For the love of a slurpee

It was four o’clock in the evening and the baby wanted a blue raspberry slurpee.

I was sitting on the couch with my feet propped up, flipping through the channels, trying not to think about the lasagna in the oven and the wonderful odors wafting through the apartment, praying Peter would see my text and pick up a slurpee for me on his way home from the office. I checked my phone; there was no reply. I re-checked it two seconds later and there was still no reply. I could’ve called him on his car phone, but I didn’t want to be the cause of an accident.

“This is ridiculous,” I muttered, placing a hand over my balloon belly and rising from the couch with difficulty. I stood there a moment to be sure I wasn’t going to tip back into the couch and then proceeded into the kitchen. According to the oven’s timer, the lasagna still had ten minutes before it would be done. Then I had to let it sit so that I wouldn’t burn my tongue with scalding hot cheese and sauce. My mouth watered just thinking about it. A dehydrated lasagna only took five minutes to make, but it didn’t have the same taste as an organic lasagna. On most days, it was worth the wait. Today, I wasn’t so sure. The baby kicked insistently.

I blew my bangs out of my face. “All right. I’ll get you a slurpee.” There was a fueling station just around the corner. Normally, my swollen ankles would keep me from walking across the apartment much less down the street but they were feeling good today. I waddled over to the shoe rack by the front door and slipped into my sandals. I checked my reflection in the circle mirror hanging with our wedding pictures to be sure my hair was behaving. Then I ventured out.

“Front door,” I said as I shut it behind me. “Please lock and tell my husband that I went to get a slurpee. If the lasagna should finish before I come back, turn off the oven.”

“Understood, ma’am,” the automated voice replied. There was a click as the locks slid into place and then silence.

I loped past my neighbor, Paul, who held bags full of dehydrated meal packs and argued with his front door.

“I don’t care what my wife said. I am not beating her. Now open!” he practically snarled.

“I’m sorry, sir, but my programming compels me to protect the woman of this household,” the door said calmly. “If she says you are beating her, I must believe her. Lower your voice or I will be forced to phone the authorities.”

Paul leaned in to glare at the screen located at eye-level in the middle of the door. “I already said I was sorry, Georgette. I have the food you asked me to buy, now, let me in.”

“Leave it on the doorstep and go! You obviously don’t love me anymore!” his wife screeched from inside the apartment.

Paul groaned and smashed his head against the door.

“Hang in there, Paul,” I said in passing.

“Thanks, Jill,” he muttered, forehead still pressed against the metal door.

“I’m detecting some measure of pain in your voice, sir,” a neighboring door said. “Should I call for an ambulance?”

The elevator doors shut before I could hear Paul’s reply. “Where to, ma’am?”

I smiled at the computer screen in the wall. “Lobby, please.”

“Right away, ma’am.”

Two minutes later, I was waddling out into society. One would think that after the invention of floating cars and speeder bikes, there wouldn’t be anyone walking anymore. Still pedestrians littered the sidewalks.

“Only freaks and homeless people still walk around town, Jill,” my husband would say whenever I suggested we take a stroll.

He might have been right but there was something refreshing about using one’s own legs to go somewhere. The artificial grass in the front yards on either side of my apartment complex was the approved length and color. Someone from the Home Owner’s Society must have been by recently. The trees sprouting up from their fenced areas had sparkling golden leaves hanging from their metallic branches. Was it autumn already? The months were just flying by! Speeder bikes and hovering cars zipped to and fro on the street in their respective lanes. I couldn’t watch them for too long without getting vertigo. I took a deep breath, stared fixedly at the fuel station I could see in the distance, and put one foot in front of the other. A lady with mint green hair and glassy pink eyes abandoned her floating grocery cart and approached me to ask if I had any spare change.

I blinked at her, mouth agape. “No one uses change anymore.”

She dug around the pockets of her filthy dress and held out an old bank chip. “You could transfer some money over to me then. I think this thing still works.” She squeezed it between her fingers, desperately watching for the flash of light that would prove the chip’s functionality. The chip produced no such light.

“I’m very sorry but I have to get going now,” I stammered and then dashed away.

A man with a pig’s nose, blue and white feathers for hair, and a piercing through his lip walked up to me next, shoving a moving picture of a Labradoodle in my face. “Have you seen my dog, Mr. Scruffles?”

I reared back and slapped a hand over my nose before I could be overwhelmed by the smells of alcohol and urine. “No, I haven’t. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m pregnant and have a very acute sense of smell.” I continued apologizing as I walked away.

This is more dangerous than I thought it would be. I should’ve stayed in the apartment…I placed a protective hand over my belly and loped along even faster. Don’t worry, baby. Almost there. 

A robot stopped traffic so that I could cross the street and then I arrived at the fuel station. Despite everything that had changed in the world, Circle K was still thriving. It, like many gas stations, had simply changed the kind of fuel they sold and was able to salvage their business when regular cars became obsolete. I side-stepped the man with the tentacles on his face who methodically looked through the movie racks by the door, and suppressed a shudder. Kissing must be really weird for his kind…If they even kiss.

“Hello!” the cheerful cashier called from behind her counter. She had blonde hair, bright orange skin, and three eyes but her smile was warm.

I smiled back. “Hi, there.”

I hurried over to the slurpee section and snagged one of the larger cups. I was back at the counter in seconds, swiping my bank chip to pay for my drink. I took a large gulp on my way out and gave myself a brain freeze, but it was worth it. I could feel my baby doing victory cartwheels in my belly. I waved goodbye to the happy cashier and began my journey back home…only to run into a kid on a hover board. Well, technically he ran into me. His board bashed against my calf and sent him falling into my side with an oof. I stumbled with a shout of surprise and the slurpee left my hand. I watched in horror and dismay as the foam cup smashed against the asphalt and burst, sending blue slush everywhere. The boy apologized a million times but I didn’t have the strength to look up. Blinking back defeated tears, I turned away from him and headed back inside.

 

 

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To love and to kill

Detective Victor Curnble leaned back in his swivel chair and rubbed his eyes. He’d been staring at his computer screen for hours, trying to wrap up the paperwork for this case. He was ready for this gruesome chapter to be over with, but the words wouldn’t come.

The detective sighed and lowered his hand. It was eerie, sitting among a sea of abandoned desks and chairs in the dark. His lamp and the ghostly glow of the computer screen were the only sources of light. Still more haunting were the contents of the evidence box sitting beside him. Detective Curnble peeked down at the three deceptively innocent teddy bears, each holding a giant red heart. The words, “I love you,” were written across the hearts in swirly white script. It all came back to him then, like a wave of dark images and grief-stricken voices.

 

“What have we got here, lieutenant?”

“Looks like a date gone horribly wrong. The victim was found tied to a chair before a dining room table set for two. There were flower petals, candles, and full wine glasses left behind, untouched. Along with this bear…”

“What seems to be the time and cause of death, Dr. Yang?”

“Liver temperatures suggest the TOD to be approximately six hours ago. The COD is definitely strangulation, although, these bruises along her forearms and hands are indicative of a struggle. Perhaps we’ll be able to find DNA under her fingernails.”

“Anything else to report?”

“The satin gown she’s wearing shows no signs of wear. The shoes also appear to be new and slightly larger than the victim’s feet.”

“So the killer dressed her in new clothes after he killed her?”

“It’s a likely theory I might be able to prove upon further testing.”

“All right. Let’s get her back to the lab. I want everything in this room bagged and tagged. Maybe our killer unintentionally left something behind for us to track him with. We’ll go door to door and see if anyone heard or saw anything peculiar last night.”

 

“Detective Curnble. We’ve found another date victim. Same MO as the young lady we found three weeks ago.”

“This guy was in the wind. We found no conclusive evidence to make an arrest. Why would he risk exposing himself by killing a second time?”

“I don’t know, but we can only hope he left us something at this crime scene.”

 

“Nothing. Just the same damn teddy bear and other useless props. How is he doing this? Why is he targeting these girls? What do they all have in common?”

“Vick!”

“Gina? What are you doing here?”

“It’s Chelsea. I-I think she might be in trouble. She said she was going to meet someone for a first date last night, but she promised to call me after to tell me how it went. I fell asleep while waiting up for her, but when I checked my phone this morning, I didn’t have any missed calls. It went straight to voicemail when I tried calling her. I went by her apartment and she wasn’t there.”

“Calm down, sis. Did she tell you where she was going to meet this guy?”

“Y-Yes. It was a bar. The Golden Mare.”

“I hate to ask, but is there any chance Chelsea went home with this guy?”

“After one date? She would never! Vick, I raised that girl to have more respect for herself than that.”

“I had to be sure. I’ll go check out the bar and see if anyone saw her.”

 

“Yes, I recognize her. She was sitting in that booth last night. She kept checking the door and the clock, like she was waiting for someone. She received a phone call around midnight and left. She looked relieved. I thought it might’ve been the person she was waiting for.”

“Did you see where she went?”

“She took a cab around the corner. That’s the last I saw of her.”

“Did you catch the cab number by any chance?”

 

“Yes, hello. My name is Detective Curnble. I’m with the Seattle Police Department. Last night around midnight, you picked up a twenty-year-old girl with dark hair and green eyes from a bar called The Golden Mare. Do you remember? Good. She’s gone missing. Can you tell me where you dropped her off?”

 

“Open up! SPD! Hello? The door’s unlocked. I’m letting myself in. Hello? Anybody home? …Oh, God. Chelsea.”

 

 “I’m sorry, Gina. I’m so sorry. I’m going to find who did this and make sure he never sees the light of day. I promise you.”

 

Victor gruffly wiped his eyes and turned back to his screen. He had fulfilled his promise. The serial killer, nick-named The Romantic, was serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison. No one else would die at his hand.

A door slamming shut caused the detective to leap to his feet and reach for his gun. A light had come on in a room across the way, probably while he’d been reminiscing. Abandoning his desk, Victor crept around the empty desks to the light. It was coming from the interrogation room. His eyes flickered from side to side as he reached for the doorknob. Just what in the world was going on? He pushed the door open. The gun shook in the detective’s hand.

The table was set for two. The wine glasses were full, the candles lit. There was a woman dressed in a satin gown tied to a chair. Her head lulled to the side, her foggy, unblinking eyes seemingly fixed on the floor. Sitting across from her was a little teddy bear holding a heart in his paws.

The door shut behind the detective. He spun around with a curse and twisted the doorknob. Of course, it was locked from the outside. He tugged with all his might, but the door wouldn’t budge.

“Oh, crap,” said a bored voice over the intercom. “You’re in a bit of a situation, aren’t you?”

Victor shuddered and looked over at the two-way mirror. For a moment, he could see himself reflected there; a middle-aged man with blonde hair, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, gun drawn, blue eyes wild with fear. Then the lights in the interrogation room shut off, and a light behind the mirror turned on. A young man in a flannel shirt and jeans stood there with his hands in his pockets, brown hair askew, amber eyes half-lidded.

Victor gripped the gun until his knuckles ached. Rage and terror churned within him. “How?”

The young man shrugged, the tiniest of smiles pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters now is that Detective Curnble is trapped in a room with a dead body that appears to have been murdered by the same serial killer he put away.” His eyes widened in false surprise. “Could it be that you were The Romantic all this time, and you arrested an innocent man to avoid prison time?”

Victor let out a harsh laugh despite his trembling innards. “No one will ever believe that.”

The Romantic tilted his head to the side, his eyes traveling to the ceiling. Suddenly, Victor heard it; the sound of cars skidding to a stop just outside the building and doors being shut.

The young serial killer flashed a devilish grin. “Are you sure?” He gave Victor a lazy salute and began to saunter out of the room.

“Why don’t you stick around and find out who’s right?” Victor shouted.

The young man chuckled and kept walking. “Good luck, Vick.”

Stormy weather

Today’s the third day in a row that the skies have been overcast here in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s been raining on and off, and will continue to rain on and off throughout the weekend. Or so the weather forecast people say. I don’t know what it is about this weather but it makes it very hard to work. My desk is situated in a corner; there is a large window beside me and behind me. I have a clear picture of the cold, wet, gloomy world outside. It almost seems to muffle sounds, this invasion of storm clouds. The naked tree branches against the background of misty grey seem to make the sky bigger (if that’s possible). I find my mind wandering to my manuscripts, my works-in-progress, the stories floating around in my head that I haven’t written down yet. It’s almost as if a spell has been cast, a spell to heighten imagination and dim focus.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this weather. I’ll take cold and cloudy over clear skies and overpowering sun any day. But this isn’t working weather. It’s curl-up-on-the-couch-and-read-a-book weather, or have-a-movie-marathon-and-eat-ice-cream kind of weather, or write-while-listening-to-epic-movie-scores weather.

My dad grew up on a farm. His father woke him up before the sun rose to do work in the fields. On cloudy, rainy days, however, my dad was allowed to sleep in and have a lazy day indoors. That’s why he claims days like today make him feel lethargic. I don’t really have an excuse.

Still, I don’t think anyone can deny that there’s something special about rain.

I’ve had some pretty cool moments while it was raining. I used to play in the rain with my little brother. Many an adventure was had while lightning streaked across the sky. It rained for 12 hours while my family took a road trip to Sacramento. My brother and uncle took turns driving through the night and into the next day. I can still remember waking up in the back of the truck, shifting into a more comfortable position, seeing my big brother at the wheel with nothing but gray mist and water to be seen through the windshield. The cars speeding beside us made me nervous but I trusted my brother.

It was summer when I first moved to Phoenix. I was living with my grandparents until I could find my own place. I didn’t know it at the time, but Phoenix is known for their summer dust storms. The natives call them Haboobs. A strong wind will pick up a wall of dust that moves across the entire city, covering everything in a fine layer of dirt. Then some rain will come to turn the dirt into mud. My uncle, living in a rental house next door at the time, came over to take pictures of the dust storm. We sat in my grandparents’ garage, talking life and photography while we waited for lightning to illuminate the dreary sky. My future was still so uncertain but, for that hour and a half, it didn’t seem as scary.

During a thunderstorm, my landlord’s dog got loose and was going crazy outside. I snatched her and brought her into my little apartment to keep her safe until my landlord came home. She lay huddled beside me on the couch, trembling and whining every time the thunder rolled, while I watched a movie on my laptop. I was nineteen and experiencing my first big storm alone. That dog, although annoying, was a welcomed companion that night.

Another storm took out the power while I was working at Chipotle. Food safety protocol forced us to throw away all the food on the burrito line when it got cold. We waited for the power to come back on and then proceeded to cook more food. We were closed for almost three hours before the line was re-stocked again. I can still picture the unfortunate coworker, who had been assigned the job of turning people away, standing just outside the door in her windbreaker, kindly explaining over and over again why we were closed. In the months to come, one of us would look at the other after a particularly difficult shift and say something like, “Today was bad, but remember that one time when the power went out?”

While we were dating, my now husband parked his truck at a stop sign and tugged me outside to kiss me in the rain just because I mentioned I’d always wanted to be kissed in the rain. Also while we were dating, my now husband locked his keys in his truck for the first time during a storm. He spent almost an hour trying to break into his own car before he finally gave up. I let him stay at my apartment until the storm blew over and then drove him to his house for the spare key. We weren’t even talking about marriage yet but he gave me that spare key once the ordeal was over. As if he knew that it would be safe with me.

The first time my husband and I spent the night at the lake together, the weatherman said it would rain. We managed to get the tent up just before it started pouring. Then the wind picked up. It was kind of hard to be romantic newly weds when the cold, wet material of the tent was mere inches away from our faces. It rained so much that it soaked through our tent and our sleeping bags. We were forced to take everything down and drive back home at two in the morning. We were soaked, covered in mud, and exhausted by the time we got home.

It rained Christmas Eve of last year, the first holiday my husband and I hosted his family in our new house.

And it’s raining now.

I guess I feel the same way about rain as Lorelai Gilmore feels about snow. In one of the earlier seasons, it’s the middle of the night but Lorelai can’t sleep. She goes down stairs to throw the windows open and look out. When I was watching the episode, I was confused. Nothing’s happening, I thought. What is she waiting for? And then it started to snow. That look on her face…that look of hope and wonder and enchantment, must be the same one I’ve got on my face right now as I watch the rain fall through the window.

Maybe something wonderful will happen. Maybe something unfortunate will happen, something that I’ll be able to laugh and blog about later. Or maybe the rain will just fall and nothing will happen. Either way, I’ll be watching.

On the subject of poetry

After acing my Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Writing Fiction, I decided to take some more challenging classes. This semester, I’m taking Intro to Writing Poetry and Into to Horror.

I dislike poetry. I can’t say that I hate it because that’s just too strong of a word and I haven’t read nearly enough poetry to be able to say that I hate it. But I do strongly dislike it. I was forced to read and analyze a few poems in my high school English classes and all of them were strange, confusing, and frustrating. My dear older brother gave me a book of poems by a woman whose name I can’t remember for the life of me. She was one of his favorite poets and he knew that I liked to read so he wanted to share this book with me. I was touched by his thoughtfulness and determined to read that book for him. It wasn’t easy; whatever era this woman lived in, the people used odd vocabulary to express themselves and I didn’t feel too confident that I understood what she was trying to tell me. But still, I read. It was a short book. Once I’d reached the halfway mark, I must have decided I’d given it a fair chance and didn’t have to continue because it remains on my shelf to this day with the bookmark sitting right in the middle.

Still, I can remember my mother reading me the short rhymes of Alan Alexander Milne. He’s known for creating Winnie the Pooh but he wrote a few poems about those characters and several other make believe friends. These my mother shared with me and my siblings. I remember she’d use funny voices and read the rhymes in an almost lyrical way, to the point where the poems would get stuck in my head like songs. The Simpsons did a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” once, which was shared in my AP English class. That’s the only reason why I like that poem and remember Mr. Poe with fondness. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” was used in an episode of Boy Meets World that stuck with me for a while so I have a soft spot for him too. I’ve always known that there was such a thing as good poetry. I’d just come to the conclusion that they were few and far between.

Because of this belief and aversion, I’m not good at writing poems. In taking this class, I hoped to challenge myself and expose myself to better poetry. The instructor for this class is the same one I had for Intro to Creative Writing so I was confident he’d be able to present this dreaded subject with new energy and interest. The “textbook” for the class is about 160 pages long and looks like an average novel. The author is a poet by the name of Ted Kooser. Three pages in and I already liked the guy. He addressed all the reasons why I strongly disliked poetry and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my opinions. He drew conclusions and gave tips that could be applied to any form of writing, not just poetry. He included some of his own poems as examples and I really enjoyed them.

My whole perspective on poetry has changed and I’m only on the third chapter! I’m super encouraged and can’t wait to learn more.

I don’t like scary movies. I’ve never understood the appeal of gore or the “thrill” of being scared out of my skin. I have a very active imagination. When I was younger, it would creep into my dreams and sometimes give me nightmares so I tended to avoid anything that was even remotely scary. (I love Lord of the Rings, but I couldn’t watch the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum is sneaking up on the sleeping hobbits until I was about thirteen years old.) Even now that I’m older, I’ve only watched two “scary movies” and they were more suspenseful than scary. I read once that, to write a really good horror story, the writer has to be a little demented. I tried reading a Stephen King novel once and it was really gritty. It was one of the few books I’ve picked up that I didn’t finish. I decided that line about horror authors being a little demented might be true.

Unfortunately (and fortunately) there’s nothing demented about me.

My sister and I tried writing a horror story together just to try something new. Our strengths lie in epic and paranormal fantasy and romance but we thought, hey, with our combined efforts, we can crank out a horror story. We created an outline and some characters, and wrote the first chapter…And that’s as far as our scary story went. Our attempts at bone-chilling horror were laughable. I haven’t tried writing anything scary since.

But in the spirit of bettering myself, I’m starting that horror writing class next month. The instructor for this class taught the Intro to Fiction class that I loved so I’m hoping for a similar experience. More on that later.

Wanted alive

The merciless sun shone through the wispy branches of the trees and warmed the top of Carson’s hat. He squinted against the dry wind blowing clouds of dirt through the little town that was now his responsibility, and cursed the west. It wasn’t even nine in the morning and it was already hot enough to roast a chicken outside. Carson grumbled as he removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. The sudden lack of shade around his eyes made his head ache. He quickly returned the hat to his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

Carson slouched into the saloon. This early in the day, there were only two groups of five playing poker at their respective tables. The piano man was playing a lively tune in the corner for an older gentleman and a pretty saloon girl in lavender lace. Her sisters trailed around the room, watching the games, offering drinks, and flirting with the men.

A girl in red approached Carson with a ready smile. She recognized him from the night before, however, and the smile quickly disappeared. She turned her nose in the air and walked away.

Carson rolled his eyes at the girl and continued his shuffle to the bar. He leaned against it, waving to get the barkeep’s attention. “Henry. What news?”

The barkeep grunted. “You mean aside from the miners roughin’ up my girls last night?”

Carson rolled his eyes. “You saw me. I was in no condition to intervene.”

The portly man leaned in and lowered his voice. “If you want me to keep tellin’ you the stories my girls overhear, you have to do more than buy drinks. Are you a sheriff, or aren’t you?”

Carson scowled. “Fine! I’ll reprimand them. Do you know where they could’ve spent the night?”

Henry grumpily wiped the counter with a rag. “They mentioned a tavern from the next town over. They might’ve stopped somewhere between here and there.”

“Then they’re someone else’s responsibility now.” Carson raised a hand before the barkeep could object. “I’ll do better for your girls next time.”

“Yes, you will,” Henry growled, beady eyes narrowed.

Carson itched to pull his revolver and place a bullet between the fat man’s eyes. Instead, he rubbed his forehead with two fingers and tried to reign in his annoyance. “Any other news?”

A saloon girl with half-lidded eyes, pouty lips, and big brown hair placed two empty shot glasses over the bar. “Another round for Old Man Peterson and the banker.”

Carson admired her out of the corner of his eyes, biting back a sigh. These girls weren’t like the others he’d known. Henry hired them strictly for customer interaction and drink promotion purposes. If the barkeep even suspected that they were being disrespected in any way, he pulled out his shotgun.

Henry refilled the glasses. She slapped a few coins down onto the cracked bar before taking the drinks and sauntering back to the tables. Carson tore his eyes away from her backside a moment too late.

Henry scowled.

The sheriff gave up trying to look contrite and cleared his throat. “Well?”

It took a moment, but Henry eventually said, “I did hear some rumors about Bullet-Tooth Percy.”

Carson wrestled to keep his expression neutral despite the irregular beat his heart was dancing to. “Bullet-Tooth Percy…Hmm. Isn’t that the man who robbed the mayor of Sacramento?”

The barkeep grunted. “Yes, along with several other government officials.”

“What kind of rumors did you hear?”

Henry shrugged. “Some of those good-for-nothin’ miners were saying he was alive, that he had a deputy help him fake his death and now he’s on the run in disguise, or some bosh like that.”

Carson leaned back and allowed his eyes to wander the room. “They didn’t say where they might’ve heard this, did they?”

“It’s a story goin’ around their camp. They’re just tryin’ to spook folk, that’s all.”

Carson chuckled. “That’ll scare people all right. Few dare speak his name up north.”

Old Man Peterson came up to the bar, hand trembling as he held out his glass. He hiccupped and collapsed against the sheriff, who brushed him aside with disgust.

Henry rolled his eyes. “I’m cuttin’ you off, Peterson. Finish your poker game and go home.”

“Aw, come on, barkeep,” the old man croaked. “Just one more.”

Henry made a shooing motion. “If I have to tell you again, I’m goin’ to have to throw you out.” He raised his voice so that he could be heard across the room. “Marybell.”

A short girl in pink came to take the old man’s arm. “Come on now, Peterson. It’s your turn.” She led him away, nodding sympathetically at the man’s drunken rambling.

Carson licked his dry lips. “Well, if that’s all, I think I’ll be going now.”

“Sheriff,” the barkeep said with a grudging nod.

Carson made it half way across the saloon before he spun around. “You know? I think I will go looking for those miners. They should be punished for disrespecting your girls and spreading such troubling rumors. What did they look like?”

 

Carson hurried to his office, thoughts buzzing around his head. Someone in that miner’s camp knew a little too much about matters that didn’t concern them. That someone needed to be found and silenced. If he had to run again, he would, but he’d need a good excuse. He’d only been in town for a few weeks. The mail stagecoach parked by his door made him pause. The mailman leapt down from the step with a bundle of papers in his hand.

“Sheriff Carson Reeves?”

“Yes, that’s me.” He received his letters with a murmured thank you and proceeded indoors, doing his best to look relaxed so as not to arouse suspicion. Once indoors, he loped across the small sheriff’s office, tossed his hat onto the desk, and quickly looked through the mail. There wasn’t anything that stood out to him at first. He was about to pitch the papers onto his desk when a yellowed piece of parchment caught his eye. He fished it out of the pile and tore the seal. He almost dropped the page once it was unfolded. The drawing of a man with a full, black beard and a cigarette between his lips squinted up at him from under the brim of a dark tombstone hat. Wanted Alive, it read. Bullet-Tooth Percy. The events of that day washed over him then. He could almost hear the roar of the waterfall.

The good deputy had finally caught up to the renegade he had been chasing for over a year. He had thundered after the criminal on horseback, across the plain and to a river. Shots had been fired until they’d run out of bullets. It had turned into a fistfight, which had led them into the river. The deputy had gone over the waterfall, his body broken over the rocks below. The outlaw had stolen the deputy’s star, coat, and horse. A clean shave and a crude haircut later, the new Carson Reeves had traveled as far as his money could take him. And he had established himself as a sheriff in a little, inconsequential town.

Who could’ve known the truth? How could they have possibly found out? Percy gritted his teeth. I’ll know soon enough.

2016 Reflections

I know it’s a little late for a New Years letter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t blog about my 2016. I’m calling last year the Year of Change.

My husband and I moved out of our one room apartment in April. My grandparents own several houses that they rent out to growing families and college aged students. They offered one of those houses to us for a very generous rental price and we snatched it up. We had been blessed with our apartment; it was in a safe, clean, quiet environment, with great management and neighbors. But we had a dog that was in desperate need of a backyard and we were tired of not being able to host visiting family members. The school semester wasn’t over yet but we had very little time before our lease was up so it had to be done quickly. The two of us, with the help of a friend, moved everything out in an afternoon. It was a stressful and emotional time for me. I had things organized just the way I wanted at the apartment and it took time to re-organize everything into our new living space. Also it was the end of another chapter and I always get nostalgic about endings. I stood in the middle of our empty apartment after having scrubbed it clean from top to bottom, smiling a little and blinking back tears as I remembered the good times that were had there.

We love our new-to-us house and so does the dog. We were able to host our friends for Pumpkin Carving and Scary Movie night in October, my family for Thanksgiving, and my husband’s family for Christmas thanks to the extra rooms and larger living room space. It’s been a blast. I for one finally feel like an adult. We’re so thankful.

Following the theme of change, both my husband and I switched career paths this year.

My husband had this dream of going to medical school on the island of Saint Kitts (in the Caribbean), finishing his degree in their sister school in Maine, and then doing his residency here in Phoenix. It sounded like a wild adventure when we were dating and, even though I had my concerns about leaving our families and friends and everything we’d ever known, I was willing to go with him. I was willing to be brave and travel to places I’d never been before so long as we were together. But we’ve both wanted to have a family since we were very young. My husband was confident that we could do medical school and raise a family at the same time. Somehow. I wasn’t so sure. Still, we talked about it and prayed about it, until my husband came to me one day and said that he had decided to give up on medical school.

“If we’re serious about starting a family in the next few years, I’m going to need a different career path,” he said, to which I heartily agreed. It was hard for him to think of another career at first. My husband is a man of many talents but he’d had his heart set on medical school for such a long time that he didn’t know what else he wanted to do or even where to start looking. He literally received a sign shortly after making this decision. He was at work, helping his coworkers hang a bill board sign about police agencies hiring in the city. (Smee: I’ve just had an apostrophe. Captain Hook: I think you mean an epiphany. Smee: No… lightning has just struck my brain. Captain Hook: Well, that must hurt.) It was so obvious. My husband is strong, smart, quick on his feet, and just. Of course, he should be a police officer! So began the application process. It’s been a fury of studying, taking tests, filling out paper work, and going on ride alongs but it has been a blast for him. The current challenge is the upcoming physical exam. My husband’s current occupation is physically taxing and makes it hard to train but so long as he keeps trying, I’m confident he’ll succeed.

Growing up, my father always told me, “It’s okay to dream but keep your feet on the ground. Circumstances might not allow you to be a writer and stay-at-home-mother as you’d like to be. Think of a subject or area of study you could major in that could help your husband provide for your family should you need extra income.” So that’s what I did. I chose language. I’m already bilingual thanks to my Hispanic father and his family. I’d heard somewhere that being bilingual made it easier to learn other languages, so I thought I’d be a translator. Despite my desire to start with French, circumstances led me to American Sign Language. I ended up really enjoying it. I took four classes and was about to start the Interpreter’s program when complications arose between my work schedule and the class scheduling. An advertisement about a creative writing program on the school’s website caught my eye.

I’ve read many articles about writing query letters, self and traditional publishing, and book marketing. I’ve sent over 100 query letters over the past two-three years and received nothing but polite rejections. Still, the beta readers who read my work insisted I had talent. My writing, which had always been a hobby and an unrealistic dream, was fast becoming frustrating. Did I have what it took to be a successful author or not? With my current career path being blocked at every corner, it was time to find out. I started with Intro to Creative Writing and Intro to Writing Fiction, both of which I loved and aced. I received good criticism from my classmates and some much needed validation from my teachers (adults who had studied this area and could spot the difference between good writing and mediocre writing). I still don’t know if I have what it takes to be successful in the writing world, but I know I’ve got something good going on here.

I’ve read that agents receive millions of queries daily. To stick out from the crowd, you need what anyone else needs for a resume: education, experience, and proof of talent. Once I complete this creative writing program, I’ll have an Academic Certificate in Creative Writing (basically an associates). With it, I can transfer to a university and begin a bachelors in English if I wanted. It’s more education than I had two-three years ago when I started querying. The easiest way to gain some publishing experience is to be published. I’ve submitted some of my short stories into literary magazine contests. No bites yet but I can’t give up. Proof of talent in the writing world is having a following. Agents help with some book marketing but I’ve read time and time again that 90% of an author’s book marketing is done by the author. Having a following/readership reassures the agent that a writer is willing to do most if not all of the heavy lifting. Through blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram I hope to develop my following.

All the while I work on my manuscripts in the hopes that one day I’ll be ready to submit query letters again, this time with confidence. In my endeavors, I’ve learned a lot about writing, publishing, and book marketing. It’s become more and more apparent to me that the fulfillment of this crazy dream is going to take a lot of work, especially for an introvert who was determined not to have a social media presence not so long ago. But this feels right. Whether anything comes out of this or not, I’m going to see it through.

While all of this was happening, my husband was learning how to have long distance relationships with his family. One brother moved to Los Angeles to study film and work. Another brother moved to Hawaii to work in the student ministries department at a church in Maui. The third brother still lives in Phoenix but being a full time student keeps him very busy. My mother-in-law, who suddenly found herself with an empty house, decided it was time for an adventure and took a job in Wisconsin. For my husband, who has always been able to drive ten minutes to see his mother and brothers, this has been a huge adjustment. I went through similar stages of grief and homesickness when I moved out of my parents’ house in southern California to study and work in Phoenix. It’s been hard to go through this with him but it’s made his relationships with his family stronger. Because they’re so far away, his brothers make more of an effort to call and text. They’re learning and growing, and sharing their experiences with their older brother. That part has been fun.

2016, the Year of Change indeed.

It’s hard to think 2017 could possibly top it. But yet again it’s only January.

Flash fiction for funzies

Nala lay on her belly with her head over her paws, forsaking the shade and purposefully exposing herself to the sun. Better to burn than to sit among the hyenas. They barked and chattered to each other, leisurely bathing themselves by the roots of the dying trees. Nala stared out across the land, watching the heat rise from the earth and distort the horizon.

“She won’t speak,” her mother told some of the other lionesses. “She hardly eats. She doesn’t do anything. She just sits there…As if waiting.”

Nala could hear the worry and the fear in her mother’s voice. She couldn’t muster the energy to care.

“Waiting for what?” one of the lionesses muttered. “For Mufasa’s boy to come back and make everything right?”

“Hush!” the others hissed. “The hyenas will hear!”

Nala shut her eyes and barred her teeth, fighting the pain, fighting the anger. She remembered Scar’s coronation. He stood before the pride with his head up but his eyes downcast. Sorrow had pulled at his feline features, made his whiskers droop.

“Mufasa’s death was a terrible tragedy; but to lose Simba, who had barely begun to live…” He shook his head. “For me it is a deep personal loss. So it is with a heavy heart that I assume the throne.” He straightened up, looking each lioness in the eye as he adopted a determined resolve. “Yet, out of the ashes of this tragedy, we shall rise to greet the dawning of a new era…in which lion and hyena come together, in a great and glorious future!”

What a terrible leader he’d been! What a liar! He’d promised greatness but he’d disrupted the delicate balance of their lives. Hyenas had swarmed into the land and made Pride Rock their home. Scar sent the lionesses out to hunt over and over again to satisfy the gluttonous dogs that laughed such bone-chilling laughs. They gobbled up the meat from each kill, sucked the marrow from the bones. The huntresses were left with scraps. The hyenas lapped up the water springs and guarded them with savage jealousy. The neighboring animals, terrified for their lives and robbed of their watering holes, fled. The skies decided to communicate their disapproval by keeping the rain to themselves. The land that was once lush and green was now completely parched. And Scar lounged in his cave without a care.

Simba would never have stood for this, Nala thought acidly.

Mufasa’s body had been found. His son’s body had not. Scar lied about his intentions; he could’ve lied about what happened to Simba. As more darkness seeped into the land, the stronger Nala’s faith became. Simba was alive. Scar had somehow forced him to leave but Simba would return when he was strong enough. He would be king then and everything would be as it was. Nala would sit and wait. She would watch the horizon until she saw him, bounding across the cracked earth, fangs exposed as a roar burst from his lips, righteous fury burning in those orange eyes, wild mane rippling around his face. She would run out to meet him then and join him in the fight against Scar. What a glorious day that would be!

 

Nala waited for twelve years. Simba never came. A seed of doubt was planted, a seed that fast became a consuming vine of despair. It wove its way around Nala’s heart, made her believe she’d been mistaken. Made her give up on her prince. The day her mother was injured while on the hunt was the day Scar sent a hyena to find Nala.

“Your mother is unable to bring us our food,” he yipped. “Scar says it’s time to prove your worth. Go out and fetch us a nice, fat hog!” He licked his lips and laughed. “Yes, a juicy fat warthog would be perfect!”

“Fetch it yourself, you lazy mongrel!” Nala growled.

The hyena pounced.

Scar found them wrestling behind Pride Rock and put a quick end to their dispute. A strong swipe of his paw sent Nala’s head whipping to the side. Her body followed after, sailing away from the hyena she’d been about to bite. She crashed into the rock with a pathetic cry. Scar padded over on deceptively soft paws. He loomed above her, cold, indifferent eyes watching the blood dripping from her cheek. Nala stood with difficulty. Anger still burned within her. It wrinkled her nose, flattened her ears, and forced a low growl through her throat.

“You will do as you are told, Nala,” Scar said quietly, “for your mother’s sake.”

The despair came to rob her of her anger. Nala bowed her head. “Yes, sir.”

“Run along now,” Scar said, nodding at the horizon.

Nala barred her teeth at the hyena before she fled, sprinting across the barren wasteland that was her home. I’ll find him a warthog. I’ll find him the biggest warthog he’s ever seen. Maybe then he’ll choke on it!

 

A wild lion leapt over the root of the giant tree with a mighty roar. He collided with Nala, who frothed with frustration thanks to her illusive prey. She and the strange lion tumbled into a scrimmage. They fought, they bit, they scratched, they rolled…and Nala pinned him to the ground.

The strange lion blinked up at her in shock. “Nala?”

An abecedarius inspired by my sister’s cat

Anxiety makes her shy away from even the gentlest of hands

But she desperately tries to escape her confinement

Chirping her strange version of a meow, she advances then retreats

“Don’t touch me, but I’m lonely,” she seems to say

Exasperating cat! What am I to do with you?

Fat wobbles from side to side as she dodges me

Giving in, at last, she lopes back into the cage

Hatred and fear shine in the eyes visible through the metal grate

I’m suddenly overwhelmed with sympathy

Just last week, I thought she’d join our family

Kicking through the bushes, I found her

Leaves and webs peppered her dark fur

Mud coated her little, white paws

No blood drew the eye to cuts or scrapes

Other than her skittishness, she seemed perfectly normal

Perhaps that’ll go away in time, I thought as I ushered her through the door

Quality food and pampering can fix any animal

Remember when I said ‘last week?’

She is this way still, maybe more so

Treating her kindly or with frustration changes nothing

Unfortunately, I’m nearing my wits end with this cat

Venting about it to my husband doesn’t help

“We should just turn her in to the animal shelter,” he said

“X-rays and medical treatment is what she really needs.”

“You’re probably right,” I murmur, glancing at the cat

Zestfulness or the lack of aren’t the best reasons to get rid of an animal

And yet, how can I love something that doesn’t exactly want to be loved?

Because someone who fights love is someone who needs it the most, I realize

Come what may, I will love this cat

Dedication might just be what changes her in the end.

The truth about creative writing

There is no right way to write.

There are different methods, different formats, different verbiage, different voices to choose from. But there is no right, guaranteed-success way to write. I’m continuously reminded of this thanks to the different people who have read my writing and given me constructive criticism, and the articles that have been written about the subject. But it’s still frustrating.

Some readers say I don’t give enough details about the setting, while some articles encourage writers to leave certain things to the readers’ imagination. Some readers want more verbs throughout the dialogue, want to know what the speaker is doing while they’re speaking. Others would rather not have the dialogue interrupted. Articles speak about the less-is-more concept when it comes to words and how important it is to be concise, while I’ve gotten comments about my transitions being too “choppy” and “sudden.” My creative writing teachers stress showing rather than telling, while some readers suggest I write a prologue to explain the rules of my little world. Teachers and agents recommend using writing tests, prompts, outlines, and lists while writing a story. Some writers claim to use none of these things. They just write, go wherever the story takes them.

Personally, I get annoyed at those characters in books who do a lot of inner monologuing; I don’t need to know how the main character feels or what they are thinking all the time. Yet other readers do want to know. I am easily frustrated with female characters who make stupid decisions, especially when it comes to romance. If you’re on the fence about Peeta, don’t kiss Gale. I love you, Katniss, really I do but come on! Nothing good ever comes from leading a guy on. (Catching Fire was a hard book for me to read.) And yet, if my female characters don’t make similar mistakes, readers don’t find them relatable. I love it when authors describe everything to me; the furnishings of a room, the architectural structure of a building, the clothes people wear, the smells in the air, the sounds echoing through the woods, the feel of the brisk morning breeze against the character’s face. Being able to picture everything brings the book’s unique world to life inside my head. Many readers (and agents, I’m told) don’t share this opinion.

My writing is based off of my personal preferences and who I am as a person. Some of my qualities, life experiences, or moral convictions leak into the characters I write. It’s the greatest part about being a writer; having the power to create a world, story, or person the way you want. If you want anyone to read and enjoy your writing, however, you must also cater to their preferences. Grab their attention. Make them feel something. Ignite curiosity. I thought the best way to do this would be to ask a bunch of people to read one of my stories and listen to their advice. The result of this was a bout of depression and a migraine. There were just too many differing opinions. I didn’t feel like it helped my writing at all. And most of the time I felt like the readers misunderstood the whole point of the story. Was that my fault? Was there something I could have done differently? Who’s advice should I take? If I listened to everybody and changed all the things they mentioned, it would no longer be my story. But I didn’t want to be proud and change absolutely nothing about my story. I couldn’t grow if I didn’t change. So what was I supposed to do with all the feedback I received? It was maddening.

There were a few instances in which two or more people mentioned the same issues in one of my stories, and I’ve changed those things without a second thought. It has been my experience that, if a group of people agree on something and give the same advice without first discussing it between themselves, odds are their advice is sound. Doesn’t matter what they’re giving you advice about. If your mother, your co-worker, and the lady who lives two doors down think the popular nail salon on 82nd street is crap, they’re probably right. If your brother, your best friend, and your sister’s husband think the guy you’re dating is no good for you, you might want to take a closer look at your boyfriend. If your grandfather, your cousin, your roommate, and your childhood friend say you have to try the chocolate covered ants at a certain restaurant, you should probably try to ants. It’s basic common sense. I just wish there was more consensus when it came to my stories.

Sometimes, I think my life would be easier if there was a sure-fire way to make everyone fall in love with my stories. But then there would be no room for improvement, would there? Writing wouldn’t be a creative expression or an art or an experiment or a journey. It would be more like homework.

*sigh*

Now that I’m done ranting, I guess I should go back to writing, huh? So long as I keep going, my stories are bound to get better. That means there’s hope.

“Mr. Frodo, look. There is light…and beauty up there that no shadow can touch.”

The vamp and the boring dud

Nina left the room after I announced my engagement.

Papa already knew because Wes had asked him first, but he smiled and congratulated us just the same. Momma let out a girlish shriek of excitement and ran into the kitchen for that bottle of cider she’d been saving for a special occasion. My brother, Phillip, rose from the sofa to help his very pregnant wife stand and give us hugs. He proceeded to shake Wesley’s hand and give him a crooked smile.

My sister-in-law squeezed my shoulders despite the baby bump between us. “Oh, Bea! That’s wonderful news! I’m so happy for you two!” She released me to take Wesley’s face in her hands and beam up at him. “I knew you were going to stick around! I just knew it!”

Wes smiled around the hands over his cheeks. “Thanks, Opal.”

I turned to smile at my sister, expecting to see her still standing by the floor lamp, waiting for her turn to congratulate me. But she was gone, the screen door closing behind her with a quiet click. I kept the smile on my face despite my disappointment and excused myself before slipping out into the night.

Nina leaned her elbows against the railing and lit the cigarette dangling from her lips. I used to think she looked so cool with a ciggy between her fingers, colored eyelids drooped, long lashes casting shadows across her prominent cheekbones, ruby red lips pouting ever so delicately. Nina was blessed with all the confidence and genes needed to be a choice bit of calico in this decade. The dress of a flapper couldn’t hide my curves and my bob could hardly be contained by a cloche hat. Plus, I’d always been too afraid of Papa’s disapproval to smoke.

I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “What’s eating you, Nina?”

She was too quick to smile. “Everything is Jake, Sweet Bea. I was just craving a smoke.”

I joined her by the railing. “Did I upset you with my announcement?”

Nina blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “Course not. It’s a surprise but not something to be upset about.”

I blinked. “Phillip bringing a woman of color home to meet our parents was a surprise. Wes and I have been going steady for over a year now. It’s only reasonable that the next step for us would be—”

“Julius and I have been seeing each other about the same amount of time and you don’t see me sporting a handcuff.”

I bit my lip and averted my gaze, sliding a hand over my engagement ring. I hated her a little for ruining this night for me. I wanted to say Julius was too much of a coward to get a divorce and would probably never be faithful to Nina even if he did. But I held my tongue.

Nina took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. “I’m sorry, Sweet Bea. I really am happy for you. Wesley is swell. You’re going to be a great wife.”

Now say it like you mean it, I thought. “Thanks…”

Nina scrunched up her face. “But level with me, sis. Are you sure you’re going to be happy having so little? Being a waitress can’t pay much and Wesley’s job at the railroad isn’t exactly a career.”

“I have everything I could possibly want; parents who support me, an honest and hardworking man who’s goofy about me, friends and siblings who care about me, and a steady job. What more is there?”

My sister chuckled and turned back to the Chicago skyline. “Oh, Bea, you’re adorable.”

“What more is there,” I said with a frown, “that matters?”

Nina’s smile grew sadder and slightly less condescending. “You’ve always been so easy to please.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

Nina waved an impatient hand at the house behind us. “You’re content to be a clergyman’s daughter and follow his rules and sit in church every week. You’re happy waiting on customers and wearing our cousins’ hand-me-downs—”

I defensively wrapped my arms around my jumper.

“And being a good housewife and bearing children and serving the same man until you’re old. You’ve never thirsted for something more, something better, in your entire life. You’ve never been the least bit curious about new things or brave enough to voice your opinion.”

I remembered with bitter clarity the last time I had ‘tried something new’ with my sister.

 

Nina had persuaded Momma to let me spend the night at her place because she was long overdue for a girls’ night. I was under the impression that we’d get dolled up and go out to eat, maybe go to the movies before returning to her flat. The moment I stepped through Nina’s front door, she dragged me to her closet to ask for my opinion on what she should wear.

“Julie’s meeting us downtown and I have to look keen.”

To which I replied, “I thought we were having a girl’s night, Nina Bean.”

My sister huffed. “Don’t call me that! I’m hardly as thin as a string bean anymore. We’re still having a girl’s night. I just want you to meet Julius first.”

So I gave my opinion on Nina’s outfit and squeezed into one of her flapper dresses. I let her do my makeup and wrap a silk scarp around my head, and then we were off. Nina was acting like a schoolgirl, giggling and gushing about her new sheik, while we waited for him outside the speakeasy that masqueraded as a diner. This man, who was the coolest ‘egg’ Nina had ever met, pulled up in a shiny new breezer and honked his horn at us. Nina plastered herself to the side of the car to give the driver a kiss.

Once out on the sidewalk, Julius wrapped an arm around my tall, slender sister and walked over. His head barely reached her breast, but he spoke loudly enough to be noticed by all. His dark hair was sleeked back under his maroon homburg. He sported a gray pinstriped suit with a maroon vest to match his hat, and black and white lace up oxfords. He called Nina ‘smarty’ and complimented her dress before he even noticed me.

“Julie, this is my sister, Beatrice. Bea, this is my Julius,” Nina said.

Julius vigorously shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, doll.”

“Oh, you’re such a charmer!” Nina exclaimed before turning to me. “Isn’t he a charmer?”

“Sure,” I said, not that she heard me.

“Let’s go inside. I’m dying for a lap.” Nina led the way, arm-in-arm with Julius. She spared me a glance over her shoulder when she’d reached the door. “Don’t look so terrified, Sweet Bea. This juice joint is hip to the jive! It’ll be fun!”

With great trepidation, I followed them into the basement. Three drinks, four songs played entirely too loud and fast, and two dances later, I was being groped by a man I didn’t know and had no intention of knowing. The lovebirds I was tagging along with magically reappeared from wherever they had slipped off to. Julius slugged the stranger in the stomach while Nina dragged me outside and away from the ruckus. We reached the alley in time for me to throw up all over the pavement and Nina’s dress.

“Oh, Bea! I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” Nina tugged a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at my face.

I let out a moan and sank back against the wall. “I want to go home.”

Nina sighed. “I can’t bring you to Momma like this. Let’s just go back to my place, all right?”

Julius emerged then, looking angrier than a swarm of bees. “That futz-face won’t be coming around this place again. How’s your sister?”

“She’s fine, Julie, but I really think I ought to put her in bed. Could you take us home?”

 

I crossed my arms now, mentally channeled this memory to my sister, and waited for her to remember.

Nina cast me a sideways glance. “The night you met Julius doesn’t count.”

“Why not? It was the first time I’d ever been to a sp…”

A burst of laughter from inside the house reminded me there was only a screen door and several footsteps between us and the rest of our family.

I lowered my voice. “It was the first time I’d ever done something illegal before. And what about my hair?”

Nina shrugged. “What about it?”

“You shamed me into getting it cut this way because you were so certain it would make me look fashionable! ‘All your life it’s been long,’ you said, ‘and wouldn’t it be nice to have it styled differently for a change?’ Maybe if I’d been ‘brave enough to voice my opinion’ and said no right away, I wouldn’t look like I have a crow’s nest on the top of my head!”

Nina coughed and sputtered out a laugh.

I self-consciously patted my curls and scowled at her. “I know Wesley hates it, but he’s too much of a gentleman to say anything. It’s a good thing we’re waiting until the spring to get married, otherwise I’d have to…”

Nina rolled her eyes. “It looks fine. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Speaking of ridiculous, just what is wrong with being a housewife and having children?” I demanded.

My sister blew out a stream of smoke and flicked the cigarette butt into the grass. “Nothing, of course. Why would you do anything different? It’s all women are good for.”

I gritted my teeth to keep from swearing. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Just because I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life with the man I love doesn’t mean I’m ignorant or stupid.”

Nina cast me an annoyed glance. “I never said you were.”

“Then stop insinuating that your way is best! Not all of us want to be vamps who drink until they vomit and dance with strangers. Some of us actually want to grow up.”

Nina’s jaw dropped. “Bea…”

“Tonight was supposed to be a celebration!” My voice cracked. “Why couldn’t you just be happy for me?” I spun on my heel and marched into the house, blinking away tears.

 

Wes climbed the tree by my bay window and tapped the glass with his knuckles. I rolled out of bed and threw on a robe before shuffling over.

“Were you sleeping?” he asked once I’d opened the window.

I sat on the cushioned bench and hugged my knees. “You know I can’t sleep after I’ve had a fight.”

Wes shifted on the branch, most likely to get into a more comfortable position. Leaves came loose with an audible shuffle before they flitted to the ground. Wes flinched and looked down at my parents’ window. He let out a sigh of relief when the light stayed off. Then he turned those soft green eyes on me. “What happened tonight, Bea?”

I swallowed the lump of anger and self-pity as best I could. “Oh, it was just Nina being Nina. I’m not dating a married man and twisting the night away like she is so, naturally, I’m a boring dud.”

Wes frowned. “She wasn’t happy for you?”

“Marriage apparently was designed to belittle and enslave women all around the world. Ugh! She drives me crazy!”

“Did she say those words exactly?” Wes asked.

“No,” I murmured, “but she was awfully upstage about the whole thing. I don’t understand how she came to hate marriage so much. My parents have a wonderful relationship. It’s not perfect, never has been, but they’ve found happiness in whatever situation they’ve encountered because they have each other and God between them. Opal practically saved Phillip after he came back from the war! True love and commitment are so medicinal to the soul. Why can’t Nina see that?”

Wes chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment. “Could it be that she’s jealous?”

“Free-spirited, sophisticated Nina jealous of me?” I scoffed. “Unlikely.”

“Well,” Wes said carefully, “her younger sister is getting married before her. Despite what she thinks about marriage, the fact that she hasn’t been asked yet says something about her.”

I shook my head. “Even if she was asked, she’d just say no. The thought of depending on or being under anyone’s rule is too horrible. Why do you think she left home so soon after finishing high school? Momma and Papa were willing to go into debt to pay for higher education, but she wouldn’t have it. She worked herself to the bone paying for college and rent all so that she could be free.”

Wes reached out to take my hand. “You shouldn’t let this bother you so much, Bea. We’re still getting married.”

I half smiled when I noticed the leaf caught in his hair. I sat up and ran my fingers through his golden locks to remove it. He was right. Of course, he was right. I didn’t need Nina’s approval. It was only…

My smile faded. “I’ve always been able to talk to Nina about anything. I was looking forward to planning the wedding with her and Momma and Opal. I wanted to ask Nina to be my maid of honor. I don’t think any of that is going to happen now.” My eyes stung with the coming of new tears. “The more we grow, the less we have in common and I feel…Oh, Wes, I feel like I’m losing her.”

“That could never happen,” Wes said with confidence. “She’s your sister. She’ll come around to supporting our wedding when she realizes how much her involvement means to you. You’ll see.”

 

Nina never apologized for what happened that night.

I extended an invitation through Momma when I was going to try on wedding dresses several weeks later, and Nina brought her biggest smile. She gave her honest opinion on every dress I tried, and gushed about flowers and lace. She held her new nephew and complimented Opal on making such a beautiful boy. She didn’t even complain when the child spit up on her. My sister graciously agreed to be my maid of honor and be as involved as I needed her to be.

The months flew by. The day came. Nina stood behind me while I tied the knot with Wesley. She smiled for the pictures, she made a toast, and she joined the rest of the bridal party into tying cans to the back of Wes’s car. She threw the rice and waved goodbye. I saw very little of her after that. Married life proved to be more hectic than I expected, but even when I tried to reach out to her, there was always a good reason why we couldn’t get together. Then Christmas time came around and Momma told me Nina had promised to come home for dinner. As excited as I was to finally be in the same room with my big sister, I quickly realized nothing had changed.

Nina arrived with Julius, wearing a fur trimmed coat and suede slippers. She was cordial to Wes, but only spoke to him when she absolutely had to. She talked about her gossip column at the newspaper and the new friends she’d made at a publishing house. She was writing a book and, by golly, it was going to get published. Julius’ car sales business was booming. He and Nina had gotten a place together, bigger and more impressive than Nina’s old flat. But he was still married. His wife came to the house halfway through our gift exchange, forcing Julius to hurriedly retreat. I watched Nina strike up conversation with Phillip while her sheik and his wife argued outside. That plastic smile of hers did little to hide her unhappiness. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snagged her arm and led her upstairs to my old room.

“Bea, what in the world?” Nina said as I shut the door behind us.

“How can you possibly be happy with him?” I demanded. “You’ve been together for two years and he’s still with his wife!”

Nina rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “Ours is a complicated relationship, one I hardly expect you to understand.”

“Hooey!” I said with barely controlled fury. “You’re giving him the freedom to switch from her bed to yours whenever he feels like it. And why? Because he buys you nice presents and pays for your new apartment?”

“Stop judging me!” Nina snapped. “Not all of us are happy to live in rags!”

I threw my hands in the air. “When have you ever lived in rags?”

Nina laughed harshly. “All throughout college, and a year or so after that while I was looking for a job.”

That was the first I’d ever heard of it. I sputtered in disbelief before I found my voice. “If you needed help, why didn’t you come home and let our parents take care of you?”

Nina waved my words away, lip curled in disgust. “Papa and Phillip both tried to talk me out of leaving, but I was sure I was ready to be on my own. I would rather starve than prove them right.”

I made a sound of pity and disbelief at the back of my throat. “You’re a dumbbell if you think either of them would ever say ‘I told you so.’”

Silence descended.

Nina ran a hand through her hair. “Am I such a terrible person for wanting some security, some luxury?”

“Of course not,” I said. “But you’re going about it all wrong.”

Nina smirked. “Says who? Momma and Papa?”

I frowned. “Says me. You and Julius are just using each other for your own means. You want to be pampered? You want to be provided for? Find a respectable man with a good career and an even better heart, fall in love with him, wait until he loves you enough to deny all other women, and say yes when he asks you to marry him.”

Nina chuckled. “Not all of us can have the same perfect, happy ending as you, Bea. Julius and I work for now. Why can’t you just be happy for me?”

“Because. It’s. Wrong. Why is this so hard for you to understand?”

Nina rolled her eyes yet again, marched over to the bay window, and wrenched it open. She dug around her new purse for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, suddenly tired.

“What can they do?” Nina asked around her ciggy. “I don’t live under their roof anymore. I’m not a child.”

You could’ve fooled me…

I knew it was wrong the moment I thought it. Nina was never like this when we were girls. As a young lady, she was stubborn but brave. She knew what she wanted and went for it. She didn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams and she held onto her convictions no matter what. She always stood up for her shy, self-conscious, little sister. We used to whisper and giggle at all hours of the night until Momma would pound on the wall, remind us what time it was, and tell us to go to sleep or else. We used to be inseparable.

Nina took a drag and glanced at me out of the corner of those dark eyes. Exhaustion and sympathy tugged at her face. “Don’t cry, Sweet Bea. I don’t hate you. We’re just different, that’s all.”

I wiped my face.

Nina abandoned her place by the window and approached me. “We’ll always be sisters.”

I chuckled bitterly. “Sisters who only see each other on holidays? Sisters who argue because they don’t have anything in common?”

Nina brought the cigarette back to her lips, hand trembling. But she didn’t take another puff. Instead, she croaked, “I love you, Bea.”

I wrapped my arms around her and buried my face in her shoulder. She was so thin. So fragile. Suddenly, I wanted to take her someplace far away where she’d be safe from her world of smoke and gray areas and warped priorities. “I love you too, Nina Bean.”

She stroked my hair with her free hand. “I’m so proud of you. Have I ever told you that?”

I shook my head.

I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “You have a sweet attitude and such simple needs. You’re so…happy with your lot in life. Sometimes I wish I could be more like you.”

I laughed into the beaded swirls of her dress. “Sometimes I wish you were more like you and less like the 20s.”

Nina pulled away. “It’s the world we live in, Sweet Bea. I’m just trying to survive in it.”

 

I didn’t see Nina for two years. I only heard little snippets of news from Momma. I often prayed for my sister and wished her well. I missed her all the time, but whenever I found the courage to write to her, the words escaped me. I’d sit at my desk and stare at the empty page, pen poised, head empty. I’d get so sad and so angry; I’d just end up crumpling up the page and tossing it across the room.

Then my daughter was born. She came early. Phillip and Opal were out of town visiting her folks, but Momma and Papa were on their way to the hospital. Wes was getting a bite to eat in the cafeteria. The door to my room opened and I looked up from my baby girl’s face to see my sister enter.

Her hair was still short, but she wore less makeup. Her dress still ended below the knee, but it was a wrap around with quarter sleeves and made of cotton. There was no fringe or beading. A short string of pearls hung from her neck and black pumps decorated her feet. She carried a small box wrapped in bright pink paper. She gave me a sheepish smile. “Hello, new Momma.”

I smiled back. “Hello, Aunt Nina.”

She slowly approached, like I was a skittish horse that might run away if she came too quickly. “What’s her name?”

I watched my girl’s sleepy little face for a moment. “I can’t decide between Eleanor or Elaine.”

Nina placed her parcel on the bed beside me and leaned in to take a peek at the babe in my arms. “She’s definitely an Eleanor. She’s beautiful, Bea. A perfect little doll.”

“Thanks.” I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. “You look good.”

Nina placed a hand on my shoulder. “Considering you just gave birth to another human being, you’re not looking so bad yourself.”

I laughed and held the child out to her. “Would you like to hold her?”

Nina took Eleanor in her arms, brow wrinkled in uncertainty. But the more she held that baby, the more relaxed she became. I made room for her on the bed and patted the spot beside me.

I playfully nudged her once she had settled in. “So what have you been up to?”

We reconnected in that hospital room. We talked and laughed like we did when we were girls, as if the past few years had never happened. Nina was still Nina; fearless and stubborn. But she was an older and more weathered version of my sister, one created by years of wandering this city and figuring out this life on her own. Different though we still were, it was suddenly all right because these versions of ourselves, like the ones that came before, were temporary. Necessary phases. Parts of our history. Pieces of a puzzle not yet whole.