Mr. Brangle’s Proposition

“Remember,” Mr. Brangle said as he walked over to the door to the hallway and propped it open. “Test tomorrow.”

A chorus of groans greeted the students in the hallway as Mr. Brangle’s class filed out through the door.

Except Sheila who was standing at Mr. Brangle’s desk, waiting to get her make-up assignments from him. He always created new assignments for students who were out so he could be “assured” that they “did their own work.”

“Well, Miss Jenson,” Mr. Brangle smiled pleasantly at her as he perched on the edge of his desk and picked up a piece of paper. “Here are your make-up assignments.”

Sheila stretched out a hand. “Thanks,” she said, looking at the paper. “There’s nothing on it.” She looked suspiciously at Mr. Brangle, still smiling. The smile didn’t seem so pleasant, and Sheila was remembering some of the wilder rumors she had heard.

“Have a seat, Miss Jenson,” Mr. Brangle waved her to a front row desk. “You’ve missed quite a bit of school. Is everything okay at home?”

“Uh, of course,” Sheila’s face crinkled in surprise as she watched Mr. Brangle perch.

“Your folks have taken on a lot, I hear – bringing in three foster kids with such severe  . . .  shall we say . . . impairments.”

Mr. Brangle paused and looked at Shelia curiously. “It must be hard for you – less time with your mom and your dad. They’re so busy with the other three kids now.”

“It won’t be for forever,” Sheila shrugged. “What about my assignments?” She tapped the empty page.

“Ah, those,” Mr. Brangle slid one of the desks closer to where Sheila sat, and slid into the seat. “I thought you might want some extra help catching up. Maybe a quiet place to work on catching up. Must be hard with so much noise in the home now.”

“Exactly what are you saying, Mr. Brangle?” Sheila sat back and folded her arms across her chest, uncomfortably aware of the direction Mr. Brangle’s eyes seemed to keep falling.

“Why, I thought I was pretty clear, Miss Jenson,” he tilted his head to one side, a look of speculation in his eyes. Sheila could see him mentally totting up pros and cons of getting really specific.

“I’ll spell it out for you.” He paused and leaned slightly forward, lowering his voice. “Most young girls need a little extra guidance, a bit of help, from an older man during this time in their lives. Things change so fast, you know . . . parents can be so hard to talk to . . . I’m offering to help — if you like.”

Sheila watched the tip of his tongue flick out between his teeth complete a rapid circuit around his thin lips and shuddered internally before drawing a deep breath.  Inspiration struck.

She leaned forward in her desk, gesturing Mr. Brangle even closer. With their noses a mere inch away from each other, Sheila murmured, “Fabulous idea . . . but I want four years of college — all paid for by you.”

She paused and added, Oh – and a car in my name but paid for by you – and the maintenance and insurance . . . and . . . I think a clothing budget of . . . oh, let’s say $200/month.” Sheila leaned back in her chair and tilted her head. “Also a trip to Europe – because it would be so educational to travel . . .”

“What?” Mr. Brangle sputtered, mouth open in shock.

Sheila stood up from the desk, crumpled the blank paper into a tight ball and tossed it into the wastebasket next to Mr. Brangle’s desk, heading toward the door.

“You know what I mean,” she put her hand on the door, “but let me spell it out for you. There ain’t nothin’ for free, Mr. Brangle. After all, this is Economics class.”

Sheila let the door shut with a bang behind her and walked off down the empty hall.

Part of her was laughing at the look of surprise on the man’s face, and part of her was trembling at her audacity. What if the man had agreed?

Shifting Perspectives

“You always said you hoped I didn’t get to choose your nursing home,”  The old man heard Benita’s voice from what seemed far away to his ears, the sound echoing along dimly lit tunnels.  His eyes could see Benita leaning near to him, so he assumed his hearing aid battery had gone dead again. The wheelchair bumped up a rickety ramp and stopped with dreaded finality in front of a door.

“I always said your fear of me choosing your nursing home was the only acknowledgement I’d get from you that perhaps you treated me most unfairly for many, many years, Pappa.”

The old man wondered if the girl was going to hold on to her resentment until he died. No, he decided, probably until she died. So, life wasn’t perfect. Perhaps he had been a little hard on her from time to time, but kids needed character building or they grew up to be nothings. If he had mollycoddled her, she would not have stretched and grown or learned how to deal with a harsh and unjust world.

He could feel a subtle tickling along the corner of his mouth and knew he was drooling again. He just couldn’t seem to summon the strength to wipe the spit away. He caught a whiff of Benita’s vanilla scented perfume as she leaned over him to push the doorbell. There was a pounding in his chest as her words continued to hammer at him with measured relentlessness.

“For every time you told me I was no good, that I was a failure, that I was fat, and ugly or stupid . . . for all the times I cried in despair at ever being able to please you . . . for all the times you mocked me . . . well, let’s just say that this – new home – is still too good for you.”

The door swung open and the old man gagged involuntarily at the smell wafting from the house. No! he screamed internally, but remained impassive. He would not give his daughter the pleasure of seeing his fear and revulsion.

“Mrs. Charpentier,” he heard Benita saying, “such a pleasure to meet you. My father is so looking forward to being here. He only has one small bag of belongings.”

With a slight grunt, the old man realized that Benita was truly going to abandon him as she let the duffle bag land in his lap. Benita was leaning close to his face, locking her eyes on his as she smiled sweetly and said, “I do hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

The old man blinked and looked away.

It’s All In How You Write the Note

Dear Jane,
I would like to take you out to the square dance this weekend.
Dear Bob,
I don’t own cowboy boots and I don’t know how to dance.
Dear Jane,
While I wouldn’t advise going barefoot, I think sneakers will work.
The dance starts at 7.
Dinner first?
Dear Bob,
I don’t have sneakers, either.
I am fasting for Lent.
Baptists don’t dance.
Take Sally, instead.
Yours Truly,
Dear Jane,
Your continued refusal is breaking my heart.
Although I like Sally, she is not a girl I wish to dance with.
Please reconsider.
With pathetic longing,
Dear Bob,
Your pathetic longing does not interest me in the least.
What part of “No” do I need to explain?
With curiosity (NOT!)
Dear Sally,
Jane is worried that you might be lonely and thinks you would enjoy square dancing.
Would you like to go with me this weekend?
Dear Bob,
Jane is a goofball and so are you.
I only swing dance and I am already going with Bill.
I suggest you keep trying Jane.
Flowers? Chocolates?
Let me know how it goes!
Dear Jane,
I thought you were my friend!
And then you sic Bob on me.
See if I go to the movies with you ever again!
With resentment,
Dear Sally,
I needed to get Bob off my back because Bill and I are going dancing this weekend.
Let’s catch a movie another night.
I’ll buy the popcorn!
Your friend,
Dear Jane,
You are clearly NOT my friend or you would know that Bill and I already had a date to go dancing this weekend. What else are you doing behind my back, you two-faced, lying . . .
With sobs,
Dear Bob,
These girls are driving me crazy.
Let’s go get a beer and catch the game.
Dear Bill,
Excellent! See you at 7 at the Down and Out Brewery.
Your bro,

To Break Oneself Again . . .

Taylor watched his mom and dad come toward him with trepidation. They had made it explicitly clear that if he hurt himself skateboarding again, he would pay for the medical expenses. His dad he figured he could work around to his point of view, but his mom was a dead-wringer for what she called “follow through” and “logical consequences.”

It really wasn’t his fault. The park was not kept up to standard and the edge of his board had caught on the ragged lip of the incline when he tried to jump.

“Hey,” he called weakly, torn between relief and anxiety.

He searched his mom’s face for any indication of anger and decided that if she was angry, she was hiding it well. She sighed as she sat down beside him and observed, “You’re bleeding. Did the  . . . “

“No, mom,” he hastily interjected. “The bone is not poking through.”

Taylor had had enough broken bones to know, and then he gasped as his mom gently cupped his hand under hers and raised it closer to look. Her face remained still, as she searched his, giving no indication of what she was thinking or feeling.

“Stop!” he said. “That hurts.”

“I imagine it does,” she responded. “Can you walk to the car?”

“Well, duh,” Taylor carefully stood up, grimacing as pain shot up his arm. His dad hovered, finally turning to walk beside Taylor as they carefully picked their way across the wet lawn.

“Which hospital?” his dad inquired mildly.

This was going to be bad, Taylor groaned inwardly. Usually, he could count on some sort of reaction from his parents, but so far they were staying more collected than he could ever recall.

“Let’s just go see my regular doctor,” Taylor suggested. “It’ll cost less,” he continued, hoping that his thinking ahead to cost would score at least one or two points with his parents.

“They aren’t open on Saturdays, I don’t think,” his mom replied, sliding he van door open and carefully latching the seat belt around Taylor. He gasped when his hand was slightly jostled, and she climbed in next to him.

“Call and find out,” he said.

His mom shrugged and dialed the number on her cell phone. After a pause, she said, “Nope,” and leaned forward to his dad. “Let’s just go to the closest one.”

“All right,” his dad agreed and started backed out of the parking spot.

As far as Taylor could tell on the drive over, his dad was deliberately hitting every bump he could and taking corners sharply. Taylor opened his mouth to complain and hastily shut it again when he caught the expression on his dad’s face.

“Slow down, dear,” Taylor’s mom said sharply. “You’re not an ambulance and every bump and corner is causing pain.”

Taylor’s dad grunted, and tapped on the brakes.

Taylor felt tears spring to his eyes. His dad was really upset. Taylor couldn’t imagine why else the man would drive so chaotically when his son was hurt.

“I hope the hospital is back on the preferred provider list,” he heard his mom remark to his dad. “The last time Taylor broke something, it cost several thousand after the insurance paid their portion. Don’t worry, Taylor,” she added. Taylor hoped he heard a note of kindness in her voice  . . . and then slumped in defeat as she went on, “Your dad and I will allow you to make payments to us until the bill is paid off.”

His dad harrumphed up front. “Seems logical to me.”

“A perfectly natural consequence,” Taylor’s mom added, “especially when Taylor was clearly told unwise decisions about his activities resulting in hospital visits would mean he paid.”

Taylor could feel a sinking sensation inside. His parents meant it, and with his dad agreeing with his mom, he could foresee months and years of slowly repaying a hospital and doctor bill that looked insurmountable before the costs had already rolled in. He wasn’t sure if he imagined it or not, but he thought he could hear a chuckle in his parents conversation.

They were happy about this! “Hey!” he said, indignantly. “Don’t make fun of me!”

“We’re not, dear,” his mother replied. “We’re just rejoicing that you can learn a valuable lesson at such relatively low cost. Your accident could have been much worse since you were not wearing any safety gear.”

Taylor gaped at her. She was happy, he realized. But why, he couldn’t understand.

You’ll understand someday when you have your own children,” she smiled sweetly at him, and rummaged in her purse for the insurance card.

All that Glitters

You know how it is – you see that glittering object in the distance, filled with promise and hope, and you reach out a hand and take it. If I had known that the outcome would be so perilous, I would never have reached out my hand, let alone allowed the spasmodic clenching of my fist around its’ hidden dangers.

Hindsight is 20/20, I have heard.

It’s like this. On a late spring evening, I sat on my front porch with a beer dripping beside me and a Marlboro steadily burning down to the filter in my left hand. The indoor kitty lay curled up beside the screen door, with just a twitch of his tail every now and then proving he was more than a stuffed animal. A couple of fat and happy bumble bees lit on the roses drinking in the sun, and trying to waddle off into a lazy flight after drinking their fill of nectar. Down the road, I could hear the stuttering of a tired lawn mower and the shrieks of kids playing tag in the street.

I took a drag on my cigarette, chased by a swallow of beer gone lukewarm from sitting too long in the sun. Something felt empty to me, incomplete . . .  I couldn’t figure out what and mentally reviewed my life as it stood, right there in the moment. The house was reasonably cleaned, the bills were paid, and the salad was made for dinner. I had clothes. I had friends. I had pretty much all I wanted and certainly everything I needed. Life was good! What more could I want? Really?

These are the dangerous questions in life. And probably best left unanswered. Sadly, I decided to follow that line of questioning right into a result that most anyone would have seen coming a mile down the road. Except me. Foresight is not my strong suit.

I shifted a little on the porch to allow the sun to hit both my legs, and rolled my left foot in and then out. At thirty, I still had shapely calves and thighs, and I wasn’t afraid to bare them. They were a bit pale from the lack of sun all winter, but they didn’t have flab. My arms were firm, no underarm flab swinging, and my fawn-colored hair trailed over my shoulders holding up the spaghetti straps of my camisole.

I supposed I was missing the excitement factor in my life. Since leaving the big city and coming to this two-horse town, I had been a perfect model of restraint. I never missed a day of work, I kept my house and yard impeccably tidy, and I even visited the town’s library once a week. Given that the only bar was populated by grizzled farmers, there was not much else left to do. At first it was enough, I was so tired from the life I had left behind. But my energy had returned, and I was starting to feel the encroachment of weedy boredom.

A heavy-throated rumbling of a Harley sputtering its way into life echoed down the neighborhood street and I grimaced to myself. The single other person in this town who could offer any excitement, and he was living with his “old lady” as he called her. Although, and I perked up an ear, perhaps not for much longer. The sounds of her angry voice floated on the warm breeze, and ended with a decided thud of a slamming door.

Resolve crystallized, and I slipped on my flip-flops and tossed the cigarette into the empty coffee can I kept as an ashtray. Tossing my hair back, I wandered up the block. Sure enough, the Harley man revved the engine and set off down the block. I raised a hand as he motored past . . . and he stopped. Setting his boot clad feet firmly on the pavement, he sat back and looked me over, a slow smile emerging from under his mustache.  With a slight jerk of his head, he beckoned to the mini-pad of a seat behind him and reaching down pulled out the pegs.

I grinned and slid onto the back of his bike, snugging in against his leather clad back and wrapping my arms around his trim waist. He had thick, glossy black hair streaming down his back that smelled of a curious mixture of Old Spice and motor oil.

Perfect, I thought, hanging on as he took off.

A little excitement – just what I need.

Tribulation Trio

     To Chase or Not to Chase
     Coco twitched impatiently. She had been crouched beneath the rose bush for what seemed the longest time, eyes intently focused on the bird feeder across the yard. She could feel the pressure mounting, calling her back to the well-hidden nest of squirming new-born kittens. But, the rumble in her belly kept her glued to her post.
     A slight flutter in the periphery of her vision alerted her. The time was fast approaching. She hoped she would be able to spring across the lawn with the grace and speed she had known before her belly swelled. The changes that came with being a mother perplexed her from time to time, and she was still struggling to find her balance and stamina. She wasn’t sure it would actually return to what she had known, in which case she hoped to find just enough in reserve to ensure a good meal for her and consequently, a reasonable flow of milk for the babies.
     The sparrow fluttered anxiously above the feeder before gently lighting on the raised lip. With a happy cheep, sunshine burnishing the browns and grays into a brighter mixture the sparrow began to peck at the variety of seeds, tossing the less interesting seeds to the side.
     Coco carefully kept the sparrow in her side vision, not looking too fixedly at the sparrow. Eyes could be felt – a wise huntress deflected the weight of attention by keeping the prey slightly out of focus. She cautiously moved forward, paw by stealthy pay, and paused. The sparrow had fluttered slightly up in the air, and then settled back down, but this time into the bird bath below the feeder.
     “Silly humans,” Coco thought. The squirrels loved that bird bath. It made their pillaging of the bird feeder much easier. And sighed as the objects of her thoughts came darting around the corner, playing catch-as-catch can, leaping onto the bird bath and feeder startling the sparrow high into the air. The sparrow landed on an electric line strung far above and scolded the squirrels vigorously.
     Coco eased down flat into the grass and contemplated her chanced of catching a squirrel. She was so hungry and the human had not set out food in the last two days. Faintly, the breeze brought the soft sound of a kitten mewling and with a sigh, Coco headed back towards the crying baby. The chase would wait until another time. But, the wait could not be too much longer. With a leap and a snap, Coco caught a fly and swallowed it wriggling. She had babies to tend to.
The Cookie Quest
     Timmy needed that cookie. And his mother had told him no, not until after lunch. She then added insult to injury by taking the cookie jar and placing it on top of the fridge before walking out of the kitchen and going downstairs to iron and fold laundry.
     Timmy glared at his mother’s retreating back, and then scowled at the Mickey Mouse cookie jar gazing benignly down at him from the top of the fridge. If he didn’t get the cookies, his best friend in the world would never come play in the front yard with him again. Timmy had promised. And in his isolated home, Jem was the only playmate for miles around.
     He and Jem were building a fort under the low-hanging limbs of the old fir tree out by the dirt road. Timmy had never built a fort before. But, Jem had built one with his papa, and had smuggled a saw, hammer and few rusty nails scrounged from the garage. Timmy was supposed to bring the cookies. Jem was waiting – but he wouldn’t wait for long.
     For long was part of the problem. Jem’s family was moving at the end of summer to a far away place and Timmy would never see his friend again. Timmy and Jem wanted to build a hideaway for Jem, so when that day came, Jem could hide and his family would go without him. Then it would be up to Timmy to smuggle food out to his friend – if Timmy couldn’t manage to smuggle a few cookies, Jem wouldn’t be able to stay in the fort they were building.
     Decision firmed. Timmy tip-toed across the kitchen floor and down the hall. He listened intently at the top of the stairs and heard his mother singing at the top of her lungs to Patsy Cline while she ironed and folded.
     “Good,” he thought. “She won’t be able to hear me.”
     Carefully, Timmy moved a chair over to the counter next to the fridge and climbed up, precariously balancing on the edge of the counter to reach the cookie jar. He would not disappoint his friend. He would being Jem the cookies.
A Daughter’s Revenge
    “You always said you hoped I didn’t get to choose your nursing home,” Benita whispered sweetly in her father’s ear, as she pushed the wheelchair up the rickety ramp leading to the private – and affordable – group home.
     “I always said your fear of me choosing your nursing home was the only acknowledgement I’d get from you that perhaps you treated me most unfairly for many, many years, Pappa.”
     There was a thin line of spittle trickling its lonely way down from the corner of the old man’s mouth, which drooped ever so slightly at the corner. His eyes were very alert and darting suspiciously around the porch, as Benita leaned over him to push the doorbell.
     “For every time you told me I was no good, that I was a failure, that I was fat, and ugly or stupid . . . for all the times I cried in despair at ever being able to please you . . . for all the times you mocked me . . . well, let’s just say that this – new home – is still too good for you.”
     Benita fixed a broad smile on her face as the door swung open and a powerful whiff of stale urine and the lonely sound of scrambled voices greeted them.
     “Mrs. Charpentier,” Benita said, “such a pleasure to meet you. My father is so looking forward to being here. He only has one small bag of belongings.” Benita gestured to the duffle bag on her father’s lap.
     Benita leaned down and looked her father directly in his eyes, her eyes glacial and glinting with years of repressed anger and hurt. “I do hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

From Behind the Couch

     Sylvie enjoyed quiet. No, she needed quiet. A lot of it. It wasn’t that she was anti-social, she just had a lot of things to think about, and thinking was best done on the sly, as far as she was concerned.
     She took long walks and dreamed about the world being a better place, with happy mama’s and papa’s and smiling round faces of children gazing adoringly up at their personal deities.
     She climbed tall trees and pretended to be a bird testing the wind, balancing on swaying branches, her arms spread wide.
     She perched in the loft above the living room, and sketched the raucous parties her parents frequently held, with swirling throngs of fancy adults clutching fragile stemmed wine glasses, their trilling conversations breaking over the strains of Paganini or Mozart wafting up to the ceiling, gathering like storm clouds.
     On rare quiet evenings when it was just she and her parents, she crept away from the table, unnoticed and unmourned, to curl up like a cat behind the couch purring over a favorite book while her parents’ silverware clinked in time to their speculations about various friends and colleagues.
     No, Sylvie enjoyed her alone-ness. She knew no other way of being in the world that fit her like a close-knit glove, and was happiest when watching and wondering and waiting.
     To some, it was perhaps an idyllic existence – one that didn’t involve parental commands and expectations and requirements.
     But Sylvie made sure it stayed that way. Her grades were close enough to perfect as to cause no wrinkling of eyebrows and cross-examinations as to what roadblocks barred her from achieving those grades. Her room was always perfectly tidy, as was she. She made sure to attract no undue attention, and in this way, ensured that her bubble of solitude was preserved.
     At school, it was more difficult, with persistent teachers assigning her to work groups and fellow students trying to gossip and pry and tell secrets about each other.
     But, Sylvie had learned early on how to gently swim in the currents of classroom, hallway and cafeteria etiquette without too much threat to her rainbow colored bubble of protection.
     She answered when called on with clear and respectful responses, she smiled and shrugged when asked her opinion, turning the question neatly back onto the questioner and listening with what appeared to be great attentiveness to what the other person had to say.
     She carried her lunch to school, and thereby avoided the long cafeteria line, disappearing instead into the school library and completing assignments as she nibbled on vegetables and cheese sticks.
     And then one sodden November day, while the rain drizzled down the library windows outside, and Sylvie strained in the dim light to make out the fine print in a footnote, she jumped slightly at the sound of a bag thumping down on the floor.
     A slender boy, with a mop of dandelion shag for hair and soft brown eyes peering through his round framed glasses, collapsed with a sigh into the hard wooden chair. He stared solemnly across his table, across the divide of dully-colored tiled floor, and right across book strewn Sylvie’s table to meet her startled eyes.
     “Hi,” he said quietly. “My name is Nick. I’m new here, and that cafeteria is too noisy.”
     He rummaged through his book bag and brought out a sandwich and Oreo cookies, along with a heavy advanced math book and paper.
     “Never went to a school before where they let you eat in the library.”
     Sylvie blinked twice. “Sylvie,” she offered cautiously, and looked back down at her open history book.
     Hopefully, he would be quiet. Sylvie was half-studying, half-dreaming of Elizabeth I as a young girl, navigating the eddies and pools of shifting loyalties and treachery, fighting to survive a precarious existence.
     “I haven’t seen you in any of my classes, yet,” Nick said around a mouthful of sandwich. “What do you have after lunch? I have biology and then economics.”
     Sylvie looked back up, eyebrows coming down to a “V” over her eyes, perplexed that he continued trying to talk to her.
     “I’m studying for a history quiz next class,” she responded shortly.
     “Great!” Nick said. “Let me just finish this last problem and I’ll ask you questions from the chapter. That always helps me when I am studying for a test.”
     Nick scrawled a bit more on his paper and shoved it and the remnants of his lunch into his bag, and pushed his chair back from the table.
     “No, that’s okay,” Sylvie said hastily, realizing he actually meant to do exactly what he said.
     “I think I’m done studying. I have to get to class.” With a sense of almost-panic, Sylvie hastily stood up and gathered her books and lunch bag and scurried from the room, feeling a bit twitchy, rather like the mouse she had caught her cat Zumba playing with last year.
     Once out of the library, she heaved out a great sigh leaning against the wall to gather in some strength, and then slowly straightened. History class was fifteen minutes away, but perhaps if she walked slowly, she would get there just as the door opened and could slide into her favorite corner seat.
     “Hey!” Sylvie froze in dismay as Nick stood by her, beaming ear-to-ear. “How about I walk with you? You can tell me where my next class is and where the gym and lav and all that is . . . I could use the help, and you look like you could use a friend.”
     Nick swung his backpack onto his left shoulder and handed her his class schedule, neatly gathering her books into his right arm.
     “Lead the way,” he gestured with his head down the hall.
     “Didn’t they assign you a buddy for your first day here?” Sylvie asked.
     That was what usually happened. A student from the student body government, or from one of the geek clubs, usually was assigned to shepherd a new student to and from classes, and orient the new kid to all the things they “ought” to know about the school – and with any luck, at least a few of the things students usually wanted to know, that administration would not share. Where the smoker’s hole was, if you were so inclined. What the best afterschool clubs were, the best sports coach, who threw the best parties . . .
     “They tried,” Nick confessed. “I didn’t like the guy. He was . . . well, demeaning to a lot of students and teachers . . . and I prefer to make up my own mind. But I have since been late to all my classes, because nothing in this school makes sense and I don’t have a map . . . please, please help me?”
     Nick grinned engagingly at her. “Hey,” he said, suddenly serious. “I can tell you are used to being alone – you probably like being alone – and frankly, so do I. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend who gets that? I had a friend back in Nevada who understood. I was sorry to leave there – I’ll probably never see him again. Let’s be friends.”
     Sylvie thought for a moment or two. “Maybe,” she said. “Let me show you where your classes are, and then if you want to study together – quietly – in the library during lunch, I guess I can give that a try.”
     “Fair enough,” Nick said, beaming.
     “Lead the way, Sylvie. Looking forward to being your friend.”

A Little Fishy of A Tale

“Ho, hum,” Goldy thought. “Life is rather doldrum . . .”

A string of bubbles escaped from Goldy’s thoughtfully pursed lips as he floated gently above Snake-Thing, writhing through the pebbles and plants below. A small school of dull colored feeder fish swirled around Goldy and darted off to the far corner of the tank, anxiously waiting for the Shadow that rained manna from above.

“I have got to get out of here,” Goldy thought. “There must be more to life.”

Like clockwork, the Shadow loomed over Goldy’s circumscribed world, and tiny pellets rained down into the water. The Shadow bent closer, making odd sounds and blocking out the light before disappearing.

Goldy snapped up a few of the pellets, shaking his fins at the swarm of hungry feeder fish.

“Gotta be faster than that,” he thought, with no small amount of contemptuousness. Snake-Thing whizzed past up to the top of the world and dive-bombed the little group, scattering them around the tank with his own brand of contempt.

“Like I said,” Goldy thought to himself, and allowed the current to lift him to the top of his small world.

Once there, he paused. Something was different . . . he cast about, wriggling just a bit to better place his body so his eyes could see above him. “A-ha!” he thought. “The Shadow forgot to close the lid of the world.”

Goldy swam the circumference of his limited world, and nosed his way to the very top. He was a proficient jumper, given half a chance – but the only time he got to show off his skill was when the Shadow tried capturing him. Goldy backed up and took a chance on leaping up into the free world. His body thudded painfully against something hard and fell back into the water. The little school of fish hovered motionless below him, watching with anticipation.

Goldy marshaled his resources and tried again. Success! He flopped heavily onto something that was cold and hard . . . and not wet. Perturbed, Goldy tried wriggling his way back into his world – he had forgotten that when the Shadow captured him, it was a terrifying experience and he wasn’t able to breathe. If he could just move a little to the side, Goldy thought he would fall back into his world – and be perfectly content to stay there, this time.

Unfortunately, he fell. For what seemed like forever. And landed on a surface that was hard, cold, and so abrasive to his skin. Frantically, Goldy flopped from side to side, and with a sinking sensation realized he was so far away from his dull, but safe, world, that he had no hope of getting back into it. Writhing in desperation, Goldy fought against what he realized would be a slow and arduous death, as his body slowly succumbed to an atmosphere that he just was not designed for . . . and then he saw the Little Shadow, and froze.

The Little Shadow did not bring food and funny faces to Goldy’s world. The Little Shadow sat and stared, pressing a nose against Goldy’s world and staring impassively at the swirling fish.

“Well,” Goldy thought philosophically, “perhaps the Little Shadow will end it or help me . . .”

But the Little Shadow just sat and stared, reaching out tentatively and then jerking back whenever Goldy flopped from side to side.

“Great,” thought Goldy, “the Little Shadow is how many time bigger than me, and apparently too scared to get near me . . . now what?”

Suddenly, a series of thuds reverberated along Goldy’s quivering body, and a  sound high-pitched sound echoed. The Little Shadow froze in the act of extending one paw, and then abruptly disappeared. The Shadow had come, and Goldy could see the funny faces the Shadow made so much clearly now. Except that he was starting to fade, and his movements were weaker. He couldn’t even complete a flop from one side to the next now.

“Oh, Goldy,” the little girl scolded as she carefully scooped up the four-inch goldfish. “What were you thinking? Silly thing!”

With gentle hands, the girl delicately picked the dying fish up and carefully lowered him back into the water, holding her cupped hand around Goldy until he swam away, in great relief, to a corner hidden from view with gently waving plants.

The girl watched for several minutes, and then carefully closed the lid on the tank before scooping up her tabby cat.

“Butternut,” she crooned, “what a good boy you were to just look and not touch. Goldy could have died!”

With a disbelieving meow, Butternut squirmed loose and stalked sullenly away to hide under the couch. One more minute, and he would have had that fish in his paw, and then his mouth, and down his gullet.

Life just wasn’t fair.

Lick the Batter Off the Spoon

     Marion beat the chocolate batter with great vigor, counting the strokes under her breath. At 39, a thin wail interrupted her work, and she set the bowl which had been tucked into the crook of her left arm back down on the baker’s table and washed and dried her hands.
     Alicia was growing more insistent in her cries, but Marion was not hurrying. All in good time.
     She headed out of the kitchen and spied Lucien, surrounded by his Brio train set, fixedly looking at the bowl Marion had just set down. Marion squatted down to be eye-level with her son, and smiled at him, gathering his attention to her like metal to magnets. Lucien toothily grinned back at his mother.
     “Hey, bud,” she said, ruffling his hair. “This is quite a set-up you have going here.” She moved one of the engine’s along the track slowly.
     “Baby crying,” Lucien looked over his shoulder down the hall and back at his mom.
     “I know,” Marion replied. “I’m going to get her right now. You keep an eye on that bowl of chocolate brownie batter and make sure the cat doesn’t hop up on the counter, okay? You can help me finish making them after I nurse your sister.”
     “Okay,” Lucien replied, a somewhat crafty gleam beginning to sparkle in his eye.
     Marion cocked her head at her son. “You stay out of it, too,” she said, and then stood up, heading down the hall to where Alicia’s cries had moved from insistent to angry.
     “There, there, baby girl,” Marion called down the hall as she paused to grab a lemonade. “Mama’s coming, I’m on my way!”
     Lucien turned around and craned his head to see more clearly down the hallway. He could hear his mother’s voice, high-pitched and sing-song as she comforted Alicia.
     His dad told him most nights during bedtime stories that someday he would be happy to have a baby sister, that soon she could be able to play with him. Every once in a while, Lucien thought having a baby sister was kind of interesting – but mostly, it was just a nuisance, and took his parent’s time and attention.
     Lucien quietly stood up and walked over to where the bowl of batter sat, spoon resting against the lip of the bowl. Lucien was sure he could smell the scent of chocolate drifting along the counter and down to his nose. He could hear it calling him . . . his mouth watered . . . his fingers twitched . . . and decision firmed.
     He found the little step stool he used to reach the sink to wash his hands before meals and quietly picked it up from the cabinet door in front of the sink, and ever so softly set it down in front of the baker’s table, and stepped up.
     Better! He could almost see over the top of the bowl to the batter inside.
     Lucien hopped down with a thud and paused guiltily, but heard only his mother’s voice singing gentle songs about wind whispering through trees, and flowers waving in the breeze, and sunshine making all life grow day to day. He strained mightily at the heavy phone book sitting on the table and finally managed to slide it into his arms and staggered back to the step stool where he put in on the top step and clambered up again.
     Now, he could see the chocolate batter, swirled and mostly mixed, and oh, so inviting. Lucien put one hand on the bowl to hold it still and with the other he moved the spoon as best he could through the thick batter.
     Lucien decided to try both hands, and that seemed to help, but now the bowl wouldn’t stay still. With every movement of the spoon it wobbled a little farther from Lucien. Frowning, he let go of the spoon and pulled the bowl closer, managing to dip his fingers into chocolate batter.
     Delighted, Lucien licked the chocolate from his fingers, smearing some across his lips and chin, savoring the taste — and then he heard his mother’s voice calling down the hall, “Lucien?”
     He froze guiltily, and then climbed off his step stool and tiptoed through the kitchen to peer down the hallway. There was a pause and then she called louder, “Lucien!”
     He padded in his stocking feet down the hall and looked in on his mom and baby sister. Alicia was wrapped in a soft rainbow striped blanket, eyes half open looking up at Mom. One hand rested on the side of his mother’s breast as Alicia busily nursed.
     Lucien looked up at his mom, who gently smiled at him while she slowly rocked back and forth in her rocking chair.
     “So, how was the chocolate, son? Any left for our brownies?”

Anthropomorphize This!

     “It’s crazy!” Sam complained. “What does she mean, ‘write a story about an inanimate object without anthropomorphizing it?’”
     Sullenly, he kicked the stone down the street in front of him. Sam drawled out each syllable on the word anthropomorphize and then for good measure spat on the ground.
      “I don’t even know what that word means,” he grumbled.
     June slugged him in the shoulder, and not softly, either.
     “Ow!” Sam yelped. “What did you do that for?”
     “Because I’m tired of listening to you whine,” she retorted, leaning down to pluck a tall grass stem to chew on.
     June and Sam had lived next door to each other since they were born, and had the (sometimes  dubious) pleasure of being each other’s constant companions since they were both only children and lived at the very last stop on the bus stop about a thirty minute’s walk from their nearest classmate.
     “Besides,” June continued, “how hard could it be to write about this grass I’m chewing on? Or the rock you so viciously kicked down the road. Or that bumblebee right there?”
     June was much more even tempered than Sam, who had a tendency to dramatize and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Or pout – whichever seemed most likely to get him what he wanted at the time.
     “C’mon, Sam,” June wheedled, grinning around the grass stem in her mouth, “it’ll be fun.”
     Sam shrugged and followed June into the shade under the old maple tree and out of the blazing heat. Once under the shade, he promptly felt better and brushed a tired hand across his watery eyes.
     Sam had never been terribly healthy, especially compared to June’s vibrancy and energetic enjoyment of all life had to offer. Sam suffered from frequent headaches, and what his mother called “spells” where the world just seemed to go out of focus and waver and glimmer and end up in a throbbing in his head and stabbing pain in his temples.
     Sam decided if he was going to write about anything, it would be about the sneaky, sudden attacks and what brought them on. Surely they had a life of their own.
     Sam’s imagination quite clearly painted a picture of a dark, shapeless blob that crouched in a dim corner of an abandoned and dusty room. The blob would spend hours, days, sometimes even weeks, in complete isolation and Sam would forget that the blob even existed.
     And then something would change. The blob would begin to grow and spread and reflect brilliant colors, rather like a prism that caught the sun. The room that had been so dark and still became brilliantly lit, painfully so, and the blob would shiver and tremble and throb in time to the shifting changing lights.
     As the blob grew bigger and sucked up the light, Sam’s vision would grow darker and the pain would begin. Sam wasn’t sure if his head was keeping time to the changing shapes of the blob, or if the blob was mirroring the tempo thudding in his head, but they were perfectly matched.
     Just when Sam would reach a point where he felt he must scream or bash his head against a wall just to create a different pain, the blob would suddenly stiffen and then slowly begin to contract, pulling the vivid lights and painful sounds with him until eventually the blob crouched in the still, silent, musty corner in a dim room.
     Sam’s sight would slowly return and the rushing noise in his head diminished and he could feel his feet on the ground again – connected, alive.
     Yes, Sam decided, he would do his best to write about this specter that haunted him and sprang out at inconvenient, unexpected times. Maybe if he grew to understand it better, he could keep it small and still.
     Sam could hope. Sometimes, his wishes came true.

In the Wings

     Norma hesitantly entered the theater. Like every other theater she had been in, it was quite dim with the exception of the stage. A pair of spotlights beamed across each other, casting a soft glow across the stage which was empty. She looked sideways at Rick, and shrugged. 
     “I guess we’re early,” she said softly, and stepped inside letting the doors thud shut behind her. The sound of the doors closing echoed through the deserted theater and she reached out to take Rick’s hand. Her younger brother was apparently nervous, since his hand was damp and warm. Usually, Rick’s hands were quite cool and dry. Norma squeezed his hand in reassurance and led the way down the center aisle.
     The theater was in the standard royal red, although somewhat frayed around the edges. Here and there, she could see pieces of popcorn and candy wrappers. The cleaning crew either hadn’t been in or were lax in their duties. The heavy velvet curtains were tied back with black rope, so tattered on the ends it rather reminded Norma of a bushy tail.
     “Where do you suppose he is?” Rick whispered.
     Norma pulled Rick down into a seat beside her and patted him on the knee.
     “He’ll be here,” she replied. “Don’t worry. You’ll do fine.”
     “I don’t know, Norma,” Rick said anxiously. “He’s supposed to be one of the toughest casting directors around. What if I forget my monologue? And where’s Nancy?” Rick stared anxiously around looking for the woman who would accompany him when he sang his show piece.
     “You’ll be fine, Rick,” Norma said soothingly.
     The doors opened and closed behind them, and a group of chattering young people filed in. Stopping, they stared at Rick and Norma as one, before a slender brunette girl detached herself and stepped a few paces toward them.
     “I’m Katrina,” she said. “Who are you?” There was no smile on her face or warmth in her eyes.
     Norma felt Rick freeze into place, and she bent her head slightly to the girl before answering coolly, “This is my brother, Rick. I’m Norma. He’s here to audition.”
     “Norma,” the girl replied. “His mother or his nanny?” Norma felt like scratching the girl’s eyes out but forced herself to calmly reply as she stood up to face the girl head on. “I’m his sister.”
     The girl looked Rick over, and said sullenly, “Dave might like you. I think there’s one or two parts for little kids in the show . . . or maybe a midget. But, the first thing is . . . he has to like you. And he’s tough to please. He knows talent when he sees it. And he knows  . . .” Katrina paused delicately, and allowed a scornful grin cross her face, “ . . . he knows when it is lacking.”
     Katrina turned to rejoin her group and tossed a final comment over her shoulder. “Good luck – you’ll probably need it. Dave usually doesn’t like working with small children.” She and her companions moved off towards the far side of the theater and disappeared behind the curtains.
     Rick stared after them, listening to their chatter and laughter.
     “I’ve heard that before, Norma,” he whispered. “The man does not like directing children, and I’m only eleven.” 
     “Rick,” Norma patiently replied, “you’ll be fine.”
     The doors swung open again and Nancy strode in, her guitar in hand. “Rick, Norma!” She waved at them and sat in a seat across the aisle, taking her guitar out of the case and tuning it. “All ready, Rick?”
     “I don’t think I should do this, Nancy,” Rick responded glumly. “Everything I have heard about this director says he can’t stand children, he had a horrid temper, and looks like a complete devil with blazing red hair and bulging eyes and bushy eyebrows. He’s sounds awful!”
     “I wouldn’t know, Rick,” Nancy answered cheerfully, strumming an Am chord and then modulating to an E7. “I’ve never met the man.”
     Rick clenched his hands anxiously and said, “Marianne at school said she overheard her mom and the neighbor talking about him. She said he had a horrible temper and was known for breaking things and shouting and . . . ”
     The theater doors banged open and they all jumped, turning to look at the newcomer. A very large man stood in the doorway, a dark shadow to their eyes with brilliant outdoor light backlighting him. He stomped down the aisle, barely glancing at them and vaulted onto the stage, disappearing behind the curtains. Rick stiffened as he heard the man bellow and then the shrieks of the youth he had seen earlier. He watched wide-eyed as the group fled out of the wings and scattered into the theater sitting in apart from each other, stifling their giggles and whispers into silence.
     The man strode downstage and paused in the center, the gold glints in his unruly red hair flashing as he looked around the theater. In a quiet voice, he said, “Auditions will begin in fifteen minutes. You will have exactly five minutes in which to share your monologue and perform your song. When I say you are done, go back to your seat and stay until dismissed. If your performance pleases me,” the man paused and scowled ferociously out at the small group of eager young actors, “I will ask you to read from the script. Questions?”
     Silence answered him. “Good. Get ready.”
     He disappeared back behind the curtains and Rick gulped and looked at Norma and then at Nancy. “I guess he’s only a little frightening,” Rick said softly.
     “He’s just an actor  — like you are, or want to be,” Norma said softly. “I guess he feels like he can be himself only when he’s off stage, in the wings.”

A Friend In Jesus

     “Jessie,” Ann Marie called across the room. “Come and help me with this, would you?”
     Jessie looked up from where she was shelling peas and smiled at Ann Marie. Gramma Ann, most folks called her. She was over 90 – how far, no one really knew since Gramma Ann wouldn’t say. She had a mischievous sparkle in her eyes that lit her entire face when she brushed aside the question, or pulled other mild jokes and tricks on unsuspecting members of the church.
     “It’s a calling, Jessie-girl,” she’d chuckle. “Have to keep people on their toes and smiling and hoppin’ along. Otherwise, they get mired down. Stuck in their muck. Himself taught me that by reading His stories and learnin’ more about folks down all the years who followed Him well.”
     Gramma Ann was certainly not mired down in anyway. In her wheelchair  — which she pushed by hand,  no electric wheelchairs for Gramma Ann, oh no – she moved more quickly, and filled the room with more vibrancy — than most folks in the room who were  easily half her age.
     Jesse set down her bowl of shelled peas and wiped her hands on the towel next to her. As she stood up, she overheard Marcella telling Renee about the latest prayer meeting with fervid intensity. Renee never attended the prayer meetings, and had a look of deep skepticism on her face.
     “I was just sure I could feel Him standing there, Renee, while we prayed for that poor young man who lost his wife and children to a drunk driver last week. There was this golden glow and the tears seemed to up and dry away.” Marcella paused for breath and continued, “He moved among the room. I know because I watched people’s faces change as we prayed. They softened and gentled . . . and the more we prayed together the happier people were.”
     Renee kept pace with her potato peeling, her lips tightly compressed. Jesse wondered how long it would be before Renee burst with indignation, and paused by their table on her way over to Gramma Ann.
     “Now, Marcella,” she said, leaning down close to the two women and setting a gentle hand on Renee’s arm to still her for a moment, “He comes in so many different ways – and not in the same way – to each of us. He is with you when you are sharing the moment with a group. For some of us,” and Jesse smiled encouragingly at Renee, “He gathers us close when we sit still and quiet and on our own just listening for His voice. And for others,” Jesse smiled across the room at Gramma Ann, “He makes Himself known through action – by what we do in His name.” Jesse straightened up and added, “There is certainly room in the Kingdom for all those ways of connecting with Him.”
     Jesse wended her way around the clumps of apron-clad women industriously working together to make the huge pots of soup to provide the community dinner that night. Generally, the women did the meal prep and the men were in charge of setting up tables and washing the dishes after. It was a pattern that worked well, and no one saw any reason to fix it.
     Anyone was welcome to join them at the weekly dinners, and encouraged to bring whatever they could share. The little town of Roanoke might be filled with material poverty, but open hearts and sharing hands made a huge difference.
     Gramma Ann had started the community dinners back in the Depression days and had coaxed, cajoled, bullied, encouraged, demanded, and sweet-talked the community into continuing the weekly tradition through all these years.
     According to Gramma Ann, building community and feeding anyone who was hungry was one of the many ways He walked among them each and every day. Gramma Ann was intent on following in His footsteps by being of service, as well.
     Jesse slipped into the chair next to Gramma Ann, and folded her hands around the old lady’s in gentle welcome. She felt so blessed to know Gramma Ann – not just for the beauty and fun of the woman herself, but for the picture Gramma Ann had painted so clearly over the years for Jesse about who He was by consistent loving example and service to others.
     Gramma Ann left Jesse in no doubt that she had a friend in Jesus, easily seen with her inside eyes in so many different ways, each and every day.

Roll the Dice

     “Damn it!” Tabby muttered under her breath. She was standing in the hallway outside Professor Marco’s door, holding her final paper in her hands. Fifteen minutes past the deadline to turn the paper in was apparently 14 minutes too late . . . as promised. The man was a monster and had a horrible sense of humor to boot.
     Professor Marcos had taped butcher paper blocking off the gap between the floor and the wooden door, with huge red cut out arrows leading up to a sign at eye level. It read in bold, black, all capitalized letters:
     It was 4:45. Tabby gritted her teeth and yanked the envelope with her name on it off the door and ripped it open. It had a phone number and directions to the professor’s house on a small sheet of paper inside. Tabby turned on her heel and flew down the stairs of Hanby Hall to where she had parked and prayed campus security was otherwise occupied; and prayed again that the small town surrounding the college also had otherwise occupied police. She would need to hurry to make it in time.
     Her wristwatch indicated 5:01 pm when she pulled into the professor’s driveway and she took the stairs up to his covered front porch two at a time. The door opened before she knocked and Professor Marco was standing there, grimly shaking his head.
     “You’re late . . . again,” he said, and started to swing the door closed.
     “Wait!” Tabby put her foot in the door jam to keep it from closing. “It’s just one minute. I could have gone twice the speed limit and been three times as late when the police pulled me over for speeding!”
     The door eased open just a crack and the Professor peered at her suspiciously through thick glasses. Tabby sighed inwardly. The man was positively paranoid of female students, but then he was pretty much an ancient relic on campus, and probably still lived in the world of ‘girls just went to college to fish for husbands’. But, he was a brilliant lecturer. He didn’t just teach anthropology, he disinterred little known facts and pieces of trivia which more often than not sparked a longer interest in his students by  drawing connections from the long ago and far away to what was current reality. Well, they did for Tabby, anyway. She liked building bridges of connection between her assorted classes.
     Tabby looked him squarely in the eyes and held up her final paper. With a sigh, the man eased the door open and Tabby could see into the foyer which open and spacious with a curving staircase leading to the second floor. Professor Marcos lived in a grand old Victorian, which was not unusual for the homes in this part of the country. It was clean and tidy, and that was unusual for a confirmed bachelor, Tabby thought.
     Professor Marcos hefted the paper in his hand and scowled. “Too thin,” he muttered. And started to hand it back to Tabby.
     “Hey!” Tabby exclaimed! “You yourself said it’s not the number of pages or the volume of words — it’s the depth of meaning, the focused analysis, the creativity that counts. If you wanted weight, I could have triple spaced it and made the margins even thicker.” She smiled sweetly at the man.
     “Troublesome girl,” he muttered. “You think I actually read these final papers?” He dropped the paper on the floor between them and folded his arms across his chest.
     “Do you?” she asked, curiously. Someone had read her other three papers, and with a fine tooth comb, as well. Probably his graduate student, she belatedly realized. Who had left two weeks ago to go study abroad. No wonder Professor Marcos had been so grumpy.
     “Finals? No,” he responded grumpily. “Take too long.”
     “So, how do you grade ‘em?” Tabby asked. The answer ought to be interesting.
     “Go up the stairs and toss them over the balcony. The thickest ones fly farther and get the top grade.”
     Tabby narrowed her eyes, and tartly responded, “Well, surely mine would at least land in the B range. Give it a try.”
     “Can’t,” a malicious grin started to twitch at the corners of the Professor’s mouth. “Already did that. You’re too late.”
     “Oh, b.s.,” Tabby replied, “they’d still be littering the floor since they were due . . .” she paused and glanced at her watch, “40 minutes ago.”
     Professor Marcos shrugged and started nudging her paper back towards her while swinging the door closed.
     “C’mon,” Tabby cried, panic starting to nibble at her. “Play fair!”
     “Life,” the professor intoned, “is not fair.”
     “Fine,” Tabby left the paper and started back down the steps. “I turned my final in – you do as you please.”
     She was almost to the car when the man spoke. “Wait.”
     Tabby stopped and looked over her shoulder. Professor Marcos was looking at her car. She drove an old gas guzzling beater that served to get her to and from classes and work, but was definitely not cool. So, she had decorated it somewhat, with a variety of political action bumper stickers and had hung a pair of fuzzy pink dice from the rear view mirror.
     “Come back here,” Professor Marcos gestured her back up the steps. Tabby noticed he was now standing on top of her paper and bit her tongue on pointing that out. He was a man who did not care for the obvious to be pointed out.
     “For an instant A in my course – which you have NOT earned based on your lack of diligence in turning in written assignments on time – answer this question.” Professor Marcos paused and looked her squarely in the eye. “Why do young people have fuzzy colored dice hanging from their rear view mirrors?”
     Startled, Tabby reared back and cast frantically about for the proper anthropological terms to describe youthful ideology and rebellion and the need to be different from the older generation, and knew with a sinking heart that all was lost as the Professor shook his head sadly and started closing the door.
     “Nope – not good enough,” he mumbled.
     “Wait!” Tabby said frantically, putting one hand on his door. “I’ll tell you the truth about why we have those fuzzy dice. See, it’s all about cymbals.”
     Professor Marcos blinked in surprise and straightened up, “What about cymbals?”
     “Well,” Tabby said, “when you are driving down the freeway at 80 mph with all the windows rolled down and the wind in your hair,  and the stereo cranked up belting out heavy metal music, you sing along at the top of your lungs and play the drums on the steering wheel. The fuzzy dice are the cymbals for the drum set. Honestly.”
     Professor Marcos nibbled on his lower lip and waved her away, leaning down to pick up her paper. “A” he intoned solemnly and slammed the door shut.
     Tabby turned to walk back down the steps, her heart feeling a little bit lighter with sudden relief. As she got into the car, the door opened and Professor Marcos shouted at her, “And don’t crank up that horrible music in MY neighborhood, madam!” slamming the door on her as she backed out of his tree-lined driveway.

Lake Erie Treasure

     Bertha wandered, but not aimlessly, along the lake shore. She had a sharp eye and was looking for particular treasures: pebbles and small rocks that had unusual colors or shapes. First, they had to catch her eye – and then they had to keep it. Sometimes, she found polished, softened glass to add to the mix. She was looking for mitre shells, as well.
     Eventually, she would carefully arrange it in the V’lassic pickle jar she had washed thoroughly and then lowered into boiling water to purify. When she was done, she would add water from Lake Erie and then voila! A going away present that would hopefully anchor her young friend firmly to the ground even as the girl fled across the country.
     Bertha knew what it meant to get small tokens of fond regard made from the most welcoming parts of the world. She took many happy rambles along Lake Erie’s shoreline in all seasons of the year, and remembered the girl’s delight in the frozen winter months.
     The snow plows pushed all the snow out onto the banks of the lake – where else would they heap all that wet, heavy snow? – and as the mounds grew and melted and became part of the lake, they created a bit of winter wonderland. Folks wandering along the edges and venturing out a bit farther were treated to miniature cliffs and mountains, trickles of water streaming over the piles and curling quietly into still ponds, and the sparkle captured in a thousand pinpoints of frozen light.
     It was late spring now, and soon the heat and dampness would soar. Summertime in upstate New York meant – for Bertha, at least – that such rambles were feasible only in the pre-dawn stillness when a lone bird song grew into a cacophony of hundreds of birds, or late at night as the full moon was lifted into the sky by the cricket and frog song thrumming beneath its’ globe.
     Bertha had hoped to show her young friend the mystery and beauty of the lake during those times, and was a bit saddened by the suddenness of the girl’s decision to pack up as much of her belongings as possible and go clear across the country.
     On the other hand, she understood the young woman’s need to be with family she had not been close to since being a little girl. It was flight to, and a flight from, and a venturing into a freedom as well bondage, all wrapped up in one confused, angry, sad bundle of life.
     Bertha remembered being in a similar place so many years ago – and still had the grounding gift an older woman had given to her as she made her life choices and transitions. She hoped the Vlassic pickle jar would give the young woman a concrete and very real reminder that she was precious, and worthy, and loved.
     Smiling up into the sun, Bertha felt the wind ripple through her hair and linger on her eyelashes, and she drew in a deep breath all the way down to her toes and let it slowly out. Looking down, she spotted a ripple of green and white, palm-sized stone – the crowning glory for the homemade package of love she would send across the country with her young friend.

Big Girls Don’t Cry

     “Big girls don’t cry, eh?” Marti said, looking sideways at her best friend, Tara, who was sitting still as a statue and quivering.
     Tara glanced back at Marti and angrily dashed a tear off her face. Tara spent a great deal of time concerned with appearances. Not necessarily the details related to make-up, coordinated clothing and perfectly manicured nails, but the ones related to performance and success and what Marti thought of as the British “stiff upper lip” her great-grandmother had referred to with nauseatingly regularity during Marti’s tumultuous teen years.
     “Well, and who says that, I ask you? I think big girls do cry. A lot.” Marti quirked an eyebrow at Tara. “I certainly do. None the worse for wear,” she added cheerfully. A small muscle was jumping like a tick on hot concrete in Tara’s cheek. Well, good, Marti thought – maybe I am getting through to her.
     “You know, I read the other day that tears are a natural cleansing system for tear ducts, raw nerves, stress reduction . . . and I swear it leads to weight loss. Who knew how much tears could weigh?” Marti was just slightly plump, comfortable with her weight. She knew Tara constantly agonized over the fit of her favorite pair of jeans, although her friend was quite slender.
     “How much tears weigh?” Tara whispered softly. “How much they weigh?” She looked at Marti. “Is that what the problem is? Do you suppose they have somehow frozen solid into a lump of ice inside me? Do you know what Dan said? He told me I was cold, frigid, an ‘Ice Queen’ – he left because I don’t show him enough emotion!  For God’s sake, Marti – just last year he told me I showed too much emotion and he was going to leave me then, too!”
     Marti laid a hand softly on her best friend’s shoulder. “Tara,” she said gently. “Dan will always find a reason to criticize or mock you. Let go of your pipe dream that you can make him happy by dancing to the tune he sets for you. You are wonderful, just the way you are. You deserve someone who loves you for you.”
     Marti sighed and wondered for hundredth time just what it was about Dan that kept Tara so firmly tied to his side. He didn’t physically hurt Tara in any way, and he didn’t control her through fear or rages. It was far more insidious . . . and as far as Marti was concerned, far more damaging. A bruise or something broken would be physical evidence. This internal damage to Tara’s psyche could not be held up and apart as proof that the man was really no good for Tara.
     Tara gave a small gasp and abruptly stood up. “I have to go,” she said, frantically reaching for her coat and handbag. “If I can just get to him before he finishes packing, I can make it right. I can’t lose him, Marti, I can’t. He’s everything to me.” Tara looked at Marti, and Marti had a sudden vision of someone drowning, looking up through rapidly thickening ice. Marti swallowed convulsively and shook her head.
     “Tara,” she said, “let it be. He’s just trying to create reasons to leave on his terms, and pin the fault on you. Let it be.” Marti held her hand out to Tara, who suddenly smiled brilliantly through the brimming tears.
     “You are the best friend in the entire world, Marti,” Tara said, holding Marti’s hand briefly in her own. “You always listen and love me, no matter what.” Tara grasped her purse and coat tightly under her left arm, only the sudden showing of finger and knuckle bones against tightly drawn flesh betraying her tension and anxiety.
     “I’ll call you tomorrow. Love you,” Tara added and hurried from the room.
     “Well,” Marti mused as she watched her friend walk off, with perfect posture and hair swinging over her shoulders. “Big girls really don’t cry. And if that’s the result, I’m glad to be such a cry-baby.” Marti picked up her gardening trowel and started loosening soil around her spent irises. The afternoon was ahead, filled with what she liked to do best – even if it led to less than perfect nails.