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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

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.  


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   
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.
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