Melting

public domain image

public domain image

When she was little, Savannah’s mother would say she was wired for sound. Daddy used to say she had been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.

As Savannah grew older, she learned to listen before speaking. What she heard inspired her speech. Tenderhearted by nature, she became an advocate for those with no voice. While completing her law degree, she volunteered in a shelter for battered women and later became a prosecuting attorney specializing in domestic violence.

Four years after Savanah passed the bar exam, her parents were shot and killed in their home. First grief, then anger began to shape her sentences. Work consumed her as she sought justice for others and abandoned hope for herself. One morning, she met a former client for coffee.

Public Domain

public domain image

“How are you and the kids?” Savanah asked after they hugged hello.

“Great.” Gina was glowing with confidence.

“I hope that bastard gets an unhealthy dose of prison justice after what he did to you.” Savanah’s eyes glinted with hatred.

“I don’t.”

Savanah stared at her friend. Was this Stockholm Syndrome? She started to list the reasons why Gina’s ex deserved to suffer.

“Savanah, he can’t hurt me anymore. Why are you still letting him hurt you? He’s paying for his crimes. Bitterness would only cause me to suffer more.”

The attorney shook her head and took a sip of coffee. She couldn’t believe her ears. How could this woman forgive such an abuser? Without warning, the picture of her own parents’ bullet-riddled bodies popped into her head. Tears threatened to betray her.

“This isn’t about Michael, is it?” Gina placed a sympathetic hand over Savanah’s. “I’m here if you want to talk.”

The sound system in the coffee shop began to play a song from Disney’s Frozen. Tears rolled freely down Savanah’s face, and she realized the time had come to let it go.

***

My readers have recently shown an appreciation for videos. Frankly, I find this song a little overdone, but I have enjoyed seeing this version in person:

Sugar Daddy

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

By Andreas Bohnenstengel  CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A woman I haven’t seen before walks up to me at the circulation desk of the public library where I work. I don’t recognize her, but she calls me by name.

“Hi, Sophie.”

My surprise must show on my face.

“I’m Delores, Charlie’s daughter.”

“Of course.” I smile. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. It’s a blessing the tornado took only him—someone who’d had a chance to live.”

I can see through her brave façade but find it admirable. Her words ring true—the World War II veteran had lived a full life before being crushed by a pile of rubble.

“We found this at the house.” Delores hands me an envelope with my name scrawled across the front. “Dad talked about you incessantly. I wanted to deliver this in person.” She leaves. I stand, mouth gaping, and stare at the object in my hand.

“Boyfriend put you in his will?” My boss, Steve, has returned from lunch—an hour late—and is ribbing me about Charlie.

I give him a look and retrieve my purse from a cubby. “I’m going to catch a late lunch.” I raise my eyebrows for emphasis before escaping to the employee lounge. On the way, my mind wanders back to the previous fall.

***

Charlie had been a regular library patron since before I landed my job here. When his wife passed away, he started spending more time socializing at the checkout counter. He was old enough to be my grandfather, so it never dawned on me that he might be interested in romance when he asked if I’d like to have dinner. We scheduled two weeks later, and the ribbing from my boss started. I ignored it.

When Charlie showed up at the library in his dress blues from half a century ago, I realized Steve was right for once. Before we departed, he offered his commentary, “If Charlie tries any funny business, my money’s on you.”

Copyright Marie Gail Stratford, 2014

Copyright Marie Gail Stratford, 2014

We had dinner at a local Chinese place popular with the geriatric crowd.  Over moo goo gai pan, we exchanged pleasantries. Then Charlie began reminiscing. He told how he lied about his age to get into the navy during World War II. As he talked, it dawned on me that he must have fought in the same platoon as my grandfather. That became almost too much when he paused and said, “Golly, sweetheart, we better get going if we want to catch that movie tonight.”

Things became more awkward at the movies. Charlie tried to hold my hand as we approached the box office. He misunderstood what I wanted to see and bought tickets to a western that I couldn’t possibly have found less interesting. Fortunately, he bought me a Coke at the concession stand, so I had an excuse to keep the armrest between us throughout the show.

Like every western I’ve ever seen, the movie lasted an hour longer than necessary. Then Charlie returned me to the library where my car waited in the deserted lot. After I thanked him for the evening, a pair of wizened lips closed in on mine. At the last moment, I managed to turn my head so the kiss landed on my cheek. We were alone beneath a single street lamp. His frail body was too close for comfort. I backed away. He straightened himself in his now-rumpled uniform, politely opened my car door and closed it behind me.

For a few weeks, I avoided Charlie. I busied myself with returns when he came to checkout his books or excused myself to the restroom when I saw him entering the library. Eventually things returned to normal. I smiled at him occasionally, then ventured a conversation. He began to act less like a nervous adolescent when we spoke. Then the tornado came.

***

My mind snaps back to the present. I take a long draught of bottled water and dig into my salad before opening the envelope.

I draw out a piece of notebook paper and a type-written page of legal stationery. At a single glance, I note that the notebook paper contains a love letter and the stationery contains a copy of a final will and testament. Both bear my name. It dawns on me that Steve’s good-natured ribbing isn’t my biggest problem anymore.

Suikawari

Creative Commons, CC 2.0

Creative Commons, CC 2.0

Author’s note: Suikawari is the Japanese word for “watermelon splitting.” This story is based on real events, but some artistic license has been taken and names have been changed.

Kids growing up in the farming communities of America’s heartland during the last quarter of the 20th century didn’t take much for granted. Our parents were the farmers that fed America; the steelworkers that kept farm equipment running; and the civil servants who educated us, delivered our mail, and kept the peace. We worked hard at home if not at school, and we lived for summertime shenanigans.

 Summer bounty was the one thing we did take for granted. Whether or not our parents farmed, midsummer meant plenty of fresh produce. In the community where I grew up, vegetable gardens in town grew nearly out of control. Different neighbors grew different produce. Everyone shared, and no one in a three-state area grew watermelons like Jack Schneider.

 The elderly man had four acres just outside town, and he planted two of them with watermelon every year. He sold some—enough to supplement his social security income—and gave away most. On the last Sunday of June, he would pile the bed of his white F150 high with watermelons and drive the mile and a half to the church on the corner where, after Sunday school, every church member—from toddlers to octogenarians—would feast on the sweet red flesh.

The abundance made everyone giddy. During watermelon feeds, seed-spitting contests amused everyone. Kids under 10 years old had the opportunity to attempt eating an entire watermelon on their own. This one time a year, waste wasn’t a vice. After all, we couldn’t can, freeze or otherwise preserve the watermelon. 

One summer, a friend of Jack’s who taught history at the local high school hosted a group of Japanese exchange students. Arrangements were made for the students to spend time with the kids who attended Jack’s church. We took them shopping at the local mall—a novelty to us as well as to them at that time. We took them on excursions to western Kansas to see Dodge City and the Dalton Gang hideout. We spent a few Wednesday evenings teaching them games we liked to play and learning about their culture as well. Eventually, we learned that most of our visitors came from wealthy families. We stared in amazement when one boy purchased three pairs of Air Jordans because the $120 shoes were so cheap. Then we learned that only a couple of them had ever tasted watermelon because it was so expensive in Japan. Someone called Jack.

The night before the Japanese kids were scheduled to return home, we all gathered at the history teacher’s house for a goodbye party. When Jack pulled into the driveway, the bed of his truck piled high with watermelon, our visitors gasped in amazement. We shared an American-style cookout with our new friends that night, but the watermelons were the highlight of the evening. After their first tentative bites, our guests began to devour the fruit as eagerly as the rest of us. 

Someone recommended a seed-spitting contest. The Japanese kids hesitated. It seemed barbaric to them, but the high spirits of the evening overcame their reservations. By the time the sun sank below the horizon, the celebrating had grown reckless. Several watermelons remained unfinished, and a few kids started a food fight with the remaining fruit. The history teacher, feeling the revelry had gone too far, asked them to stop.

Just then, the Japanese boy who had purchased three pairs of Air Jordans grabbed a handful of ruby-colored watermelon flesh and let it fly at me. Nimbly, I jumped out of the way, and the crimson chunk hit Jack on the shoulder. The boy’s face froze in terror. Silence rang out across the moonlit backyard. Jack looked at the boy, smiled, then reached down to grab a hunk of watermelon from a nearby plate. The entire crowd dissolved into laughter as the watermelon caught the boy square in the chest, and the food fight was on once again.

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.

Sweepstakes

Sweepstakes

“Seriously?” Gwen gazed skeptically at the printout of what was obviously a scam email. “People fall for this?”

Her partner nodded. “Our subject has used it effectively in the past.”

“Recent past?” Gwen’s skepticism wasn’t waning.

John nodded and opened his mouth, then closed it again.

“I know, I know. I give people too much credit.”

“Really, you do, Gwen. Not everyone has a high IQ. Even those that do will believe what they want, especially when they’re desperate.”

Gwen sighed. John was right. Still, she couldn’t understand how some people could be so stupid. “You are a finalist in this year’s $4,000,000 sweepstakes,” the email read. “A dinner to be held in your honor will take place at 8:00 in the evening on March 15. Come celebrate and learn if you are the lucky winner. Only finalists are invited. Must be present to win.” The email went on to give directions to a remote address and provide further congratulations to the potential winner.

“Beware the Ides of March,” Gwen muttered, rolling her eyes. She enjoyed her work as an investigator, but she didn’t enjoy saving people from situations that they could avoid given the tiniest drop of common sense.

“Look, the intel is pretty clear. This must be an old, experienced vampire. I, for one, give him props for figuring out a way to lure prey to his lair without raising alarm. We think he’s been operating this way for about 30 years, switching from snail mail to email about five years ago. He does his research, only targets loners who are down on their luck. As far as we can tell, he has nearly an 85 percent conversion rate.”

Gwen shook her head in disbelief and rolled her eyes again. “Oh, come on, Gwen,” John chided. “An 85 percent conversion rate! There’s not an ad agency around that can get close to that. This vamp’s a marketing genius.”

“Do you want me to take him out tomorrow night or bring him in so you can get lessons in marketing?”

John ignored the snide remark and sashayed out of the office, leaving Gwen to review the intel before the sting.

Gwen’s disdain for the general public grew as she reviewed the case. Since 1987, solitary members of the community had been lured to collect prizes of cash. The vampire never invited more than one finalist to his home at a time,  and Gwen had to admire the undead’s ingenuity. After all, it had taken the agency nearly 30 years to catch up with him.

***

The next evening, Gwen headed toward the rendezvous undercover as Harriet Snodgrass. She wore an ill-fitting floral dress that looked like something from the sale rack at Goodwill, bright red lipstick and heavy blue eye shadow.

Gwen felt a growing respect for this particular vamp. She honestly believed he was doing the world a favor with his chosen MO—like a bottom feeder whose job it is to clean up after the rest of the inhabitants in a the pond. “We’ll see how tonight goes,” she whispered to herself.

Pulling up to the address, Gwen quickly took note of her surroundings. All was quiet. A Lincoln Continental with deeply tinted windows sat in the drive. She thought about how Harriet would feel at this moment—certain that her luck was about to improve, that a change of fate lay just around the corner. The intended victim would have been right about the change of fate, but it certainly wasn’t the change she would have expected.

Gwen took a deep breath and exited the car. The stillness of the evening sent an unfamiliar chill down her spine. She shrugged it off as she walked up to the door of the sprawling estate. Just before she pressed the bell, a deep voice startled her. “Forgive me for not receiving you personally. Let yourself in. It’s unlocked.”

The agent pulled open the heavy oak door and stepped into the foyer. The voice came again. “Please, make yourself comfortable. Dinner will be served momentarily.”

The evening was proceeding differently than Gwen had imagined. She began to feel nervous and to wonder if her plan would work. Where was her host? The disembodied voice seemed a bit overly dramatic.

Suddenly, Gwen felt a strong hand grasp the back of her neck. Unfamiliar fear gripped her heart as she began to struggle for freedom. As she thrashed about in an effort to pull her stake from its holster, her attacker let out a cry. She toppled forward when the grip on her neck suddenly released. Catching herself, she spun around to see John standing above the fresh pile of dust, a stake in his right hand and a crucifix held aloft in his left.

“Wha—you—why?” Gwen sputtered. She hadn’t called for backup on the job, hadn’t planned for it, hadn’t wanted it.

“After your reaction yesterday, I wasn’t sure this was a job you were up to. Good thing I came along. Looks like you might have been the main course.”

Gwen reddened. She wasn’t sure what made her the most furious—that John hadn’t trusted her to get the job done or that he had saved her life. He would be completely insufferable after this.

Mobilizing Friendship

Author’s Note: I composed this about a week ago and have hesitated to post it due to the high volume of truth tucked into this piece of fiction. However, it has met with positive reviews in my writers group, so I’m sharing with this word of caution: The characters in this story, aside from the narrator, which is mostly just the author as herself, although they may resemble people from real life, are all fictitious. While the story is inspired by real events, many details have been changed.

 

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

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

Mobilizing Friendship

Fused bones in my feet at birth provided significant challenges for me growing up. Although with determination and intense orthopedic care I learned to walk, keeping up with everyone else was usually an unattainable goal. While other kids lagged behind adults because they were dawdling, I lagged behind because my legs simply couldn’t move any faster. Most of the time, my dad just broke down and carried me.

At school, I often resorted to sitting on the steps in front of our classroom rather than attempting to join in fast-paced playground games. Talking with teachers or daydreaming helped me pass the time.

As a teen, I worked hard to keep up with others my age. I poured my energy into youth activities at church. I traveled on mission trips, acted in dramatic productions and toured the Midwest with a puppet team. When it came time for fundraisers, I worked alongside more able-bodied teenagers, waiting tables at charity dinners and slinging Cokes at concession stands. When my swollen feet could no longer bear my weight, I laughed the pain away and found something productive I could do from a seated position.

My determination earned the respect of other teens. One friend who had been like a brother to me growing up decided there was no reason for me to fall behind or miss out on adventures when he could do something about it. I don’t remember the first time we made the arrangement, but throughout high school, we traveled as a team. I would walk as long as my legs allowed. Then Andrew would carry me piggyback for the rest of the excursion.

Andrew carried me around the Smithsonian museums in Washington, across the boardwalks of several old cow towns in Kansas and around the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I rode on his back through Silver Dollar City and Branson, Missouri. We enjoyed Orlando together as he carried me piggyback around the Magic Kingdom and Sea World. Even the French Quarter of New Orleans found me riding on the back of my caring, fit and loyal friend. In Texas, he got a break when we went horseback riding together. After my temperamental mare did her best to buck me off, I kept my feet on the ground for the rest of that trip. In the inner city of Nassau, Bahamas, Andrew once again provided transportation for me as we picked through trash-filled neighborhoods on our way back to our hotel from the mission worksite.

After high school graduation, Andrew married the girl he’d been dating for the past year and a half. I went on to college. We lost touch. I kept up my habit of working hard—joined a mime troupe, found a cure for my ailing legs in reflexology and energy treatments, learned to dance.

Yesterday, I read an obituary online. Andrew died unexpectedly two weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him since his wedding. I never verbalized how much he meant to me—although what our friendship meant to each other was never lost on those who saw us together. I don’t know why we lost touch originally, but losing Andrew this way—that shouldn’t have happened.

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