And So It Began . . .

This week’s prompt for a weekly contest on LinkedIn has led to the creation of a prequel to my stories about Federal Agent Lauren Schrecklich and the vampires she battles against. Enjoy!

Gold_medal_of_St._Michael

 

Lauren Schrecklich fingered the St. Michael medal on her rosary—a gift from her father on the day she graduated the police academy. As she lay in her hospital bed, the words to the familiar prayer from her childhood rose unbidden to her lips, “St. Michael, archangel, defend us . . .” Her thoughts migrated to the events that had landed her in Massachusetts General.

 

St. Patrick’s Day topped Lauren’s list of least favorite days. This year, she was scheduled to patrol the city streets on the day, which was named for a saint but reserved for participation in every imaginable vice. Although, like most every Irish saint, Patrick was famous for having turned water into wine, that seemed a poor reason to turn his feast day into a bacchanalia.

 

Late that evening, as Lauren and her partner patrolled the emptying streets, they heard a woman scream. Immediately, she and Arden took off down the alleyway toward the sound. Arriving at the scene, they discovered a man attacking a young woman. Both officers drew their firearms, and Arden commanded the man to release his victim. The attacker, using the victim’s body as a shield, reached a long arm toward Arden and wrested the gun away from him.

 

Well-trained in hand-to-hand combat, Lauren jumped into the fray. Later, all she could remember was the thud of Arden’s body hitting a brick wall, the feeling of panic as the attacker held her against the ground, the sensation of life draining from her as he bit down on her carotid, and a brief moment of surprise as her attacker suddenly backed away just before she passed out.

 

Days later, she had awakened in the hospital, surrounded by tubes and monitors and two g-men that kept wandering in to ask her questions until the charge nurse shooed them away.

 

The agents’ questions disturbed Lauren. “How did you know to confront the attacker with your rosary crucifix?” They kept asking this. She answered truthfully. Still, they kept probing.

 

“I hoped to be able to strangle him with the chain of beads,” Lauren would reply each time Agent Peters posed the question. Agent Morales, who had told her to call him by his first name, Michael, had sensibly stopped asking that particular question.

 

As Lauren caressed her rosary, the agents arrived for another inquisition. She hastily dropped the beads and slid them under a piece of paper on her bedside tray.

 

“How are we feeling this morning, Officer Schrecklich?”

 

Lauren gave a non-committal shrug. She loathed the unsmiling senior agent.

 

“We have just a few more questions for you, Lauren. Then we’re leaving town, so you can rest without us pestering you.” Michael flashed his boyish grin.

 

“Officer,” Peters jumped into inquisition mode immediately. “Can you tell us what caused you to use the crucifix on your rosary against your attacker?”

 

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Look, I’ve told you. I was hoping to get the chain around his neck. Don’t know if it would have been strong enough to strangle him, but with my gun out of reach, it was my only chance.”

 

“Do you regularly carry a rosary?”

 

Exasperated, Lauren sighed. “Only since my dad died. I’ve told you I don’t believe in magic. I miss my dad. I was fighting for my life. That combination seems to have saved me this time around.”

 

“Thanks, Lauren,” Michael smiled. “That’s all we need to know.”

 

Peters didn’t seem convinced but nodded and left the room.

 

Michael hung back. “We’ve run background on you, officer.” His kind eyes sparkled. “I noticed you’ve had an application sitting in our offices for a while.”

 

Lauren’s mouth dropped open.

 

“Your recent encounter might open some doors if you’re still interested.” Michael retrieved the rosary from its hiding place and handed them to her. “Looks like you’re reconsidering your faith. That’s good. Fighting people like your alleyway attacker will introduce you to a new level of vice. You need a way to defend yourself.”

 

Michael slipped out of the room before Lauren had a chance to respond. “A rabbi—just what a lapsed Catholic needs,” she thought, remembering the term used for FBI agents who open doors for people like her. Despite lingering doubt, she grasped the rosary and began to pray, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .”

wood rosary

Belling the Cat

As hinted at earlier, this is the first in a new series I’m calling “Flashes of Awareness.” I’ll post a page with details on that soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the story and stick around a while when you get to the end. There’s a great surprise waiting for you in the real world.

 

Photo courtesy of Todd Foltz, copyright 2014

Photo courtesy of Todd Foltz, copyright 2014

Belling the Cat

Ronald pulled into the driveway Thursday evening primed for a domestic fight. That afternoon, his husband had sent a text, “Got off early. Taking the cat to Vivian’s.” Ronald couldn’t stand that cat, so he should have been glad Jeremy had found a way to get rid of her. But did Vivian have to be involved?

The cat was really just a stray. Jeremy had taken her in just before she gave birth, and he had dutifully found homes for her three kittens. After they were born, the cat refused to stay indoors. Jeremy had taken her to the vet to be vaccinated and spayed, and she would show up regularly at the patio door to be fed. Jeremy doted on the feral thing. Now he had found some drag queen who loved cats. Ronald had a mind to suggest that both Jeremy and the cat move in with Vivian.

Upon entering the house, Ronald found Jeremy in bed with the cat guarding him like a police dog. He lay still, scarcely breathing, his face pale as paste.

“What the hell happened to you?” Ronald snapped, approaching the bed. He jumped back as the cat hissed and threatened to attack. Jeremy’s eyes opened slowly.

“Oh dear, what happened?” Ronald’s tone softened.

“The afternoon excursion didn’t go as planned.”

“I gathered that.” Despite concern for his husband’s health, Ronald’s disdain for Vivian and that stupid cat still had him itching for a fight. A low growl from the feral ball of teeth and claws lying next to Jeremy indicated that he was about to get one.

“It’s okay, Kitty. Hush now.” Jeremy stroked the cat. “Calm down. I’ll tell you all about it.”

It took Ronald a moment to realize that Jeremy was directing that final statement toward him. “I’m going to pour myself a drink. You want anything?”

“Water—with lemon.”

Ronald left and returned with two glasses—water for Jeremy, a gin and tonic for himself. Cautiously eyeing the cat, he placed the water on Jeremy’s nightstand. Slipping off his shoes, he crossed to the opposite side of the bed and slid in. Safely away from the hostile guard cat, he propped Jeremy up against a pair of pillows.

“It appears that Vivian is more ‘Queen of the Damned’ than Drag queen,” Jeremy began, self-consciously fingering a gauze bandage on his neck.

Ronald felt the rage rising in his throat. “What did you do?” Ever since the two had met Vivian at the drag show in Kansas City Jeremy had been taken with her.

“Nothing.” Jeremy looked hurt. “I arranged for her to take the cat. She has a couple acres out on County Road YY past the old dairy—plenty of room and very little traffic. I figured you’d be happy to be rid of the cat.”

“Okay, so what happened?”

“She lives in this horrid hovel—all shuttered up. I thought I was in the wrong place. When I rang the bell, she called for me to come in with the cat. I stopped in the entryway so my eyes could adjust, and the cat started thrashing around in the carrier. I set the carrier down, and Vivian came out looking like a hot mess. Next thing I know, she’s biting my neck.”

Ronald’s eyes widened. “Biting? Like a—“ Jeremy nodded.

“Calm down. You know it takes three bites to turn a person. But I think she might have drained me dry if the cat hadn’t managed to release the latch on the carrier. She went straight for Vivian’s face. This little lady’s pretty vicious.” Jeremy affectionately scratched the head of the feline, who was now curled up on his lap, still eyeing Ronald with suspicion.

“And then?”

“That’s when things get a little fuzzy.  I lost a lot of blood. Vivian must have disappeared into her hovel, and next thing I knew the cat was back in the carrier. I put her in the car, found a handkerchief to wrap around my neck and managed to drive home. I don’t remember much of the trip.”

Ronald sighed. There was no sense fighting tonight. “I’m glad you’re alright. Sounds like I need to make some calls—get a team to take Vivian out of the picture before she skips town. Meanwhile, we need to give that cat a name.” Ronald smiled at Jeremy. “I think we should call her ‘Buffy.’”

Flashes of Awareness

Did you fall in love with the stunning cat photo at the top of this post? The cat’s real name is Dillar. Like Buffy in the story, Dillar is a rescue cat. At the time of this posting, unlike Buffy, Dillar hasn’t yet found her furever home. Photographer Todd Foltz took her picture for the Kansas City Kitty Cat Connection, a cat rescue organization in Kansas City’s Northland. If you want a pet that will be forever grateful to you, please consider rescuing an animal from the Kitty Cat Connection or from another organization in your locality.

Although cats have a reputation for being aloof and standoffish, they can be affectionate and devoted, much like the cat in this story. My oldest cat, whom I rescued from a local park when he was a small kitten, can tell anytime that I am feeling ill, and he always sets up a guard post to keep an eye on me until I’m feeling better.

Both of my cats were rescued, and our baby, Frida, was adopted from Sharon Jones, one of the amazing foster moms that works with the Kitty Cat Connection. Click here or the link above to learn more about the great work that she, Todd and others are doing.

Of Nicknames and Embarrassing Moments

It’s a little early for me to post my response to the weekly LinkedIn challenge, but this week’s prompt “My Most Embarrassing Moment” struck a chord with me immediately. A few of my readers will recognize this story, at least in part.

 

Heehee Marie

As nicknames among adolescents go, “Heehee Marie” wasn’t that bad, even for a serious kid like me. It  out-ranked names like “Leetle Ree-chard” and “Frogger,” which were thrust upon friends of mine.

The problem with being called “Heehee Marie” was that I didn’t understand it. I understood the nicknames of others in the youth group. Joy acquired the name “Surprise” when the quiet 12-year-old hollered “Hail, Hitler!” during a lull in a lunchtime conversation about relatives from the Soviet Union. The youth group quickly explained the difference between Nazis and Communists to her, but the nickname stuck. Tommie earned the nickname “Photo Dweeb” after snapping over 260 pictures during a single trip to Texas. Since these nicknames were doled out justly, I could only assume that mine also had been somehow earned.

Taking everything seriously was in my nature, so I dutifully asked members of the group why they called me “Heehee.” Usually I received a non-committal shrug. Jason, nicknamed “Hobie” after a brand of clothing he often wore,  had originated my nickname, and he finally pacified me by stating that the name just rhymed.

I wasn’t upset by the nickname, and it had already stuck, so I let the matter lie. To some people, I would always be “Heehee Marie.” Since most of those people liked me well enough, I could live with the nickname. It rhymed. I guess that made them happy. Why shouldn’t I be happy as well?

I spent the bulk of my teenage years with that group. A few like Angela, also known as “Giggles” because she actually had a sense of humor, graduated ahead of me while other, younger teens came into the group.

Eventually, I graduated high school and said my goodbyes. Before leaving for college, I had one final event in which to take part—a national quiz bowl tournament. For six years, I had competed in quiz bowl, and my goal was to earn a place in the top 10 individual quizzers in the nation. At my previous national quiz, the pressure had overwhelmed me. This time would be different.

During the final four rounds, the tournament was being recorded as well as televised locally. Since my team and I were scoring well, I began to relax from my typically serious bent of mind. One of my team members even discovered that I indeed had a sense of humor and took pleasure in tickling it at inopportune moments. Toward the end of a round, he whispered something in my ear that made me giggle just before the quiz master announced, “Question number . . .” After the next question, the captain of the opposing team decided to challenge the quiz master’s ruling. The quiz master requested the audio technician to replay the answer so he could review it.

The technician wound the old-fashioned reel-to-reel recording backward too far, to the exact moment when I had laughed at my team member’s joke. The auditorium sat in silence. Throughout the room and across the airwaves came my squeaky, high-pitched laugh, “HeeHEE!” Snap. The technician fast-forwarded the reel, stopped it at the correct spot and replayed the answer.

Suddenly, the reason for my nickname dawned on me—in front of the entire world. I could feel my face turning crimson. As the team captains and the quiz master came to some decision, I rationalized to myself—maybe no one else realized that was my laugh. After all, there were several others within range of the sound equipment.

Just before the final question of the round, my humorous team member leaned over and whispered in my ear, “HeeHEE.” Once again my face turned crimson. My hopes were dashed. Everyone knew, as I now knew, exactly why my nickname was “Heehee Marie.”

HeeHee Marie and Joy, aka "Surprise," at the pinnacle of Pike's Peak, circa 1992

Heehee Marie and Joy, aka “Surprise,” at the pinnacle of Pike’s Peak, circa 1992

The Web

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, by Fir0002

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, by Fir0002

 

I’m not 100% certain I care for this particular story. It was written in response to a LinkedIn prompt THE SPIDER’S WEB. Perhaps some of you will enjoy it or have ideas for its improvement.

The Web

“In the dawn, you will approach your destiny.”

Clair wasn’t certain how those words had entered her brain or even when. They seemed to have been whispered to her during the night, perhaps as she warmed her hands over the campfire or as she trudged home after an exhausting day on the ranch. Perhaps she had simply dreamed them, but they were enough to rouse her from slumber before the sun arose and to chase her back to the meadow fence where she could watch the sun rise.

Unbeknownst to Clair, those same words echoed through Ben’s mind that morning also. He, too, had no idea where they originated. He, too, awoke early and made his way to the fence, eager to see what dawn would bring.

Arriving at the fence at almost the same moment, the two greeted one another. Although Ben seemed happy to see her, Clair was slightly put off at his presence interrupting her morning reverie. They sat on the top rail as the sky grew lighter and the first rays of sun illuminated the meadow. The early morning silence was comforting as was the company. The spider’s web Clair had pointed out to Ben the evening before now glittered with dew drops. “Diamonds to drape around the neck of Mother Nature,” Ben remarked poetically.

Clair groaned aloud as her heart skipped a beat. He was such a— She caught herself mid thought. Where normally she would think “schmuck,” she found herself considering words like “romantic” and “gentleman.”

The sun rose. Responsibility called. The two parted without speaking their silent pact. They both knew they would return at dawn the next day.

Whistling a bright tune she had learned from Ben years ago, Clair returned to the farmhouse. Her daughter Willow met her in the kitchen and smiled. Recognizing the tune, Willow considered it a good omen. Her subliminal messages must be working.

Round and Round We Go

By Winterhillkennel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Winterhillkennel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, hell! Here we go again,” thought Frank, now incarnate as a yellow lab puppy and gazing up into the face of none other than a grown-up Billy Steadman.

 

“Aren’t you a cute little fella?” Billy picked the trembling puppy up by the scruff of the neck. Frank responded by peeing on his shoe. “Whoopsie daisy!” Billy laughed, then pulled the puppy close and scratched behind his ears.

 

Once again, Billy didn’t recognize Frank. Of course, the last time they’d met—the last nine times, in fact—Frank had looked remarkably different. And they’d never spent much time in one another’s company.

 

Since the pair’s first encounter, Billy, aside from growing up like all boys do, had remained much the same. That is, he was still the same species. At each of their previous encounters, Billy had been the cause of Frank’s demise, which always resulted in Frank being reincarnated before encountering Billy yet again.

 

When Billy was two, he had the misfortune of encountering Frank as a honeybee—a honeybee who knew only one way back to the hive. Unfortunately for them both, the toddler had wandered into Frank’s path. Billy took the sting. Frank paid with his life.

 

When Billy was four, Frank encountered him once again. Frank, now a goldfinch nesting in an orchard near Billy’s home, observed the happy activity indoors. Flying toward the spot where the child played, Frank smashed into the picture window, and it was lights-out for the finch.

 

For some reason, Frank kept turning up in Billy’s path. He was the squirrel Billy killed with a slingshot, one of the baby rabbits Billy hit with the lawnmower, and a fly Billy smacked with a flyswatter.

 

Today, Frank was not in the mood to meet up with Billy again. He’d just gotten the hang of being a puppy, and the dog’s life suited him.

 

Sure enough, Billy selected Frank from the litter and arranged to take the puppy home. Frank cowered in a corner of the crate that Billy carefully strapped into the backseat of his SUV. “Don’t worry, little fella. We’ll get you home and introduce you to the kids. They’re gonna love you.” Frank doubted he would survive long enough to meet Billy’s kids.

 

Billy pulled out of the drive and turned left down a shady lane. Frank set to howling in hopes that Billy would return him before it was too late.

 

“Now you stop that. Everything’s gonna be—“ Billy’s voice cut off as a Dodge Ram slammed into the side of the SUV, killing Frank instantly.

***

“Simulation complete.” The canned voice came over the intercom, and Frank’s eyes flew open. The imp yanked the electrodes from his own skull without waiting for the attending lower demon’s assistance. “What special kind of hell was that?” he shrieked.

 

The laboratory door opened, and Beelzebub, dressed in a lab coat, entered. “Partial reset reincarnation. It’s a new punishment we’ve been working on for some of our more resistant clientele.”

The Carousel

Image

Photo Credit: By Davehi1 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Author’s Note: This foray into magical realism is in honor of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favorite authors, who passed away last week. The story takes place in a real location in Kansas City. From 1923 to 1977, an amusement park called “Fairyland” operated in south Kansas City. With the opening of Worlds of Fun, another, larger amusement park, in the 1970s, Fairyland began to struggle. Rumors about wind damage and a storm that took out the carousel at Fairyland have become local legend. In fact, online sources date the storm anywhere from September of 1977 to May of 1978. Some sources indicate that there was indeed no actual storm damage, but the owners still claim this as the reason that the park didn’t reopen in 1978. I chose to go with November as the anniversary of the storm for a number of reasons, including the date of a storm listed in the Kansas City Tribune, November 8, 1977. You can read one version of the story about Fairyland here: http://www.kchistory.org/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/Mrs&CISOPTR=1003

Today, the spot where the Fairyland carousel once operated is remarkably close to where a playground for a low-income housing development now stands.

 

The November wind whipped through the low-income subdivision and whistled along the guttering as D’Arqwan and his son stepped onto the front stoop of Jimmy’s townhome. “Daddy, carry me,” five-year-old Anthony, whimpered.

D’Arqwan, high as a kite, considered the request, then staggered, nearly falling off the stoop. “You got legs. Use ‘em,” he snapped, in an attempt to hide his inability to carry the little boy home at this late hour.

The two descended to street level, and Anthony grabbed his father’s hand before crossing College Avenue. “Look both ways, Daddy.” D’Arqwan’s addled brain found humor in his son’s caution—look both ways at midnight in a subdivision.

They had just crossed the street when D’Arqwan heard the music. “Look, Daddy, a carnival!” Anthony was already running toward the bright yellow lights in the center of the courtyard. As he ran, the little boy slipped out of the red jacket that was two sizes too big for him.

An eerie voice whispered warnings into the cracks in D’Arqwan’s mind. He picked up the jacket and called, “Anthony?” He couldn’t move fast enough to keep the little boy from clambering onto the carousel  standing in the spot where D’Arqwan knew he should find nothing but a graffiti-covered slide and a couple of swings.

As D’Arqwan staggered toward the carousel, it began to rotate, slowly at first. The horses moved up and down. Anthony, perched on a stationary lion, waved enthusiastically to his father. “Look! I’m a lion tamer.”

Terror struck D’Arqwan square in the stomach. “Anthony!” The carnival music drowned out his voice. “Get off the carousel! Anthony!”

Along the cracks in his brain, D’Arqwan heard the pseudo-friendly voice of a ride operator from a  modern amusement park. “Please remain seated until the ride comes to a full and complete stop.”

“No! Anthony!”

The wind, which had died down, suddenly picked up again. D’Arqwan clutched his son’s jacket to keep the wind from ripping it away. The carnival music sped up, and the carousel began spinning out of control. D’Arqwan could no longer make out his son’s face. The sound of a locomotive running along steel tracks drowned the music as a twister stretched its lone tentacle from the sky and sucked in the carousel along with its living occupant.

The first light of dawn played in the sky when D’Arqwan awoke. He lay face down in the gravel of the tiny playground. He struggled to his feet, blinking. Memories from the night before came flooding back. “That musta been some kinda weed over at Jimmy’s last night,” he muttered to himself. Then he noticed the red jacket, still clutched in his right fist. “Oh, God! Anthony.”

The Long Road

Author’s note: This is my entry for the weekly Writer’s Hangout challenge on LinkedIn. Find the group over there and join in if you’d like to play along. This week the prompt was “It’s a long road.”

 

 

Sten [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sten [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Parenthood is a long road.” How many times had Laurie heard her mother say that?

 

When Laurie was a little girl, her mom uttered those words repeatedly. Occasionally, she spoke them in exasperation. Usually, however, Mom would recite the adage while lecturing her oldest daughter on life and the joys of parenthood.

 

From her earliest memories, Laurie wanted nothing more than to be a mom. The way her own mom talked about parenthood sowed seeds of expectation made Laurie all the more eager to give birth to her own offspring.

 

In adulthood, Laurie found becoming a parent more difficult than it appeared. The primary problem lay in finding a father for her children. Her first fiancé called off the wedding less than three weeks before the big day. Laurie spent the next decade nursing a broken heart.

 

Laurie’s professional life roamed from promising opportunity to tragic disaster. She could hold down a job and always received stellar reviews from supervisors and peers, but nothing she did filled the hole in her life. Her younger brother and sister married and had their own children while Laurie remained single and childless.

 

Requited love finally found Laurie at age 36. Cautious by nature, she took the courtship slowly and finally walked down the aisle the year she turned 38.

 

Although Laurie now had someone to father her children, conception proved challenging. Two years ticked by. Despite her happy marriage, the inability to have children of her own remained a constant source of sorrow. The pain deepened as she and her husband said goodbye to aging family members—a favorite aunt, an uncle, her husband’s father. Laurie’s circle of life remained incomplete as no children came to fill the voids these losses created.

 

One Sunday afternoon, Laurie received an unexpected call. Her 65-year-old mother had been rushed to the ER. Undiagnosed heart disease killed her before Laurie or her siblings could get to the hospital.

 

At the wake, Laurie sobbed uncontrollably. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.” Only her husband understood the barren sorrow that tore at her soul.

 

A week after the funeral, Laurie’s husband calls her over lunch. “Honey, I just received a call from the Department of Family Services.” Laurie’s mind reels. The couple had applied with several adoption agencies only to be denied because of their age, and foster parenting always seemed to Laurie like nothing more than another series of heartbreaks.

 

“Wade, you know I can’t deal with having to say goodbye to foster children. I cried for weeks after each semester when I taught school.”

 

“They want us to adopt.”

 

Laurie’s heart leaped into her throat. Tears began to stream down her cheeks as Wade explained that a second cousin of his had been arrested for drug use. “Her child has severe emotional problems, suffers from radical attachment disorder. DFS can’t find a foster family to take her, and they’re reaching out to family members as a last resort.” Wade paused, “Honey, I can’t think of anyone who could love this little girl any better than you. It won’t be easy, but we’re a team. We’ll do it together.”

 

Laurie swallowed hard. It had been such a long road to parenthood. “You know what my mom would say,” she finally managed.

 

“Parenthood is a long road,” the couple said in unison.

 

Click HERE for more information about Radical Attachment Disorder.