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Short Stories

The Festival (excerpt)

Alex introduced each of the diners to Louisa, and one by one they trotted out compliments on the afternoon's reading and tried gamely to appear as if they knew her books intimately. All except for the tall, slim, balding man with glasses. Henry Karcher, Alex had called him. That certainly is a familiar name. He was the only dinner companion, save for Alex, who obviously had read her novels and could discuss them intelligently.

 

One of the women mentioned Roberta and Louisa assured the group that her friend was going to be fine, but her mind was wandering. That name Karcher. Did the Karcher woman she knew hail from Riverbend, New York? The general area was right. What an uncanny stroke of luck it would be if she did! Now, is there a way to speak with him alone? Hmm. . .

 

"She'll be fine, but they want to keep her overnight. I-I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do now. We were going to continue on to visit with her sister, but she lives hours from here."

 

The next bit was easier than she'd expected. Naturally, there were no hotels nearby and she'd just confessed to being an inexperienced driver. All it needed was an invented allergy to cats and the mention of a faux back condition that made it impossible for her to consider sleeping on anyone's sofa. Thankfully, the doctor's family had a house brimming with visiting relatives. Louisa slumped in her chair, dredging up an appropriately abandoned demeanor.

 

"Listen," Henry Karcher spoke up, luckily before Alex had a chance to offer to sleep on his own sofa and give her his bedroom, "why don't you come and stay with my daughter and me?"

 

Louisa could barely stifle a triumphant smile as she said, "I'm so grateful to all of you but I really think this sounds like the best idea. I'm in your debt, Mr. Karcher."

 

* * *

 

After the play at the little theater—which really wasn't as bad as Louisa had expected it to be—she walked down the darkened main street with Henry and the tall, gangly teenager he'd introduced as his daughter, Meghan. The girl was a fan, too, no great surprise there, and Louisa didn't miss the fact that the reference to her mother sounded distinctly past-tense. At the restaurant, Henry had said he and his daughter rattled around in their big house. Was it possible that Erin was no longer among the living? Louisa managed to dredge up something complimentary to say after Henry pointed out his dreary little insurance office with immense pride.

 

They reached the vintage house in another few minutes. It was, indeed, large, but it lacked any charm or stylish characteristics. Henry did carry her bag up the steps however, and the daughter offered to make up the guest bed for her. Such a plain-looking thing, and a bit clumsy, t0o. Ah, well, it wouldn't hurt to say something nice.

 

 "She's a credit to you, Henry," Louisa said with a smile, after they had settled into two comfortable chairs in the living room. "A genuinely good girl."

 

"Oh, she's a very good girl. Thank you for saying that. Unfortunately, she's had to step up the growing-up process these last two years, and she's done it very well, and without complaint. I can rely on her just as I might a grown daughter twice her age."

 

"Your wife passed away two years ago, I take it."

 

"Yes. Ovarian cancer. Still so hard to detect until it's too late. Thankfully, she didn't linger through the worst part. Such a shame to die at forty-eight."

 

"I'm sorry. She must have been happy here in this sweet little town, in this lovely home." Is that laying it on a bit too thick? Louisa couldn't believe her luck; her opinion of the town had certainly improved since this afternoon.

 

"She was. She grew up in this house, as a matter of fact. We went to school in the same building where she ended up teaching. She loved the literary festival—volunteered every year, except her last, when she just didn't have the strength. Erin was an author, too."

 

"Was she? How interesting. Would I know any of her work?" Louisa folded her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling with excitement.

 

Henry shook his head, sadly. "She wasn't published. She was talented, though. I always think she might have gotten lucky if only she'd had more confidence in herself, and had queried agents, entered contests, what have you. She never gave herself a chance. And just before she passed, she deleted all of her work."

 

"No! Short stories, poems, novels?" Novels? It took everything she had to prevent herself from displaying her eagerness.

 

"She'd only ever written poetry and short stories, but yes. Everything. Not even the computer geeks could retrieve the files. She'd damaged her hard drive."

 

No novels that he was aware of, and Erin had deleted all of her work before her death. All of her emails would have been on that damaged hard drive, as well. "But they might have had a life of their own after, well. . ."

 

Henry nodded. "I was heartbroken. It would have been such a comfort to my daughter and me to have been able to re-read the pieces after she was gone. She'd only printed and shared a few, one story for Megs' eighth birthday, a poem for me, and one for her mother, and one short story that she loved a great deal, that she showed to everyone." He sighed. "I doubt you'd remember it, but you've seen it, too. Cold Running Stream." He smiled when Louisa furrowed her brow as prettily as she could manage. "She was devoted to you—read everything you wrote, followed your blog faithfully. One day she won some sort of contest you were sponsoring, and got a chance to have a few pages critiqued by you."

 

"Oh, I do remember. About three years ago, wasn't it? I believe I liked it." She had communicated that sentiment, anyway. I must've been in a terrific mood that day.

 

 "You did like it and she was ecstatic. You also had some thoughtful suggestions—which I think pleased her even more—and she used them to polish it up and finish it. I'm sure she was so fond of it because she felt it was like a collaboration with you. She didn't send that one out into the world either, although maybe I could have persuaded her, eventually."

 

"That's so sweet. I'm so glad I made her day."

 

A thought seemed to strike Henry and he rose. "Wait a moment. Wait right there." He hurried to a small adjoining room that looked like it might be a study and Louisa could hear drawers opening and closing.

 

She drew in a couple of deep breaths to settle herself down. By God, this was really happening. She would have to ask a few more gently probing questions to be absolutely certain—maybe over breakfast with the family—but it certainly appeared that Henry knew nothing of Erin's novel. Erin had told her it was a secret, during the email conversation that followed her winning of the short story critique. She'd sent the untitled manuscript with a shy, apologetic note stressing that Louisa was perfectly free to delete the thing without reading it if she chose. But Louisa had thought that simply might be a bit of drama employed by a dry soul to liven up a hopelessly boring existence. The woman certainly had talent—enough to make Louisa covetous of the story—but Erin was so damned pessimistic and lacking in confidence that Louisa's first thought was that she didn't deserve to know how promising the material truly was.  A brief email expressed her regret at having to say that, after reading a few chapters, she'd been compelled to agree that the story, while sweet, had no real commercial value. That had seemed to disabuse the wretched woman of any hope for the thing. She'd thanked the famous author profusely and advised her to delete it, saying that she would concentrate on her poetry. But Louisa hadn't deleted the manuscript. She'd edited it, and added a few improvements of her own, but had been forced to let it lurk in a corner of her laptop's memory for the past three years. She couldn't possibly present it as her own work—not while the real author was living, anyway.

 

Henry returned with a manila envelope and held it out to her shyly. "I'd like you to have a copy of that short story you critiqued. I don't think you ever got the chance to read the finished piece."

 

"Henry, I'm honored. I feel funny taking this from you, though."

 

"Go on, please. I have a few copies. I'm the one who'll be honored, trust me."

 

"I'll read it first thing tomorrow, I promise." A mischievous smile crept across her face. "I just may be tempted to submit it to a few agents on her behalf. Do you think she'd mind if it got published in a short story anthology posthumously?" It's the least I can do, given what I am about to steal from the poor woman.

 

Henry beamed, and seemed to need a moment before he could reply. "Certainly not. It would have been a dream come true."

 

Julia's World (excerpt)

Emma and Julia entered the house quietly after school on Thursday. Gloria had stayed home with Mama, after having been ill in the night, and if she was resting, they didn't want to disturb her. While Emma took her school work out to the porch swing, Julia went to the kitchen. The sink and drain board were full of dirty dishes that Mama had left from breakfast and lunchtime. Poor Mama, Julia thought, drawing water to heat. Up half the night with Gloria, she probably hadn't the energy to do the washing up. Julia made short work of the mess and then decided she'd start dinner. The chicken that Mr. Reining had cleaned yesterday could be roasted with some vegetables. And potatoes—Gloria loved mashed potatoes and might have an appetite for them even if she was still not feeling her best. Julia seated herself at the table and soon had a mound of peelings on the flour-sack towel she'd spread out in front of her.

 

Lost in concentration, she didn't hear footsteps until her mother entered the kitchen.

 

"What are you doing?" Mama demanded. "Wasting all those potatoes. We have plenty of leftover rice casserole in the icebox."

 

"I forgot," Julia murmured, surveying the mess in front of her. She had peeled a few too many spuds. She glanced up shyly. Mama's dress was wrinkled and her brown hair was in disarray—she looked exhausted.

 

"You never use your head. You're more trouble than you're worth. Get out of my kitchen."

 

Julia got to her feet and went to the sink to rinse her hands and fill a pot. "I'll cook them anyway. Maybe we can fry up some potato cakes tomorrow for breakfast—"

 

Mama grabbed Julia's slender arm and yanked her roughly. The half-filled pot clattered into the sink and splashed both of them with water. "Get out," Mama shrieked, slapping her hard across the face.

 

"I'm sorry, Mama," Julia wailed. "I was only trying to help."

 

"Useless." Mama spat the word out, raising her hand to strike again. Although it usually only made things worse when she tried to avoid Mama's blows, Julia's cheek was still hot and stinging and she flinched and unconsciously backed up a step. Her foot landed on one of Rags' toys and she stumbled and bumped into the Hoosier cabinet, rocking it and sending a ceramic pitcher that had been perched on the edge crashing to the floor. Mama's eyes flashed with rage.  "Stupid little witch." She lunged for the stove and grabbed the cast iron skillet that always sat on top.

 

Julia's eyes widened, and when Mama raised the pan to strike, she scrambled for the back door. Incredibly, Mama followed her out across the porch and down the wooden steps, still wielding the skillet. Terrified as never before, Julia raced across the yard toward the henhouse, barely noticing Mr. Reining pushing a wheelbarrow toward the barn out of the corner of her eye. Choking sobs wracked her small frame and she ran wildly, not sure where she was headed, but looking for any shortcut to get her there fast. Past the pump and around the lilac, she plunged ahead and onto the narrow path at the side of the barn. Her school shoes were more slippery than her old work boots, and she slid on a loose slate, plunging into the old cellar hole the same way she would belly flop into the pond on a hot summer day. Julia heard herself scream. She caught a glimpse of the rocks and dirt six feet below racing up to meet her, then all was blackness.

 

When she awoke, sky and earth were exchanging places freely, and she was being carried somewhere swiftly in strong arms. "My little one," a deep voice said tenderly. "You'll be all right." Pop? Was he here on a Thursday? Something splashed onto her cheek—was it raining?

 

By the time the fogginess cleared a bit, Julia realized that Mr. Reining was hurrying her toward the carriage barn. Mama and Emma were at his heels.

 

"Bring her inside," Mama was coaxing. "She'll be fine."

 

Julia felt the muscles in Mr. Reining's arms tense. "She needs the doctor. You will drive us." 

"Don't be a fool," Mama said sharply.

 

"You will drive us." Mr. Reining's command was delivered through clenched teeth. His next words were kinder. "Emma, you'll watch your sister until we return."

 

The fog crept back in for Julia and the ride to town was a jostling blur. The only thing that was clear was that she remained cradled in Mr. Reining's arms.

 

The doctor's surgery was cool and smelled antiseptically clean. Dr. Van Vliet calmly tended to her, washing and bandaging cuts, testing reflexes and vision and balance, soothing her with his kind words and gentle hands. Julia was conscious but sleepy on the ride back home, owing to something the doctor had given her to help her rest. Mr. Reining propped her up between himself and Mama and kept a protective arm around her shoulders. Back at the farm, he carried her up to her bed and removed her shoes while Mama hung about in the doorway twisting in her nervous fingers the apron she still hadn't removed.

 

Julia was aware that the two adults were watching her as she drifted off.  Sleep was in a playful mood, however, toying with her, settling in then slipping away.  Although she kept her eyes closed, she caught the thread of a conversation between her mother and their hired man.

 

"It's not the child's fault, Marie," he said, softly. "That mistake we made, one night years ago. John knows nothing of it. Your family is safe. We're not even certain. She may yet be his daughter."

 

Mama scoffed. "I don't think so."

 

He sighed, heavily. "You don't have to like her. But you must stop the beatings. You went after her with an iron pan, for the Lord's sake. You could have killed her."

 

Their words cleared a path through the fog to Julia's brain. Her mother and Mr. Reining. . .an unhappy young wife and a handsome older man. . . maybe every time Mama looked at Julia she remembered that shame, and worried about what would happen if Pop ever found out. Her parents were gone. Where would she go if he threw her out? The idea that Pop wasn't really her father was too awful—if he knew, would he cast Julia away, too? It was more than she could make sense of with an aching head and sleep nipping at her heels. Maybe tomorrow. But this afternoon's fear and anger retreated. She remembered something she'd heard Mama tell Gloria about a mother having a sort of instinctive communication with her children, and figured it was worth a try. I understand, Mama, I'll try to forgive you, she repeated over and over in her thoughts, hoping she'd be able to send the message across the room.

 

"Go to her," Mr. Reining coaxed, and after a brief silence, Julia heard the floor boards creak. She felt someone squeeze the hand that lay on the mattress by her side. A little thrill ran up her arm to her heart. Could it really be Mama? The touch was gentle but the fingers were big and coarse. It was Reining's hand.

Distant Relations (excerpt)

(Gina Grecco escapes her stifling extended family to start fresh in the home of her estranged father--a man who realizes too late how much he really wants the daughter he left behind.)

 

Gina turned her key in the lock and stepped into the front hallway—so cool after the burning heat of the pavement, so peaceful after the sirens, the honking and shouting and flashing red and blue lights of the patrol car. She was still shaking a bit, and the back of her head hurt where it had smashed into the headrest, but she guessed that was better than having her neck snapped when the Mercedes rear-ended her. The hot wind had dried the tears on her cheeks and left her hair in disarray. But the house smelled like that desert sage candle Lauren had been burning lately, and she felt like she was embraced by her home.

 

She'd have to find Teddy and tell him. Gina grimaced, not knowing how he'd react. After all, she hardly knew him. They'd been tip-toeing around one another for months, making an effort at niceness, and there really had not been anything to test their precarious relationship until now. But it was his car, and likely thousands of dollars' worth of damage, so she had to explain.

 

It sounded like Teddy was in his office, and Gina, having freshened up her appearance, lurked in the hallway outside the closed door, listening to the music filter through, trembling hand hovering just over the knob. Both girls had been told not to disturb him when he was in this room, but today was going to have to be an exception to the rule. Deep breath, shoulders back; Gina knocked and entered almost simultaneously, attempting a little smile. Teddy was at his desk and looked up from his work.

 

"Teddy, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I got into an accident with the car."

 

Teddy frowned, standing and facing her across the desk. "What kind of accident?" he asked, calmly. "Tell me what happened."

 

Okay, so he wasn't freaking, but the note of caring that Gina was hoping to hear in his voice was missing. "Well, I was driving Carly home, and a guy ran right out into the road in the middle of the block, and I had to stop short. Some lady in a Mercedes convertible plowed into the back of the BMW. There really was nothing I could have done. He ran right out in front of me."

 

"I suppose you could have been paying more attention to your surroundings," Teddy said, coolly.

 

Gina chewed her lower lip. "He just appeared from behind a van. I couldn't see him before he was right in front of the car. If you don't believe me," she added, becoming annoyed, "ask Carly."

 

"Wait. What? Who the hell is Carly? I don't even know her."

 

He had walked around the desk as if to confront her and Gina straightened to her full 5' 2" height. "You really don't know me, either, do you?"

 

"Gina," Teddy began, placing his hands on his hips, clearly done with the attempt at tolerance.

 

"She's a girl in my refresher math class. I was taking her home and—"

 

"Yeah, I know, you said. Were you speeding?"

 

"Speeding?  Really? I learned to drive in Queens a year ago. I was never allowed on a highway until I moved here. I've never been speeding."

 

Lauren appeared in the doorway. "Everything all right?"

 

"No. Gina was in an accident."

 

"Oh! Honey are you okay?"

 

"Yes," Gina said, following Teddy's pacing with narrowed eyes. "Gee, I'm glad someone asked me that."

 

Teddy evidently didn't like sarcasm coming from someone else; he turned and snapped at her, "Obviously you're all right. You're standing right there. How much damage was done?"

 

"I don't know—the back is smashed in, like, part of the trunk. I'm not an expert. It looks like shit, okay? You have insurance. I'll pay the deductible."

 

"Don't be pissing your money away, Gina. You don't know the meaning of money yet."

 

"Have I been pissing my money away? Have I?"

 

"Look, I don't need this shit. I hope your kid talks to you this way someday."

 

Gina gaped at him, open-mouthed. "You're playing the dad card now? Seriously? I don't think I want kids. I don't think I have parenting in my genes. I might leave them in some hell hole because I want to be free."

       

"Gina, you're 19," Teddy warned, holding up a hand in a "stop" gesture, but appearing shaken at the same time. "I'm not responsible for you. Watch your smart mouth if you want to stay in this house." He turned his back to her and moved toward his desk again.

 

Gina scowled. She could feel her face getting hot. She didn't mean to, but she heard herself shouting. "I'm not running away again. I have nowhere to go. Do you have any idea what it was like living there, Teddy? Do you know what it's like having your personality squashed out of you until you hear the kids at school saying, 'She really isn't anybody.  She's just there; like a lump of flesh.' Have you ever spent every day at the bottom of a hole looking up at the sky, at everyone on the grass up there, and you can't be with them? Do you want to know what my first idea was, before I decided to come out here and wreck your car? You know that factory at the bottom of the hill by the cemetery, the one with the big stone wall?" Teddy whirled to face her. His pacing had taken him across the room, closer to Lauren, who had edged inside but wisely was not approaching either of them. "I had Aunt Teresa's car, and I was on some stupid errand for them, and I drove up there and I stared at that wall, and all I could see was the big, bloody spot I'd make when I hit it at fifty miles an hour. I started racing down the hill, but when I was most of the way there, I saw a car coming out of the corner of my eye. I didn't want to hurt anybody else, so I stepped on the brakes. Maybe I wish I hadn't. Maybe you wish I hadn't." By the time she ran out of steam, she was sobbing.

 

Teddy looked stunned, but Gina didn't know why. She almost felt guilty for yelling at him, but decided finally, Screw him.

 

Teddy drew an unsteady breath. "Look, don't worry about the car, Gina." His voice was hoarse, and he made a wide arc around her as he headed toward the door. "I'll call the insurance company and take care of it." He escaped without another word and Gina looked up, defiantly, until she realized that she was face to face with Lauren. Then she melted.

 

"I guess you're mad at me."

 

"I'm mad at both of you," Lauren said, softly. "But I'm very glad you weren't hurt. This is hard for me to listen to because I love both of you. And the heart of this argument is really not my business. He did wrong by you, Gina, no question. But you know. . . you came out here to see what was up with this guy—find out how he could leave you behind in a place he knew was awful. And to go to school; start life over. But face it, Gina, you didn't come out here to love him." Her words were cool, but she reached out a hand to stroke Gina's hair before turning and walking out of the office.

 

In her room, Gina sat cross-legged on her bed, hugging one of her pillows because she hadn't brought any of her old stuffed animals with her from New York. She clutched a tissue but had stopped crying. Maybe I wanted to love him, she thought to herself. Even though I've just spent six months pretending not to notice that he doesn't want me. Tears welled up again and she sniffled hard and forced them into retreat.

 

Carly had been great after the accident.Even though she and Gina didn't know one another very well, she had been super supportive and comforting. The two young women had huddled together in a little patch of shade while the cops did their thing, and Gina had confessed her nervousness about explaining the whole mess to Teddy.

 

"I have a dad who's like a distant relation, too," Carly had said. "I don't let it bother me. I always act real sweet toward him, and stay under the radar, you know? I mean, I live in a big, comfortable house with a pool, he's paying all my tuition, he bought me a car, and in a few short years I'll have an awesome job, and only have to deal with him on holidays and shit. He's okay with it. I doubt he even knows how I feel." Gina had looked hesitant, but Carly had concluded, with authority, "Just because your parents don't love you, doesn't mean no one will.  You'll be fine."

 

Gina considered this advice again, stretching to open the drawer of her nightstand and pull out the now-repaired street fair necklace she had once given to her mother and then had nearly destroyed. Love hadn't worked out so well with one parent, and she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to give up on the idea of having a relationship with Teddy. Gina closed her eyes and clutched the pillow harder.

The Oak Tree (excerpt)

Ten-year-old Margaret grabbed a laurel branch that reached across the path and let the shower of fresh raindrops fall onto her shoulders and her head as she passed underneath. There was a great uproar from the blue jay community because the neighbor's cat had slithered under the fence and was on the prowl. The best thing about the yard was that a screen of lilac bushes blocked the view from the house. Margaret slipped through a wide spot and was finally, blessedly alone.

 

Her mother was a wonderful mother, people kept telling her. The woman they'd met in the grocery store last week, the one with the towering beehive hairdo and short turquoise dress, had practically bubbled over at the thought of how wonderful, how perfect a mother she was. "Why, she loves you so very much. Isn't she just the best mother a little girl could have?"

 

"Yes, ma'am," Margaret had murmured. The lie made her feel sick inside. Everyone else agreed, so might there be something wrong with her?  Some reason she didn't appreciate all that her mother did for her? Some abnormality that made her prefer the mothers with windblown hair and joyful laughter and unpolished fingernails?

 

Margaret was blue. It had been a bad day at school. They had read a story about a young boy who had saved a man's life, and they had talked about heroes.

 

"Heroes don't have to be superhuman or knights in armor," Miss Ferraro had said. "Ordinary people often become heroes, if only to a few people. For example, Margaret," because Margaret was daydreaming, "if your mother was very ill and a doctor saved her life, you would think of him as a hero, wouldn't you?"

 

Margaret fixed her with a barren stare. She felt cold. She simply could not answer.

 

The teacher probably figured she hadn't heard the question. Patiently, she repeated, "If a doctor saved your mother's life you would think he was a hero, would you not?"

 

Tears began to well up in her eyes, ready to roll down her hot cheeks. But she didn't let them.

 

"Margaret, for heaven's sake, would you or would you not think that doctor was a hero?"

 

Still, Margaret stared. She hadn't moved a single muscle. "Yes, ma'am" was on her lips, but she couldn't say it. Not even to get it over with, to get everyone's attention off of her.

 

Finally, Miss Ferraro tired of the little confrontation.  She sighed, rolled her eyes, and went on with the discussion.  Margaret hadn't relaxed all day.