Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 13

Rodger walked along the trail leading to the front door of the mission. Sister Pearl came running toward him, crying out in her broken English.

“Oh, God’s will! A miracle!” Breathless, she sucked in air loudly while striking her chest.

“What miracle, Sister Pearl?” Rodger kept her at arm’s length, his hands pressed against her shoulders.

Her face cracked with all of the joyful emotion her soul could not contain. “God’s will! Mary Elizabeth lives again!”

Rodger hunched down so that he could push his face close to hers and demanded, “You mean she’s all right?”

“Yes, yes, all right!”

Sister Pearl snatched Rodger’s hand and dragged him along, her little feet churning up dust balls along the way. Rodger hurried behind her, fanning at the dirt, until at last she deposited him at the garden’s gate. Snapping off his sunglasses, he peered over the top of the rotting, wooden slats, squinting his eyes hard until he could make out the three images of Father McBride, LinChing and Mary Elizabeth.

The two men sat with their backs toward Rodger, with Mary Elizabeth standing before her father, her hand resting on his knee. The treetops rustled and insects skirred.

Father McBride’s laughter erupted through the silence. The sound of voices, soft like a faraway engine, came to his ears, and for a moment he lingered with his eyes shut. When he pushed against the gate, all three turned to him.

Although he knew LinChing was blind, Rodger couldn’t help smiling and waving at him. Mary Elizabeth jumped away from her father at the sight of Rodger, her smile frozen into a ghostly expression on her beautiful face. Rodger hesitated and stopped in midstride.

Mary Elizabeth bounded forward and in three swift leaps, clasped her arms around Rodger’s neck. “Oh, Rodger!”

Standing upright, with Mary Elizabeth dangling from his neck like an ornate pendant, Rodger was shocked by her lightness. He hugged her closer to him, feeling the thumping of her heart. She drew away from him and stared into his eyes. He kissed her cheek, squeezing her tightly once more.

“Long time, Bright Eyes.”

The clean smell of her newly washed hair, the fragile softness of her body made all of his senses hurt for the joy of holding her. He wanted to stay holding onto her for as long as he could.

But the moment passed, and Mary Elizabeth began chattering about people he didn’t know.

“Wait, not so fast. What is it you want?"

“I want you meet my Aunt Josephine and Uncle Toby. They’re coming tonight. You will, won’t you?”

“I don’t know, Bright Eyes. If there’s enough food.”

“I helped.” She peered through her thick, dark eyelashes.

Father McBride had LinChing on his arm, inching the crippled, elderly man over to them. Rodger could see that LinChing winced in pain with every step. Father McBride’s face had mellowed, the stiffness in his features gone as he patiently helped LinChing along. Even the nuns had a radiance about them. Rodger felt like laughing out loud, wishing there were some way he could throw a party for everyone.

“Major, your added presence at our supper tonight will be most welcomed.”

“Thank you, Father McBride.” He put a hand upon LinChing’s arm. “I brought the papers with me. I’ll go over them with you.”

Father McBride nodded briskly, as did LinChing. “Perfect. Let’s all go into my study for a celebration drink.”

Mary Elizabeth giggled, giving her head a saucy toss. Rodger set her down, sliding his hand over hers as they walked down the corridor to Father McBride’s study.

LinChing spoke. “Mary Elizabeth drew a sketch. Go now, child and get it.”

She bounded off to her room, returning a few moments later with a portrait of a woman in a veiled hat. Rodger leaned forward in his chair and took it carefully into his hands and studied the likeness of a beautiful, dark-haired woman with an engaging smile, who might have been a movie star. “Who’s this, Bright Eyes?”

Mary Elizabeth blushed. She leaned close to whisper in his ear. “I copied it from a picture of my mother.”

“Is it very good, Major Brown?” LinChing’s quiet voice mixed certainty and anxiety.

“Yes,” Rodger handed it back to Mary Elizabeth. “Be sure to pack it so you can take it with you.”

Mary Elizabeth balked, her eyes widening and flashing in fright. “Leave? No, no leave. We stay here with Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobias. Then go their home. Isn’t that right, Father?”

Rodger’s heart contracted painfully. He damned sure hadn’t counted on a custody fight.

“Hush, child. We speak later.” LinChing patted the air impatiently.

Before Rodger could reply, Sister Pearl scurried in the room to announce the arrival of missionaries, Josephine and Tobias Standord, from the outlying village of Binyang. Rodger shifted his weight in his chair so that he could see through the doorway into the entryway.

As soon as the couple entered the room behind Sister Grace, Rodger understood. There, shaking loose her wide‑brimmed, veiled hat was the lady of Mary Elizabeth’s drawing.

Rodger stared at Mary Elizabeth’s aunt, more beautiful than Carole Lombard, mesmerized by her smile, blooming slowly as she turned to face all of them. She paused, then leaned over to speak with Sister Grace before turning to her companion, a portly gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a quick smile. The woman took the coats from her husband and handed them to the flustered nun. Removing a dainty handkerchief from her sleeve with a graceful motion, the woman daubed at her face, pressing her lips last, and with an audible sigh, seemed to step from her own world into the reality of this place of strangers and relatives.

Father McBride rushed forward. “Josephine and Tobias! How wonderful to see you!”

Father McBride’s head bobbled as Tobias pumped his hand. “Do you remember meeting last year at the Bishop’s reception?”

Tobias laughed heartily. “Indeed! Indeed, I do!”

Father McBride extracted his hand from Tobias’s grip and proffered it in a courtly gesture to Josephine. Rodger wistfully thought that he would like to hold her hand, too, as Father McBride introduced her.

“Major, this is Mary Elizabeth’s Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobias.” He turned his back to Rodger and spoke in a low whisper, “Major Brown is responsible for Mary Elizabeth and LinChing going to the United States.”

Josephine smiled, extending her hand to Rodger. “So pleased to meet you.” Leaning into him, she murmured, “I’m sure you meant well, Major. But now that we’re together again, it’s best for us to stay a family.”

“Call me ‘Rodger,’ Ma’am. Pleased to meet you,” he shook her hand lightly. “Perhaps LinChing has something to say about it.”

“Oh, Major!” she said, then whispered. “He’s Chinese and I don’t think he knows really what’s best for Mary Elizabeth!”

Then she lifted her head and pronounced gaily, “My husband, Tobias, Major Brown, ah! Rodger,” and stepped back as Tobias grasped Rodger’s hand in a fierce handshake.

“Rodger, glad to know you, old man,” Tobias boomed.

Mary Elizabeth held tightly to Rodger’s other hand. He winked at her, then looked directly at Tobias. “War has a way of aging the best of us.”

Mary Elizabeth giggled. Sister Grace came to the door, asking them to come in to supper. Mary Elizabeth squeezed Rodger’s hand harder, until he looked down to see her holding the marble in her palm. Then she quickly slid it back into her newly patched pocket.

Rodger was seated between Josephine and Mary Elizabeth, across from Tobias. He wouldn’t think of calling either one “Toby” or “Josey”; they addressed him as “Rod-ger” to the point he had to smile. They may not have been pretentious, but they certainly observed a rigid decorum.

“And you, Rodger,” Josephine leaned closer to him, as she did to anyone she addressed, as if she made herself a sponge to absorb all that was said, “are from what part of the States?”

“Aunt Josephine!” Mary Elizabeth blurted out with a wave of her hand. “Tell Rodger what you told me! You will come once a week!”

When Mary Elizabeth interrupted the conversation, Josephine turned and gave the child her full attention.

“Yes, I did say that, Mary Elizabeth. I will teach you how to read.”

“My aunt will teach me to read out of her book.” Mary Elizabeth spoke to Rodger, all the while she cast glances around the table, ending with a smile at Josephine. “And Uncle Tob…” she faltered at the pronunciation of his name and Rodger noticed Tobias visibly wince every time she referred to him.

“Dear child,” he corrected yet again, “my name is pronounced Toe-buy-us.”

Abashed, Mary Elizabeth looked down at her plate. “Uncle, I am sorry.”

“Oh, there, dear child! Forget it!” he chortled and flapped his napkin theatrically. “You can just call me Uncle.” Tobias shifted so that he spoke directly to Father McBride.

“How is your work coming along here? I understand that you have been working on an irrigation system.”

It amused Rodger to watch Tobias and the priest trying to talk to one another without mentioning religion. LinChing said nothing as he ate with chopsticks, never requiring assistance. For the most part, he was disengaged, yet his composure spread over the assembly like a transparent cloth.

“And you, Rodger, what are you doing in this part of the world?” Josephine riveted her sapphire-blue eyes on him.

Rodger pushed away his plate, laying aside his napkin. It occurred to him how odd it was that cloth napkins should have been brought all the way out here; another example of how, in some way, each of them tried to hang on to a part of their prewar life.

“Pearl Harbor.” At the mention of war, everyone grew somber. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cast a dark shadow on the evening. What are the both of you doing here?”

Pleased, Josephine replied, “We are Mormon missionaries.”

Before she could elaborate, Tobias spread his arms over them as if in blessing and spoke loudly, punctuating his words carefully and distinctly. “We’re here for the same reason you are, Major. In fact, I venture to say that is the reason we’re all here: to make it a better world for all to live in.”

“How long have you been here?” Rodger turned his attention to Josephine.

“Fifteen years. Fifteen long years.” Josephine, shocked by her own admission, clenched her napkin, then sat upright as if to correct herself.

Tobias squared his shoulders and frowned meaningfully at her. But she was determined to continue. “My younger sister, Elizabeth Marie, came with us. She met LinChing in his village while she was there teaching the children reading and writing. She died in childbirth, when Mary Elizabeth was two. Oh, she was a good mother! And a dedicated teacher and missionary! She would have wanted Mary Elizabeth to follow her example.”

Mary Elizabeth squirmed. The clattering of her fork onto the wooden floor arrested the conversation. Her mouth turned downward, as if she might cry. Sister Pearl rushed to pick up the fork, hurrying away with it to the kitchen. Sister Grace leaned over, clucking, patting Mary Elizabeth on the arm.

Rodger and Josephine exchanged a long, keen look between them.

“Well, Bright Eyes, I have time enough to go for a short walk before I leave.”

He turned again to those at the table. “If you’ll excuse us. Most delicious dinner.” He winked at Sister Pearl. “Father McBride, I’ll be back Friday, and we’ll take care of business.”

He stood, offering his arm to Mary Elizabeth. She pushed away her chair and, with the daintiness of a gentlewoman, as her aunt might have done, took his arm. Standing tall and grinning at him, she let him guide her to the garden.

“You must look like your mother, too.” Rodger was appalled by his own morbid curiosity.

“Yes.” She tugged on his arm, stopping them. She spoke intently. “Mother’s voice…like summer wind in grasses. She sang to me. I remember sometimes…how I felt when she held me.”

Rodger felt Mary Elizabeth shudder. “What is it?”

Mary Elizabeth puckered her lips and flicked her hand at the mission. “Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobeye-us don’t like…” she stopped and wiggled her fingers as if to catch the words, “father and me. I can tell,” she looked steadily at Rodger with a pinched brow. “One breath I will read, and next breath I will teach; I will be this, and I will be that. And she never asked Father, not once, Rodger, no one time, did she ever ask Father!” Flustered, she shrugged and stopped speaking.

“It’s only for a little while, Bright Eyes.” Rodger began to walk again. “I know it’s hard for you and your father, especially now that he is blind. Will you promise me that you will take care of him—-just like you took care of us guys at the base? I won’t worry if you say you will.”

“Yes, I will,” she replied soberly, reminding Rodger of LinChing. “I will do all that I can and all that he wishes me to do.”

“Good girl,” Rodger hugged her arm into his side. “Tell me, do you need anything?”

She dropped her head, shaking it. Rodger stopped and scrutinized her. “All right, do you want anything?”

She clutched his hand in both of hers. “I would like some watercolor paints.” When he nodded, she looked into his eyes. “Tell me about this place in America.”

“I have this friend I’ve known since I was six years old. I bet she’s a lot like your mother was. She’s soft‑spoken and generous. She always knew the right thing to do when I was hurt, angry or lonely. The best part of it is, I can be near you when I come home.”

She gripped him tighter, words rushing out. “Oh, Rodger! I thought you not want to see us any more. I hear awful things about how people are sent away to foreign places.”

Rodger stopped abruptly. “You don’t really think I would do that, do you?”

Her eyes darkened, spilling forth tears. Rodger bent down and hugged her close, stroking her long, black hair until she had stopped sobbing. “Hey, Bright Eyes, this is supposed to be a happy time. How come you’re always crying?” She shook her head. “Hey, think of what Will’s gonna say about me having dinner with you!”

“Promise me, Rodger?”

Rodger nodded, alarmed by the seriousness in her voice. He held onto to her arms, giving her a little squeeze.

“Tell them I pray. Two or three times, I go to the church and kneel on my knees and say my prayers.”

“I’ll tell them Mary Elizabeth. Give me hugs and kisses for the whole lot and I’ll pass them on.”

She threw her arms around him and she covered his cheeks with kisses. “I have special one for you,” she said, reaching into her pocket.

Just then Sister Grace called to her. “Mary Elizabeth! Come now! Say good‑bye to your Aunt and Uncle.”

“Go, Bright Eyes.” He gave her a little push. “I’ll be back in two days and we’ll have time for just the two of us.”

She dashed off through the garden gate. Rodger stood watching her until she was out of sight. He bowed his head, chewing on his bottom lip. “Well, thanks, God.”

He turned to leave. He saw Tobias and Josephine walking side by side toward Binyang. They were a compelling sight, as if they might have been a duke and duchess strolling along the Thames rather than gliding across the brown, dying grass. Tobias’ stoutly figure cut a dignified space around him; Josephine might have stepped out of a fairy tale in her long, flowing, yellow dress, although worn thin and patched. They stopped, suddenly turning to face one another.

Rodger called out to them. “Want a lift?”

Josephine reached up to tip her hat back slightly so that she could look heavenward. Shadows of clouds moved over the ground.

Then Rodger heard it, too.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

YNK (You Never Know): Chapter 2 - BC (Be Cool)

As I pull on my blue and white cotton tee shirt over clean denims, my Mom rushes me so we can pick up Annie on time for our hair appointments. I plop down in the car seat, finish tying the lace of my red Skecher before snapping the seat belt into place. I am not fond of mornings and less fond of chit-chat. Annie, however, is ever effervescent, sliding in the front seat with a big smile and greetings. She is in a short, black skirt with a black-and-white-striped, loose-fitting, tee that falls off one shoulder that shows a black bra strap.

“This is so going to be our day!” she gushes, texting at the same time. “I’ll take our pics and send them to you…oh,” she makes a funny sucking sound on her lip. “I no can do, you have no celly.” She gives me a sly smile continues, “I’ll email them to you, Fran.”

Sometimes I think Annie would be a great social worker; she’s always trying to fix people and situations. But I must admit I’m glad that she champions my cause for a celly. Maybe a little of my peer pressure on my Mom will be what it takes to make it happen for me.

My Mom pulls into a parking spot and waves us out the car. “Have fun, you two! I’ll be back at the mall by one. In fact,” she checks her watch, “I’ll have a latte and sit outside of Nordstrom. That will give you enough time after your new hairdos to browse. You can meet me at two-forty-five. ”

Annie, with her celly on a strap around her wrist bobbing and twisting as she runs, leans in the driver’s side. “Thanks, Mrs. R. We might take the bus back if that’s all right?”

I can tell my Mom is taken aback; she knows as I do that Annie hates taking the city bus anywhere. During Christmas break, my Mom and I will take the bus from a nearby Park and Ride downtown to shop, have lunch and admire the festive lights on the trees down Fifth Avenue, and the hustle-bustle of Westlake Center. Like every time I’ve asked her, Annie didn’t want to go with us, giving me a lame excuse about coming down with a cold, when I know she just didn’t want to spend any time on the Metro.

I tug at Annie’s arm as my Mom speeds away. “Hey! What was that all about? Us taking the bus?”

She in turn, grabs my hand and tows me along at a good pace into the shop. “My little surprise!” She drops my hand once we are the front desk and waves to a nice-looking young man. “Hi! Emilio!”

He claps his hands together. “Ah, Ann! How are you? And your friend, is, Frances?”

Annie bobbles her head. “Yes, yes! Can we use the computer program? I want to show Frances the perfect hair style for her!”

Emilio has the receptionist show us to the corner room. Annie sits primly in a chair before a computer scrolling several ads for beauty products. “Fran! Fran! Look at this one—or this one—or how about this one?”

I’m thumbing through the Hair Palace brochure and gasp at the prices. “Annie! Just a haircut alone is $65.00!”

“You’ll think it’s worth it when you see your new self!”

I have a hundred and twenty dollars with me, but I did not figure on spending that much on my hair when I can get it cut at Clip and Go for fifteen.

She taps the screen. “This is it. This is the one for you.”

If only I resembled the model might it work for me. “No. It would take me all morning just to figure out how to style a cut like that. It’s too fussy.”

Annie squints and tightens her lips. “Fran, honestly!”

But before she can launch into a tirade, her celly sings. She turns her full attention to the incoming call and I take her place before the computer. On the sixth page, I stop and do a second glance at a bobbed hair cut. I think this one might work for me.

“Marcy!” Annie whispers, like there are a thousand interested people around us. “She and Steve are meeting us later.”

Oh, the reason we are taking the bus. I am sure Annie purposely left out a few details to my Mom, which makes me a little uncomfortable.

We’re beckoned into the salon where we are caped and herded to our chairs. Annie chats animatedly with Emilio about the highlights she thinks will go with her new color and cut; I hear them settle on platinum blonde highlights on dark brown. Well, I hope Annie has it figured out, because she could get suspended even though there is just one last month left of school term.

“Frances!” she croons, like we speak to one another in such syrupy tones, “have some highlights, too!”

She cracks me up, like she’s serving me tea and crumpets at the Four Seasons. I crane my neck just a bit as not to disturb Anatasia’s vigorous fluffing of my hair. “No, thank you, Anne. I’m quite satisfied at the moment!”

“Ohh, but Frances,” Anatasia cajoles, “a little here and there of two or three shades lighter than your own hair color would be subtle but-oh!-so pretty!” She points to the number seven color swatch. “It is the special of the day—twenty-five dollars.”

Annie sashays by me, snapping her cape. “Do it!”

I smile as I look Anatasia in the eye. “Subtle.” I gesture to Annie. “Let me use your celly to call my Mom.”

Annie hands it over with a roll of her eyes. “You can make some decisions for yourself, Frances.”

I think I might bop her with her own phone, but I’ve really got better manners than that.

“Mom? Hi! Calling you on Annie’s celly.” I pause, to emphasize my point. “Would it be all right if I got some subtle highlights in my hair?” I am hoping she will go off on this and then I am off the hook. But no.

“Oh, thanks, Mom.”

Well, I guess I’m just on the hook today. It’s like my Mom has adopted Annie’s agenda.

I point out the picture of the model haircut that I want to Anatasia. Annie takes a minute from her monologue with Emilio to peer at it. “Oh, Fran, how frumpy!”

Anatasia flicks Annie back to Emilio, giving me her full attention. “I will make this very becoming on you.”

I had a moment of alarm seeing long tendrils plopping onto the floor, but then I felt excited at the thought of a new do. After two magazines and an agonizing long time being foiled and washed and rinsed and towel dried, hair-producted, then blown away by the hair dryer, I emerged with a different version of the cut than pictured. My bob was severely layered short in the back, with longer tapering sides. The golden highlights made my brown hair tawny.

“Oh,” is all I could muster. I didn’t know who that person staring at me was, I looked so totally different than I had been. Perhaps, I thought fleetingly, that is a good thing.

“Oh! Wow!” Annie clearly was stunned! “Fran, you look terrific!” She clicks several pictures on her phone, carefully saving each one, then hands the celly to me.

“You do, too, thanks.” She did, too; the brassy contrast of multi white-whites on dark-almost-black brown suited her; the shaggy long hair with bangs made her look eighteen, which I think she really liked. “I just hope you don’t get into trouble at school.” I take two pictures of her.

“Frances,” she sighed dramatically, “you worry too much.” She snaps the clasp smartly on her white Stella Ann hobo bag.

I unzip my wallet purse and pull out the folded money. I feel it was worth the hundred dollars as I smooth out four twenties and four fives for the cut, color and tip.

“C’mon, let’s hurry! I have a surprise for you!” She hustles across the street on the walk light towards Nordstrom.

I catch up to her; she so reminds me of Porthos sometimes. “Annie! What kind of surprise?”

“We are going to have our make-up done.” As we enter Nordstrom she points at one chair by the counter, then goes for the other one next to it.

“No!” I skid short of the chair. “I’m not having make-up ‘done’, Annie! Not interested.” I blush when I turn face to face with the saleswoman. “Oh, ‘cuse me. It’s just my Mom would have a fit.”

The saleslady scrutinizes my face. “Hmm, maybe just a little mascara? And a touch of eye shadow.” She smoothes my eyebrows. “A quick pluck here, a pluck there, is all you need.”

Annie is ensconced with her advisor, her back pointedly turned to me. I scoot my butt into the chair and let the woman go to work. I’m not real impressed with the stinging when the woman rips out my eyebrows, but the heated eyelash curler is luxurious. When I glance into the mirror, I am stunned to see myself so different, so not-me.

Annie signs a credit card slip and I just now realize that she has her own prepaid credit card.

“C’mon, Foxy Fran,” she guides me out the doors and across the street to Target. “We’re going to get you some tools.”

She zips down one aisle and another, flinging make-up into her little hand carry basket. She stops and peers thoughtfully at the chilled sodas as she pulls open the door and takes out two diet Coca-Colas™. At the check-out, she signs the slip with a little happy face beside her name. She stuffs the plastic bag of cokes, pink cream blush, Velvet Kiss lipstick and blue nail polish into her purse, extracts a vial of mascara and an eyelash curler and hands them to me.

“Annie! I don’t have any money to buy make-up!” I stare at these alien things, wanting and not-wanting them at the same time. And I have a not so good, funny feeling that Annie didn’t pay for the eye lash curler, but I really cannot remember if she did or did not and I decide that I really can’t say anything.

“Pfft! Early b’day!” She shrugs off my thanks as she slides on her sunglasses. “Let’s go.” She’s off again at a good clip, texting all the way.

I cram them into my wallet, slinging the strap over my shoulder, thinking how dumb it looks to have this bulging black thing banging against my hip as I keep a smart pace with Annie.

Annie and I have been friends ever since our mothers met at a gymnastics class for toddlers. We even had a secret language that only the two of us understood and we pretended we were twins separated at birth by an evil doctor. But most of this year, especially after volleyball season, Annie has been hanging out with Marcy, Sue and Ursala. And she has changed. A lot. Her Mom never let her talk on the phone until all her homework was done; now it’s like there is a cell phone umbilical cord attached to her. And the make-up, hair and clothes. Annie has spun into another planet’s orbit.

She rockets around the corner of the store, the opposite direction of the mall and heads up the street a little way, turns the corner again. I notice the sign that points to the Tukwila Pond Park behind Target. I’m confused at first where we are headed as we trot through the parking lot. Then the gravel walkway emerges as we pass through the wooden posts into the park.

Who would have thought a fair size body of water and landscaped area could be hidden behind concrete buildings? The pond sparkles with diamonds of light; a mama duck with her little ducklings floats in vee ripples from the water’s edge.

“Hey! Look at the glam girls!” shouts Timothy as Annie and I approach the group of eighth grade boys. The Boyz! they call themselves. Oh, they are so cool. Not!

Timothy is taller than the others, with thick blond hair, his wavy bangs flowing across his forehead; he looks like a surfer boy in his blue board pants and Quicksilver tee shirt.

Annie is looking at him through her eyelashes, her head cocked and with a tiny smile on her pouting lips. “You like the look?”

“I’ll say!” Timothy drapes his arm around Annie’s shoulders and hugs her tight into his side. “I like it! I like it!”

The other guys are standing off to one side of Timothy. Brian, the porker, in his baggy cargo pants and too-tight Billabong tee shirt which stretches across his bulging stomach, whoops. Collin, short, muscular and already with a shadow of dark facial hair, in his preppie polo and black jeans, high fives. Justin, medium build, brown hair, a mega-watt smile, blue jeans and a plain navy blue tee shirt, joins in as a chorus.

“Yo! Annie!” Brian holds out his soda, “I’ll trade you for a smoke.”

Annie shakes her head, as she brings out a can of cola from her purse. “Brought my own—diet, you know to cut the calories!” She pops the can open and leans away from Timothy to pour out half the contents. “Mix and I’ll match.” She hands over the can to Brian and roots around her purse, extracting a package of Marlboros.™

Brian scoots over to a table partially hidden by grasses and comes back to hand Annie her can of soda for the smokes. He takes one, fumbles for a lighter in his pocket.

Annie reaches for the pack and takes a cigarette out. “Uh, Brian,” she teases, “don’t you know, ladies first?”

Brian, frowns, looks around, flicks the flame to his cigarette. “Where, oh, where are they?” he bellows.

Timothy snatches the lighter away and lights Annie’s cigarette, then his own.

“Fran!” Justin holds out his Big Gulp.™ “Here, have some Coke™.”

“Yeah! Fran,” Brian snickers, “have some refreshment.”

I feel suddenly like I’m on a merry-go-round that’s out of control and I can’t get off. I know I can’t hesitate too long, but I really don’t want to have a drink.

“Oh, try it!” Annie gives me a look like I’m a kid she’s babysitting. “You might like it.”

Justin smiles at me and not unkindly, as I take his cup. The cola is warm and heavy in my mouth, with a faint cough-syrupy taste. I hand the cup back to him. “Thanks, but Annie has a can of diet for me.”

She smacks it into my hand. Brian, Collin, Timothy and Justin wait as I pop the tab and sip it. I salute them. “This’ll do it for me.”

Brian screws up his face and rolls his eyes. “Figures, Fan—ny!”

“Ah, leave her alone,” Justin waves me over. “Let’s walk around the park, Fran. There’s an egret’s nest over there.” He points to the far end of the walkway.

My feet move, but throat has clutched and I can’t think of anything to say as we start to walk away from the group. Just then, from a hidden bench, Marcy and Steve emerge, holding hands. Marcy looks flushed, but smug and happy as Steve pulls her to him for a resounding kiss.

“Ohhh, Fran! You got a new look!” she sings out, adding, “Think it’s really you?”

I don’t know what I think. My brain is on hold, but stomach is aflutter, like I get before a piano recital. Justin is chattering about the birds nesting high in the trees and pulls me to a deck over the water with an explanatory sign about the wildlife.

Every time he leans in close to my face, I take a sip of my soda. He smells like an ashtray. I haven’t said much but ‘uh-huh’, ‘cool’, in between his rambling discourse. I sneak a peek at my watch.

“Justin, I’ve got to go.”

He takes my free hand in his and tugs me closer. “Can I have kiss, Fran?”

I lean over and peck his cheek and slip my hand out of his as I back away. “Bye.”

Don’t run, walk, don’t run, walk, I tell myself. I see Annie at a bench and at first, relieved, I think she is alone until I get closer. Annie has a lip lock on Timothy, and I wait until they dislodge. “Annie, we’ve got to go.”

She glares at me, and her jaw tightens. I add in a reasonable voice, “I have to walk the dogs. You know, my job.”

Timothy’s eyebrows shoot up as he scrutinizes me. I have a feeling of being hooked up to an invisible lie detector machine. “Don’t worry about, Annie. We’ll take the bus.” He squeezes her, making her smile as she snuggles into his shoulder.

“It’s all right, Fran. My Mom knows I’m at the mall with Marcy and Sue and I’ll be home later. Don’t worry, okay?”


As I tip the Coke™ to my lips, Brian yanks my arm, his grip hurts enough to make me yelp, as he leans close to me, blowing smoke into my face, he pops his cigarette into the can. It sizzles as it sloshes around.

“You’re a jerk, Brian,” I snap as I twist away from him and dump the can in the nearest trash can on my way out.

“Fran! I’ll call you tonight.” Annie calls after me.

“Okay!” I concentrate on the crunching of my footsteps on the gravel path and not look around or respond to Brian bawling out my name.

“Fran! Come back, little sheep, come back!”

It’s two-fifteen. I have plenty of time to meet up with my Mom. I stand in the middle of the sidewalk debating whether to go to Barnes and Noble and do some browsing, but suddenly I am just not interested. As I walk back to the mall, thoughts ping-pong inside my head and I can’t sort out what I feel or what I think about anything. A couple of months ago, my biggest problem was being bullied at school by Marcy and the Three Musketeers on my way to school. Today was a time warp, fast forward a hundred years; I no longer feel like a kid.

Cold air whooshes over me as I pull open the door to the air-conditioned mall. It feels so good as I wait in line to order a strawberry lemonade from Nordstrom eBar, and claim a spot in a sea of black tables and chairs cluttered with moms, kids, strollers and groups of women chatting, and young guys talking and gesturing earnestly and virtually everyone texting. Everyone, except me.

The lemonade goes down cold as I replay the scenes at the park in my mind’s eye. I wonder what my Mom’s reaction would be if I told her about Annie and the gang. Oh, yes, we were just hanging out at the park, sipping an afternoon cocktail. The young men, the gall-ants, lighting our cigarettes. A little kiss, kiss, here, there, you know the routine. Oh, my, such a lovely place to be, on such a lovely day!


I nearly jump out of my seat at the sound of my mother’s voice and I clutch my lemonade that I almost drop, which makes the lid pop and ice cubes ping on the table and floor. I glare at her.

She’s pinching her lips tight so she won’t laugh. “Can I get you anything to eat? Or more lemonade?”

I’m hungry, I realize as my stomach rumbles. “Bagel. Cream cheese.” I finish my drink with a slurp. “Strawberry lemonade. Please.”

She stares at me a little too long and I wonder if I am going to get a blast of hot air for my new look. But she says nothing until she returns with her latte and my order.

“Where’s Annie?” She hands me a napkin, a plastic knife, and the cream cheese.

“She’s here with Marcy and Sue. Think they went to the movie,” pops out of my mouth. Did I mention how easy it is to lie?

Mom settles back into her chair and eyes me. “I really like your haircut. I almost didn’t recognize you.” She sips her latte. “It could be the make-up.”

I have to remind myself not to rub my eyes. “Uh, yeah, Annie surprised me with a make-over at Nordstrom. You should see her—she looks eighteen! She colored her hair really dark with white, I mean platinum, highlights. I have to admit, though, it looks good on her.”

My Mom sips and ponders. “I wonder how that’ll go over at Saint Mary’s. You may not wear any make-up to school.”

“Oh, I know, I know. I don’t know how Annie’s going to get by with it.” I cram my mouth full of bagel, just in case a little truth should pop out.

My mom taps my wallet. “What’s this bulge all about?”

I swallow a chunk of bagel and choke out, “Ann-ie,” swig of lemonade, “early birthday present. Mascara and eye lash curler.”

I hurry past that. “She took a bunch of pictures of us on her celly. She can upload them onto her computer and send them in an email. I’ll show you when I get them.”

My mom is a little bit too casual, like she’s hiding something from me. Makes me nervous. I remind myself not to blather.

What I had not noticed until she picked up the red and white bag—

“Mom! You got cells?” I shriek and everyone turns around to look at the idiot with the loud mouth.

She slides a little black number to me. It’s a basic Verizon LG. “Cool! Speaker phone and camera!” I feel like doing a happy dance as I hug it to me. “Unlimited minutes?”

She laughs aloud and nods. “You, me and Dad. As the world changes, so must we.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” I flip it open, turn it on and start scrolling for the menus. “Just give me a few minutes to set ring tones, wall paper…”

She sighs and slumps in her chair. “Maybe you can help me configure the other two tonight. I’d have to study the booklet for an hour just to get a clue.”

‘Clueless’ I did not utter.

“I think,” she gathers her shopping bags after she dropped her cup into the waste can, “we should head home.”

My celly reads three-twenty-five. “Can you drop me off at the Wessenfelds? I’ll walk, or should I say, be walked by, the dogs.”

We wend our way through what Mom has dubbed the ‘mommy brigade’; women with strollers walking side by side, making everyone stream around them. I catch up to Mom at the car. Mom chats about her day on our way home, not really expecting much of a response from me I’m sure. I just hope that it’s not too late. If I’m lucky, I can get the dogs leashed and on the way in time to rendezvous with Dean.

And, indeed, it turned out to be my lucky day. Or not.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 12

Ada watched Heather and Rachel playing kickball from the kitchen window while washing her breakfast dishes, reminded of Rodger as a toddler zipping around the yard in constant motion; older, he would be digging moats around a fortress or turning soil for bugs to examine. As a teenager, he would eat her oatmeal‑raisin cookies every Saturday as he worked about her house doing odd jobs. Wiping her dripping hands across her apron, she searched the pantry for flour and sugar.

She ought to call Heather and Rachel over and let them help with the cookies. But as she sifted and measured, an easy feeling came over her. She began to hum as she pulled the cookie pans out and readied the oven. Little lumpy mounds spread across in rows on the metal sheets. The batches browned evenly, the hot, sweet aroma filling the kitchen and overflowing throughout the house. Ada relished the welcomed smell and memories as she searched for a small box to ship half the cookies to Rodger.

As she pulled the last pan of eighteen cookies from the oven rack and set them aside to cool, she bent over the sink and called out the window to Rachel and Heather.

“Girls! Would you help me eat some freshly baked cookies? It seems I’ve made too many.”

Heather dropped the ball and darted for the gate. Rachel hesitated, then ran quickly to the back door, asking Madeline’s permission.

Heather waited at the back door for Rachel. Rachel stomped over to her and snipped, “You ninny! What if Mother had said no?”

Rachel pushed ahead through the door, snapping, “Good thing I think of these things, or we’d be in trouble all the time.”

Heather’s smile vanished, and she bit her lip.

Ada hugged Heather. “I should have checked with your mother. Let’s not dwell on what might have happened. On with our party!”

Both girls, familiar with Ada’s house, began to set the table. Their girlish voices buzzed excitedly about Ada’s ears.

“Mother and Daddy are going away for a week in the country. Adele is going to stay with us.” Rachel lined up the napkins, her lips drawn taut and her girlish face pinched, reminding Ada of a little old lady.

“Oh, she’s so much fun, Ada! She lets us have peanut butter and jam for lunch on Saturdays. With cocoa.” Heather stood beside Ada, leaning into her as she imparted her wonderful news.

Ada stopped scraping cookies from the pan to look down into Heather’s arresting, aqua‑tinted eyes. Rachel talked non‑stop. Ada listened with the sense that things were as they should be, which made her aware of her own smile.

“I’m sure that Adele will like staying with you. You girls have made quite the friends with her, haven’t you? I’ll get the milk and you two sit down now.”

After they had eaten and cleared the dishes, they began carefully packing the box with cookies for Rodger. Rachel was oddly silent while Heather asked a string of questions about the package.

“Won’t the cookies be stale? And all broken up into a hundred pieces? Do you think he’ll eat them anyway?”

Ada was just about to answer Heather when Rachel hissed, “Why don’t you just shut up and do your share of the work? What does it matter, anyway, if he gets them at all?”

Ada flinched. Heather, her eyes bleeding tears, looked at Rachel. Disgusted, Rachel walked away from the table and into the living room.

Ada smoothed away Heather’s teardrops. “Hush, baby, it’s all right. I’ll go talk with Rachel.” She kissed Heather on the forehead. “You stay here and fill the box to where I’ve penciled in a line. That’s my sweetheart.”

Ada walked into the living room and sat beside the petulant thirteen-year-old. Rachel’s long, chestnut hair fell in waves down her back and across her arms, hiding her face from Ada in its thickness. Ada stroked Rachel’s head. For several minutes Rachel sat motionless, and Ada gazed outside through the filmy curtains.

Suddenly, John came into view, walking up the street, swinging his cane, casting his head from side to side as if to catch all of the sights and keep them to himself. Ada wanted to stop him. Chide him for his overconfidence. Pushing himself beyond the limit. A gambler. Always a gambler.

Ada’s heart skipped painfully as she thought of him leaving for a whole week. There was so little time to be together. So much time alone.

She felt the tension in Rachel’s body begin to ease as she raised her head. She stared straight ahead, out the window. They both watched John disappear into the house.

“Rachel, dear, tell me what’s bothering you.” Ada hesitated. “You mustn’t feel very good about something, or you wouldn’t be so mean to Heather.”

Rachel looked over, tears noiselessly streaking down her face. She blurted all in one breath. “Why is it always ‘Rodger this, Rodger that’? Everything for Rodger. Rodger, Rodger, Rodger. What has he done that’s so great? A big hero or something."

Ada didn’t know what to say. Not so long ago, Madeline rarely even mentioned Rodger. But since his marriage to Adele and the impending birth of their baby, Madeline spoke often and lovingly of Rodger, romanticizing his childhood. And John spoke of Rodger’s medals and promotions.

“You know, Rachel, it’s funny how a person seems to think more about someone when they’re gone.”

Rachel stared at Ada, her eyes a mirror of anger, jealousy and fear. An adult could never get by with staring at another person that way, thought Ada.

“I’m nervous about Rodger’s Chinese friends, LinChing and Mary Elizabeth.” Ada leaned close to whisper into Rachel’s ear. “I wish Rodger could come home and be with us by himself for a while. Don’t you?”

Rachel nodded. Ada could remember Rachel at three trailing behind Rodger while he pruned, weeded and mowed. Ada had nicknamed her “Rodger’s tag‑along kid.” Rodger had always been patient with Rachel. He never neglected to remember both of his sisters in his letters. Once in while, Rachel received her own letter from Rodger. Then along came Adele. And LinChing and Mary Elizabeth. And a new baby.

Rachel sighed. Ada sighed. Poor Rachel, last place in Rodger’s heart.

“It’s real hard not to be jealous, isn’t it? Everyone tells us it’s wrong, but we can’t help feeling that way.”

Rachel narrowed her eyes, but smiled weakly. Ada’s own anguish increased as she gazed back, wondering if they could adjust to these changes in their lives without heartbreak. Heather came into the room and stood at the doorway, shifting from one foot to another.

Suddenly, Ada thought of John again. She looked out the window once more, lingering a moment.

Then she clapped her hands together. “Girls! Let’s get that package wrapped and hop on down to the post office, lickety‑split!”

They bustled about in the kitchen, gathering scissors, tape, pen, and string. As they finished the last tie, Ada paused, loudly sucking in her breath, and pointing her index finger skyward.

“I’ll call your mother, right now!”

Rachel gave her a tiny smile, while giggles bubbled from Heather.

All heads turned as Adele knocked, then let herself in the back door. Heather ran to her and threw her pudgy arms around Adele’s bulging stomach.

Adele groaned. “Just think, Heather, in a couple of months your little arms will reach all the way around my waist.”

Adele, with Heather in tow, took a cookie and waddled into the living room. “I’m going to take the girls to their piano lesson and I’ll go on to the doctor’s.”

Both girls moaned. Heather whispered something to Rachel, for which her older sister admonished her. “It’s not my fault you don’t practice. All you want to do is play around and not learn anything, dumbbell.”

“Rachel! Can’t you be a bit nicer?” Adele patted Heather on the head. “I think Heather has done a wonderful job of learning the piano. She is, after all, two years younger than you.”

Rachel glared at Adele.

Ada drew Heather into a hug. “You’ll have to practice twice as hard next week, right?” Heather frowned, then her face crinkled with a smile.

Ada encircled Rachel with her other arm and followed Adele out the door. “Come, on, I’ll walk all of you to the gate. Maybe first thing tomorrow we’ll go down to the post office.”

Ada held the gate open as the girls skipped past. She quickly squeezed Adele’s arm as she lumbered after the girls. “Tell me what the doctor says.” She waved them good‑bye until they were out of sight.

She tarried in her front yard, looking for the late spring blooms. She should get mulch for her garden. She tilted her head back to watch the darkening gray clouds amassing in the sky as though they were collecting her thoughts to rain down upon her.

Back inside she nervously watched through each window for any movement on the street, expecting John. A stolen hour. Like a sinner, her anticipation of the deed was as great as the act itself. The loud ticking of the grandfather clock hurt her every nerve.

The back door creaked, and with it John’s resonant voice carried into the living room. “Ada? Are you here?”

“Yes!” she blurted. “Come in.” She met him in the kitchen and as he seated himself, she took out the china cups and put the tea kettle on to boil. “I’ll get us some tea.”


“Milk?” Ada suddenly wished that John were not sitting there in her kitchen wanting a conversation. Yet at the same time she wanted him to stay. If only she could have told him about Kyle, but it seemed a breech of their relationship to tell John of another man.

John looked at her quizzically. “Well, for the last forty years I’ve taken sugar.”

Ada realized with a start it was Kyle who took milk.

“You seem distracted, Ada. Care to share what’s bothering you with a friend?” John blew across his cup, bending and curling the steam.

“It’s the times,” Ada said, her voice wavering, not wanting him to guess at conflict of desire she had for him.


Ada bristled. “I sometimes allow myself to indulge in self‑pity. If you were any kind of a good friend, you would shake me loose from it. Not encourage me.”

John’s head snapped up when as he caught the irritation in her voice.

Ada immediately regretted her outburst. “Mind you, don’t shake me so hard you throw me out of my tree, however.”

She looked directly into his eyes. He reached over and with a gentle wiggle of her hand, enfolded it in his. Even though it pained her swollen, arthritic hand, Ada laughed out loud, in turn pleased by the softening of John’s face with a bemused look. His hand stayed on top of hers, resting as it were, while neither spoke nor moved.

Ada leaned into the back of her chair, eyes darting sideways to the window on her garden. “Why don’t we sit on the patio on this nice June afternoon? I might get up the energy to pull a weed.” But neither one moved.

“Remember when we thought World War I was the end of all wars?” Ada whispered.

John nodded. They sat without speaking for several minutes, each listening for the other. With just the rustling of his cotton shirt as he pulled himself upright, John pushed against his cane and started for the back door. Ada picked up the cups, put them into the sink then followed him out to her garden. Beneath the arbor, they sat on the bench swing, holding hands in companionable silence.

“Ada,” John turned to look at her, “we’ve been friends for a long time, but I know so very little about you. You’re a hometown girl, aren’t you?”

“I grew up on farm not far from where the old water tower used to be. I was the oldest of nine children,” she paused and they both watched a robin take wing, then she continued. “I took care of my sisters and brothers from crib to high school. I always thought I would have a large family myself one day. Isn’t it ironic that I lost my only child?” She stared only at the garden, not daring to look at John’s face. “Maybe that’s why I have taken such an interest in Rodger,” she hurriedly added, “and the girls. Now with the baby coming, and maybe LinChing and Mary Elizabeth, I guess I’ll have a large family!”

“I’m thankful that you’ll always be a part of our family, Ada.” John gave her hand the gentlest squeeze.

When Ada noticed her heart’s echoes ringing in her ears, she slowly extracted her hand from John’s and rose to pick up her gardening tools. John sat observing her without comment. She kept her eyes to the ground, furiously working her hands around the throats of the weeds.

She paused in her digging, hunger pangs reminding her that it must be well past noon. She snatched three ripe tomatoes dangling from a plant in front of her, and leaving her tools lie, walked past John and into the kitchen.

“Are you hungry, John?” she called. “I’ll throw some of these onto bread and butter for us. Do you like toasted white or wheat?”

“I’ll have plain white, please.” John’s voice was subdued, shrouded in politeness.

Ada hurriedly made the sandwiches, flinging them onto small, rose‑patterned china plates. She went back outside and dragged two Andirock chairs on each side of the wooden table. Before sitting down, she returned to the house and hunted in the kitchen drawers for two matching linen napkins.

John wrestled himself out from the swing and crabbed his way to the chair. He sat motionless, waiting for her to join him. The more she hurried, the longer it took her to find anything.

Finally she located the floral printed napkins in the first drawer she had already rummaged. Annoyed, she pulled at them, squeezing them in the middle as she marched to the table.

“I’ve been rearranging drawers to make room for Rodger’s friends, but I seemed to have disorganized my whole house doing it.” She watched him eat the sandwich hungrily.

“Regrets?” he asked swallowing a mouthful.

How she loved the way he could cut to the bone of an issue! The knots in her stomach unraveled. “No.” She frowned, offering him the truth from her heart. “We never become involved more than we want for ourselves.”

Putting his napkin beside the empty plate, he looked long and searchingly at her. “I think Maddie finally realizes how much you’ve done. I was afraid for Maddie when Rodger was little. He was a difficult baby and Maddie cried a lot and worried that she must be an awful mother. Thank God she had the girls!” John creased the napkin when a stroke of his long fingers. “She used to resent the time Rodger spent with you, but Lord knows, she barely could stand have him in the house. The two girls were less of a mess than one Rodger.”

Although Ada chuckled, John’s words disturbed her deeply. Just where did she fit in? She could never turn away Rodger when he needed her, nor could she shut herself off from John, Rachel, Heather, or even Madeline. She was damned to understand them all.

“Perhaps Madeline and Rodger will come to an agreement one day.”

“I hope so. I guess we have to take the consequences of our lives, no matter how small they might be.”

His sadness touched Ada, making her sad too. But she had no words of comfort, for she wasn’t sure of what sin he thought he should atone for. She reached across the table for his hand.

“You never told Rodger about your Army days.” Ada played her thumb along the inside half‑circle of John’s hand.

“D‑a‑z‑e?” He smiled, clasping her hand in his. “Just a bit of a smile?”

She smiled and squeezed his hand.

“No, I promised Madeline when Rodger was born I’d never talk about ‘those days of glory.’ ” He scratched his chin with both of their hands. “I worry about Rodger, too. For a lot of reasons.”

“You mustn’t feel you’ve let Rodger down, John.”

He shrugged. “I probably let Rodger down in ways I don’t even know about.”

Ada wondered at his sensitivity and how much of this man lay hidden from himself and others, yet he could be so forthright with her. She felt the familiar sting of regret of what might have been for them but pushed it aside.

“Our children are mirrors of our inner truths. But, how much of ourselves can we give to our children? How much will they take?” She wished she could give him more than just words.

John stared straight ahead, talking in a monotone. “I don’t think Rodger understood how I could quit being an engineman. Quit the life of a hoghead, highballing those freight trains as fast as the speed of light. Give up that to become a banker.”

He flicked away a fly.

“God, I wish I could have flown!” he burst out.

Ada had closed her eyes, letting time mingle memories of their lives over the years. “You’ve lived a full life.” She leaned close enough to kiss his cheek. “I should say ‘lives’: engineman, soldier, gambler, and,” she swept her free hand palm up, “Indian Chief.”

He pressed his cheek to hers. “Rodger won’t understand until he has the same decision to face.”

“Maybe Adele will make it easier for him,” Ada whispered.

She heard the sounds of girlish voices. She disentangled their hands and gave John’s arm a shove, at once holding him and letting him go.

“Be gone, back-door man. There’ll be time enough for us later.”

Ada took the dishes inside and from the kitchen window she could see John leaning against the fence, making faces at her. She fought to keep her face expressionless, pushing down the rising threat of laughter. She waved him away with mock impatience, both delighted and irritated when he blew an indiscrete kiss to her.

Ada turned her attention to Adele and the girls. Heather and Rachel would run ahead, circle back and around Adele as she shooed them onto their own doorstep. Ada could almost feel the weight of Adele’s pregnancy as she shuffled along the sidewalk and came up the walkway. She heard Adele’s careful steps as she picked her way up the front stairs. Adele pulled at the screen door and rapped twice before nudging the front door open. Ada stepped away from the sink and turned to greet her.

“Oh, my God!” Ada heard Adele gasp.

In her confusion, Ada thought Adele had seen John’s foolish displays of affection. Her horrified expression impelled Ada to turn back to the window.

John had fallen and was crawling on his hands and knees toward the back door of his house. He frantically jerked at his collar, stopping to sit back upon his heels. His head was thrown back, and his gaping mouth hung open as his sides heaved. He plucked at his collar and clenched his ribs with the other arm.

Ada ran to him. He lay prone as she searched his right pants pocket, jerking it inside out. Adele was beside him, loosening the tie and top button of his shirt. Ada fumbled through his other pocket, lying across his stilled chest as she searched for the nitroglycerin pill. She found the steel capsule container and worked it until the lid snapped open. She snatched a pill and shoved it into John’s mouth, forcing it past his lips and under his tongue. She tried to find his carotid pulse, pressing two fingers underneath his chin, and along his throat.

“John! John! Please open your eyes!” she demanded of him. She grabbed his chin, thinking to keep it shut tight so that the pill would dissolve faster.

Adele reached over and shoved Ada’s hand away from John. The little pill rolled out and onto the ground.

“It’s no use, Ada. He’s dead.”

“No! He’s not!” She picked up his wrist and searched for a pulse; then lay her head upon his chest. She heard no heartbeat. Her panic ebbed, and an eerie calmness stole over her. She looked up at Adele, sure the young woman understood.

“Stay with him. He’d want that.” Adele struggled to her feet. “I’ll tell Madeline.”

Ada nodded, sitting heavily onto the grass. She cradled John’s head in her lap and stroked his cheek. No more, no more. Up, down, up, down over the stubbles of his late‑day beard. No more. No more.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

YNK (You Never Know): Chapter 1 - T&C (Terms & Conditions)

The story of Fran continues in book 2 of my Bully Dogs series of middle-grade novels, YNK (You Never Know). Read on as Fran gets a new look, a first kiss and a revised perspective on her relationships with boys, girlfriends, parents, and dealing with a different kind of bullying.

Yeah, raining in Seattle, on the very day you’d hoped it wouldn’t. I tug my hood tighter, but long strands of hair are plastered across my face. Big, wet drops ping on the sidewalk as I slog the three blocks to Saint Mary’s, the same old route since second grade. Five years.

But it’s funny how your life can change from upside-down one minute, then right-side again. Just last year, it was the bully dogs that chased me almost everyday to school. Those dogs of my neighbor terrorized me. When I confronted Mr. Wessenfeld about his golden retriever, black Lab and cocker spaniel, I ended up with a job walking all ‘Three Musketeers’ after school. Athos, Porthos and Aramis are a handful, for sure, but they mind me, most of the time, and I really do like them. And to be honest, I really like the twenty-five dollars I earn each week.

I gladly would have paid for some sunshine, since it is class pictures today. I get enough grief about how I look from Marcy, always quick with the zinger. She made my life miserable, especially during volleyball season, until I phoned her and asked her if we just couldn’t call a truce and agree to dislike one another. I am so dis-like her! I can’t understand what my friend Annie finds so enthralling about Marcy and her group. When Annie is at school, she is one of ‘them’, and after school she is her other self, the one I’ve known forever.

And there she is, huddled with Marcy, Ursala and Sue, out of the rain beneath the eaves of the gym. Any other morning I would have gone to the front of the rectory and sat on the steps reading until the bell rang. But Annie has been staring at me for the last five minutes and I can hardly ignore her as she waves at me.

“Fran! Come here and see Marcy’s new charm!” Annie is careful not to step away and get wet by a raindrop. It might run her mascara.

“Oh, hi, Fran,” Marcy intones. “Got rain?” She turns her celly with the heart-shaped charm personalized with her name and embedded with a blue Swarovski crystal at my face, then whips it away and starts texting.

“Nice,” is all that I can manage.

Annie, Sue, and Ursala are intent over their cellies, fingers flying over the tiny keyboards at an impressive rate. They’re all texting each other.

“See ya,” I nod at Annie and she looks up briefly to nod back as I go on my way.

I stand before the mirror in the girls’ bathroom and sop my hair with a paper towel. I say a silent prayer to thank God I at least had a hairbrush with me today. Fat lotta good it would do.

Dusty, the new girl in our class who got promoted to sixth grade at mid-term, walks in and leans over the sink to peer in the mirror at herself. “Hmm,” she flips away a few wet strands of her long, auburn, curly hair, misting me. “Oh, sorry!” she turns and faces me. “I didn’t mean to get you wet!”

That strikes me as funny and I burst out laughing. “Please! I wouldn’t want to get any wetter!” I dramatize, flinging my own dull brown locks around, spraying the mirror with droplets.

We both are chuckling as we unzip our backpacks, pulling out our blue uniform sweaters, which are at least dry. “Hah! Great minds think alike!”

Dusty and I are about the same in our reading group, only she’s a lot smarter than I am, especially in math and science, and she’s good at sports. But she never seems to care what others think about her; she’s nice to everyone and everyone is nice to her. I’d like to know how she manages to go along her own way without ever getting stung by gossip. I snap my sweater smartly before pulling it over my head. I glance at Dusty and envy her naturally curly hair already fluffing out nicely. “At least you’ll look good for the pictures.”

“C’mon, Fran, you look fine. That’s the bell!” Dusty swings her backpack onto her shoulder, barely missing me. “Oh, sorry!”

I cram my hairbrush into my backpack. “It’s okay.”

The longest hour is first class. We file in and put away coats and slots our cellies, except me, in a box with our name on it. My empty little cubby hole is between Sue and Tina, an obvious black void.

Annie turns to me before she takes her seat. “Fran,” she whispers, although I’m not sure why she feels it is necessary to whisper, “call me later, okay?”

“Okay,” I whisper back, “on your celly?”

She either pretends to ignore the sarcasm or doesn’t get it. “Yes!” She heaves a sigh. “I wish you had your own!”

Well, so do I! I shrug and take my seat, mulling over a strategy to put before my mother to convince her I need a celly, when our teacher, Mrs. Hammershaw comes bustling in the classroom with an armload of books and papers.

Just then, before she says anything, a celly is chiming the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Exasperated, she glares at Mike as he darts to the corner to silence his phone, but not before he checks his incoming message.

She smacks down a pile of books onto her desk. “Before we do anything else this morning,” she walks to the front of her desk and leans against it, facing us, “let’s have a discussion about etiquette. Especially,” she looks pointedly at Mike, “cell phones.”

There is a collective groan. Mike’s neck reddens as he stares at a blemish on his desk.

“What I have noticed among my students and especially the eighth graders, is groups of friends will be talking and texting at the same time. It seems to me that this is rude. I’d like to hear some discussion on this.”

It was quiet for the longest minute before Rachel raised her hand. “Mrs. Hammershaw, we don’t consider it rude. It’s just our way of communicating.”

Steve did a cursory wave before he spoke. “No one thinks anything of it, Mrs. H. It’s acceptable to us.”

Heads bob in agreement. Tina speaks when Mrs. Hammershaw nods. “It’s like a good way to keep everyone on the same page, even if one friend goes to another school, then that friend can stay informed.”

There are murmurs of ‘good point’ and ‘yeah!’

“And,” Steve pipes up again, “we’re just a ring away from our parents!”

I don’t think Mrs. Hammershaw is that dumb to think any kid is texting his Mom or Dad constantly. But still, I log that as one I can put on my list to present to my parents.

The discussion continued basically in the same vein. Mrs. H did not say much other than “Hmmm….”, with a raised eyebrow, until it was time to move onto the assignments for the week. Pushing away from the desk, she shook her head, scanning the classroom. “Let’s leave it at this: there is peer etiquette and social etiquette. Be advised that it is not acceptable to tweet, twitter or text when in company other than your peers.” She turned to the board and began writing furiously against the clock that signaled the end of the period.

Marcy, Ursala, Sue, with Annie right behind them, bolted for the bathroom to primp before the picture taking session. Dusty fell into step with me as we walked to the auditorium.

“Well! Wasn’t that enlightening this morning!” She pretended to flip open a celly and text. “Fran, you have mail!”

“Oh, darn it! I can never find the stupid thing when it rings!” I frantically search for my imaginary phone. “Oh, wait, here it is!” I mime opening it. “Oh, how sad! I haven’t a clue how to turn it on.”

Dusty bursts out laughing as she takes her place in front of the line, being a “C” for Conner, behind Mike Connelly, and I go behind Tanya Redmond, like I have for the last five years. Being ‘Reed’, I’ll never move to the front, but I’m not at the back; sometimes I wonder if my personality has been determined by something as immutable as my last name.

Of course, the first take I had my eyes shut. The photographer heaved a sigh and with a forced smile, prodded me. “Just relax, uh,” he looked at his clipboard, “Fran, and smile easy. Look at me!”

I thought fleetingly of mimicking his cheesy grin, but decided it would be fodder for the cannon mouths should the picture be really awful. I almost lost it though, when mental images of Three Musketeers popped up; fortunately for me, the photographer caught me with what my mother and Granny would gush about is a sweet, wholesome smile.

Granny always has ‘constructive criticism’ which I basically ignore. “Fran, this is such a beautiful picture of you! Only, your hair could have been combed a little neater.”

I stop myself from rolling my eyes as I know it infuriates my mother and I want to get her on my good side. “Granny, I did brush my hair. But it rained on my way to school. I can’t control the weather.”

“Why don’t you take an umbrella?” Old Mother Sensible says.

“Because, mama, no one uses an umbrella.”

“A smarter some one would use an umbrella to stay drier than the others,” she retorts.

Granny, who usually, but not this time, takes my side, puts in her two cents. “You don’t have to be like everyone else. You be the smarter, trend-setter of the crowd!”

Oh, yeah! Right! But I don’t say anything and I don’t roll my eyes and I smile with what I hope is a patronizing smile I learned from my mother. “You’re absolutely, one-hundred per cent correct! And,” this I’ve learned from my father, “I’ll consider it.” Which I have no do intentions of doing.

Granny plops two caramels into my hand and I peck her on the cheek. “Thanks. Gotta go walk them puppies, Gram. See ya!”

I do a half-twist to look over my shoulder at my mom. “I’ll take the long route with the dogs and be back in an hour.” I don’t need a rain coat, as the sun is shining brightly. Springtime in Seattle.

The black Lab, Aramis, is hanging over the fence, woofing loudly, as I approach the gate. The smallest, the cocker spaniel Porthos, rushes at me and I brace myself for his impact as the mid-size golden retriever, Athos, leans on my right side, his tail swishing against my legs.

“Hey, guys, how goes it?” I yell above their whines and yips. It takes a good five minutes to do the greeting thing with them. Pat, pat, push, push, no lick, no jump, calm down, pat, pat, good boy, good boys.

Aramis and Athos are patient as I connect them to their tandem leash, but the cocker spaniel runs in circles as I attempt to corral him. “Por-thos! Sit!”

As if. This is part of our routine; Porthos runs amok and I snatch him up and clip the leash on his collar before we can leave. Often I don’t even talk with their owners, either Mr. or Mrs. Wessenfeld when I come get the dogs, but always when we return one or both will come out and we’ll exchange a few words. Mr. Wessenfeld and I are big readers and he likes some of the same books that I do, so we’ll do a trade. He’s got a collection of mysteries and classics that would make a librarian ecstatic. I’ve got dibs on a short story collection of Mark Twain’s that Mr. W promised he’d let me have this week. Hopefully, today, as I just finished the last of Philippa Pearce’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I won’t get to the library until Saturday, if my mother will take me.

The dogs pull me out the gate and the race is on to the first posted message of their dog day. They sniff, circle, sniff and pee on the bush. I am not real thrilled about scooping up their deposits, but it’s part of the job. I tie each dog’s little bag onto his collar and let him haul it around.

A newspaper whizzes by, landing exactly in the middle of the Miller’s front door welcome mat. My friend, Dean, skews his bike to stop beside me. The dogs are yipping and wagging into a tangled mess trying to get Dean’s attention.

“Hey! Fran!” he yells, jumping off his bike into the fray. He rough-houses with the Three Musketeers for a few minutes before he pushes one, then another dog aside. “Wha—what’s up?” Dean stutters.

“Not much. Just walkin’ the dogs.” In only a moment, one careless moment, I didn’t hold Porthos’ leash tight enough. He shot away after a squirrel, his leash whiplashing behind him.

“Porthos! Come!”

Aramis and Athos strained to follow, but I at least had sense enough to rein them in tightly. Dean hopped on his bike and sped away, his voice trailing behind him.

“I’ll ge—ge--get him, Fran!”

I hurried as much as I could with the other two laggards. “You can do that on the way back!” I groused tugging them away from the tree. Dean was out of sight and I had a horrible thought that he might not be able to get Porthos. And then what would I do?

But as I rounded the next corner, I could see Dean with Porthos squirming in his arms, trying to hold onto dog and bike simultaneously.

I ran up to Dean and grabbed Porthos. “I’ve got him. Thanks!”

Dean bent down to pick up his bike as I crouched down to secure Porthos’ leash. Our heads butted and we both looked at each other nose to nose. Had I never noticed that Dean had azure blue eyes and incredibly long, black eyelashes? And he smelled like freshly mown grass.

“Sorry,” I whispered. I didn’t move away, nor did he.

Aramis, right beside me, woofed, knocking me off balance when he lunged between Dean and me, his tail flapping against my face and Dean’s.

“Thanks, again, I really don’t want to think about how that might have played out!” I pulled myself upright and dusted myself off. I barely had time to look back at Dean before the dogs streamed ahead, looking for another message board.

I’m not really sure what had happened, but I had a funny feeling, a tickling sensation throughout my body and it seem like I floated along with the current. I hadn’t paid much attention to the time, either, and it was way later than I should have had the dogs out.

Mr. Wessenfeld loomed over the gate as I ran up the driveway. “Franny, old girl, your mother called. She was worried about you being gone so long. Everything all right?” He opened the gate and the dogs bounded in, a cacophony of doggy chatter drowning out most of whatever else Mr. W might have had to say. He pointed to the book on the ledge of the fence.

I picked it up. Mark Twain. “THANKS!” I screamed, as I darted for my own house.

“I’m home!” I announced as the door whacked shut.

“I noticed!” barked my mother. “Fran, you’re a lot later than usual. I got a little worried.”

My hands fluttered like butterflies around my face as I desperately tried to be myself. “Porthos got away from me and ran three blocks before Dean could get a hold of him. Lucky for me, Dean was delivering papers and he could catch up to the little turd.” Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that.

But my mother just laughed. “Well, a knight on a shining bike, huh? Lucky for you.”

My Mom stood awfully close to me and I hoped she couldn’t read me too clearly. Sometimes she’s way too perceptive, but not always.

“You know, Mom,” I draped my arm around her shoulder and relished the look of her surprise, “if I had a cell phone, I would have called you.”

She narrowed her eyes at me and puckered her lips. “Hmm,” she planted a kiss on my forehead. “We’ll see.”

My Mom has the most limited vocabulary: ‘no’, ‘maybe’, ‘we’ll see’. It is most exasperating.

“Finish your homework. Practice the trumpet. And, call Annie back. She says it is important.”

“Okay.” I pick the phone up and start dialing on my way to my room. “Hey, Annie, what’s up?”

“Fran! I’m am so excited! I got a gift certificate to have my hair done at the Hair Palace. You know, where you can see how you look in whatever style on the computer!”

“Way cool, Annie!”

“And my Mom is going to let me get highlights! What do you think about red? White? Blonde is so everyday-way, ya know. But really, I want you to go with me! You and I can have a girls’ spa day!”

Oh geez, now what am I going to do? It seems Annie has been on this get-Fran-improved kick since she’s been hanging with Marcy’s club. “I dunno,” I hesitate.

“You can afford to do it, Fran. You don’t have to spend all your money on books.”

That irritates me just a little when Annie assumes so much about me and my habits. “You know, Annie, I’m trying to convince my Mom to get me a celly. She might go for it if I pay my fair share. Didn’t you just tell me this morning that you wished I had one?”

“Yes, but I bet your Mom would like you to get a nice hair cut, too,” Annie must have reconsidered how that came off because she hurried to add in a softer voice, “Fran, the guys are talking about you. Like how you’re kinda cute and all.”

Now at this point I am supposed to ask, most excitedly, ‘Who’s talking about me?’, and be all flattered and flustered to be considered. And by the guys who hang around with Marcy, like Brain, that wanksta! I don’t care what any boy at school thinks of me. Except Dean, and we’re friends. We shoot a basketball at his lopsided hoop above his garage and say very little, as a rule. He lives with his Dad; all I know is that his Mom left them and moved out of state. Dean never speaks of her and I don’t ask.

“Fran, please? Please say yes. I just know it’ll be the most fun!” There’s a pause long enough to be a statement. “Besides, we don’t spend much time with each other.”
I guess Annie misses me as much as I miss her. “All right, all right. When?”

“Yay!!” she squeals. “Oh, I just know you’re going to like the way you look! Saturday at ten.”

I might have said something about making the appointment for us before I’d said I would go for it, but I just felt too good about the day to let a little thing like an assumption get in the way.

Assume. Ass-u-me.