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What time is it? It’s GIVEAWAY time! Check out Bellingwood Boxed Set: Books 1-3 by Diane Greenwood Muir and find out how you can enter! All Free!

A magical coming-of-age story from Coretta Scott King honor author Jewell Parker Rhodes, rich with Southern folklore, friendship, family, fireflies and mermaids, plus an environmental twist: Bayou Magic

There are secrets only the dead can tell. And some of these secrets refuse to remain buried… The Girl and The Field of Bones by A.J. Rivers

The more you look for love in all the wrong places, the more you wonder if it was right in front of your nose all along… The Dating Itinerary by Brooke Williams

The battle for mankind’s future is upon us… and it rests in the hands of one forgotten soldier… Exodus Ark by J.N. Chaney

Live a better, longer life AND enjoy every moment of it… Unlock Bliss: A Memoir Of Getting Happier by Dr. Zeev Gilkis

What time is it? It’s GIVEAWAY time! Check out A Lotus Grows In The Mud by Goldie Hawn and find out how you can enter!

She shouldn’t have stayed. Now she can’t leave…. Blood Secret by Jaye Ford

Perfect for not-so-scary storytime: Halloween With Snowman Paul by Yossi Lapid

This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches: The Witches by Roald Dahl

Telling her smoking hot boss that she was married seemed like a good idea at the time…. Working Stiff: Runaway Billionaires #1 by Blair Babylon

For fans of THE DA VINCI CODE, THE RED TENT and THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO: The Mystery Of Julia Episcopa by John I. Rigoli and Diane Cummings

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A Day In The Life Of A Brand New Thriller, Rogue Wave, And It’s Author, Boyd Morrison

(Ed. Note: Uh oh. Are my own reporters drinking the Kool Aid served up by agency model publishers? I’ve posted my own view at the end. -S.W.)
By Tom Dulaney, Contributing Reporter
A new thriller from author Boyd Morrison, Rogue Wave, was released to the public on Amazon.com overnight.  Pre-orders were sent off to Kindles and Kindle app devices.  The book began posting its first rankings on Amazon’s bestseller lists, updated hourly.  And, backed by megapublisher Simon & Schuster’s and its Pocket Imprint, paperbacks should be sprouting on the shelves of bookstores across America.
At our sister blog, Planet iPad, editor Tom Dulaney is electronically keeping author Boyd Morrison company through this official release day for Rogue Wave. The “author watch” began just before midnight, and is tracking the book in the Amazon store, on the net and Facebook, to get a feel for what it’s like to be an author backed by a large publisher’s marketing and editorial effort on the day a book first begins to sell.  A series of blog posts will cover the author’s day as it rolls toward a celebratory release day party tonight in Seattle. 

On this very important day for Morrison and the book, a culmination of a lifetime of dreams and hard work, Boyd is sharing his day with Planet iPad readers. Through emails, texts, and at a morning (Pacific Coast Time) telephone conference, Boyd painted a picture of the day he expected:  just another day in the office. He doesn’t expect today to be a “make or break” day for the book.
Authors tend to obsess about the rankings on Amazon,” Boyd said on the phone. “Part of that is because we are starved for information.” And, in the traditional methods of print books, information has been traditionally slow in coming to authors as they await statements long after the fact.  At 4 PM, the rankings show a split personality.  As an eBook, Rogue Wave has risen from unranked to No. 3,880, a continuing trend upwards.  The print edition is stood ranked about 37,500th early this morning, but is now bouncing between 17,000 and 20,000 in the listings.  The rankings are volatile, updated hourly by Amazon.
Morrison landed his publishing contract with Simon & Schuster only after he had been rejected by all publishers and offered the book in the Kindle Store. It’s sales took off, and a contract ensued, making Morrison one of the early authors to turn eBook sales into a relationship with a major publishing house. Having such a relationship, the dream of most would-be bestselling authors, creates new demands on the author who had enjoyed freedom from schedules and responsibilities to editors and others, Morrison explains.
Readers interested in the progress of a relatively unknown author as he works his way toward a goal that might put him—one day—well up the bestseller lists, may want to peek in on Planet iPad now and again today for greater detail.

(Editor’s Note: We’ll see, and I do wish Morrison well, but there’s a certain upside down quality to the narrative when any author gets rejected by the Big Six publishers, achieves great success by publishing directly on the Kindle platform, and then calls it a victory when he signs a contract with one of the same publishers that rejected him in the first place, for royalties that are only a fraction of the royalties he would earn through direct publication. Reporter Dulaney may be a few years off when he editorializes that “such a relationship [is] the dream of most would-be bestselling authors.” These days, many of the smartest authors figure that dinosaur publishers like Simon and Schuster may well go belly-up before the decade is out, and are finding their own more secure paths to publishing success along the lines laid out in pieces like It’s Your Universe and Observations at #8 by Joe Konrath. Morrison may have had his own very good reasons for taking the course that he took, but in all likelihood he would have a more secure and better compensated career as an author over the next few years had he continued, and built upon, his “direct to Kindle” success in 2009. –S.W.)

UPDATED Kindle Nation Daily Free Book Alert, Tuesday, November 30: Four Brand New Free Listings Today! plus Lovers and Beloveds (An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom) by MeiLin Miranda (Today’s Sponsor)

UPDATE: Alas, we can’t tell you exactly why, but unfortunately most of this morning’s 26 brand new additions to the Kindle Free Book listings remained free for only a few hours. Do we suspect an agency model publisher conspiracy? Always. Meanwhile, here is an updated list as of 1 p.m. Eastern time:

Could it be that the elves working away in the back offices of the Kindle Store are trying to Krowbar us into a bit of the Kristmas (oops) Christmas (oops) HOLIDAY (ok?) spirit with … count ’em … 26 brand new additions to today’s Free Book Listings? I’m just saying….


But first, a word from … Today’s Sponsor


You don’t have to judge this sensual historical fantasy by its beautiful cover….  
… there’s also the 4.9-star rating it’s received from a growing group of readers.
(An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom)
by MeiLin Miranda
4.9 out of 5 stars – 11 Reviews
[O]ffers an impressive depth and breadth in terms of world-building, mixing hints of Victorian aristocracy with Ancient Greek religion to create a compelling, evocative setting. –A.M. Harte, “Quills and Zebras”
More than satisfied. It was excellent. –M.C.A. Hogarth

Here’s the set-up:

 

After conquering many kingdoms, the Tremont family now rules the entire continent, which hovers on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Heir to the Tremontine throne, Temmin is a sheltered young Prince approaching adulthood. Now that he’s of age, he must leave his childhood home behind for a new life with his father–Harsin the Fourth.

 

Some of his advisers are pushing him to be a ruthless ruler and some want to bind Temmin to a Temple devoted to eroticism.

 

This is the first book in this fantasy series with a sensual twist.

 

Click here to download Lovers and Beloveds (An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom) or a free sample to your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Android-compatible, PC or Mac and start reading within 60 seconds!

*  

UK Kindle customers: Click here

 
Find all the books, read about the author, and more.
Each day’s list is sponsored by one paid title. We encourage you to support our sponsors and thank you for considering them. 
Authors, Publishers, iPad Accessory Manufacturers:
Interested in learning more about sponsorship? Just click on this link for more information.
Free Contemporary Titles in the Kindle Store 
HOW TO USE OUR NEW FREE BOOK TOOL:
Just use the slider at right of your screen below to scroll through a complete, updated list of free contemporary Kindle titles, and click on an icon like this one (at right) to read a free sample right here in your browser! Titles are sorted in reverse chronological order so you can easily see new freebies!

Kindle Nation Daily Free Book Alert, Tuesday, November 30: Over Two Dozen Brand New Free Listings Today! plus Lovers and Beloveds (An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom) by MeiLin Miranda (Today’s Sponsor)

UPDATE: Alas, we can’t tell you exactly why, but unfortunately most of this morning’s 26 brand new additions to the Kindle Free Book listings remained free for only a few hours. We will post an updated list this afternoon.

Could it be that the elves working away in the back offices of the Kindle Store are trying to Krowbar us into a bit of the Kristmas (oops) Christmas (oops) HOLIDAY (ok?) spirit with … count ’em … 26 brand new additions to today’s Free Book Listings? I’m just saying….


But first, a word from … Today’s Sponsor


You don’t have to judge this sensual historical fantasy by its beautiful cover….  
… there’s also the 4.9-star rating it’s received from a growing group of readers.
(An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom)
by MeiLin Miranda
4.9 out of 5 stars – 11 Reviews
[O]ffers an impressive depth and breadth in terms of world-building, mixing hints of Victorian aristocracy with Ancient Greek religion to create a compelling, evocative setting. –A.M. Harte, “Quills and Zebras”
More than satisfied. It was excellent. –M.C.A. Hogarth

Here’s the set-up:

 

After conquering many kingdoms, the Tremont family now rules the entire continent, which hovers on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Heir to the Tremontine throne, Temmin is a sheltered young Prince approaching adulthood. Now that he’s of age, he must leave his childhood home behind for a new life with his father–Harsin the Fourth.

 

Some of his advisers are pushing him to be a ruthless ruler and some want to bind Temmin to a Temple devoted to eroticism.

 

This is the first book in this fantasy series with a sensual twist.

 

Click here to download Lovers and Beloveds (An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom) or a free sample to your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Android-compatible, PC or Mac and start reading within 60 seconds!

*  

UK Kindle customers: Click here

 
Find all the books, read about the author, and more.


Each day’s list is sponsored by one paid title. We encourage you to support our sponsors and thank you for considering them. 

Authors, Publishers, iPad Accessory Manufacturers:
Interested in learning more about sponsorship? Just click on this link for more information.

Free Contemporary Titles in the Kindle Store 
HOW TO USE OUR NEW FREE BOOK TOOL:

Just use the slider at right of your screen below to scroll through a complete, updated list of free contemporary Kindle titles, and click on an icon like this one (at right) to read a free sample right here in your browser! Titles are sorted in reverse chronological order so you can easily see new freebies!

Read a free sample of our eBook of the Day, The Light at the End, without leaving your browser

This 1986 novel was the first of the duo’s six collaborations in the horror subgenre dubbed “splatterpunk.” The story follows a series of gruesome murders in New York City that have police totally baffled, because they’re assuming the killer is human! –Library Journal
The 25th Anniversary Edition of the Original Splatterpunk Novel
An adrenaline-charged tale of unrelenting suspense that sparks with raw and savage energy… The newspapers scream out headlines that spark terror across the city. Ten murders on the New York City subway. Ten grisly crimes that defy all reason — no pattern, no m.o., no leads for police to pursue. The press dubs the fiend the “Subway Psycho”; the NYPD desperately seeks their quarry before the city erupts in mass hysteria. But they won’t find what they’re looking for.

Because they all think that the killer is human.

Only a few know the true story — a story the papers will never print. It is a tale of abject terror and death written in grit and steel… and blood. The tale of a man who vanished into the bowels of the urban earth one night, taken by a creature of unholy evil, then left as a babe abandoned on the doorstep of Hell. Now he is back, driven by twin demons of rage and retribution.

He is unstoppable. And we are all his prey… unless a ragtag band of misfit souls will dare to descend into a world of manmade darkness, where the real and unreal alike dwell in endless shadow. A place where humanity has been left behind, and the horrifying truth will dawn as a madman’s chilling vendetta comes to light…

Filled with gripping drama and harrowing doomsday dread, The Light at the End is the book that ushered in a bold new view of humankind’s most ancient and ruthless evil; a mesmerizing novel from two acknowledged masters of spellbinding suspense.

 

And here, right in the comfort of your own browser, is your free sample! 

Free Kindle Nation Shorts, November 29, 2010 – An Excerpt from Mourning Becomes Cassandra by Christina Dudley

By Stephen Windwalker
Editor of Kindle Nation Daily ©Kindle Nation Daily 2010
SCROLL DOWN TO BEGIN READING THE FREE EXCERPT
 

Even before I added a contact page to the Kindle Nation website, I would occasionally receive emails from readers with questions about the honest opinions I share with regard to the books whose authors sponsor our daily Free Book Alerts or offer their work for our Free Kindle Nation Shorts program. 
  • Q: Do I read them all? 
  • A: I do not read every word of every book, but I read all of many of them and a substantial part of nearly every one. 
  • Q: How do we know when you really like something? 
  • A. I try to say positive or neutrally descriptive things, and I am well-suited for this job in that I am someone who loves to read and enjoys a great deal of what I read. If I think a book is a waste of time, I won’t accept it as a sponsor. If I’m only moderately positive, I’ll probably limit myself to neutral description of what a book’s about rather than going negative. But then there are the really special books….
But when I’m really committed to a book, I’ll find a way of getting the point across in a special way. So here’s what I’ve got to say about today’s sponsor, Christina Dudley, and her novel Mourning Becomes Cassandra
It’s the real thing. There are no vampires, time-travelers, or interplanetary adventures, but there are real laughs and real tears throughout. And finally, this:  
We’ve had well over a hundred sponsoring authors at Kindle Nation these past few months, yet I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors about whom I have written to my contacts among publishing industry editors, acquisitions people, and literary agents. Christina Dudley will be the sixth, and I will be surprised, when you’ve downloaded Mourning Becomes Cassandra and read it, if you disagree. –S.W.)

I’m clear enough about my own opinions that I don’t need corroboration in these matters, but it turns out I am not alone. You’ll see what I mean if you check out the book’s customer reviews, with lines like this one:
Brilliantly funny and simultaneously touching, the “moral of the story” comes with none of the in-your-face preaching that I would have associated with a book labeled as “Christian fiction,” but with such power and conviction that even the most jaded agnostic would have to pause and ponder its message.
Funny, that “Christian fiction” label. If you’d label the works of Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, or James Joyce as “Christian fiction,” I’m sure you could apply the label to this one, but there’s nothing formulaic of pedantic about this novel.  

SCROLL DOWN TO BEGIN READING THE FREE EXCERPT

Here’s the set-up:
You think you’ve got issues. Meet Cass Ewan.
After Plan A for her life falls to pieces, she moves in with single friends and reluctantly decides to mentor an at-risk teen. Never mind that Cass knows nothing about drugs, alcohol, or criminally-minded loser boyfriends. Once the prickly, dog-whispering 15-year-old Nadina enters Cass’s life, everything is up for grabs. 
There’s new employment at a video game company with a charming fellow mentor. There’s an unlikely friendship with her womanizing housemate Daniel, because who else can she ask about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? And finally there’s the epiphany about her own role in the universe. Where she once considered herself a cosmic unresolved plotline, Cass finds she still has a pivotal role to play.
And, finally, here are a few pretty telling review snippets:

  • “A fun and highly recommended read that shouldn’t be overlooked.” –Midwestern Book Review
  • “Heartbreaking and at times hilarious” — July 2009 Book of the Month –LoveWebRadio.com

Click on the title or cover image below below to download the complete book to your Kindle or Kindle app for just $2.99

*  

  An Excerpt from   
Mourning
Becomes Cassandra
by  Christina Dudley


Free Kindle Nation Shorts
November 29, 2010

 

Copyright © 2010 by Christina Dudley and reprinted here with her permission.

  

Chapter One: Blindsided

When your parents name you something like Cassandra, you would expect to see things coming, but the year I turned 31 caught me completely unaware.

At an age when most of my acquaintance-including me-had joined the ranks of the happily-paired-off and reproducing, I was called to leave that hallowed group and rejoin the Third Wheels of the world.
On the longest day of the year, one failed heart led to my husband driving off the road and flipping into a ditch, taking our toddler daughter with him, while I obliviously sweated through a Hot Yoga class downtown.
I’d tell you about the weeks that followed, except the memories have the grainy quality of old home movies. There was plenty of weeping, some hysterical, mostly me, amplified by my in-laws. Church friends trooping through the house bearing hot meals that I think I occasionally sampled. Garbage bags full of paper plates and plastic ware. A service where I got stuck in a receiving line, shaking hands with people I recognized and didn’t recognize, like Facebook friending come to life.
Who was that guy? Did he go to college with Troy, or did he come from my own junior high algebra class?What the heck is she crying about?Did she have a thing for Troy? Am I even at the right service?
And finally one of those Moments in Life Which No One Ever Tells You About: me alone in the empty house after everyone is all gone and the funeral-baked meats are history and even the cards have stopped coming. Me and a closet full of Troy’s clothes and the garage bins stuffed with hand-me-downs that Min didn’t live to grow into.
·    ·    ·

Fast forward a year. Really, this isn’t difficult to do because I remember almost nothing about that first year. Maybe because I spent most of it in bed. Friends and family came around frequently, forcing me to get up once in a while, but the instant they were gone-boom!-back in I’d go.

I’m embarrassed to say that, an entire year later, not much had changed: the house looked exactly the same, complete with Troy’s and Min’s things still unpurged. Exactly the same, except for the months of bills and correspondence piled up on the dining table, unopened, and the dumpster that had just been dropped off in the driveway. Mom called to tell me, gently as ever, that now that I’d passed the one-year mark, it was time to get on with it.
“‘It’ what?” I asked. “Get on with what?”
“Your life, sweetheart,” she answered calmly. “I’ve ordered you a dumpster so you can clean out. Do you want Dad and me to come up and help you?”
“No, no, I can do it.”
“And you may want to call Raquel and let her know you’re cleaning out, Cass.” Raquel was my mother-in-law. I supposed I would have to, but given Raquel’s pack-rat tendencies, I didn’t see me picking up the phone until the dumpster was long gone.
For a few days I had been steeling myself for this, the Grand Purge, the Beginning of the Second Half of My Life, but now that the dumpster sat out front it all seemed too much. Really, it had only been a year-did Mom really think I was up to this?
Several hours later, I was still sitting on my bed, nothing accomplished, holding the flame-thrower of a lighter Troy would use to start fires in the fireplace-pressing down the safety with my thumb and pulling and releasing the trigger. Because wouldn’t it actually be easier to burn down the house than to sort through it? Easier emotionally, I mean. Trade in the slow torture and hours of crying by myself for the distraction of an insurance hassle.
I pulled on the lighter trigger again and admired the burst of flame shooting out like a dragon’s breath. But what if the hassle wasn’t distracting enough, since I would have to confess to setting the fire myself? That meant even at best I wouldn’t get any insurance money, and at worst I think I’d get jail time.
I pulled the trigger back again: pull on…release off…Then again, what a relief to torch those Penney’s buy-one-get-one curtains that came with the place. They were some textured, artificial material that would probably burn blue and toxic.
The last thing I needed, at any rate, was more insurance money coming my way. I was already at a loss what to do with Troy’s life insurance payout. Some mornings I thought I would give it all to the church or one of our charities; other mornings I thought I’d buy a one-way ticket to Antarctica or real estate on a snowy Himalayan peak, where I could live hermit-like; then again, I might need that money to fund my total re-education, if I decided to start over and become something completely other: an astronaut or a glaciologist or a game warden. I flicked the lighter again. The only thing I knew for sure was that, whatever I did, it wouldn’t require this two-bedroom, two-bath house.
The phone rang. On the fifth ring I checked the caller ID: Joanie. Anyone else and I might have let the machine get it, while I went back to my pyro fantasies, but Joanie had always been missing the sympathy-and-tact chip, so I didn’t mind talking to her. I could trust her not to ask in a low, hushed, deathbed voice, “How are you, really?” Those voices and questions always triggered tears, followed by a bad headache.
“Hey, Joanie.”
“Hey, there you are-are you busy? Got a minute? I wanted to spring a good idea on you.”
Joanie had her good ideas about every half hour, 99% of which never came to anything, but I felt a little curiosity flicker. “Is this about the dessert place you want to open? Or the bed-and-brunch, so you don’t have to get up too early to cook?”
“No, no.” I pictured her waving these off. “My brother Daniel-the lawyer one-he’s thinking of buying this giant house as an investment. It’s even got one of those mother-in-law guesthouses that’s bigger than most people’s normal houses. I was thinking he could live in the mother-in-law, and me and you and Phyl could live in the main house and-“
“Phil who? Is this someone you’re dating?”
“No, no,” she said again impatiently, “Phyllida Levert Phyl. Phyl-with-a-y Phyl. Anyhow, if we did Daniel’s cooking and cleaning, he’d give us reduced rent.”
I felt a little laugh in my throat. Rusty, but it was there. “Isn’t this the brother who sleeps with a different supermodel every couple weeks? What makes you think he’d want housekeeping staff around?”
“Because every man wants women around to do all the work. Especially Daniel! He just doesn’t want to have to marry someone to get the free labor. And since he’d be living in the in-law, he wouldn’t even have to be with us. He could just grab his dinner and go back to his place. We could even cook enough for whoever he’s sleeping with. I figure if we rotate the cooking and cleaning it’s no big deal. It’s a win-win. Come on, Cass-don’t you want out of that house? I would. It’s gotten creepy, like your own personal ancient history museum. Just pack a suitcase and set fire to the rest.”
The lighter fell out of my hand. “How did you…?”
I recovered hastily. “Where’s the house, and did you run this idea past him?”
“It’s in Clyde Hill, just a quick bus ride from downtown. You’d hardly even need a car. And yes, I did run the idea past him. What does he have to lose? He already pays to have meals delivered to his condo and to have someone clean for him. This way he’d get permanent benefits, plus some rental income from us.”
“But what did he say?”
“He said it sounded okay by him, as long as we agreed that if he hated us, he could kick us out. But we’d be ideal! We’re quiet, clean, good cooks. Most of our friends are churchy types. And I told him you guys already knew he hated church and church people, and that we would promise not to try to convert him. We could put that in the lease!”
Since God and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms at the moment, this would be no problem. Not that I’d ever been much of a sandwich-board-wearing Bible thumper anyhow, but right now I wasn’t in the mood to talk faith at all. In fact, my moods no longer ranged far afield. Depression, loneliness, anger, depression, loneliness, anger. I hoped my voice didn’t sound too pathetic: “But Joanie, do you and Phyl really want to be hanging out with a depressed, lonely widow?”
Joanie snorted. “NO! I don’t want to hang out with a depressed, lonely widow! That’s why I want you to live with us-I’ve given you a year to be a depressed, lonely widow, and you’re not snapping out of it. You need community. I can see you already have potential to become some kind of crazy cat lady if I don’t intervene.”
Her lack of sensitivity made me think she was sincere. “What would he want for rent?”
My eyes flicked to the closet. Maybe I could just sell the house as-is: complete with man’s wardrobe, size Medium, baby toys, overflowing file cabinets.
“Almost nothing. Under market. You’d get your own room and bathroom, and so would Phyl, and so would I.”
An unfamiliar thrum of excitement started in my stomach. This might be one of the 1% of Joanie’s ideas that actually flew. “Did you talk to Phyl? What did she say?”
“Well, you know Phyl. She’s been wondering what to do since her roommate got married. This way she doesn’t have to find a new one. Plus she can indulge her fantasies for my brother. You know, where she converts him from a self-absorbed, sexaholic into a thoughtful, one-woman Friend of Jesus.”
The rusty laugh made it out of me this time. “But the lease! The ‘no-conversion’ clause! I don’t want her wrecking this for us. Besides, it’ll be fun to observe Daniel and his mating habits. We’ll be like the Jane Goodalls of Clyde Hill.”
I pictured Joanie clapping her hands together because she dropped the phone. Contact with some hard surface speed-dialed someone, and then her voice came back, excited. “So you’re in? I knew this was a good idea. One of my really good ones. You’re starting fresh, baby! It’s gonna be like Sex and the City.”
“Or Celibacy in the Suburbs, more like.”
“Yeah, yeah. I meant Daniel would be having all the sex. Okay, so did you shower yet?”
It was three o’clock. I smoothed my sweat pants guiltily. Sometimes it was like Joanie had some kind of spy cam on me. She didn’t wait for me to answer. “Well, take one now because I’ll be there in twenty minutes to take you to see the house.”
·    ·    ·

Six weeks later, my house was on the market, and I was pulling up to the new one in a borrowed pick-up truck loaded with the few things I hadn’t purged. All the big items-my bed and desk and other pieces of furniture-were already here, thanks to some friends’ husbands’ help, so I had mainly the dregs. My past life was in my battered suitcase. I’d reduced it to a wedding album, Min’s baby book, ten CDs of pictures, and some college letters from Troy, but my wedding ring escaped the purge-I was still wearing it.

Clyde Hill was the former tiny town, now swallowed-up suburb, just north of downtown. Houses tended to be huge and Craftsman-y, and Daniel’s fit the mold completely: café-au-lait in color, with darker trim and a brick-red front door, four bedrooms, 3-½ baths, a big remodeled kitchen, three-car garage, partial view of the lake and the Olympics. Since few people in the Northwest troubled themselves with a pool, the former owners put in the 2-bed, 1-½ bath in-law apartment just off the vast deck. Japanese maples and an ornamental cherry tree studded the front, and I could see a couple native evergreens rising up behind the house. Phyl’s green thumb had already made changes from the first time I visited the house: small planter boxes and hanging baskets had appeared, stuffed with flowers, punctuating the wraparound porch.
Somehow moving in with Joanie and Phyl and, I suppose, with Daniel, didn’t feel as pitiful as finding some sweet old retired lady from the church to live with me. I’d known Joanie for several years. She and her then-fiancé had signed up for the New Marriage class at church with Troy and me, and though Joanie and Keith broke up shortly after, she and I became fast friends, a relationship that survived my marriage and Min coming along. Joanie had been in and out of two more engagements in the meantime, ending the latest six months ago. In her own way I suppose she was as commitment-phobic as her brother. He certainly couldn’t be more attractive than she was, with her long red-gold hair and intense blue eyes. Whenever one fiancé got the boot, another one appeared soon after to take his place.
Joanie always jokingly described herself as “the only white sheep in a family of black sheep,” the good girl who joined a church youth group in high school, to her atheist family’s horror. If that weren’t bad enough, Joanie also pledged a sorority in college and majored in business. When she quit her marketing job to work in our church worship department, that surely must have been the last straw. Joanie’s artistic, vegan, Portland mom was deeply embarrassed by her, and her brother hardly less so. Presumably Joanie’s father would have cringed as well, but no one had heard from him since he walked out a couple decades ago to reinvent himself somewhere in South America.
Phyl (or Phyllida, as only her mother called her) was a newer friend, by way of Joanie and the everlasting church singles events they haunted. Phyl was divorced. Her husband had been of the lyin’ cheatin’ variety, and he quickly traded her in for a newer model, but Phyl nevertheless continued to have a soft spot in her heart for the worst kind of men. She combined religious zeal with bad character judgment, so that her relationships usually involved much fervent prayer that the man she was attracted to would be magically transformed into the kind of man she ought to be attracted to. If there was any flaw in our new living plan, it was that Phyl would certainly fall for Daniel, make everything horribly awkward and lead to us all getting kicked out. Joanie and I hoped that, between us, we could corral her.
Of Daniel, I knew only what Joanie told me. He had drunk and slept his way through high school and taken his SATs stoned, like a good black sheep, but he was smart enough to pull off good grades all through college. His mother suspected blossoming bourgeois ambition when Daniel went to law school and into practice, but his continued allergic reaction to marriage, family, commitment, and religion allayed her fears. In fact, he had reached the advanced age of 34 without managing a relationship that lasted even a month and without (to Joanie’s knowledge) spending a thought or a penny on anyone besides himself. Fortunately for us, despite thinking his sister a hopeless religious nut who was sure to have homely, goody-goody friends, Daniel professed himself willing enough to take us on when it offered him such material advantages.
·    ·    ·

The second the old pick-up sputtered to a halt, Joanie burst out the front door. “There you are! Come on! Throw your stuff in your room because Chaff is going on a day hike today, and you’ve got to come.”

“Chaff” was our secret joke name for the big singles group at church. It was really “YAF” for “Young Adults Fellowship,” but everyone there was pushing thirty, and in a church of happy families, singles always have the red-headed stepchild thing going on.
I eyed her irritably. “Joanie, don’t start. I’m not going to any singles event.”
“Then why are you dressed up for the first time in over a year?” she demanded.
I was, in fact. A new stage in life called for more than sweatpants, I felt, and I had donned one of my few skirts and cutesy pairs of shoes for the occasion.
I shrugged. “Felt like it. But I’m going to finish moving in and then go back and clean up some more.” Shoving a box into her hands, I grabbed my suitcase. “Help me out.”
“Cass, don’t be like that. You’re unemployed. You can do that kind of stuff any time.”
“Yes, but I plan on doing it today.”
My room was at the top of the stairs, facing out on the driveway. Sunlight streamed in the angled bay window and skylight, and I felt that thrum of excitement again. I no longer was a home-owner. In fact I was now, at 32, a glorified housekeeper renting a room-but at least it was a gorgeous room in a more beautiful house than I could ever have hoped to own.
Joanie threw the box I’d given her carelessly on the bed, and I watched my toiletries and underwear spill out. “But, Cass, when you say ‘no,’ do you mean ‘no’ to a hiking trip or ‘no, don’t ask me to go to Chaff events’?”
“Yes and yes. Yes, I mean no hiking trip, and yes, don’t ask me to go to Chaff events. For Pete’s sake, Troy only died a year ago. His ashes have barely cooled.” I led her back downstairs to pick up another load.
“A year!” Joanie huffed. “You should see some of those guys whose wives die! They’re back at it so fast I wanna tell them to stuff their next wedding invitations in with the memorial thank-yous-save a stamp. Why don’t women do that?”
“Joanie,” I said through gritted teeth. “I love you, but you’re being hideously insensitive.” That brought her up short. It was impossible to be angry with Joanie long because she meant well.
Giving me a repentant squeeze she said, “Oh, never mind me. I’ll leave you alone today. Phyl and I will go. There’s a super cute new guy who showed up at Chaff last week, and he’s not even fifty or twice divorced, so Phyl and I are going to try and beat off the seventy other ladies. We don’t need your competition.”
I didn’t even dignify that with an eye roll. “So if you and Phyl are gone all day, am I on for cooking Daniel some dinner tonight?”
“Done. It’s already in the fridge, and enough for you, too. I made out a schedule and chore list and put it on the message board. Take a look and let me know what you think. He and his latest ‘house guest’ are on the back deck canoodling, I think-you want to come meet him?”
“With such a description, how could I resist?” I asked. “What about Phyl? Did she already make her introductions?”
“Oh, you better believe it! When she saw him, she went all breathless and melting. Good thing Daniel goes more for your breasts-of-steel type, or we’d be in trouble. You’ve got to see the gal with him now-classic Daniel.”
When we finished unloading the pick-up, we discovered this seventh wonder in the kitchen. Joanie had nailed it: even doing something as mundane as refilling coffee mugs, Daniel’s latest was indeed a sight to behold-all glossy blonde hair, mile-long legs, teensy tank top, and bouncing bosom. Awkwardly I held out my hand to this vision. “Hi, I’m Cass, one of Daniel’s housemates.”
After giving me a quick look-over and finding nothing threatening, Miss America shook my hand and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Missy.”
Seriously? Joanie grimaced at me and rolled her eyes behind Missy’s back as we followed her outside.
“Daniel,” Missy purred, dropping onto the chaise longue, “I’ve got your refill for you.”
Only when he lowered his newspaper and I saw his face did I realize I wasn’t seeing Daniel for the first time.
Troy and I had a favorite Italian restaurant downtown, and after I weaned Min and we started going out occasionally again, we often went there. One of our favorite date activities was watching other people and fictionalizing what we saw; it was our own improvised version of reality television.
Meeting Daniel we called the Close Encounters Incident. It must have come shortly before Troy died, one of those days near the solstice. In western Washington you can never count on beautiful weather until after the 4th of July, but this was one of those surprise June evenings, warm and mellow and bright out. Restaurants scrubbed down their patio tables and set them outside cheek-by-jowl because absolutely no one wanted to be indoors, and Fabiano’s was no exception. Troy and I had spent most of the meal making up a story for the nearby three-generations table, grandfather, father and son, but the lone woman in the corner caught my eye more than once. She kept checking her make-up in a small mirror and adjusting her bra, not that it needed much adjusting, unless she were trying vainly to keep herself poised just at the point before she spilled out. She was beautiful, to say the least-so whence the insecurity?
My answer came the next moment, when someone brushed past our table, bumping it. My glass of Shiraz rocked alarmingly, but, having a small toddler at home, my reaction times were nothing short of miraculous, and my hand closed on its bowl to steady it just an instant before another hand closed over mine. Startled, I looked up into a pair of very, very blue eyes. “Excuse me,” he murmured. “I see you have your wits about you.”
Whatever my physical instincts, my mental sharpness deserted me at that point, and I’m afraid I just gaped at him with my mouth open, feeling a warm blush overspread my cheeks.
He was easily the handsomest man I’d ever seen off a movie screen: tall, well-built, thick golden-blond hair, classical features.
Taking in my awestruck expression, his mouth twisted in amusement. Slowly I became aware that his hand was still covering mine. It was warm. I dropped my eyes to it in confusion, just as he released his grip, and I felt Troy kick me under the table. The spell broken, he moved on to sit with the spilling-out beauty, and then I noticed Troy was laughing silently into his napkin-not just laughing, dying laughing, wiping-away-tears laughing.
I scowled at him. “What? It’s not as if you weren’t glued on that guy’s date after I pointed her out to you!”
When he regained some measure of control, Troy gave me a mock-innocent shrug. “All in a spirit of scientific inquiry, Cass. Her breasts defy gravity, you’ve gotta admit. But you should have seen the look on your face-you’re still blushing.”
My hands flew to my cheeks. Blushing was my bane, always giving away more than I wanted. “I should have a few words with that guy for the way he was looking at you,” my husband chuckled, “but you do look pretty, so maybe he couldn’t help it. We’ll have to forgive each other: Tier One people are just too beautiful to be ignored.”
Troy had a theory about the world: if you pictured all the people in it, they fell into one of three tiers, rather like the food pyramid. Tier One: the very tiny tip of the pyramid, was made up of the world’s most unnaturally beautiful and enviable people, like retouched movie stars and models and the couple at the next table. Tier Two: this made up most of the pyramid, being huge and spanning sub-tiers ranging from quite-attractive all the way down to not-repellent. And Tier Three held the unfortunate of the world: people prevented from being found attractive by one or more overwhelming flaws, sometimes beyond their control. Lepers, was the example Troy always gave. Or inseparable conjoined twins. Think Chang and Eng.
Pointedly, I turned my chair away from the beautiful couple. “Well, hon, we’ll just have to comfort ourselves with your well-known corollary: Tier One stays small because members of it have a difficult time finding suitable mates. Now are you going to finish that tiramisù, or am I?”
Now here, a year and a lifetime later, was the mysterious stranger from the restaurant, every bit as handsome as I remembered, and we would be housemates, of all things. But this rather absurd fact hardly registered because I was frozen by a momentary vision of Troy laughing at me that night. How many jokes had we shared in our fourteen years of knowing each other? If he had any kind of consciousness now, was he laughing again, to see me having another Close Encounter? I felt the familiar tightening in my throat and burning behind my eyes: don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.
Through a rushing sound in my ears I heard Joanie introduce me, as Daniel’s gaze flickered over me without recognition. A relief, given how I didn’t think I could speak. One comment like, “Wait, didn’t I see you at Fabiano’s with your husband?” would have finished me. For once I was glad to be the kind of girl that men don’t notice unless they trip over me or, alternatively, co-edit the Yearbook with me, as Troy had in high school.
I’m pretty standard: average height, average weight, brown hair and eyes, reasonably attractive, and it took Troy half the year to figure out we were more than friends and that he actually preferred me to his girlfriend. But he loved me ever afterward, even when I had various misgivings and misplaced affections.
My husband.
Daniel muttered something that sounded like, “Nice to meet you, Cathy. Welcome.”
And, without the heart even to correct him, I nodded and the deal was sealed.

Chapter Two: Laying Low

“Here, dear. Dear?”

The elderly woman next to me pulled gently on my sleeve. In her other hand was the offering plate, which she was apparently trying to pass along the row. Apologetically, I smiled at her and handed the basket to the usher; I had been deep in an argument with God.
Although I felt like the estranged, drag-of-a-great-aunt who shows up at the holiday dinner just to put a damper on things, I still attended church. Even that first year when I could barely get out of bed I came. Unwilling, alienated, completely absent in spirit, I came. Why, I couldn’t exactly say. Maybe because I’d gone all my life. Maybe because I didn’t have anything else to do. Maybe because I was afraid if I let this go as well, there would be nothing left to me; I would disintegrate-float away on the wind.
Back in the days before my life went down the toilet we’d always gone to the 9:30 a.m. service. It was the big family one-loud band, all our friends, the nursery and Sunday school jam-packed. We assumed 8:00 was for the blue hairs, the “frozen chosen” Troy jokingly called them-all the grandmas and grandpas who got up at 4:30 and wondered why the church didn’t have a 6:00 a.m. service.
In the past year Joanie and Phyl tried several times to get me to join them at the Sunday evening service, the de facto singles and college gathering, but post-death-and-destruction I went to the 8:00 a.m., preferring to sit among strangers who wouldn’t ask any questions. It turned out Troy and I were wrong: grandparent-types made up only one contingent of those around me; there were also harassed-looking young parents whose kids woke at the crack of dawn, active types who wanted to get church out of the way before a day hike, and morning persons of all generations.
The early service had several fringe benefits, moreover. For one, it was a piece of cake to get a seat. This morning when I slid into the very last balcony pew, the little old lady there smiled at me benignly and without recognition. Probably a widow, too. Two peas in a pod, that was us. For another, since Troy and I never attended the traditional service, there was nothing to remind me of him. Hymns with a choir and an organ actually carried me back to my study-abroad quarter at Oxford, where I attended a little church close to Magdalen College. After a brief, intense crush on my brilliant tutor with the lame orthodonture, I had returned, tail between my legs, begging Troy to take me back.
I only knew one of the hymns this morning, which was fine, since I didn’t feel like singing. Or listening to a sermon or praying or talking, for that matter. It was the last weekend of the summer vacation, so a guest speaker was filling in for the senior pastor. During the sermon my mind wandered frequently, but the general topic was the joy of service. The joy of getting outside oneself. Well, if there was ever a place I’d love to be right now, it was outside myself. But what would I do? No more volunteering in the nursery, like I used to. Besides the germs and diapers, I didn’t want to see any little children who would remind me of Min. And I’m sure all my friends picking up and dropping off kids would rather just “get ʼer done” without having to see me moping about the place.
For a few minutes, to avoid deep thought, I pictured decorating my new room. I could paint the walls a dark buff. Re-cover the cushion in the window seat for a reading area. Hang that chickadee painting some friends gave me by the book case. Then I planned my first few dinners. Was vegetarian cooking out? Did everyone eat fish or beef? I had forgotten to ask. Then I thought of Great American Novels still waiting to be written. The sermon was still going.
Defeated, I screwed my eyelids shut. It was almost embarrassing to try to talk to God, since I hadn’t been praying for months. Who wanted to talk to someone you were mad at? Especially if He wouldn’t answer, and nothing could be resolved?
Arguing with the Almighty was also a fairly new experience for me, dating only from when he let Troy and Min die. Was it too much to ask, that He could have let Troy’s heart fail when he was sitting on the couch at home, with me right next to him to call 9-1-1? Or was it too much to ask that He could have spared Min? Min had spent 90% of her time with me, for Pete’s sake, and one of the few times she’s alone with her dad, they have to be in a car, and his heart has to give out suddenly? Troy’s death I could almost get my mind around-a bad heart is a bad heart, and since he was only 31 we hadn’t known about it. But what was the deal with Min? What part of His Wonderful Plan for My Life did it screw up to leave her on earth?
I learned in the church’s Grief Recovery class what I already knew intellectually: that it was okay to be angry at God. But it still made me uncomfortable. Maybe my faith had tended too much to the what-a-friend-we-have-in-Jesus side, only to discover that that friend was not averse to letting circumstances stab me in the back. It felt like having the faithful family guard dog, who rescued you from house fires in the past, turn on you and maul you. Bad analogy, I know, to compare God with a dog. Sit, Lord. Stay. Lie Down. Turn water into wine. Fix my every problem. And heaven knows no one has ever gotten God to heel. On the other hand, like an unruly pet, faith could be euthanized when it didn’t meet expectations.
The atheists and agnostics in my life were trying hard to bite their tongues, but I could read their thoughts: Cass, doesn’t this prove it’s all random, or that, if there is a God, He’s a jerk? Religion’s great if you find it comforting, but in your case, shouldn’t you get off your knees and stop worshiping this figment of your imagination? And on bad days I thought they were probably right, but on other days, most other days, I figured God is God, and He can do whatever He pleases. While I certainly wish He would have asked for my input in this situation, I was willing to believe there were more things going on in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy.
The speaker was talking about some time he made some big faux pas at the homeless shelter, and the people around me chuckled appreciatively. So fine-God was God, and Troy and Min were gone, for whatever reasons. Now what? What on earth was I supposed to do with my life? And was there any way I could get through the rest of it under the radar?
I had woken up that morning with a faint headache after dreaming about Min: her first birthday, and the terrific face she made when she first tasted frosting. Hey, Minnie was my first baby, so like millions of other first-time moms I was something of a nutrition Nazi. One of my food rules was that we weren’t going to give her any sugary sweets for the first year, to see if it could prevent her from developing a sweet tooth. In my zeal, I considered a sweet tooth the gateway condition to childhood obesity and early-onset diabetes. But my experiment didn’t work. After that first puzzled taste, Min licked every speck of frosting off her cupcake and begged for more. Like mythologists of old, I learned that once desire was out of the box, there was no stuffing it back in. Min spent the remaining months of her short life being an absolute sugar fanatic, willing to do anything for M&Ms; or a cookie, and I worriedly imagined her first high school boyfriend getting whatever he wanted from her for a couple Oreos.
Once Min tasted sugar, there was no pretending she was going to be content thereafter with only sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Could I? If I lay low, God-keep my head down and behave myself-will you let me be? I leave you alone-ask for nothing-and you leave me alone?
I wouldn’t say the heavens opened and angels ascended and descended, but the speaker sat down at last, and a teenage girl stood up to speak, recapturing my attention.
She was average height and maybe sixteen, with lank brown hair and conservative clothing that she looked rather uncomfortable in. She cleared her throat a couple times and glanced nervously to someone seated off to the side.
“Hi, I’m Ellie,” she read from her cards. “I came to Camden School last spring after being kicked out of my old high school for doing drugs. Camden School is an alternative school for students like me who haven’t been succeeding in the regular public school system. I’d been doing drugs since middle school and gotten in lots of trouble and didn’t know how to change my life. At Camden School I meet with a substance abuse counselor and get lots of one-on-one attention from my teachers. They really care about me here, and I have been sober for four months. I really missed school this summer and seeing my friends and teachers, and I can’t wait to start again next week. I am also excited about getting a mentor this year. A mentor is an adult who can hang out with me regularly and do occasional activities with other students and mentors. This church is one of the big financial supporters of our school, and I want to say thank you for helping people like me. We also depend on many volunteers at our school to help with fundraising and special events and tutoring and mentoring. If you would like to help in any of these areas, please see the information in the bulletin. Thank you.”
Ellie delivered this entire speech on three breaths, tops, and when she sat down there was a wave of encouraging applause. Feeling a burning sensation in my chest, I scrabbled with the bulletin to look at the blurb on Camden School. As if they were a message for me, the letters seemed to jump from the page, like the red-letter sayings of Jesus in my mother-in-law’s King James.
But how could it be? My life was in shambles, and I didn’t know the first thing about teenagers or drug addiction. On the other hand, surely I could hang out with a teenager and encourage her to stay on the wagon and in school? But what would any teenager want with some pathetic woman who had lost everything and had no idea how to start from scratch? Didn’t they want hope, instead of, “Work hard and play it straight, and one day your life, too, might go up in flames”?
Discouraged, I wadded up the bulletin and threw it on the floor, only to glimpse the raised eyebrow of the woman next to me. Clearly she wasn’t excited about me littering in the Sanctuary. Too long used to behaving myself, I picked the bulletin back up and stuffed it in my purse. Fine, God, I’ll keep it. But if you really have the crazy idea I should mentor someone, you’re going to have to make it a little clearer.
When the service let out, I darted out the front doors. It would mean a longer walk, but it would also mean avoiding most people I knew. Our church had torn down its 50s-style A-frame recently and rebuilt as big a building as the city would allow-modern, with huge windows of greenish Northwest glass and a modest cross on top, so as not to frighten people like Daniel, who wanted to vomit when they thought of church. For the entire sixteen months it took to rebuild, we met in the Bellevue High School gym, where the sight of the basketball hoops and the smell of Cafeteria Lunches Past gave former alums like me similar urges to vomit when they thought of church. Already we were bursting at the seams again, causing longtime members to complain that they didn’t recognize anyone, but there’s nothing like a mega-church if your goal is to avoid people. You have only to change services to cut yourself adrift.
Sure enough, besides throwing one wave across the parking lot to Dave and Sandy Lucker, I escaped unnoticed.
·    ·    ·

Phyl and Joanie were having a comfortable coze in the kitchen when I got home, Joanie still in sweats. Helping myself to coffee, I plunked down next to Phyl.

“How was church?” Joanie asked. “I can’t believe you go to the early service! Do they have to remove half the pews to fit all the walkers and wheelchairs?”
I blew on my coffee and reached for the half-and-half. “It wasn’t so bad. Just about everyone was ambulatory. I knew one of the hymns.”
“Who preached?” Phyl asked in her gentle voice.
“Some guy from Idaho. It was about service.”
“Yuck and yuck!” yelled Joanie. “Maybe I won’t go tonight. Who needs more guilt? I still haven’t recovered from the time Chaff went to hand out sandwiches to the homeless, and I got Mr. Complainer who didn’t like turkey. Who knew homeless people were so picky?”
“I had a nice conversation that time,” Phyl objected. “I met this lady with such a sad story, and I kept thinking, ‘This could be me.'”
Joanie rolled her eyes. “Well, next time I’ll hit up the ladies. I’m sure Jesus would have told my guy to just choke down the damned sandwich and be grateful.”
Phyl frowned. Before they could really get into it, I interjected hastily, “Speaking of Chaff, how was the hike yesterday? Was the cute new guy there?”
Joanie took the bait. “YES! Only, it turns out James is a mere 27, so a lot of us circling sharks had to quit chomping at his cage-“
“Joanie, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” Phyl protested. “How can anyone at YAF try to get to know anyone, if you’re always going to make it sound so predatory?”
“But the good news is,” Joanie went on blithely, “James brought this friend-older friend-his old Sigma Nu big brother, I think-who is just as cute and just as cool, though unemployed.”
“He already asked Joanie out, of course,” sighed Phyl.
“He’s unemployed?” I asked skeptically. “Is he going to take you to the soup kitchen?”
Joanie shrugged. “We may have to scrounge for sandwiches the homeless people reject, but at least he’s cute. And I said Roy was unemployed, not unemployable. Big difference.”
“So when is this date happening?” I asked.
“Coffee after church tonight,” Joanie replied. “Which means I guess I have to go so I can talk about it with him.”
“Who got James, then?” I asked.
“I think at least three women asked him out,” Phyl answered. “And I’m pretty sure he took Brooke Capshaw up on it.”
“He had to,” Joanie said ruthlessly. “She’s short. He’s short.”
“Shorter than you, Joanie,” I said. “Not everyone is almost six feet tall.”
“Yeah, but I’d put him at max 5’8.””
“He’s tall enough for you, Phyl,” I broke in again. “And you’re younger than Joanie and me-“
“Hey, don’t lump us together,” Joanie protested. “You’re 32 and I’m only 29.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and Phyl is only, what, 28?”
Phyl fidgeted and dumped more sugar in her empty coffee cup. “Uh huh, but I don’t think James is my type. I mean, he seems very nice and all, but a little tame.”
Even as she spoke her eyes were drawn out the bay window, and I followed her gaze. From my seat I could just see half of Daniel’s back. He was in what must be his favorite spot, lounging on the deck reading the newspaper.
Joanie and I exchanged looks of dismay.
“Well…” Joanie drawled, “I’m sure you’ll find someone less tame and more unsuitable to like, Phyl. In any case, since Roy is unemployed and I think I’ll want to see him more than he can afford, I have a brand-new idea for our brand-new household.”
Now Phyl and I exchanged amused glances.
“What now?” I asked. “Cough it up.”
To our surprise, Joanie leaned over and banged on the window pane. “Daniel! Could you come in a second? I want to run something by you.”
I could see Phyl hold her breath as we waited for him. After some moments he came in the back door and threw his folded newspaper on the counter, running his hands through his tousled blond hair and nodding briefly at me. “What, Joanie?”
She slung an arm around him and cuddled. Joanie has always been very demonstrative physically, something I think her many fiancés enjoyed. Nor did her brother seem to mind, and he put his arm on her shoulders. They really were amazingly good-looking together. “Okay, Daniel,” she said, “I’ve got this great idea for our house that can involve you or not involve you, but I’d love for it to involve you.”
“Oh, for Chrissake, Joanie. Are you planning some kind of tent revival in the backyard? The answer is no.”
“No, stupid. It doesn’t even necessarily involve church-“
“‘Necessarily’?” he echoed warily. “I thought that’s all you girls did. Speaking of which, why are you all sitting around, instead of getting your butts to church on a Sunday morning?”
“Phyl and I will go later,” Joanie explained impatiently. “And Cass has already been.”
Daniel glanced at the clock and whistled. “I guess the grass won’t grow under your feet.”
Over me, more like, I thought.
He dropped a wink at me. “And didn’t you say your name was Cathy?”
“Cass. It’s Cass-short for Cassandra,” I replied, a little flustered by the wink.
“I was just thinking,” Joanie began again, thumping on Daniel’s chest to get his attention, “wouldn’t it be cool if, once a week-say Thursdays, since that’s one of my days to cook-we had some kind of standing open house here. We could each invite one or two guests for dinner, with advance notice, of course. It’d be the one night of the week when we all tried to be home together to eat and hang out. It could be potluck, but you and your guests could be freeloaders, if you want.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He backed out of her encircling arm. “No way am I hosting the weekly church picnic, and what makes you think I want to hang out with you and your friends-no offense-” He grimaced in the direction of Phyl and me.
“None taken,” whispered Phyl.
“I’m not talking about a church picnic,” Joanie retorted, her voice getting that little annoyed edge I recognized. “I’m talking about having one night a week for friends and family and community, and showing a little hospitality! I wouldn’t even necessarily invite a church person, and neither would Phyl or Cass-“
“This is Joanie’s idea,” Phyl breathed.
Joanie shot her a scathing look but plowed on. “And you and your friends or girlfriends or co-workers wouldn’t even need to come, but I wish you would. Come on, Daniel, it’ll be fun! Just say we can host it and try to come. If you hate it you can just get a plate of food and go hide at your place.”
He threw up his hands in surrender and gave her a loud kiss on the cheek. “Fine. We’ll try it once. One or two guests each, max. This is going to be a crazy week at work, so what time do I have to be here?”
Squealing, she hugged him. “Say 6:30 for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and we’ll eat at 7:00. And let me know if Missy or someone else is coming. I wish we could send an evite, but I don’t want to until we’ve thought of a name for the house.”
He extricated himself again and waved vaguely at us. “Why does a house need a name? You girls deal with that. I’ve got to go in to the office.”
And he was out the back door before Phyl could ask, “He has to work on Sunday?”
Joanie plopped herself back down triumphantly. “That was easier than I thought.”
I frowned at her. “Shouldn’t we have made sure things were going smoothly before trying to push him around?”
“You call that pushing him around? You don’t know Daniel. He didn’t care about it. If he did and he felt strongly, there wouldn’t have been a thing I could do or say to budge him. Just like if there was something he set his mind on, nothing could stop him from getting it. We’ll see if he even shows up.”
“I think he will,” I said slowly, “If only to make sure we aren’t baptizing people in the birdbath.”
“You’re going to invite Roy,” Phyl said, “And Daniel will probably have that gorgeous Missy, but who do you think Cass and I should invite?”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Joanie complained, “it’s not a quadruple date. Ask anyone you want! Anyone you’d like to have for dinner. Or no one at all. It’s just meant to give us a consistent time and a space for entertaining and being together without having to clear things with Daniel. Now help me think of a name for our house.”

Chapter Three: A Failure to Communicate

Our first official dinner together would prove typical: Daniel was still at work, and Phyl and Joanie had to bolt and run to make the 7:00 church service. By 6:55 I had the house to myself and was doing the dishes in peace, having made Daniel a plate of Phyl’s chicken casserole and put it in the microwave with a note.

Dinner conversation had centered on the house-naming. Phyl tended toward the literary, but Joanie and I vetoed Pemberley, Elsinore, Innisfree, and their ilk as too pretentious. She in turn disliked the ironic names, absolutely no Hovel or Anthill or Woodshed.
“It’s a beautiful house,” Phyl protested softly. “It should have a beautiful name. What would Daniel think if we named his beautiful house ‘the Woodshed’? It’s cliché, but you know what they say-a man’s home is his castle.”
“The Castle!” Joanie hollered, thumping the table. “Not that I think Daniel would give a rat’s ass what we call it.”
“No, even better,” I laughed. “How about the Palace? That way this could be the Palace kitchen, like that restaurant in Seattle. And Daniel’s little in-law could be the Woodshed.”
Phyl shook her head. “No Woodshed.”
“The Lean-To!” Joanie said eagerly. “Like in Little House on the Prairie. You wanted literature, Phyl.” She raised her glass of iced tea. “I propose a toast to the Palace and the Lean-To!”
Phyl looked like she might draw out the argument, but since I raised my glass she gave in and toasted with us.
I was just wiping down the stainless-steel sink when I heard the front door open. Daniel. At least he was alone, since I forgot to make Missy a plate. Somehow the thought of being home alone with him made me a little nervous, not just because I’d always felt intimidated by the Head Cheerleaders and High School Football Captains of the world, but because talking to any man post-widowhood seemed fraught with difficulty.
He poked his head in the kitchen. “Where’s Joanie?”
“Church.”
Daniel made a scoffing sound. “How could I have forgotten?” Everywhere I chose to stand seemed to be in his way, and I tried not to leap like a startled deer when he backed me up against the counter so he could reach for a wineglass. The glint in his eye made me suspect he enjoyed my discomfiture. “Smells good. What did…Felicia…make for dinner?”
“Close. Her name is Phyllida, but we call her Phyl. If it helps you remember, her name means ‘greenery’ or something, and she’s a total enviro-freak. Tonight she made a politically-correct chicken casserole.” I pointed to the microwave, trying to stand my ground and not step back from him.
His very blue eyes met mine sharply. “Look…Cass…sorry about the name problem. I’m not very good with them.”
“It’s okay,” I replied, moving away from him on the pretense of hanging up the dishcloth. “I meant sincerely that you were close when you guessed Felicia. Just like you were close when you guessed ‘Cathy’ for me. I’m terrible at names, so I’m impressed you actually get in the ballpark.”
He grinned then and went to punch the buttons on the microwave.
Having finished cleaning, I debated whether or not he would want to make conversation while he ate and decided probably not. But it was weird to share a house with another person and not make any attempt to get to know him. Well, he could always take refuge in the Lean-To if I got too annoying.
“Joanie says you’re a lawyer,” I began. “What kind of lawyer?”
He stuffed a giant bite of casserole in his mouth and had to chew for a minute, looking measuringly at me all the while. Maybe most women who addressed him uninvited were hitting on him. Ugh. I was pretty sure I’d kept my tone businesslike.
He reached for the pepper mill, and I thought of Esther appearing before Ahasuerus without first being summoned. Would Daniel hand me the mill, like the royal scepter, and bid me speak, or would he behead me? Instead, he gave a few grinds and replaced it.
“Intellectual property,” he answered at last. “Trade secrets, that sort of thing.”
“Do you mean inventions?”
“Sort of and sometimes. Companies develop anything-new technologies, inventions, even software programs or architectures-and they need legal protection for these things to keep their competitive advantage. If another company steals these things or benefits from them, they should have to pay for it, just like you would have to pay if you were a musician and wanted to record a cover of someone else’s song.”
“So if I invented something and wanted to get it patented and protected, I could go to you?”
His mouth twisted in amusement. “Are you speaking hypothetically? What kind of invention?”
I pulled one of the barstools closer to the table and sat down. “Oh, I’ve thought of all kinds of things. What about contact lenses that darkened in sunlight, like those glasses which turn into sunglasses automatically?”
No response. He kept eating, so I tried again. “And then I thought of a chair, like a disc on a stiff bungee cord, that you could suspend from the ceiling and sit on, so that when you were holding a baby, the baby would think you were still standing, but you would know you were sitting.”
“What?” he looked mystified. “What would be the point of that?”
I forgot babies were completely unknown quantities to him. “Because when babies are fussy, they like you to hold them while you walk around or bounce up and down, and that gets exhausting for the parent after a while.”
He shrugged, losing interest. “Well, we don’t really handle personal inventions.”
Now he tells me.
There was a pause, while I waited for him to take a turn asking me something, but he seemed content to eat in silence. I hid a smile. I had forgotten how, when Joanie got frustrated with him, she would say, “Daniel is complete in himself-or is that completely into himself?”
Once more into the breach. “Do you have to work a lot of weekends?” I asked.
“Depends on the caseload. One of the partners is on family leave now, so some of us are taking up the slack.” His grin came and went again. “Maybe Josh might be interested in your disc bouncy chair now.”
“Well, it’s my idea, so he’d have to pay big time for it,” I cracked. His expression didn’t change. For the love of Mike, did he think I was serious?
“And you know,” Daniel continued, as if I hadn’t spoken, “It’ll never sell unless you can think of a catchier name for it.”
Stung, I retorted, “‘Disc bouncy chair’ was your name for it, not mine! Of course I know it needs a better name. I was just giving you one of my hypothetical inventions.” This time I definitely saw his mouth twitch and suddenly realized he was only yanking my chain, and I had thought he was serious.
More silence. No wonder he slept with so many women-otherwise he might have to talk to them! He was just about done with his plate. “If you want seconds, there’s more in the fridge,” I offered.
While he loaded up again I made a final attempt. “Okay, if you don’t do personal inventions, what’s an example of something your firm would handle?”
Daniel turned slowly from the microwave. “A little of this, a little of that. They’re trade secrets, remember? I could tell you, but this would be your last night on earth.”
This time I did laugh. “Fine then, keep your precious secrets. I’m off to go hack into your computer.” I’d done my conversational duty for one night. Time to check my email.
·    ·    ·

Raquel, my mother-in-law (ex-mother-in-law? former mother-in-law?), had sent me three messages. We found it easier to email than to talk on the phone, since one or the other of us would start crying and set the other one off. Sighing, I clicked open the first.

Hello, Cass.
I thought about calling but knew you would be busy with moving into your new place. We are so happy for you making a new start. Please let us know if you need anything. You will always be family to us. In fact, if you don’t feel like going as far as your family’s this Thanksgiving, we would love you to join us. Max has been repainting the cabin.
Raquel
Ugh! Sitting around the Thanksgiving table with Max and Raquel and Troy’s brothers’ families sounded truly horrible. I loved them, but they were big drinkers, and it was sure to end in everyone throwing back even more than usual and ending up weepy and interrupting each other to propose maudlin toasts to Troy. Kind of like how we spent the week of the memorial. And the last few Ewan family gatherings. And once Raquel was really lit, she’d be sure to drag out the hand-embroidered dresses from Troy’s little sister, who also died young, and tell me how she had been saving these for Min to grow into. No way. I would rather spend Thanksgiving at the local Denny’s than torture myself like that.
Feeling dread, I clicked on the next one.
Hello, Cass.
Max was up in the attic today and found a box of Troy’s swim trophies and ribbons. We would like to keep several, of course, but would you like some?
Raquel.
I groaned and laid my head on the desk. When I had cleared out the old house, Raquel came by two consecutive days to cart away U-Hauls full of Troy’s and Min’s things, all the time giving me reproachful looks that I would even consider parting with the stuff. I think she expected me to set up some kind of shrine with the relics and was deeply wounded by what she took for my callous, let-the-dead-bury-the-dead attitude.
Numero tres:
Hello, Cass.
Little Minnie would have been 30 months next week. They are going to redo the playground at the park I used to take her to, so I thought it would be lovely if we bought a few of the bricks to put her name on it. And Max thought we should sponsor a drinking fountain with Troy’s name as well. We don’t expect you to contribute, of course. We just wanted you to know it would be there.
Raquel
Okay, she won. I was crying, but at the same time angry with her for dragging me down with her. A year had gone by. Why couldn’t she just let me enjoy a few months of denial? We’d been doing grief her way this whole time. Other than Mom ordering up the dumpster, my own parents were giving me space, not talking about it and trying to offer distractions: did I want to join them and their friends on their Caribbean cruise? Did I want to move closer to home? Why didn’t I get a subscription to the theater?
I supposed I wasn’t being fair. Raquel and I were in a tug-of-war over how to grieve. For her it meant endless do-you-remembers and treasuring every tangible thing you could associate with them. When I did too much of this with her or with anyone, I felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I was being swallowed alive. Any death you could think of where air was an issue. I guess I was my parents’ child-I just wanted to shelve it for a while. Not that I wanted to join my parents and their retired friends on a Caribbean cruise, but I did want a break from memory. The theater ticket idea was tempting, to tell the truth. Why else would I be avoiding my married-with-children friends and crashing with a bunch of singles, except to pretend that maybe none of that awfulness ever happened? Wearing my wedding ring was my one concession. I didn’t really want to be single, either, and have to deal with issues of singleness. With my ring I could also pretend singleness didn’t exist.
Taking a deep breath, I wrote her a quick response:
Hi, Raquel.
The move went fine, and I am settling in. Thank you for the invitation, but I think my new housemates and I are planning a Thanksgiving shebang [total falsehood which I would have to rectify]. Please keep Troy’s swim trophies. I can see them there.
The playground memorials are a beautiful idea. I like to think of children playing around Min’s bricks and drinking from Troy’s fountain.
Hope you both are well. The cabin will look great when Max is done repainting.
Love, Cass.
If I was going to stay in denial, I needed to get busy.
Just then I heard my phone chirp in my purse. Troy must be rolling in his figurative grave to think I decided to go without a landline at the Palace because my cell phone historically spent more time dead than charged. Digging it out of my purse, the crumpled morning’s bulletin came with it. “Calling All Mentors!” shouted the little headline for Camden School when I smoothed it out on my desk.
Nice try, I told God. You’ll have to do better than that.
·    ·    ·

Sometime around 10:00, when I was tucked up in bed re-reading David Copperfield, Joanie poked her head in. Seeing me awake she slipped in, shutting the door behind her, and did a running leap onto my bed.

“Grief, Joanie! Watch out for my legs!” I complained.
Unrepentantly she flopped over on her stomach right next to me and propped her head up on her hands. “Ask me how it was, Cass. I love living with you and having you right here. I don’t even have to pick up the phone.”
“How was it, Joanie?” I asked obediently. “I assume you mean coffee and not church.”
“Yes, I mean coffee!” she said exultantly. “Roy is so great! He may be unemployed but he’s gorgeous, plus he’s fun to talk to and has lots of interests and asked me about me. And he totally wants to come to our first open house on Thursday.”
“No big surprise there. Do you think the cute short friend will come too?”
She sat up suddenly and looked hard at me. “We didn’t even talk about him, and I didn’t think to ask, since Phyl wasn’t interested. Are you interested? I’ll ask for you. You’re so short I’m sure he’s taller than you.”
I shook my head, horrified. “No no no! I didn’t mean that. I don’t want him either. Let Brooke Capshaw have him.” She was getting that speculative look in her eye, so to change the subject I demanded, “Did Roy ask you to marry him yet? And did you say Yes and Yes and then No, never mind?”
She mock-scowled at me. “What a grump. Aren’t you even going to ask me how he made it to his age without being gay or divorced?”
“I assumed he was both.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Joanie said sarcastically. “No, really, Cass, he’s been overseas for the past four years teaching English in Cambodia for World Vision. Isn’t that the coolest?”
I pretended to consider, just to tease her. “Fairly cool…but just because he’s an idealist doesn’t make him a monk. He probably had a Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon thing going on.”
“What are you talking about, Cass? You mean he was an opera fan?”
“No, goof,” I laughed. “What’s wrong with being an opera fan? I meant he might have had a love affair with someone in Cambodia and left a souvenir or two behind. Did he ask you how you feel about kids? Or being a stepmom?”
She whipped one of my pillows out from behind me and walloped me with it. “So cynical today. I was going to give you the play-by-play of our conversation, but I guess I’ll save my raptures for Phyl, then.”
I gave her an apologetic squeeze. “I’m just giving you a hard time. I want the play-by-play. It’ll take my mind off my mother-in-law’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“Oh, no. Have you heard from her again?”
“What do you mean ‘again’? I still hear from her practically every day. We’re quite the e-mourners,” I explained. “So I did that, and when Daniel came home I tried to have a basic getting-to-know-you conversation. He was very evasive and non-curious. I can’t say it was a success.”
“Poor you,” she crooned. “And here you are taking refuge in some thick, boring book. Let me share my much more exciting evening with you…”
In her own way Joanie could give Dickens a run for his money in the details department. By the time she got around to Roy dropping her off and squeezing her hand significantly it was past 11:00. I kicked her out and, despite all, fell asleep almost right after putting out the light.

 … continued …    

*     *     *


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