—I’m not sure. We’re in the middle of some old, empty house somewhere. How did we get here? And why?”

“I—I don’t quite remember. We came here to—to look for something or someone, I think, but I don’t remember what or who.”

“Yeah, me either. That room… Something about that back room there. Come on, let’s have a look…”

“Okay, so there’s nothing in here except a bookshelf with some old books and a big broken mirror. Nothing else at all. Conrad, this is too weird. I’m, um, getting rather frightened. Can we just go?”

“Sure, okay, Brenda. But first I’ll need to check GPS and see where in blazes we even are… Whoa. Look at this. We’re a good 50 miles out in the sticks. You sure you don’t remember why we came out here or what happened?”

“No, I don’t remember. Not a thing. And, honestly, I don’t think I want to know. Let’s just get back to town and forget all about this, okay?”

“That suits me just fine. And Brenda, maybe we best not tell anyone about this; not even our spouses. Not for a while, anyway. I wouldn’t want people thinking we’re nuts.”

“I agree. If we hurry we can get back to the office before five and maybe no one will notice we were even gone.”

“I can’t imagine why we would have taken so much time out of the workday to go on some wild goose chase out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do. I still need to see if I can find a freelancer to do an article for this month’s edition, and I’m getting short on time. Come on, let’s get going.”

A Short Circuit

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PDA’s

Although the spill was sudden and accidental, it was not a surprise. As Mandy quickly fumbled to rescue her nameplate, “Amanda Wheeler,” from the growing pool of spilt coffee, Rob Galloway just shook his head. Nothing air-headed that Mandy did surprised him. He had commented just that morning to Dave, his co-worker, that she seemed to be a disaster waiting to happen. As an executive assistant she was supposed to be good at details and making sure things went smoothly, especially for Jarrod, her boss here at Cyber Paradigm, but also for Rob and the other reps who reported to Jarrod. Instead, every time Rob was around her, Mandy was fouling something up. So, no, her spilling coffee all over everywhere did not surprise him. He was actually more surprised that Dave had not had the same experiences with her that he’d had, and even more surprised that the straight-laced Jarrod put up with her. She was a cute blue-eyed blonde with pronounced dimples, but she belonged someplace waiting tables or something. Although, having just seen her antics with the coffee, he decided maybe the world was better off without her being in food service.

“Anything I can do to help, Mandy?” he asked purely from reflex.

“Oh, no, I’ve got it. I always keep some paper towels in my desk just in case.”

I’m not surprised at that, he thought. “I see you got a new badge,” he said pointing to the one hanging from a lanyard around her neck.

“Yeah,” she said while continuing to sop-up coffee. “They charged me 15 bucks for it. Thanks again for thinking quickly and hitting reverse on the shredder when I got it caught.”

“No problem, Mandy. I’m just glad you weren’t hurt. Having something around your neck caught in a shredder can be dangerous.”

“I’m not normally so accident-prone. You must think I’m a complete klutz.”

He decided to just leave that comment alone. “Sure you don’t need any help?”

“No—well, maybe you could get the spray cleaner from the top of that cabinet for me. I used cream and sugar and my desk will get all sticky.” His six-two frame that had served him well as a college linebacker would enable him to reach it—something that would require a step-stool for the petite Mandy.

At that instant Rob was distracted by the greatest distraction of them all: Amanda Sosna. As she stood at the other end of the aisle checking her phone, Rob could look at nothing else. She was the very definition of beauty. Dark hair, green eyes, kissable lips, trim yet voluptuous figure, she had a stately, graceful bearing that had supermodel written all over it. To Rob, she easily surpassed everyone on those “world’s most beautiful women” lists that magazines and blogs were always throwing out there. She had been born in the U.S. but both of her parents were from the Ukraine and she retained just the slightest hint of an accent, which made her even more alluring. As if that were not enough, she was a brilliant high-achiever who performed circles around Rob, Dave, and the other three reps on Jarrod’s staff. She was always cordial, even friendly, although beneath the surface one could not escape the notion that she had a pretty high opinion of herself. But then, how could she not? Yet, she had remained unreachable because, as one would expect, she was already in a relationship. However, at lunch this very day, Dave had confirmed Rob’s suspicions that Amanda and her boyfriend of 18 months had broken-up a couple of weeks ago. It did not deter him in the slightest that he might be catching her on the rebound. She was too perfect for him not to at least try.

He walked up to her as casually as he could. “Hi, Amanda. Haven’t seen much of you today.”

“Oh, hello Rob. No, I’ve been pretty busy.”

“Yeah. Of course, you always are. Hey, y’know I—”

“Rob!” came a voice from behind him. It was Dave. “Rob, Jarrod wants you and me in his office tout de suite.

Rob looked at the clock on the wall. “At ten minutes to five?”

“Yeah,” said Dave. “He said it’s imperative we see him before we leave today.”

Amanda waved and said, “Okay, see you later.” She headed to her office. Rob’s shoulders slumped and he followed Dave toward their boss’s office.

“Dave!” he stage-whispered severely. “Dude, I was just about to ask Amanda to dinner.”

“Sorry, Rob. I don’t think this will take long, though. I think it’s about the convention. You’ll probably have time to catch her afterwards.”

“Two more minutes,” groused Rob. “That’s all I needed.”

The two sat in Jarrod’s guest chairs and their all-business manager wasted no time getting to the point.

“David. Robert. I had two volunteers set to fly out to the convention tomorrow and now one of them, Peter, is in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. I realize that being at a convention most of next week can be inconvenient in that it puts you behind on your other work. But our attendance is a necessity and we need two people: one to attend the sessions and one to man the booth. I’ve spoken to the others, but so far no one has stepped up. Everyone has some sort of excuse. Unless one of the two of you volunteers, I’m afraid I’ll have to just draw a name out of a hat.”

Oh great, thought Rob. I finally get a chance for a date with the woman of my dreams and they want me to be gone for a week. In a week she’ll probably already have another boyfriend.

“Tomorrow?” groaned Dave. “I scheduled my vacation for next week, remember? I’m taking my wife and my little boy to Disneyworld. It’s his first time. We’ve got all the tickets and everything and we leave tomorrow morning.”

Rob needed to stall for time so he could think up an excuse. No way he would volunteer. He would take his chances with a random drawing—although it would be unfortunate if Dave got picked and missed his vacation. “Who’s the other person going?” he asked.

“Amanda,” said Jarrod.

Rob’s eyes widened. “Amanda? Um, well, like you said, it’s inconvenient, but since you’re in a spot, sure, I’ll go.”

“Good. Thank you Robert,” said Jarrod. “I very much appreciate it. Jennifer at the travel desk has made all the arrangements. I’ll call her right now and have her switch everything from Peter to your name and email you the information. Thank you gentlemen and, David, you and your family have a nice vacation.”

As they exited the office, Dave elbowed Rob and laughed. “I notice you became pretty willing once you heard who else was going.”

“Omigosh,” said Rob. “A whole week with Amanda—and with most of our evenings free. This could be really great. Wish me luck, dude.”

“Will do, but you gotta promise to give me all the dirt when you get back, y’hear?”

Rob headed over to Amanda’s office but she was already gone. He pulled up the email from Jenny and saw that their flight left just before nine o’clock the next morning. He blew out his cheeks. Gotta get a week’s worth of clothes laundered and packed tonight and put a hold on mail delivery, he thought. This is pretty short notice—but well worth it!

The convention started Monday morning but since it was on the opposite coast, most of Saturday would be taken up flying and getting settled-in. That would leave dinner Saturday night and all day Sunday to be with the gorgeous Ms. Sosna. He wondered if there might be some sights they could see together and decided he would look them up as soon as he got home. He did not want to come across to her as one of those guys that shrugs and says, “What do you want to do?” No, he needed to be more of a take-charge kind of guy. He would have a couple of options for things to do, of course, in case his first choice was not to her liking, but he would be cool and confident. Most women liked that in a guy, and he felt certain that was true of Amanda.

When he arrived at the airport the next morning there was a sizable line at the bag check-in for his flight. He inspected it closely for Amanda but she was either not there yet or had been really early. Probably the latter, he thought ruefully. She’s a go-getter. I should have gotten here earlier. He decided he had better get in line in case she was already at their gate.

The line of people switched-back twice as roped-off by the short poles with retractable straps, and it ended just inside the last poles. He towed his rolling suitcase while carrying his shoulder-strapped sports duffel to the end of the line, still double-checking for any sign of Amanda.

“Rob! Rob!” came a voice from somewhere across the large, busy terminal. He was disoriented for a moment—the voice was clearly not Amanda’s and he could not be sure exactly where it had originated. Until, that is, he saw a rolling suitcase tip over and jettison the large carry-on tote, that had been riding atop it, fifteen feet along the tiled floor. There was no question: it was Mandy. She reassembled herself and hurried over to him.

“Mandy? What are you doing here?”

She looked nonplussed. “I’m working the booth at the convention. Didn’t Jarrod tell you?”

The light dawned. “Oh. When he said Amanda I forgot he ignores nicknames. I thought—oh, never mind.”

“You thought Amanda Sosna was coming.” She said it with neither smile nor regret, but the absence of the former spoke volumes.

He shrugged. “I—well—yeah, y’know, but it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. We’ll do fine.”

“Have you flown much?” she asked.

“Quite a bit, I’d say.”

“Oh. Good. ‘Cause this is my first time. Like, ever.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, and I might need some pointers. I’ve never even been in an airport before.”

He raised his eyebrows and blinked several times. How does someone get to be almost 30 years old without having ever been in an airport? he wondered. “I’ll help as much as I can, although it’s really not all that complicated.”

“I’ll try not to be too much of a pain. I’ve printed off everything I could about the flight and hotel and stuff,” she said while digging through her oversized purse. As she did so she bumped the handle of her front-heavy suitcase causing it and the bag on top to tip forward. As she grabbed for them her purse slipped from her hand and emptied half its contents at their feet. “Oh shoot!” she said.

Seeking to rescue the situation as gracefully as possible, Rob bent over to gather the purse and its disgorged contents; at the same exact instant that Mandy did the same. Like a gag from an old-time slapstick comedy they conked heads, at which point all those in line around them tittered with laughter.

Mandy rubbed her noggin and with a look of genuine concern said, “Oh, Rob, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

Holding his hand over the corresponding spot on his head he quipped, “Yeah, there’s not much up there to injure. As hard-headed as I am, I guess you’re the one I should be asking if you’re okay. Are you?”

“Other than being embarrassed to death, you mean? Yeah, I’m okay.”

They both looked at the purse and contents at their feet. “Here,” said Rob. “I’ll hold your suitcase and carry-on and let you gather up your bag.” She nodded and squatted down to reload her purse.

He took a deep breath and shook his head. It was going to be a long week.

After Mandy collected herself they moved through the line in silence for a while. They watched a teen-aged boy a few places in front of them duck under the boundary strap and sprint off after something and then reverse the process to get back into line a few minutes later. Finally Mandy broke the silence. “Rob, um, I’ve heard about people losing their luggage. Does that really happen?”

“It’s happened to me a time or two. I’ve found it’s pretty unlikely on a direct flight but if you have to change planes, like we do, there’s always that risk. Usually it arrives on a later flight and they’ll bring it to you. But that’s why I keep some necessities like deodorant and an extra pair of socks and underwear in my carry-on—just in case.”

“Oh. Wow. I didn’t even think of that. Do you think I should try to…?”

Rob’s mind quickly played a scenario of Mandy struggling with her bags while in line and of embarrassing underclothes being dumped and scattered willy-nilly. “Nah,” he said confidently. “I’m sure you’ll be okay. Besides, there’s a mall near our hotel. If there’s any kind of mishap we’ll take the rental car over there and you can get whatever you need to tide you over. Okay?”

She smiled wanly, not even enough for her dimples to show. “Okay. You know best.”
He looked down at her suitcase. “I see you don’t have a luggage tag of any kind. Might be a good idea.”

“Oh? Will that keep it from getting lost?”

“Not so much that as it helps you make sure you grab the one that’s yours after we land.” Seeing her worried look he added, “But they have some little cardboard ones up there at the counter. See?”

She looked at the clear plastic container filled with white luggage tags with little elastic strings on them. “Should I just duck under and go get one, like that boy did?”

Rob shrugged. “Sure. Maybe get two. One for your carry-on in case you get separated from it. I’ll watch your bags.”

She nodded. They were near one of the posts and when she ducked under the strap she rose up too soon and lifted its plastic slide-down connector off the post. It released and zipped to the adjoining post with a loud thwack! That was followed immediately by a howl and a stream of expletives from an elderly man at the other end shaking his wounded hand.

“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry,” said Mandy rushing over to him. “I didn’t mean to unhook it. Is there anything I can do?”

“No, I’m okay, young lady.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

A glint came in his eye as he looked at the cute, shapely blonde. “I’m fine. It just surprised me more than anything.” He handed her the end of the strap. “You might want to put this back on, though.”

“Oh, yes. Thanks.” She took the strap and rushed toward the post from which she had disconnected it, nearly pulling over the one from which it originated.

Rob stepped in. “I’ll fix it,” he said, aware of the show they were putting on. “You just go get your tags, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. She reached into the container on the counter and, in trying to procure two, managed to pull about three dozen out which covered the floor at her feet. Snickers could be heard from those in line as she struggled to get them put back. At last she rejoined Rob in line.

“Sorry I’m being such a klutz. I swear I’m not normally like this.”

“It’s okay, Mandy. You’re probably just nervous about flying.” He said it, but he didn’t believe it.

“You’re probably thinking I’m a jinx and I’ll cause a plane crash.”

Rob immediately pressed his index finger to his lips, gave her a severe look, and shook his head. It was all he could do not to clap his hand over her mouth. “Yeah, you’ll probably need some plain cash,” he said extra loud. “Can’t buy everything with a credit card. Like if you want a candy bar or something, plain cash is what you’ll need all right. I can loan you some or we can find an ATM.”

She stared at him in confusion. He leaned close to her ear and hissed, “Mandy! There are some things you just can’t talk about in airports or on planes. You can get arrested. Look at that sign over there.”

The sign read, WE TAKE JOKES AND STATEMENTS ABOUT GUNS, BOMBS, AND CRASHES SERIOUSLY. THEY MAY BE GROUNDS FOR BOTH CRIMINAL AND CIVIL PENALTIES.

She clapped her own hand over her mouth, and whispered. “Rob, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

He looked around and no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. “It’s okay. Just be careful.”

The person ahead of them stepped up to the counter and an instant later another agent freed up. Mandy somehow managed to check her bag without wreaking any havoc, and now it was time to go through the airport screening ordeal.

“Get your driver’s license out and have your boarding pass handy,” said Rob. “They’ll want to see them both.”

Although she fumbled mightily trying to juggle her ID, purse, and carry-on, nearly failed to remove her shoes, and got taken aside and “wanded” after forgetting she had some keys in her jeans pocket, she got through security without being arrested—something Rob regarded as a near miracle.

At last they were settled at their gate. Armed with their boarding passes and assigned seats, there was finally a respite from mini-disasters. Still, Mandy appeared harried, on edge, and the worse for wear. Rob felt a little sorry for her.

“So,” he said, “how is it that someone your age has never been in an airport?”

“My age?”

“No, no, I didn’t mean you look old or anything, certainly not. It’s just—”

She laughed lightly and it was good to see her dimples again. “It’s okay; I know what you meant. The thing is, my mother became pretty much an invalid when I was 17.

She and my dad had divorced so I was the only one to take care of her. She could get around a little with help, but not by herself. So I was her constant companion from then up until she died a little over a year ago. I couldn’t be away from her for more than a couple of hours—I mean, she couldn’t even get to the bathroom without help. So, I didn’t get out much. I dropped out of high-school and got a GED. I finagled classes at the community college so that I could always get back in time to take care of anything she needed. I got my Bachelor’s in Human Resources through one of those online schools.”

“So, how long were you her caregiver?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow,” said Rob. “Ten years. Were you able to do things with friends or at least have them over?”

“Not really. I had a couple of high school friends that hung out with me for a while, but they each went away to start lives of their own. Then, after that, well it’s not easy to make friends when you’re either at home or running home all the time.”

“That was quite a burden on you. Did you ever consider taking her to a facility?”

“Yes. Once. But as soon as I walked into the place the smell of urine hit me, and I walked right back out.” There were tears in her eyes. “Plus, since I was taking classes and not working, we were just scraping by on disability income. There was no money for doing that anyway. Or for hiring a live-in caregiver. So that left it up to me.”

“Did you ever resent it?” As soon as the words left his mouth Rob regretted saying them. Fortunately she took them in stride.

“Not really; not as much as you might think. My mom told me over and over again that I was a saint and how grateful that she was to have such a wonderful, loving daughter. It’s hard to resent someone who loves you that much.”

Rob felt himself choking up. He had a burning impulse to put his arm around her and give her a little squeeze, but that would have been totally unprofessional. Plus, he felt he had no right. He had, until that moment, considered her an airheaded ditz who, except for being cute, had no redeeming qualities. It embarrassed him to recall that he had openly expressed that very sentiment to some of his coworkers in quite colorful terms. He wanted desperately to apologize to Mandy, but there would be no way to explain why without hurting her.

“Did you say she passed away a year ago?” he asked.

“Yeah, in May.”

“That must have been tough on you.”

“It was,” she said. “Still is, in some ways. There’s not only the loss of someone you loved so dearly, but there’s also guilt.”

“Guilt?”

“Yeah. Guilt at feeling a sense of relief—of release. I’ve been kind of conflicted about it. Y’know?”

“I can see what you mean. But, you know, your mom up until the very last knew you were her loving saint of a daughter, and that’s what’s important. How you feel about it now, besides being completely understandable, cannot erase that. And it does not affect the wonderful relationship you two had one iota.”

Mandy’s eyes glistened. “That’s very kind of you to say, and very wise. Thank you, Rob. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”

The impulse to give her a little squeeze was even greater so he decided on a change in subject. “So, with a degree in HR, how did you end up as an executive assistant?”

“After Mom died, I needed an income and jobs are hard to get without any experience. Fortunately Jarrod was willing to take a chance on me a year ago. But there might be a change coming.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Promise not to tell anyone?”

“Absolutely. Your secret will be safe with me.”

“I interviewed for an HR position at Techworld Dynamics yesterday morning. It’s still a lower-level position but it’s a small increase in pay and a chance to get my foot in the door.”

“How’d the interview go?”

“Really well; at least, I thought so. They said they had some more interviews but that they’d notify me of a decision sometime this coming week.”

“Mandy that’s great. I hope it works out for you. Although, I’ll—”

The loudspeaker in the gate area blared, “ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS AT GATE 21A. WE ARE NOW ANNOUNCING PRE-BOARDING FOR FLIGHT 872 BOUND FOR CHICAGO.”

“Is it time for us to go?” asked Mandy.

“No, not quite yet. That’s pre-boarding for people with special needs. Next they’ll call first-class and then us.”

Mandy got a concerned look. “Rob, I hate to bring something like this up, but how easy is it to use the restrooms on the plane?”

“Not too difficult, but you have to wait till we get up to cruising altitude and they turn off the seatbelt light. Plus, we have a window and a middle seat so you’ll have to climb over someone.”

“The ladies’ room is right over there. Maybe I better avail myself of it now while I still have a chance.”

“Sure. I’ll watch your stuff.”

After a minute or two he glanced up and saw her exiting the ladies’ room—with a length of toilet paper stuck to her heel and trailing along behind her. She turned and got a drink from a fountain as he rushed over to her. When she turned around he was right in front of her.

Her eyes wide with surprise she said, “Rob?”

“Mandy,” he said quietly, “turn around and back up against the wall. There’s toilet paper stuck to the heel of your right shoe.”

She looked down and extracted it using her other foot. “Omigosh. When I said I’d need you to help me navigate the airport I didn’t mean you’d have to keep stopping me from making an idiot of myself.”

“It’s okay,” he said gently. “I don’t think anybody noticed. It’s all good now.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Rob. Again.”

“They’ve just finished boarding first class so we better get in line.”

Once aboard, he gave her the window seat since she had never seen the world from 35,000 feet before.

It was odd, yet sort of fun to see her excitement as the plane taxied, took off, and quickly turned the city below them into a puzzle of miniature buildings and streets amid the vastness of the surrounding terrain.

“You doing okay?” said Rob. “Not scared or anything, are you?”

“Scared? Not hardly; this is cool! Look at that river down there. It’s just a little ribbon.”

“I’m glad. Some people get really frightened, especially the first time.”

“It’s just as fun as I hoped it would be when I volunteered to come.”

The flight attendant took drink orders and they each got ice water. Rob took a drink and then asked, “So, Mandy, with you having been sort of out of circulation for so long, what has been the most difficult adjustment for you?”

She took a lengthy drink of water. “Relationships. I mean, y’know, with guys. I sort of don’t know where to start—where to find eligible guys.”

“Mm, yes, having missed most of your high school and college years when there are the most singles around, I see the problem. In fact, I’m sort of dealing with it myself. Still, someone as cute and likeable as you shouldn’t have any problems. You’ll meet someone soon enough.”

She took another big gulp of water and then said, “So we’ve talked about my story. What about yours? You say you’re in a similar situation?”

“Well, only similar in a sense. I’m divorced.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I—I mean, I’ve heard that divorce is usually a difficult thing to go through.”

“Definitely,” he said. “Especially when it’s my own fault.” She took another sip as he continued, shaking his head ruefully. “Lori—my ex-wife—and I were doing fine; at least I thought so. I mean, life had settled-in to a familiar pattern with us both working on our careers. I joined a health club and would work-out each morning. She didn’t like getting up that early so I went alone. While there I struck up an acquaintanceship with a young woman who, I quickly discovered, was being badly mistreated by her husband. You know: verbal abuse, constant bickering, complaining and blaming her for every little problem. At first, I just listened and sympathized, but it was clear to me that she was starting to suffer from some real self-esteem issues. So, I started countering that by complimenting her and reassuring her that she was smart, charming, and pretty. Well, that put stars in her eyes toward me and, I’ll admit, made me feel like a hero. Long story short, the result was a one-time indiscretion for which I immediately felt guilty. I mean, that kind of thing was of no help to her situation and I was sure my marriage had been fine up till then. So, I immediately broke it off with her and decided the best action was to come clean with Lori.

“I confessed all amid assurances to her that I would never contact the other woman again, that I’d go for counseling—either personal or couple’s counseling or both—and do anything else Lori wanted in order to obtain her forgiveness and help heal her heart.” He shook his head again. “Lori was furious and let me know in no uncertain terms that she was getting a divorce, no matter what I did. Then, and this is no exaggeration, in less than two weeks she was hooked-up, quite literally, with a guy she had reconnected with from her college days. And that was that.”

“Wow,” said Mandy. “Sounds a little like she was looking for an excuse.”

He shrugged. “Yeah. I sometimes try to tell myself that, just to ease my conscience. But deep down I know that if I had been true to my vows and put even half the effort into building-up my marriage that I was claiming I would put into trying to revive it, there never would have been a divorce.”

“So, how are you dealing with it now?”

“It’ll be two years next month since the divorce. The whole thing has produced a lot of regret and loneliness, but I’m ready to move on.”

She gave a quick laugh. “Yes, I’ve noticed. With a certain Ms. Sosna, right?”

“Am I that obvious? Humph, apparently not to her. Anyway, the whole thing with Lori has left me a bit gun-shy about women.”

“Well, it sounds like you’ve learned a lot. I guess the school of hard knocks often teaches the most effective lessons, if also the most painful.”

He smiled. “Humph, wisely spoken, Ms. Wheeler. I must admit, I fear I may have misjudged you.”

She exhaled deeply and plopped her head against the seat-back. “I know; all those stupid mistakes. I must have seemed like a bumbling nincompoop. But honestly, I’m fine except, well, except when you’re around.”

“Me? Why would my presence cause you any angst?”

Her eyes widened and she drank the remainder of her water. He looked puzzled for a couple of seconds and then his eyes widened and he, too, drained his cup. She quickly dug into her large purse and pulled out a puzzle magazine and a pencil.

“Do you like crosswords?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Um, how about we work on one together?”

“Okay,” he said.

She flipped it open and, at random, picked one. “Here we go; this should work. Okay, let’s see. One across is, ‘Othello’s wife.’ Desdemona, right?”

Rob turned down the corners of his mouth and nodded. “Very good. I don’t know that I’d have come up with that.”

She smiled and entered the word into the puzzle. “Okay, now ten-across is ‘Captain Jack Sparrow.’ It’s four letters.” She looked up at Rob.

“Depp,” he said, “it’s Johnny Depp.”

“Ah,” she said and entered the name. “Now, 14-across is ‘Yugoslavian dictator’s surname’ and it’s four letters.”

“Wow, that’s going back a ways. It was Tito wasn’t it?”

“Well, that was his pseudonym. His real name was Broz. Let’s try the last letter down and see if it’s a Z or an O. The clue for 17-down is ‘Highest point’ and it’s six letters. Probably zenith, huh? So 14-across must be Broz.”

As they continued, it turned out that she needed little help. While a crossword puzzle is no acid-test, Rob was impressed at her breadth of knowledge.

The landing in Chicago was smooth and their layover was long enough that they had time for some lunch at an airport café. Mandy ordered a burger and fries and Rob hoped she was finally feeling more at ease around him. She made a puddle of ketchup on her plate and dipped her fries in it as they ate and talked. She bathed a large fry in ketchup and, as she brought it towards her mouth, it broke off and fell on her patterned, multi-color blouse just above her waist.

“Oh no!” she said grabbing for a napkin. “Just look at that mess!” It was quickly obvious that trying to wipe off the stain was fruitless. “I should have put stuff in my carry-on like you suggested—a whole change of clothes. I look a mess.”

“I wish there was some way I could help,” said Rob. “I have an idea that might work, though. I once got ink on a shirt while at work and a buddy told me how to minimize the stain. Go to the restroom and get two paper towels, one wet and one dry. Put the wet one on the inside under the stain and the dry one outside over it. As the water travels from the wet to the dry it should take most of the stain with it. Don’t know if it’ll work for ketchup, but it might be worth a try.”

Her eyes glistened with gratitude. “Okay, I’ll see if it works.” She hurried off to the restroom. When she returned, the lower part of her blouse was wet but there was only a barely detectable hint of a ketchup stain. “I think it might have worked,” she said enthusiastically. She sat back down to her plate, sighed deeply, and fixed Rob with an exasperated look as if to say, is this bad luck ever going to end?

He grinned and shook his head and suddenly they both burst out laughing. Finally he said, “Mandy, just do us both a favor. Don’t ever join the bomb disposal squad, okay?”

The second leg of their journey was uneventful and they arrived at baggage-claim early enough that they positioned themselves right near where the conveyor slid the bags onto the carousel.

As they watched the first bags arrive and people grabbing them off the carousel, Rob said, “Let me know when you see yours and I’ll get it for you.” A short time later his bag slid down and rotated to him. He took it off and stepped back from the carousel while he lifted its handle and perched his duffel bag on it.

“Ah, here’s mine,” said Mandy. “I can get it.” With that she lifted the navy blue suitcase off the carousel, raised the handle, and started to put her carry-on atop it.

“Excuse me, Miss,” said an urgent voice. “That’s my bag.”

She looked up to see the elderly gentleman whose hand she had thwacked before they had boarded their initial flight.

“What?” she said.

“My bag,” he said, pointing at the suitcase. “You have my bag.”

“Your bag?”

“Yes. See the strip of duct tape on the handle? I always do that so I can recognize it as mine.”

“Oh. Oh my, yes I see.”

“Mandy,” called Rob holding up a navy blue suitcase. “Here’s yours; it has your luggage tag.”

She turned to the man and said, “I’m so sorry, sir.” She took her carry-on off it and pushed the suitcase over to him. “Here, and again I apologize. That’s a really good idea about the tape. I think I better do that next time.”

“Yes,” he said, “only just don’t put it in the same place as mine.” He smiled.

“Good point. I’m sure you’ll be glad when you’ve seen the last of me.”

“Young lady, seeing you I don’t mind. Interacting with you, well, that’s a different story.” With that he gave a little bow, took his suitcase, and wheeled it away.

Mandy looked at Rob, rolled her eyes, and shook her head. He smiled. “It’s okay. You’ll learn. You just have to remember that a lot of luggage looks alike. So, now that we’ve got our bags let’s go get our rental car and get to the hotel.”

They did so and by quarter to six they were checked-in and headed to their rooms, both of which were on the third floor.

“How about we get some supper?” he said. “When I got convention duty a couple of years ago we found a great little steak place. That sound okay?”

“Sure,” she said a bit hesitantly.

“Meet in the lobby in, say, half an hour?”

“Is it fancy? I mean, someplace more than jeans and a ketchup-stained blouse?”

“Well, it’s not top of the line or anything but, y’know, white table cloths and crystal glasses and such.”

“I get it,” she said. “Better give me 45 minutes.”

“Fair enough. See you then.”

For his part, Rob switched from jeans to business casual and called to confirm that they could get reservations this close to their arrival time. He went to the lobby and sat checking emails on his phone till footsteps approached him and he heard a voice say, “Ready?”

He looked up and his jaw dropped. Mandy stood before him in a form-fitting, backless version of the proverbial Little Black Dress.

“Wow,” he gushed. “Mandy… just… wow!”

A blush of pink joined her dimples and she said, “All right, all right. I’ve been embarrassed enough for one day, no need in adding to it.”

“Embarrassed? No, no. No need for you to be embarrassed. You’re… absolutely stunning.”

She turned her eyes upward and blinked several times trying to suppress a dimpled grin. “So, are you going to take me to dinner or what?”

“Oh, yes ma’am, my pleasure,” said Rob, standing up and offering his arm. “Let’s go.”

At the restaurant, as they studied their menus, Rob said, “The steaks here are to die for. I’m going to go all-in and get the filet mignon.”

“How is the herb-crusted chicken here?”

“It’s good,” he said slowly. “Has a real tasty sauce with it. Not a steak person?”

“I’ve always found it sort of bland and chewy.”

“Let me guess. You order it well-done, right?”

“Actually,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one in a restaurant. My mom always insisted it be cooked till there was no pink whatsoever.”

“Ah, and probably pretty low-budget cuts, too, huh?” She nodded and he got a sly look.

When their orders came he held his hand up towards her and said, “Before either of us takes a bite, hand me your fork.” Although perplexed, she did as he asked. He took it and cut off a bite of his filet and held it out to her. “Okay, try a bite of steak the way it should be, medium-rare.” He had intended that she take her fork back but she ate the bite right off it as he held it out to her. Her eyes widened immediately and when she swallowed a couple of seconds later her reaction was exactly what he had expected.

“Oh my goodness! I didn’t even have to chew. It just sort of melted in my mouth. That is amazing!”

“Here,” he said, “tell you what. How about we go half-and-half? I’ll trade you half my steak for one of your chicken breasts.”

“Oh I couldn’t; your steak is way more expensive.”

He waved her off. “Cyber’s paying, so don’t even worry about that. I insist—unless you really don’t want to.”

She got a sly little grin. “Well, it was really yummy.” She looked around at the elegant surroundings. “You think it’s okay?”

“Hey,” he said cutting the thick steak in half, “we’re paying for the food. We can do whatever we want with it. Here, move your plate over this way a little. That’s it; there you go. Now give me one of those pieces of chicken. Hey, don’t be stingy with the sauce, now.”

She cut another bite off the steak and said, “Wow, I’d always gotten the impression that anything less than well-done would be all bloody and disgusting. I mean, this is reddish pink but it doesn’t look raw.” She put the bite in her mouth and closed her eyes in ecstasy. “Mmmm. This tastes fantastic.”

When they finished their meal the waiter offered dessert.

“Interested?” asked Rob. Mandy got an almost fearful look and shook her head. “You sure?” said Rob.

“Definitely not.”

“Okay,” he said to the waiter. “The lady says no.”

After the waiter left, Mandy said, “Saying no to desserts is the only way I can continue to fit into this dress.”

“Well, then by all means follow your advice. You look fabulous.” She smiled demurely but he suddenly got a look of concern. “I guess I should be careful. You being an HR major and all, I’m liable to get myself in hot water for sexual harassment saying stuff like that, huh?”

She grinned and pointed her finger at him. “That’s right, mister. As a soon-to-be Human Resources professional I can tell you I’ve got my eye on you, so watch it.” They both laughed. “Of course, maybe I shouldn’t have my eye on you. So far it’s caused me to be a walking disaster area.”

Rob’s grin diminished to a pensive smile as he covered her small hand with his huge mitt. “Actually, I like that you have your eye on me. I know I certainly like having mine on you.”

She bit her lower lip and gently pulled her hand away, then wagged her finger at him.
“Now, now,” she said teasingly, “no PDAs allowed.”

“PDAs? What’s that?”

“It’s an HR term. HR is full of acronyms. It means Public Displays of Affection. Not kosher in the workplace.”

He narrowed his eyes at her and then looked all around the restaurant. “Well, this isn’t exactly the workplace, right?”

She raised her eyebrows thoughtfully. “Mm, you have a point.”

At that moment the waiter arrived with the check. On the drive back to the hotel, Rob asked, “Any plans for tomorrow, Mandy? We have the whole day to kill.”

“Actually, there is an art exhibition nearby that I’d like to see. It has paintings from several Pre-Raphaelite artists. I’ve seen them in books and online but I’d love to see them in person. I don’t know if that’s your thing or not—some people find it pretty boring. If not, I can just take a taxi.”

“No, no, I’m fine with it. I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know much about art. Like, I’ve never even heard of Pre- whatever it is you just said. Maybe you could show me around and raise my level of culture a bit.”

Sunday afternoon found them at an art museum with Mandy providing the tour-guide type commentary as they strolled from painting to painting.

“The Pre-Raphaelites were a 19th century brotherhood of artists who didn’t like the direction art was taking. They wanted to portray elegant beauty in vibrant colors often focusing on beautiful women.”

“That makes sense to me,” said Rob. “I have long felt that the pinnacle of beauty in all of existence is the human female. Star-filled skies, alpine lakes, flaming sunsets… none of them can compare to a truly beautiful woman.” He gently turned Mandy toward him and looked directly into her eyes as he lowered his voice. “Present company included.”

Her eyes widened as she cleared her throat. “Um, thank you,” she said as once again she blushed. Her eyes darted around the room nervously until they locked on the gallery section off to her right. “Um, now over here they’ve, um, made a bit of a mistake.” She took his arm and guided him to the next section of the exhibit.

“Oh?”

“Yes. They’ve included some John William Godward works, but he was not truly a Pre-Raphaelite. Since he used Roman and Greek settings, he is more accurately considered a Victorian Neoclassicist.”

“I see,” said Rob. “While I can’t say I follow all of that, I can say I see why you like this style of art; it truly is beautiful.”

They toured every inch of the gallery while she kept up a running commentary, with him wearing a delighted grin. With aching legs they finally headed toward the car.

“Wow,” said Mandy, “look at the time. No wonder I’m so tired. I’m sorry, Rob. I probably talked your ear off.”

“I loved every minute of it. I must also say that I’m totally impressed by your knowledge of art and by your enthusiasm and by… well… pretty much everything about you.” She blushed and got into the car.

“So, where shall we go for dinner tonight?” he asked. “Do you like seafood?”

“Yes. I haven’t had a lot of it, though.”

“Crab? Lobster?”

“I’ve tasted crab. Haven’t tried lobster.”

“There’s a place a few miles from here that I hear is supposed to be pretty good. Want to give it a try?”

“Sure.”

At Rob’s suggestion she ordered a sampler plate and was having a wonderful time experiencing all the new flavors. That is, until she tried too hard to pry a chunk of meat out of a resistant crab leg and flipped it into the water glass of a middle-aged fellow sitting at the next table.

“Omigosh! I’m so sorry sir. I don’t know how that happened.”

He laughed good-naturedly. “Since it’s just my water glass, not a problem. Now if it’d been my wine glass I’d expect you to buy me another.”

“Oh, here, I haven’t used my water glass; I’ll gladly trade you.”

“No, it’s fine.” He grinned and looked at Rob, “I’ll bet she just wants her piece of crabmeat back.”

“Too bad I didn’t get a video of it,” said Rob. “We could win a bundle on that funniest video TV show. And we’d split it with you, of course.” The two had a good laugh but Mandy looked mortified. Seeing that, Rob refocused on her and gave her a sympathetic smile.

She hid her face with her hands. “I cannot believe I did that,” she said. “Do you think anyone would notice if I just crawled underneath the table and stayed there till closing time?”

He laughed gently and once again took her hand. “It’s okay. He’s being a good sport about it.”

She shot a furtive glance at the next table. “But that glass is just sitting there like a neon sign saying, ‘Look what the moron at the next table did.’”

Rob caught a waiter’s attention and said quietly to him, “Would you please very discreetly bring a fresh glass of ice water to the gentleman at the next table there and remove the one with the crabmeat floating in it?” Surprisingly the waiter neither showed confusion nor sought an explanation, but in less than half a minute had resolved the situation.

“Thanks, Rob,” said Mandy. She closed her eyes and shook her head with a look of incredulity mixed with resignation.

Barely suppressing a grin, Rob said, “You know, that was actually quite a shot. I bet you couldn’t get it to land directly in his water glass again in a thousand tries.”

They both laughed and she said, “Don’t be too sure. I’ve worked night and day to perfect the art of crabmeat flipping, you know.”

“Yet another amazing talent—and who would have guessed? How have you kept it secret all this time?

“Well,” she said, “a person can’t be too careful with something like that. Once the press gets ahold of it your life is never the same—talent scouts hounding you, Las Vegas bookings, offers to appear on The Tonight Show; I just don’t think I’m ready for that kind of fame.”

He laughed heartily and squeezed her hand. “Have I told you how much I love being with you?”

She blinked rapidly several times. “Even though I’m a walking disaster?”

He laughed lightly and looked intently into her eyes. “You’re not a disaster; you’re a delight.” She returned his gaze with a dreamy smile for a long moment until it was interrupted by the waiter refilling their glasses.

They returned to the hotel and walked hand-in-hand down the third floor corridor until they came to her door.

“Thanks, Rob, for putting up with me dragging you around through an art museum. And I’m sorry I’m such an embarrassment to you all the time.”

He took hold of her shoulders and said sternly but quietly, “You are never an embarrassment to me, Mandy Wheeler. The truth is I can’t remember when I’ve had a more enjoyable day.” He looked up and down the empty corridor. “Mandy,” he said as he put his big arms around her petite waist. She raised her eyebrows expectantly. “If I kiss you would it be considered a PDA if there’s no one around to see it?”

She flashed a dimpled smile. “Well, I’d have to check the HR manual to be sure, but I’m willing to risk it.”

With that he kissed her soft, luscious lips and when they came up for air she kept her wrists locked behind his neck and gave him an impish grin.

“Still sorry it wasn’t Amanda Sosna that came on this trip?” she said.

“Amanda who? The only Amanda I care anything about is the beautiful woman I’m holding in my arms this very moment. She has completely captured my heart.”

She smiled warmly and said, “And you have captured mine, Robert Galloway.”

They kissed again until they heard the ding of the elevator arriving at the third floor and they quickly separated.

“Guess we better say good night,” said Rob.

A man got off the elevator and headed the other way down the corridor.

“Rob, we’re going to have a tough time when we get back to work. Company policy frowns on two people under the same supervisor being in a romantic relationship. Plus, I mean, we joke around about it, but I can tell it’s going to be really difficult to avoid PDAs when we get back. At least, I know it will be for me.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I know. Me too. Look, I’m fairly certain that these feelings I have for you are no flash in the pan. So if it comes to that, I’ll find something elsewhere. I know the COO of DevAppCo, Julie Nissen. I’m pretty sure she’d take me on; might even get a raise out of it.”

“Oh Rob no. I couldn’t let you give up your job for me.”

“Listen,” he said gently caressing her soft blonde hair, “let’s not worry about that yet. We’ll deal with it when it happens, okay? Right now you get some sleep and don’t fret. It’ll all work out.” He kissed her again.

“Night, Rob. See you at breakfast at six-thirty, okay?”

“Okay. Good night, Mandy. Sweet dreams.”

They worked together the next morning to get the Cyber Paradigm booth set up in time for the arrival of the conference attendees. They put up a tri-fold poster-board backdrop, a repeating video presentation, a stack of business cards, informational brochures, and a bowl of candy. Their booth was at one end against the wall of another, unused, conference room. Next to their booth was one for the much smaller competitor, DevAppCo, which was staffed by none other than Julie Nissen herself.

Rob attended the sessions, but before and after each he networked with clients and prospects while Mandy took care of the booth. He was impressed that she, being only a clerical worker, was so adept at describing their company’s products and services and at collecting contact information for prospective clients. She had really done her homework. Even more surprising for someone who had spent so much time in seclusion, she was clearly a people-person. Everyone seemed to take an instant liking to her. She had even managed to strike up a very positive acquaintanceship with Ms. Nissen.

****************************

During the afternoon keynote session on Wednesday there were a small number of attendees still milling around the exhibition area including a squat, bald man in his fifties whom Mandy did not recall having seen before. He was hovering around the fringes of her booth but kept looking around and behind her as if hoping there was someone else to talk to. Finally he ventured close enough and inadvertently made eye contact with her.

“Is there something I can help you with, sir?”

The man curled his lip like he had a bad case of heartburn. “Isn’t there a guy here with you?”

“Rob Galloway? Yes, he’s in the keynote session at the moment. Is there something I can help you with? A question I can answer?”

The look on the man’s face said he doubted that very much. “How long will he be in there?”

“Mm, I’m afraid the session isn’t due to end for another 40 minutes. But if there’s anything I can—”

“I’m Jack Schellenberger from Norquist Industries. We’re a client of yours.” He looked around the room as if wanting to find an escape from a pointless conversation.

“Oh, yes, pleased to meet you Mr. Schellenberger; Norquist is one of our best clients.” Mandy held out her hand an uncomfortably long time before he reluctantly gave it a quick, limp single shake. Out the corner of her eye she could see Julie Nissen shaking her head at Schellenberger’s behavior. Undaunted, Mandy kept trying. “Now, what is the nature of your concern, Mr. Schellenberger. Maybe if you discuss it with me first it can speed things up when Mr. Galloway gets here.”

With a deep, tired sigh, Schellenberger finally said, “Training. We just upgraded your software and I’m wondering if Cyber can provide us with training.”

“Yes,” said Mandy, “you just moved up to version 4.1. Actually, I can help you with that. Cyber does not do any training directly, but we are partnered with OmniCurricula to provide that very training, and at an exceptionally good price. They already have a training package for this version developed and ready to go, but they can also customize it very economically to meet your specific needs.” She grabbed a business card and wrote on the back. “Now, here is the toll-free number for them and just ask for this person, Ariana Taveras, and she can get something put together for you in no time. She’s very good.”

She held out the card but he kept his hands in his pockets and continued to look behind her.

“When did you say the guy would be here?”

There was the slightest edge to Mandy’s voice when she replied, “A little over half an hour. But I can assure you, Mr. Schellenberger, that he will tell you exactly the same thing. If you would prefer, I can call Ariana and get the ball rolling for you and have her contact you.”

Schellenberger glared at her as if she had just offered to be his guide to the top of Mt. Everest. He snatched the card out of her fingers, glanced at it and shoved it in his pocket. “No, never mind,” he said gruffly. “I’ll make the call myself.”

With that he stormed away looking more in need of an antacid than ever. As he did,
Mandy blew out her cheeks and Julie walked over to her.

“What a jerk!” said Julie. “He’s lucky he wasn’t talking to me; I’d have flattened the little twerp, client or no client.”

*****************************

The session wrapped up and Rob exited the large conference room out to the exhibition area with the other attendees. He immediately heard a commotion from over near their booth where a crowd had gathered much like kids in a schoolyard when a fight breaks out. He pushed his way through to find a short, bald, red-faced man screaming at Mandy.

“Don’t you realize what damage this could do to my reputation, to my good name? And all because of your empty-headed ineptitude! I knew better than to let someone like you get involved in any of this.”

“What’s going on here?” asked Rob.

Mandy was red in the face and starting to cry. “Rob—”

“Finally!” Schellenberger roared. “Someone with half a brain. This—this airheaded blonde bimbo was supposed to be giving me the number of a training outfit. Instead it was the number to one of those sex-for-hire places. Do you know what having a call like that on my business phone could do to me? I could lose my job. I demand that you provide me a letter of apology immediately and that you fire this— this— dimpled ditz right now, on the spot. And if you refuse, I can assure you that Norquist will take its business elsewhere.”

“Rob,” said Mandy, her voice quavering and her face awash in tears, “I know I gave him the right number; I’m sure of it.” She said it with conviction, but there was the slightest tinge of doubt in her eyes. “He asked about training and—”

Rob held up his palm to quiet her. He looked at them both and said calmly, “I will see that this gets resolved quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction. Let’s step over here where we can talk Mr.—?”

“Schellenberger, Jack Schellenberger.”

“Mr. Schellenberger,” repeated Rob, “I’m Rob Galloway.” As the two walked a short distance away, Julie came over to Mandy and put her arm around her.

Schellenberger, though more quietly, was still agitating. “Galloway, don’t try to sweet talk me out of it, I am adamant that you dismiss that boneheaded incompetent here and now.”

“I understand your ire, Mr. Schellenberger but, for one thing, I do not have firing authority over her. However, if I can gather a few facts I’m sure the proper steps will be taken. Now, as you know, these things require solid documentation. Did you make the call from your cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Is the number on your recent call list? I’d like to get a picture of it on my phone for documentation purposes.”

Schellenberger twiddled with his phone for a few seconds and handed it to Rob. “There it is, right at the top.”

“Yes, I see,” said Rob taking a photo of the list with his phone. “Now, did Ms. Wheeler give you the number verbally or did she write it down?”

“She wrote it on this little card,” he said fumbling through three pockets before producing it and handing it to Rob.

“Here,” said Rob, “Let me put both the card and the number on the phone right together and…there, I’ve got a picture of both in one shot.” He cleared his throat and held both up where Schellenberger could see them. “Mr. Schellenberger, can you see this? Notice that the last number on the card is a three but you entered a nine. Also, her card shows the area code as 888 but you entered 800. So, the fault was not Ms. Wheeler’s. It was yours.”

Schellenberger looked a bit sheepish and snorted. “Must have keyed it in a little too quickly. Humph, can’t remember having done something like that before. Now, Mr. Galloway, what we’re needing is a training program for—”

“Wait. Wait,” said Rob holding up his hand. “Before we discuss your training situation, there is something that needs to be handled first.”

“Huh?”

“Mr. Schellenberger, you have exactly two options at this moment, and there is no third. Option one is that you can immediately go over to Ms. Wheeler and, in the same loud volume that you were railing at her when I walked up, apologize humbly and sincerely for your idiotic mistake and unwarranted accusations, and ask her forgiveness…” Rob then gripped the upper sleeve of Schellenberger’s jacket very tightly. “Or option two is that you can accompany me around the corner into that empty room there where I will put my fist through your face.”

Schellenberger looked at Rob’s iron grip on his sleeve and gasped. “Are you threatening me?”

“Oh yes, you better believe it.”

“Wh-why you can’t do that. I’m your client. I’ll have your job for this.”

Rob gave a quick laugh. “You work for Todd Harvey. Todd and I have played golf twice a month for the past five years. And since I’ve never heard of you before I’m guessing you’ve worked for Norquist, what, two weeks? Once I tell Todd the story, and don’t forget I have the pictures to prove what really happened, I’m pretty confident my job will be safe. Wouldn’t bet too much on yours though.

“Well, anyway,” continued Rob, “it seems clear you’re not choosing option one so let’s get going.”

“Wait! Th-this is assault and battery, I’ll have you arrested.”

Rob started pulling him toward the next room. “That’s okay. It’d be worth spending a few nights in jail just to see a sexist windbag like you crawling around the floor in here trying to find his front teeth.”

“All right, all right,” said Schellenberger in a quavering voice. “I’ll apologize. After all, the fault was mostly mine and, well, I guess I was rather hard on her.”

“Good, good. Now remember, very loud and very, very sincere. And don’t forget to ask for her forgiveness.” Rob relaxed his grip on Schellenberger’s sleeve but kept his hand on his shoulder to guide him back to Mandy’s booth. Rob stood beside him as Schellenberger cleared his throat to speak.

He looked at Rob and said, “Um, I’d like to apologize—”

“Not to me,” said Rob, “to Ms. Wheeler. And nice and loud.”

Schellenberger nodded. “Yes, Ms.—um—Wheeler, I’d like to offer my sincerest apologies for my rather unprofessional behavior earlier. I discovered afterward that the fault was mine; I had tried to key in the number from memory instead of looking at the card you gave me and misdialed. Of course, when you said it was an 800 number I took you literally—”

“That’s not what she said,” corrected Julie. “I stood right here and heard the whole thing. She said it was a toll-free number, not an 800 number.”

“Ah, yes, well, sometimes my brain runs ahead of me, I guess. In any case, it was wrong of me to become upset with you, Ms. Wheeler.”

He looked at Rob whose eyebrows told him to continue.

“I am sorry for the inappropriate name-calling on my part. You did nothing wrong; the fault was totally my own. I… would… like to ask your forgiveness.”

Mandy, who had stood stoically through the entire speech, lifted her chin a bit. “I will forgive you, Mr. Schellenberger, on one condition. That you come to terms with the fact that a woman—even a young, dimpled, blonde woman—can be just as capable and competent as a man in the business world. And I say this for your own good. Because, unless and until you realize this, you are destined to spend a lot of time in the unemployment office. After all, Mr. Schellenberger, look around; us women are everywhere. Good day, Mr. Schellenberger.”

Schellenberger spun on his heel and power-walked toward the exit while the ring of bystanders that had gathered burst into applause for Mandy. Rob put his arm around her and gave her a squeeze.

As the crowd dispersed he said, “Wow, you were terrific, Mandy. Really put that jerk in his place.”

“Me? You’re the one that’s terrific. How on earth did you get that baboon to apologize?”

“Uh, it’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand—being a woman and all.” They both laughed and she slapped his arm.

Suddenly her phone went off. She looked at it, widened her eyes, and said, “Oh, excuse me a minute Rob, I’ve got to take this,” and she stepped away toward the corner of the room.

Julie sauntered over to Rob. “That’s quite a girlfriend you’ve got there Rob.”

“Girlfriend?” he said innocently.

“Oh come on, the air practically crackles with electricity the minute the two of you get within 50 feet of each other. I’ll tell you what, though, she’s something else. You should have seen her holding to that good-customer-service demeanor even when that obnoxious boor was treating her like a four-year-old. I’ve got to run but you can tell her for me that if she ever decides to step up from being an administrative assistant, I’d take her on as a rep in a hot second.”

“I’ll tell her.”

A moment later Mandy bounded over to Rob. “Guess what! You are now looking at the new HR assistant at TechWorld Dynamics.”

“Mandy, that’s terrific. When do you start?”

“I’ll turn in my letter of resignation Friday and I start two weeks from Monday. You know what else that means, right?”

“What?”

“As soon as I start my new job, we won’t have to worry about PDAs anymore.”

“Now that’s really good news.”

“So,” she said, “Where should we go for dinner?”

“How about we try to find some intimate little out-of-the-way place with subdued
lighting where we can engage in some NSPDAs?”

“NSPDAs?”

“Not-So-Public Displays of Affection.”

“Ah, very clever acronym,” she said with a broad dimpled smile. “I believe you may have a future in the field of Human Resources.”

“See, you’re not the only one with hidden talents,” he said while bowing and making a sweeping gesture. But as he did so he knocked over the trifold display board and, in trying to catch it, managed to knock the bowl of candy onto the floor.

Hand on hip, Mandy shook her head and smirked at him. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Honestly, I can’t take you anywhere, Rob Galloway. You are a disaster waiting to happen.”

A Short Circuit

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Kindle/Nook ebooks

For those of you who don’t use Facebook or who may have missed Becki’s posting, I have finally taken the plunge and put a series of my novels out on Kindle and Nook as ebooks. If you have a Kindle or Nook Tablet/Reader you can, of course, download and read them there. Or, if you have an iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone, or probably any other smart phone or tablet device, you can get a free Kindle or Nook app and use those devices to read them. I’ve read entire books on my iPhone and, though you might think it’s too small to read on, it’s really not bad at all.

The books are in a series called Ever Increasing Glory. The first book is Hidden in a Field, the second is The Way of Escape and the third is Canceled Debts. Although they’re classified as Christian romances they include an attempted murder, a car wreck, a foiled rape attempt, and a guy getting worked over with a rubber hose so they’re not all just romantic fluff.

You can use the links below or search the Kindle or Nook sites by the series (Ever Increasing Glory), by the titles or by “D. L. Hamilton” (Don Hamilton won’t work).

Kindle:
•Book 1: Hidden in a Field
•Book 2: The Way of Escape
•Book 3: Canceled Debts

Or, for the more graphically-oriented, click on the cover image below:

Hidden in a Field Cover TN The Way of Escape Cover TN Canceled Debts Cover TN

Nook:
You can view the whole Ever Increasing Glory series.

You can read the first few chapters for free and the books themselves are pretty inexpensive. Hope you find the stories enjoyable as well as inspirational.

God’s blessings,

Don

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