Friday, August 28, 2015

That’s Life

Sometimes life imitates art--in my case, a novel in progress, and a bad one at that, although there are some very sound elements of good writing. As I have taught for years in my writing workshops, all writing projects have the same basic structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. And each component of the writing process is building blocks of three. There is in any story a conflict: one against oneself, one against another, one against God. Like many good stories, my story incorporates them all, and I am still looking for a resolution. Maybe I unearthed a cosmic truth, because it all started with a plane trip to Honolulu to get the fourth book of the Bully Dogs series completed in draft for my readers, so that I could fulfill my promise to have the book done before the next Ice Age.

I had recently had new blinds installed and the facia popped on a few of them, requiring the installer to come back and repair them. When I saw that one had a bulge, rather than call again, I thought I would just fix it myself. The chair was the right height, but the material a little slippery; falling off, I hit the back of the chair’s edge, which left me in considerable agony with a nasty, painful bruise on my whole left side which curtailed any walking expeditions for most of the week.

But I could still sit at the computer and write while the vacuum-bot did its job to clean The Vog grit up; only it would sweep for a minute and then park itself next to me. Weird and just a bit creepy. But it did decide to work the third day and brought me a dead cockroach. “Oh, thanks,” I said, from on top of the couch, “for doing your job.” I am okay once I have on rubber gloves and shoes to pick up and dispose of the carcass, but it was quite a maneuver to get from the couch to the kitchen without getting within six feet of the bot.

On the last day, as I am leaving for the airport, because I was early to the lobby and the cab was not due for another ten minutes, I, in my obsessive mode, decided to do another visual sweep of the condo, just to make sure the stovetop burners were off, the hot and cold water to the washer tight and off, and the all faucets completely shut off. The last room I checked was the front bathroom, and there beside the toilet was a big bug (when I did an internet search, the closest match was the Great Asian Horned Beetle). I wear a size 7-1/2 shoe and it was longer than that. I had no time to deal with that thing; it would require me to change into jeans, socks, boots, long-sleeved shirt, gloves, sunglasses and hat. I had a cab waiting downstairs, so if my sonic scream did not kill it, and Heaven forbid it is a pregnant female, I had to leave it for another time. My daughter has a first year wedding anniversary coming up in September and I have offered them airfare and a place to stay while they are in Oahu.

I am telling this to my daughter who has stayed the night at my house—”oh, by the way, Mother, the air conditioning is not working”—so that she and her husband can borrow the Ford Explorer to go whale watching up at Anacortes on Wednesday. She laughs, miming the big bug to small bug with forefinger and thumb as she pulls away from the driveway; an hour later she is frantically trying to call me to tell me the car has blown an engine on I-5. The main reason I still have a landline is that cell calls are dropped here at my house; that day, apparently work was being done on the substation and we were temporarily out of service. My cell phone was doing a software update for twenty-five minutes and then would not let a call be completed. But, in the end, cars were switched, broken-down car towed, and daughter got some awesome pictures of whales.

But, the saga continues. Thursday morning, July 4th, at about 4 AM, my husband wakes me with the dreaded, “I think we have a problem.” Usually that problem would be waking me at 4 AM. A six dollar part broke on the upstairs toilet and gallons of clean water damaged the upstairs and downstairs of our house. On the hottest, record-breaking day of the year, we are without air conditioning (which is out of warranty) until July 29th. And, those big blowers that Servpro installed throughout the house to dry out everything jacked the temperature up to 106 degrees. “Why can’t we go to a motel?” I screamed at my lizard-husband, “Think of it as a long weekend of camping!” He just waves to me as he drives off to his air conditioned office. Well, my idea of camping is room service at the Kahala on Oahu.

What is life’s lessons here, I wondered? Not to let things bug me? Don’t sweat the small stuff? After all, nothing of value was lost, but time and temper and money. I got the exact car, down to the color, I have wanted to trade the Explorer for when I rented the Ford Edge. And sweating is a good way to detox the body, right?. I have yet to figure a life lesson connection to the air conditioning, the frozen engine, and toilet; but as husband pointed out, all three had something to do with water. Not to drown in self-pity? Perhaps it has something to do with Karma and patience; I think I could be a whole more patient in Hawaii. So I have decided that the theme of this year in the life of me is: “That’s Life!” the lyrics by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, and the most famous version by Frank Sinatra. I’m just gonna change the last lines a bit from:
But if there's nothin' shakin' come this here July
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball a-and die
My, my! 

But if there's nothin' shakin' come this here July
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball a-and fly
Fly! Fly! 
 My daughter just informed me that buying a one-way ticket to Honolulu is not a good option, as there is a tropical storm moving in. (Sigh.) Well, as they say, that’s life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 16

The morning air was soft with late-summer drizzle. Ada liked the sound of her shoes slapping on the concrete as she walked to Adele’s house. She stuffed letters from Kyle and Rodger into her coat pocket, burying them deep inside.

Thinking of Adele, she felt her neck muscles tighten. So much stress for all of them these past days with John’s death and Rodger’s injury. Yet, Rodger was coming home. He’d be home in time for the birth of the baby.

Adele greeted Ada at the door. One look and Ada knew that Adele had been crying.

“How did he sound when he called?” Ada pressed her cool hand against Adele’s flushed cheek.

“You know Rodger,” Adele shot back. “Acts as if this is all part of the game.”

Ada met her gaze. “It is, in a way. We take it more seriously because we’ve got more to lose.”

“Oh, Ada! One minute I’m up, and the next I’m down!” Adele covered her face with her hands and sobbed. “I’m not normal.”

“You are. Scared and happy.” She patted Adele on the shoulder. “There have been too many changes.”

Adele’s mood shifted as abruptly as a summer storm. She waddled into the bedroom for a hanky. “How’s the kitten?”

“Fine.” Ada shook herself free of her coat and hung it up in the hall closet. “He’s still cute and cuddly.”

Adele came into the small living room and sat down again. “He’ll always be a lover.”

“Maybe.” Ada held up the letters in her hand. “I brought these.”

“Rodger said Uncle Kyle’s assigned to Army Intelligence in Honolulu. They’ll get together when Rodger is released from the hospital.” Adele blew her nose and coughed. “I didn’t cry over the phone, Ada. I think I sounded like I was holding together just fine.”

“You are, dear. I think it’s much better for you to cry a little now and again.”

Ada scanned the letters. Without her spectacles, the handwriting wiggled across the page. She pinched the bridge of her nose, just as she always did when she removed her glasses. “He didn’t say much about how it happened, but finding Mary Elizabeth and LinChing dead must have been a shock for Rodger.”

“Ada,” Adele whispered fiercely, “there were only two who made it. And they came home wounded.”

Ada smoothed out Kyle’s letter. “Kyle says Rodger is not too badly hurt. Healing quickly. Be good as new in no time.” Ada looked over to Adele. “In time for the baby.”

Adele smiled. She whisked the hair away from her face and sat heavily into the cushion. “There hasn’t been much action lately. The baby’s been quiet.”

Ada tensed. “Probably stress. You must relax more.” Ada nodded toward the bedroom. “Go lie down for a while. I’ll finish hanging the curtains.” Adele started to protest. “Go!” Ada pointed to the bedroom. “We’ll go for a walk when you get up.”

“Ada, you’re going to mother‑hen me to death.” But she went.

Ada liked what Adele had done to the little house that was built like hers. Country antiques. Her mother must have brought them with her last January.

Ada fidgeted with the curtain rod, uncertain whether to begin or not. If by chance Adele slept, then quiet was what the house should be. But if she fretted over the unfinished projects, it would only add to her fatigue. Ada debated until, weary of her own arguments, she stepped upon the chair and measured the window. Then she took the hammer and nails, put up the rod, hooked the curtains and started on the next one. By noon, all of the curtains hung neatly in place.

Ada picked up the christening gown and hand worked the finishing edge on it when Adele padded out to the living room barefoot. She started at Adele’s exclamation.

“Ada!” Adele spread her arms out wide, turning in a half-circle. “What are you, part hurricane?”

“I’m sorry! Did all that noise awaken you?”

“No, no, Ada,” Adele came beside her, leaning over to kiss her forehead. “You do too much for me.”
Relieved, Ada chuckled. “Got to keep busy for my sanity.” She waved the threaded needle at Adele. “Why don’t you fix us some tea. I’ll be done by the time it’s ready.”

“The weather’s better. Sunshine.” Adele’s lilting voice carried from the kitchen throughout the house. “Let’s do a little weeding today. I’d like to yank some of those devils out.”

Ada rethreaded the needle. “Sounds like you need to rid yourself of some energy.”

Adele came to the doorway. “I do.” She gestured to the radio. “I don’t even turn it on anymore. Mother and Daddy in England with the diplomatic corps, Rodger God knows where. I’m afraid of what’s going on out there.”

Ada eased a stitch through. “You best keep your own world intact, Adele. Do what you can. Give your best. That’s all the world can expect of you.”

“I know.” Adele leaned against the door jamb.

“You’re not used to being at home. One day you’re flying transport and then,” Ada snapped her fingers, “you’re tied to home and hearth and child.”

“Being married sounded like a good idea at the time.” Adele’s voice faded as she scurried to answer the teakettle. “Now I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Rodger is the White Rabbit,” she patted her stomach, “and junior is the Cheshire Cat. Intimate strangers.”

Ada knotted the thread then bit it. “Aren’t we all strangers?” she asked with a sigh. “It seems we never know a person.”

Adele handed Ada a cup of steaming tea. “I’ll never forget the look on Rodger’s face when he recognized me and the co‑pilot for what we were. Women! By God, his little world rocked.” With deliberate movements, Adele set her cup beside the chair, nested, then picked up her tea and blew across the top. With a gruff voice and wag of her head, she imitated Rodger. “‘I don’t care if you were personally trained by Jacqueline Cochran—women have no business in the air!’” Adele wrinkled her nose and sniffed the tea. “I let him take a long look at my log book. My twenty‑five hundred hours impressed him.”

Ada plastered her listening smile on her face and continued sewing. Adele relaxed further into the chair.

“My co‑pilot, Ellen, was also a fair mechanic. She and Rodger were always locking horns. She ended up falling for a flyer in Rodger’s outfit.”

Adele put down her tea cup. She folded her hands across her belly. “What a jerk he was! They ran off to some bar in Bantang, and he stole the jeep. Poor, stranded Ellen had to hitch a ride back to base and tell Rodger the sordid details. Rodger was really nice to her, but he sure loved it. ‘She should have known better.’ ”

“I bet he covered for her, too, didn’t he?” Ada peeked up at Adele.

“How right you are!” Adele grunted. “Look at me, lounging while you sit and slave away. Put it down, Ada, and drink your tea.”

“I’m done.” Ada laid the gown next to her, running the wrinkles out with her hands. “Was Ellen your bridesmaid?”

“No, another friend of mine that flew with me in the ATA. Ellen was killed ferrying a Stirling bomber.” Adele’s face went blank. Her voice trembled. “We lost flyers, too.”

“Do show me the rest of the pictures. I haven’t seen them all.”

Adele inched out of the chair and pushed up onto her feet. She went to the bookcase and retrieved a photo album. Sitting next to Ada on the couch, she gently opened the cover to the eight‑by‑ten black-and-white picture of her wedding: Adele and Rodger wedged in the middle, flanked by Kyle and the bridesmaid; each of them wore a uniform. Adele lingered, and Ada waited for her to turn the page.

“Oh, how lovely! Where did you get a cake like that?” Ada pointed to the two‑tiered wedding cake with elaborate birds made of icing on the sides.

“My mother’s friend made it. She’s English.” Adele tapped the picture. “Bluebirds of happiness.”

Ada flipped through the pictures. “You both look so happy. Like you belong together.” She cocked her head, shaking her finger at Adele. “Listen to me! Don’t let that child be the only thing you and Rodger have in common. Keep yourself interested in outside things. For yourself and him.” She took a breath and plunged in deeper. “It’s easy enough to let the baby be the end all of the relationship.”

Adele grabbed Ada’s finger and shook it playfully. “Are you a mind‑reader, too?” “I’ve thought of that a lot lately.” She let go and looked down at her huge stomach. “I’ve thought about getting certified to teach music, but I am really only good at the guitar. I was too much of a tomboy to settle inside and practice much on the piano or flute. But I am good a reading music. I don’t know, I’ll have to look into it.”

“You know, the only thing I know about Rodger and music is that he took piano lessons for one year. Maddie said it just wasn’t worth the battle to get him to practice.” Ada straightened. “I don’t even know what kind of music, if any, he likes.”

“Guitar. He likes ballads.” Adele fingered the armhole of the satin baby’s gown. “Perhaps I’ll take up classical guitar.”

“I have Sam’s! I’ll give it to you. It’s old, but he kept it in good shape. I think I remember him saying it’s a ‘classical’ guitar. It’s has six strings.” Ada pinched her lip.

“’Classical’ refers to style and how to play the music, but it is bigger by one string.” Adele gave a confirming shrug and short laugh.

“He played so fine! But, my oh my, he sure couldn’t sing!” Ada searched the ceiling for patterns.
“Oh, Ada, I couldn’t! Sam gave it to you to keep.”

She waved away Adele’s protests. “You might as well have it. It’s not meant to be stored away forever. I do not have a shrine for Sam!”

Adele squinted. “I can see why Rodger loves you so much. It’s not that you’re so kind,” Adele patted Ada’s arm, “which you are, but that you are so much here, alive in today.”

“Well!” Ada snorted, hoping to turn the conversation, “Let’s look alive and be on our way before the day gets away.” She smiled in satisfaction at her little rhyme.

Adele rolled her eyes. “A posy of a sentence.” She walked to the hall closet to get Ada’s coat and handed it to her. “I must get Madeline’s bread. I baked this morning.”

Adele came out of the kitchen, with a lilt in her step and swinging a sack filled with loaves of bread. The aroma of still‑warm bread filled the room. “And yours. You choose either oat or barley.”

“Hmm,” hummed Ada, “I love the smell. I don’t care. Either.”

“Well, then, barley. Maddie prefers the oat.” Adele bit the smile on her lips. “Underneath that cold crust of hers, she’s really a very nice person.”

Ada tried not to smirk. She turned to the door. “Aren’t we all?”

Adele giggled. Arms linked, they walked along. Roses and dogtooth violets still showed. Rain drops dribbled off leaves, and the smells brought out by the summer rain thickened the air. Ada whistled. Adele tried but couldn’t sustain her breath. Laughing, she tugged at Ada’s arm to stop her. “I’m out of breath. I can’t keep up with you.”

“The only advantage I have,” Ada started again, pacing herself slower, “over youth is being able to walk and whistle at the same time.” Adele skipped a step to catch up. “It’s called experience.”
“I’ll let you take junior for a stroll every day.”

“Oh, no dear, that’s how you gain experience.”

As they rounded the corner, Madeline stepped outside her front door. She recognized them and signaled them to come to her house.

Adele looked pleadingly at Ada. Ada shrugged and sighed. “It would be terribly rude of us to ignore her.”

“Quite. But let’s stay only a little while. We don’t want all this sunshine,” Adele wailed, “going to waste.”

They came up the stairs and onto the porch together, then separated as they walked through the doorway. Madeline paced from the fire place to the couch.

“I don’t think I can take much more!” she cried out, throwing herself down onto the couch. “There can be no headstone for John’s grave! Some nonsense about, I don’t know! The plot isn’t situated right!”

She looked from Ada to Adele, her hands fluttering onto her lap. Ada sat on one side of her, Adele the other.

“I wish Rodger were here now. He could take care of some of these things.” The corners of her mouth twisted down, and her lips trembled.

Ada felt sorry for her in a lot of ways; some women like Madeline, didn’t know how to cry, and the effort cost them as much as the denial. Ada thought of leaning over to take Maddie’s hands in hers, to say something at least.

But it was Adele who slipped a hand to cover Madeline’s shaking fist and reassure her.

“I know it’s hard for you with Rodger so far away. But he is coming home. Next Thursday.”

Adele’s voice had the confidence Ada envied in younger women nowadays. It was as if the war had opened up a time and place for them. Even John had talked of a better future for his girls; he painted a picture of dazzling hope and wishes realized for women in the home and politics. Ada missed his optimistic musings.

Ada didn’t listen to Adele but watched her comfort Madeline as she brought up one objection after another. She liked the young woman of twenty‑four who made statements instead of apologies. Her commanding tone, though soft and sincere, frustrated Madeline’s protestations, until finally, clutching desperately to Adele, Madeline fell silent and began to cry.

Ada heard a noise and turned to see Heather and Rachel as they slipped into the kitchen. Heather dogged Rachel’s every footstep, as if glued to the hem of her purple and brown plaid skirt.

Ada followed them. She noted the dulling yellow kitchen walls. Rachel got Heather a glass of water, then posed by the sink with an outstretched hand awaiting the return of the glass. Ada cleared her throat, catching the girls’ attention.

Heather gulped the last of the water from the glass and handed it back to Rachel. Edging up to Ada, Rachel smoothed her skirt and whispered, “Is this all right, Ada? Or do you think I should be more, well, more...”

Heather, with her widening brown eyes, blurted, “Less colorful?”

Ada almost laughed. Then tears swelled and she could only murmur, “No, no, it’s perfectly all right. You both look lovely.” She noticed that Heather was wearing a simple navy blue dress with a ruffled white collar and cuffs.

“It certainly is going to change things, with Daddy being dead and all. Isn’t it?” Rachel’s features hardened as she pinched her brows together. Madeline’s look. “Heather’s going to miss him the most, I think. She was his favorite.”

Ada was impressed by the lack of rancor in Rachel’s voice. “It’s pretty hard to say who’ll miss him the most. We all loved him so very much.” Ada suddenly felt embarrassed to have admitted openly her love for John. But both Rachel and Heather smiled sad little smiles, casting their eyes downward and shaking their heads.

Ada went to them. Neither they nor she cried. And for that she was thankful. When the telephone rang, Ada was slow to let go of the girls.

Woodenly she picked up the receiver. “Hello?” For a brief moment all she heard was static.
“Kyle?” Caught off guard by his voice, she heard herself squeak, “Where are you calling from?”
She could imagine him standing in front of her, his tanned, handsome face with its bushy, white mustache partly concealing his dimples when he smiled. Then breathless, she answered, “Yes, I’ll be there at the station.”

As Rachel and Heather looked at her expectantly, she added, “And the girls.” Their subdued excitement pleased her.

She could hear the disappointment in Kyle’s voice, hoping to have a few minutes alone with her. That pleased her and even more that he asked to see her later on.

“Of course, Kyle. There’ll be plenty of time for us.” With two sets of eyes tracing her every movement, she hurried to add, “To do all the necessary things.”

The click of the receiver in its cradle set the girls in motion. Ada, too, went back into the living room.
Madeline flinched. Red‑streaked eyes turned and stared straight at her.

Ada tried her best to console her. “Your brother just called. He’s coming home with Rodger.”

Madeline nodded, not answering, not caring.

Adele peered around at Ada, her face animated. “Will Kyle be staying long, Ada? Did he say?”

“He’ll be here for a week.” She locked stares with Madeline. “If you like, I’ll go with Adele to the train depot Thursday night.”

“Yes, that would be very nice of you.” Madeline edged a long, polished fingernail up and down her plaid skirt. “Carrie will be glad to see him. I’ll have to ask her to stay on another week.”

Just then the front door slammed and Madeline’s sister bustled in. The girls ran to greet her, spilling out the news about Uncle Kyle.

Carrie loomed in the doorway, imperiously demanding. “Is this truly the case? Will Kyle be here next Thursday?”

Madeline squeezed her lips, her nostrils flared, and she nodded vigorously at the carpet.

“He’ll stay here with us. He usually sleeps in Rodger’s old bedroom.”

Carrie moved laboriously to a chair. “I haven’t seen Kyle in six years. I am rather anxious to talk to him.”

Madeline pouted. “You’ll be lucky to get any time with him. He seems to have a baleful of excuses to be gone.” Madeline didn’t look up, much to Ada’s relief.

Adele narrowed her eyes. “You might think how hard it is on him to lose John.”

Carrie gasped. Madeline massaged her temples. Neither spoke to Adele, but turned their eyes to Ada.
Ada fought laughter rising from deep inside her throat. Instead she nodded sympathetically.

Rachel and Heather huddled by the door. Heather mimicked Rachel’s frown. Both sets of eyes stared intently at their Aunt Carrie.

Carrie laid her arms across her enormous chest and waited. Adele crossed her ankles, shifting her weight so that she sat at an angle facing Carrie and Madeline. Madeline’s face froze in a scowl.

You aced that one, Adele, Ada thought before she stood.

“It’s been a long, hard road to walk for all of us.” Ada pointed to Rachel and Heather. “We should be thankful that Rodger and Kyle are coming home.”

Carrie pushed off the chair, blocking Ada from leaving. “I promised the girls I’d take them uptown today.” She turned to them. “Shall we go now?”

Rachel and Heather nodded. Rachel grabbed Heather’s hand and held it tight. Carrie plodded to the door. Half in, half out the door, she called back, “Madeline, we shall return before supper time.”
Madeline pressed a hand to her forehead. “Dinner. I must think about that.”

Adele picked up her shopping bag. “No, don’t go to any trouble. There’s plenty of food in there and I’ll leave you two fresh loaves of bread. You might reheat the casserole. That would be simple but tasty.”

Ada added hastily, “I’ll bring over some fresh vegetables.” She shot a warning glance to Adele not to offer to stay for dinner. Carrie took being Madeline’s older sister as an inherent right and dominated the household when she stayed. “Adele and I were on our way to do some weeding. She owes me.”

“That would be very kind of you, Ada.” Madeline wrung her hands. “I could do steamed vegetables.”
Adele laid the bread upon the kitchen counter. Madeline balled her hands together in her lap. “How sweet of you, Adele. You’re showing all the signs of an expectant mother.”

Adele looked puzzled. Ada, feeling the weight of her patience, explained. “Mothers nearing time of delivery have a nesting urge. Typically, they cook, bake and clean a lot.”

“Then it’s not time. I only bake.” Adele shuffled to the door. “Because I like to.”

“Of course, dear, but soon you’ll have this unbearable urge to—” Madeline stopped short when Adele challenged her with a defiant look. “You probably know best, dear.”

Ada sighed and pressed Adele out the door. “We’ll see you later, Maddie. Do get some rest.”

Madeline eased the door shut. Adele snorted. “I have a hard enough time with Maddie always giving me advice, let alone that blimp Carrie. I’m not used to being treated like a simpleton.”

Ada pinched her arm. “You’ll have to learn to get along. You can’t go around insulting all your near and dear relatives.”

They both giggled. As Ada opened the back door, her kitten scurried out from beneath the chair to greet her. “Hi, Kid.” Ada scooped him up and nuzzled him. Then she handed him to Adele. “Say hi to Miss Grump.”

“Can he go outside?” As Adele stroked him, he purred loudly. “With us?”

“Of course. I’m not going to make him a house cat.”

“You’ll give him a choice?” Adele cocked her head and raised an eyebrow.

“Here’s an extra pair of gloves. You weed. I’ve the last row to stake.”

They worked at opposite ends of the garden. The kitten played in the discarded weeds until he spotted a butterfly. Both Ada and Adele stopped and watched him frolic.

Ada straightened up, her knee joints cracking sharply. “I’ll run over these few vegetables to Maddie. You take a break. Sit in the shade.”

Adele said nothing but continued pulling up the weeds. Ada swallowed her irritation and marched to Madeline’s back door and knocked. Madeline cupped her hands to receive the produce.

“I’ve got dinner on. Won’t you and Adele join us?”

Ada shook her head. “No, the way Adele’s attacking those weeds; she’ll be needing to go home and to bed early.”

“Should she be alone, now? What if…”

“Don’t fret. She has a phone.”

“Do give her a lift home, Ada. Too much walking can cause her to go into labor.”

“I’ll look out for her.” Ada gave Madeline’s hand a quick squeeze. “You try and rest some. You’ll be exhausted before Rodger and Kyle get here.”

Madeline looked away from Ada. “I suppose. Thank you.”

Ada nodded and backed away. Adele was furiously tugging at a milkweed when Ada came through the gate.

She stood over Adele. “Come on! Now!” She reached down and jerked the roots out of the ground. “You’ll be in labor tonight if you keep it up.”

Adele bowed her head. Her chest heaved. Ada offered her a hand up. Adele pulled off her gloves and accepted Ada’s hand. “I get obsessed with ridding the garden of every last one of them.”

“I know, I know,” Ada soothed. “Look! The Kid.” She pointed to the kitten chasing his tail. “We should be so carefree.”

Ada escorted Adele to a chair. The kitten bounded over, squatting before them, crying plaintively to be picked up. Ada walked away, letting Adele tend to him. The sky was growing duller, the grey of twilight. Clouds moved in. It would be a starless night. Ada slipped on her gloves. Perhaps tomorrow would be better. A better day for all of them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

YNK (You Never Know): Chapter 5 - 4WIW (For What It's Worth)

After church, I walked the dogs, hoping I’d see Dean. But he’d of course already done his paper route and I don’t think he’d come out just to see me. I spent extra time with the Three Musketeers, rehearsing in my mind what and how I would say to Dean. Finally, checking my celly for the time (1:25pm) and messages (none), I felt confident that I had it right and set out for his house.
His father answered my knocks. “Fran! How are you?” Mr. Frazier is a tall man who fills the doorway; he wears a plaid shirt and dark jeans, a much older version of Dean with stubbly face and black-rimmed glasses.

“Um, hi, can I talk to Dean?” came out all in breath as one long word.

“No, sorry he’s not home. He and Dusty Connor went to the movie. Should be back about four or so. I’ll tell him you were by, though.”

My throat tightened up so painfully I thought I’d choke, but at least I didn’t trip over my feet. I must have nodded as I backed away. The echoes of the door shutting followed me as I retraced my steps to the Wessenfeld’s house.

I sat on the porch with the big lab’s head in my lap. Tears plopped on Aramis’ ears as I smoothed them into his fur. Porthos, on my left, nudged my elbow, and I reached over to pet him, then Athos on my right side. I buried my face into Armis’ nape and bawled until I got the hiccups. Finally, I was able to stop, and wipe my eyes clear of the last of my tears.

“You’re really great friends, you guys,” I sniffled. “Not like someone I thought was my friend.”
Each of the dogs licked me, on the face, hands, arms and Porthos managed to jump into lap and get his licks on my ear.

“Enough!” I pushed them away, gently, grateful for their loyalty. “I’ll see you guys later. Go inside now.” I ducked into the bathroom and splashed some water on my face before I eased out the door and locked it.

How was I going to act tomorrow at school around Dusty? Like nothing had happened to change my feelings about our friendship? Hah! What friendship?!

I couldn’t get images of Dean holding her hand, or maybe kissing her. Crap! I still had to ask Dean if he wanted to mow the Wessenfeld’s lawn weekly. He could do it all by himself. I wish I could hand him the edger. Here, buddy, take that and shove it!

I spent a long afternoon doing homework and holed up in my bedroom with Wizard’s Holiday by Diane Duane, about a perfect world that isn’t. It suited my mood.

It also suited my life. The next day at school, I avoided Dusty, pretending I hadn’t seen her when she waved to me going down the hall. I stayed longer than necessary at my locker, getting to class as the bell blared.

Mrs. Hammershaw came in the door with a pinched face and pink slips. “Annie, and,” she looked pained, “Fran. Principal’s office.”

Me? I look to Annie, who has gone pale. She shuffles papers into a pile, then stands up, smoothes her skirt and fluffs her hair. Marcy is focused on her math book, and Steve stares at me for a long moment, as if to telepathically convey a message. Without a word, Annie and I pair up and walk the long hall to the principal’s office.

I have an awful feeling this is about the Facebook picture.

In the outer office of the principal, Brian, Justin, Timothy and Collin sit in a row of chairs. They are very quiet.

Before I can sit in a chair, Mrs. Aster motions to me to come into her office. I have this stupid nervous habit of wadding and twisting my skirt at the hip and I make myself stop. I try to iron the wrinkles out with my sweaty palm.

“Fran, sit down, please.” Mrs. Aster scoots her chair close to her desk and leans on her elbows the time it takes me to sit down in the chair to face her.

“Not a very flattering picture of you on the internet, Fran.”

I shake my head. I wish I could shake away the cobwebs in my brain, shake away Mrs. Aster, this school and everyone in it.

“Well, I know that there were cigarettes, Fran. Was there alcohol?”

She just cuts to the bone, doesn’t she?

“I don’t know,” I blurt out this lie.

“But you were there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I know who posted the picture.”

I want to ask her who? “I didn’t,” I reply stupidly. She just told me she knew.

“Fran, do you realize the seriousness of this?”

Oh, yeah. “Yes, ma’am.” But I didn’t do anything!

I look her straight in the eye, “I don’t smoke or drink.”

“Have you heard of the old saying ‘guilt by association’?”

“No,” I say almost in a whisper. Where is she going with this?

She sits back into her chair, never taking her eyes off mine. “You’re judged by the company you keep. If you are with others who are doing illegal activity, then you are guilty by association. I’ve talked with the others, Brian, Justin, Collin and Timothy; they thought it was just a joke. It is not. This is a serious offense. This state has anti-bullying laws, and that makes posting pictures and rumors on the web illegal. They will be doing in-school community service hours for their part in this.” She pauses, placing her hands palm down on her desk. “I want you to consider who your friends really are, Fran. Do you think you can just delete that picture on Facebook and have it go away?”

Well, yeah, I really did. “I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Aster.”

“Fran, that picture is on there forever. It could crop up on your employer’s computer screen ten years from now!”

“I don’t even know who took that picture, Mrs. Aster! I wasn’t smoking!” My whole body is quaking, and I’m not sure if I’m really scared or really mad.

“I believe you. Just think about what I said to you. I’ve talked with the others about the Golden Rule and bullying behavior.” She rises out of her chair and leans across the desk. “This will not be tolerated at my school!”

My mouth drops open at her vehement outcry. All I can do is nod my head in agreement.

“Send Annie in here on your way back to class.”

My wobbly knees manage to get me out of there, but barely. I whisper to Annie, why I’m not sure, but it seems like I should be kind of quiet about it, “Annie, she wants to see you.”

Annie reminds me of a contrite Porthos with her big, round, brown eyes. She twists her hair furiously and also is a little shaky on her legs as she goes into the black hole. But if I know Annie, and I do, she’ll come out of this looking like a martyred saint.

I didn’t want to ask Mrs. Aster, but I wonder if my parents know about this meeting. I’ll probably have to sit down and discuss this with both Mom and Dad. I wonder if I could get the flu between now and dinnertime.

Lucky for me, I slipped into second period without fanfare. I avoided Dusty, Dean and Annie at lunch by going to the library to do my homework. The rest of the day is a blur until after I have walked the dogs and know that I must face my parents.

My Dad is reading the newspaper and my Mom is paying bills on the computer when I come home. Annie has left five text messages for me, but I don’t answer. Dusty called and left a message to call her back, but I don’t. What I do is email Dean that Mrs. W would like him to mow her lawn weekly. Contact her if you are interested.

I stay in my room and read until my Mom calls me for dinner.

“How’d it go today?” My Dad runs his hand over my head, just like petting a dog.

My Mom gives me a significant look, which I interpret as she knows about the meeting with Mrs. Aster.

I look from one to the other and shrug. “I’ve had better days. For sure.”

“You had a talk with Mrs. Aster, did you?” asks my Mother, so sweetly.

“Yeah, and she even managed to get the Golden Rule into the conversation about, you know, Facebook.”

For some reason it made me feel good to see my Mom smile at that.

No more was said about Facebook. My Dad and I had a nice chat about world events and history. We try to find threads from the past to the present in politics and world events. We were so involved in our discussion, that it was past my bedtime. I was even too tired to cop a chapter or two before falling asleep.

For two days I avoided talking with anyone, even Marcy didn’t have an opportunity to catch me off guard with a snide remark. I didn’t see Dean on his paper route, either, so I guess I was being avoided, too.

Dusty cornered me Friday in the library.

“Fran, we have got to talk,” she blocked my exit, putting her backpack down on the table between us.
“You can do the presentation, I’ll just be the background,” I said with wave of my hand, like I really don’t care about any of this!

“Oh, Fran, don’t be like that!” she pleaded. “We need to talk about Dean.”

Oh, please, do I want to hear about your date with Dean? Are you going to tell me all the details, like how he kisses?

“What’s to talk about?” I cross my arms and glare at her.

She sighs and sits back hard against the back of the chair. “He thinks you’re mad at him about the other day. You know,” she hastens to add when I roll my eyes, “he likes you. He thinks you think there’s something wrong with him. You need to talk to him.”

I lean in close and whisper, “Yeah, he likes me so much he takes you to a movie. Hmmm.”

“Get over it, Fran! Dean and I have been friends for a long time. I’m someone he can talk to.”

Suddenly, all the anger deflates and all the bad stuff from that day sickens me. I look directly at Dusty and realize that I want to be mad at her so that I don’t have to think about what I didn’t do, what I did do.

“I don’t know, I just don’t understand.”

“His mother,” Dusty hesitates, looks around, then leans closer to me and says softly, “is in rehab. She’s done some horrible things to Dean when she was drunk. His Dad kicked her out and won’t let her even call Dean.”

“He told you all this?” I blurt. “Just spilled his guts to you?”

“I’ve known him for a lot longer than you have, Fran.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? Walk up to him and say…what?”

There is a puddle of silence between us. Dusty throws the first stony word in. “The truth? How you feel?”

I pick at a hangnail. “How easy it is in Dusty’s world.”

“All right, then come over to my house and I’ll leave you and Dean alone to talk things out.” She popped up and grabbed her backpack as the bell rang. “This afternoon?”

Oh not today, dear. I have other plans with my real friends. But when I look at Dusty, look into her eyes, I see she’s sincere. Maybe she is right.

“All right.”

The hours dragged, the hours flew by, all the while I rehearsed what I should say to Dean. By the end of the hour of walking the dogs, I had thought out a little speech.

Dusty let me in front door and waved me to the tv room where Dean sat on the couch playing a computer game on Dusty’s Mac. He looked up and with that half-smile simply said, “Hey.”

I stood about mile away from him. “Hey.” I amazed myself by actually going over to the couch and sitting next to him.

He closed the game and shut the lid on the computer. Still we said nothing.

“Did you get my email about Mrs. Wessenfeld wanting you to mow her lawn?”

“Yeah.” He looked at me. “Very businesslike, your email.”

“Well, it was about business.”

We sat there. Silently. All those great words I have thought of saying didn’t get out of my mouth. I turned to look at him. He looked at me.

“I miss you on my walks. The Three Musketeers miss you, too.”

“I g-g-got a new route. Longer. I leave earlier and come back later.”


I’m done, this isn’t going to work out. Stupid, Dusty, stupid!

“Fran,” Dean leans close enough I can smell him, “I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Why are you sorry? I’m the one that did nothing!!”

He touches my hand, ever so softly, too briefly. “You stood beside me. You can’t fight my battles for me, but you were there beside me.”

“I was scared. Not just for you. For me, too.”

“Yeah,” he says with a small laugh. “You and me both.”

“So, we’re friends again?” I mean, how can I ask him if he’ll ever kiss me again?

He slips his arm around my shoulder and hugs me tight, without saying anything for a few minutes.

“I have to go.”

“Me, too.”

“Bye, Dusty! We’re leaving!”

She comes to the door as Dean and I walk side by side towards my house. Dean and I walk without touching but I feel we are closer than ever. He stops at the steps leading to the front door of my house and leans over to peck my cheek. I blush.

He laughs and turns to walk home, singing to himself. Funny, I thought, he doesn’t stutter when he sings.

And for this moment, my world is perfect.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 15

Planes overhead. A flash of wing; one of his planes. Rodger bolted from the jeep, tumbling forward, and screamed. “Clear out! Clear ...”

Where Josephine and Tobias had been, a thin, black column of smoke curled up. The ground was splattered by bullets.

Bombs hit the mission. The force of the explosions knocked Rodger off his feet. He was thrown down, his head slammed into the gravel and mire. His whole body hurtled out of control, skidding and thumping, bouncing every which way. He tried to pull himself up, but his arms collapsed and his aching body thudded back down to the ground.

He lay with his face buried in the dust for several minutes before he could focus his eyes and order his thoughts. Debris rained down, and something struck his hand. He quickly ducked his head inside his folded arms, shielding his face.

The earth had stopped moving, and he was suspended in an ungodly silence. When he heard his own breathing again, felt his heart beating and blood pounding in his temples, he knew they were dead and he lived. Slowly he rolled over to his side and pushed up onto his elbow.

Sister Grace walked in the rubble, with her bloody hands pressed against her eyes. Rodger forced himself onto his feet and stumbled to her side. She was muttering in an unintelligible, prayer‑like whisper. Rodger looked behind them, and there, intact, was the jeep, a little bullet hole bleeding gasoline.

He led Sister Grace over to it and seated her, pulling off his jacket and putting it around her shoulders. He searched under the seat and found the first‑aid kit. Sister Grace sat paralyzed, only her lips moving in silent prayer. Rodger hunted under the seats and in the back of the jeep until he came upon a rag. He shook it fiercely, then stuffed it into the hole, wiping the gasoline from his hands onto his fatigues.

He yanked at the latch on the first‑aid kit. “God damn it, open!” He hesitated before pulling away Sister Grace’s bloody hands, afraid to expose the wounds.

“No, no, no,” she resisted then suddenly gave way, dropping her hands, exposing the shredded pieces of flesh and gaping, bulging eyeball.

Rodger pressed the sterile bandage quickly against her face, stanching the blood and covering her ugliness. He fought down his own vomit, the bile searing his throat, burning his mouth.

“Stay here, Sister Grace. Just stay right here.”

He walked over to the ruins, kicking aside sharp‑edged stones. There in a corner, a faded, black, cotton cloth showed under a pile of rubble. Rodger stared at it. Father McBride.

Rodger went on, stepping carefully over the ragged edges of stone. The gate still stood, though the wall was gone. It banged crazily against its own frame until Rodger walked over and shut it. There in the overturned courtyard, underneath the uprooted trunk of the litchi tree, side by side, lay Mary Elizabeth and LinChing.

Had they not been dead, it would have been a pretty scene, for it looked as if they were playing a game, each intent upon discovering a secret hidden in the hallowed ground. Rodger knelt before them and tenderly brushed aside the long trailing hair across Mary Elizabeth’s face.

His left hand was stiff and useless as he tried to lift the tree trunk from their bodies. It would not budge.

As he straightened up, he noticed Mary Elizabeth’s clenched fist. He knelt down, pried her fingers apart and pocketed the ivory marble.

He scanned the court yard. Sister Pearl lay heaped in a corner. He went to her and checked for a pulse. Dead.

Returning to the jeep, he raised his voice above the nun’s jumbled prayers. “You and me, Sister Grace. I’m going to take you to the hospital. Hold that bandage tight.”

The jeep lurched before Rodger could grasp the wheel firmly enough. He concentrated on the road, weaving in and out of ruts. Sister Grace droned on above the engine noise of the jeep.

“God damn it, would you shut up?” Rodger screamed at her.

She desisted. Her head bowed forward as she slumped into the seat. Five miles more to the hospital at Bose. Almost there. Almost home safe.

He waved to a sergeant. “Head injury!”

“Yes, sir!” The young man checked the body for vital signs. “Sorry, sir, she’s dead.”

As the body was taken away, Rodger staggered from the jeep. He stood alone beside the mess tent. He felt dizzy. Rudderless.

He lit a cigarette. His thoughts became coherent as he looked overhead at the sky. God damn McGree and his hide and seek game with the Japs. Hotheaded Ace. Only the enemy had sought and found. Rodger squashed the cigarette butt with the heel of his boot.

He noticed another jeep parked in front of the mess tent. He walked over, climbed in, and started it. No one saw him leave.

It was dark, the darkest of hour before dawn when Rodger pulled up to his base. He tried flexing his left arm before going inside. It hurt, but he could move all of his fingers.

McGree and Summer lay in their bunks asleep. Rodger stomped to McGree’s bunk and clamped his right hand around his neck, jerking him out of bed, and then throwing him against the wall.

“You dumb SOB!” Rodger advanced on him.

McGree, instantly alert, crabbed his way along the wall.

“Mary Elizabeth’s dead because of you.” Rodger pinned McGree’s shoulder with his good hand. “We’re going to do us a little flying, McGree, old boy. We’re going Jap hunting. Just you and me. Pay some dues.” Rodger shook him free of the wall. “Twenty minutes.”

Summer had awakened and begun to suit. Rodger turned to him.


Summer continued dressing. “My fault as much as anyone’s.”

“I’m not responsible for you.”

“Yes, sir. I know that.”

Rodger headed out to his plane with McGree and Summer close behind. They had no night time ground crew to assist as they preflighted and rolled out. Rodger scanned his instruments, working his bruised hand. As the engine caught and held, and the oil pressure registered, he slammed the canopy shut. He waited, emptying his mind of any thoughts but this mission. McGree and Summer signaled they were set to go.

McGree took a heading and Rodger followed. Summer acted as wingman. They headed northwest, flying deep into the mountainous interior. Craggy peaks jutted through the thick cloud cover. McGree dived through an opening.

Guns blazing, they took the Japanese by surprise. But two Nates got off the ground.

Rodger watched for movement, sure that McGree and Summer did, too. Without the sun to blind them, it might be easy pickin’s. But the lightening grey sky hid the Nates.

“Bandit, one o’clock!” cried Summer.

McGree aligned for a strike. Rodger dived and strafed the runway, coming up into the second plane. Summer was holding his own against the first one; McGree fired and hit.

Then McGree took it full on the side. His plane caught fire, spiraled downward, but he maneuvered his craft and rammed into his Nate. Both planes exploded into flames.

Summer and Rodger chased the second, elusive Nate. Rodger, low on gas, figured the chase would soon be over. One way or the other.

Summer’s plane went flaming down. Rodger caught the Nate in the belly. The plane banked, spitting gunfire. Bullets hissed through metal. The canopy shattered. A bullet chewed into his shoulder. His mind blanked, and the plane spun out of control.

He snapped back to consciousness, clutching the controls. The ground swirled around and around, like pancake batter. Rodger jerked himself upright, fighting negative Gs. He eased off the throttle and took his feet off the rudder pedals. Close. Too close, but he pulled out. He headed back for the base.

He landed hard, bounced, then thudded onto the runway. Coolies scattered as his plane zagged across the runway. He pulled alongside the revetment and killed the engine. The transport had arrived. Two of the crewmen ran over to him.

Rodger shoved open the shell of the canopy. He fought the dizziness, the queasy sickness in his stomach. Tired. So damned tired.

“Hand up,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir.” A lieutenant hopped onto the wing, shouting over his shoulder. “Major’s hit!” Deftly, the man lifted Rodger out of his seat and guided him to the other crewman.

“Hospital not far. Due east. Take my jeep.” Blackness blanketed him.

Later, he awoke with sweat trickling down into his sideburns. He tried to lift his left arm, but looked down to see it pinned by bandages to his side. The head nurse appeared at the end of his cot.

“Nice of you to return the jeep, Major.”

“Just a friendly exchange.” He pointed to the bandages. “What’s my damage?”

“Nothing serious.”

“Then I’ll be movin’ on, Nurse ... ?”

“Adams. Jane.” She gave brief directions to a younger nurse, then fixed her amused gaze on him. “No go, Major. You’re here at least until the next transport.” She waved a white envelope teasingly. “The boys left this for you.”

“Damn it! Have they left yet?”

“They’ll be leaving in a couple of hours. As soon as they have some air cover.” She laid the letter on his chest, then touched his leg. “You’ll be goin’ home in a couple of weeks, Major.”

Another nurse came to the bed wordlessly handing Nurse Adams a ragged doll. “Oh, yes. Captain Raftly left this for you. Said Mary Elizabeth and the others were taken care of.” She tossed the doll into his good hand. “Seems people like leaving you things, Major.”

He tucked the doll beneath the covers, away from her eyes, away from his. “Yeah. Know where that guy is?”

“Told me he had to escort another transport home.”

Rodger nodded. He waited until she had been gone for a good half hour, then called over an orderly.

“Bring me my clothes.”

“I can’t do that, sir. You’re not discharged.”

“What is your rank?”


“Consider it an order.”

“Yes, sir.”

He had his pants, socks, and unbuttoned shirt on before Nurse Jane came storming down the aisle to his bed. Her reddened face materialized before his.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”


“Like in turkey,” she spat back. She watched him struggling. Shaking her head and with an exasperated sigh, she reached over and buttoned his sleeve. “Here.” Then she started with the bottom shirt button. “I’ll get someone to drive you to the transport.”

Rodger grabbed her arm and squeezed it. “Thanks.”

“No, problem soldier,” she said briskly, turning and walking away. “We need the bed space.”

Rodger shoved the unopened letter in his coat pocket, then slung the coat over his shoulder. He dumped out the sack with his personal belongings and examined Mary Elizabeth’s marble. He realized it was actually a carved ivory bead. Fingering it, absorbing its warmth, he slipped it into his right pants pocket.

Nurse Jane came back with a young woman in tow.

“This is Sergeant Laird. She’ll get you back to your base. And here,” Nurse Jane thrust a vial of pills into his right hand. “Pain killers. Take only when needed.”

Rodger arched an eyebrow.

She eyed him sternly. “And no alcohol, Major. If you want to fly again, take care of yourself.” She spun on her heel and marched down to the operating room.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rodger threw a salute to her disappearing backside. The sergeant kept her head lowered, partially hiding her smile. “Let’s go, young lady. I’ve got a date to keep.” He picked up the doll, and they walked outside into the intense humid daylight to the jeep.

During the ride back to base, he gritted his teeth to keep from groaning, willing away the pain. He hopped out of the jeep before it had come to a full stop and tipped his hat, the doll dangling over his eyes. “Thanks, Sergeant. Drive carefully.”

The sergeant saluted, then gunned the engine and took off.

Rodger walked over to the cockpit of the transport. “Hey, Ace, got room for me and my stash?” He stood respectfully to one side of the loading ramp as the last coffin went aboard.

The captain pushed back his hat and whistled. “Thought you were out of commission for a while, Major. Yeah, I got room. But,” he smiled broadly, “no back seat drivers.”

“Don’t leave without me.”

He walked over to the sleeping quarters. No voices, no bantering, no snoring, just deathly quiet. He motioned two Chinese boys over.

“Do you understand English?”

The older teenager nodded.

Rodger pointed from one to the other. “You two pack up McGree’s and Summer’s belongings. Bring them to my quarters.”

He snagged another young boy coming from the kitchen to help him. As he stuffed the doll into his knapsack with the last of his gear, one of the transport crew came in just as the two teenage Chinese boys with duffle bags came to an abrupt halt before Rodger.

“I’ll carry that, sir,” and the young man swung the knapsack easily over his shoulder. “Those, too.”

Rodger handed his over and motioned for the boys to do the same with the other two bags and followed the crewman out to the plane.

The captain threw him a package of wax earplugs. “Here—for your beauty sleep, Major.”

Rodger fumbled with spongy pieces of foam until at last he stuffed one in each ear. Remembering the letter, he shook his coat free and took the letter postmarked from Washington, D.C., from the pocket, laying it on his lap. He turned it over, picked it up and tore the end off with his teeth, then crumpled the envelope and tossed it aside. Taking the official paper out of his mouth, he snapped the paper so that he could read it.


Rodger burst into laughter so long and deep tears rolled down his face. Of all the ironies.

He searched his pocket until he found the ivory bead, rolling it between his thumb and index finger, thinking how much like it he felt.

He leaned back into his seat, trying to settle in for the long ride home. His shoulder ached and his arm hurt deep inside. He closed his eyes and drifted through the pain into a half‑sleep. The mutilated face of Sister Grace morphed into that of Mary Elizabeth. He bolted upright and wrenched his shoulder. Hot, liquid pain spread across his shoulder and into his neck. He tried to close his eyes again, against the pain, against the faces.

He worked the bottle up from the deeper part of his pocket and flipped off the cap. Just one, he told himself, swallowing hard. One of the crewmen leaned over and handed him a canteen of water.
Rodger drank, handed it back to the man, and said with a nod, “Only one for the pain.”

As the plane rumbled through the night, he slept, not even waking when they landed at Okinawa for refueling. When the plane had landed and was taxiing to a stop at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Rodger felt the light touch of someone’s hand.

“Major. Last stop.”

As much as he wanted to get to his feet, he couldn’t. Two men, nameless and faceless, helped him off the plane and into a jeep.

Rodger looked down at his shoulder where blood had seeped through the bandages and began to stain his shirt. Gingerly, he touched the spot and winced in pain. He closed his eyes and sank into a soft, velvet blankness.