Pushamataha County, Oklahoma. A black teen and his white girl friend have
up missing as well. It’s not a good time for a Jewish boy from Boston to spend
time in this place
too late to save citizens from the terror of good intentions gone awry.
by Keith Remer
4.9 Stars –
Here’s the set-up:
Terrible things are happening in Pushmataha County, Oklahoma. A
black teen and his white girl friend have disappeared. After an altercation
with white ruffians, a Choctaw Indian turns up missing as well. It’s not a
good time for a Jewish boy from Boston to spend time in this place where it
seems minorities are suddenly unwelcome.
Sheriff Burl Hansen has his hands full even before fate forces
him to bond with the boy from Boston. Hansen, though, will not heed the
mystical warnings of a Choctaw holy man until it’s too late to save citizens
from the terror of good intentions gone awry.
In a Godly community where honorable men have strayed, only a
force beyond human comprehension can intervene from The Hiding Place of
From the reviewers:
“No writer has grabbed my attention since I read my first
John Grisham novel. If The Hiding Place of Thunder is an example of Keith
Remer’s novels to come, America and the world have discovered a great new
author. I am hooked, and a Remer fan for life.” -Steve Bender, producer,
director and author, 68 at 40 Retrospective and If I Can Dream
“Keith Remer is truly one of the most gifted storytellers
of our time. The Hiding Place of Thunder is a haunting and provocative
masterpiece, which leaves the reader no choice but to keep turning its pages.
It’s one of those books that will keep you thinking about it long after
you’ve finished reading it.” -Stacy D. Shelton, author, Me, the Crazy
Woman and Breast Cancer
Keith Remer knows his craft and weaves compelling stories taken
from real life. His novels present those kinds of reflective moments we need
to take pause with in our own lives. He has inspired and taught me. -Chris
Querry, author, Alat Farad, Eden’s Keys, and A Love Made Real, reviewer,
An Excerpt from
The Hiding Place of Thunder
Copyright © 2012
by Keith Remer and published here with his permission
“YOU CALLED IN
AND I RESCUED YOU;
I ANSWERED YOU IN
THE HIDING PLACE OF
the bat down, Herman, and stop calling me a son of a bitch.”
“This here is my bat, and you are standing on my land. So don’t go tellin’
me what to do, Burl. Besides, if I was to put this here baseball bat down, it’d
be kind of hard to knock yer head off with it…You goofy son of a bitch!”
Burl Hansen leaned back against the fender of his car and crossed two beefy
arms over a barrel chest. “Herman, don’t make me come over there and take
that damn thing away from you.”
Herman Grambs puckered his crusty lips and deposited a glob of thick black tobacco
juice between Hansen’s cowboy boots. “Some says you the biggest and
baddest son of a bitch in this county Burl. But you ain’t near big enough or
bad enough to take away my bat!”
Hansen unfolded his arms and pointed a thick index finger at the feisty little
welfare recipient. “It’s hard to make me angry Herman, but you’re about to
do it. You got about three seconds to throw that…”
A sudden beeping sound from within his car interrupted Hansen’s threat.
“What is that noise?” Grambs piped.
“It’s my cell phone,” Hansen grumbled as he pushed away from the
car’s fender. “You don’t move. I gotta see who’s calling.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Hell, I live here…you son of a bitch!”
Hansen grabbed the phone, pushed the talk button and barked, “This is
Hansen grimaced at the sound of his wife’s voice. She seemed to have a knack
for calling at the most inconvenient times.
“Who is it?” Grambs asked.
“It’s my wife.”
Grambs cupped a hand around one side of his mouth and hollered, “Howdy,
“Herman Grambs says ‘Hello,'” Hansen relayed, then grumbled back to
Grambs, “Vicki says ‘Hi.'”
Turning his attention back to his wife, Hansen asked in his typically gruff
manner, “Whatcha need, Vicki?”
“Do you know what a bar mitzvah is?” The sweet voice
“A what?” Hansen countered.
“A bar mitzvah. I just watched one on T.V. It was on the Discovery
“A bar mitzvah? Yeah, yeah, it’s some kind of Jewish ceremony,”
Hansen said, doing nothing to conceal his agitation. Before Vicki gained a
chance to respond, Burl covered the phone with his hand and hissed at Grambs,
“You better throw that bat down!”
“You better kiss my ass!” Grambs hissed back.
“It’s a ceremony,” Vicki continued, “performed when a Jewish boy
turns thirteen that…”
“Oh, hell, not this again!” Hansen bellowed, and immediately wished
he hadn’t. Vicki hung up without another word. Despite his renowned terse
disposition, Burl Hansen didn’t relish hurting his darling wife’s feelings. He
felt really rotten, and feeling rotten did nothing to improve his already
Hansen crammed the small phone into the rear pocket of his jeans and stomped
around to the back of his car. He popped the trunk and pulled out a
twelve-gauge pump shotgun, violently jerked the slide forward and back to
chamber a shell and whirled to level the barrel at Herman Grambs’ midsection.
“Drop that bat Herman, or I’m going to drop you.”
The bat hit the ground and both of Grambs’ hands went high into the air over
his head. “Goddammit Burl,” he whined, “I used to like you back
when we was in high school.”
“Everybody liked me back in high school Herman. I was a star
“Yeah, you was a hell of a football player and a real nice feller, too.
Now that you’re the county sheriff though, you’ve become a sure enough
“Is that right? Well let me tell you something Herman. I liked you a whole
lot better before you started exposing yourself to young girls!”
“Young?” Herman squealed. “Hell Burl, she was fifteen if she was
At the moment, Hansen needed no more than a simple spark to ignite his anger.
Vicki’s feelings were hurt, and the mere mentioning of a bar mitzvah had
turned Hansen’s thoughts to a fourteen-year-old boy way back east in Boston,
Massachusetts. Anytime and every time Hansen thought about this boy, his mood
“Herman, I want you to get in the car, and I want you to shut up. If I
have to listen to one more word from your hillbilly mouth, I’ll probably pull
out your nasty tongue and beat you to death with it.”
Herman Grambs never seemed real smart, but he now proved to be no idiot. He
crawled into the car and managed to keep his mouth shut.
Darrell Baker prepared to
cross the street in front of the Pushmataha County Courthouse when Sheriff
Hansen pulled up in his cruiser. Newly implanted in the town of Antlers,
Oklahoma, the high school junior knew few adults other than his teachers, but
he knew of the sheriff. Although Burl Hansen presently served as a small time
cop in a God-forsaken land of hicks and rednecks, he’d once been phenomenally
famous in Darrell’s home town of Chicago, Illinois.
Darrell’s grandparents lived in this out-back country nearly all their lives.
Long before Darrell wound up here with his next of kin, he’d known Antlers to
be Burl Hansen’s home town and where the famed hero chose to return after he
retired from the National Football League.
This once awesome linebacker and a few other standouts from the Chicago Bears
had attracted Darrell Baker to football. Universities across the nation already
vied for Darrell’s tremendous passing arm. His grandparents and others assured
him the recent tragic change in his life and the subsequent move to this
backwoods dive would not hamper his lifelong dream of being a professional
quarterback. Darrell only hoped in the next four to five years, there would be
a greater presence of African-American quarterbacks in the professional ranks.
Because Hansen pulled his car into a parking space just feet away from him,
Darrell stopped in his tracks. He’d never been this close to a sports legend.
Darrell measured six-three and weighed two hundred and ten pounds. However, the
man unfolding from the driver’s seat of the muddy cruiser made him feel small.
Darrell guessed Hansen to be at least six-six and real close to three hundred
pounds. The former Bear sported a significant belly, but the rest of him still
looked capable of running down quarterbacks and crushing them at will.
Once he’d performed the arduous task of getting out from beneath the steering
wheel, Hansen adjusted the ball cap on his head and tucked his flannel shirt
into his jeans. Preoccupied with a boy in Boston he’d never even laid eyes on,
Hansen failed to notice the young man standing on the curb just a few feet
“You’re Burl Hansen.”
The sheriff’s hand grasped the rear door handle to let Herman Grambs out of the
back seat. Instead, he dropped his hand and turned to face the big teenager.
“Yeah, I am. Who are you?”
“My name is Darrell Baker. I’m from Chicago, and I grew up watching you
The athletic looking young
black kid named Baker set off bells in Hansen’s mind. Then he remembered.
“You’re Teddy and Martha Hallum’s grandson.”
“That’s me,” the boy nodded.
Hansen offered Darrell his right hand. “I heard what happened to your
mama. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” Darrell replied as he shook hands with Hansen.
“I also hear you are one heck of a quarterback.”
“I do what I can,” Darrell grinned.
“That’s what they say. I’m anxious to watch you play. When I got a few
spare minutes, we need to sit down and swap game stories.”
“Cool,” Darrell nodded, his grin widening.
Hansen turned back to the rear door of his car wondering if the boy in Boston
possessed any athletic abilities.
Baker stepped out of the way as Sheriff Hansen opened the passenger’s door. The
man in the back with the tangled mess of thinning hair and scraggly beard did
not look at all happy. But neither did Hansen.
“Come on Herman, I don’t have all day,” the sheriff barked.
“Don’t rush me, you son of a bitch. I’m a by-god tax-payin’ citizen and I
pay your goddamned salary! So you got just as long as I want to take to
Hansen grabbed his prisoner by the scruff of the neck to interrupt the
declaration and jerk him from the back seat. The sheriff took several steps
before lowering the man enough so his feet touched the ground.
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, my neck! You have done broke my fuckin’ neck!” the
stained and crusty man bellowed.
The sheriff maintained his grip, shaking the much smaller man like a rag doll.
“Shut up, you ignorant bastard or I will break your neck, both your arms
and your legs, too! Just shut the hell up!”
“Okay! Okay!” the prisoner managed through chattering teeth.
As Hansen shoved his captive in the direction of the courthouse, the man’s eyes
made contact with Darrell. “What the hell you lookin’ at, tar baby?”
Darrell thought the entire state of Oklahoma would be flat and bare, but he was
wrong. The Kiamichi Mountains, with thick forests of pines, surrounded the
southeastern county of Pushmataha. He heard the state referred to as the
Heartland and the Bible Belt. He thought the people from such a place would be
less hateful, hostile, and color conscious than the people of Chicago, but he
was wrong about that, too.
“He’s looking at an idiot, Herman,” Sheriff Hansen said before
kicking the man in the butt with the side of his boot. “Now get your ass
The grungy man in Hansen’s custody had been the first person in Antlers ever to
verbally assault Darrell. He wasn’t, however, the first racist the newcomer
encountered. Mannerisms, looks, and subtle attitudes of some classmates had
Darrell believing that Antlers High housed more than its fair share of bigots.
It didn’t help that Darrell was one of only six blacks in the junior class of
ninety-eight students. Still, the majority seemed to have no problems with him
being a minority. Most had been cordial, and one in particular had been
downright friendly. Darrell’s reaction to this particular person had no doubt
prompted most of the racist attitudes.
Shelly Rafell had gorgeous blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She introduced
herself to Darrell during the second hour of his first Monday in the new
school. Her approach had been blatantly flirtatious, and what started as
friendly banter culminated in a date the following Friday. At Antlers’ one and
only movie theater, Darrell Baker and Shelly Rafell kissed and cuddled. Later,
in Shelly’s new Camaro, Darrell went where other boys had quite obviously
already been. Darrell and Shelly’s hand-holding the next week at school raised
more than one set of eyebrows.
The fact that some didn’t approve of the relationship didn’t bother Darrell one
little bit. He approved of it very much, and no matter what anybody else said
or thought about it, Darrell intended to take just as long as Shelly agreed to
Darrell didn’t move from his place on the curb until his hero and the cracker
disappeared into the courthouse. Then he set out on his after school trek home.
Darrell didn’t intend to walk much longer. Having to walk in his old
neighborhood in inner-city Chicago was one thing. Practically everybody there
walked or took the subway. Walking in Antlers, though, proved altogether
another thing. No self-respecting high school junior in Antlers walked anywhere.
They drove. As soon as Granddaddy finished teaching him how, Darrell would be
driving as well.
In less than ten minutes, Darrell made it to the outskirts of town. With only a
few blocks left between him and his grandparents’ place, a white car pulled
alongside and slowed to a near stop. Darrell stooped to peer into the front
passenger window and immediately felt relieved to find an attractive red-head
smiling at him.
“You wouldn’t by any chance be our new football star now would you?”
The woman’s smile broadened as she brought the late model Ford to a complete
Darrell stepped up to the car and leaned in for a closer look. The contrast
between the woman’s very white skin and her long red hair appealed to him. The
tight and very short skirt riding high on bare, shapely legs practically took
his breath away. “I’m Darrell Baker, and I do play a little
“You are a tease, Darrell Baker. The word around town is you play a lot of
football, and play it very well.”
Darrell shrugged his broad shoulders and offered his best smile. A large set of
very dark sunglasses covered much of the woman’s pretty face, making it hard to
determine her age. If Darrell had to guess, though, he would put the woman in
her early thirties. Her smile really turned him on.
“Word gets around fast in this place,” Darrell chuckled.
“Oh honey, you got that right,” she giggled, “and if the word
was to ever get out that I saw our new football hero walking and didn’t offer
him a ride, well, I’d probably be thrown out of the football booster club! You
climb in this car, Darrell Baker, and let me give you a ride,” she said,
patting the seat beside her.
Darrell didn’t argue and wasted no time squeezing in next to her.
“My goodness, you are such a huge young man,” the woman cooed as she
blatantly scanned every inch of his body. “Your arms are as big around as
my legs,” she exclaimed before leaning toward Darrell to pat his left
bicep. “and hard as a rock!”
Her blouse gaped as she leaned, and Darrell zeroed in on more than a fair
amount of cleavage. Only after nearly swallowing his tongue did he manage to
mumble, “I work out quite a bit.”
“I guess you do,” the woman sighed, as her hand went from patting to
caressing his arm. “Tell me, Darrell Baker,” she continued as she
picked up his left hand and placed it on her cream-colored thigh, “have
you got time for a little ride before I take you wherever it is you’re
“Uh, yeah, sure, I got some time.”
The woman slammed the Ford into gear and gunned away from the curb as Darrell
stroked her soft thigh. Being on foot in Antlers, Oklahoma, wasn’t such a bad
thing after all.
the way, my name is Shannon,” the woman in the red wig lied.
The Baker boy moved his hand only a few inches under her hiked up skirt and
started working to get a finger into her panties. “Nice to meet you,
Shannon,” the teen beamed.
Knowing she had several miles to drive, Shannon spread her legs just enough to
keep the boy occupied, then she pushed down harder on the gas pedal.
It became quickly apparent that Baker wasn’t going to be content just probing
and poking around her panties. When he started trying to work the undergarments
down her thighs, she faked a giggle. “I do like what you got in mind,
Darrell, but not while I’m flying down the road at seventy miles an hour. You
just wait ’til we get stopped and I’ll help you get those panties out of the
“I hear that,” Baker grinned as he moved his hands from beneath her
skirt to the buttons of her blouse.
Before he could free her breast for the whole passing world to see, the woman
hiding behind the sunglasses thought of something that might slow him down.
“Tell me, Darrell, why in the world would anyone leave a big, glamorous
city like Chicago to come to our little wide spot in the road?”
It worked. Baker let go of the buttons and straightened in his seat. “Oh,
uh, well, I stayed there with my mama, and she, uh, died.”
The woman acted surprised and faked a look of pity. “Oh, no, honey! That’s
terrible. How did she die?”
“Cancer,” Darrell sighed, turning his head to look out the window.
Realizing how quickly the memory of the loss extinguished the boy’s burning
desire, the woman fought back a smile. She now only needed to keep Baker’s mind
on his dead mother and off her tits just a couple of more miles. She didn’t
want the black bastard pawing at her when she parked the car under the dense
clump of trees next to the Kiamichi River.
Long before there was LA Noire,
there was LA Noir.
Al Roberts is up for parole, and Jimmy O’Brien, LA lawyer to the dregs of society, is picking up some walking-around money by handling the parole hearing.
In today’s gritty 11,000-word excerpt, witness the overwhelming evidence against Roberts. Then you’ll begin to learn what really happened in Jeff Sherratt’s LA Noir novel DETOUR TO MURDER as O’Brien goes up against the system to uncover a crime that reaches to the underground power players in the city.
by Jeff Sherratt
4.7 out of 5 stars 10 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
In 1945, the semi-nude body of a woman is found in a two-bit Hollywood motel, a telephone cord wrapped around her throat; face frozen in a grimace of horror. The stolen car of a murdered motorist is parked in the motel parking lot, the owner lying broken and dead on the side of an Arizona highway.
Al Roberts confesses and has spent the last 29 years in prison. Now, nearly three decades after meekly confessing, the aged Roberts swears his innocence.
Jimmy O’Brien, defense attorney to the dregs of the criminal world, must find out why. Why did Roberts give a false confession? And why has he waited 29 years to tell the truth? O’Brien digs into the past, igniting a powder-keg that threatens to expose the long-held secrets behind Detour, the iconic Hollywood film documenting Roberts’ story. Secrets that could destroy the underground aristocracy that has held power in Los Angeles, city of broken dreams, for years.
Jimmy’s ordeal takes him from the bleakness of Roberts’ prison cell to the seedy streets of Hollywood, frantically searching to find out who took this DETOUR TO MURDER.
An Excerpt from
The California Institution for Men at Chino was forty miles from my office in Downey, almost an hour away. But today, a fender bender on the Pomona Freeway had traffic snarled, causing me to be late. Southern California was in the mist of one of the periodic droughts that plagued the basin since the beginning of time. Less than normal winter snowfall in the High Sierras to the north meant for a parched summer and autumn in the south. Couple that with a hot Santa Ana wind that blew in from the desert and about ten million normally compliant people turned into mad demons who drove their cars on the battlefield of L.A.’s freeways like raging predators seeking to devour their prey.
On days like today dire conservation warnings flooded the airways, restaurants quit serving a glass of water with your meal, and you could be arrested for watering your lawn. Don’t even think about washing your car, you’d be shot on sight.
I arrived ten minutes past my scheduled appointment. Damn. I glanced at my watch; should’ve left earlier. Why hadn’t Mabel, my office manager, given me the high sign while I was on the phone haggling with my car insurance guy? No use thinking about that now. And anyway my client, one Alexander Roberts, wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been convicted of homicide in 1945 and had been in prison for twenty-nine years now. What the hell, he’s been rotting in his cell at Chino all that time and I was fairly certain my tardiness was the least of his worries. Still, I hated being late all the time. Someone said that being late is sloppy; shows one had sloppy habits, could be true.
Maybe I should’ve shined my shoes this morning.
Back in ’45 Roberts had been sentenced to life with a minimum eligibility for parole set at thirty years. Inmates serving life automatically become eligible for parole hearings one year before their MEP date, and now Roberts counted on me to get him a fair shake at his hearing.
Because of the perennial manpower shortage in the public defender’s office, I’d been assigned by the Board of Parole Hearings-recommended by a friendly judge-to represent him before the panel. It wasn’t my legal brilliance and razor-sharp mind that got me the job, I must admit. I heard later that Judge Balford said to a board member, “Jimmy O’Brien is a lawyer of hopeless causes and he works cheap.” It pays to be noticed.
It’s true, state-appointed cases like this didn’t pay well, but they added a steady stream of revenue to the uneven flow generated by my regular work: defending poor saps unlucky enough to be caught up in the criminal justice system. With no discovery requests, interrogatories, and countless forms and red tape, parole hearings didn’t tie up a lot of my time. Scan the report, interview the prisoner, be on time at the hearing, and do my best for the convict-that was about it. Then I’d head back to the office to sit and stare at the walls until the next call came.
This morning, before I left Downey to drive to Chino, Rita Flores, my associate, and I had shared coffee and a couple of glazed. She’d brought the donuts to the office, placed the bag of sugary delights on my desk, and sat and crossed her legs, exposing a bit of thigh. My mind drifted from the legal matters at hand and focused on her. How could she remain so lissome and appealing when she had donuts with me here in the office almost every morning? Amazing.
Rita had been with me in our two-lawyer firm for almost two years now. She’d started as my secretary at the same time that I’d opened the office. Back then, she’d just graduated from law school, waiting for her bar results when she happened to walk by my storefront as I was hanging out my shingle. I took one look at the raven-haired Latina and hired her on the spot. When her bar results came in, I’d elevated her to associate status and prayed-with her new salary-that we’d have sufficient cash flow to stay in business.
But just because Rita was single, attractive, and smart, and I’d been divorced for years, didn’t mean there was any kind of office hanky-panky going on. She was young, twenty-seven, and at thirty-five I felt I was way too old for her. And anyway, she looked up to me as sort of a mentor; I guess you could call it that. How would it look, a mentor romancing his associate? But, I didn’t dwell on that thought, either. We had business to take care of.
We had spent almost an hour going over the Roberts case. According to the report supplied by the BPH, Al Roberts had been arrested and charged with Section 187, murder in the first. It seems that, back in 1945, he’d brutally strangled a woman. Her semi-nude body was found in a two-bit Hollywood motel room draped across a bed with a telephone cord twisted tightly around her neck. Her trachea had been crushed, her eyes bulged, and her face was frozen in a grimace of horror. There were traces of semen in her vagina, but there was no sign of rape, no bruising of the genital area. The physical evidence gathered at the scene was overwhelming. And it all pointed to the man who committed the crime: Al Roberts. But the jury never saw the mountain of evidence. There was no trial. He had confessed.
More bad news: the report also stated that he killed a man in cold blood a few days before he murdered the girl. The authorities surmised that the victim gave Roberts a lift when he’d been hitchhiking across the country en route from New York to Los Angeles. The man’s body was found off the side of a road somewhere on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona. There was a deep gash on the side of the victim’s forehead, indicating foul play. The man had been dead for a few days when an Arizona Highway patrolman spotted the partially decomposed corpse lying behind a small outcropping of brush.
A warrant for Roberts’ arrest had been issued in 1945 by a Yuma County judge, but the Los Angeles DA charged him with the woman’s murder before he could be extradited to stand trial for the murder of the man who gave him a lift.
“Look at this, Jimmy.” Rita pointed to a notation in the report. “The police found the dead man’s Lincoln convertible parked in the lot at the same motel where the woman had been strangled.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And later, when they picked Roberts up on a vagrancy charge, he had on the dead man’s clothes. Christ, he even had Haskell’s wallet in his pocket.”
“A parole wouldn’t do him any good,” Rita said. “There must be a warrant outstanding in Arizona for murdering the guy who owned the car. If California turns him loose, they’ll snatch him and try him for first degree murder down there.”
“No statute of limitations on murder.”
“I know that.” Rita stood and turned and gave me a wink over her shoulder. “I’m a woman and maybe I’m not the hotshot, Jimmy O’Brien, but I’m a lawyer too, you know.” She moved smoothly to the door.
Rita adjourned to her office to meet with a client, a drunk named Geoff with a duce hanging over his head, and I set the report aside.
No use digging further into the technical details described in the appendix, I figured. The report supported their conclusions. I couldn’t use anything in it to mitigate his crimes. The guy killed two people in cold blood, and after spending almost thirty years locked up in a cage, it appeared that Roberts would still spend the rest of his days as a guest of the State. With what I had just read, the parole board would never cut him loose. Still, I was being paid to plead his case and I’d do the best I could for him.
I arrived at 14901 Central Avenue, a mile or so south of Chino’s downtown district, and turned onto a side road leading to the main gate. The penitentiary was huge, a few thousand acres surrounded by a double chain link fence with three feet of coiled razor wire topping it. Through the fence, I could see row after row of buildings. Looking deeper into the complex, I saw a smokestack spewing a steady stream of white vapor. Probably steam coming from the massive boilers that would be needed to keep this small city functioning.
The entrance to the administration building was outside the fence. I wheeled into the parking lot, walked along a short path and entered the structure. After signing in with the litigation coordinator on duty, I was told to wait until the guards brought Roberts over from general population to the visitor center.
While waiting, I jotted a few notes on a yellow tablet, questions I would ask Roberts. But I figured, after being locked up in such a cruel environment for so long he wouldn’t be forthcoming with the answers. To survive in prison, convicts had to grow tough and callous, tougher than they’d been on the streets, and over the years they all developed a belligerent attitude and a code of silence.
The hearing was scheduled for tomorrow, and even though there was practically no possibility of his release, if he had a shred of a chance at freedom, then I’d have to get him to show remorse and humility. But I knew any reverence, awe, or passion he once held would’ve slowly leached out of his pores and evaporated like so much sweat during his twenty-nine years in this hard place. With very little time available to thoroughly prep him on how to react to the board’s interrogation, or how to exhibit sorrow without showing hostility, I had to move fast. If Roberts were anything like other inmates I’d interviewed for past hearings, then he’d naturally resent members of a board passing judgment on him. He’d see them as establishment figures, well-off people who had advantages in life that he never did. As the hearing progressed, he’d fume inside and build up resentment. By the time they got around to asking him for a mea culpa he’d want to bash their heads in.
“O’Brien, the prisoner is now in the interview room. Follow me.”
I put the yellow pad in my briefcase and stood. The correctional officer, a sergeant, wore a CDC forest-green jumpsuit. The nametag over his right breast pocket identified him as J. Marsh. The patch on his sleeve had letters arching above the State seal, which read “California Department of Corrections.” He had a baton hanging from a ring on his John Brown belt, but no gun.
I stepped along with him as we left the waiting area and walked the length of a long hallway. We stopped at a door made of steel bars, and from a black leather pouch on his belt he pulled a long metal chain with a large brass key at the end of it.
Inserting the key and unlocking the door, he turned to me and said, “I saw you when you were out here a few months ago, O’Brien. Security has tightened since then. We lost one of our men. Happened three weeks ago. Stabbed with a jagged edged shank.” He paused a moment, then leaned into the door, pushing it open. “I’ll be staying in the room with you.”
“Fine by me, “I said. “Sorry to hear about the guard.”
“Happens.” He shook his head. “And to think they used to call this freak house an honor farm.” We entered a sallyport with another set of steel bars in front of us. When the door behind me shut with a decisive bang, Marsh called out to someone unseen, “Free man coming through.” We walked along a corridor to one of the rooms cut into it. Marsh opened the door, glanced inside, and nodded back at me. I followed him into the 15’x15′ cubicle. He moved to a corner and stood at parade rest.
A rectangular stainless steel table stood in the center, bolted to the cement floor. A man whom I presumed to be Roberts sat slumped in one of the four chairs pulled up to the table. He wore the standard blue denim prison garb and even though I knew from the report that he had turned sixty this year, he still had a full head of dark hair. His hands were folded on the table and shackled at the wrists. “You the lawyer?” he said, looking up at me.
I didn’t answer him right away, still thinking about how to handle the interview. Should I try the soft approach, plead with him to give me a reason, any excuse for why he’d killed those two people? Maybe get some contrition of sorts, anything I could offer the board.
Or should I shock him, pull no punches, and try to break him down? Get the hostility out in the open and let him rant at me, let the pent-up anger explode and vent like a pressure cooker with too much heat. Maybe set him up so that regardless of what the board members threw at him, he’d be able to take it.
I sat down, placed my briefcase on the table, and took out his file. I looked at him across the table. He could’ve been a big man at one time with a solid physique, but now sitting with his shoulders hunched he looked weak and venerable.
“Roberts, it says here you murdered two people. Killed them in cold blood. Murdered a woman with your bare hands.” I stared into his eyes. “What kind of animal are you?”
I realized from the moment I looked into his cold, dark eyes that if there were any chance at all of getting through to him I’d have to work him over hard, not physically but verbally.
With a murder conviction staring the board in the face, not to mention the DA’s glaring statement alleging that Roberts had killed another guy in Arizona, I figured, in all probability, that the members of the board would keep him locked away until the next ice age. The hearing would be an exercise in futility.
But notes from the hearing along with the results would be added to his file. California law stated that lifers with indeterminate sentences were entitled to a parole hearing at least once every five years. If the board set him free, I doubted that Arizona would try him now. After thirty years no witnesses would be available. It would be a tough case to prosecute. And I didn’t want him to screw up his chance of freedom at the next hearing by being belligerent at this one.
I went to work on him, earning my fee. I stood and walked around the table, circling him like a predatory animal assessing its prey. “Tell me about the woman you murdered. Was she hot in bed?”
Roberts raised his head and turned so he could see me. “You’re sick.”
“Did you kiss her before you strangled her?” I snapped.
“Didn’t what? Sleep with her, or kill her?”
“What are you handing me? You sound like a cop.”
“How about Haskell, the guy who picked you up on the road in Arizona? Did you kiss him, too? Kiss him with a tire iron, maybe?”
“I didn’t do a goddamn thing!”
If Roberts kept insisting on his innocence to the board, showing no remorse, and adamantly denying that he hadn’t cold-bloodedly murdered those two people back in 1945, we’d both get tossed out of the hearing on our cans.
“Why’d you kill the woman?”
Roberts remained silent.
“Hey, lover boy, I asked you a question.”
“Wasn’t worth an answer.”
“Did you strangle her when she wouldn’t give you any?”
“I only slept with her once. I was drunk-“
“Oh, so you did have sex with her. You admit that. Now admit that you killed her too.” Christ, the guy made love to her, then murdered her with his bare hands. We wouldn’t mention that fact to the board. “Maybe you were drunk at the time you crushed her windpipe. Was that how it went, Roberts?”
“Get off my back, asshole.”
“Hey, Roberts, did you sleep with her before or after you killed her?”
He raised his arms and pounded the table with his hands balled into fists. “Goddamn it, back off!” He bolted from his chair.
Marsh, the guard, moved fast and shoved Roberts back down. “You wanna call it a day, O’Brien?” he asked, glancing at me.
“No, not yet.” I looked at Roberts, who now had his head down on the table with his arms stretched out in front as far as they would go. I could almost feel the heat building inside him. But he fell silent, not responding at all. “Was she pretty, Roberts? Did she turn you on? I’ll bet she wanted nothing to do with you, so what the heck, you killed her. Isn’t that right, Roberts?”
He didn’t say a word. The silence in the concrete room grew deafening.
“I’m here to help you, Roberts. Goddamn it,” I said. “Talk to me!”
He stared at his shoes, shaking his head in voiceless anger.
“C’mon, man. You pleaded guilty to the woman’s murder back in ’45 when you were arrested,” I said. “Show some remorse, for chrissakes.”
“That’d be hard to do,” he whispered.
“I said I can’t do that.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I didn’t kill her.”
“For chrissake, Roberts. It’s all here in black and white.” I thumbed the report, quickly reviewing a few details. Roberts’s first victim, the guy who gave him a lift, was named Charles Haskell, Jr. The woman Roberts had picked up on the road after killing Haskell and stealing his car had not been identified by the authorities. No one came forward to claim her body and after waiting the time prescribed by law she had been buried at the expense of the City. I slammed the report on the table. “Says here you killed them both. You’re lying to me, Roberts.”
“Then why did you say you murdered the woman in the first place?”
I paused and he remained silent. We both knew the answer: the plea bargain. “It’s not smart to lie to your lawyer, Roberts. Are you that goddamn stupid? “
His face turned red, his breathing irregular, beads of sweat dotted his forehead. I felt at any moment he’d bust loose. Then after he got the anger out of his system, I’d do what I came here to do: show Roberts how he’d have to present himself at tomorrow’s hearing. The board wouldn’t tolerate his claims of innocence. That would blow the whole thing right out of the gate. He’d have to admit his guilt and he’d have to appear to be a man of humility with sorrow and remorse in his soul for what he had done all those years ago. He’d have to show them how, after twenty-nine years languishing in this “correctional” facility, he’d changed and had achieved a state bordering on veneration.
I pounded the table with my fist. “Why’d you confess if you’re so goddamn innocent?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll tell you why. You took the easy way out, Roberts. Couldn’t take the pressure. You copped a plea to the woman’s murder. They didn’t charge you with Haskell’s death, no sir. But they used his murder as a wedge, pressuring you to admit that you strangled the blonde.” I got up and paced the room. “Isn’t that right, Roberts?”
He kept quiet, but the veins on his neck pulsed and his jaw muscles tensed. His insides had to be burning as he continued to struggle to maintain control. Damn, I said to myself, let loose, Al. C’mon, man, let it out. Show some emotion.
I turned back to him. “The prosecutor played the old shell game, didn’t he, Roberts? Take your pick. The little pea under the walnut hull is a six by eight cell in San Quentin. Or, hey, maybe it’s a trip to Yuma. They have a nice little room down there filled with cyanide perfume just waiting for you.’ Is that what he said?”
He slowly shook his head.
I walked around behind him. “And you fell for it,” I said to his back. “You were a fool.”
He still didn’t respond, but I saw his fists tighten, the knuckles turning white. I was getting close. Any moment, he’d blow. And in anger, he’d admit to what he had done.
I darted to the table, leaned forward, and stabbed the report repeatedly with my finger. “It says here you strangled the girl with a telephone cord until she couldn’t breathe. Then you snapped her neck with your bare hands.”
“I wasn’t even there when she was killed,” he muttered.
“What about the guy, Haskell, you killed a couple days earlier?”
“I didn’t kill him either, understand?”
“Okay, you didn’t go to trial on that one. We’ll forget about it for a while. But tell me more about the dead girl. The girl you didn’t kill. The one you had sex with. The one who grated your nerves, the girl you were cooped up with all alone at that motel.”
“It wasn’t like that. Somewhere in the middle of the goddamn desert Haskell gave me a lift. After a while, he got tired and I drove. Then he died. He fell out of the passenger seat; hit his head on a rock. But I had to get to L.A. So, naturally, I took the car. I-“
“Then you, naturally, stole his clothes and money. Then you, naturally, picked up the girl on the road while driving the dead guy’s car the rest of the way to Los Angeles. Then you, naturally, killed her too.”
“No, goddamn it-I mean yes, I picked her up, but… She wanted money. I gave her everything, all the money I took from Haskell’s body, but she wanted more.”
“After we had been in L.A. a few days I left the motel room, went to sell Haskell’s car, but without papers nobody would touch it. I went back, was gonna tell her. When I got there she was dead. But I couldn’t prove that I didn’t do it. My prints were all over the place. I’d been there with her for three days.”
“I’m not buying it, Roberts. You confessed? I’ll say it again. You’re a goddamn liar.”
He turned his head slowly. The look in his eyes told me I’d be a dead man if he wasn’t cuffed and Marsh wasn’t in the room.
“Don’t call me a liar! I’m not a goddamn liar.” He paused for a beat. “You hear me?” His words bounced off the walls, echoing in the small room.
Marsh walked over to him. “Keep your voice under control or this meeting is over,” he told Roberts, jabbing a finger in the prisoner’s chest. “Do you understand me?”
Roberts stared at Marsh, wide eyed. Then he looked at me again, despair on his face. I felt some sorrow, surely not for him. After all, he did kill two people. Still, nobody was on his side, then or now. I’d worked him over as hard as I could and he didn’t crack. Could there be a possibility that he’s telling the truth? No, and that issue had been decided long ago.
But the State said he had a right to parole. After all this time maybe he changed, became a different person. Maybe he wasn’t the same monster who’d walked in through those barbwire prison gates back in ’45.
“Why, Al? How’d you get in this mess if you’re innocent?”
“They were gonna kill me,” he said softly.
I pulled out a chair and sat next to him. “You wanna tell me about it?”
“The D.A. gave me a chance to stay alive and I took their deal. Nothing I could do.”
“Your lawyer went along with it? Advised you to take the deal, is that it?” I asked.
“A trial costs big dough.”
“And of course, you had no money.”
“After I was arrested my lawyer sold my story to some guy, got five hundred bucks. They made a movie, wasn’t much, and they mostly got it wrong. But anyway, once the five hundred was used up my lawyer wanted to cut and run.”
“What was the name of the movie?”
“Never heard of it,” I said. “Who’s in it?”
I got up and walked around the room again.
“Do you want out of here, or not?” I asked, staring at the back of Roberts’s lowered head.
“It’s not fair.”
“You know how it is with the law, Roberts. What do you expect, put a quarter in the slot and out pops justice?”
“The parole board’s gonna give me a down letter. Hell, even if they gave me parole, they’d send me to Arizona. I’m in for the long ride. You’re wasting your time.”
“Forget about Arizona,” I said. “You’re here because you murdered the woman. This isn’t about the dead guy on the road. Now tell me the truth. Why did you kill her? You must’ve had a reason.”
“I already told you I didn’t kill either one of them, Haskell or Vera in the motel. That was her name, you know, Vera. Didn’t catch her last name.”
“Smith, Jones, MacGillicuddy, take your pick. The police never got a positive I.D. All they knew was that she had track marks on her arm. If it’s true what you said when you were arrested, she came from somewhere in the South.”
“She had an accent.”
“That’s not all she had. She had narcotics, barbiturates in her purse.”
“Yeah, I know…” His voice trailed off.
We didn’t say anything for a couple of moments. Roberts remained slumped in his chair while I gazed at the ceiling. I could smell the anguish permeating the walls of this warehouse of human atrophy. “Look, Roberts, we have a few minutes left, why don’t you tell me your side.”
He looked up. “You want to hear my story? You won’t believe me.”
“Suppose you try me.”
“I guess you can say I couldn’t believe she was in love with me.”
“They always start that way, don’t they, stories like this?” I said.
“Yeah, guess so.”
“You talking about Vera, the dead girl?”
“No, not that bitch, gimme a break. It started long before that. In New York. Her name was Sue, Sue Harvey.” He rested his head in his hands, with his elbows on the table, and after gathering his thoughts, continued. “She was the songbird in a club where I played piano with a jazz trio. Sue had those dark green eyes and a waist so slender, every time she bent over you’d expect something to break. We were engaged, but she wanted to be a movie star, took off for the Coast.”
“Is that why you were heading to L.A. when all this started? You were chasing some skirt named Sue?”
Roberts raised his head and looked up at me. “I keep trying to forget what happened and wonder what my life might have been like if that car of Haskell’s hadn’t stopped.”
I listened for almost twenty minutes. He told the forbidding tale of a common man whose life had spiraled and tanked as he made one tragic decision after another while hitching rides across the country, heading to the land of broken dreams, chasing a dream of his own: a singer named Sue. At the end of his story, Roberts froze for a moment, then turned to me and continued in a chilling, calm voice: “I didn’t kill him. ButHaskell was dead. It was an accident.”
“Then you stole his car,” I said.
“And then you picked up the woman named Vera, bumming a ride, and continued on toward L.A.”
“What about your girlfriend, Sue?”
“Never saw her again, never spoke to her. Leave her outta this.”
I looked down at that pitiful creature, balled into a heap, and said under my breath, “What about Vera, dead in the motel room? When you twisted the cord around her neck and strangled her with your bare hands, was that an accident too?”
Highway 54, Arizona, July 1945
The asphalt road ran straight and went on for miles. It came out of the mountains in the far distance, bottomed out, then gradually climbed across the desert floor, heading up into the small rocky hills ahead. At the base of the slope, looking back from where he had just come, Al Roberts kept an eye on the car as it shimmered, almost floated in the vaporous heat currents, growing larger, moving closer in the afternoon glare.
He continued to walk along the sandy edge of the road, heading west. But he stuck out his arm, his hand slightly closed with his thumb pointed in the direction he was moving.
Roberts hadn’t seen another car in hours and the last one had zoomed by without slowing down, kicking up small dirt devils at his feet. The sun hung high in the colorless sky, and his lips were parched and raw from lack of moisture. He was bone-weary and he hadn’t had a meal in two days. Not a bite of food since that trucker staked him to a hamburger at a diner on the outskirts of Tucumcari, New Mexico. But then, after riding with him for a couple hundred miles, the trucker had to head back to Detroit and after stopping to pick up a load of cantaloupes, he dropped Roberts off just inside the Arizona border. He’d been hoofing ever since.
Roberts had been on the road for almost three months, traveling from New York, riding buses for part of the trip but mostly hitching rides. Down to his last ten dollars, he knew there’d be few meals and no more bus tickets, but he was determined to get to Los Angeles even if he had to walk the rest of the way.
He glanced back; the approaching automobile started to slow. Maybe this one would stop and the guy driving it would give him a lift.
Roberts lowered his battered suitcase to the asphalt, and with the back of his hand wiped the sweat from his brow and swore an oath to himself. When he arrived at his destination, he’d marry her. He wouldn’t let her slip away; by God, not this time. Roberts wouldn’t let her walk out on him again. He’d die first.
The car, a fancy convertible, pulled up next to him. The man, alone behind the wheel, nodded. Roberts heaved his suitcase into the backseat and climbed in.
Roberts, now driving, pulled to the side of the road and quickly glanced around. It was dark, raining hard, and he spotted no other cars traveling on this deserted stretch of highway. They had left Yuma just fifteen minutes ago. The man had flashed a roll while paying for their dinner at some roadhouse café, then asked him to drive when they climbed back into the convertible. They’d cruised silently through the early evening. Storm clouds gathered in the distance while the man slept.
Kindle Nation fave Michelle Black recently re-acquired rights to Solomon Spring, a novel of which she says “it was the most widely reviewed and critically acclaimed of any of my novels and it marked the first time I veered into the historical mystery genre.”
Many of our readers will recall that we visited with Michelle last summer and shared an excerpt from her novel An Uncommon Enemy, which also featured Eden Murdoch as its heroine.
As I wrote back then:
As some Kindle Nation readers are aware, I get to read a lot of great fiction and call it part of my job. I try to be as genre-agnostic as possible, because I know that my readers’ tastes — your tastes — are pretty diverse. But in addition to the fact that I love to be able to recommend a terrific read to all of you, I also make a point of trying to find books that particular individuals will really love. And tomorrow afternoon, when Betty and I arrive at the cottage in Vermont that we have rented for a week, I’m going to hand her one of our Kindles and recommend just one novel to her: Michelle Black’s An Uncommon Enemy.
If I weren’t for my efforts to be genre-agnostic, I probably would not have gotten hooked on this novel. But the fact is that it can’t be pigeon-holed in a genre; it’s just a great story, well told, with totally unexpected, astonishingly well-imagined characters.
The excerpt we shared from An Uncommon Enemy last August definitely struck a chord with our readers, and of course it is still available here in our Kindle Nation archive. So of course we are equally proud to publish her 10,000-word Free Kindle Nation Short today, so readers can meet, or meet again with, an author we admire greatly.
The healing powers of the Solomon Spring hold no miracle cure for murder…
*A child custody battle turns deadly
on a windswept winter prairie in 1878;
*a man begins a quixotic search for lost love
in an effort to mend his
*a sacred Native American shrine is about to be defiled, but not if one determined woman can stop it.
These three seemingly unrelated stories come together at the Solomon Spring, a natural wonder held sacred for its legendary healing properties. Eden Murdoch returns there seeking solace, but she is soon on a collision course, not only with those who would bottle and sell the sacred waters, but also with her own turbulent past.
Among the rave reviews:
“Eden Murdoch, the central figure in Michelle Black’s second book set among the Cheyennes in Kansas in the 1870s, is one of those premature modernists who give life to so many fine historical mystery series–for example, Laurie R. King’s stories about Mary Russell. There’s a well-drawn murder plot, a credible and touching love story, and an homage not only to contemporary feminism but also to the civil disobedience taught by Henry David Thoreau”.–Chicago Tribune
“Credible and engaging characters, particularly the fearless and feisty heroine, Eden Murdoch, together with a well-paced, suspenseful plot, make for a fine historical adventure yarn in this sequel to Black’s An Uncommon Enemy.”–Publishers Weekly
“The strong characters, the vivid details of life in the West in the late 1800s, and an engaging plot combine to make this an absorbing historical mystery.”-Booklist
An Excerpt from
A Novel of Suspense from the Victorian West
Featuring Eden Murdoch
by Michelle Black
Hays City, Kansas
The pale winter sun cast milk shadows on the brick floor of Brad Randall’s jail cell. He had opened the wooden shutter to gain some fresh air. The draft was bracing cold, but at least offered a respite from the stale atmosphere of the coffin-like room that confined him. The remnants of dried urine and vomit from previous tenants seemed to live in the mortar between the bricks and endured despite weekly moppings.
Unfortunately, opening the shutter let in the unwelcome sounds from outside as well-the sawing and the hammering, the occasional shout of one workman to another. He did not need a reminder of what they were building-a gallows.
He ran his finger inside his collar to feel the tender flesh of his throat. What would it feel like? Would the drop through the trap door break his neck and kill him instantly? Or would he linger and jerk and slowly strangle while the hungry eyes of the onlookers watched with a mixture of horror and perverse pleasure?
How long would it take? How long before he slid into the peaceful void of oblivion, free from the burdens of thought and memory?
He had witnessed only a single public execution in his life. He had been working for the War Department in Washington City in the summer of 1865 when the conspirators to the Lincoln assassination were hung. Some of his office cohorts had received coveted passes to the event from General Winfield Hancock and invited him to come with them to see the hanging after lunch. He would regret eating so much that noon.
He had been twenty-one years old and curious. The July sun broiled the crowd of two hundred as they watched the prisoners, three men and one woman, bound at the wrists, knees, and ankles before hoods and then nooses were pulled over their heads. One of the condemned men complained about the adjustment of his noose. Randall and his young friends had made rude jokes at this ironic turn.
Their high spirits melted in the noonday heat when the platform finally dropped. They watched one prisoner jerk and fight for five full minutes before his body went still. His bound knees drew up nearly to his chest again and again, then his whole body quaked and shuddered. Five long minutes. It seemed like an hour. Had the man been conscious all that time or did his body alone instinctively fight against its fate?
Another of the hanged men pissed himself. Randall grimaced at this embarrassing reminder of the frailties and limitations of the human vessel.
The date of Brad Randall’s execution was set for noon the following Saturday. They chose a Saturday so that parents could bring their children to watch. No doubt the children would think they were attending a carnival or county fair. Entertainment of any fashion brought a welcome respite from the monotony and ceaseless labor of a prairie homestead. Vendors would probably stroll through such crowds plying the eager onlookers with refreshments and trinkets. Randall wondered if those children would be meaningfully improved by the lurid spectacle of his death.
He needed to write a letter to his own child. Four times he picked up the pen and four times he set it down again in frustration. He had to tell his son something. He could not let his only legacy to the boy be newspaper clippings. Frontier journalism was so tawdry-reporters seldom drew a line between fact, speculation, and editorial opinion.
But how could he explain to an eight-year-old boy with mere words on paper that he stood at this fearful precipice because of his love for a woman, a woman who was not his son’s mother? How could he possibly make the boy, whom he loved so dearly, understand the impossible complexities that added up to a single human life, his life?
His thoughts traveled back to the first day of September last, barely five months ago. It now seemed like another lifetime. The events of that day had set in motion much of what had brought him to this sorry pass.
* * *
September 1, 1878, Washington, D.C.
He had never once worried about the dangers of returning home from a business trip a day early, unannounced. He had heard the familiar jokes about such incidents, but had never stopped to consider that the jests might have been born of true-life experiences. As it turned out, he arrived only half a day early, but that was enough.
He had taken the evening train out of New York and fully intended to be in his own bed by midnight, but for the unplanned delay caused by the derailment of another train. The hours it took to clear the tracks caused him to arrive in Washington City at five in the morning.
He emerged from the dirty gloom of the railway station to savor the deliciously cool predawn air that heralded the coming of autumn. At this hour, even bustling New Jersey Avenue was comparatively tranquil. The inviting freshness of the breezes, as well as the fact that he carried only a small valise, convinced him to walk the sixteen blocks to his home, a comfortable townhouse located just north of Lafayette Square that his wife had inherited from her late father. How surprised Amanda and little Brad Jr. would be to have him arrive in time for breakfast when they did not expect him until supper.
He would not venture to his office at the Department of the Interior until noon to allow himself time to bathe and shave and rest up from the hot and exhausting night in the uncomfortable coach.
When he rounded the corner of his street he noticed a hansom cab sitting directly at the base of his front steps. His pace quickened. He feared the doctor had been summoned to his residence. Only six months had elapsed since the tragic death of his little daughter and the thought that some illness or accident might befall Brad Jr., his eight-year-old son and namesake, constantly tormented him.
Randall paused when he saw his front door open and the figure of a man emerge holding his hat in his hand and his top coat folded over his arm.
“Goodbye, my darling,” said the man in a cheerful voice that Randall instantly recognized to be that of Clarkson, his young assistant at the Bureau.
Clarkson leaned back in the door and kissed Amanda Randall on the lips, then turned and dashed, practically skipped, down the stone steps and disappeared into the waiting cab. The horse’s hooves made a loud clopping noise against the paving stones that echoed in the morning silence. With a pulse pounding louder in his ears than the clatter of the retreating horses, he glanced up to his doorstep to see his wife, attired in her dressing gown, gaily wave as the hack withdrew from sight, then turn and shut the door.
Randall dropped his valise onto the sidewalk and drew several deep breaths. Though only thirty-four years of age, he thought he might actually suffer a heart seizure and fall over dead, just as his father-in-law had done three years earlier in their parlor after consuming a large Thanksgiving dinner.
He leaned against a lamppost for support and realized he was perspiring despite the morning chill.
A passing dairy wagon startled Brad when it pulled up.
“Are you all right, Mr. Randall?” called the milkman as he jumped down from the driver’s seat and rounded his wagon to collect his milk tray.
He did not know the man’s name and so was mildly surprised to be addressed by his. He had to remind himself that, as a public figure often quoted in the newspapers, he was frequently recognized in the streets of the nation’s capital.
He drew himself up with a facade of recovered dignity. “Just fine, thank you.”
“Coming or going?” asked the milkman cheerily. He apparently planned to accompany Randall up the steps as he made his morning delivery.
Randall glanced uncertainly at his door. It seemed to retain a shadow of the image of his wife kissing his young assistant, Clarkson.
“Going.” He forced a polite smile and reversed his steps, heading now to his office. He would arrive there by at least seven and avoid seeing any of his staff, most particularly Clarkson. He would shut himself in his office and try to sort out his thoughts.
By the time he reached the large and imposing Doric edifice of the Patent Office on G Street which housed the Department of the Interior, clouds had gathered to spoil the fine morning. Thunder rumbled overhead and Randall took refuge under the eave of the entranceway just before the rain commenced. He hurried down the corridor and passed only a cleaning man sweeping the marble floor. The man courteously nodded in acknowledgement and was surprised that the young commissioner rushed by without his usual greeting.
Brad found the atmosphere in his office stale and stifling from his three days’ absence. He struggled to open one of the two operable windows that bracketed the large view window behind his desk. The dampness in the air had swelled the window frame, but with enough yanking, tapping, and cursing, the sash finally yielded.
The rush of cool air bathed his flushed face. The fresh smell of the morning rain mixed with the dust on the windowsill and created an unpleasantly musty odor. He sat down in his upholstered chair and surveyed his surroundings dispassionately.
His was a large and well-furnished office, befitting a man of his importance: Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The very title itself resonated consequence with its cadence of prepositions. The work had consumed him in recent months, offering him much-needed solace after the death of little Sarah.
Had his obsession with his career caused his wife to stray?
Damn it all! He would not blame himself for this. The fault was hers and no one else’s. How would he proceed?
The word made him shudder. Being an important man in this grand office carried with it not only a certain privilege, but also an unpleasant loss of privacy. The esteemed Commissioner of Indian Affairs suing his wife for divorce on grounds of adultery and naming as correspondent his own assistant-the press would dance with the story. His enemies in the War Department would feast on it.
He had barely been able to tolerate the news stories on his daughter’s death. It galled him to read them, no matter how solemnly and compassionately written, in the news section of the papers rather than the usual obituary listings.
Now to face this…this hideous and unseemly scandal. How could he shield his little son from it?
What if he did nothing and pretended ignorance? Could he go on living with Amanda?
Before he could fully digest this line of thought the little clock on his desk chimed 7:45. The sound of his subordinates arriving at their posts now distracted him.
With a cold stab of pain, he recognized Clarkson’s voice calling hello to their shared secretary, Mrs. Post. The icy sting melted instantly into fury. He rose from his desk, strode across the large office and peered out his door. Clarkson was no where to be seen, but plump Mrs. Post glanced up inquiringly from her pile of mail.
“Please send Mr. Clarkson in to see me at once,” he barked.
“Yes, sir. Uhm…is everything all right, Mr. Randall?”
“Yes, fine.” He closed the door before anyone else could see him. He realized from the look on Mrs. Post’s concerned face that he must appear a fright. He had not combed his hair, had not shaved, his clothes were rumpled from a night spent sitting on a miserably hot, stalled train. He must seem very far from the dapper and well-groomed young gentleman who usually occupied this grand office.
The moment he sat down, Clarkson rushed in, smiling, then looked slightly confused as he glanced at his superior’s disheveled appearance.
“Close the door behind you,” Randall said.
The young man did as he was told, then took a seat in one of the two chairs that faced the desk. “We didn’t expect you back so soon, sir.”
“No, I’m certain you didn’t.” He studied Clarkson’s slender, blandly handsome face. His slight build and medium height made him no physical match for his superior, who at six-four, towered over nearly all his associates. A decade earlier, Brad would have gladly looked forward to smashing in the impudent usurper’s face. At this stage in his life, however, he felt a violent outburst beneath his dignity, especially when he forced himself to image the newspaper headlines such an incident would spawn.
Clarkson smiled nervously under his supervisor’s scrutiny. Randall had previously liked the intelligent and witty young man. He was a Harvard graduate and had a fine career in public service to look forward to. Until now.
“Where was it you were born and raised, Clarkson? I don’t recall it.”
“A small town in western Ohio, sir. So small I doubt you’ve heard of it.”
“Well, urgent family business requires you return there immediately. At least, that is what you will tell everyone as you empty your desk and pack up your belongings.”
Clarkson frowned. Did guilt color the apprehension in his face? “I don’t understand-“
“I saw you leaving my house this morning. I saw you kissing my wife.”
Clarkson paled. “Oh, dear God. It’s…it’s not what you think.”
“It’s exactly what I think and we both know it.”
The young man’s Adam’s apple bobbed several times. Randall wondered what Amanda saw in him. He always thought Clarkson’s manner a trifle effeminate, though he had to admit that he was a popular figure with the ladies at social gatherings. He recalled seeing Clarkson surrounded by women on more than one occasion, and now that he thought about it, all those women clamoring for his attention had two things in common-all were married and all were a number of years Clarkson’s senior.
“I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. We never meant to hurt you.”
“Don’t say ‘we’!” Randall shouted, breaking his promise to himself that he would not lose his composure. “Don’t ever speak of my wife and yourself as a couple!”
“No, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“In my own house! In front of my son!”
“Oh, no. Bradley Jr. was staying with your sister.”
Hearing Clarkson speak so glibly about his family caused Randall to grasp the edges of his desk as he fought the urge to attack his young associate.
Clarkson wet his lips and asked in a contrite whisper, “What are you going to do to me?”
“You deserve to be horsewhipped.” He was tempted to say, You deserve to spend the rest of your life with her. The wretched pair of you deserve each other. Instead, he said, “I’m firing you. Wasn’t that clear?”
“Now, get out.”
Clarkson rose unsteadily.
“Wait.” A troubling new thought occurred to him. “Who else knows about this…this outrage?”
“No one, sir.” Clarkson’s tone turned groveling. “We-I mean, I-have been most discreet. I would never…I’m a gentleman, sir.”
“I don’t think a gentleman would seduce his employer’s wife.”
“No, sir. You’re right. There is no excuse-“
“No, there is no excuse. Now get out.”
Clarkson scurried for the door, but paused with his hand on the brass knob. He turned back, though he could not bring himself to make eye contact with the man he had so grievously wronged. “I cannot leave unless I have some assurance that Mrs. Randall will come to no harm on my account.”
This minute act of chivalry served to further enrage Brad with its implication. Only by forcing himself to imagine those awful newspaper headlines, did he resist the urge to grab the young betrayer’s skinny throat.
“It is none of your business, Clarkson, but I think you know that I am not a violent man.” His voice issued as cold as iron, his words seemed to clank.
“You must not think your wife cruel or wanton, sir. She was just lonely and I was a friend to her. I suppose we simply let our friendship go too far-“
“Get out of my sight!”
Clarkson was gone before the words stopped echoing in the large office. Randall hurried to the door and tersely advised Mrs. Post he was not to be disturbed by anyone, except, of course, the Secretary of the Interior. He then closed the door, turned the key in the lock, and returned to his desk. He watched the rain slap his windows and blur the view. He dropped back down into his chair as though his body weighed a thousand pounds and buried his face in his arms upon his large, cluttered desk.
He had not cried often in his life. He did not like the sensations it produced. Soon he wiped his face with his handkerchief and blew his nose.
He stared at the stack of correspondence that had accumulated during his absence. With little interest, he began to sort it into piles of various importance. He did not bother to read any of it until he came to the letter he had been expecting from the Secretary of the Interior.
The fact that their offices were situated only two floors apart in the same building and yet they felt the need to communicate only by written post spoke loudly to the professional difficulties between them. If their relations grew any more strained, Randall knew he would be looking for employment along with Clarkson.
After reading the contents of Secretary Carl Schurz’s letter, he grew furious, though he had not expected a different reply. Schurz had outlined the reasons for his disagreement with the Honorable Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mr. Randall, on the subject of the relocation of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
When the Northern Cheyennes surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877, they were persuaded to relocate to the Indian Territory and live with their southern brethren. They had reluctantly agreed when promised the right to return to their homelands in the north if the relocation failed. The Secretary did not now feel inclined to acknowledge this promise in light of his insistence that the Bureau stay on budget for the next fiscal year.
The fact that the Cheyennes were starving, were not allowed to leave the reservation to hunt, were not given the promised rations, and were dying from malaria for which no quinine was made available apparently meant nothing to the esteemed Secretary. But, by God, they were on budget.
“Damn him and every bureaucrat in Washington City,” Randall said through gritted teeth as he shoved all his papers off his desk. Nothing in the Bureau had gone well since the convoluted election of ’76. Though he had been one of the few political appointments to survive the shameful scandals of the Grant administration, his future now looked as cloudy as the Washington sky.
He grabbed his file on the Northern Cheyenne situation and marched directly for the Secretary’s office.
“Is Mr. Schurz expecting you, Mr. Randall?” asked the small, mouse-like clerk whose desk sat in the receiving area of the Secretary’s large complex of offices.
“No, he is not.”
“I’m afraid that-”
Randall stormed past the clerk and entered his superior’s office unannounced.
“What’s this?” Schurz looked up from his desk, startled and irritated.
“What gives you the authority to condemn people to death?”
“Sit down, Randall, if you please.”
“I don’t feel like sitting.”
“Should I summon the security guards, sir?” asked the little clerk, peeking in.
“Leave us,” Schurz ordered and, more unflappable than his assistant, sat back in his chair. “I suppose this involves some damned Indian problem.”
“Given that I am the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, I suppose you are right.”
“No need for sarcasm, Randall. What’s the trouble?”
“Precisely why do you seek to undermine my decisions and policies in the matter of the relocation of the Northern Cheyennes-“
Schurz raised a hand to silence him. “I am your superior and I will have the final say in all matters involving this Department.”
“Allow me to read from a letter I received from a Lt. Lawton at Fort Reno,” Randall pressed on. “They-that is, the Northern Cheyennes-are not getting the supplies to prevent starvation. Many of their women and children are sick for want of food. The beef I saw given them was of very poor quality and would not have been considered merchantable for any use. On the subject of medical care, Lawton reports: The post surgeon frequently locks up his office because he has no quinine to administer to the Indians and does not wish them to continue to call upon him-“
Schurz interrupted, “Randall, you know that our appropriations are not sufficient to cover the stipulations of the various treaties-“
“Treaties whose terms we dictated and forced them to accept.”
“For God’s sake, man, lower your voice. Had your Bureau exercised the necessary economies-“
“These people are starving! I cannot manufacture food from stone.”
“Commissioner Randall, your job is to carry out my will. We have not seen eye-to-eye on virtually any policies since I took office. I am struggling to find a reason not to ask for your resignation.” He paused for a brief moment to sigh. “Bradley, sit down.”
Randall grudgingly did so. He studied the small, fifty-year-old man, an emigrant from Germany who had served in the U.S. Senate prior to his appointment. His passion was forestry, one of the many diverse spheres of the Interior Department’s wide purview. That the interests of the many sub-agencies frequently conflicted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not make Randall’s job any easier.
“Bradley, I have endeavored to make allowances for your-how shall I describe it?-acts of insubordination in these recent months.” Though Schurz had lived in the United States since his youth, his speech still bore the halting cadence of his native land. “I know that you and your dear wife suffered a lamentable tragedy, but at some point, my patience with you must expire. I would never tolerate such behavior from any of my other department heads. You, however, are the hardest working, most dedicated man on my staff. I would not easily lose you, despite our many differences of opinion.”
Randall shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He did not enjoy references made to his daughter’s death. He could not govern his present emotions well enough to formulate a reply to his superior. He knew well enough that Schurz, for all his immediate praise, did not personally like him owing to an altercation on the secretary’s very first day in office.
When Schurz was appointed to the cabinet by the newly elected President Hayes, he devised a test that all potential men in his employ had to take.
Randall had thought it impossibly demeaning to take a test like some schoolboy to retain his job when his own record of accomplishments as the youngest-ever Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and later Commissioner in the Bureau, should have spoken instead. He unfortunately voiced this opinion in the presence of not only the secretary, but members of the press as well.
The newly-appointed secretary had publicly opined that Randall was afraid to take the test. With gritted teeth, Randall sat for the detested exam and, as though for spite, scored higher than every other appointee by a large margin, forcing Schurz to keep him on his staff to save face.
Schurz pulled off the little pince-nez spectacles that clipped to the bridge of his nose.
“Bradley, you are a very bright young man with an excellent career ahead of you. I hate to see you throw it all away over some misplaced sentimentality for a few Indians. I want you to carefully consider your position here. If you choose to come to this office tomorrow morning with an apology and renewed resolve to carry out the policies of this department, that is to say, my policies, then I will reconsider your future on my staff.”
Randall stood up and for several seconds thought over what had just transpired as the Secretary pretended attention to his paperwork. Without a word, he returned to his own office, moving slowly, as in a dream.
Once safely ensconced, Randall resumed his vigil at his desk with his large chair turned to face the view window. The rain had stopped and the sun had returned; the afternoon air was stifling.
He idly watched the workers who labored to construct a new wing for the office building across the street that housed the Department of Education. The site hummed with activity as the laborers swarmed about, laying brick, carrying hod, over and over in endless repetition. Most were Irish immigrants, potato famine refugees.
How simple their lives must be, he mused. Go to work, do your job-a strenuous job, to be sure, but one without much ponderous thought-then return to your home each night to eat and sleep, perhaps make love to your wife, then rise tomorrow and begin it all again.
And what would he do tomorrow? Apologize…and betray his principles? Or resign?
Mrs. Post tapped on his door and poked her head in. “Mr. Randall? The afternoon mail has arrived. I’ve opened it for you.”
He did not turn to receive her, but continued to gaze out the window, transfixed by the workers building the new wing.
“Mrs. Post, have you ever felt shipwrecked?”
She placed the mail on his desk. “Excuse me?”
“Did you ever feel as though your life were shipwrecked and you were left alone in the ocean, clinging to a piece of wreckage, with no rescue in sight? Just floating out there, no ships on the horizon, no tropical paradise beckoning. The question would arise, How long would you hang on? At what point would you simply let go?”
“Are you feeling all right, Mr. Randall? You’ve looked tired all day.”
When he failed to answer, she quietly withdrew. He thought about the teaching posts he had been offered by several universities after his treatise on the Cheyenne language and culture had been published two years earlier. He wondered where he had filed those letters and began to look for them when he heard a commotion outside his door.
“I need to speak with Captain Randall,” came a man’s voice.
Randall winced at the title “Captain.” He knew that many used it as a sign of respect, but he preferred not to be reminded of his days in the military.
“I’m sorry, sir,” replied the redoubtable Mrs. Post. “He is very busy. Perhaps if you would make an appointment and come back tomorrow.”
Randall smiled at Mrs. Post’s placid ability to handle every situation. A fifty-year-old widow, she had been employed in the Bureau longer than anyone. She had been hired during the War years when the government was forced to hire women to fill the clerical posts vacated by the men who returned to their homes in nearby Virginia to join the ranks of the Confederacy.
“I need to catch a four o’clock train,” said the visitor. “I was so hoping to meet the Captain and speak with him in person.”
“Perhaps one of the Commissioner’s assistants could help you, sir.”
“No, the matter concerns a woman of Captain Randall’s acquaintance of some years ago. When he served on the frontier under General Custer. He is really the only one….”
Randall listened more intently now. He was curious about the man’s reference, though still not anxious to receive him.
“If you could but inform Captain Randall that I come seeking information about a woman named Eden Murdoch, I’m sure that he would make time to see me.”
Eden Murdoch! He had not heard that name spoken in nearly a decade and yet not a day had gone by in all those years that he had not thought of her.
Randall rushed to the door and opened it to see a young Army officer, a major in the infantry by his uniform, standing before Mrs. Post.
“Come in at once, Major.”
Thousands of Kindle Nation readers have enjoyed Gary Ponzo’s first Nick Bracco novel, A Touch of Deceit, which has previously been excerpted as a Free Kindle Nation Short. That was followed by A Touch Of Revenge, reuniting FBI agent Bracco and his “connected” cousin as they go after terrorists.
Today’s 4,000-word Free Kindle Nation Short introduces readers to another side of the gifted storyteller — he is also a consummate craftsman in the short story form. The View From Above, the title story leading off the book of four short stories, takes you on a Mt. Everest adventure.
All four of the short stories collected in THE VIEW FROM ABOVE have been previously published in magazines and two were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Each one has a twist ending in the tradition of an O. Henry story. Some have labeled them similar to a Twilight Zone episode.
Ponzo is fast making a name for himself, as evidenced by this remark from self-publishing Wunderkind bestseller John Locke:
“Gary Ponzo’s thrillers are so powerful, the government should consider using them as a renewable source of energy.”
The View From Above
5.0 out of 5 stars – 2 Reviews
Kindle Price: 99 Cents
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Ponzo and reprinted here with his permission.
Each time the tent door unzipped, Stephanie Rogers held her breath. Each time that it wasn’t her husband crouching through the opening, she blinked back a new set of tears. There seemed to be no bottom to the well of emotion that surfaced with every worn face that plunged into the tent.
“Andy’s fine,” Dr. Merton consoled her with his arm around her for warmth as much as comfort. “He’s the best climber on the mountain, including the guides.”
Stephanie forced a brave smile. The conspicuous lack of conversation unnerved her. Almost all of the twelve climbers huddled in the tent had reached the summit of Mt. Everest and rather than celebrate their accomplishments, they lay prone, sucking on oxygen canisters, or curled up in a ball as they rocked back and forth in their down jackets, sipping hot tea made from melted snow. No one dared to remove their gloves for fear of seeing the frostbitten fingers they felt throbbing beneath them. Their excitement subdued, beaten down by the unexpected storm that smacked the side of the mountain with minus eighty-degree punches and hurricane force snowfall that reduced visibility down to ten feet. No one could summon the energy, nor could they enjoy their feat when there were three members of their expedition still missing. Including Andy Rogers.
The powerful gusts of wind terrorized the nylon walls of the tent and prompted several climbers to grab hold of the weakening tent-poles, keeping their backs to the sides of the shelter knowing their lives depended on it.
A bundled climber crawled into the tent, squirmed into the middle of the shelter, then collapsed face-down with a thud that shook the ground enough to jostle the tea kettle from its post.
Stephanie’s heart raced while Dr. Merton and the lead guide rolled the climber over. They pulled back his hood and pulled up his goggles. Balls of ice the size of grapes matted his hair and eyebrows. Dr. Merton felt for a pulse. The guide placed both of his open hands on each side of the man’s face and yelled, “Dave! Where’s Andy and Frank?”
The climber moved his mouth like a baby wanting a bottle. Dr. Merton stretched open the man’s eyelids and flashed a penlight across his eyes. “He’s hypoxic. Get him a canister of oxygen, and see if you can get him to sip some tea.”
Stephanie brushed ice and snow from the man’s face, then felt his forehead, “He’s frozen to the bone.” She lifted his head and placed her knee underneath him while the guide tilted a cup of warm tea into his mouth.
“Drink up, Dave,” lead guide, Todd Trent, instructed while Dr. Merton slid a sleeping bag around his legs.
Trent moved his eyes across the inside of the shelter and noted the condition of the remainder of his expedition, “Nobody leaves this tent without my permission,” he growled. His eyes paused when they got to Stephanie, “Understand?”
She knew what he meant. No rescue attempt for her husband. “I won’t let him die out there,” she informed him.
“Stephanie,” he said, “when I left to search for climbers, I was no more than fifty feet from this tent and was completely lost. It took me forty minutes and a lot of luck to find my way back.”
Stephanie listened, undeterred.
“The Sherpas saw Andy fall from The Hillary Step into a crevasse. That’s two thousand vertical feet from here. Unfortunately, there’s not enough oxygen to support a helicopter’s blades. The only way up is to hike and that’s at least three hours away under ideal conditions.” Trent seemed to realize his words were falling short of their target. “I’m sorry, Stephanie, but if Andy is any more than a hundred feet from this very spot, he might as well be on the moon.”
She understood the words that were coming from his mouth, but failed to register their gravity. Rational thinking was a scarce commodity at twenty-six thousand feet. The oxygen-depleted atmosphere at that height could reduce a climber’s brain to that of a six-year-old. She leaned back against the rippling nylon wall, lost in thought. She recalled the first time she’d ever seen her husband. They were at a mutual friend’s wedding on the back lawn of a local resort back in Seattle. Andy was easy to spot, he wore a brown and white ski sweater with khaki pants; which was exactly one suit and one tie less than every other man was wearing on that occasion. It was refreshingly clear to Stephanie that he kept his own agenda. He was thin with a narrow jaw and high cheekbones that seemed to pull his mouth up into a perpetual smile. Miles of running and hiking left his frame tightly wound, however, the thing that most impressed her about him was his blatant shyness. Unconsciously, she returned his smile and he quickly looked away as if he was caught hiding Playboy Magazines under his mattress.
She asked a girlfriend who the guy in the sweater was. Her friend shrugged apathetically, “Oh, that’s Andy Rogers. He’s some sort of mountain climber or something. Kind of strange, I think.”
“Why’s that?” Stephanie asked.
“Well, do you remember Agnes Murdock from high school?”
Stephanie nodded, recalling the chubby girl with the plain face.
“Agnes was the bridesmaid for a good friend of mine who got married about six months ago. You remember what she looked like back in school?”
Again Stephanie nodded.
“Well, she’d put on a tad bit more weight since then and was struggling to find a date to the wedding. When Andy found out about it, he called her and asked her to go with him.”
“Really. Everyone knew it was a ruse, but you couldn’t tell by the way Andy treated her. He slow danced with her all night long. She was beaming like she was just voted the prom queen. She’s never been the same person ever since that night. He’s a free spirit, Stephanie. I’d stay away if I were you. I mean look at him. It’s a wedding for crying out loud and he’s wearing a sweater.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie smiled, “look at him.”
Her friend’s words proved to be true. Andy Rogers wasn’t much interested in other people’s personal lives. What they wore. Who they slept with. Later, after five blissful years of marriage, Stephanie came home one night with the juiciest tidbit of gossip she’d ever heard. Her sixty-year-old married boss was sleeping with his twenty-one-year old secretary. “Isn’t that outrageous?” she asked him.
Andy shrugged, pulling on a pair of white socks, about to go on a run. “I guess,” he said with a perfunctory nod.
Playfully, she threw his running shoes at him, “You’re just no fun to gossip with.”
“I’m sorry, Steph,” he said. “Try it again, I promise I’ll act surprised.”
She told him again with even more zeal than before. He stood up, smiled and said, “Oh well, sounds like two people in love. Gotta go.”
She jumped on him, dragged him to the floor, and they laughed and kissed and laughed some more. He never did make his run that night.
Stephanie snapped back from her dream world when she heard Trent unzip the tent door. He stuck his head out, then pulled it back in like a frightened turtle. He looked at Stephanie and shook his head with a dour expression.
Stephanie grabbed a nearby radio and once again pleaded into the mouthpiece, “Andy, are you out there?”
Just like the last transmission and all the other transmissions for the past hour and a half, there was no response.
“It could be that his batteries have gone dead,” a considerate member of the team suggested.
Her eyes puffed up and released newfound tears. Tears from a life she’d lose without him. Tears from the time she’d spend wondering what their future would have held had she put her foot down and said no. No, you may not go to the top of the world. No, you may not realize a dream that you’ve kept hidden from me, because it’s your nature to cage your thoughts and dispense them with the careful attention of a birdfeeder squeezing an eyedropper of medicine into the open beak of a frail and wanting baby bird. No, you may not comfort and care for me with ceaseless devotion for five short years only to dissolve into the open spaces of the Himalayas.
She was about to press down the button to talk into the radio when a familiar voice scratched its way across the air waves, “Steph?”
“I’m here, Sweetie.”
“Where are you, Andy?” she strained for control.
“I’m up here.”
Stephanie laughed nervously, along with some climbers who were now huddled around her. His presence, even over a walkie-talkie, breathed life into the hurting team. Trent said, “Ask him what he sees.”
Stephanie groped the transmitter with trembling fingers, “Andy, what do you see?”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then finally they heard, “Steph, to be honest, I can’t see a thing. It’s all white and I . . .well I . . .”
“What, Andy? You what?”
“I can sense a presence. Steph, I’m sure of it. I can’t hear anything, I can’t see anything, but . . .well . . .I’m not alone. I wish I could explain.”
The guide shook his head discouragingly, “He’s losing it. He’s delirious.” He cupped his hands around the radio while it stayed in Stephanie’s hands and leaned down into it, “Andy, hang in there. I’ll put a team together and get to you as soon as the storm breaks.”
Dr. Merton shook his head, “He couldn’t possibly survive that long. Not a chance. You’d be risking more lives for a futile cause.” He looked over at Stephanie. “I’m sorry, Darling, he can’t possibly be helped. All you can do is hope he can move downhill.”
There was another long pause which caused Stephanie more concern, “Andy? Are you there?”
“Honey, hang on, please.”
“I don’t think you understand, Steph,” Andy replied. “I feel I’m being guided somehow.”
From the far corner of the tent came a small gasp. A pair of Sherpas, local mountaineers whose villages had been scattered across the landscape of the Himalayan mountain for centuries, were both wide-eyed and mumbling, “Jomagangla, Jomagangla.”
Stephanie turned and searched Trent’s face for an answer. He squinted with a discomforting expression. “There’s an old Tibetan legend that claims somewhere near the summit of Mt. Everest is an Angel who guides climber’s souls through the doorway of Heaven.”
“Jomagangla,” a Sherpa nodded in agreement. “The Angel of Mercy. That is who he senses. Yes, he follow Jomagangla. Take leap of faith. He make it to Heaven. His soul be safe.”
Trent waved at the Sherpas with antipathy, “Forget about them, all Sherpas are superstitious. Andy is simply snow blind. What he needs is shelter.”
“Andy,” Stephanie spoke into the radio, “how are your hands and feet?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Stay put,” she said.
“SSStephanie?” Andy slurred.
“No matter what happens, I need you to know something.”
“What’s that?” she sniffled.
“I love you with all of my heart.”
“Don’t you dare give up on me, Andrew Rogers. It’s not over yet,” she said, firm with fear.
“Sweetheart?” Andy responded.
“I can hear music.”
“Stephanie, is that you I hear coming?”
“Are you sure? I think I hear someone coming.”
“Jomagangla,” a Sherpa offered.
Trent grimaced, “We’re losing him. Keep him talking.”
“Andy,” she said, “keep moving your limbs. Keep your blood circulating.”
“Jomagangla,” the Sherpa repeated. “Follow the music. His soul lost. Must follow music.”
“Tell him to brace himself,” Trent insisted.
“No!” a Sherpa yelled. “He not on Earth anymore. His soul is lost. Follow Jomagangla.”
“Stephanie,” Andy said, “where are you? How come I can’t see you?”
“I’m here, Sweetheart. I’m on the radio.”
“What’s happening to my husband?” Stephanie asked no one in particular.
Dr. Merton rubbed his temples. Trent looked away, pretending not to hear Andy’s struggle with reality. One of the Sherpas worked his way over to Stephanie, crouched down in front of her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “My uncle,” he said, “he great climber. He make it to summit ten times. With no oxygen. One day he get caught in storm. Worse than this. He no make it back. No one can find his body.”
The Sherpa’s eyes shined while he spoke. “One night my uncle come to me in my dreams. He tell me where his body is. I only fourteen but I tell father where my uncle is. The next week, he climb mountain and find my uncle’s body, same spot I tell him.”
Stephanie listened uneasily.
“My uncle still come in my dreams. I wake up always with smile. One night he tell me about Jomagangla. He tell me if I no make it while on mountain, my soul will stay lost unless I follow the music. Andy no make it. His soul lost. Help him find peace.”
The radio crackled and a faint voice called out, “Steph? Is that you playing the music?”
“No, Andy. It’s not me.” She looked over at Dr. Merton. “What’s happening to him, Doc?”
Dr. Merton shook his head bleakly, “Could be any number of altitude illnesses.”
“Andy,” she called. “Can you hear me? Andy?”
A static-filled transmission vibrated from the speaker, “I’m near some sort of ledge. I can’t see the other side, but I feel I need to jump. Am I losing it up here or what?”
Stephanie looked intently into the Sherpa’s eyes. He nodded his head. “Yes. Must take leap of faith. Save his soul.”
Trent gritted his teeth, “Don’t you dare tell him to do anything but stay put. We can still get to him.”
Andy said, “I think I need to jump now, Steph.”
Dr. Merton sat quietly by himself. He could tell by her stare that Stephanie wanted his opinion. He looked up and shook his head with a blank stare. “The earliest we could get to him is by morning. No living thing could survive a night at twenty-eight thousand feet without shelter.” He pointed to the door, “Especially not this night.”
“He must jump,” the Sherpa insisted. “Take leap of faith, yes.”
“You mean a leap to his death,” the guide said. “He’s obviously snow blind and delirious. Tell him to stay put.”
The tent was filled with climbers arguing the point. “Tell him to jump,” one said.
“You’re nuts. He could be standing on the edge of Lhotse Face. That two thousand feet straight down.”
“Put him out of his misery,” one suggested.
“He should dig a hole and wait out the storm.”
“No. Must jump. While there’s time.”
“My uncle. He tell me. He no lie.”
Andy’s voice faded with every transmission, “Steph?”
Stephanie lowered her head, closed her eyes tight, then pulled the radio to her mouth and shouted, “Andy, jump, Darling! Follow the music.”
“I’ll come find you, Steph. I promise.” Andy’s last words echoed inside of the small nylon tent.
The conversations ended abruptly. The only sound left was the furious flapping of the tent. Stephanie couldn’t be sure in her oxygen-deprived state, but she thought she saw the Sherpa wink at her. She looked down at the walkie-talkie as if it were a smoking gun. “What have I done?” she murmured.
Dr. Merton rubbed her back while her eyes glazed over with an expression of someone who just let something very fragile slip through her fingers. She waited in vain to hear Andy’s voice once again.
Finally, Trent poked his head outside the tent door and spied a lone headlamp flickering its way down the side of the mountain. A crowd of climbers stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of the promising sight, allowing a conspicuous path for Stephanie to reach the front of the group. A low undercurrent of encouragement developed momentum until it reached a crescendo of applause as it became apparent that the climber was taking a somewhat circuitous route to base camp. Several members of the team stood outside and began banging pots and pans together to steer the climber home. With only fifty yards to go Stephanie could tell that the climber was wearing a bright red jacket. Not the color she was hoping for.
A bearded man with an oxygen mask dangling from his chin lifted one foot at a time and plodded a serpentine path towards the tent. Trent and another climber hustled out to greet the man. He collapsed into the guide’s arms and the two of them dragged the man the remainder of the way to the tent.
As soon as it was known to be Frank Saunders, one of Andy Rogers’ best friends and closest climbing companion, the cheering became subdued out of respect for Stephanie. She stared at Frank as if she didn’t trust her own eyes and any moment he would turn into Andy. Dr. Merton opened a sleeping bag and created an area for him to lay inside the shelter. Individually, each member of the team patted Frank on the shoulder or quietly gave a thumbs-up to support his arrival. Frank dropped down and was instantly handed a cup of tea. He leaned over and allowed the steam to rise and thaw his arctic face. He conspicuously repelled Stephanie’s stare. When his eyes finally made their way to her, he broke down. With quivering lips he said, “I’m . . .I’m really sorry, Steph.”
“About what?” she asked innocently.
“What about Andy? Were you with him?”
Frank nodded reluctantly.
“Where?” Stephanie urged, “When?”
Silently Frank gathered his thoughts. “On The Hillary Step. He fell. Snapped his neck. I’m so sorry. He died before I could even get to him.” The man sobbed, recalling the uninvited images that swam in his head. “I sat with him for an hour. I talked to him about life. About why we do what we do. I got sick to my stomach, but before I left I buried him in the snow. I don’t know why. I just did.” Frank looked around at the bemused group listening to him and asked, “Was that wrong?”
Everyone knew what Frank did was irrational, but of little consequence. They all mumbled their approval as something they would have done under similar circumstances.
Stephanie, however, was dripping with denial. “How long ago did this happen?”
Frank shrugged, puzzled by the question, “I don’t know, maybe four hours ago.”
“You must be wrong because I just spoke to Andy on the radio not ten minutes ago,” she said.
The Sherpa sitting next to her spoke up. “I try to tell you. You no speak to Andy. You speak to his spirit.”
Trent pointed his finger at the Sherpa, “You keep your beliefs to yourself. Can’t you see what you’re doing to her?”
“I’ve heard stranger stories about this mountain,” someone commented.
“Leave the poor woman alone,” another added.
Stephanie sat still, confused by the conversations surrounding her. She held up the radio she used to talk to Andy with and showed it to Frank. “It was him. I know his voice. Maybe you made a mistake. Maybe you buried someone else by mistake. Your mind can play games with you up there,” she pleaded.
Frank nodded softly, still catching his breath. He reached into the inside pocket of his down jacket and pulled out a small black radio. He handed it to Stephanie. On its side was inscribed the name, ‘Andy Rogers.’ “I took it with me when I left him in case my batteries went dead,” he said. “He couldn’t possibly have contacted you.”
Stephanie bit her lip, turned to the Sherpa, and dug her head into his shoulder while he comforted her with warm, gentle words. She wept until her body, drained of all its energy, melted into the Sherpa’s lap. The Sherpa slid her down onto her sleeping bag and watched while she evaporated into a deep, exhaustive sleep. He leaned over, brushed her hair back and whispered, “Dream, sweet woman . . . Dream long and smile.”
It’s not all frills and brunches and gift wrapping.
Sometimes the gifts come wrapped in the most difficult challenges….
“We may not all be parents, but we all are someone’s child.”
Christina Carson’s novel turns, for guidance, to the culture of the northern forest dwellers, the healing touch of the wilderness, and the tenets of the Cree Nation in a tale of hardship and redemption that resonates just as powerfully in the here and the now.
Today’s 10,200-word Free Kindle Nation Short takes us deep into a compelling story.
5.0 Stars from 2 Reviewers
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Here’s the set-up:
An age-old story plays out again, this time in a wilderness community in western Canada.
A family falls apart; a child runs away; a parent can’t explain why. Rather than continuing to focus on the tragedy, the mother, Anne Mueller, determines to stop living in denial and begins questioning conventional explanations as she digs toward the truth.
Her resolve directs her to the resources around her: a Centuries-old harmony modeled by her Cree Native friends; the natural peace and balance exhibited by the Boreal forest; and the caring concern buried in her community’s history.
The wilderness, however, provides the ultimate incentive. It pits Anne against her greatest fear, exacting her commitment to uncover what drove her child away and do whatever it takes to bring her home.
Thought provoking and brimming with the wildness of this place, this is an adventure story on many levels.
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The author writes:
As a shepherdess of many years in northern Alberta, I lived surrounded by the forests depicted in this novel. The land – the name given to that vast wilderness – awed me and abides in my heart to this day.
The inhabitants of my community inspired me as well, for they lived with one another under a code I’d not experienced prior – they chose to be generous with and concerned for one another without keeping score. Thanks to them, I came to know what it might be like to live in a large, kindly family.
I set this novel in a wilderness community much like the one I knew, but this narrative of the estrangement of children from their families happens everywhere. We may not all be parents, but we all are someone’s child, troubled families touching us one way or another.
“Suffer the Little Children” is a thought-provoking tale of children lost and children found again, an affirmation that families can be the haven we dream of, rather than the hell that sends us packing.
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An Excerpt from
Suffer The Little Children
A Novel by Christina Carson
Copyright © 2011 by Christina Carson and published here with her permission
I had been cleaning up my supper dishes when Little Bit walked in the cabin as quiet as a cloud, plopping into a chair at the kitchen table to let me know she was there. I turned, leaning against the counter and took stock of this thirteen year old, already world-weary some would say. She was a pale child, her milky skin washed out further by ash-blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. Dandelion fluff came to mind when I looked at her, white and airy, until it touched the ground, that is. Then it, like her, grabbed hold with such tenacity it took a six-inch spade to loosen it. She was staring at the floor, those same blue eyes now red and swollen. She must have cried the whole five-mile walk to my place, I thought. At 10:00 P.M., it was late for her to be out.
I said nothing as I sat down in the chair next to her and reached my arms toward her. A normally reticent child, she lurched across the gap between us and balled up in my lap. I tucked her in against me and laid my head atop hers, her hair smelling of wood smoke and cold air. “My sweet Little Bit,” I crooned and rocked her as much as my straight-backed chair allowed. We sat that way for some time. She offered no explanation, so I didn’t ask. Instead, without loosening my hold, I suggested softly, “Why don’t you go upstairs and have a hot bath. Find some clean clothes in Sammy’s room; they should fit you. Then I’ll make you some supper.” Only then did I push her back enough that I could see her face. Her eyes still cast down; she wiped her nose on her sleeve as she sniffed. A huge sigh escaped her. I sensed she didn’t want to leave my lap, even as she slid off my knee, so I slipped my arm around her. We walked up the narrow staircase together gently banging into one another’s hips like schoolgirls. I kissed the top of her head as she angled off toward the washroom. “I’ll be waiting on you downstairs, no hurry, eh.”
I called her Little Bit for she seemed but a wisp of a child; her given name being Sarah Mackle. We’d been close friends for three years now, though I had known her all her life. Of late, she’d been coming to see me often. She hadn’t said much, but enough to suggest trouble at home; something I could too easily recognize. Being a curious child, she snooped around ideas like a sleuth unraveling mysteries. We had had many interesting conversations. More recently, however, she kept coming back to one overriding question, “People say, ‘Tell the truth.’ So I do and the next thing I know I’m in all kinds of trouble. Why don’t people say what they mean? Isn’t that lying, Nannie? Is that all people do – lie?”
Nannie was her name for me since I was the closest example she had of a grandmother, or at least her idea of one. There weren’t many choices for friendships where we lived. Five families made up the community scattered across ten square miles between the Smoky and the Simonette Rivers. And that area lay in the western bush of Alberta, a vast stretch of forest reaching west to the Pacific and north to the Arctic. My nearest neighbors, the Mackle family, lived five miles away. Sarah’s mum, Lili, had a ten-year gap between her first four kids and Sarah. That hadn’t helped the family to be sure. Lili and I were close in age and had been tight friends, as she and Matt arrived soon after Peter and me. We four formed the beginning of the tiny wilderness community, such as it was. Sammy used to call it the town of “Nowhere” and she had a point, for where we lived didn’t have a name, just a direction – eighty-some miles north of Hinton on the Forestry Trunk Road. We each worked for the government in some capacity and held leases on which we’d built homesteads. Located on crown land, we couldn’t own our parcel, but the ninety-nine year lease seemed lengthy enough for even the hardiest among us. Samantha was Pete’s and my child. Sammy left for university at eighteen, but never returned, not for holidays, summer break or even when she’d graduated. Denial kept me going for those four years. I wrote and talked with her occasionally on the phone, but come graduation, I received no invitation. Then she was gone – no reason, no forwarding address – gone.
I thought I had done a good job as a mother up to the time Pete died. I stumbled along for the next several years, in the stilted gait of one who’d never walked alone. He’d been the only man I knew or ever wanted, and I couldn’t find a model for life that made sense without him. Sammy was ten then. She worshiped her father and that twist of fate ended her childhood. She became somber and suspicious of life. Clearly, I’d not succeeded in creating a new family of two. But how I’d failed was the question that came out of nowhere, as Little Bit sat crying in my arms. Something in what she had said about lying went straight to my heart, and it made my bones rattle, as my old Cree friend, Mary Cardinal, was wont to say. I hadn’t felt this unsettled in a long time.
I shook my head to clear it, and realized I’d been leaning against the kitchen counter, staring blankly into space these last few minutes. I returned to starting supper. It was well past suppertime, but I sensed Little Bit hadn’t eaten. I had let the stove die back to coals as I liked sleeping with my nose a bit cold. Alberta summer days offered an ideal mix of warmth and sunshine, a pay off for enduring winter. Our golden months of summer seemed a ploy to keep everyone from packing and going elsewhere. The cool summer nights, however, proved a reminder of just how far north you were. So I threw some crumpled newspaper into the firebox of the stove and a few sticks of kindling. I pointedly avoided the thoughts of but a few moments before. Unnerving as they were, the tiniest interest in them brought them back on me like furies. In several seconds, I heard the familiar roar of a flame busting into life, and I walked back over to the stove to add some bigger wood. We didn’t have electricity when first we arrived. Even after the government brought it in, in the early 1970s, I’d kept my old McClary, for I loved cooking on a woodstove. Its heat gave such comfort to an icy winter’s night. And being country custom to feed anyone who stopped by, the stove’s mass of iron persuaded guests in this isolated land to visit, while it slowly heated. I decided on eggs, bacon and toast for Sarah, and I made fresh coffee for me. I knew the aroma of all that would coax her back downstairs where we might talk for a while, perhaps soothing her fears. I heard the stairs creak as I set the table and I called up to her, “Good timing, gal, there’s a bite for you here.”
She hung at the bottom of the stairs, peeking round the post. I turned and smiled at her and invited her over to the table with a sideways nod of my head. She skipped down off the last stair with her bare feet smacking the wood floor and walked the short distance to the table with her head still down. A quiet child by nature, she was often mistaken for meek. But the truth was, there wasn’t anyone I’d rather accompany me in the bush, such was her ability to stand tall. So it proved hard to imagine the pain that drove her to my place, for I’d never seen her so crumpled. I had to wonder what on earth was going on with her mum. I hadn’t visited with Lili for a while. She seemed always to have an excuse these last few months each time I called. Yet her daughter had been over regularly during that same period. It was odd. I looked over at Little Bit and said quietly, “You can stay here as long as you like, darlin’; this is your home too, far as I’m concerned.”
A huge sigh escaped her, and as she relaxed, she seemed even tinier as if on the edge of disappearing. I smiled at her and reached across the table to pat her hand. The faintest smile passed over her face, and with that, she relaxed more deeply. She ate hungrily suggesting her last meal had been a while ago. As she finished her toast, she said, “I like Sammy. It will be fun to sleep in her bed. How come she never comes home anymore?”
Her innocent question pierced me like a knife, and my breath caught in my throat. In that moment we changed places. Little Bit became the carefree child, excited and curious while I returned to those rending years of loss and confusion. I could feel her staring at me, but I was unable to meet her gaze. I felt her tension mounting and willed myself back, but not before her face registered her frustration with finding herself on yet another patch of forbidden earth where adults make the rules. I steadied myself and met her stare, a look so intense that I knew she was not about to give in. She waited on me to find strength at least equivalent to her own, her eyes demanding a response. To the question I’d left unanswered for years, I haltingly replied, “I don’t know why she doesn’t come home.”
My answer proved sufficient, her need being only to be taken seriously. Bouncing back with an assurance I too wanted to believe, she said, “You’ll figure it out, Nannie. I know you will.”
For Little Bit, that moment was complete and she moved on. I, however, trembled inside myself feeling the demon I’d long ago buried now clawing its way to the surface. Conversations I never wanted to revisit filled my head as I heard myself yelling at Sammy, “What have I done that makes me look like the enemy? Why did you feel you couldn’t tell me the truth? How did I earn the right only to your lies?” My stomach knotted up; I didn’t want the rest of my coffee. I pushed myself up from the table and not wanting to dampen Little Bit’s newfound security, I smiled as warmly as I could. Thinking back to Little Bit’s comments of a few moments before, I suggested, “Why don’t you go up and snuggle into Sammy’s bed now, and see if she’ll meet you in your dreams.” Little Bit gave me a withering stare. “Heh, you’re too young to be such a cynic. I’ll take you over to Mary Cardinal’s one of these days. She’ll tell you about dreams. There’s a dream catcher over you bed. Let it catch you a good one.” Her skepticism softened a bit, but she didn’t let me off the hook until I told her she could go with me the next day to check the weather station at Bear Crossing.
With that she bounded off the chair and came around the table to give me a hug. I hung onto her for a second and said, “I’ll let your mum know where you are. And I’ll let her know you can stay here if you like.” She gave me another big squeeze and ran up the stairs to her new room.
I decided to keep the stove going a bit longer, as I was much too unsettled to sleep now. One big room formed the downstairs of our A-frame cabin except for a partial bath. The stove divided the kitchen from the living room, so both spaces could share its warmth. Rather than wood paneling or sheet rock to finish the walls, we used books, floor to ceiling built-in shelves, filled with them. We located the cabin on a ridge, with the glass wall that formed the “A,” facing west. Each night that giant “A” captured the endless summer’s twilight. Though it was past 10:00, the colors of the evening sunset still washed the sky in faint pastels of peach and mauve. I curled up in the old leather recliner Pete and I had often shared. His scent had vanished long ago from it, but not the memories it held. Still trying to pick up the threads of my earlier thought, my mind felt like my enemy. As tired as I was, I couldn’t imagine any good coming from considering them further tonight. So I let the remnants of the sunset hold me in their beauty, quieting me.
Instead, my thoughts drifted to Pete. We had arrived in this place in the late 1960s when the Department of Forestry employed him as a Forest Ranger. We accepted their long-term lease and chose some land a quarter mile off the Forestry Trunk Road on which to build our cabin. In the 1960’s, the Trunk Road was the only north-south route in west-central Alberta. However, few others than logging truck drivers, forest rangers, and the occasional adventure seeker from the States or Europe used it. Not many others wanted the experience of its 200 miles of choking dust or slimy mud through the middle of nowhere. The nearest settlement now is Grande Cache, about fifty miles southwest. Several years after we came, the government created it, out of nothing, to be a coal-mining town. Today that area sports a new black top road, the alternative to the Trunk Road for those traveling north and south. But when we first arrived, the original Grande Cache was a clearing in the bush on the old Trunk Road. It consisted of a trading post where we picked up our mail, a corral for the annual native rodeo, and a few shabby cabins. The only other human inhabitants of the region were Cree Indians, living their traditional way of life, camping in winter and roaming free from central to northwestern Alberta the rest of the year.
My husband, as a child in Germany, had read books about the wilderness of western Canada, stories that fueled his fascination with frontiers. At eighteen, his desire to experience such wild places pushed him to cross the Atlantic and a continent, coming to Edmonton, the gateway to the forests of the west and north. On arriving in Alberta, he applied for university and worked summers for the Department of Forestry manning fire towers. Bit by bit he zeroed in on where he wanted to live. In his third year of university, he drew a big red circle on a map and told me, as we lay under the stars on campus one night, we’d live there someday. That was the first time he’d ever spoken of including me in his plans, and though I said nothing, my heart roared inside me at this first suggestion of his love. He was reticent, idle talk not his custom. I used to kid him about being native, so silent was his nature. Rather than unsettling me, however, his stillness was like an invitation, a small pocket of steadiness in a world I’d always found too undependable. I was thirty-four when he died. I lost him in a manner indicative of the world in which we’d chosen to live. While completing a survey along the Simonette River, he topped a low ridge. Unknown to him, a Grizzly stood feasting on a day-old kill on the other side. When he didn’t come home that evening, I knew deep within me he wouldn’t be. I spent that night in this recliner numb to the core. The search party went out at daybreak and found his body torn and mauled. The emptiness inside me made it difficult to stand upright, but I had our daughter Samantha to care for, and for her I found a pocket of resilience that saw us both through. I stayed on after he was killed, as I couldn’t see any reason not to.
I had home schooled Sammy because the nearest school was in Hinton over 85 miles away. The provincial government provided the materials, and it guaranteed matriculation to those who finished the program. In only two hours each day we’d finish the lessons, freeing Sammy to come with us as we worked in the bush. The greatest part of her education came during those hours as Pete made his rounds. He was doing much surveying of animal and plant populations back then. Occasionally we’d camp overnight, sharing the wonders of the natural world around campfires under an unimaginable canopy of stars. She was like a wood nymph, so comfortable was she in the vast wilderness that surrounded us. Pete and I had married this wild place when we married each other. Walking together on its dark, mossy trails was as much like making love as lying abed in our cabin. So seeing our daughter find her playmates among its wildlife, forests, and streams, touched my heart. She seemed a replica of me at that age. I wore it like a badge, as if it meant I had done something special to create this wondrous child. What happened, I wondered? Why won’t that child even talk to me now?
“Whose fault is it that my daughter, my beautiful golden-haired daughter, wants no part of me in her life?” I asked aloud. I had not entertained these thoughts for years; the pain they brought still as potent as ever. Somehow I had managed to convince myself I was doing right by burying them – the best choice under the circumstances. Now I wondered how I could have agreed with that. I truly didn’t know.
The sunset had finally faded to the semi-darkness that passes for a summer night this far north, and the stove had gone cold. I uncurled myself from the recliner, and let my dog, Timber, in off the step where he’d been keeping an eye on things. He was a bouvier and his breed made him a great guardian. Having him sleep by my bed was akin to having the Archangel Michael looking out for me. He and I made our way in the dark up the stairs. As I passed Little Bit’s room, I looked in on her. Timber followed me in, surprised to see someone in that bed. He looked at her, looked up at me, and wagged his stub of a tail acting as if Sam were back. Looking at this new child in that bed, I said a quiet prayer that I might be adequate to the task this time. With that I walked to my bedroom and lay down in yet another place still feeling empty of Pete, though sixteen years had now passed. The last sound I heard was the crash of Timber, named that because, instead of lying down like a normal dog, he’d keel over and hit the floor like a felled tree.
Morning dawned around 3:00 A.M. I joined it at 6:00. The cool, pine-scented morning air washed over me. The chirping of the robins broke the morning silence, and soon the grating squawks of magpies and ravens would fill the air as the endless summer sun rose higher. The sun didn’t sleep hard or deep during the summer, merely napping for a couple of hours between midnight and three. However, come September it would settle itself down low on the horizon soon. Then it became but a blip across the southern sky as great stretches of darkness replaced the light. Summer in Alberta was as ideal as summer gets, a peace offering for the dark, piercing cold of winter, which causes endless work to live with and often to survive.
Timber could always tell when I was awake, but we had a rule; he couldn’t bother me as long as I kept my eyes closed. That didn’t stop him, however, from laying his big shaggy head on the edge of the bed, and focusing on me until I could feel his stare. “Okay, okay, Timmy, I’m getting up,” I said as I jumped out the opposite side of the bed, to avoid him knocking me down with his hundred pound greeting. He came tearing round the bottom of the bed, his stubby tail wagging so hard it wagged his whole body. I once heard it said that if there were only small children and animals on this planet, it would have remained the Garden of Eden. I was inclined to agree. The way I figured, if I lived my life even half as spontaneously and unconditionally as Timber did, people would be carving my likeness in stone.
As I walked toward the washroom, I peeked in on Little Bit who was still sound asleep. I thought Timmy’s bouncing about might wake her but not so. When I returned to my bedroom, I pulled on my jeans and t-shirt and padded down the stairs. I made some coffee in the electric pot, and took a cup outside. My morning ritual was to sit on the back step and melt into the world around me, filling myself with its scent, sounds and sights while losing my outsider status. When my cup was empty, I walked back inside before going to the barn to do the few chores I had each morning. It concerned me that I had not heard from Lili, Little Bit’s mum. Her thirteen-year-old daughter hadn’t come home last night, yet she hadn’t called. Maybe she had assumed she’d come to my place, but what mother would take that risk. We lived in wild country. As I dialed the Mackle’s number, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Lili answered the phone. “Heh, Lil, it’s Anne. I just called to let you know that Sarah is over here, so you wouldn’t worry.” There was a long gap before she spoke.
“You must think I’m dirt for a mother. Not calling and all. We had a blow out Saturday…and she ran out. I just can’t talk to her, Anne. I just can’t…” Her voice trailed off in a half sob. “I wanted some peace, just a night of peace. God, I don’t know what to do? I really don’t…?”
“Look, Lili, you don’t have to apologize to me. It got crazy with Sam and me too. I still shudder at the thought of what I said and did….” I stopped in midsentence, as the shame I felt so deeply about what went on between Sammy and me washed over me for the thousandth time. “Lili, here’s a possibility. Let Sarah live over here for as long as she wants. I welcome her company, and perhaps that way we can both keep her from running away permanently… like Sam. What’s that sound like to you?” It took a few moments for her to reply. I could hear her jagged breathing and sniffling.
“Thanks. Thanks, Anne. Tell her she can take her horse. They’re inseparable. She wanted to leave, but I wouldn’t let her take her horse. I thought that would stop her. But when I got home from town Saturday … she, she …she was gone.”
I realized after ten seconds of silence Lili wasn’t going to offer anything more. I’d never heard her so incoherent. I was most curious about the comment that Little Bit had left on Saturday for she hadn’t shown up at my place until Sunday evening. Rather than pursue the conversation, I just said, “I’ll bring her by Tuesday and pick up the horse.” I wished there was something I could say, something that would ease her pain. When your child comes into this world, you can’t imagine anything but loving them. It takes you by surprise that first time you curse them in your thoughts. You make excuses for yourself, anything to disguise the truth of what you’ve just done. And you might believe it, if it weren’t for the next time.
“I’ll go into town Tuesday morning,” Lili continued, “so you can come over without me here, in case Sarah wants some of her belongings.”
“Fine. We’ll be over then. And I’ll keep you posted, Lili. This can work.”
When I heard the click of disconnection, I hung up the phone and turned to go back outside to do morning chores. Far too many memories started flooding back. Not that I hadn’t gone over the incidents between Sam and me repeatedly, but only as replays, I now realized, not attempts to understand. Little Bit’s appearance seemed a sign, a harbinger of the need to face what happened years ago, but god how I could feel the deep panic that arose with it. I didn’t know if I could change anything through understanding, but not knowing appeared increasingly intolerable.
I smiled hearing the soft knicker of Spook greeting me as I crossed the barnyard. The big, gray quarter horse cross was the rest of my family. I kept him in the log barn each night or on the occasional trip to town, so bears or a migrating cougar could not get to him. As I opened the barn door, the rich scent of horse and leather greeted me. Spook stamped his foot with impatience. I rubbed his muzzle and then opened his stall to let him outside. Timber met him at the door where Spook stopped, before going out, to bend down and ruffle the hair on Timber’s head with his nose. They were great buddies and shot out the barn together to race around the small pasture. I mucked out the barn, spread clean bedding, and checked to see there was plenty of water in the trough. Then I walked over to the other small log building to water and feed the few chickens I kept. Eggs were such an easy meal for one. My garden, in the clearing out behind the barn, supplied many of my other culinary needs. I’d ask Little Bit to let the chickens out later in the morning, when they finished laying for the day. The trip to Bear Crossing was my easiest meteorological survey, the work I’d done since Pete’s death. So we could leave after lunch. Forestry had hired me on after Pete died. Since I was staying in the area and knew it like my backyard, there were jobs I could do to that left the ranger more time to do the ones needing his specific training. It worked for me, as I didn’t need much money, and it provided something purposeful that kept me going after Pete’s death. To have the government pay me to roam the bush was a good deal for me, so I took it.
I returned to the pasture fence to be with my family for a while, before going over to the woodpile to split winter’s wood. That job was endless. The forestry department kindly supplied me with log lengths that I could split, but it took many cords of wood to get through an Alberta winter. I had a small tank of propane for hot water and as a back up for the propane heater in the living room, but wood was my major fuel. As well, I enjoyed chopping wood. It was a focused task that always cleared my mind. Once I got my swing, the rhythm relaxed me, giving me the simple pleasure of just being where I was. Years earlier, I’d learned that skill is skill, whether playing my flute or chopping wood. Anything that absorbed me to the point of forgetting myself was deeply satisfying. It didn’t matter whether it resulted in creating a melody or a woodpile.
I heard the screen door bang shut and turned to see Little Bit coming across the yard. She waved a hello, just before Timber almost knocked her down, as he raced across the yard and planted two feet in the middle of her chest. I had trained him not to jump up, but he missed Samantha and was excited to have Little Bit in her place. He was strong and rough in play, and he’d bowl you over if you weren’t ready for him. Raised tending and playing with animals, Little Bit was natural with their ways. She bent over, clapped her hands, and invited him back on his next lap of the yard, cradling his big, shaggy head in her hands.
“Heh, sleepyhead. You ready for breakfast?” She smiled a yes and came over to help carry an armload of wood into the cabin. “I called your mum when I got up,” I said as we walked across the barnyard. I could see a shadow immediately wash across her face. She looked up at me, her eyes a question. I leaned over and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay. She’s fine with your staying here. In fact, she said to come by and get your horse. I told her we’d do that Tuesday.”
Silence followed, as she thought about what I’d said. Then finished with whatever conclusion she’d drawn, she said, “Thanks, Nannie.”
Back in the cabin, I lit the stove and put on a second pot of coffee. I decided to make some pancake batter, and I put some bacon in the frying pan to cook. The stove was stone-cold, so I used the bacon as a thermometer, the sound of its sizzle alerting me to how hot the stove was. Little Bit was roaming the stacks of our personal library as I made breakfast. Pete and I had always been avid readers, and since books were tough to come by when we first moved out there, we brought our own. Science books occupied several shelves, since science was our field of study, followed by classics, poetry, philosophy and general fiction. The balance was nonfiction in areas that interested us: biography, wildlife, music, native lore and some how-to books. She had never seen books in a home before, only at the school library, and that was a small collection. She loved to read, and she loved someone to read to her. She was an introspective child, and the readings often sparked questions I would not have expected from a child her age. She also liked movies, so I’d purchased a TV in the last couple of years. I had no satellite dish, so we couldn’t used it like a television, but it was great for viewing the occasional movie we rented by mail. It was a good diversion in the winter, during long nights that started with a 4:30 P.M. sunset. “Have you found anything of interest,” I called over to her? By then the bacon was sizzling loudly. She came back to the table with Siddhartha and smiled as she held it up to show me. “Ah, that’s a good one. We’ll start that tonight after the radio play. CBC radio is broadcasting Mowat’s book, Never Cry Wolf. You ever read that?” She shook her head no. “Well I’ll fill you in on our way to Bear Crossing.”
More silent than ever, Little Bit displayed the common effects of verbal battering. I knew; for I had sought that solace myself when Sam and I battled. I transferred the bacon from pan to plate, setting it on the warming shelf. I spooned off fat for Timber and then poured pancake batter into the frying pan. As if something flicked on a video in my mind, there stood Sam and I arguing. In the flickering scenes of what looked like a movie, two seeming adolescents fought to win; only I was the adult in the mix – at least in age. It so unnerved me that I almost burned the first round of pancakes. Little Bit’s alerting me to the smoke circling my head, brought me back. I carried the pancakes to the table and dished them out.
“Well they must be okay; they didn’t clink when they hit the plates,” she assessed.
“Oh aren’t you the funny bird!” It’s good for your digestion – charcoal, you know.”
She smiled for the first time in ages, an impish, sweet smile that caught me off guard. I winked back and decided right then to let her be, to let her speak when she chose. Besides, I was afraid, distrustful of myself in such conversations. What if I treated Little Bit the same way as Sam? I felt like a drunk who hadn’t yet agreed to step one. But seeing myself attacking my daughter with no memory of it until now, was no less a blackout than an alcoholic’s. If we wanted to lie to ourselves, we obviously had means. I sat staring at a cold pancake, trying not to think at all. I looked over a Little Bit who was dragging her last piece around her plate, sopping up every drop of the maple syrup. I have to do better. I have to, I thought. Little Bit sensing my stare, looked up askance. Hoping she couldn’t see through my thinning veneer of trustworthiness, I smiled and joked about how I wouldn’t have to wash her plate if she kept going.
Little Bit ate another round of pancakes, brown this time instead of black, and I damped the stove down and opened the kitchen door to vent off the heat. I stacked the dishes and washed them up, while Little Bit cleaned off the table and swept the floor. She took the cold bacon fat out to Timber. When she returned, she settled down with Siddhartha, and I checked my pack to insure we had what we needed. I never went into the bush without basic survival gear. I’d known too many people who’d died for want of matches or something to keep out the wet or cold. I carried: bark for fire starter, waterproof matches, basic medical supplies, a compass, flashlight, a mirror to flash signals with, trail mix, a space blanket, bug spray, water, and my 20-gauge pump loaded with slugs. Even on this short hike to Bear Crossing, I took no chances. I’d seen it snow in July with just the slightest elevation, trails wash out, or wild animals alarmed or threatened by my presence. My acceptance of how it was, kept me attentive to necessary details. I loved the bush, but it made no exceptions for the disrespectful or the ignorant. If you lived according to its laws, your chances for survival, though never guaranteed, were much better.
Around 11:00 A.M., I asked Little Bit to go let the chickens out and collect the eggs. I made some sandwiches to take with us, and packed some apples. Then, I went out to lock up Spook. When Little Bit returned, she washed the eggs and put them in the fridge. We collected our gear and loaded up. Timber was circling the pickup to insure we wouldn’t leave him behind. I dropped the tailgate, and he jumped aboard. We were going south on the Trunk Road to where the Berland River crossed the new road and head in there. The trail followed high ground, making it an easy hike into the weather station. I figured we’d be back by four. Before leaving, I called into the Forestry station to let them know, as I always did. I could count on them to come looking for me, if I wasn’t back by four.
The road was dusty, as we hadn’t had rain in two weeks. It wasn’t a bother, with no one else on the road, as it blew out behind you. When two vehicles encountered each other, however, knowing parties quickly rolled up their windows, restricting the entry of the fine brown silt that engulfed everything in one giant cloud. It was so voluminous and fine that it rose high into the air looking like trails of smoke to those flying overhead. Why they called these thoroughfares, gravel roads, had always been a mystery to me. There were too few stones to hold the dirt in place, yet always plenty to crack headlights and windshields. We hadn’t a long drive ahead of us, only 40 miles on the gravel road and another twenty on pavement, thus the likelihood of meeting anyone was low. I enjoyed such isolation, and the resulting silence and solitude soothed me like a blessing.
I wanted to know Little Bit better, so I asked, “Since I’d schooled Sammy at home, I don’t know anything about boarding out to go to school. What’s it like living in town all winter?” Hinton was not a roaring metropolis, but it was another way of life.
“Even with what was there: T.V., dances, a hockey rink, and other kids?” I asked.
“I thought it would be fun, more exciting than where I lived, but there is something about it, something I feel there that I don’t feel at home, something I don’t like.”
“What’s that, darlin’?”
She sighed and twisted her face a bit as if that would help her get in touch with the words she needed.
“It feels empty, Nannie, like there is no point to anything. It reminds me of echoes in a river canyon – the sound is gone but the noise is still there. It makes me feel uneasy, and I never feel that way in the bush. Sure, I’ve been scared in the bush, but there’s a reason for that. It makes sense. But feeling uneasy all the time doesn’t. And I don’t like it.” She shrugged her shoulders suggesting that was the best she could do.
I nodded knowingly, as I glanced sideways at her. We both smiled as if sharing an inner circle secret. She was reflective for such a young person, and thus interesting company.
Little Bit changed the subject. “Okay, fill me in on the radio play.” The bush, the traveling, the beauty of the day were releasing her, and with a child’s openness she greeted it without reservation.
“It’s about some scientist employed by the government to do a survey about wolves in the northern bush of Manitoba. Almost immediately, he’s alerted to the challenges that lay ahead, for just as the seaplane lifts off the lake where it dropped him, he notices his government-issue collapsible canoe is missing one section.” I heard her giggle.
“In tonight’s episode, he will finally reach his base camp, and find a wolf den in the area. In truth they find him, as they seem to sense he needs some help. He notes them marking their territory, and decides to do the same around what he considers his turf. He marvels at their ability to do so in one pass, while he has to stop and brew several pots of tea to complete his boundary. It’s a good tale. You’ll enjoy it!”
We spent the rest of the trip in silence, a common state for those living where we did. Outsiders, as we called them, often found the silence of our world boring as if it implied nothing was happening. They would continually insist on bringing the noise of conversation to it. Those calling the wilderness their home, knew differently. They honored the silence, recognizing its wordless, soundless voice as a feeling within them, which connected them to its deep center. Beyond the birdcalls, the trees creaking, the wind whistling, and the creeks babbling that center hovers, and when you enter it, you’re no longer certain whether you’re in it or it’s in you. That was what Little Bit was trying to put into words earlier. That center is safe and real. No lies live there.
We drove for another thirty-five minutes, when I saw the river crossing ahead. We turned off at the small primitive campground adjacent to the river. There was only a fire pit, some firewood, and a picnic table. We parked in view of the road – the rule when going into the bush. It was habit with those living in isolated places to take stock of their world, noticing what was amiss. Broken fences, stray stock, or a car too long in one place were red flags. In that way, we looked out for one another.
Since Little Bit and I were eager to get on the trail, we had eaten our lunch on the drive. Like booty to a bounty hunter, a trailhead suggests adventure and reward. To enter the forest, share its scents and sounds, feel its steadiness, and marvel at its beauty were treasures for the taking. As I stood there looking down the trail, I realized my many years of roaming the bush had not tarnished the allure. The only difference now was being accompanied. I didn’t need to brief Little Bit on proper behavior in the bush, well-seasoned as she was, but I did insist on one rule. As we entered the forest, I stopped and turned to her, putting my hands on her shoulders. Staring at her I said, “There’s one promise I require, darlin’. If I tell you to get, to make for safety, do not hesitate for any reason. As fast as you can, you get to a safe place. If you can follow our back trail, then go for help. I will never demand that of you lightly, but if I do, I will mean it. I am not afraid to die in the bush, and it would never be your fault, but neither is it to be your fate. You’ve much more of life to live. Will you give me your word?”
She looked at me for a long time and measured the words I’d said. I realized something about her in that moment that I’d suspected but never proved. Rather than offer glib agreement, she bypassed her intellect; I could see it in her eyes. She was sensing what she felt in her gut, and when she answered, “You can trust me,” her intuitive response left neither of us in doubt.
The trail to Bear Crossing ambled alongside the Berland River. When we started out, we found Timber standing in the river getting a drink. There was always a danger taking in him with me into the bush, for his presence could as easily provoke a wild animal attack, as repel one. The one quality his breed had running in its veins, however, was the unquestioned commitment to its master. He signed his life over to me the day I got him. That was the deal. Not to take him along was to violate my side of the agreement, for he lived to keep me safe. Thus, wherever I went, there was Timber.
The Berland wasn’t a big river, thirty or forty feet across in wide places but it flowed with the force of something large and wild. Its waters were icy cold, even in the summer, and clear to its rocky bottom. Deep places might be chest high, but the current was strong enough that I couldn’t cross in those places. Trout and Grayling abounded in the pure, glacial water, and I too drank from it just like my dog. The forest was more open here, a mix of deciduous trees and pine with some light brush. As always, I watched for one sign chiefly, any suggestion of bear. I told Little Bit to keep an eye out as well for tracks, scat, claw marks, or digging. The higher land of this trek, kept the trail more open and less dangerous. The head-high brush of the muskeg areas were the treacherous routes. In them, you could run into a bear, visibility was so poor, and surprising a bear could be as lethal as it surprising you.
I never saw the bush as a violent or brutal place, for it has no motives. Each creature responds only to natural or instinctual needs. Even inveterate urban dwellers display awareness of that fact, neither hating the deer that jumps in front of their cars, nor the lightning that strikes their houses. People are the problem; they are the only ones capable of motives and lies. And their propensity for both makes life complicated and cruel; each memory I’d recalled about Sammy and me making that all too obvious.
Little Bit thrived in the bush. She displayed a presence here that rarely appeared elsewhere – powerful and certain. She walked with the ease of a child, yet the command of a young woman. The transformation was most startling. She was alert, respectful, and obviously among friends. The hour it took to get to Bear Crossing passed by like a moment. She helped me take the readings my job required, curious about their use and purpose. Apart from her questions about the why of what we were doing, neither of us spoke. By 3:45, we were back at the campsite, and I called in to alert the warden.
I enjoyed the afternoon, but was quite unprepared for how much this time spent with Little Bit would tug on the thin thread of loneliness that had knotted up in my heart when Sammy left. I was only beginning to realize the number of doors I closed and locked in response to the pain. I thought I was braver than that. It was disheartening to see yet another lie in my life. I remained quiet on through the evening, the haunting deceptions from my past spooking me like eerie sounds in the wilds.
The next day dawned gray, and looked like rain, which was not a common happening in the semi-arid climate of Alberta. I welcomed the even deeper quietness that came with gray days, and the way the tiny increase in humidity allowed one’s skin to feel suppler. Week after week of dehydration, made you feel like a tanned hide – dry, cracking skin stretched over a frame. Rain was a relief in many ways. Little Bit had gone out to do the chores while I made breakfast. After eating, we were going over to her place to get her horse and belongings. She came through the door with an armload of wood and Timber at her side. She dumped the wood in the wood box, and stopped to wrap her arm around that great woolly beast of a dog. She was beginning to look as if she finally felt safe.
“What would you prefer, taking the pick-up and trailer or riding double on Spook? It depends on how much stuff you want to bring back.”
She plunked down at the table and thought for a moment. “I don’t have much I need. I could fit it in both our saddlebags, with the rest rolled up in my bedroll. Do you think Sammy would mind if I wore some of her stuff?”
“Not at all, darling.”
“Is she ever coming back, Nannie?”
“I don’t know.”
“What happened?” She said this with the guileless curiosity of a child.
“You know how you and your mum have been having hard times lately?”
“Lately,” she replied, her eyes rolling high and to the side.
I smiled and continued, “Well, Sammy and I went through something similar, and I handled it poorly. I hurt her the way you feel your mum’s hurt you, and a kid’s only going to take so much of that before they go off packing.”
“How come you and I get along so well then?”
I didn’t know if she asked that question out of a growing sense of unease or just plain curiosity, but I wasn’t ever again going to disrespect a child with a lie. So I replied, “I’m not sure I know the answer yet, Little Bit. Sometimes we’re most careless with those closest to us, as if nothing we could do would break that bond of blood. What you learn too late is that bond can break like any other.”
She smiled at my candor, and the softness of her face spoke to no fear or confusion from my response. Maybe the truth is what sets us free, and I was sure going to know before my life was through.
“We’ll let’s go saddle up Spook. Did you come here down the cutline or by the road?”
“Down the cutline; it’s fine.”
“Good. That will keep us out of the dust on the Trunk Road. Do you have a duster? It sure looks like rain.”
“Yeah, I got a good one. I’ll wear it back.”
Timber was right on my heels, as I walked to the barn. It was like he spoke English, for I never made plans verbally that he didn’t cotton on to. It was a short ride and not far from the road, but still I took my pack and slipped my shotgun in its saddle holder.
“Little Bit how ’bout you wearing this pack on your back or you’ll be smothering in it on my back. Just to alert you, Spook’s not used to carrying double so hang on tight, as he might hump up a bit.” Little Bit appeared unafraid of anything that had to do with horses, and all I heard was a short giggle in response.
“I always wanted to be in the rodeo,” she said still laughing.
“Don’t you go thumping him in the ribs, you imp, or we’ll both be walking to your place.”
I threw my leg over Spook and took him to the fence so Little Bit could mount. No sooner did her bum settle in behind the saddle, and Spook started bouncing around on all fours, with his back humped and ready to let fly with his heels.
“Heh,” I said to Spook in a no-nonsense voice, as I pulled his head high to keep his hind feet on the ground. “That’s enough.” Spook was having none of it, however. The moment my attention turned to getting Little Bit settled, Spook took the bit in his teeth, dropped his head, and bucked like a rodeo bronc. We both hit the dirt side by side, and as we got up brushing ourselves off, I said to Little Bit, “I think we can forget about the rodeo, darlin’, we didn’t even make 2 seconds!” Little Bit laughed the hardiest I’d heard her yet.
“Well I guess Spook won round one?” she said as she headed back toward the fence.
“Are you ready for round two?” I queried her, “Because this ain’t gonna fly.”
“Sure. Besides, I had this soft pack to land on.”
I flashed her a withering glance to acknowledge her sarcasm as I recalled the flashlight, extra ammunition and canteen that were in the pack.
Spook was standing over by the barn, more than aware of his error, from the look of his stance. I walked over and had a short heart-to-heart with him and mounted up for the second time that morning. This time I was more alert. “When you slide on this time, gal, do so lightly and then grab hold tightly on me, and I’ll do a better job from there.” Little Bit felt like a feather as she settled in, and I reminded Spook, vocally, about what would happen if he tried that again. He had a few “last words,” as he bounced a wee bit, but then he settled down, and we headed for the trail. Timber ran in circles, energized by the antics the three of us had provided. His enthusiasm with life was contagious, and I was more than happy to let him infect me with it.
We headed west to intercept the cutline. I rarely traveled that route, preferring the forest to this widened man-made gash cut through it. Poorly maintained, the cutline stood strewn with scrub and old slash piles line crews had forgotten to burn. The rod-straight lodgepole pines and clumps of poplar and alder stood to either side, motionless in the gray light and stillness of the morning. Even the birds weren’t cawing or chirping, leaving only the heavy hum of insects. The day had an eerie feel to it, and I watched Spook to see what he sensed. Spook spoke with his ears, their position pointing out where his attention lay, and when his ears suddenly swiveled to the left, pointing straight up and wide, I knew our quiet morning ride was about to end. Uneasily, he twisted around in a tight-knotted circle, tensing his body and voicing his alarm in short, anxious snorts. I straightened in the saddle, ready. “Hang on,” came out of my mouth like a command to Little Bit. At the moment I felt her lock her arms around me, a crack that sounded like a gunshot shattered the silence. The terrible sound of trees snapping and bush crashing followed, as something headed our way. Whatever it was, it was big. I just didn’t know what it was or why it was coming so hard-and-fast. I screamed at Timber, “Come!” as Spook half reared and spun around again. As if we were one, Little Bit followed the curve of my body as I leaned forward, kicked Spook, and gave him his head. The quarter horse in him shot forward and cleared us off the spot that only seconds later two Bull Moose crashed onto as they cleared the bush. My heart was pounding in my chest. I pulled Spook up short and turned to look, catching sight of them just before they crashed back into the bush on the other side of the cutline. My body shuttered involuntarily. Their size and power would have made us all look like victims of a hit-and-run. I doubt we would have survived.
Immediately, I swung Spook back around, and kicked him into action once again. Whatever creature threatened those moose wasn’t far behind. I called Timber to follow, and after pausing to scent the culprit, he lit out with us. We galloped down the trail toward Little Bit’s homestead, and I was glad we were both as light as we were for Spook didn’t have a problem with the extra weight. The cutline being overgrown and messy with brush piles made Spook have to dodge and even jump one pile. Little Bit made sure to stay right with me as we raced on flat and low.
With a mile behind us, I slowed Spook to give him a rest. His sides heaved from the exertion, and he still acted anxious, stamping his hoof and bucking slightly out of pent-up tension. Spook didn’t need words to tell me what was running the moose to ground. Everything about him said: bear. And as if they were a pantomime team, Timber’s raised hackles confirmed it. Since I had clocked black bear loping beside my truck on a forestry road at an easy thirty-five miles an hour, I knew our distance didn’t give us much headway. As soon as Spook slowed his breathing, I kicked him on and put more distance between us and the bear. I was glad finally to see the clearing ahead of us that marked the edge of the Mackle’s place. Feeling I now had a minute to take stock, I slowed Spook to a walk and turned in the saddle to check Little Bit for the first time since all hell had broken loose. She looked no worse for wear. In fact, she sat tall, red-cheeked with excitement. “You’re good, my dear,” I said after looking her up and down, and stopping to stare into her eyes.
She beamed, but then she caught sight of her homestead and her stare drifted to some far-off place and froze there. As if talking to herself, she made the strangest comment in a faraway voice, “Animals aren’t scary. People are.” I left that statement alone, not entirely in agreement. Something wasn’t right about a bear chasing healthy moose. By then we were in her yard, however, and I let that thought go. Reining Spook to a halt, Little Bit slid down his flank to the ground.
I leaned over and touched the top of her head. “I’m going to cool Spook out a bit and then water him before we go back, so no need to rush, darlin’. No one’s here so just do what you need to do.” She nodded without looking up, and walked off toward the house.
I dismounted and loosened Spook’s saddle. Then I went around to his head and took his soft lower lip in my two hands, laying my cheek on his velvety nose. “You’ve got heart, my friend. Thanks.” He pulled away, impatient with my mushiness and than cleared his nostrils all over my shirt. I shook my head. “No one will ever accuse you of being a romantic, Spook, my friend.” I pulled the saddle off him and began to walk him in a circle to cool him down slowly. I called Timber over to me and gave him his due. Squatting down, I rubbed his ears, and whispered to him, “You’re the best, my boy. You’re the world to me.” Like Spook, he also had a limit on moments of affection, and swiftly jumped up, bouncing off me, and nearly knocking me down. “You know I dated a boy like you once, Timber….” By then, he was over by the water tank getting a drink.
A half an hour passed before Little Bit appeared. I was over at the barn brushing Spook out and getting ready to re-saddle him, when I saw her rounding the house with one large black and one small white plastic bag. “My goodness dear, you don’t even have a matched set of luggage, but waterproof, which is looking more and more like a smart idea.” The skies had been growing increasingly dark while she’d been in the house. She smiled, but only with her mouth. Something had once again stolen her lightheartedness. I had brushed off her chestnut gelding, Slingshot so he’d be ready to saddle when she came out. I didn’t want to take the chance of running into anyone at her place. Slingshot was a good-looking animal, beautifully muscled and with a finer head than most quarter horses. I once asked her about his name, and she said that he was the fastest quar
The future begins right now in Bonnie Rozanski’s novel “Y.”
The time is the very, very near future. The place, a very real and vivid New York City.
A never-before-seen microbe infects young women with flu-like symptoms. The true import of the disease eventually appears as the usual roughly 50-50 ratio of male and female births begins to change. The future of the male population, not so good. Among the younger generation, monogamy is increasingly replaced by polygamy. Wars decrease. Crime falls. Football attendance is down. Ballet attendance up.
Dystopia? Utopia? It all depends on your point of view. But Bonnie Rozanski’s Y is one of the most fully imagined, provocative novels I have read this year, and I’m thrilled that she has allowed us to share today’s 12,600-word Free Kindle Nation Short excerpt with you.
–Steve Windwalker, Editor
4.0 Stars from 6 Reviewers
Here’s the set-up:
The year is 2011, the place, New York City. A mysterious microbe has begun to infect women of child-bearing age. Though the medical establishment writes it off as a simple flu, and the epidemic appears to be dying out, a young New York obstetrician confronts a conundrum. In the past year, the ratio of boys to girls born in her practice has declined precipitously. Dr. Deborah Kruger suspects the truth: that infected women are no longer able to give birth to male children.
With the help of her husband Larry, a computer analyst, Deborah tracks the epicenter to New York City, from which the infection is already bursting forth. And, as years pass, despite hundreds of laboratories at work on it, the microbe continues to overrun borders and envelop the Earth. With Science unable to stop it, and the contagion rippling worldwide in an AIDS-like pandemic, how will society cope in an increasingly female world?
Unquestionably, some changes are inevitable. Companies hire more women; who assume more leadership positions, replacing the male hierarchy with their own female style of management, to great success. Among the younger generation, monogamy is increasingly replaced by polygamy. Wars decrease. Crime falls. Football attendance is down. Ballet is up.
“Y” follows three New York City families for an entire generation, each with its own story. The blue-collar husband proves unable to deal with a wife who has become the major bread-winner. The yuppie husband does well in his career but cannot resist the temptations of a workplace with limitless young women. His wife, turned off from men entirely, will leave him and become a force to reckon with in her own right. And, along the way, the children of all three families struggle to find mates and to secure their own places in this new, topsy-turvy world.
At once a fast-paced thriller of a gripping race for a cure, a speculative tale about a futuristic society, and a comic battle between the sexes, “Y” is, above all, the story of real people caught up in a society they no longer recognize.
Five More for Kindle
by Bonnie Rozanski
An Excerpt from
A Novel by Bonnie Rozanski
Copyright © 2011 by Bonnie Rozanski and published here with her permissio
Chapter 1 – January 4, 2011
Dr. Deborah Ackman squeezed through the crowd to the Lexington Avenue subway, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, all headed in the same direction: downtown. She looked around her at the pulsing, coursing flow of people, and thought, it’s like one giant bloodstream, all of us feeding the same organism, New York City. The medical analogy pleased her, and she smiled.
The woman to her left was watching her warily from behind the New York Times. Deborah caught the look through the corner of her eye, and decoded it: a smile on a Monday morning in January had made her look suspicious. She turned, still smiling, to face the woman, who turned away, in accordance with one of the cardinal rules on the New York subway: watching someone is permissible, as long as one doesn’t make eye contact. Eye contact is strictly forbidden. It is the only effective strategy for maintaining one’s own space in a city where there is no space.
Deborah took the Lexington line to 23rd Street and walked two blocks west to her office. It was a small, neat stone building with decorative ironwork surrounding the heavy wooden door. Following the advice she had given herself four years ago when she started pediatric practice, she walked up the two flights to her office. At 33, she was in pretty good shape despite the gruelling hours she had to put in to take over her father’s practice.
Of average height, a little plumper than she would like, but with a clear, pale complexion and flaming red hair, she still got whistles from the construction crew down the block. Not that she really appreciated that sort of thing, she told herself, as she approached the front door to her office, its bronze faceplate engraved with the names Dr. Maurice Ackman, Ob/Gyn, and underneath, Dr. Deborah Ackman, Ob/Gyn. After all, she was a doctor. She deserved some respect. Certainly, no one would dare treat her father as a sex object. On the other hand, the idea of anyone whistling at that distinguished, white-haired gentleman was so absurd that any sexism seemed completely irrelevant. Forget the whole thing, Deborah thought: her self worth didn’t depend on what hardhats thought of her. She opened the door to the reception area.
At 9:30, the waiting room was already full of young women, some shifting in their seats as if it were uncomfortable to sit.
She smiled at all of them benevolently, said hello to her receptionist, Carol Hartigan, and walked quickly back to her office. Carol was right in back of her.
“Dr. Ackman, you already have a room full of patients.”
“I know,” Deborah sighed. “I didn’t think I had this many appointments.”
“You didn’t. Most of them were so insistent, I said we’d try to fit them in. For most of them, it seems to have come on during the weekend. Flu-like symptoms, lower abdominal pain, some vaginal discharge.”
“Where’s my father?” Deborah asked, as she walked into her office and hung up her coat.
“He’s coming in for the afternoon. No more mornings. He told us that last week, Dr. Ackman. He’s supposed to be semi-retired.”
“I know. I just wish he had waited for the summer. These things always have a tendency to happen this time of year.”
“Do you want me to call him?”
“Mmm…no. He deserves his rest. Now, who’s first?”
“Christine Henley. She’s been coming here a few years.”
“Okay, put her in the room A. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Carol gave her the first file. 24, unmarried. No previous gynecological problems. Dr. Ackman slipped on her white jacket and walked into the examining room across the hall. Ms. Henley was on her back, only her head and feet visible from beneath the sheet.
“Hello, Christine. What seems to be the problem?” Deborah asked solicitously.
“Oh, I don’t know. Saturday, I felt fluey, with pain down here.” She pointed to her lower abdomen.
“Any vaginal discharge?”
She seemed a little embarrassed. “Yes.”
“Redness, genital sores?”
“Well, let’s take a look.”
Deborah conducted an examination, and asked the woman to sit up.
“Well, no signs of herpes. Certainly no lesions. It could be Chlamydia, though 70% of the time there are no symptoms at the beginning. I’ve taken a sample for the lab test, but I don’t really think that’s it. Have you had intercourse recently?”
Christine seemed embarrassed again but answered, “Yes, with my boyfriend.”
“You might want to ask your boyfriend if he has any symptoms himself, like burning during urination. There’s always a possibility it’s a new sexually transmitted disease, but let’s hope not. Right now, not knowing what it is, I don’t want to give you anything. There’s no evidence of infection. Best advice is to keep away from sex for awhile.”
She looked crestfallen. “Can’t you give me some antibiotics?”
The same old question. “Let’s wait for the results of the lab test. If it’s not bacterial, antibiotics won’t work.”
Christine was not convinced. “My gp always gives me antibiotics.”
“Not for viruses he doesn’t. At least, I hope not. Every time we overuse antibiotics, the bacteria just develop resistance to the medicines that much more quickly. Then the medicines will be useless.”
Christine looked at her skeptically. “Is the other Dr. Ackman here?”
Deborah felt a slight chill. “No, he only comes in afternoons these days.”
“Well, then I’ll be back, when he is here. He will know what is right.”
Deborah turned toward the woman, and said sternly, “I can’t stop you from doing that, Christine, but I know full well what the correct treatment is. My father will only back me up.”
“Well, I’d like to hear him say that,” the woman said, and began to get dressed. Deborah turned and left, glancing down the hall to the reception area, where so many other patients waited. This, she thought gloomily, is what I went to med school for.
* * * *
Larry Kruger sat at his computer in the second bedroom, which had been redone as his home office: a desk, a work station, a chair and a couch. Minimal furnishings. No rug, because he covered the floor with paper, manuals and equipment. It was to have been his room on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Deb’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and up for grabs on the weekends. However, due to his messy work habits, it was now solely his office. She didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Personally, he couldn’t see the reason for it; Deborah was just being overly tidy. Besides, any creative person needed to have some tolerance for disorder. If there were only order, there would be nothing to do. Everything would already be in its place, finished, perfect. So, he wasn’t perfect; he was creative. He prided himself with always looking at problems in a new way. So what if the price was a little dust?
With Deborah at work, he might be able to get something done. Thank God it was Monday, so he could work at home. He really got a lot more done this way. All he had to do was finish this program, debug it and upload it to the central computer at work. He loved the quiet of the house when he was alone. No meetings. No people to listen to who didn’t know what they were talking about. No rat race. No boss. Well, there was a boss, but he could e-mail him. No face-to-face stuff. He was in his element.
Larry stood up and stretched. He was a tall man, verging on gangly, with unruly dark hair and a crumpled look about him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, unshaven and wild-looking. Well, he thought, Deborah didn’t marry me for my sense of style. It must have been my personality. Abruptly, the program finished and started spitting out data. It looked all right. It was saving it to a file as well, so he could review it later. It looked all right. Yeah, that’s good. Okay… No, damn it! He knew it would do that again! He sat down, stopped execution and opened the source file. He was still there, working on the code, in the dark, when the doorbell rang at 6:30 p.m.
It was a half a minute before anything registered. By this time the doorbell had rung a couple more times. He unfurled himself from his desk chair and walked through the apartment to the front door. “Deb?” he shouted through the door without looking through the peep hole, then looked through when he heard nothing in reply. There she was, partially bent over, holding three shopping bags on her knees and fumbling through her purse for her key. He opened the door and took all three bags from her, lifting them lightly as if they weighed little or nothing.
“I thought maybe you weren’t home. It took so long for you to come to the door,” she said.
“Sorry. I was working on something,” he answered, swinging the bags onto the counter.”
“Not so hard! You’ll break the…” She looked inside. “eggs.”
She picked up the carton with gooey, viscous stuff dripping down the side of the cardboard container. Deborah carefully removed it from the bag and set it down in the sink. She looked at him with an expression of loving exasperation. “You’re always working on something.”
He shrugged, then gave her that slow grin she liked so much. “Well, you didn’t marry me for…what did you marry me for, anyway?”
Deborah came up to him and stood on tip toe to kiss his cheek. “Your sweet, absent-minded personality. And your super-computer brain.”
“I knew it was something.” Larry caught another glimpse of himself in the toaster. His hair was sticking up at angles to his head. “Not my sense of style.”
He took another look at her. She looked exhausted.
“Have a hard day?”
“It seems every woman from 18 to 40 was in my office today. Everyone was complaining of lower abdominal pain and flu symptoms. …It may be no more than just a new kind of stomach flu. I hope. I’d like to know who else is infected.”
“Like who?” Larry said, unpacking the groceries.
“Men, children, older women. I don’t know. It might be sexually transmissible. I made a call to the Department of Health, but they didn’t know anything about it…Well, we’ll see what the lab tests show.”
“I think you’re working too hard,” Larry said, leaning forward to brush her hair away from her face.
“Well, Dad had to pick this time to take partial retirement.”
“So, talk to him. Tell him you need him full-time.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Deborah replied, biting her lip. “He really needs some rest.”
“He’d understand. You don’t stand up for yourself enough, Deb.”
She had heard that one before; she looked at him coolly for a minute, then turned and walked toward the bedroom. “From you of all people,” she said, then, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Larry followed her until she slammed the door in his face.
“Damn it, Deborah, fight with me if you have to, but don’t go into the bedroom and sulk. You get hurt so easily.”
Shaking his head, he walked back to the kitchen. Five minutes later, when she still had not come out, he started dinner.
Deborah lay sprawled across her bed, her position of choice when she was having a tantrum. She knew she was being silly. She was being a child. It shouldn’t have bothered her. Nothing should bother her. She should be a grownup, keep a stiff upper lip, be a mensch. She was a doctor, for God’s sake. She thought of her father, her sweet-seeming, benevolent, authoritarian father. She knew Dad would have wanted her brother David to have joined him in his practice, not her. Even now, after she thought she had earned his respect, she found herself in the little girl role with him.
You’d think that after all those years of medical school, internship and residency that she’d have learned to stand up for herself. To do what she wanted and ignore everyone else. But it seemed so unethical. Were girls taught that so much more thoroughly than boys or was it something they were born feeling? Is it right to put someone else before yourself, or will that someone else just use it as an excuse to step all over you?
Besides, it doesn’t always work, Deborah reminded herself, pushing herself up to a sitting position and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. People don’t accept that same kind of barge-straight-ahead-don’t-think-about-anyone-else behavior from a woman. If you are submissive and coy, they think you are a bimbo, but if you come on strong and aggressive, they call you a bitch. Heads, you win, tails, I lose.
Above the bed hung a little sign she had had framed as a joke for Larry’s birthday. She turned her head to read it again: “The male model involves a relative degree of obsession, egocentricity, ruthlessness, a relative suspension of social and personal values, to which the female brain is simply not attuned.”*
So much for the male model. What was the female model? A work in progress, probably. Savory smells were wafting into the bedroom from the kitchen, and hunger was beginning to win over cantankerousness. She stood up and walked to the door.
* Brain Sex, Moir and Jessel, 1989
Chapter 2 – January 5, 2011
“The division meeting is about to start, John,” Alison said and pushed him away from her. “Besides, don’t stand so close; you’ll make it obvious to everyone.”
“No one’s looking, Al,” he said, still leaning over her. He was bigger than she was and had no trouble imprisoning her against the wall.
“Think, John. Any one of these people would be delighted to tell your wife about us.”
He glanced around him, then pushed himself back a little. “People aren’t as smart as you think, Al. No one has any idea.”
Just then Amy came around the corner, on her way to the meeting. Alison could have sworn that she looked first at her, then at John, before she asked, cheerily, “John, how are those two cute little kids of yours?
John turned abruptly. “Uh, fine.” He scowled for a few seconds, then determinedly fixed a smile on his face. “Hey, thanks for asking,” he remarked, as Amy walked away.
Alison looked at him as if to say, “See?” and walked in after her.
He watched her as she walked away from him. Alison had a natural sway to her walk; it wasn’t fake. She wasn’t out to seduce anyone with any of those feminine tricks. She considered herself a player in the high stakes of retail management. Alison would make it on her own, with her own brains, her own talent, and her own looks, such as they were, which were not bad. She had brown hair cut very short, a body not overly distributed in any one area, but generally appealing, with a good ass and legs, and a smart, almost impudent looking face. Just looking at her could make him hot.
John waited till all the department managers were seated before he entered and sat down. It was his style to act unrushed. Usually, it worked. It added to his status, he thought, though Alison occasionally tweaked him on his style: he was too studied as far as she was concerned. It worked on most of them, though, even the divisional managers, who, he was certain, were considering him for the next Main Floor divisional slot. He needed style; it compensated for the fact that he was only 5’7″. So, he dressed well; he never bought his clothes at Findlay’s as all the others did, even though he could get them at cost. He went over to Roche and Son for its top quality suits. It would eventually pay off.
There were about a dozen department managers, each of whom reported to the Divisional Manager of Main Floor Apparel, Roger Toddy. Each month they had a meeting thrashing out what went right, what went wrong, how to meet last years figures, new ideas on promotion, merchandising, new trends, best sellers, you name it. It always paid to prepare something ahead of time, so you could get some floor time. Even if you didn’t have anything original to say, if you said something that had already been said in a more authoritative tone, you got credit for it.
Roger opened the meeting with a comparison of Christmas 2009 and Christmas 2010. “I guess you all know that we’re down 9% from last year’s figures. We’ve got to pull up our sales, guys. Work on your best sellers; you all know what sells in each of your departments. This quarter, for example, women’s sweater sets have been blowing out of the store in women’s sportswear, and in the Boy’s Department cargo pants have been a major draw….”
As Roger went on about ways to improve sales, John looked around him, and noticed something he had seen before. More than half of the department managers in the division were women. This was not surprising. Retail had always been known to be a “woman’s business.” In reality, however, the hierarchy conformed to all the other big businesses. The lowest level had plenty of female sales associates; the next level, department managers, was more than half women. At the divisional level, only one-third were women, and at the very top, zero. It was satisfying for him to see the status quo. It meant that he had a better chance for promotion than seven out of the other eleven department managers in the room. He sat back and waited for an opportunity to speak.
Finally, Roger said, “I’d like to hear from some of you now to find out what we can do for this coming year to meet and surpass 2010’s figures. Anyone?”
Amy had her hand up, more at her side than straight up. “Amy?”
Amy stood up, obviously a little nervous, and began to state her idea in a low voice, “Last year, women’s sportswear tried a week-long promotion based on the Caribbean, and did well selling swim wear and some accessory pieces.”
Roger broke in, “Amy, what I can hear sounds good, but you’re speaking too low. Could you speak louder, please?”
Amy began in a minimally louder voice. “I think we could perhaps do better selling Italian ready-to-wear in a similar week-long promotion. We had lots of people in to see our Caribbean displays but not enough buyers. Italy could provide us with far more appealing products to sell. We’d easily meet our figures from last year, don’t you think?”
John stood up. “I think that Amy’s idea has a lot of merit,” he said authoritatively. “But I think if we do this thing, we should include the men’s department, the food division, and maybe even the furniture department and do this as a store-wide event. We could have people making pasta at booths, and stage some fashion shows, and I’m certain I can prevail upon some of my designers to lend their presence as well as their products. All in all, I think we could draw in a lot of people just through advertisement of the event, and then get a lot of impulse buying.” He stood there smiling for another fraction of a minute before sitting down.
Meanwhile, Alison had stuck her hand up, and was not noticed, so she stood up.
“This could be a very expensive proposition, John. You’d have completely new costs that you’d have to defray regarding advertising and labor….”
Amy raised her hand, but was not recognized. Bruce began talking from his seat.
“Well, I think you’ve got to spend money to make money. As long as we do a complete projection of our costs and expenditures…”
John stood up, his hand on his chin, contemplatively. “Bruce, that’s a great idea. I’m sure that Roger would be happy to have you work up that projection. Wouldn’t you, Roger?”
Roger nodded absently.
Alison put her hand up and was recognized. “Well, as long as we don’t go into this without knowing what we’re up against, I wouldn’t stand in the way of this idea…”
John remarked from this seat, “I should hope not. It’s a great idea.”
Alison added, “But I had this other idea for the children’s department. I think that the yuppies with children are willing to part with a lot more money on their kid’s clothing than we give them credit for…I’ve got a supplier…”
They could hear voices at the door.
“We’re almost out of time, guys,” Roger said, looking at his watch. “The other divisional managers are going to be using this room. Any other ideas are going to have to be tabled for our session. But I want to thank John for that excellent idea on the Italy promotion. And Bruce, I’m going to ask you to do that projection of costs and expenditures, and we’ll take it up next time.”
Passing John as she left the room, Alison muttered, “Roger just gave you credit for Amy’s idea, John.”
He looked surprised. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Alison. Amy just brought it up. I took it and ran with it. Hey, meet you in the back of the store in one hour?”
“I’m busy, but maybe you’d like to ask Roger and suck up to him some more.”
* * * *
Victoria stood for a moment in the livingroom, surveying the damage. Matthew grinned sheepishly, still holding the curtain rod at a rakish angle, with the curtain sprawled across the floor and partially obscuring his little sister, Dana. Screams issued from beneath the curtain.
Victoria rushed to pull the little girl out.
“Matthew!” she yelled. “Why did you do that? You almost hurt the baby!”
“Wanted to climb to top of window!”
Matthew was silent for a few seconds, thinking. “I don’t know.”
“Because it was there,” Victoria muttered under her breath. There never seemed to be much more of a reason for whatever Matthew did. He just liked to see if things could be done.
She gathered the toddler up in her lap and sat down on the armchair closest to the window. Dana was still crying, but not as hard.
“You wouldn’t do such silly things, now would you, Dana?” Victoria asked, bouncing her up and down.
She looked sternly at Matthew and said, “Go to your room!”
Matthew looked sternly at his mother and said, “No!”
“Yes, you will!”
That was enough of that. She put the baby down, grabbed Matthew’s arm and dragged him down the hallway toward his bedroom. Matthew began to yell and tried to bite his mother’s hand. With all his strength, he pulled away and ran back to the living room. Victoria wearily walked back to where the two children were sitting.
“I’m going to call your father,” she said, and picked up the phone.
Matthew seemed unconcerned, and began playing with his truck.
Victoria began to punch in the numbers. “Findlay’s? Could I have John Lowe, Department Manager of Men’s Wear? Yes, I’ll wait.”
As she waited, Dana toddled over to Matthew and put a hand on the truck. She wanted to play, too.
“No, this is my truck. Here, play with this, Dana.”
Victoria watched Matthew give his sister a lego block, which Dana promptly put into her mouth.
“Get that out of her mouth, Matthew. She’ll swallow it!”
“Okay,” he said, fishing it out of the little girl’s mouth with a dirty hand. Dana began to cry.
John was on the line. “What’s the matter, Vicky? You pulled me out of a meeting.”
“I’m sorry,” she answered, “but you’ve got to do something with Matthew. I can’t do anything with him. He’s into everything, and he’s not sorry about anything.”
She could hear John stifle a laugh. “Well, honey, boys will be boys. You wouldn’t want him to grow up to be a wimp, would you?”
“Oh, John. He needs to be disciplined, he won’t listen to me.” She lowered her voice. “I’m going to tell him you are very angry with him and will give him a good talking to tonight.”
“No, don’t do that. I’m going to be late tonight. I have…I have to set up for the winter sale.”
“Not again! Didn’t you just have a winter sale?”
“Um. Not that one. This is the winter suit sale.”
Victoria turned to look at the children, who were both pulling at opposite sides of the truck.
“I’ve got to go. When will you be home?”
“Late. Maybe 11:30. Don’t wait up for me.”
“You want to say something to Matthew over the phone?”
“No time. See you tomorrow.” The phone went dead.
She ran over to the two, separated the truck from Dana’s little hands, and gave her her teddy bear from under the couch. For this she gave up a management position at Findlay’s!
* * * *
It was snowing by 5:00 when Carol left the office, but she walked the six long blocks to the 7th avenue subway, as she always did; Bill always said that they should save on those little extras like bus fare if they could walk. Of course, Bill had the car in New Jersey, so he never had to walk anyway, but, well, she guessed she could save a little for their baby, if they ever had one. Bill said he wasn’t ready. He was already 28; she was 26. She had been ready for two years now. When they had gone to Bill’s parents’ house last week, his mother had advised her to butter him up. That’s what she had always done with Bill’s dad, she said. And if that didn’t work, to just go ahead and forget a few of the pills, then claim it was an accident. Somehow, that didn’t seem right to Carol. She wanted to be honest and for Bill to be honest and for them both to want the baby together. She really didn’t know what was right anymore. She couldn’t just demand that they do it now. He wouldn’t like it. And when Bill didn’t like something, you had to get out of his way…
Carol wound her woollen scarf one more time around her neck. Scarves were always too long for her; she was such a diminutive person. Most people guessed she was closer to 16 than to 26; she had a doll-like appearance: smooth, round face with petite features and china blue eyes. She guessed that that was why men were always trying to do things for her, as if she couldn’t do them herself: opening doors and pulling out chairs. They meant to be nice, but it was like living in a world where everyone else was a grownup, and you were the only child. She wanted to grow up.
The scarf had unwound again, and was dragging on the ground. Carol grabbed the end and tucked it into her pocket. She didn’t really need the scarf. It was snowing, but, all in all, it was a nice night: a little smoggy and slushy underfoot, but the storefronts were all lit up, and some shops still had their Christmas lights, so the whole scene seemed to twinkle. The snowflakes caught the light as they fell. She passed a woman pushing a stroller with a little baby in a pink snowsuit, allowed herself to stare at that baby till she was out of sight, then turned away and descended the stairs to the 7th Avenue subway, which took her to Port Authority Terminal, where she caught a bus to Montclair, New Jersey.
* * * *
“Hi, hon,” Bill said, sitting in the chair in front of the TV. “I brought the potatoes you asked for. Five pound sack?”
“Thanks. Where are they?”
“On the kitchen counter.”
Carol hesitated. “They should have been put in the oven. It’ll take a long time to bake them.”
He looked at her, jutting his chin out the way he did. “Did you tell me that?”
“No, no, I didn’t. Sorry. It’s my fault. I’ll just make them another way, I guess.”
He turned back to the TV, so she took off her coat and hung it up, then picked up his socks from the floor and dumped them in the laundry basket in the bathroom. When she came back, he was still watching, with his bare feet up on the coffee table. That was a close one.
She glanced at Bill through the corner of her eye. He had come home from work and pulled on some old sweatpants and a flannel shirt, no doubt leaving his clothes on the floor in the bedroom. Bill was one of those guys who should have shaved twice a day, his beard was that heavy. She could see from a glance that it already covered his lower face in a kind of furry mat, matching his heavy eyebrows on top. He was just over average height, which meant that he towered over her unless she wore 5 inch heels; he had a broad torso and a square, handsome face. She had fallen for him the moment she saw him: in social studies class in eleventh grade. He seemed to like her, too, and called her doll face. She used to like that.
“Hey!” She looked up.
“Dinner?” he said.
She walked into the kitchen, where the potatoes still lay on the counter. “How about country fries?” she shouted.
She peeled the potatoes and cut them into slices, frying them in a pan. She had defrosted some steaks that morning, so she pan-fried those, too, and added a salad. She wanted him in a good mood. She knew how to do it if she needed to. Make a nice meal, act cute and kind of coy. Cuddle up to him. That usually did it, and it worked this night, too. He was pawing her on the sofa just as it was when they were in high school, as if they hadn’t been married for five long years. He actually carried her to the bedroom and tenderly took off her clothes, one by one, stopping to kiss each newly naked part of her. Before he came, he asked her one thing:
“Are you still on the pill?”
She answered, “Yes” without hesitation, even though she had stopped taking it three days ago.
Chapter 3 – January 6, 2011
Deborah took off her surgical mask and gown. She checked the clock; it was 10:45 a.m. Carol knew she’d been called in to deliver the O’Neill infant this morning, and she had already called her father to fill in. So, Deborah wasn’t due till 12:00 at her office. She’d have time at least for some lunch. Meanwhile, she still had to see Mr. O’Neill, who was in the waiting room, unaware that he had a healthy 7 lb. daughter.
She made her way down the hospital corridor to the waiting room. Most fathers would have joined them in the birthing room, but apparently one previous time was quite enough for Mr. O’Neill, and he was content to wait out the uncertainty somewhere else.
She noticed him standing in the corner, looking out the window at the parking lot. She remembered him well from the last delivery, when he had fainted.
He licked his lips nervously. “Ah. Dr. Ackman, is everything all right?”
“Absolutely. Both your wife and new daughter are doing just fine.”
He seemed to relax suddenly, and sat down heavily in the chair. Deborah was afraid he was going to faint again, but when she saw his face, she realized that his reaction was not due solely to relief.
“Doctor, you know this is our third girl.”
She sat down facing him. “Yes, I know.”
“We were hoping for a boy this time. You know, third time is a charm.”
“Well, your little girl is certainly charming,” Deborah said, with a smile.
He made an effort to smile back. “I’m sure she is. In fact, we’re naming her after my mother, Eleanor.”
“That’s very pretty.”
He ignored her polite comment. “But I think it’s time for us to look into some process that puts the odds more in favor of a boy. Would you know what we can do?”
“They’ve made some progress, I know, in filtering sperm,” Deborah answered. “You know, I guess, that it is the male who determines the sex of the child?”
“Well, approximately half of the man’s sperm carries the x chromosome, which will father a girl, and the other half carries the y chromosome, which will produce a boy. The woman always contributes an egg with an x chromosome, so it’s the sex of the sperm which determines the sex of the child.”
“So, it’s my fault.” He looked out the window again.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s anybody’s fault. Besides, there could be a lot of factors determining which sperm fertilizes the egg. I know of a geneticist in this hospital, and can have a chat with him to find out what procedures are available. When your wife visits me at the end of the week, you might come with her and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.”
He seemed much more cheerful. “Thanks, Doctor. Can I see them now?”
“Just ask at the desk which room she’s been given. Enjoy your new daughter. I’ll see all of you next week.”
Deborah began walking down the corridor to the elevator. She still had a little time, and lunchtime might be the best time to catch Dr. Fleischer, the genetics specialist she had mentioned to Mr. O’Neill. Sam and she had gone to medical school together, but she hadn’t talked to him in a year or more. Deborah checked the office listings; Dr. Fleischer was listed as being in 1006. She stepped into the elevator, squeezing in between several aides speaking Spanish, the language of choice in New York City hospitals. It was something she would have to work on, she thought as she got out and walked down the hall to 1006.
He had a patient, but his receptionist told her he’d be free in a few minutes. She absently flipped through a copy of Vogue, but it depressed her: all the models seem to have legs up to their necks. Ten minutes later, she was in his office.
Sam Fleischer was about the same age as Deborah, of average height, with a thin face and dark, expressive eyes. He seemed happy but surprised to see her.
“Deborah, I’m glad you came up,” he said, extending his hand. “Here we are in the same city, the same hospital, and we see each other once a year!”
“I know. What’s your excuse?”
“Same here. But if you have time for lunch, I’d like to talk to you.”
Sam looked at his watch. “I have half an hour. Let’s go downstairs to the cafeteria.”
They took the elevator down to the basement floor, following the labyrinth of hallways to the cafeteria more by sound and smell than by sight. They sat down at a small table in the corner.
“So, is this a clinical case?”
She smiled. Half an hour was no time for small talk. “Well, it’s nothing really. I have a patient – that is, her husband, who asked me what he could do to improve their chances of having a boy. I thought you’d know of the latest procedures – like sperm filtering.”
Sam took a bite of his sandwich, and chewed for a few seconds before answering. “Well, sure,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of success recently in the IVF Institute in Virginia doing exactly that. Their procedure is based on the fact that the y chromosome sperm has less DNA than the x chromosome sperm, and because of that, it’s lighter, and it can be separated off into a separate fraction. Then they use the fraction of the sperm for the appropriate sex and use artificial insemination to introduce it into the woman. As I remember it, they’ve had an 85% success rate with producing girls, and a 65% rate with boys. Of course, it was on a small sample: only 29 women. And the study they published only used the method to produce female babies. But it looks good.”
“Funny that they have less success producing boys. Still it’s worth a try, I guess. 65% is better than 50%.”
Sam nodded, then added, “The procedure might even be good for your business.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, it seems all I hear these days is of couples having girls. It’s probably not particularly scientific, but over the past couple of years, all my friends have had girls.”
“Well, that’s unusual.”
“I guess. Maybe it’s a statistical blip. But you could check your own stats. How many girls versus how many boys have you delivered in the past year?”
She laughed. “I couldn’t tell you offhand, but I could check my computer database.” She thought for a minute. “You know, this is really funny, but I think I have been delivering a lot of girls. Strange I didn’t think about it before.”
Sam checked his watch. “Oops. Have to go. I have a 12:00 appointment. Good seeing you, Deb.” He gave her a peck on the cheek. “If I hear of any newer studies, I’ll give you a call…” He waved and left.
She sat there for a few minutes, finishing her coffee and thinking about what they had just said.
* * * *
Bill straightened up from the counter he had just installed, eyeballing it. There were a few finishing touches he still had to do. He looked at his watch: lunchtime. The other guys were already sitting down on some crates, unpacking their food; he might as well quit, too.
The outside of the house had been done for several months, just waiting some staining and trim. They were just finishing up the inside; it was good work for the winter, and most of the guys were glad to have it. He looked at them as he made his way toward their makeshift eating spot. They were a good bunch of guys. Jimmy, over there, had been working in construction on and off for twenty years: he was the old man. Bart was a jack-of-all-trades, called in if they needed some extra hands. Greg was the master electrician, always in demand. Ralph was their resident plumber, an all-around good guy, always ready with a joke. He, Bill, was the skilled carpenter, though he’d do anything that needed doing. Most of them had worked together for the five years Greenwood Construction was in existence. It was a pretty good life for a guy like him who was better with his hands than his head. He reached the group, sat down on the floor, and opened his lunch box.
“Here comes the fried chicken guy,” Bart said.
Bill looked up from his lunch. “I don’t always have fried chicken. Carol just knows I like it, so she makes it a lot.” He took a bite of the drumstick. “She knows what I like,” he said again.
“She knows what he likes,” Ralph repeated with a leer, elbowing the guy next to him. “And I bet she gives him whatever he wants.”
Bill stood up, his lunch sliding to the floor. “Don’t talk about my wife like that. She’s no slut.”
“Calm down, Bill. I was just making a joke. I didn’t mean anything. Carol’s a real lady, I know that.”
Bill sat down again and picked up the drumstick, blew on it and began to eat again. “You’re damn right, she’s a lady. More than your old lady, anyway.”
Ralph answered, “Hey. You’d just like to get your hands on my old lady, if you could. What bazooms Denise has. It’s still the best part of her.”
“It’s the only good part of her,” Bart remarked with a grin.
Ralph looked at him for a second, then decided it was just a joke. He could take a joke. “Well, it’s the best part, anyway,” he repeated. “I didn’t marry her for her brain.”
“Hey, Greg,” Ralph said. “What’s it like being a bachelor again? Huh? Getting a lot of it?”
Greg was recently separated from his wife, and had moved into a small apartment a few miles away.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Whenever I want. And I don’t have to put up with that chattering all the time. It’s a pretty good life.”
“What about Greg Junior? You get to see him?”
“Yeah. Weekends. Took him to the Yankees game last week,” Greg answered, crumpling up his lunch bag. Then he added, “They give you children and then they think they’ve got you hooked, and they can reel you in anytime they want to. Well, they can’t. She don’t have no hold on me.”
“And they all want children,” Bill complained. “Whether you’re ready or not. Carol keeps going on and on about it.”
“So, let her have one. She’ll be the one to take care of it.”
Bill shrugged. “She’s making a pretty good salary from the doctor’s office she works at.”
That seemed to be all there was to say. This was more conversation than they had had in weeks. For the rest of the break, they all munched contemplatively on the rest of their lunches, and when 12:45 came, got up and went back to work.
* * * *
Deborah got back to her office by noon, and stopped by her father’s office next to hers before beginning to see patients. The office was empty; judging by the full waiting room, she thought, he’s still in with a patient. She should talk to him about this sudden influx of patients. The Health Department still hadn’t called back, so it was probably just a local phenomenon. Still, there seemed to be some microbe out there, causing, at the very least, discomfort.
Just as she turned to leave her father’s office, he walked in, slowly, looking fatigued.
“Dad! You look like you’ve had it today. Quite a crowd we’ve got,” she said, nodding toward the waiting room.”
He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “Hi, honey. I think we’ve got a little epidemic out there. Nothing to worry about, though. I think it will run its course in a few weeks.”
She moved aside to let him step behind his large mahogany desk. He sat down heavily.
“Not if it’s sexually transmitted. This could be the tip of the iceberg.”
He had started filling out some paperwork, separating forms into several piles on his desk. Distractedly, he said, “Have you checked with the Health Department to see how many other cases have been recorded?”
“I called yesterday,” she answered. “They didn’t know anything about it. I think I’ll have Carol call back today when she has a chance.”
Her father looked up. “Look, Deborah. I’ve been in this business longer than you have. There’s always something, but most things run their course without causing too much havoc. We’re in the disease business, but with ob/gyn, thank God, we don’t usually get into the virulent stuff. And, because of antibiotics, syphilis is mostly a thing of the past; same with gonorrhea. At worst, this is an infection, and we’ll find the source.”
“What about AIDS?”
“What about it?”
“We haven’t found an answer to that for thirty years.”
He laughed. “This isn’t AIDS, for God’s sake. It’s probably no more than a variant of the stomach flu.
Carol looked in from the doorway. “Dr. Ackman.”
They both looked up. “I mean, Deborah,” Carol said, smiling, “There are still eleven patients waiting to be seen.”
“You mean, can I get a move on?”
Carol nodded, still smiling. She turned to go out, then thought better of it, turned, and stepped into the room. “Oh, we got the results of the lab test for Christine Henley and some of the others from yesterday morning.”
“Really? You have it here?”
Carol handed an envelope over to her.
Deborah opened it. “Hmmm,” she said, reading it. “Nothing. They couldn’t isolate anything.”
Her father looked at her indulgently. “Christine had the same thing as all the patients I’ve seen today?”
“The same thing.”
“I’m telling you, honey. Let it run its course. It’s probably viral, and we can’t do much about that, anyway. Let the patients’ own immunity fight it off. You’re too young, Deborah, and you think medicine can do everything. The fact is, Nature is still the best doctor.”
He finished with his forms, slipped them into a folder, and got up. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going. And you have a full waiting room. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.” He gave her a pat on the head, and left.
Why did she still feel like she was five years old?
Chapter 4 – January 7, 2011
John sat at his desk in the back of the store, poring over a diagram of the management chart. Behind him, sharing the storage space, were hundreds of bagged men’s suits hung on racks, waiting to be logged in, unbagged, and brought out to the floor. He turned his head to survey the task. Either he could start unbagging now and it would be all morning before he was done, or he could wait another hour and a half, and he’d get his sales staff to do the job in a quarter of the time. It was no contest. He turned back to the management chart.
John knew that the divisional for Main Floor Men’s was on his way out. On his way down was more like it. You either produced or they replaced you; it was as simple as that, and Roger Toddy didn’t cut it. He spent too much time with his department managers, helping them with their merchandising problems, and lobbying for more sales staff. His staff and managers loved him, but he just couldn’t seem to make a profit. Time management, John thought. He should have spent his time on strategy, and on stroking the buyers to give him special treatment. Toddy had asked for what was going to happen to him; John didn’t feel at all guilty in pushing him that last little bit off his pedestal.
That would never happen to him. John knew exactly how to go about getting something and keeping it. Keep your head above the crowd. Make them notice you. Present the best ideas; if not yours then somebody else’s. Make friends with the top managers, and they’ll pull you up to their level. And when you get to the top, watch your back.
John drew a red circle around the box with Toddy’s name. Roger Toddy was toast.
Alison peeked her head in. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but Mr. Lodge is doing a review of the main floor. You might want to get out here.”
“Thanks, Al. I owe you,” he called as she withdrew her head.
John jumped up, smoothed his pants, took a quick look in the floor length mirror he had mounted to the side of his desk, and walked out to his department.
Mr. Lodge, CEO of the Findlay’s chain of department stores, stood facing the Men’s Wear Department, pointing to a row of circular racks. John could just hear his comment.
“Now, that’s smart merchandising,” he was saying to his assistant, who was keying something into his PDA. “Brand names front and forward. Good looking department.”
John slipped in behind them. “Glad you like it, sir. I’m John Lowe, the department manager. He stuck his hand out right in front of Mr. Lodge, making it impossible for him to do anything but shake his hand. “Lowe,” he said again.
“Well, Lowe, I was just saying you or your associates have done a very good job merchandising this department.”
“Well, the concept was my idea, but I’m glad you like it.” He paused, then added, “Roger Toddy, my divisional manager didn’t.”
Lodge, consulting with his assistant, may not have heard. John tried something else, something magnanimous.
“My associates did a real good job making it work, didn’t they?”
Lodge looked up. “Keep up the good work, Lowe,” Lodge said, striding away, his assistant keying in madly as he ran after him.
Yes!! John thought, making a thumbs-up sign to no one in particular. He remembered my name.
The new sales associate from the adjoining department of women’s hosiery crossed the aisle to stand beside John. She was a pretty, young thing with long, blonde hair and a short skirt. John had noticed her before.
“That was really great the way you came right up to Mr. Lodge and shook his hand. I would have been too afraid.” She gave him an admiring smile.
“Well, thanks,” he replied, straightening his tie, “but you have to show them what you can do. I’m not going to be a department manager my entire life, you know. I just might have his job someday.”
“Well, if you think that way, maybe you will!” the girl said.
“Mary, isn’t it?”
She nodded, pleased he remembered her name.
“When do you get off for lunch, Mary?”
“You want to meet me in the coffee shop at five past? We could get to know each other.”
She took a surreptitious glance at his left ring finger. No ring. “Well, why not?”
“Great. Well, I have to get back and finish my marketing plan. See you then, Mary.”
“Okay, Mr. Lowe.”
“Call me John.”
“Okay, John.” She smiled sweetly, then turned back to her hosiery counter.
He walked back to his office area, humming to himself. What a sweet, naive kid, she was. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he might keep his wedding ring in his pocket.
* * * *
Deborah sat down at her desk for the first time in six hours. Another eighteen cases of whatever it was. She buzzed for Carol, who came in with her coat and hat on.
“Oh, is it time to leave?”
“Six o’clock, Dr. Ackman. If I don’t leave now, I won’t catch my bus.”
“I understand. You have a life. Go home. Oh, by the way, did you ever contact the Health Department?”
“Yes, a couple of hours ago. They said a number of cases had been reported, scattered over the five boroughs.”
“So, we’re not the only ones,” Deborah said, resting her head in her hand.
She looked up. Carol was still standing there, obviously waiting to be dismissed. “Go home!” she said with a laugh.
For about a half hour, Deborah pored over Medicare and insurance forms. Finally, she stood up and stretched. Outside her office window, the sky was black. She peered out at the circles of lamplight illuminating the snow. Larry would be wai