Wednesday’s Short Story: May Her Name be Called Among the Root Middens

Zaran was the only female born and before the final son, as foretold by Treese, the Truth Speaker. So when the girl came into the world her parents, the Royal Clan rulers of Mabat, were apprised of her potential. But the truth was, the Speaker didn’t speak of all things known. Nor the entire truth of a thing if he felt it unwise. Her parents, then, were left to wonder over her–why she often stood apart, how she listened, what she saw when studying sky’s changes or forest grove shadows or water’s magic surfaces. They only knew she was theirs to raise, though she seemed often elsewhere and that was a problem they could not well solve. She also gave answers that belied her mortal age. Or as if she had anticipated their thoughts. That was a condition they sought to demolish. With little success. Still, Zaran was their only daughter, and she was theirs, and she would do their bidding eventually. It was designated as being so.

One doesn’t note crucial details unless one is willing to take risks, perhaps make errors and then perhaps lose one’s life, Treese reminded his own daughter, Ilyat. But she was absorbed that moment by scooping water from the pool for the leather bladder. There were miles to go. She knew what he said came as a warning from his love for her. And she believed him.

And she knew much about Zaran; who could ignore her? These seventeen years passing, they both knew what they were meant to be. As did all others. Royal Clan news was unchanged, as well: Zaran would soon sit at her mother’s side; her younger brother, Raze, would be soon at his father’s. It was Double Protection, tradition that never deviated. Their two older sons were off claiming more land and goods, peacefully or not, to add to family fortunes. This was their designation, and their calling and they did it well. They had been gone ten years except when their grandfather was dying, then dead. It was a brief, unsentimental visit though well intended, of course.

Ilyat was the apprentice to her father’s tenets of Truth Speaking. She was the fifth generation to become so and did not question it. It was in her marrow. She liked the travelling, liked her father’s company mostly, and the taste of subtle powers she had begun to experience was not unpleasant. She might one day take his place if Dominion Seats found her favorable. If not, she would be a Vagabond Speaker, a poorer and harder life– in some ways, yet still worthy. There was time to worry about that. Now, it was water they needed for the last twenty miles to the Mabat Dominion Compound and Fortress.

She saw her father resting with eyes closed while standing by the water. She didn’t bother him; he could sleep deeply like that for a good hour if needed. Ilyat had yet to master that skill, called wake-rest, and many others. He was careful with his training but lately he was teaching her faster and more, so that at times her thinking and being were spun about. She learned to right herself.

Ilyat knew more about Zaran, even if the knowing was not yet made clear. She understood things were not always as they seemed–and certainly not with that one. Zaran almost seemed more like Treese and herself than the Royal Clan. But there was no evidence, no certainty of such a blasphemous thing. Unless her father hid it, which was possible–another remarkable skill called scrimming. He’d intimated he had something to add to Zaran’s life story, but Ilyat had to be patient to discover it. Truth telling and receiving required that more than anything except courage. That was the primary thing. You did not shirk Truth Speaking, no matter what.

Ilyat’s visions pulsed at edges of her mind; she wondered about the end of their trip this time. She knew it was the Initiation Ceremony they were to attend, but nothing more–yet. Tension snarled her chest and throat. She drank of the sparkling green water until anxiety receded. And then she sat still, surrounded by forest music, at ease. Waiting for Treese, beloved father, to fully awaken. For this journey to come to a close.

******

In the far distance of his sleep, Treese felt the Root Middens watching them, and he greeted them.

They always watched, from the uppermost boughs, from lichen-laden stumps, from damp caves behind waterfalls and vast meadows strewn with innocent flowers and slinking beasts. In forests they waited more quietly. So many passed this way, under cover of the strong giant trees. They understood it. They came from the roots, underground; they lived off root blood. Under the earth they especially were able to hear life moving in ways others did not. This was their first home, but they tolerated the passing ones if they did not do harm to any being, or take nothing unneeded. They were First Guardians, every one knew it but many feared them. They had ways and means to make a passage arduous, chancy.

Treese and Ilyat were another matter. They were watched because they pointed the way into time and energy beyond their scope–as long as the Royal Ones were in power, the Highnesses Nine and Eight. As long as their own clan of Root Middens was bound to shadow living, half visible, they could not expand their works. Treese held a major key to change.

It was best to be unseen, though they knew for certain Treese could make out their quicksilver forms in any degree of light. Treese was their ally. He knew Root Middens waited to be set free of Nine and Eight, also. He labored to bring the Truths forward to all. There was no harm in that, but help.

But who did not want liberation? The Royals cared little for life’s collective value or its unique expressions. Its innate spiritual power. They practiced blind ignorance and self-aggrandizement as if they were fierce competitions they must and would always win. And it seemed as if they were right, so far. They accumulated authority as the powerless accumulated stones for soup and aching exhaustion for nightfall.

The Root Middens waved Treese and Ilyat on and they slipped away long before the travelers did, before Ilyat used even her wisening eyes to find them. There was time for that meeting. There was more to be done.

******

In the beginning, in the beginning...was the Royal Clan Supreme.

Must it always start and end like that? The Tutor never tired of it, the mind-numbing retelling of the story that had kept her family’s history intact for all the ages. Wasn’t it enough that she had had to put it down on parchment from memory?

Zaran sat on the edge of her chair by the wide open window. A kestrel hovered not far off, wings flapping, tail undulating, then glided and dipped but changed course for more favorable fields. She would like to follow the bird. She already knew the requisites– “Principles: Cardinal and Lesser Rights” and “Highest Doctrines of Critical Figures”– she needed to be expert in so she might sit by Eight’s place. Her mother. And Tutor knew it, too; he had been astonished by her prodigious memory from an early age. Raze also had finished his studies but by tedious rote work, and late. He was a year ahead of her but only now prepared for their Initiation Ceremony. And his place by Nine. Their father. Finally official. He’d had to wait for her, he complained, but they all knew it was more the other way– Zaran was found close to ready. She also had another month to complete the last part her Tutor determined necessary so she’d be offered proper Ceremony, too.

But she– unlike Raze who hung on every bit of approval from their parents–much to her annoyance and distress–was not excited to make the Two Royals an official Four. She dreaded it. It was not the path she desired, and was lucky no one had found her out.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like leading. She could do that with some pleasure. But Zaran from the start of her youth didn’t agree with their ways, the proscribed life and duties set for her and Raze. Tutor had spent years drumming into her the importance of her position and the strict disciplining of intellect, the suppression of emotion. Calculation and strategy, endurance in body and mind, and the lack of sympathy were key. But when he left her to herself, she dreamed of another life, even though she knew it wouldn’t be given to her. Not even Raze knew who she wished to be, despite their childhood closeness…then he began to separate from her for Royal doctrine. He’d once teased her that she was a wild runabout, not easily tamed. True, she’d admitted. Soon she could not find a way back to him, nor forgive his blind obedience, his lack of openness with her. His heart, once vibrant as her own, was tucked away from sight, thrummed to the signs of power. He was slowly becoming who he was born to become: a future overseer of the Royal Clan. A kingly dictator. With her or not, though he hoped she’d change her attitude. They were, after all, blood.

Could she follow her named designation? It seemed harder as each day passed by.

“Dismissed for today. You’re staring out the window again.”

Tutor was less annoyed than disconcerted by this habit. He picked up his boar skin gloves, slapped them against a thigh. Moved to the corner of the room out of dutiful respect, his lame foot catching on the rug. When she left, he would depart staying a distance behind her.

All he wanted for her was success–which sealed his own. Perhaps he could take time to himself then. Years and years of this tedious but vitally necessary teaching. Yet Zaran had always wanted to learn and was better at it than Raze–but she also yearned for knowledge far beyond her ken. He’d had to rein her in every time. It got exhausting, though she was not arrogant or disrespectful as Raze often was. It was her way to gently, persistently push him for broader and more profound learning. Sometimes he didn’t know the answers, to his shame, and he cut her off. Lately he had half a notion to toss out his orders and start anew with her–she’d learned crucial material long ago. What might he prefer to teach? But even that passing thought could get him executed, so he kept to his decreed path, as she must keep to hers.

Zaran was no fool; she sat with face turned away toward trees and sky. He wouldn’t catch her sadness and longing. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, shifting in place due to his old war wounded foot; she knew he worried. And she couldn’t have that. Not now. He had to announce her final and excellent grades. Then she would go on without him, do what she must–one way or another.

She stood and smoothed her pale silk pants and tunic, placed her fingers on her forehead with a tiny bend at her waist in friendly gesture to him, then stepped toward the arched opening to the terrace. Tutor followed reluctantly. She swiveled around then and his eyes looked to ground as required.

“Tutor Mesor.”

He startled at the sound of his name. It was impolite, it was even outrageous.

“Now that we’re almost done, I may use this name, may I not? I’m finally grown and you’re soon to leave us. Just once I would like to say I called you by name, and you, mine. Face to face. You have taught me well, have been good to me more often than not despite my parents’ harsh demands. I have respect for your work. I wish to use your name, in great thanks.”

He kept eyes to floor. This was a setup, or it was genuine–which? “Mistress, if you can suffer my refusal I would rather not…it is not safe.”

“But wait, Tutor Mesor, will you not also use my given name of Zaran one time? An exchange of respect.”

But he stood mute and far off, blinking as panic rose. If anyone heard them, if he dared say her name–

“Then you may leave me now, I regret causing discomfort for both of us,” she said, and turned away. Too much for him, she thought; she must never ask such a reckless thing again.

Tutor Mesor hesitated. Would he not be in real trouble either way? Had she required so much of him in all her life? She had, but he cared about her; she had surely been a challenging but considerate student. Nine and Eight would, though, have his neck.

Zaran always sought a different choice, another option. It would do her in one day. He feared for her. But he would not be led astray at this time in his career, with a wife ailing and a daughter soon to wed. He backed away, bowed, was gone. He didn’t know how many more times he would see his scholastic charge. The sound of her voice speaking his name stayed with him a long while.

Zaran sat on wide stone steps leading to the gardens and fields, The small acrobatic kestrel had returned. It spotted its prey and dove into the grasses. Zaran turned to the west as the sun lowered. She heard something. Not a palomino’s hooves, not a red bear foraging berries, not a scurrying blue skink. It was lighter, faster, sounds of language dancing in air, words whistling about in a symphony.

She closed her eyes, held both palms up to the fragrant season’s billowing wind and smiled widely. Her palms tingled, her mind vibrated. Ilyat and Treese were coming. She ran indoors to wash her tawny face and tidy her platinum silver braid. They were there to help her with her life once more. They were coming for the Ceremony, yes, but they’d meet up, find favor with one another. Angels of mercy, she called them, though she had been told time and again there was no such thing as that, and thank the mountain god Gatomasha no one believed in that rubbish, anymore.

She believed, anyway.

******

“Welcome to Dominion Compound and Fortress once more, please take the seats, eat, and give us the latest news.”

King Nine pointed to the usual spots in middle of the long teak dining table and put his bulk into his mammoth chair with a thud. Queen Eight, presiding at the other end from her husband, nodded her coiffed head around to all. She arranged the voluminous scarlet gown about her; her ruby encrusted tiara was laid upon a small pillow on the crown side table so she might eat. No one wore anything on their heads when eating, it was vulgar.

Treese and Ilyat knew the routine and waited for the Royals to begin their servings. They were ravenous since they’d arrived after three days travel with only wild berries, roots and mushrooms and water. Their mouths watered. The piled dishes were steaming hot. They emitted rich scents of meat and creamy vegetables, warm breads and sweet fruits; they fairly swirled about the high-ceilinged hall. No one spoke while they ate, despite the King’s earlier inclusion of news in his greeting. They all ate first, talked later. Heavy tableware clanked and rang out, their mouths chewing enthusiastically.

Zaran and Raze sat at either ends, brother by father and daughter by mother. Across from Treese and Illyat were two empty places, to be used by the grandmother and her third husband if they felt sociable and well– or by other guests, if not. Tonight, no one else was there or they ate in their rooms, or later, presumably.

Treese never quite got the procedures for everyone’s mealtimes, who had the right and who did not to sit there. Visitors varied widely form what he had seen, as did the Royals preferences in private life. He had been sharing evening meals with Royals for thirty years and it was often the quietest room unless ripened wine flowed. But it was a show of confidence that he and Ilyat were offered seats every time. It was the major part of his designation– to be of service to them. He never forgot. But things could change for his life, he reminded himself.

Ilyat looked at him then. She’d heard his thought; she brushed his hand when reaching for a roll.

Table talk when it came was heavy on trade and a few continued wars to the far north. The other princes were not seen lately but it was known that they were having success finding new sources for replenishing silk worms and purveyors of fine weaponry. No major storms yet, but very soon would begin in Fourth Season. The news, then, was brief.

“So you are here for the duration,” Queen Eight inquired, meaning until the Initiation Ceremony was completed. “Your rooms are prepared and we’re glad you honor your duty to gather the story and make greater Royal History come alive for the generations. This is what I’ve been waiting for, over eighteen years.” She lifted her blue and gold goblet to the King and smiled that winning smile that was easy for her despite ill or good will.

King Nine banged the table once with his fists and roared as was his way, “Yes, a great moment in history, a perfect moment for the Royal Clan–our Double Protection in place so our Kingdom of Mabat shall hold firm! Praise Gatomasha!” Raze banged in hearty accord.

“And so be praised!” the group answered in unison, though it was hard for some to say.

Ilyat listened and watched. She wasn’t expected to speak in public yet, nor even encouraged, but her wandering eyes found Raze’s, then Zaran’s. Raze nodded at her, lips curved in a way that imitated friendliness yet not quite. He felt her far beneath him, yet found her lovely, perhaps a bit sly, and lively in a restrained manner. The last few times they’d met he’d gotten ideas. She always looked down immediately as expected. She hoped he never got close to her. She might just shove him aside and say things she shouldn’t say. He was of no interest.

But she held Zaran with her eyes. They spoke to one another without speaking, and had done so for years, if only briefly. They knew they should not pass between them any knowledge of import, but did so because they could. And because they understood one another–simply as people. It rarely happened that Ilyat found another who knew her instinctively. But Zaran had even when they were children full of carefree play. They were kept from being friends–one girl a subject and servant, as well as her father, to King and Queen–and another girl an inheritor of Royal wealth and power one day. They had always wanted more time. Now things were about to alter all of them.

And that day was coming soon.

Zaran reached out first: I’m glad you have arrived. Meet me on my third floor balcony after midnight.

Just after midnight, Ilyat agreed. I thank you, Princess.

And you for coming with your father.

Treese was talking to Queen Eight but their words slipped by his mind and he turned ever so slightly to his daughter–she knew he heard. Ilyat studiously speared more venison and prairie greens with her fork. Zaran kept her attention on Treese and he, startled by her warm energy as he spoke of sheep and boar prices, almost paused mid-sentence.

Zaran patted her lips with a silk napkin, then excused herself and walked softly from the hall.

Nine thought her impetuous to leave during such a dinner but Eight understood women; they soon tired of the dreary table talk. However, very soon Zaran would follow all rules and stay in place as she was required to be present. There would be no more excuses tolerated, not for her royal right hand. And perhaps one day, more–if Raze did not prove himself better at all that Zaran managed extraordinarily well.

******

They stood against the outer wall of the balcony, cloaks pulled close against a sharp chill. The moon was a pale half circle; low clouds bunched and scudded past its soft illumination.

Ilyat leaned toward her, still a foot away. “My father is going to be unhappy we’re meeting in secret- and yours would explode– but I had to speak in person. Something has changed. I know you have the Initiation Ceremony in two weeks, but…”

“Yes?” Zaran moved closer to place a cool hand on Ilyat’s arm with urgent pressure. “Speak truth now.”

“I will wait for my father’s direction, but I can say you must be ready for unexpected things. I know you sense it, but I’m telling you now that the future is not what was decreed. That much I do know; Father stated so.”

Zaran let out a short breath and she studied the distance as the trees hid in the dark, when the Root Middens rested. That reassured her somehow. She released Ilyat. “I have been waiting.”

“We’ve all been waiting for history to no longer stagnate–to fail us again.”

“I’m more than ready,” Zaran said, thinking of Raze, thinking of her parents who saw her as one thing and he, another. But they had it reversed. “It is to my advantage, then?”

“To have seen you as different by the family? In one way or another. Now they are blinded. But later another viewpoint will come full circle. But I don’t know quite what that all entails yet…”

“I wait for more understanding.”

“Think less, intuit and sense more.” Ilyat sent a clearing energy to Zaran’s forehead; the young princess trembled then relaxed. “We are present. Time will reveal us to each other.”

Ilyat left so quickly and quietly that as Zara turned to gesture her a kind farewell–right hand to center chest–she saw only the gauzy blue curtain lift and flutter over the arched doorway. She shivered, pulled her cloak hood over her head, watched the stars shining, listened for their humming. Satisfied that all was safe–they were not likely found out– she started for bed, only to find her cheeks dampening and heart beating like frantic wings against her ribs.

She must keep faith. She must be prepared for whatever came.

******

The time passed rapidly, as it did when much needed to be done in the Dominion Compound and Fortress. Servants rushed about doing chores times ten. Clothiers, jewel keepers, chefs and design masters, carriage restorers and farmers, art restorers and horse herders and Dominion guards were kept busy for long hours at their taxing labors. The Fortress was abuzz with a high excitement not felt in decades.

The Initiation Ceremony was a once in a generation event. King Nine and Queen Eight were driven by all matters pertaining to it and its greater outcome. They expected their children to be thus melded with the Royal Clan, and succeed them even when married off. They would spend their declining years entirely secure.

Raze was taking a last time to enjoy his relative freedom, drinking too much and looking for female companionship (soon women would be carefully screened; there’d be formal engagements only). He’d lost track of his sister and she said little to him. They had taken different mental routes to the same place, and he still wondered what she was up to though she betrayed so little. Yet she knew what he thought; he was taking his blood-earned and studies-gained spot and little else mattered. He loved the surge of power that was his as he became an adult, felt at home as Royal. He hoped to be married with a smart and hearty wife within two years, a child or two and a throne sooner or later. That covered his greatest desires.

For Zaran, who knew? She was as mysterious as firelight in deep forest, as moonlight in mountains.

Their parents were full of pride and plans. They were further cementing clear control with formal addition of two scholarly, well trained children. Their other sons were providing greater wealth and reach of rule. And if too many raised their voices in complaint of all their methods–often brutal, frequently illegal, nearly always unchecked–no matter, that was how it was done. No mercy given. They had each carried out their jobs as Royal forbearers had. The Royal Nine and Eight had fulfilled ancient foretellings, and thus far met their goals well.

And yet. There were gaps in their lives though they could not identify them. There was the unease that unknowing provides. They retired the night before the Ceremony with an ache under their skins, a jumble in their minds, a congestion in their blood that would not stay cleared. It was a question unanswered that they hadn’t once said aloud to one another.

What–truly–would become of Zaran with her unorthodox thinking and secretive ways? What did that mean ultimately for the Kingdom of Mabat? They should have been harder on her, they thought with regret, but they would be harder on her now. She had no idea.

“All shall fare well, a goodly rest,” they intoned as they always did to one another, and turned down the hallway lights and closed their doors behind them.

******

It was this way:

Treese and Ilyat did not sleep. They barely dozed and when the moon was hidden beneath clouds heavy with rainfall they got up and went into Zaran’s room.

She was not sleeping either, and stood with clothes and boots on, cloak and bag tied around her waist. She’d long a go decided she was not going through with the Initiation. It was not going to be her life, obedient to darkness and dirty plans, servile to conniving behaviors or at the least so many empty, boring duties. It was not her right designation no matter what they said. Her calling was still not clear but it could not be the Royal Dominion life. She felt things and knew things she could not even describe. She wanted a different path, though she knew not what–yet.

The only way to avoid it and retrieve her life was to leave. She’d rehearsed that leave-taking for months, and tried to keep up enough courage. She’d lower herself over her balcony three stories up, then down the side of the Fortress with the rope from the stables when all were asleep. She was strong, she was fit, she excelled in self defense. She was resolved when it came to action needed. Zaran was not backing away from any chance at freedom, even if short lived.. even if Royal soldiers hunted her down…But she had long believed she’d have help.

And it came.

They said nothing aloud; they knew each other’s thoughts well enough. She showed them the rope and they followed her down it, clumsily at first with greater effort for Treese, and each trying to void the massive stone wall with its bruising glances, then they were more steady, careful, their energy high and concentrated. The guards did not keep to this area, being stationed at the front watchtower and gateway–especially now, when the Ceremony would bring many invited attendees and perhaps many rabble rousers. The even would be at seven in the evening followed by a feast of celebration long into the night.

They heard a horse whinnying, someone riding off –perhaps a servant who forgot a last task that was critical, or a soldier gone home–and that was all. Laughter bold coming from the tower gates. They waited a moment and heard then the plaintive hoots of a barn owl, a sleek flight of bats, a few crickets that fell silent. The night thickened with clouds and the heavy stillness that spread itself high and low before a storm.

When landing on the ground, they fast sought the private path that led to the family garden for private relaxation. Zara had easy access to keys for all doors, so capably unlocked the heavy wooden gate and in they went, through and about bushes, trees, flower beds, threading their way around small hillocks and thorny bushes with radiant moon flowers and on and on– until they reached the far gate that let them onto the wooded acreage, Middens’ Forest.

They ran. They could not help it. It had long been a lifelong, beautiful dream for Zaran, a prayer for Treese, a vague hope grown strong for Ilyat, each having their reasons. They ran until they could not manage to jump another branch, to skip over another rock, to avoid the tangles of vines and biting prickers and the sting of savvy insects. They were parched; intense adrenalin was leaving them finally exhausted.

An hour later they had to stop and so rested awhile in the ebony interior of the woods. Treese reached for Zaran’s smooth hands and she gave them to his rough, warm ones in relief. He held them as if in a prayerful mode, enclosed within his. She felt familiarity, as if she knew these ways of being.

“We have waited a long while for you to join us.”

She adjusted to the lack of light but saw him as if a candle was lit. His face seemed to gleam in the dark woods, and his body average and wiry, face holding no age. Her own countenance was calm though silvery hair was askew about her cheeks, her deep eyes weary but bright. “And I, you. Since childhood.”

“Since we met,” Ilyat agreed. “I knew you then.” She pushed her own platinum hair from brow and chin to tie it back and Zaran saw similarity, in the shape of her face and eyes, as well. She wondered who this one was. No matter, she had an overwhelming gratitude.

Zaran carefully touched each of their foreheads in care and respect, then her own. “My Truth Speaker sister, father.”

Treese bowed his head and they clasped each other’s hands. He spoke a prayer of sturdy life, of deep learning, of truthfulness, of strong compassion.

Not to Gatomasha of the mountains. To a Creator of Love for all.

Zaran stood under treetops and sky as rain began to fall. “Let’s begin forging a new reign, good Speakers.”

And they jumped up–she was yet a princess–and left behind the past, Zaran looking over her shoulder, a pain inside squeezing her mind and soul. Then she moved on, as she was meant to do. She was eager to work on a future they could all bear to inhabit, to find greater wisdom that could salvage Mabat. Her kingdom by tradition, but the peoples’ home. One day…when she was prepared to claim Truth and its every guiding Speaker. Embracing whatever her destiny was to become.

The Root Middens watched them pass as they always did. But this time they rejoiced in depths of Under/Earth while freshening rain nurtured the forbearing trees.

Zaran comes, they intoned. And it was so.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Sober Club

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The three of them were drinking and zinging haphazard barbs at various political figures (who of course could not respond), and generally commiserating about the unholy state of the world. It was cool enough to wear jackets, but they still preferred Mel’s patio–that’s what she called it, despite it being a rectangular, cracked slab of concrete with tufts of weeds winning out. Mel was a natural yard keeper, she said in self defense once. Veralynn and Kat waved her off, retorted that it was simple if benign neglect, case closed.

Kat got up to grab another bag of lime favored rice chips from a grocery bag, then popped it open behind them, startling Veralynn, who reacted strongly.

“Please do package opening in the kitchen–that was a bit irritating!” She chugged her remaining beer and reached for another bottle.

“Hardly a big noise–but we are loud, the neighbors will be peering over my fence in a few, then lobbing things next.” Mel said, eyebrow raised. “Anyway, I like that Kat leaps and gallops to the kitchen for more food. That’s the spirit! Even if it is shameful junk food.”

Mel had thought about suggesting that they needed to meet elsewhere awhile, it was becoming a point of contention for the Johnsons across the alley and was wearing her out, all the clean up. Soon they’d be forced indoors by winter rain. She shivered thinking of those temps and pulled muscled legs close to her chest. She considered one more beer, but three were likely enough.

Kat giggled–she became a giggler as alcohol relaxed her– and plopped down with a sigh, pushing three chips past her toothy smile, giving off a strong beam of her mischievousness. Her lips were one of her better features–perpetually colored candy apple red, and then those expensive teeth nearly glowing day or night. And long limbs, dancerly and lithe. She must have been a persuasive real estate agent before the kids were born.

“Well, they’re only envious–or dreadfully sober,” Veralynn said, pushing a sweep of dark hair from her forehead.

The others laughed at that, and munched on chips greedily.

But the last phrase echoed in her head. Which was in fact more dreadful–a hangover or no hangover? She was the senior technical writing editor for a large company–she freelanced, as well–and sometimes on Thursday mornings, the morning after they drank, the words she had to read zigzagged or receded. Thank goodness she was good enough to not be badly chastised–yet. It had been hard to jockey for such a good position.

They clinked bottles–Mel had grabbed one more–and settled back for a last few minutes. They all had early morning obligations, they reminded each other once more–it was only mid-week for two of them. Veralynn only worked four days a week at last. But they liked their sessions (our therapy, Kat thought, and I need these desperately), each Wednesday and again on Friday. It helped smooth the wrinkles that had begun to etch about their forty-ish faces, to ease pressures of their busy lives. It was their little club.

They were finally talked out–work, relationships or lack thereof, kids (Kat’s two plus a husband), health goals (Mel was into taekwondo), emotional balance (much was left unspoken but all had their troubles) and maybe toss in supplemental topics like books, films, art, spiritual well being–if they had time. No one wanted to lean too much toward intellectual discourse at their drinking sessions, they had agreed from the start.

As Veralynn was compelled to note, “Drinking and rigorous intellectual activity–that is an oxymoron, ladies. We must use this time to drown our tiny sorrows and act foolish.”

So they said goodnight, quick hugs all around. Kat and Veralynn left as Mel placed bottles in recycling and wiped down counters, turned out the kitchen light. She watched Kat’s SUV drive off with Veralynn beside her, Mel’s hand lightly pressed against the living room window. The window pane fogged under her nose. It was getting colder already out. How she loved the sun’s heat…

The house was so empty after their gatherings, it crowded her with its silence. Since Bill had left her when she’d fallen asleep last spring, nights were the worst.

******

It was Thursday, getting late. Veralynn finished up a last proofread of the document and switched off her computer. It was nearly 9 pm and everyone else had left, as usual, except for cleaning staff whose vacuums ripped apart the stillness. Working four, ten hours days meant she was at her desk for twelve–she was always trying to catch up. She put her shoes back on, grabbed her tan leather tote and coat. She would not take work home this time, she’d had enough.

The long drive from city to suburb was an easy one at this hour. Her mind ran over meetings of the past week, assignments, documents still needing touch ups. As she passed three bars, one after the other before she got on the highway, she felt the old pull. Tomorrow she could sleep in, after all, unlike her friends. She exited and pulled into a half-filled parking lot.

The Royal was anything but, yet its worn black leatherette seats and amber lighting, the three pool tables at the back, the nostalgic music that played and the usual line up of regulars at the bar,–it held an odd allure. It was suitably rundown, in a cozy way–at least when she felt ragged from work. Nobody was impressed with her professional manicure, expensive haircut or–of course, they hadn’t seen it–her luxe condo. They had come to accept her as an off-type–a visitor and just enough friendly–and her money was good as anyone’s.

Sid leaned on the bar, a towel bunched in one reddened fist

“What’ll it be, Vera, whiskey neat?”

“That’ll do it.” She put elbows on the marred black counter, chin in hands then half-turned her head. They were all engaged in chatter and drink–she didn’t know many that night except for a couple who lifted their palms to her and a guy at the end of the bar, Nels, who was usually there. He was a guy she didn’t really like or dislike, but she felt his eyes on her often and she didn’t return his gaze. She only nodded if unavoidable as she passed by on the way to the ladies’ room.

The rest were the usual. A small bunch of older men, four younger to older women, three hearty guys in work shirts and flannel who also preferred the counter. One by one, most eventually noted her presence and raised a glass. But no talk. Tonight they had their eyes on the flat screen above them.

Veralynn did not have the attention span, nor the interest. Newsy stuff with a sports review blared on. She sipped the whisky, accepting its rich burn. About half a glass finished, she realized she hadn’t really wanted or needed a drink. She wondered why she’d even stopped. It was just a habit–she had begun to come by two or three times a month, always Thursdays. It had been precipitated by a change of bosses, a tougher, surlier one, and by end of the work week she was running on empty and a bit raw. Yet, that was seven months ago. Now she was attuned to the new rhythm, and brusque Glenn Hannon had come to appreciate what he called her “backbone” for sticking to her decisions and her fastidiousness in editing. She had her eye on a promotion but wasn’t sure when, so she kept up the long hours.

Sid paused on his way elsewhere. “Got what you need? All ok?”

“I’m good, thanks, just realized I don’t need to dawdle.” Her shoulders ached, her eyes were computer- bleary, her stomach rumbled even more since the whiskey.

He gave a short laugh; only that Vera used words like “dawdle.” He kind of liked that.

“Gotcha, catch you next time.”

Veralynn left the drink, shoved off the bar stool and started across the room.

So did Nels.

As Veralyn exited, she felt him by her elbow; he nearly touched her andhis presence seemed sloppy but intense. She moved away though not too fast, lest she offend him. He always seemed the more offendable type. She wasn’t up for any of it; she wished him away.

“Always wanted your full name,” he said in his low, smoke-roughened voice. “Number. I seen you come and go, wondered–why’s she coming here? What’s her game?”

Veralynn approached her car and was ready to beep it unlocked.
“No game, just a drink now and then after work.” She glanced back at the bar entrance. No one there. He’d began to crowd her between her car and the next.

“Hey, you can’t look at me when I talk?” His words spattered out, he was wobbly on his feet, calmed a bit as he looked over her Mustang. “Nice wheels…”

She turned her face a little toward him. He was not quite a foot away. “I know who you are, a longtime regular, right, Nels? I bet everyone knows you and you know them.” She offered a sideways smile and beeped the car, hand on the door handle, tote snug to her body, all senses blazing.

“Yeah, that’s right, this is my neighborhood.” The words were drawn out, almost slurred but he tried hard to speak clearly. “Yeah, everybody but you….waltz in, waltz out.” An arm with hand wiggled in the air for emphasis. “I says to myself, Nels, she’s something this woman, one drink and gone, no friendly chat, no how d’ya do.”

She could smell his breath, sour and thick with drink, a lack of dental care. His sandy hair–what there was of it– was slicked back, and baggy pants hung a bit too low, shirt opened to a dark t-shirt. She thought, he’s likely harmless, he’s an aging drunk, but it didn’t help. Her only choice was to very fast open her door. She slid in, jammed key in ignition. But Nels’ hand caught the door edge, and it didn’t close–his hand was lodged.

“Just wanted your pretty hand, don’t crush my fingers!”

But Veralynn didn’t want to shake his hand. And she did not want it stuck in her door as she slammed it again and took off, either, so she opned the door a bit to shove her large, overstuffed leather tote hard against his hand and wrist–and because of the drink, being off guard, he staggered backwards.

She started the car, put it in drive and peeled out, but not before she heard Nels yell: “No friend of mine, are ya, damn good riddance!”

But she thought, as she shook all the way home: what if he had gotten in my car? Or what if I had slammed the door on his hand and half-dragged him with me onto the highway? What was she even doing at an established neighborhood bar where she was politely–usually–tolerated? But she liked it there, more or less. Well, it was about her drinking, that’s what. Not being neighborly. Another convenient pit stop at end of week where drinks were cheaper, no one bothered her, no pressure to say the right witty things.

Until Nels called her out–even if he was dicey about it, even if he had other ideas.

There was only fear with her filling that night. And finding solace in a drink didn’t enter her mind. She took a long hot shower, bathroom door locked. It wasn’t that bar, not really. There had been other bars, other unnerving encounters. This it had hit her differently. She could be anybody; alcohol leveled the playing field, as they said in articles she’d skimmed.

It was a long night of nattering in her brain.

******

In the morning, after a night of rooting within her covers and tossing about with pillows, Veralynn made a decision.

She splashed cold water on her face, ate a slice of toast, and called Kat, then Mel.

“You’re not sick? Why, then? It’s a Friday and we always meet Fridays… Jamie is on kid duty tonight as usual and I have stuff to tell you all. Geez, Veralynn, don’t do this to us, we’ve been a trio of best friends, and it’s just not right to beg off entirely. I need these nights out, you know? We need them! I mean, no offense, I like your place, but without the booze, what will we actually do? Not the same, lady.”

The call to Mel went better. Maybe.

“Well, I saw it coming, Veralynn. You just haven’t had the heart for the sessions, lately. I can’t say it has been the best highlight of my weekdays lately, either. I mean, I am trying to get healthier since Bill took off, and taekwondo is a rigorous sport, as you know. I am fully committed to it and also cycling on week-ends with my bike buddies. I always indulged in my beer, but it’s starting to feel hypocritical, you know? I need to clean it up. But meeting without our usual drinks–though I appreciate the offer of your home, believe me!–I don’t know…Let me call Kat, see if I can convince her. I mean, Veralynn, calling it ‘the sober club’ sounds a little…off-putting, I have to say. No one is an alcoholic here. We’ve called our nights ‘our sessions’ for ages–for a reason. I’ll see what I can do, no promises.”

Veralynn turned on the first gas lit fire of autumn in the marble fireplace–it had rained and threatened more– at 7 pm. She’d arranged on a white platter the cheese wedges and crackers, plus pumpkin spice mini-muffins (courtesy of deli and bakery). She had stocked up on seltzers and made hot water for tea. She put on Tony Bennet’s newer CD with Lady Gaga on it–his voice could soothe anybody–and put on grey cashmere lounge pants and top. She felt excited but nervous. She couldn’t recall one single time they had met that there weren’t alcoholic beverages of some sort.

They had met in a classy bar opening downtown, introduced by a friend who knew Veralynn from a gym in her old neighborhood. That friend had moved out of state shortly, but the three of them kept on meeting. Becoming better friends was easy, despite Mel being very attached to Bill then, as well as being a high school math teacher; and Kat having been long married to Jamie, a mother of twin boys–once a high end real estate agent, longing to return to it one day. They had things in common, like classic and foreign movies, Italian and Asian food and novels that had strong female protagonists. And micro beer. Well, any beer. They moved to meeting mostly at Mel’s house–it was centrally located, cozier–and drank, talked, laughed. Even shed a few tears together. And they felt grateful to have those times.

They’ll come, she thought, nibbling at a cracker, trying not to eye her clock. They’ll come to their senses if they’re honest about things, finally see we don’t need alcohol to be friends. They wouldn’t refuse to visit just because I’ve decided it isn’t in my best interests to drink, anymore… would they? A couple hours with no drinking, just talk? Not a big deal. It sounded so good to her the more she thought it over.

But Veralynn began to pace before her full length windows on the tenth floor at 7:20. She felt tense, anxious, worried as 7:20 became 7:30. She checked her phone multiple times–nothing. Maybe it had been a stupid overreaction to Nels’ sloppy, leering, behavior. It had scared her enough that she knew she’d not return to the The Royal. Or any other bars. They had seldom served her well, in the end. She got too drunk and had to call a cab while leaving her Mustang overnight–risky; she’d had near-run-ins with those who became belligerent because she hated bullies and said so; she’d had many men following her with drinks in hand, bribes for a one night stand. I am a competent career woman, she’d wanted to yell; I just need a decompressing night of drinking not a man or a fight or greasy bar food.

She hadn’t told Mel and Kat about last night. She wanted to have them there to share these concerns– last night’s experience being one of too many that had made her wonder about benefits versus disadvantages of drinking. Now she knew–like she woke up with the clear solution to a heavily nagging problem–it was not what she wanted in her life, and she wanted to tell them why. And find out how they felt, bottom line, about alcohol in their own scheme of things.

Could they do that with her, learn more about each other– and enjoy differences as well as commonalities? There was one way to find out–sit together minus alcohol. But if they didn’t they felt it a waste of their time or foolish or boring so did not come–well, then, maybe they weren’t interested in sincere connection. She’d just have to live with it somehow. Veralynn felt that certain about her choice.

At 7:45, Veralynn put away the cheese and crackers and cakes. “Rude, just rude,” she complained aloud. “How could they be so inconsiderate? Just one call!”

She padded to her bedroom, got her quilt and the novel she’d begun to read and settled deeply into the sofa. Then she stared at the fire, hugged the quilt closer, a heaviness clogging up her chest and mind. Maybe I need that drink, anyway, she thought, but bit her lip, closed her eyes until the impulse passed. She listened to the rain pelting her windows, grew dozy.

When the buzzer went off, she nearly threw off the quilt. She went to the intercom with its screen and view of the main floor entrance.

“Oh! What on earth?…”

She buzzed to allow entry, then stood by her half open door.

In pranced Kat with a huge pizza box in each hand, and Mel followed with two bottles of sparkling cider.

“How do you like that?” Mel said. “You get all cozied up and we’ve been tromping about in a chilly drizzle. Here, I brought a deck of cards, in case we decide to play rummy or something…”

“It took way too long to get the pizza, really sorry, Verlaynn–we went to Rico’s, it’s Friday night, you know.” She put her face close to the boxes, sniffed aromas of cheese, onions, tomato sauce with sausage and bacon. “Well, we wanted to surprise you, too!”

Mel stepped forward, held up her phone and pulled out a cord from her coat pocket. “My phone needs recharging, it went dead.” She looked around. “I have missed the bright lights and that wide angle view of the city from up here, Veralynn.” She held out her arms as if to embrace blur of lights within the rainy scene.

“I’d about forgotten how fantastic your place is–and we have a fire burning… how perfect is that?” Kat ran over and sat right down, long legs stretched before it, a gazelle settling into the gentling dark.

“I can’t believe you finally came,” Verlaynn said as she plated pizza and poured cider. “I had given up….if you’d called– well, I am such a doubter, aren’t I?”

She put the plates down. Her chin fell to her chest, eyes blurred with the tears of sudden relief. There came an rising of deep affection for the women before her, so different than she was, but willing to stick by her. As she had hoped. As she was prepared to do for them.

And then came arms about her. Of course they were there–even late. They had been friends for five years; they’d always said they’d be friends, no matter what or where they were. Until they became wrinkly and tottery–and that seemed such a long way off.

They gathered at the coffee table by firelight, wolfed down the pizza with swigs of sparkling nonalcoholic cider when Kat said, “So–tell us what happened.”

Mel added, “And what we can do to make things a little better.”

Veralynn took a deep breath. “I came to the understanding last night that I need to be sober. I have come so close to being caught up in bad events, and I bet you’ve had scary times, too. No, wait–if I am honest here, I’ve lived through things I’ve not even told you about. Because it’s embarrassing. Or too frightening to recall. And it has nearly always stemmed from alcohol. My drinking has been less and it has been more. And I think it has to end before it gets just worse.” She looked up at their intent gazes. “Maybe not you–but for me. Just for me.” She crossed her hands over her chest. “But this guy last night–Nels–he helped me wake up to facts…”

They were not a little stunned. Pizza was pushed aside, glasses set down.

Veralynn laid before them a story of alcohol taking up more and more of her time, her life’s design, how it had taken things, maybe even relationships, from her. How Nels had scared her badly. How grateful she was that she had not drunk more than usual and had driven home safely.

She needed it to change.

“Will you honestly be able to be my friends without the booze? I do want to offer more good times to you.”

Mel and Kat looked at each other a long moment, then at her.

******

That’s how the Sober Club started. Plus a homemade Friday night dinner made if they had desired and time. Mel and Veralynn met every time they could, swapping homes for meetings every other week. Kat came, though, as she could. She was beginning the process of a return to real estate; there were Fridays she just couldn’t make it. At least that’s what she said. Veralynn was inclined to believe her; she’d become more serious about her career goals after the night they’d talked so openly.

Mel had already been headed toward a no drinking lifestyle. She loved her beer but she loved a healthier, active lifestyle more. And it was a relief to get her house back on Wednesdays.

“Plus, it was getting tiresome in the middle of the week with us getting half-crocked–and neighbors talked this past summer, snide remarks, funny looks as I took took out the garbage, that sort of thing. I’m a teacher, after all, and now that classes have resumed, I need a clear head. I need to set an example, too. Three high school students, maybe more, live on my street!”

It wasn’t always relaxed at first, nor the same idiotic fun. But in time no one minded not drinking. In a few weeks, they even forgot about it and did other things–went to the movies or out to eat, for a walk even in evening rain, to a concert. It was more often that Kat randomly came and went; they thought it likely she drank with her husband, with real estate friends after a deal was closed or at open houses. But that was alright. When she did come over, she looked great and sounded even better and it seemed she had her pre-motherhood independence and spark back. She never mentioned their old drinking sessions; she was just glad to catch up with them.

They seemed to bring to any table more fascinating, engaging, funny stories. In the end, sharing more of those was what carried them forward as they kept the Sober Club going. That, and the well tested bonds of affection they made a priority to protect and strengthen.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Quartz Creek Trio

Photo by Nashwan Guherzi on Pexels.com

The upright bass player, JD, was not in Quartz Creek Valley, New York because he had long craved a life in the country. Rima had dragged him there so she could nurse her mother back to health–hopefully–and give a helpful hand to her father. They now shared the 62 acre spread, and lived in the tiny cottage that was built ten years earlier to accommodate visitors and now themselves. There came with the shelter the tasks of keeping chickens, grooming and feeding and exercising two horses, tending the three dogs whose names he barely kept straight and a black, dusty one eyed cat. JD was okay with cats–they minded themselves.

He liked her parents, Neal and Emma, fine and the cottage was good enough–a nice change from the apartment they’d had in Pittsburgh, though so quiet he could hear his heart beating every night when it went dark. That was the worst part–the dark w hen in bed, lying still as can be so as not to wake Rima. For one thing, he was used to being awake until 2, 3 even 4 in the morning. And there could conceivably be menacing spiders creeping out from the corners, and random rustlings that could be anything from bears to racoons to snakes outside their screened bedroom window. They were in a huge forest. (Rima said it was just the woods, with meadows about, too.)

He lay there wide awake, then got up to sit with a book until his head drooped or another foreign noise shook him up. He’d especially never liked racoons, with their mean little faces and grabby hands, how they stood on hind legs ready for a fight he could care less about. They were welcome to his garbage, have at it, party on. But that was a city alley, not here.

Rima had been hesitant at first to ask him to go with her; he and the city were one, she believed. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh, yes. The truth was, his gigs had been less than satisfying and then he got sick. In the last month he’d recovered from a bout of pneumonia; he was still tired out. Not only physically. The club scene had felt a little stale after twenty years. So he said sure, let’s go hang out on a country lane, rescue your parents awhile. It made her happier than he had seen in years. So, Rima left her position as an Admissions Coordinator at a community college and he took time from from his most recent band once assured they’d take him back. They rented their place to a friend of a friend, packed a couple bags.

JD had grown up in Pittsburgh and though he had left twice before for a couple years, he always returned. And he had played in two bit dives, then decent bars, then supper clubs and cabaret, summer jazz festivals. Then strictly jazz clubs, at last. Not that he had trained for that.

Jamisen Dean Hardisty was the son of two prominent Pittsburghers (or Yinzers if you were truly local). By age 10 he knew he wasn’t meant for cello but the upright bass. From then on it was “JD” he answered to, and it was the bass he studied and played with enthusiasm. Jazz crept up on him. Before long he had a bad case of falling in love, and classical music, though it left its mark on him, was pushed to the periphery, to his parents’ misgivings.

Jazz was his life anchor. Rima often said it was his mistress, but in fact it was his first and would be his last love. His wife was his treasured everyday partner, his fine lover–she put up with his music obsession, after all. But jazz– just another category altogether. A different passion he could not explain to those who didn’t get it.

Emma was showing improvement after four months; the chemo was working. They all began to dare to hope. Neal was roused by this change and by JD and Rima’s help with daily chores so he could just be with her more. Although JD did mainly yard work and took the dogs out for runs, he had a quiet presence that helped steady Neal’s nerves. He was surprised; his son-in-law might be moody some days but he was rock solid, it turned out. Rima was the best daughter he could ask for in troubled times.

For a month, JD only played exercises, plucked and bowed whatever came to mind, then he took a break for a couple weeks. His fingertips softened and got grimed over from outdoor work so he kept to the routine, playing after dinner for an hour or two. No one complained; he played, after all, very well even if that music–the more contemporary of the stuff– was not their cup of tea. Sometimes he’d play a tune that Emma requested. it cheered her; he liked that it did.

So things went on like that the first couple months, until he got restless. This bucolic daytime life was not a comfortable fit for him, though it suited Rima. They got on well as ever despite a few misunderstandings about how to do things in Quartz Creek Valley–JD never would blend in–and she was grateful he’d come. Still…the music he wasn’t playing began to yank at him all day and night long.

And then one afternoon when he went in for groceries and a new hoe, he saw the woman sitting at front door of Enid’s Grill. She had ear phones on and was bobbing her head to the beat, and singing softly–he couldn’t hear her but he surmised–and her right foot was tapping away. Her eyes were closed. He stopped in his tracks, two big bags in his arms, one hand grasping the hoe. He wanted to run across the street, ask who, what, and why. Because she was not a local–he could see that by her clothing, colorful and verging on outlandish compared to what most people wore (jeans and old t-shirts and work boots or sneakers). And her body was full of music. And her mind, because she was surely another musician. Wasn’t she?

She looked up as if she had felt him watching, and pulled off the ear phones, lips moving to the lyrics and music she still heard in her brain. She lifted a hand and smiled across the street at him, then got up and went inside.

It took JD three days to find out who she was from the bakery owner where he stopped to get coffee and bagels often.

“Oh, that’s Kelsey, has a week-end house but can be gone for many weeks so we don’t see her much. She tours and such.”

“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, looking anxiously at the line behind him. “She sings but jazz or pop, not good bluegrass or–well, look, can we get a move on now?”

“Kelsey lives–where?”

The woman frowned at him then shrugged. “Well, JD…since you’re a musician, too– it’s on Brookhaven Road but that’s all I will say. Next order!”

The next day JD drove up her long gravel driveway, heart happily pounding in his throat.

******

Kelsey was not born a singer. Her father said she was, but she was born a dancer per her mother and Kelsey agreed, some of the time. She was so often swaying and turning about, tapping and swiveling and bending when she reached a year old and walking. Her feet were happiest sliding and stomping, her arms lifting and reaching to beats of cheery children’s songs. She’d hum a bit and squeal. But put on classical music and she was transfixed. She got so still that it scared her mother at first–it was like she was possessed of a spirit, she told her husband: “Look at her face, she’s seeing angels or something!”

He shooed her away and glanced at Kelsey with a pleased look–he knew she would sing even if she danced well enough. He could feel it; he sang once, after all, in the men’s chorus in college, but teaching suited him best so maybe it was her turn to sing on and out, make things happen.

Kelsey did take rhythm classes, then ballet and jazz dance, and she was good at it, everyone said so. But after her classes she’d put on the old records her dad had of jazz standards and a little opera and learn the words and tunes as best she would. By twelve, she sang a few songs for her parents and their friends on a bridge game day. It was decided: she was a singer and then some.

It was all in the body, that’s why she danced so soon–the music took hold and her nervous system worked it out, but then it went straight to the soul. She practiced and before long she was in a few choirs, then it was bands and she rehearsed and performed so much it threatened her school work. At nineteen she started to sing at a local Detroit club, a few songs here and there, and gradually, one thing led to another until she sang three nights a week with their house band. Jazz was what she did the best. Before long she was full time, then touring with this band or that, small potatoes in the beginning but she stepped up and up. Chicago, at last. A home base. She had no doubt this was meant to be her life. She travelled and made decent money. Each year she became better known and in Europe they turned out in droves.

And then a week before her thirty-fifth birthday her older sister died. The one with cerebral palsy, the one she adored and always visited first when she had a few days free. Ellen, with whom she shared all her secrets. Ellen, who had more patience and compassion than anyone else, and who easily made her laugh and vice versa.

Kelsey quit the band she was with and hid out at Quartz Creek Valley. New York, the countryside, far from the city. It was recommended by someone who loved to vacation there–“a quaint country village, an anonymous kind of place to relax.”

Kelsey had bought a cheap, ramshackle house there. Over time it was fixed up by a team she talked to via texts and long calls and she made quick visits. It was finally a good structure again, inviting and eclectic, a refuge from the stress of travel and performing too much. Ellen liked it, too, but hadn’t visited her there in a year, to their mutual dismay. There never seemed time enough, then Ellen was less and less well.

Everything came to a stop with her death. Kelsey didn’t enjoy eating as before; she didn’t want to go out with friends; she slept long hours, day and night; she had no interest in returning calls from men who had given off a spark. She knew it was the river of sorrow that carried her, that dulled her usual appetites. Even singing became less wanted, a guest that wasn’t welcome, then soon a bothersome ghost that could not remain unobtrusive and stay under the eaves to let her be.

Yet at Quartz Creek Valley she was removed from her large grieving family and from the hustle of the music scene, and from the endless sympathy of friends. This was a good thing, peace. She settled in and was relieved to find it helped ease tension and sadness–woods surrounding her, the creek behind the new deck. Her very house seemed to know how much she needed it and had been waiting, so closed about her in the green shady setting and held her snug, protected.

There was a second hand upright piano in the living room that she played sometimes, tinkering, really–but it, too, failed to move her to do more. Instead, she recalled songs Ellen and she loved as kids and teens and that made music come faster–and more painful. The best she could seem to manage listen to music on her iPod, let it all come as it wished, or not. It seemed enough for a couple weeks, at start.

And then that day the doorbell rang, two short rings and a long third. She peered out her window and determined he looked more or less okay, so opened the door a crack.

“Yes, what is it?”

“You must be Kelsey–I’m JD Hardisty,” he’d said, grinning at her as if they’d had an appointment set up and she was expecting him. He looked pleased. “Tanya at the bakery said you were a musician, and so am I.”

Kelsey opened it a bit more and stuck out her hand. His palm was broad and cool; she gave it a firm professional shake. Did this make them quasi-friends so soon? She took a deep breath, wary and impatient.

“That right? Kelsey Minor. And you thought…that maybe you would just pop on by?”

With a slight frown he noted her drawn, pale face, her pressed lips and bright hair in the sunlight, then let his glance sweep over the big, flower-bordered yard.

“I don’t know, I thought we might talk a little. Maybe I’d find out what kind of gigs you do.” He paused but she said nothing. “That sort of thing.” He hesitated again, stepped back. “I’m from Pittsburgh, play jazz bass–but, hey, maybe this is a bad time? If it helps to know, I am staying with my wife at the Lane’s house. Her mother has cancer…”

She tilted her head at him, then looked up at the sky, then at his flannel covered shoulders. New plaid flannel. So he was a city transplant. How could it help to know his mother-in-law was sick and maybe dying? It felt like a sharp pain in her chest. Still, he was being friendly, that’s all.

“It could be a bad time, all things considered, but maybe not. Go around the side of the house. We can sit out back.” She gestured at the corner of the house and went indoors, then came back out to meet him there.

They got caught up–her sister’s passing, his wife’s devotion to her mother and father. He had been there a couple of months; she had been there barely one month, had taken her time to wrap things up with her band.

“Millstones and the Feast, you may have heard of us…? We play more in Europe.”

“I have. Good band, I think one of my friends played with them awhile-Art G, drums.”

“Must have been before me; I joined them three years ago. I’ve sung with quite a few bands since I started out. How it is. And you?”

“The Evan Blake Quartet. We’ve played in Pittsburgh for many years. Hate to say how many. It’s a decent living, great guys. I toured once, too, but I got older, more sleep deprived and ornery than I wanted to be.”

He laughed easily and she felt his good nature spread among the trees.

“I miss it already,” she said, smoothing her long denim skirt over her knees, fiddling with a silver and turquoise necklace which shone in the sun. She then crossed her arms. I want to sing but can’t quite do it yet…You still play wherever you’re living? I mean, staying in good shape? I worry I will totally lose the skills. But not much to do in this little berg, is there?”

“I’m adjusting alright except for the nights. I play daily. Have to keep the fingers supple, calloused. Why don’t you sing at all?”

“I hum, I pull out notes, I run over lyrics. But everything comes back to my sister. We were that close.” She crossed her forefinger with middle finger.

JD said nothing and neither did she as the crows squawked at them from strategic perches. He was thinking how they could try a few things out together. He had noted a piano as he walked by the front windows. He felt that leap in his pulse, anticipation of making music with others once more. Even once a week, a couple times a week–it would feel so good to get back in touch with music in real-time, in the flesh, not just in his head or only exercises, some noodling. Not playing along with tunes on the radio.

But Kelsey thought of how it hurt to sing, how she wanted to cry when she sang, How to ease away from this, yet be kind to the guy? Why would she want to sing with a stranger, anyway? It could take a long time to mesh with other musicians. They had their style; she had hers. JD had his life to tend, she had hers. She did not want to get into their repertoire, into the intricacies of interpretation or performance, or of name dropping–shooting the breeze all afternoon. She had not planned this social call.

“Well, JD, I’m not much of a piano player, and my voice is on hiatus. Maybe another few weeks. I need to just hide out, you know what I mean? Sometimes we need to step back. I am so far back from all of it, I spend my time reading and sleeping pretty much, not dreaming of music.” But as she said it, it felt like a lie and she wondered if he caught it, too.

She rose from her chair and stretched, shaking her chestnut mane off her face and shoulders. When she turned he was standing, too, hands in jeans pockets, face closing, quiet.

“I see. Well, if I find a pianist, I might stop by again, okay?”

Kelsey held out her hand to him. “Maybe. I don’t mind talking music, I guess. Bring your wife–Rima? Is she a musician? Lovely name.”

“No, no, not a musician!” He guffawed at the thought. “Well, thanks, Kelsey, and take care, pleasure to meet you,” JD said, shook her hand, nodded and left.

As he drove away in the rattling truck that no doubt was his father in law’s, she shaded her eyes from midday ight that struck her square in the face. It made her eyes sting, all that streaming early autumn sun power, and the air cooler and richer all at once, and the heady talk of music.

JD Hardisty. Had she heard of him or was she only thinking so? People knew all the good people in the world of jazz and word gets around. He hadn’t heard of her, or so he said and so what, they were both working musicians, thank God–if not actually famous. She might be a little but not for now. She was ready to hibernate. Turn the lock in the door and close the curtains–that was the way she’d intended.

But his face–one that you immediately feel is familiar. The eyes…no rancor, no comeuppance, likely no big agenda, she concluded, other than wanting to play more jazz. He was likely for real, stuck out here in Quartz Creek Valley with an ailing in-law. In backwoods country, did they have to forget jazz?

What or who was she? Too damned good for him since she toured much of the world? Or maybe afraid she wasn’t so good, anymore? Or was she just worn out? Like her heart and soul had been overused. Now her voice was weakened, too. How much did it matter now, no news to give Ellen, no reports of the tours, no songs to share with her as she lay contorted in bed, the pain of it.

Still. It might have been his dark blue eyes. They were so kind it nearly hurt her to look at them. And she’d had enough of that. Did he play like his eyes spoke?

“Ellen, what can I do with myself now? Dig a hole and pull the ivy over top of me?” she asked, face to an empty sky. It was absurd to talk like that, wrong, even–but some days it was all she could do.

******

He had not been a regular in this circle nor was there a desire to be but there he was, almost a fixture at Frannie Palmer’s house. It had become a week-end thing, and she’d suggested it become a longer term thing until he got his feet back under him. All the booze-drenched parties, then his partner leaving, and his concert schedule heavier than was healthy–it was enough to drive anyone over the edge.

They’d finished a scrumptious dinner once again and were relaxing in the study, which was really a brainstorming room where Frannie worked on marketing and product development for body and face products. He picked up a jar and opened it, gave it a sniff, gave it the thumbs up and closed it again.

“That’s yours now, dear. Really, you have to get off the fast track and take a breather, Rodney, you can see how it has helped me! Anytime I’ve had enough I come to my country house, lick my annoying little wounds and repair any broken brain circuits. I wholly recommend it.”

He sipped his elegant goblet of red wine rather than downing it as he felt a gripping desire to do. “If it’s good for a CEO of a thriving beauty company it must be good for an aging bonnie boy slash pianist headed for rack and ruin from alcohol and a bleeding heart. Right? I swear, if Tony had half a brain he’d know what he’s missing, get humble and come to his senses.”

“You are neglecting to consider the upside in this situation, my dear.”

“There is no upside! I have lost the love of my life…and it’s all your fault since you introduced me to him.”

“Oh, do get over it. More fish in the sea.” Frannie jumped up and opened the French doors to the distant tinkling of the creek and a gust of piney air. “The upside is that you get to start over to a degree, alone and with a clean slate.”

Rodney felt the scrape of those words but ignore it, joining her. The air was soft and sweet and he thought how fortunate his oldest friend had this beautiful second home. Since she was getting older she’d spoken of retirement in this place but Rodney felt it was premature–she was too glamorous to take up residence in Quartz Creek Valley, surely. On the other hand, she was at least ten years his senior– and he was already getting grey at the edges, signs of loosening jowls. Perhaps it would be good to get a few things fixed – Frannie would steer him the right way.

He joined her at the open doors. “I think I’d like to have more fun with music, for a change. One can only be a classical pianist for so long unless you are a genius, and far more devoted than I tend to be…”

He stated this with wistfulness; Rodney truly did want to be much more dedicated to the finest of all performing standards yet had had to be. He had to work very hard to even remain where he was after thirty years–far better than above mediocre, of course, but also a very far cry from the top of the heap. There was always some up-and-comer to take his place, and fast. His days might be numbered.

“I’m getting more accompanist jobs, Frannie. My concerts average a couple times a week at most, in maybe eight or ten states. It has slowly and surely changed. The rest of it… all the playing for someone else. Not that this is so dishonorable…it takes talent and skill to play for the best soloists…”

She lay a hand on his back, nudged him toward the pool and patio. “Better to get paid than not; and better to play some than none. I know you, Roddie, you would not be happy unless you played something until the day you died!”

“I could play for old people, I suppose, if it came to that, just sign me up for the boomers’ dances and swanky retirement homes, darling Frannie.”

“You already play for old people–me, my friends and so many more! We love you as much as the rest of the audiences do.”

“Maybe more, ” he said with chagrin. “Well, I’m based in Coral Gables, Florida–as are you–so how can I lose? I always have a good crowd in that state.” He put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the chaise lounges. “To think I almost like this place in the northern woods. You came from around here? I forget.”

“No, Roddie, I hatched from a golden egg outside of Chicago, you know that, and was born with this beautiful hair. It was hubby’s summer tromping grounds, not mine.” She giggled as she patted her champagne coiffure and then they fell quiet, at ease.

He stared into the underwater lighting of her turquoise pool and wanted to dive in and paddle about but he’d smell of chlorine, then have to shower. He had no energy for all that. He licked his lips clean after a last bit of wine, closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to the crickets begin their songs.

Fran cleared her throat. “Well, it seems I do know someone who sings, Rodney. She’s had a vacation home here for some time but often is gone on tours. I saw her yesterday. Kelsey Minor.”

“Hmm, never heard of her.”

“She’s a jazz singer.”

“Oh, swell. No arias to belt out for me?”

“Rodney Cannon, you really must ease off the snobbery-“

“Says the pot to the kettle–“

“–because she is that good. Maybe that would cheer you up. I can call her tomorrow, set up a meeting. Maybe you can even do a run-through with our piano.”

Rodney grunted. He was busy feeling wine loosen every muscle and then every knot that squeezed his overwrought mind. “Maybe.” He yawned. “Sure, why not…you often know best, Frannie.”

She smiled to herself and got up to dip her toes in the water. Mission accomplished.

And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.

******

The first time they all got together at Fran’s–she had that shiny grand piano–thanks to her determination and Rodney’s charm–it seemed like a madhouse. Kelsey was trilling away between scales and vocal exercises. JD was tuning and retuning, then playing tunes with pizzicato as if the strings were wild things to be tamed, while Rodney was working on chord progressions that sounded as if they might be be overjoyed to be let lose in a cathedral. But when all got quiet, they tossed around ideas and settled down some though no one wanted to take the lead.

“Well, how about just trying an old standard?” JD suggested.

“How old do you mean?” Rodney asked. “I only do old, that supreme age from when my father loved standards.”

“You know, like Sinatra?” Kelsey suggested, eyebrow raised as Rodney looked at his hands with a smirk. “Or-okay, then, earlier?”

JD had been scrutinizing Rodney from the minute he came in. “Do you even play jazz, my friend? I mean, not can you imitate it… can you play it?”

“Yes, bud, I do play it when I run out of my usual classical repertoire and every one is begging for more…” Rodney’s words held an edge.

Rodney suspected JD was like every other jazz club musician he’d come in contact with–maybe three or four of them, anyway. Leaning towards arrogance and cloaked in a ultra calm cool. Kelsey was nicer so far but she had probably been trained to be nicer from the cradle, sadly.

JD suspected Rodney was once deemed too fabulous for his own good, and his classical rigor stymied all hope of experimentation. But JD was willing to give it a try. He’d had cello lessons for years as a youth, after all, but he wasn’t sharing that with Rodney. The guy ought to know better.

“Come on, you idiots, let’s get the music going or give it up!” Kelsey bellowed, hand to weary head. “I don’t have the wherewithal to play games. It’s hard enough to consider singing much less with bickering men…”

Both men shut their mouths, composed themselves and were sheepish. Kelsey was, then, not just a lovely gal with impeccable manners–all the better for it, Rodney decided. It took grit to keep in the game.

“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.

“‘April in Paris’? ‘Stairway to the Stars’?” Kelsey said.

“Right,” JD agreed and picked up his bass bow.

Rodney flexed his hands, lay fingers atop piano keys and soon the familiar tune of “April in Paris” was slipping into the dimly lit room like a somewhat crumpled satin ribbon.

Kelsey hummed at first, voice warming a bit more each measure as the musician found their places, out of sync at times but urging themselves closer to the heart of melody, the luxurious beauty of sweetly emphasized notes. They were professionals; they knew how to do this, even Rodney, who was surprisingly adept at the genre. And it seemed they might have promise.

Then Kelsey opened her mouth wide and the richness of her alto suffused the spaces like liquid into hands. The men puzzled out and played with each other’s lines and her interpretation. She, however, soon shaped it, the song growing, breathing, her command of her instrument creating an embraceable tune. It was an offering to them– as if she was singing of their times in Paris, their love affairs as well as hers–and many others’. She swayed to the music, her body gone fluid, too, and they all leaned toward one another, face to face, sounds to sounds, following each other down flowing measures, and to the tender end.

Rodney dabbed at his eyes, then sat up tall. He smoothed his pants legs and nodded at them. Kelsey and JD nodded back, not entirely displeased.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s try it again… JD?”

JD led them into the melody and they were off once more, fewer odd bumps, more attentiveness to one another and the song. Then again they ran through it, embellishing here, simplifying there, interweaving, correcting, emoting more but not too much, making the song a lovelier thing.

Frannie was at the back of the room with Rick, her husband, who had come to the house after a trip to and from Columbus. He leaned against a wall, her hand in the crook of his white shirt-sleeved elbow. As the song started up once more, he took her in his arms and they danced ever so quietly, careful not to disrupt the trio, their movements restrained in the small area.

She patted him on the back as he deftly stepped along with her. “Now that’s a great tune, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed Frannie, let’s keep them on, shall we?”

She hummed along in his ear, and he kissed her plump cheek.

Frannie Palmer, CEO, was also quickly planning how she could get them to form a new band, then market them to friends. And, of course, beyond.

One day, she dreamed. For al her brusqueness and learned gentility, she was often just a gladdened dreamer.

******

That was the start of it, the Quartz Creek Trio. They played every day after that. The name was suggested by Rima, who was glad JD had a purpose other than labors he’d been willing to do (basically forced to do) in that dull, jazz-club-less country life.

JD was encouraged to slough off chores. The family was getting back to a more normal routine. He was so grateful that he yet took the dogs for runs morning and night, still mowed the yard weekly and continued to grocery shop for them. Rima foresaw their moving back home by early to mid-November–he had gigs galore then what with holidays. But for now, peace and easier days reigned.

Kelsey got up in the morning and attended to a healthy bowl of oatmeal and toast, then ran a couple of miles and finally practiced, banging away at her second hand, tuned up piano as needed. She found her voice was getting deeper and wondered if it was all the crying. Or just rustiness. But she was better than she had been before the guys came along. Before the music was gradually returned to her.

Rodney was a perfectly pleasing guest. He entertained them daily with “Breakfast with Roddie” which entailed English muffins with cream cheese and scrambled eggs; fresh coffee; and piano music while they ate. He was fired from cooking but they adored his music, as usual. “Bach for Breakfast” they called it–changing the composer’s name as required. But he enjoyed the jazz standards more as days went by so he slipped one in now and again, to their delight.

The Quartz Creek Trio played that fall for three weddings and two retirement luncheons and two big parties of Frannie’s for which people from New York to Florida came. A few wanted to hire them right then for their future soirees. It left the trio privately gasping with laughter–to think they would do such gigs, just like in the first days of their careers! But they had fun, that was the point of it all, wasn’t it. They enjoyed playing together and they’d’ gotten to know one another. It was a good thing all around.

Their time was short, they knew that. It made the hours seem more potent, at times quite worthy of remembrance and always instructive as they worked out the kinks. They got to know their unique moods, their ins and outs–the individual styles and inside knowledge of each piece. It was building a complex and careful dialogue even as it became freer of constraints, all their playing and singing.

So it got harder to think of saying goodbye. They might cross paths, though. Kelsey would remain there through the winter–she needed more healing rest. JD would be coming over once a month–or as feasible– with Rima to visit her parents. And Rodney, well, he flew all the time, anyway, and he figured he’d make a stop at Frannie and Rick’s, too.

Just once Rodney suggested, “Maybe when we run out of steam doing our usual programs and plans, we can form an official trio. Not just for entertainment of friends and family here…I mean, when we get older, or bored with things. Try a new path.”

“Speak for yourself, buddy. Will it pay the bills? Rima is finally pregnant!” The reality of that scared the heck out of him, but a kid later in life was also a boon, he imagined, and he felt very good about how things were turning out. He had plenty of gigs lined up, anyway–yet, he wondered, too.

“What? And spoil what we have now?” Kelsey said, somewhat appalled at the idea of leaving her band and engaging in this little act once more. But she’d been surprised how it had helped with the loss of Ellen, and how good hearted the guys were–not to say, very fine musicians.

She’d think it over. They’d all think it over. Their worlds connected at the outer edges of the music world, they overlapped in theory, they admired each other greatly. But it would take a lot of effort to make a new commitment. It was a rather serendipitous series of events that demanded greater consideration: a chance meeting, an odd connection, a creative process that grew and made them feel more themselves than they had felt in a long while. Well on the way to being rejuvenated musicians, they were more excited to share music–and also ready to further open up their lives. Together, and apart.


Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ms. Regina’s House on the Corner

Tanya and her mother read the column in the Obituaries section and they released a gasp in concert. The deceased lived five houses down the block. It was true they hadn’t seen her watering her flowers for months–some hired hand now did that task. They calculated she was 85 when she drew her last breath. Gone from the neighborhood. The entire planet.

Regina Ludlum had been the Headmistress of the Moss Highland Girls’ School for four decades. Tanya’s sister, Melanie, had attended years K-8 but she had not. Her mother came to prefer their good public schools rather than the parochial system, and at last won the argument with their father.

Mel had congratulated her on such good fortune. “You won’t endure the pressures for perfection, or all the knee bending, and the reverence for snotty staff. Though you kinda have to hand it to Ms. Regina,” she said, giving Tanya a “high five.”

Ms. Regina– she wanted to be addressed that way; her family’s origins were Southern, people speculated–was legendary for her intellectual prowess as well as vast organizational skills. She was also a good fund raiser twice a year. Many wondered why she’d ended up in such a small city, but she had the inheritance of her great uncle’s house. Her family heard this had brought her from Italy where she was studying some arcane art like gold leaf restoration in ancient buildings and exquisite crumbling homes.

Regina Ludlum was possessed of a quirky beauty defined by a loping, lanky grace; delicately shaped hands that nevertheless seemed a bit large; and bright eyes crowned by the most dramatically arching eyebrows ever seen. Her dark hair swung at chin length, neatly cut, and it framed her features perfectly, kept the emphasis on high forehead and penetrating gazes. Even when it turned white and her facial lines drooped, it suited her.

Ms. Regina’s presence was quietly imposing. Poised, entirely civil. Her capabilities were never questioned, and her students’ competence reflected her successful methods of direction, their parents said when Mel complained. But it seemed no one knew her well, at least not at school and not in the neighborhood. She remained pleasant but restrained, enough so that a mere “hello” seemed at times too friendly a gesture toward her–she’d give a quick nod and smile wanly. Or, if she was feeling generous, raise a palm in greeting, then keep on.

Tanya waited for news of her house sale, for it was this that had long drawn her. The ancient uncle who had owned it had passed when she was only one so it was just Regina Ludlum’s domain in her mind. When estate sale signs were placed along the sidewalk and at two corners, she was eager to discover all she’d longed to see.

Her mother said there was something inherently disrespectful, even distasteful about such a thing. All that gawking and buying of another’s personal property by an acquisitive public… but Tanya waved off her remarks. Her mother knew she was going to be an artist and was fascinated by houses, the things they held. Plus, she was now eighteen, fully capable of consideration of others’ property. And she wasn’t going to buy one thing.

She also knew her mother would be at her for detailed information when she returned. Even if she was too self-righteous to admit at the family table. They’d go fall shopping, have lunch tomorrow, and she’d give her a full report.

The Ludlow place was a large two story home, easily over a hundred years old, and painted a pale yellow with white trim. It offered a pretty covered veranda with overflowing flowerpots still hanging. Several people were already entering. The heavy carved door with beveled glass opened to a living room with a side staircase, steep and fashioned of polished, worn original wood. Small stained glass windows welcomed autumn light at each landing. There were other stained or leaded glass windows atop or alongside regular ones in the pleasing space. The light was dimmer in these areas; there was a huge chestnut and a big leaf maple out front.

Tanya wandered further into the living room, not unlike their own but much bigger, with a grand fireplace and brick hearth which displayed an array of large figurines. There were really statues, a couple that came up to her knees, some classical in design. Women, of marble or alabaster–one in a flowing Grecian gown, another a glowing white nude; an impressive, rider less brass horse with front leg raised and head up; a ceramic stylized bird that was most likely a blue heron but with an Asian flair. Tanya’s fingertips grazed them each lightly, and as she went on she wondered where they came from. Europe?

Did Ms. Regina travel often? Were there fine mementoes to be found?

There was a smaller study of the main room. A deep brown leather armchair for reading, a long narrow desk with matching desk chair. Bookshelves about empty; book sellers had already come in, cleaned them out. Textbooks were for some reason stacked on the floor along a wall. Several oversized art books still in a book case tempted her but she went on.

In the expansive dining room there was the usual, if one’s usual included bone china, crystal stemware, a silver set snug in a velvet-lined case, pale green and blue glass vases of elegant design, serving dishes of sliver. And then pitchers–five total, three of which were more rustic pottery. Tanya wondered if those were for iced tea, while two clear lovely glass ones for fresh lemonade or chilled water. Or vice versa. And with whom did Ms. Regina use all these items? It was so big you could well seat fourteen at the massive–was it mahogany?– table.

The large spaces were empty of much feeling; she wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe lingering energy of laughter, high spirited conversations… Did she have many visitors? It was possible, of course; no one had a daily eye on her house. Maybe she got tired of dealing with so many kids and teachers at the end of school days; it was a tiring job, she suspected. When she retired, she might have craved solitude. Yet as Tanya thought about the possibility it made her feel lighter: Ms. Regina chatting away on a ton of topics, her smart comments filling the air. And they’d enjoy cold drinks and pastries on the fancy veranda.

She had never seen or heard Ms. Regina with a large outdoor gathering over the years. Not that she should have. Tanya was busy with her own life, not too mindful of the woman. She had read glowing newspaper articles, had seen her on television, heard the stories from kids who had attended Moss Highland. Oh, she’d seen her come and go to work or a store, but only a glimpse was caught as she parked her shiny black Buick in a double garage at the end of the curving drive. Then she entered the side door, Tanya had noted. There was a gigantic back yard, however; the house and its plot took up a third of the block.

Now the kitchen doorway swung open so she moved on. It had been updated with high end appliances, two rectangular skylights, a huge quartz-topped island with matching counters and refinished wood cupboards. Tanya moved to the side. More bodies crowded in and examined everything, exclaiming over this and that brand and culinary tool. Two sets of everyday dinnerware of pretty hue and decoration were stacked up. There was a shelf on the wall with more than a dozen cookbooks featuring recipes from around the world. It was clear Ms. Regina knew how to cook with skill and flair. There was so much light there it was friendlier than the rest of the house, so far. At the back wall which overlooked the expansive yard was banquette seating, with cushions adorned by a fabric design of copious green vines upon rich ivory.

There was a pantry, too, and she poked her head in to note half-full counters–a heavy duty mixer, an espresso machine and other kitchen aids–and many cupboards each side of the work and storage space. Had there been a cook, even a butler, once upon a time?

Tanya extricated herself from the crowd that had started to bunch inside the kitchen–it was popular. She stepped down into the deep, wide yard. Cypress trees–were those Italian? -she’d ask her father– lined back and side boundaries. The lawn expanse was so green and flowery she felt stunned by its beauty. Birds twittered, blooms bobbed their heads as bees darted about. There also flourished a small patch of vegetables to the right–pumpkins grew fat and jolly–by the garage. There was a darkened mossy stone bench at each side (an old man was half-slumped on one, peering into sun dappled shadow, a hat in hand). And a teal-colored metal café table with floral umbrella and four chairs in a corner–and was that an arched trellis covered in twisty vines? A two-level fountain burbled just beyond the trellis. Tanya found herself pausing there, looking back toward the stately house, entranced.

This had to have been where Ms. Regina spent much of her time. Who wouldn’t? It felt a special place. Her family’s own back yard was much smaller with an aging trampoline in one corner and a charred fire pit in another; their flagstone patio was outfitted with worn outdoor furniture and a big gas grill–that was all. But this–this was lovely, expertly tended yet welcoming, a perfect combination. Attention had been lavished on it; the array of forms and colors, the deft touches were what the senses longed to claim. Serenity. Ms. Regina outside on her knees, trowel in hand, wide brimmed sunhat a canopy for her attractive face–this must have been her joy and relaxation for many years. It suited Tanya’s idea of her–the gentlewoman tending her plants considerately and with wisdom, as she had tended her school. But, she imagined, too often alone. It felt so…private, despite the cheery aura.

But where was the woman beyond all the gardening? There had to have been more of her. Everything reflected abundance. Tanya had heard there had been a baby grand piano but it was gone if so, carted off by some gifted child’s family. She’d expected to see more of something…. There were were paintings leaned against walls, some Tanya liked and some she didn’t with others turned away from view. She had hoped to find more clues than pretty objects, greenery.

Tanya left the resting gentleman in the garden and others trickling out, and once inside she climbed the steps to the second floor. Four huge bedrooms, three smallish bathrooms. The first two were empty except for expensive and heavy bed frames and dressers for sale, one frame leaned against the wall. Most had “SOLD” stickers already.

The next room had a shelf with several bells of brass or crystal on it. A sturdy desk had six fine music boxes with inlaid or carved lids; Tanya gently opened each one to classical melodies. They looked very pricey. There were small prints of birds, butterflies and plants, like botanical illustrations–and bed linens folded in zippered plastic cubes on the high bed. A footstool was at its side. A gorgeous pen and ink drawing of the very house in a tarnished silver frame that pulled her in. But no portraits of family of others–they might have been collected for relatives, wherever they were. There also was a rich worn Persian wool rug, a closet with three woolen jackets and a couple of rain coats that looked well kept.

She then noted stacks of poetry books on a side table, and it made her inexplicably clap her hands. Yeats, Whitman, Lorca, a Russian poet she couldn’t pronounce even in her head, a few women of contemporary times (Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton), and several more.

This must have been her room, Tanya thought, and sat on the deep rose colored quilt that covered the bed. She was suddenly filled with the hugeness of the house, life lived there quietly, smartly. Alone. Melancholy pressed into her as she took in the room, then she left it to glance in the sparkling bathrooms with heavy claw foot tubs and high windows, then stopped at the last bedroom across the hall.

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

What greeted her from the door was a wedding dress with its long veil. The lace and satin were yellowing–she was afraid to touch it. Meticulous bead work adorned the bodice. There sat a limp cloth rose above the neck. The scalloped hem was stiff with fancy lacework. A leaf-and pearl-decorated veil was topped by a headpiece that seemed like a small hat which mimicked a crown.

Ornate, flowing and sumptuous. A wedding dress for someone who expected her wedding to be long remembered. Someone who had to be clothed in such finery to lavishly emphasize all-encompassing love.

She held the fabric to her nose a moment, breathed it all in, smelled a faint waft of cedar that must have helped protect it inside a hidden bag in the dark corner of a closet. It smelled of that time and it filled her with an ache, a warmth, barest echoes of fervent, lost words. It held deep commitment, a promise of a future of joy.

And loss of both. Somehow.

Tanya began to back out of the room, slowly. She wanted to close the door and secret the dress away, but she guessed dress and veil were also for sale; she didn’t look. It felt a betrayal to let them hang there, be touched by so many, then bought as just another vintage thing. She thought for a moment that she needed to own it to keep it safe, but even that felt wrong. It was Ms. Regina’s, she was sure of that; it had been meant to stay hers. All that pride, expectancy, excitement–then perhaps great sadness. But it was not for Tanya to say, and Ms. Regina was long gone. As she turned, her vision blurred and she dabbed wetness away. Anyone would think she had lost her wits in the old house, full of items gotten and treasured then so easily let go. Sold off as if exquisite nothings.

Gawkers, as he mother had called them, were filling the stairwell now and Tanya began to understand the pronouncement. Was she one of them?

As Tanya rounded the landings and pushed her way downstairs, the shoppers gathered with purchases at the table set up for business. She looked about then. Was there not one thing she should keep of Ms. Regina’s? But all she felt was a pressing need to leave.

She walked around the three-quarter veranda and there he was, the old man. He wore a perfectly fitted, grey three-piece suit, his hat now set upon his sparse thatch of white hair. He reclined on a rattan and cushioned armchair. She approached him, leaned against the banister. He looked up, bloodshot eyes blinking, and offered a slight, crooked smile. She smiled in return and took in a breath of cool air.

“You knew…” she began.

“Yes, I knew her,” he said, gravelly voice low and well enunciated. “Did you find anything of interest?”

She hesitated. “Well, I found a wedding dress.”

He took his hat off to smooth back fine hair, then placed it on his lap just so. His gaze stayed on the hat. “Yes, that dress…”

“It was of course for her…oh, now wait, was it by any chance your…”

He looked up, sought her eyes with pale blue ones. “Yes. Back when we were fresh, full of the dickens and love. Right out of too much university we were, raring to go.”

Tanya half-sat on the banister as anxiety rippled her stomach. She didn’t want him to feel badly–maybe fall apart–as he rested in the breezy September morning. The barest scent of winter chased after autumn leaves in the side yard so that they knew more change was coming. They would each leave, soon. What could she say to him now, how could she comfort him? She was eighteen; he had been alive so long. When she didn’t speak, he continued.

“You don’t mind me telling you, do you? I saw you in the garden–maybe you knew her, too.”

She nodded. “Yes. I mean no, it’s okay. I sort of did, and admired her.”

“We were married for eight years, that was in Boston. Then I got a job offer in Los Angeles–I was a lawyer, got a big opportunity.” He pressed his forehead with the heel of a palm, studied the floorboards. “She was an art historian then…and didn’t want to leave her work. She taught , worked in a museum. See, it was the east coast and smaller and nicer than L.A. She said, ‘A fast lifestyle, glitzy people! Must it be your work, first and last?’ That’s what she said to me over and over. I said, ‘But think what I can do for us both, think of other options for you!’ On it went until we had heard it all enough…”

The wind gusted; a flurry of dry leaves rose and fell. People were coming out, going in the front door as they hid there, speaking of more personal matters. Tanya wanted to reach out, touch his hand but refrained.

He re-creased the top of his hat, patted it as if with affection. “So that was that, miss. It was tough. Unusual those days, people leaving a marriage was almost unheard of, at least in our group. In point of fact, she was ostracized for not going with me, not being the dutiful wife. But we left each other for things we deeply believed in. Still, I often have asked myself: for what?”

He brought his gaze to Tanya; so much was there that she looked away. The man stood, held out his arms to the seen and unseen world with a weariness, then dropped them with a slap against thin thighs. Tanya felt as if she was listening to a confession; it made her a little embarrassed, but his honesty was touching. She felt more sadness for him than anything. She took a step closer but not too close so her concern might make him think she found him some dotty old guy. Because she knew he wasn’t.

“Time slipped by so fast. My career was a great one; hers changed but it was fulfilling, too. It happened that we later wrote one another. After a long time we no longer did. On my sixty-fifth birthday, she sent a last card. And now…”

He leaned with one hand on the banister, the other held up to the sky but she could see his legs were weakening so she grasped a forearm.

“I remarried, a nice gal, but only for a minute–it was nothing, nothing much, at all. ”

Tanya feared he might be weeping but he wasn’t. He had closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. Then he stood tall, placed the hat on his old lion’s head with a sharp pat.

He held out a hand to her with a genuine smile that opened his wrinkly face. “That’s the story, at least partly. And I am Martin Ludlow–please excuse my manners.”

Her jaw dropped a bit, then she got hold of herself. She felt the warmth in his hard, lined palm. All the life lived and still left there.

“Tanya Oppenheimer. I live right down the block.”

“A student of Regina’s?”

“No, an admirer from afar. She… inspired me though I didn’t know her much at all.”

“Like me, then, inspired long from afar,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you–thank you for listening to my revelation. Best wishes for a good, long life, Miss Oppenheimer.”

Then he bent over to grab a small bag by the chair and handed it to her. With a turn on his heel, he took his leave. He clomped down the stairs and strode off, a bit hunched over but head held up. When he reached his silvery car, a driver popped out and rushed to his side, then opened a back door. Martin Ludlow stooped just enough to get in and the door was closed.

He was once and for all gone.

Tanya lingered a bit before going home, wondering over things. Regina Ludlow. She had kept his name. They had both kept each other in their deepest hearts. Two aging persons still in love. Maybe they got what they needed, and maybe not, she surmised as she dawdled along. But she was relieved she had finally gotten access to the home.

It was only when she no longer could see the lot with its house that she thought to open the bag. It was the pen and ink drawing: Ms. Regina’s on the corner.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Chase and the Interloper

It was beauty and anonymity that drew me there and away from the limelight, at least in part. And it was that which also sent me elsewhere. My life has been a mixed bag of easy accolades, tough anxiety, moments of fear and a hint or two of love. How might it ever be different, I wondered? How could it be worse if I returned to Huntington?

Right then it was another yellow day, a conflagration of blinding blue with sunlight, the sort that requires sunglasses to even peer between curtains at the sharp-edged world. I had grabbed the purple frames as the lenses are biggest, and after I had enough of a look fell back into bed, glasses and all, and let my eyelids close again. I had nothing of consequence to do until mid-afternoon. Then, another Skype meeting. Out of sight did not mean out of work, not entirely.

******

My bedroom is a sanctuary. The rest of the condo is trite and bland, the usual around here, and is rendered tolerable as I close my door and turn on one low-wattage lamp at bedside. No one comes in without my permission, not even my mother whose condo it is. I rent it from her –I won’t stay here for free–so she is rid of the prickling worry about lax or disreputable tenants. (Not that she trusts me with so much as a drain snake; not that I would use it–there is the maintenance guy five doors down.) And it has given me freedom to travel or hide out; it is not known as my home address. (That is Lisbon, a house last inhabited a short time a year ago. Or Tuscany, a small villa cared for and lived in by my brother, for now.)

But she owes this and more to me, she says. She’s the one who got me into the game. I was only a child, barely five for my first commercial. Now all this time has passed and I am grown and worn out already. She knows what it’s taken from me, she believes, but she also sees several pay offs. I’m not interested in what she sees, anymore. I’m trying, though, to feel more loving; we are better than before I came here.

I open my eyes to…nighttime. I painted these walls a dense dark blue; she calls it navy-black, I call it faux night sky. I prefer being on the terrace when the sun winks out but once my door closes, it stays shut until dawn if at all possible. I do not like daytime much now. I do not care for sunshine. I loathe being caught out there, unprotected, wholly seen, my narrow-jawed face with its chestnut-eyes and a grand tawny maned head all bared to society’s scrutiny. I did that already, over and over. It led to years of lost equilibrium. Of success-driven misery.

For years I was a child model and grew up in the profession. Did I even get to establish “equilibrium”? “Mariah Z, Mariah Z!” they yelled at every turn. By age 21 I’d had more than enough. One might accurately surmise I’ve not gotten over the blare of lights, paparazzi taking chase, my face and body splashed across billboards, my actions front and center on commercials, bit parts in movies leading to…what?

So: I do not easily or often sally forth into public places. It feels like a nearly forbidden land now. Even when I travel I take a red eye flight, wear grey or beige bulky items, a floppy hat I change each trip–they allow me to be almost unseen. An invisible woman, what a coup.

These days I don’t have to work, so I’m on a break until age 25. That gives me three more years if I’m careful of my outgo. (There’s little worth wanting, anymore–cash is like a handful of litter in my purse.) I do have a cat that has needs and wants, if minimal, and a friend or two I still trust and for whom I like to buy small surprise gifts, nothing overt. There’s nothing like money to cure you of money, no matter what people brag. At least, for me. Only my mother understands this, and that is for other reasons. She was born into it and so it little interests her as topic or focus. Fame is more to her liking, or fame via her daughter–me–without the huge hidden costs.

I know, people think I’m crazy to turn my back on it, to be so blase at this age–that I must have snorted too much cocaine or drunk too much tequila. Sure, I did enough of that and too young. But there’s nothing better than to step into the wings when the applause comes at you like an unholy din– and then just slip away. For me, the shadow of hiding was a magnetic force that turned my life to this direction. I got away–I just said no no no— and didn’t go back. I may never.

The cat -Sari- and me. We like to rest and muse on things or sleep. Sit by the deserted pool at midnight, or I sometimes swim a little but quietly as it is against the rules. Read by candlelight on the terrace–Sari listens as I read poetry aloud, yawns, licks my hands, purrs when I stay still. It’s not a bad life, now. I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythms of leisure, punctuated with nightmares that still wake me up too much, and I lie there and stare at my kindly night ceiling. Oh, the catwalk, the photographers’ studios, the constant travel, weather not stopping one thing even if you’re out there in the wild and half nude. The television cameras and directors shouting. And always random people touching my hair, skin, clothes taken off and put on, repositioning parts and pieces, my standing there rigid as they fix this, that, one more thing.

You stop being your own person. You stop seeing your body as yours. Your life hollows out; you are so many movable parts. A mannequin.

Now my living is separate from that life, or far more than ever before. Nothing can take this ease from me without my saying so, anymore.

******

I’m not agoraphobic. I use the facilities to swim; I work out daily. I go to the library, if only in evening. I shop at small shops for necessities when it isn’t busy. I take weekend trips with my best friends, usually to a country inn or we go camping. I take a flight to somewhere equally out of the way–not touristy. But there is room for variation. Or to fail to accurately calculate, depending on the outcome.

I, for example, love the huge wooded park two blocks away. Since I don’t go there at night, I visit Huntington Nature Park’s 125 acres once every month and walk it’s two winding miles of trails. It’s quite heavenly.

Since Mom’s condo is at the edge of suburbia (I used to live in New York York, people worked or played all day, all night), most adults work for a living so are not around in daytime all week. There are a few joggers zooming about. Mothers with strollers or, after school, groups of older kids on bikes or skateboards until they’re told to get out of the way. Older people with hands tucked into crooks of arms. Dogs let out with all ages and stations of people, and they cheer me, those furry critters who sniff my leg–cat! cat!- or lick my hands but say little that matters to me. Now and then a lone man or woman rambles about, sits on a bench. Some take lunch hour there so I avoid that time–those workers tend to watch people more closely as they eat, like it’s entertainment when they aren’t using their cell phones. I know; I have done the same.

So I go and relax among the others. It’s good to see people outdoors enjoying the greenery. I’m moving along, hiding in loose sweatpants and a hoodie despite knowing I, Mariah Z (Zentner), am not remotely on their minds. Not there–not out of context, for sure. A habit, trying for a sloppy incognito to blend in. And my over-sized sunglasses help. Plus, they are barriers to UV rays since becoming more nocturnal.

Today is like other days as I arrive. Sparsely populated trails but not lonely. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies. Dogs going for tossed sticks or to relieve themselves on every bush; toddlers toddling; a woman reading under a ginkgo tree. Then the densely wooded area and my feet pick up speed. I am not a runner but I walk fast as I note ferns, shadowy designs and wildflowers; birds fluttering and singing, squirrels chittering and racing about.

I shake it out, the knots and questions that can keep me captive when indoors: will I be a wastrel or a contributor to something good? Will I go back to Lisbon soon or much later? What about Sari’s aging–she is 10 already–how long do I get to keep her? My sneakered feet move smoothly over hardened dirt side trails, arms swinging, breath pulsing in small exhalations of effort as I speed up. Oxygen courses though my blood, I breathe better, my parts move in better concert and I am getting happy. Time ceases to have meaning as endorphins increase and carry me beyond myself. I can go on like this much longer than the park allows, on into the night if only I had the nerve.

There’s a flash to the left of my head, a red movement between trees. My heart rate jumps a bit as I search thickening trees and heavy brush but keep moving. Nothing much, a creature taking a short cut. But there–is that something? Maybe a person? Rusty colored jacket or shirt. Female or male? Why are they off-trail? Or is that a smaller trail I forgot about? I hear rustling of bushes and leaves from the same direction. I see a fork in my path, take a right. I feel it on my neck, in my gut–that sudden sensation, a primitive warning. My gait increases. I may consider running. I hear the thing moving closer but cannot place what it is yet. Coyote? Cougars, there are cougars around here, I think. But not smack in the suburbs, right?

I don’t want to bolt, I don’t want to hearken to the alarm of adrenaline but I am soon, indeed, running, my long legs covering ground fast. This is so old, fear rising up from the past yet worse, but I am used to having to hide, avoid fingers grasping, cameras flashing. Worn down by faceless crowds, vultures who just want more more thing from me. Yet this is something else. I count with my every footfall, one to twenty, and again. Calm down, I tell myself. It can’t be something bad, not here, I’m on a suburban park pathway, no one here cares what I do, must breathe, breathe, slow down, easy now. But the flash of rust is seen again as I turn my head to the left. Someone is running alongside me in the trees, and I see a medium build, a male. He glances at me. My feet pound the path harder.

Is there no one around there? What of the mothers with kids? Should I yell, scream? All my breath is used with this foreign racing onward, much faster than I thought possible. It must be a real predator, I realize, and suddenly my body shoots forward, my mind goes blank. My hood falls from my head, my glasses fly off as I jerk my head to look back but dappled afternoon light hits me, my eyes half-blind. I follow instinct, legs galloping.

And so we go, my lithe body a small advantage over the pursuer’s heavier form, my strength from years of dance and exercise a bonus, my fear the fuel used to move faster, fast enough to outdistance him just enough. He moves out of the woods and onto the path behind me. Please let there be an opening in the trees soon–and which trail leads back? I know this park but his footsteps are pounding the earth, a merciless sound getting louder. I start to pant, my mouth is so dry, chest tightening, burning. Sweat saturates the t-shirt under my hoodie.

In the distance, there appears to be a shape moving my way, or it has now stopped, but I can see hazy light behind an oncoming walker or whatever it is, a bright veil of dusty sunlight that may indicate a possible thinning of trees. I am not thinking, only seeing and taking it in. Not a big person, a kid is walking toward me, I can barely make out dark hair and cut off blue jeans.

I want to shout, “Leave, run! Get help!” but speech isn’t possible, only two legs running, hands bunched near waist as my arms close in to streamline as I hit a dead run, my voluminous, heavy hair flying. My heart wants me to take a break–but I must not stop.

There she is, only a teenager?–she steps off the path to my left and watches closely. I try to throw an alarming sound at her as I near. She bends over for something as I keep running– see me terrified, I telegraph her–my legs aching but feet behind me never break rhythm, either. She is standing up, this kid, something now in her hands, she steps toward me, then half-jogs until she comes up close, closer, closer and yells at me–“Hey! Chasing you?”– as I pass her and my eyes say yesyes! now scared for us both, but I can see in her strong hands a huge branch and just keep on.

“Mariah Z! “she yells at me, “I got you!”

And then a leaden thud behind me, a harsh masculine crying out, loud swearing. I just stop, finally, breath grating my throat. She is smacking him with the stick as he lies prone and then puts hands up, and she’s on her phone as I rush to her.

I look at him. I wipe my face, all my bones and sinew trembling. He is not someone I know. He does not have a camera slung over his chest. Pale-faced with two red spots at his cheeks, his dark t-shirt with “Mike’s Auto Glass” printed in black, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap askew so his balding head is apparent–he looks close to middle aged, is exhausted by the pursuit. And angry.

“You’re not…uh, Haley! What the hell–you’ve got her hair, I swear! Who are you, anyway?”

“What’re you talking about? Who are you?” asks the teen, then points to me. “You’re a predator and you’re messing with a famous person, Mariah Z, did you know that? Lie still ’til the cops come and shut up!”

She called in an emergency request, then put her booted foot atop his chest and held the branch aloft, right over him. I kept a foot on his ankles, then introduced myself.

“Right, Mariah Z. And you weren’t looking for any Haley, buddy. You were stalking me a good mile.”

“She’s got that right, I saw you creeping around earlier so I cut through on another path, remember that? Now here we are so stay down, you perv!”

She held out a square palm to me, which I shook, glad to have human contact for once. “I’m Terra Bonhiver, a die hard fan of yours! You really live around here? We all thought you’d disappeared.”

The whine of a siren cut into our conversation and we applied more pressure to the struggling man–who fortunately looked a bit cowed as Terra threatened to whack him again with the unwieldy branch. He was pathetic on the unforgiving dirt.

“I thought I had, too–disappeared…” I said and grimaced, a sharp twinge shooting up the backs of my legs. I felt like I’d crumple, and then I did, tumbling into a clump of ferns, but I had faith things might be okay soon.

******

I was helped up by both officers.

“YOu kay?”

What could I say to that? “Yeah, I guess.”

Terra gave the policeman and policewoman her statement after the man was handcuffed and put in the patrol car. He was wanted for a sexual assault. I could not stop tears of relief but brushed them away when Terra softly began to speak.

She’d been jogging before I had gotten started, it turned out.

“Jogging slowly, enough to say I was running but not sweating it, and I see this man lurking by the side of the trail. You know how you can tell when something is off? He acted like that, gave me the side eye, those looks a couple of times as I came near, and as I passed he trotted a bit behind me. It gave me the creeps so I sped up, did a zigzag through some trees. I know these woods–grew up around here. Cutting through took me to a main path closer to the open park. I was sort of debating what to do, if anything at all.”

The policewoman asked, “What made you go back, if you were worried about this guy? Why didn’t you call in your concerns? We’ll always come out to check on things.”

“Yeah? Just a teenager, Japanese-Hawaiian? Okay, I’ll remember that…” Terra shrugged, turned to me. “Anyway, I saw a friend in the park who said, ‘Did you see who I think I saw?’ I said no, who, and she told me it was Mariah Z, she was very sure. She said she’d been walking around and spotted her going into the woods.”

The police wrote it down. The next question: “What did that mean to you, then? You say you were scared but curious?”

“Listen, Mariah Z here” –she pointed at me–“is a world famous model and trend setter and a feminist, please don’t get me started…but that isn’t your realm, I get it.” She sighed.

The policewoman’s eyebrows rose and fell with a hint of recognition as she looked me over briefly. “And so, then?”

“All I could think of was that Mariah Z was going right into the trap, she was walking right into the woods where the creep was and I had to do something! He might know who she is and try to kidnap her or worse, right? So I went back in after my friend told me where she might be– but instinct, I guess?–I started at this end of the trail. And there she was, running like crazy and that guy right behind her. I grabbed a thick branch and when I came by him, I thrust it in front of his feet, he fell, grabbed me by the legs and pulled me down, was trying to get up and yanked my arm to pull me off the trail. But I had a good hold of the branch, hit him with it a couple of times until he stayed down and got quieter.”

She crossed her arms, smiled shyly at me. I stepped over to her and threw my arm about her shoulders, not about to cry though it could happen. But it was my turn, and Terra and I both sat on a bench. Just recounting it all was enough to send a shiver up my spine that somehow landed in my head. One of my infrequent migraines. I used to get more when flashes went off a dozen or more at once, but here it was, a train coming at me after all that had happened. The policewoman gave us a ride home in her separate car.

“Be very careful,” the policewoman cautioned. “He–and others out there–might know where you live since you are such a public person, Miss Zentner.”

She gave me her card with a number to call if needed. I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I realized with a start, he may have known me all along.

And all I could think in bed was: Wait til Mom hears this one, she’ll want to move right in. Sari lay at the end of my bed–she knew just what to do when I was in pain– and I tried to sleep it off with the help of a nice white pill.

******

The next week we met at the park. I wore something I thought would be suitable for a famous model, a snazzy jumpsuit, just for Terra–but kept all else low key. I had been so sweaty, felt so terrible before. This time we were meeting less like two strangers and a bit more than acquaintances who had survived a bad thing. We were glad to see one another. She rather awed me, this young woman. Such self respect and presence at her age, she had some real power. I had thought of little else since that day.

Terra came alone as I had requested, and I brought a sealed brown envelope with a photo in it, autograph and all. I’d dropped a smaller envelope in there that had two, one hundred dollar bills. Not that she seemed like she wanted or needed any help; it was only fun money, she could treat herself. A tiny reward.

“Save this until you get home, okay? I just wanted to thank you now that things have quieted down.”

I admit I watched to see if the phone in her hand was going to sneak up to snap a picture of us on the bench. It didn’t. She looked pleased with my offering, guessing it was a photo.

“Thank you so much!” She beamed at the envelope and me. “So, you’re living in Huntington now?”

I looked out at the woods, offered a half-shrug. “Not really. I took a break to visit my mother who does live here. I took a longer break from the work.”

“Yeah, we haven’t seen you much in the magazines– or anywhere–for a long time. Are you okay, can I ask that?”

Her eyes were softer than I remembered from the week before, when she had seemed so bold, her tough attitude betraying sharper edges. But she was only a kid, fifteen, sixteen at most, with a shy softness that overshadowed, today, the muscle of a young athlete. She was shorter than what I’d thought, and her black hair hung loose and shining.

“I’m okay, just taking a long look at what I do for a living, making changes, maybe. And you? Tell me about yourself.”

“Not so much to say. I’m just starting high school, I love to play soccer and softball, and I like art and also clothes but don’t get dressed up often. I’m not the fashion type, I guess, but I wouldn’t mind being more like that, and really like your fashion stuff, uh, your work.”

“Soccer? I loved it when I was a kid but had to give it up. And anyone can be ‘the fashion type’ if you want to be–it just takes imagination and a little confidence-or you can just like clothes, as you said. You can dress how you like, it won’t make or break you in the end, believe me!”

“I guess so. It surprises me you’re saying that…I mean…”

“I make so much money, I was so well known, I must believe in it entirely, is that it?”

“You still are! People would about die to sit with you like this!”

“Oh, I hope not… Look, Terra, it has been a very decent career–of a sort. I got thrown into it at a young age–looks meant so much to my mother. But it isn’t my choice, exactly. If someone had asked me what I wanted to do when I was twelve or fourteen, what do you think I’d have said?”

“I don’t know…be a movie star? You can do that next!”

“Not at all. I wanted to be a marine biologist. Or a modern dancer. We lived by the ocean then, and I loved it more than anything else–except dancing…and I still want to do something more with my life. Must do more.”

“Wow, I see…To be honest, I hope to get on a pro soccer team. Or get to be an illustrator. Or both.”

“Now that’s what I mean, Terra–doing something good for others, for yourself. Not just look great. You have such a spark, are bold and smart.”

She shuffled her feet, tilted her head at me. For a few minutes we sat looking at everyone walking about, kids playing, saw pretty blue jays and the fussing crows and quick juncos. She liked nature, too. We chatted more about school activities, her own mother, someone who had high hopes for her oldest daughter. I enjoyed her company as time went by and thought, we could almost be sisters, she might be the younger sister I wanted…

But then she raised her hand and waved hard at someone.

“There’s my friend, Ally! Hey, Ally!”

I got up. “Time for me to go, Terra.”

She rose, too, but looked as if I had caught her in a devious act now that her friend started to run up to us. “I know, okay, then. I’m glad you came, I wasn’t sure.”

I took off my shades and gave her a quick hug. “You’re a good person, you know that, Terra? You took a huge risk to help me and I’ll never forget that, or you. I have every faith in you. I suspect you’ll do something great. I might check in with you sometime, see what you’re up to, okay?”

“Mariah Z, that would be unbelievable. Amazing.”

She gave me a wave as I started off with a backward walk. Then I took off with a self-mocking catwalk strut, posing this and that way for her and her friend. I could hear her and the friend clapping and their screeches stopping others who then stared at me.

Then I got out of there, though running in heels was never my forte.

No more adventures for a bit. No more semi-awed smiles. It might be time to go back to Lisbon and find something more interesting to do. To enjoy that certain light skimming the waves. Listen closer to birdsong and keep Sari close to me and well (away from the feathered ones). For who was I to them? And what more might I become other than a smartly smiling or smirking face which looked out at a fast spinning world?