Wednesday, March 28, 2012

OP DEC: Operation Deceit by Kelly Williams

[caption id="attachment_23" align="alignright" width="200" caption="OpDec Operation Deceit"]OpDec Operation Deceit[/caption]From the corner at the top of the stairs, a cherub-faced girl of eleven beheld the lighted parlor of her family home. Young Claire discreetly angled herself out of the line of sight, brushing her dusky curls from her eyes to better see the room. The scene before her gentle blue eyes wasn’t what she expected to find. Mother and Father went out that evening to one of their flamboyant parties somewhere in the city of Boston. Claire leapt from her bed to greet them the instant she heard their voices. She couldn’t wait until morning to draw out the stories of what lay beyond their quiet Brookline home. Instead, Mother and Father fought. Claire frowned with disappointment knowing she must wait for the glamorous stories until tomorrow.

Claire lay on her stomach. She could just make out her mother from the chin down. The woman sat on one of the two sofas in the sitting room. Her knuckles strained white, gripping the arm of the furniture. Claire pressed herself lower. The face, elegantly framed in a wavy blond bob, almost always held a smile, but now agonized strain marred its beauty. Behind Mother’s seat, Father paced frantically and bellowed terrible.

Father’s mood would bring uncomfortable penalties for even the slightest breach. The girl felt her heart beat harder at the idea, warning her to flee back to her bed. Claire pressed herself against the wall. It was well after bedtime and she should be asleep since long ago. With large eyes, Claire came back to the scene. Panicked by all the yelling, she couldn’t decide to stay or go.

Mother’s head lolled wearily. Father continued to pace before the door, appearing in regular intervals. His voice followed him in and out like waves on a beach; the tones harshly peaked. The force stifled Claire’s breath. Her gaze settled on Mother again. The woman’s hands clenched in fists, while her teeth tore at her lip. Claire whispered pleas for her mother to speak up for herself.

“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” Father said, loosening the bow tie around his throat. “Are you ill again? Is that what this is about?”

Mother folded her hands in her lap and lowered her head, refusing to speak a word in response. The deep breath she drew through her nose confirmed the message of her posture.

“It’s you who’s sick,” Mother finally hissed. “How could you do this to us?” she demanded, her voice full of anguish.

“You’re delusional,” Father said, halting before the door. His thick hand clutched at the back of his neck nervously. “I’ll call doctor O’Reilly. You need to rest. You’ve been under so much stress lately. What, with me being forced to let those men go. That’s when it started. I apologized for that, but there was nothing I could do. I told you—”

“It has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. I know what I saw tonight,” Mother defended vehemently.

“That’s for a doctor to decide,” Father said ominously.

“I have never been delusional, Carroll,” Mother replied. “It’s you—you continue to try and cast me aside. Now I know why.” She shook her head. “You’re going to get rid of me,” Mother blurted. “After what I’ve learned I should not be surprised you’d try to do so yourself,” she said, sitting back in her chair searching the floor in disbelief. “I mean nothing to you anymore. You’ve lost yourself in this ghastly affair. You’ve become a twisted man in love with money and power.”

Mother rose from her chair and approached the door. Father offered her his hand. She looked at it dismayed and shied away. Her eyes darted to his. Discomfort changed to fear. Hiding her face in her hand, Mother wept.

“Irene you know it’s not true,” Father said in a vastly different tone from the blustering moments ago. Closing his arms around her, he continued, “Because I love you I want to get you help. I cannot stand the thought of losing you. Besides, our little girl needs you now more than ever. She’s growing up and needs her mother. Please let me help you, for Claire’s sake?”

Mother lowered her hands from her face, drawing her arms tighter to her own frame. Father’s touch repulsed her. She sniffed and tried to control her emotions. The tears swam in her eyes and streamed over her face. Her huge eyes filled with fear at his accusations.

“I only wish I could live with what I saw—for Claire’s sake,” Mother sobbed.

“You mean what you imagined, Irene. A little rest and that will be quite clear to you,” Father chuckled.

The sound gave a strange impression to Claire. She heard the very same laugh used when her father met with businessmen at home. It wasn’t consoling and wasn’t meant to be. It was a laugh that warned, though careful and guarded. Her father was considered shrewd for very good reasons. But, why would he use such tactics in an argument with Mother?

Claire slid back along the wall, pressing her back to the solid support and shutting her eyes. She wished she never heard them come home. Whatever her father had done was too scary to imagine, even though her mind kept trying to solve the puzzle.

Claire saw her father in many moods throughout her life. The man she knew was aloof, but always loving toward her. At times, he could be stern. Any father was the same. However, this mood was the nastiest by far. Whatever he did simply must be awful, she thought. She felt afraid of him in a distressing new way.

Claire’s ears suddenly filled with the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Her eyes popped open and she decided she better move quickly before she was discovered, and made to feel the brunt of his sternness. Hurrying down the hall, she paused realizing her room was too far to reach in time. She looked to either side, but no crevice lent itself to hiding. She turned back toward the stairs.

Halfway between her room and the stairs, Claire heard her mother call her name. She spun around to see Mother standing in the hall alone. Her meticulous makeup lay smudged under her eyes giving them a sunken and hopeless appearance. Claire swallowed hard and stepped toward her. She wanted to crush Mother in her arms and tell her everything would be okay. Nothing Father did could be as bad as all this hollering suggested.

Just before Claire reached her mother, Father stepped onto the landing behind them. His mood darkened further at the sight of his daughter, who guessed at what may be amiss. Something in his eyes made Claire hesitate.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Mother asked, touching Claire’s face. She tried to smile sweetly through her misery.

“I heard voices—they woke me up,” Claire explained shyly. She nervously scanned the hall, hoping they needed no more reason for her to be out of bed. “Is there anymore cake from dinner?” she blurted. “How was the party?” she added, innocently.

“Always a pleasure, but I think we indulged a bit too much this evening,” Father smiled, answering in his normal deep tones. His attitude changed so quickly it was difficult to recall the mood souring the house that evening. “Don’t take our lead, Claire. You can have more cake tomorrow.”

Mother grimaced, but Claire didn’t betray her feelings so easily. She told them she heard them argue and insisted she wouldn’t let him off easily, especially not after cruelly upsetting her mother. Unhampered, she took her mother’s arm as if she was an old school chum and walked back to the stairs. Claire focused upon the cake in spite of Father’s advice, because cake would fix this as sure as anything.

Carroll watched them suspiciously as they escaped his reach.

“I think we should both have a piece of that lovely cake,” Claire said loud enough and playful enough to make her father second guess his suspicions. A cold chill snaked up her back as he remained observing them. “Do you want any, Daddy?”

“No, Claire. I think I’ll go to bed,” he said wiping his brow with a nervous hand. “I’m quite exhausted, thank you.”

Father headed up the dark hall to his bedroom. Claire waited until both the sounds of his steps and he disappeared. There followed the soft sound of the bedroom door closing. Relieved he quit them, she continued on her path down the stairs, dragging Mother behind her.

Claire led the way with determination as they walked along the hall to the kitchen door. She pushed the swinging panel hard enough for both of them to pass. On the other side, the kitchen glowed with bright light. The white polished tile glistened. In the center of the room a rack of pans hung over a long worktable with benches. Claire led her mother to a stool and sat her down. Mother barely responded and appeared very little anchored to the moment. Claire blinked at her, forgetting the cake for a moment. Her eyes slid to the woman’s hands clinging to the edge of the unfinished oak surface. They trembled, like when they built snow forts and snowmen. But, the room felt warm, not cold. Claire shrugged.

Claire turned and made her way along the enormous table, slippers scuffing on the tile floor. At the opposite end of the golden oak room, the cake waited beneath the dome of a glass stand, only partially eaten. She hummed while she busily prepared two slices of the cake. Neatly putting the dome back, she then picked up the plates and returned to her mother.

Mother smiled at her, waking from worry and took the offered treat. Claire quickly sat on the stool across the table and questioned her mother about the evening, hoping to console her. Mother answered halfheartedly, picking at the cake with her fork and pinning it with her eyes.

“Was their house nice?” Claire asked, shoving a forkful of cake in her mouth.

“It was,” Mother answered.

“When I’m done with school, can I go to parties?”

“If your father says it’s all right,” Mother stabbed the cake with her fork.

“Daddy will.”

“Of course.” Mother tried to smile. After a long pause, she reached across the table to her daughter and took her hand. “You are so dear to me,” she said.

Claire gazed uncomfortably at her mother’s hand and then her face. In her mother’s bearing she could see more than words could tell. Something terrible happened that night. Claire swallowed uneasily and tried to smile.

“I love you too, Mom,” she said taking her mother’s hand.

Mother smiled at Claire and patted her small arm. She pulled her warm touch away and excused herself, taking her battered cake with her. Claire marked her exit before returning to her dessert. Somehow the chocolate cake didn’t taste as good as she thought it would.


Irene wanted to be sure her only child would be taken care of, but, in order to ensure Claire’s safety through the inevitable, she would need help. In the entry hall, a small table and chair sat beside the paneled flight of stairs. Her eyes fixated on the phone resting there. Regardless of the danger to her, Irene went to the table. She set the cake on it and sat on the cold chair. She picked up the receiver and clicked the arm up and down to alert the operator. A distant voice crackled over the line. Irene looked to the kitchen door nearly losing her nerve.

[caption id="attachment_22" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Kelly Williams"]headshot of author kelly williams[/caption]“Manhattan 6331, please. Miss Noreen O’Shea,” Irene spoke low into the receiver. Her eyes searched the stairs above her.

“One moment, please,” the voice replied.

Irene imagined all sorts of sounds coming from the staircase. She feared if her husband discovered her on the phone at this hour, he would call the doctor immediately and all would be lost.

Claire whisked past like a darting apparition. Irene nearly jumped out of her skin, gasping in fright. The girl paused appearing startled herself, but quickly hurried up the stairs. Irene’s heart slowed as the house fell deathly still.

“Hello,” the voice came over the line.

“Hello, Noreen?”

“Honey is that you?” a boisterous voice asked.

“Yes it’s me.”

“What are you doing up so late?”

“Carroll’s in trouble, Noreen. I’ve no time to explain. Tomorrow I’ll be going away. I need you to take Claire,” Irene said. She fought to find the words. “If he isn’t afraid to do this to me—she’ll be no different.”

“Irene?” The voice came again sounding confused.

“I’ve no time,” Irene said desperately. “You must hurry. Come tonight.”

“Honey, you all right? What’s going on?”

“Yes, I’m all right—I have to go. Please, Noreen. You’re her only chance. Please tell me you’ll come.”

After a lengthy pause, Noreen’s voice came, “I’ll be there soon as I can.”

“Thank you.” Irene said, her shoulders relaxing.

Suddenly the sounds of heavy footsteps came hurriedly down the hall.

“I have to go! Hurry!” Irene hoarsely whispered as she hung up.

Noreen’s distant voice continued to prattle until the receiver sat back in the cradle silencing it. Irene picked up the fork on her plate and stuffed cake in her mouth. The footsteps trampled the stairs now. She moved the chocolate around her mouth, attempting to savor it. It might be the last time she ever tasted such a thing again.

The footsteps hit the hall floor and stopped. Irene refused to notice him. She already knew Carroll stood there with one hand on the rail and the other a fist on his hip. Seventeen years trained her to understand the different sounds of her household without fail.

“Who were you talking too?” Carroll asked ominously.

Carroll’s jacket was missing and his tie dangled from his neck. His shirt hung slack, partly unbuttoned.

“I was just sitting here—finishing the cake.” She paused to show the plate and the half-eaten piece. “Claire insisted.”

“I heard voices,” he said suspiciously.

“You heard me and your daughter, saying good night,” Irene snapped.

Carroll made his way over to the parlor door and peered in. His eyes searched inside. He came back to Irene, clearly disappointed that no one else was there. Then, his sharp eyes saw the dust ring left by the phone. He touched the earpiece and she knew she was caught.

“Now, you’re imagining things,” she laughed. “What will this family ever do with both of us needing a good rest? I had to move it aside to put the plate down.”
“I don’t know, but we better get help soon,” he half laughed, dropping his hand back to his side.

Irene held the small plate of cake before her like a barrier. He speculated what went on. His face became iron and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. The memory of who he once was flashed in her mind. It made her smile softly. Her husband was a good man who just lost his way.

The economic crisis changed a lot of good people. Irene saw it everywhere. She thought they were the lucky ones. Several of their neighbors lost their shirts in The Crash. Carroll suffered very little compared to them. He only needed to cut back and do with less profit for a short time. She could still recall the faces of the men they let go on a day she arrived at the factory to take her husband to lunch. She never felt guiltier. They ate an expensive meal in a top-notch restaurant, wearing their audacious finery, while families starved and scraped by to feed their children. In those hard times, they sent their daughter away to school, away from the depressed sights of the city. Her husband did very fine compared to most. So what about this monster won him over? Was it the rousing oratories, or just his reason for the world crisis? Was this why they were spared?

Irene could no longer deny the man before her was only a shell of the man she married. Carroll became someone she didn’t know and didn’t want to know. She felt sick to her stomach. The sugar in her mouth tasted rancid.

Irene rose from the chair, setting her cake aside. She took Carroll’s hand. For now she would make him believe she thought of a return from this. The dark reflection in his eyes made her cold. By morning, her fate would be left in the hands of a doctor on the payroll.

The bright sun streaming through the bedroom window gently woke Claire from a deep forgetful sleep. She scanned the pleats of the canopy over her bed bleary-eyed. Claire rolled onto her side and exhaled irritably. Her eyes studied the room she had the rare chance to see since going away to school. She relished the idea of not having to go back for an entire summer. She missed her space filled with her treasures, a space she didn’t have to share with a soul. Stretching the sleep from her limbs, she yawned. She slept the best she had in months. By her clock it was late too.

Claire flipped the blankets back and jumped up. She would need to wash and dress before she could go downstairs. Hurrying through her preparations, Claire soon sat at her dressing table brushing her long brown hair, thinking of all the questions she wanted to ask at breakfast. She nearly forgot everything about last night. Then, she heard the sounds of an argument coming from the lower level of the house. Her mother’s voice rose shrilly. Dropping her brush, Claire hurried from her room and down the hall to the top of the stairs. The voices distinguished themselves clearly and loudly there, emerging from the parlor just the same as last night. Hurrying down the stairs, she went to see what unfolded.

Halfway down, Claire found her way blocked. Aunt Noreen came toward her, using her bulk swathed in fur to block the way. The woman smiled pleasantly like she usually did. Yet, Claire sensed nothing but determination in the expression. Claire hesitated, rethinking her route. She leaned over the banister to see her father and Doctor O’Reilly moving about the parlor. Her mother’s voice came from the room again, whipping Claire into action. Attempting to dodge her aunt, Claire became intent on protecting her mother from the men.

“Why don’t we go upstairs and you can tell me all about school,” her aunt said, deftly blocking the way.

International Links:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zero Balance by Ashley Fontaine

“Revenge, at first though sweet, bitter ere long back on itself recoils.”

–        John Milton, Paradise Lost. 

“Jury selection for the trial of Olin Kemper, former managing partner of the Phoenix based accounting firm, Winscott & Associates, is scheduled to begin Monday at the Yarkema County Courthouse. Mr. Kemper is accused of the murder of Gina Milligan thirty-three  years ago in Summerset. His arrest last year for this local, legendary case has catapulted Summerset into the national spotlight, filling the hotels and restaurants located in and around this tiny berg to well beyond their capacity, as news crews from all over the United States have descended upon this normally quiet town like a horde of hungry locusts. Roger Clanton and Nicolas Rancliff, lead attorneys of Mr. Kemper’s dream team of lawyers hailing from Scottsdale, refused to answer reporter’s questions moments ago as they entered the courthouse, but inside sources told us that Mr. Clanton and Mr. Rancliff filed a change of venue request due to the notoriety of this case and their concerns about obtaining a fair and impartial jury from the pool of local citizens.

National legal analysts are divided on their opinions as to whether or not Judge Marshall Hall will grant a change of venue, as well as the odds on Mr. Kemper taking the stand in his own defense. Key prosecution witness, Mr. Robert Folton, who was originally charged as an accomplice with Mr. Kemper, already pled guilty and, in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Kemper, was given five years probation for his part in the case.

The debates on these issues, along with Mr. Kemper’s guilt or innocence, are just as heated between lifelong residents of this close knit community, which has caused an invisible line of stark contrasts separating longtime friends and close family members on each side.

Stay tuned for our continuing, live coverage of this trial, beginning Monday at 8:00 A.M. This is Jan Patakee reporting for Channel Six News.”  

* * * * 

“That’s a wrap guys. Make sure you include the video clips from Kemper’s bond hearing as well as the security footage of the courthouse from this afternoon. Oh, and don’t forget that picture of Gina!” Jan said, barking the orders to her camera crew as she tossed her microphone over to her lead assistant, Tony. She stomped quickly in her four-inch stilettos back to the relative comfort of the news van and plopped down in the front seat, slamming the door quickly in her attempt to keep the fire brick oven air from sneaking inside with her. She flipped open her compact and assessed the damage the searing heat had done on her makeup, and cursed herself once again for taking this job in Arizona over the one offered to her in Mississippi. Then again, if she were in Mississippi right now, she would be a slimy pile of sweat, makeup and hairspray from all the humidity, so maybe Arizona wasn’t too bad after all, since all the heat was doing was making her skin feel like dried out sandpaper.

In the two years that Jan had been an on the scene reporter for Channel Six, she had begged, borrowed and occasionally broken a small law or two in her attempts to be the first to break a big story. Up until nine months ago, when the news broke about Olin Kemper’s arrest and the huge shakeup at Winscott, she had thought herself doomed to cover the boring, blasé life of Phoenix and its abundantly rich and snooty citizens.

Out of all the mundane reports she’d covered back then, the ones that were the worst involved the overly plasticized, hoity toity society wives that perched themselves high upon their gilded thrones as they perused the lowly commoners beneath them with their Botox-frozen eyes, barely able to see over their inflated tire-lips. On more than one occasion she had forced herself to walk away rather than spend the night in jail for popping one of them in the face after particularly brutal comments about her ethnic heritage from a few of the nastier hags reached her burning ears. Of course, their faces were so full of injectable chemicals she doubted they would have felt a thing anyway.

All of that changed the day she was the first one to hit the airwaves with the news of Olin’s arrest since one of her drinking buddies, Tiffany Hemscott, happened to work as a minority partner at Winscott.

Jan was savvy enough to understand during those first few minutes of conversation with Tiffany that this was going to be an explosive story, and quite possibly shove her into the national spotlight (and maybe the global one as well.) if she played her cards right and continued to stay one step ahead of the other reporters by becoming the new best friend, rather than just an occasional wine taster, with Tiffany. She knew her well enough to know that a few glasses of Pinot were enough to loosen Tiffany’s tongue, and made sure that they went out at least twice a week to the bar down the street from Channel Six for the latest insider scoop on Winscott.

Jan finished her touchup and snapped her compact shut. Glancing around, she realized that neither Tony nor her idiotic camera crew dorks had made it back in the van, so she reached over and blared the horn several times. They needed to get moving to get this footage edited and ready for the evening news. After her last honk, Tony slid open the side door and everyone piled in, with Tony jumping up front into the driver’s seat. He smiled over at her, his dark brown eyes dancing with feigned excitement, and did his best impression from Driving Miss Daisy; “Yes ma’am! We is ready!”

Jan cocked her head and released one of her trademark evil smirks at him, her overly bleached pearly whites shining in the sun, and said, “Let’s go boys. I have a national viewing audience that is just dying to see my smiling face as I report on this case!”

Tony fired up the van and the glorious cool air blew Jan’s thick, raven hair from her face. She picked up her cell to call their producer and let him know they were on their way back, but before she touched the screen, it lit up with an incoming call from him. “Okay, so Jason has E.S.P.,” Jan quipped to Tony as she answered. “Hey Jason, I was just about to call you. We are on our way back.”

“Change of plans, J.P. Just have Tony upload what you have already and send to me. You won’t have time to make it back to the station before cutoff. You need to head up to Robert Folton’s ranch off of Highway 93. Now.”

The tone of Jason’s voice made the adrenaline immediately jolt through Jan’s system. She recognized it from numerous other occasions when a breaking story was about to unfold. She motioned for Tony to pull over and put her phone on speaker as she set it down on the console so she could grab her notebook. Barely containing the excitement in her voice, she replied, “What’s the lead, Jason?”

“We just heard through our contact in Summerset that a search is currently underway for Robert. Apparently, he left Monday on horseback to survey his herd and hasn’t returned, or contacted his family, although he promised his wife he would return yesterday. She is frantic that he is a day late and contacted the Summerset Police Department, which is now spearheading the mounted search and rescue.”

Jan could hardly write as Tony had immediately sped back up and headed down the rough road towards the outskirts of Summerset. Still trying to jostle words down while Tony drove, Jan asked “Jason, who else knows this?” hoping and praying that the answer was what she wanted to hear.

“Only us, so let’s keep it that way. Get there as fast as you can and set up for a live feed. This could be the story of the year,” Jason barked, quickly disconnecting from the call. Jan let her huge, toothy grin spread across her darkly tanned face as she looked over at Tony and said “Punch it!”


Chapter 1:

Audra-Dreams Unleashed

I woke up from my restless slumber completely encased in a cold, damp sweat that caused my thin silk nightgown to adhere to my soaked skin like wet tissue paper. I tried to recall whether or not I cranked the air conditioner down to a cool 70 degrees before I crawled into bed earlier, since my bedroom suddenly felt like a sweltering steam room. Slowly, as not to jostle the clinging wetsuit any more than necessary, I glanced to my left to the nightstand to make sure my fan was still blowing on me, and to my surprise it was. Good grief, the middle of April and my body is acting like I just finished running a marathon in July in some humidity laced tropical jungle.

My eyes closed briefly while I listened for the slight noise of the air conditioner hoping that it was just on the fritz, rather than my sudden combustion and subsequent meltdown stemming from internal sources. Unfortunately, I knew the latter was the answer as the air conditioner hummed quietly in the darkness around me.

A deep, heavy sigh escaped my lips into the lonely silence of my room. Purr Baby, who was curled into a tight little ball on the pillow next to me, twitched slightly and began to emit a low rumble from her furry white chest. A brief grin danced across my lips at that familiar sound, relishing the calming effect Purr Baby’s presence always seemed to have on me, even during my darkest moments over the years. My grin became a full-fledged smile as I realized that I would have gone stark raving mad had it not been for that soft pile of fur next to me during the last tumultuous eight years of my life. It was uncanny how at times she intuitively sensed my moods and would gently appear at my side, quietly purring as she rubbed her soft head on my legs. It was almost as if she was letting me know that she was there for me when I felt so lost and alone.

Cat lover for life, no doubt about it.

Sweat dripping down me like I just sprayed myself with a water hose, I closed my eyes once again and tried to steer my thoughts to all things cold: glaciers, ice cubes, the North Pole, ice skating, but to no avail. At the beginning of my sufferings from these stifling explosions of body heat three weeks ago, I assumed I was in the early stages of menopause. I was pushing 40 and the women in my family tended to go through the change early, so I reluctantly went to my gynecologist seeking relief of the annoying symptoms. When Dr. Kidson called me back three days after my initial appointment and happily informed me in her best perky voice that my hormone levels were completely normal and that I had many child bearing years left, I immediately knew the cause. My vividly ominous dreams, broken slumber and sweat surges were brought on from external sources of stress and not from a lack of hormonal balance.


Since my body wasn’t responding to thoughts of cold and continued to exude copious amounts of sticky liquid and my heart pounded heavily in my chest, I tried desperately to focus my attention on the rhythmic breathing of Purr Baby. My mind refused to cooperate, becoming a racetrack, and my thoughts careened around the corners like an Indy Car driver zooming around high on cocaine. I gave up trying to corral them and just let them run wild, staring silently at the ceiling.

I had never been a heavy sleeper, even in my youth. The subject of my sleep habits was a topic of discussion that my mother loved to share with others. She would dramatically recall what a difficult child I had been to raise, and that my ridiculous slumber schedule was the reason her youth fled so quickly. “That girl never allowed me a full night's rest until she was six.” she would say, her hands flitting about her head. That storyline usually segued into why she never bore any more children, since her lack of rest would surely have pushed her into an early grave.

My parents: I finally reconnected with them after Gina’s funeral following years of keeping them at arm’s length. Even before the loss of the baby and my “promotion” to equity partner, our relationship had dwindled dramatically, starting when I entered college. Even though I was their only child, my parents tended to focus more upon their own agendas. My father’s medical practice grew by leaps and bounds, and my mother spent her time split between shopping with her friends for their overpriced couture at Biltmore Fashion Park, or flying off to some luxurious vacation destination with her friends. I became nonexistent to my father when he realized that my talents were miles away from anything to do with bodily functions or medicine, especially when I began to display a real knack for math and finances at an early age. And of course, my mother could not comprehend why I shunned the upper elite society that I was raised in, preferring to keep my head shoved in books. To me, crunching numbers while my head was buried in a book rather than underneath the bright fluorescent lights of the local boutiques that she loved to frequent was much more exciting. It was beyond her limited vision to understand why I wanted to work in a field that had mostly been dominated by men, and not focus on finding a rich, suitable husband to settle down with. By the time I was awarded a full scholarship to Arizona State to the highly coveted W.P. Carey School of Business, my parents were barely able to muster any excitement for me. Only sheer determination to put on a show for their friends allowed any sort of feigned enthusiasm upon my graduation with honors and acceptance to Harvard College of Business. When my mother spoke about her “career-oriented daughter” at the society events she inevitably dragged me to, I could tell it pained her.

For the first few weeks after our reunion, things were a bit strained between us all, especially as the news stories went from being local to national. Reporters from around the country hounded them for interviews about me, the “Warrior of Winscott” as one headline labeled me. My parents’ aversion to talking about me actually ended up being a good thing during that time, as they never once granted an interview. I knew, however, that the reasons for their denial to all the vultures did not stem from a familial protective vibe over me; it stemmed from a sense of shame over the fact that I had been raped and kept it hidden from them for so long. Throw in the fact that they feared being asked, “Gee, Dr. & Mrs. Tanner, in five years you hadn’t physically seen your daughter, even though you only lived 20 miles away?” It didn’t really matter what the reasoning behind their perpetual silence with the media was, really; I was just glad that they kept quiet, and that at least we were working on being a family once again. We did so in our own quiet, snail paced way. I was just now coming to terms with the realization that I had spent most of my adult life trying to excel and obtain accolades from not only my employer, but also my less than interested parents, and that and determination to succeed killed my child and almost cost me my life.

Staring at the empty space above my bed, I blinked twice as I tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness around me, knowing that sleep would not descend upon me anytime soon. I was accustomed to waking up to uncontrolled images swirling through my head after I lost the baby years ago. Back then, my tendency to pop awake during the wee hours of the night began as I experienced unsettling dreams that centered on disjointed visions of me hovering over an empty crib, arms aching as I frantically searched through piles of blue blankets for my son; or suddenly shooting straight up out of bed to the haunting sounds of the muffled, distant cries of my unborn

child, yet unable to find the location of his feeble voice. My hands would involuntarily caress my flat stomach while I sobbed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

S.P.I.R.I.T. Fire Storm by Dawn Gray

photo of book cover

           The darkness was closing in, taking over the night sky as I found myself standing on the dark green front lawn of an old brick church building. Most of the lights in the building were lit, giving the coming twilight an eerie feeling and I shivered as I glanced around

The church was set atop a hill, looking over a small town, almost like the one where I had grown up in the mountains of northern Vermont. From where I stood, I could see over the rooftops of the houses just one street below and passed that were the lights of the town. The long covered bridge that crossed over the railroad tracks that split the town was down to my right and the body of water that the place was named after rippled its dark tentacles in the light of the moon.

I had no idea what I was doing there, or how I come to be there to begin with, but as I breathed in the clear air, I picked up a hint of smoke. My black hair blended in with the bleakness that surrounded me, and suddenly I noticed that everything I wore was black, right down to the socks. I shook my head, still completely unsure as to how I had woken up in a place believed to be over three hundred miles from the place I had fallen sleep.

It was then, as I stood becoming ever more concerned with my lack of memory, that the first explosion rocked the night. Stained glass burst from the building behind me, and instinctively I ducked down. Screams suddenly filled the quiet and I watched as parishioners scrambled out the doors of the building.

Struck by the sight of the brilliant bright orange and yellow flames that bellowed from the windows where only darkness had been before, I never saw the unruly crowd that came directly at me. Noise and movement filled my senses as the putrid smell of smoke filled my nose and the blinding light of the fire scarred my eyes while my limbs froze in place.

The first grasp I felt shook me from my hypnosis, as the hard grip on my bicep made my fingers tingle, but it was the strong arm that wrapped around my waist that shook me from my petrified state. I swung around to face the person behind me, as I was pulled from what looked like a herd of stampeding elephants, into the safety of the few trees that separated the law from the house just below.

His eyes were deep brown, reflecting the flames brilliantly as I stared down into them. His hair, just as dark as my own fell down to touch his eyes in the front and seemed clean cut the rest of the way, making the feeling of wanting to reach up and push the unruly locks back to get a better look, but as it was, I couldn’t breath. His face was elegant, strong and purposeful, as if saving damsels in distress was something he did every night, but I couldn’t help but want to caress the thin line of his lips as he looked down at me with scolding eyes.

Only slightly taller, his build was hard and muscular against my own, and I felt soft and pliable pressed so close. His strong arms had yet to let me go, and his eyes never wavered from mine. The cologne he wore seemed intoxicating as I suddenly breathed in deeply, aware of my surroundings and awkwardly aware of my savior.

“What are you doing here?” His masculine voice whispered, barely audible over the sound of the panicky crowd behind us, and I shook my head.

“I don’t even know where here is.” My heart quickened and I pressed my hands against his chest, pushing away from him, but the moment I touched him, I could feel the heat coming from his body. “Let me go!”

His eyes turned from stern and commanding to slightly confused and dazed as his fingers wrapped around my wrist, taking my hands from his body. Suddenly, he backed away, seeming just as stunned as I, and he placed his hands on his hips as he looked up at the church. I turned cautiously, unsure of turning my back on the man who had saved me from a good trample and gasped at the sight of the flame-engulfed building.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked quietly, knowing my knight in shining armor could hear me quite clearly.

“Come on.” He whispered placing a hand gently on my waist to push me in the direction the shrinking crowd was going. “We need to get away from here.”

I moved, my body on autopilot as my brain still struggled to comprehend all that had happened, and I began to descend the path to the road below. He stayed right behind me, his hand occasionally grazing against my back, or my bottom, just to let me know that he was there. Suddenly my fight or flight instincts kicked in and I stopped, mid-hill and turned quickly to look at him. The stop was so sudden that the moment I turned I felt his arms circle my waist as he cushioned the blow while he knocked into me, and knocked me into a tree.

I was pressed against the hard bark of the oak, my hands resting on his shoulders as his arms clamped around me. He sighed loudly in my ear as I felt him shake his head, back away and looked me straight in the eye with his eyebrows raised.

“I want to know where I am!” I demanded, and watched as his eyes glanced down on my lips. “And just who the hell are you!”

“Can we just get out of here, and I’ll explain everything?” He asked calmly.

“I’m not going anywhere with you! I don’t even know what the hell is going on here.” I whispered; panic slowly creeping into my tone. I watched him sigh and closed his eyes.

“Look, lady, this isn’t the safest place to do this.”

“My name is not ‘lady’, its Samantha!” I snapped and pushed him away. He rubbed his forehead and followed me as I walked down the hill once again. Once more, I put on the brakes and felt my rescuer bump into me.

“You do that again, and I’m just going to knock you over!” He growled in my ear, but when he noticed that I hadn’t even made a move to turn around, he glanced over at what I was looking at.

There, down at the bottom of the hill, off a main road in town, five hundred feet into a cornfield was a circle of pressed corn stocks and in the middle, a large red Mack truck complete with flashing light.

“What the hell is that?” I questioned and again heard the man behind me sigh.

His black leather jacket crackled, and a voice boomed from the collar.

“Zander, what’s your position?”

“Midway down from ground zero.” He answered, speaking as if he were talking for my ears only, and as he stepped around too look me in the eyes; I could see the expression of worry in his face. “Captain, I think we may have a problem.”

“Get your ass here now, Zander, we’ll figure out your problem when you arrive!” The authoritative voice commanded.

“But Captain…”

“Now, Lieutenant!” The voice barked.

“Yes sir.” He sighed and rubbed his neck. “Come on, I think I can help you with some of your answers.”

Instead of pressing me on, he gently took my hand and guided me along the path, weaving in and out of the alarmed crowd that had gathered at the bottom. I wanted to run away, to get as far away from the scene as possible, but the warm tingle that I felt from the hand that wrapped around mine seemed to make any coherent thoughts disappear.

I stopped when I could barely see the spot in the cornfield and watched as it faded in and out of sight, as if it were a large television screen with bad reception, and I shook my head as Zander leaned close to my ear.

“Come on, Sam, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” He whispered, his warm breath teasing my chilled skin. I nodded, it seemed the only thing I could do, and grasped the wrist of the hand that held mine tightly.

“Zander? Is that your first name or last?” I questioned, suddenly feeling the fear creeping up inside as we moved threw the stocks.

“First.” He whispered; a smile in his voice, probably glad that I wasn’t yelling at him anymore. “Lieutenant Zander Smith.”

“Samantha Ricketts.” I replied, and watched as he paused and turned to look at me. I waited for him to say something, ‘nice to meet you’ or ‘how wonderful for you’ but he said nothing, just stared. “I’m afraid.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” He whispered, his voice calming but at the same time full of fire. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”Dawn Gray's Links:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Etiquette for an Apocalypse by Anne Mendel

(To use the Star Rating Tool, click on the post title and it will appear below the title. To use the Comments Section to leave a suggestion, edit or comment, click on the post title and scroll to the bottom of the post to the comments section.)

Black god: Hello, Sarah.
Sarah Silverman: Are you god's black friend?
Black god: Sarah, your song was so passionate, so selfless. It has risen above the sound of a billion prayers. I want you to pick one wish, and I will grant it. All you have to do is choose.

                                                                  Sarah Silverman


“Murder,” Bertrand whispers. He leans into me, nods, closes his eyes for just a second.  What to say?  So, what’s new? Life is murder?  Murder most foul?  I can’t have Bertrand going off the deep end, rowing with one oar or, worse, both oars on one side of our figurative Noah’s Ark.
“Anyone special?” I ask.

He nods three times. “Oui.” Enthusiastic for Bertrand.

“Bertrand?” Bertrand’s head slumps onto the plush brown velvet sofa in my mother’s living room. The fabric reminds me of the hard crust on crème brûlée.

Silence. We haven’t really been close for a while. Way before 2020, when ash blotted out the sun in most of the world. Even before the earthquake. We weren’t really close before the water wars forced us to leave Miami six years ago. The good news is that all that Pre-Apocalypse guilt I felt about lack of intimacy seems ridiculous in 2023. 

Bertrand and I talk only about our daughter Sasha, food, melanoma, that sort of thing. Before I can ascertain his mental health, his walnut-, maybe pecan-colored eyes, lashes thick and black, flash open.

“Women,” he whispers, “are getting their hearts cut out.”

Our thirteen-year-old chooses this moment to return from one of her frequent visits to see Reno, the only other girl in our building who’s anywhere close to Sasha’s age.  She slams into the condo, then more or less snarls, “This is the most fucked up end of the world, ever!” A scrawny, squirming animal in the crook of our daughter’s arm claws her backpack strap. It looks too tiny to claw deep into her skin. I hope.

My mother, forever taking in her designer clothes to accommodate her ever-diminishing size, stands in front of the giant, gilt mirror that’s in her ostentatious hallway. You can always count on her for etiquette tips. “Sophia dear, will you remind Sasha we don’t say the F-word in my home.”

My focus is still on the creature in Sash’s arms. It’s a bizarre being, bald save for a tuft of orange hair running from its forehead down its back. Sash bangs her backpack on the floor and kicks the front door shut. After that, she ignores all of us, including our two pit bull puppies, who cock their heads at her as they try to smell the butt of the kittenish thing they assume she’s brought them. The animal makes pathetic petite bleating noises.

For three years we’ve had earthquakes, volcanoes, plagues, looting, violence of every kind, starvation and death, then death again. Sash is a little pissy about it. I’m thinking about saying to my daughter that we have not lived through any other end of the world, so we actually don’t know if this is the “most fucked up.”  Dialogue is currently not my daughter’s preferred mode of communication, so I keep this observation to myself.    

Bertrand flickers back to snooze. I will choose to believe his statement was just a metaphorical murder moment. These days, silence seems the best response to most of my family most of the time. I move over to my mom’s intricately carved, purple elm breakfront bar to check the drug inventory for tomorrow. The bar cabinet divides the kitchen from the great room that my mother created years ago by taking down all the inner walls at the front of her condo. My daughter looks at me, impassive.

On my way, I walk directly behind Lulu. My mother’s fingers are touching her neck, I think maybe to check her pulse, make sure she’s still alive. It’s a tic that maybe signals that, at the moment, her wheel is spinning but the hamster’s dead. Not dead really—comatose. If Sasha heard Lulu, I imagine it made my daughter go eyes-to-sky with disdain.

“How was school?” I hear myself asking but not really expecting an answer. 

“Are you speaking of my inane one-room schoolhouse?” She stomps past me into the kitchen on her tire-tread sandals. Sash’s large Oreo-dark eyes scan the room and then along the eleventh-floor windows that overlook the West Hills and the starlit multimillion-dollar houses (now worth zero) that dot them. Scratching her inch-long black curly hair, her eyes land on the roadkill jerky that’s laid out on the kitchen island. Her fabulous white teeth and full lips wordlessly shape, Shit.  I want to tell her that roadkill jerky is a big step up from watery termite soup. 

For at least a year before Sasha’s older brother Max died, Bertrand and I secretly referred to her as our own little Heart of Darkness. This could refer to her skin, of course, which is the exact creamy color of the inside of a Snickers bar.  My chocolate-covered-raisin of a husband isn’t a fan of my describing skin color in food terms, but skin is just one of a million things that propels me into what my family has come to call FoodWorld: 

yellow rain slicker = lemon curd tart  
squirming worms = black licorice whips  
the chicken on our roof = baked, fried or barbecued

Alas, darkness in this case refers to Sasha’s emerging personality. Adolescence and Apocalypse form an unfortunate convergence.

Sash heads back to the hall, plops down on the rug and nuzzles her pathetic, mange-ridden kitten. “About the cat…” I start, trying hard not to mention eating or skinning it. I hope it will be dead by morning so we don’t have to have a showdown. 

Sash just leaves her face buried in what’s left of the kitten’s non-fur. “My little Anna Caterina,” she murmurs. Naturally she would name a pet Anna Caterina. She’s a born scholar, sadly in a world with no use for scholars. Me, on the other hand, I’m very useful in this world: I’m a drug dealer, thanks to my brother Mitchell’s genius. I sell our very own Mitchell Laboratories drugs—antibiotics and mild painkillers, which we have brand named Mitches. They’re more than aspirin, less than Vicodin.  My daughter isn’t much interested in pharmaceuticals, taking or selling. She’s talked about training for a number of growth careers: blacksmith, beekeeper, undertaker. (The person who finds a male and female ox will be the next Bill Gates.) 

Trying as always to engage my progeny, I say, “You can always quit school and go into business with me.”

“Sophia,” Lulu says, “Sasha isn’t going into business with you. She’s going to Harvard.” 

I could try and explain that Harvard, like most of the rest of the world, is as anachronistic as the dinosaur—both frozen to death by sun blot. But Lulu speaks in a language others no longer speak.
Lulu has finished pinning her skirt, but still stands at the mirror. She slides her arthritic hand over her hipbone, down her seventy-year-old thigh. “Sophia, did you know that Nancy Reagan wore a red Chanel suit just like this at Ronnie’s inauguration?” She has her other hand at her neck, three fingers firmly placed on the pulse point.
My mother and that first lady would have been identical twins, if Nancy Reagan had had a large, slightly crooked Jewish nose and wore a blond pixie wig. On the other hand, I look exactly like Michelle Obama, if she were white, had short-short medium-brown hair, was 5’4”, and had bland features that could be used as statistical averages. (Inch-long hair isn’t just a fashion statement. Long hair = lice threat.)
Lulu beams at her first-lady image, leans over and shimmies to force her pancake-floppy breasts into her Victoria’s Secret push-up bra. She insists it’s the best-engineered bra ever made.    My yuck factor is tempered every time I remember that this life isn’t easy on Lulu either.  Lulu’s vision for her twilight years was traveling to exotic places—not living with her children and grandchildren in this relative Garden of Eden, which just happens to be in Hell. With nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, Sasha rolls over to her mat next to the hall mirror.

It’s Lulu’s old exercise mat. (A used mattress would surely be under bed-bug assault.)

“Sasha sweetie,” Lulu says, “those jeans are filthy and as big on you as this skirt is on me. I certainly hope that isn’t the style now. You need some Calvin Kleins to show off that gorgeous little figure of yours.” Same world, different universe.

Having or not having a “gorgeous little figure” is not yet in Sasha’s inventory of things to hate about herself.  Pre-Apocalypse, Sasha’s self-hatred focused on not being black enough, not being white enough. Because we’ve recently moved from near starvation to desperately hungry, she’s put on just enough weight to sprout breasts. But, thankfully, my mother can’t whisk Sash off to Nordstrom and have her fitted for a padded training bra. (I myself dealt with this in therapy years ago.)

 “Mom,” I say. Lulu gives me that blank, who-are-you-speaking-to look. “Lulu,” I amend, “I’m going to finish preparing food for tomorrow.” 

In a voice most people reserve for Shakespearian tragedy, she says, “Sophia, I need, need, need a tailor.”  Twisting in front of the mirror, she says, “But, I have lost thirty pounds.” She gives herself a wink. Her sallow skin is the color of Baskin-Robbins’ butter crunch ice cream, blushed cherries on her sunken cheeks. “Clothes fitting properly are so very important. I’ve told you since you were Sasha’s age to pay attention to your presentation. But look at you, you look like one of those women who push a grocery cart full of garbage.”

I no longer let her disappointment that I will never, ever win Best In Show get to me. After all, now there are much more important things to irritate me. And tonight, I should be thankful that Lulu, Bertrand, and Sasha have made it through one more day and we are safe for now. Night is reserved for bandits, rats, and crazed coyotes now called wolfotyes.  Even though looting, rape, and murder are downtrending, I have to remind myself every night at this time to stop holding my breath.  Bertrand works where he worked before 2020, nine blocks away at Good Samaritan Hospital. During the day, within a half-mile radius of our apartment, everyone knows each other, watches out for each other. We’re the “take chocolate chip cookies to the neighbors because they’re the folks you’re going to need” people. We’ve become a neighborhood watch, banding together to protect each other from everything—Anomie to Zombies. But, if he can’t get home before dark—and he usually can’t—Bertrand is escorted home by the Angel Avengers, the local vigilantes who maintain some semblance of order.  I assume that in exchange, Bertrand doctors them from time to time.

I move from the kitchen back to a stool at the bar to work on turnip bean dip. When we have food, it’s mostly seasonless vegetables that make for cigarette-sized dumps that we turn into fertilizer. No matter what anyone tells you makes life worth living—God or marriage, children or work you love—it’s really butter, salt, and sugar. Anyway. 

I try not to think about the hope that everyone felt just a few years ago. We were so close to perfecting the solar chip that would jettison fossil fuel forever. And then there was the rather timid (5.5 on the Richter scale) earthquake. The faults that run on both sides of the Willamette River shifted. Of the ten bridges that connect east and west Portland, the Steel Bridge was the only one still standing. We assume it’s because, well, it’s steel. The concrete bridges, long overdue for infrastructure updates, collapsed, leaving millions of tons of debris in the now mostly unnavigable Willamette River. Building bridges around fault lines was a bad idea. We thought it would be months before things got back to normal. And then, the caldera blew.

At the time of the earthquake, Bertrand, Sasha, my now-dead son Maxim (our Max), and I were at a dinner my parents gave in honor of my brother Mitchell’s once-a-year visit. Before 2020, I thought getting trapped at one family dinner would have been sufficient to make me chew my leg off. We had no idea we would be marooned for good on Lulu Island. Even if going back to our house after the earthquake had been an option, we would never have left my parents in the ensuing chaos, and they would never have come with us. My brother Mitchell gave up the guest room and moved into the empty condo downstairs, till he could fly back to Boston. Dad died that first year of a heart attack while walking up the ten flights of stairs to the penthouse. Everyone who had preexisting conditions died early on; Dad had already had a triple bypass. Max died in last year’s cholera epidemic. Two out of billions dead. 
Lulu stands in the foyer using stuffing from an eviscerated teddy bear to push up her push-up bra that promised magical cleavage. 

Sasha, with her little book light (which she solar charges every day), prefers Tolstoy’s drama to ours.
Bertrand is dozing on the couch after doing his seventeen-hour-a-day doctor thing. Before 2020, after 2020, it makes no difference.

I think about the rumored sea salt coming in from the Oregon coast. I do not allow myself to think about our house in the last world with the screened-in front porch; our calico cat named Cow; my mint green, natural-gas Prius (fracking for natural gas was another really bad idea but I didn’t connect the dots); my best friend, Clu, who was just three doors down; or my easy going, playful son Max. Never Max. Old normal has flown away like the dodo. I am devoted to creating new normal.!/anne_mendel