Detective Dog

I recently pet-sat for my daughter’s four dogs: two large boxers (Titan and Hazel) and two small mini pinschers (Rubble and Remi). They’re all friendly and affectionate, but each has its own personality, as well. Remi is the youngest and just turned one. She still exhibits a LOT of puppy-type behaviors, like pottying indoors on occasion, grabbing things to run away with them, and chewing on anything she gets her paws on.

When I went to their house, I took my laptop to work on freelance editing and also made sure to pack a few books I’m reading. One was an early Christmas gift from my sister, Terri. We both love mysteries and like many of the same authors. One of our favorites is UK author, Elly Griffiths. She has three mystery series, and I especially like the two featuring Ruth Galloway and DI Harbinder Kaur. Knowing for sure I’d like it and hadn’t read it yet, Terri sent me the latest Harbinder Kaur book, Bleeding Heart Yard. It’s a great story and pulled me in immediately.

One evening, I had the book set well back on the nightstand, thinking I was being careful. But I hadn’t considered that jumping up on the bed to reach interesting objects was easy for Remi. The next thing I knew, the sound of ripping paper met my ears. My wonderful new book was flung to the floor with pages 321/322 ripped out and lying in several pieces. (Sorry Terri!) I rescued the book right away and set the pieces aside, realizing the pages were from later in the book and wouldn’t be needed right away.

The next morning, I decided the best way to make sure I hung onto all the pieces was to tape them together and back into the book. A few were too small and mangled, so I certainly hoped enough of the print remained to get the gist of the paragraphs. With tape in hand, I began reconstructing, while matching up words.

Suddenly, to my horror, I realized my eyes had landed on a section with an all-important sentence…”X X has admitted to the murders.” What are the chances that in those 30 seconds of jubilant grabbing and chewing, Remi would choose one of the few pages that revealed the killer?! I had to laugh, though. It was almost as if she were playing detective and sharing the solution to the mystery with me.

Lucky for me that my main goal in reading a mystery isn’t just to solve the puzzle, although I do that to a certain extent, of course. I love the way mystery series authors weave their interesting characters into suspenseful plots and reveal more about the people in each book. Will I finish reading Bleeding Heart Yard even though I know the name of the culprit? You bet! That doesn’t make much difference to me, except that I’ll be reading from a somewhat different perspective. I’ll be looking to see just how artfully the author reveals the rest of the clues and keeping an eye out for any red herrings.

So Remi wasn’t “in trouble.” But I certainly was reminded to be even more careful about where I set things when she was around!

Remi’s 1st Birthday

So You’re Having Cataract Surgery: A Picture Story for Nervous Adults

A case of “the nerves” sometimes attacks when a person doesn’t know what to expect. I experienced such jitters, so maybe my little story can help tame your fears!

During a regular checkup, my eye doctor told me I had cataracts. Those are like clouds in your eyes and not in a good way. The doctor said I should have an eye surgeon remove them.

In the past, I’ve had a few operations. And I knew this was a common eye procedure. But I was so dang scared of anyone fooling with my eyes. I put that decision off for YEARS!

Finally, my glasses no longer helped me see well enough. The time had come to face facts. I needed operations to remove cataracts from both eyes!

One of my friends had already had cataract surgery and really liked the doctor. I asked him for the surgeon’s name. Before I could change my mind, I made the call.

The first appointment was a lot like a regular eye doctor visit. This included me trying to see and guessing at fuzzy letters. The medical worker also put drops in my eyes to dilate them for other tests.

Even more drops numbed my eyeballs. They did that to lightly touch them with an instrument to check the pressure. I had trouble keeping my eyes open for that test!

I also suffered from what they called “dry eye.” They told me to use artificial tear eyedrops at home for several weeks. Then I went back for pre-surgery eye measurements.

An office person gave me two appointments because they usually operate on one eye at a time. “Leftie” was the cloudiest and would be fixed first.

With my dates in mind, I set up transportation. I also filled out online medical forms for the surgery center.

The day before my first operation, I had to start using special drops in Leftie. I would use those according to a schedule for many days and was still using them when I prepared “Rightie” for surgery. I won’t lie. Those drops burned a bit. But they were super important to keep my eyes safe!

The night before eye surgery, I had to stop eating or drinking by midnight. My stomach had to be empty when they used anesthesia to help me feel calm during the operation.

The morning of the big day, I arrived at the center before sunrise. With check-in completed, the minutes dragged by. I wanted the entire experience behind me.

After what felt like forever, someone led me into the inner rooms. Friendly medical workers baptized Leftie with many types of drops to dilate and also prevent pain and infection during the procedure.

When my turn had almost arrived, they asked if I wanted to use the bathroom. “Yes, please,” even though my last drink was hours before, and I’d only taken a sip of water with my morning pill.

One understanding person assured me I could have my choice of beverage soon after the procedure. Margaritas were not on the list. But a soda, which I rarely drink, sounded very good.

They gave me a net for my hair, a cotton gown to wear on my top half, and slipper socks for my feet. The temperature in that area was kept chilly. I was happy my comfortable jeans could stay in place.

The doctor and the anesthesiologist took turns coming into the little room to talk with me. Then, a medical worker numbed my hand and inserted an IV tube with a little needle prick, so I would be ready for the anesthetic. They also stuck a few small patches onto my chest to help track my heart during the operation.

Next, someone came and whisked me away in a wheelchair to the operating table. Easy-peasy. I felt pretty calm by then. They placed something soft under and around my head to help it stay in place.

After seeing my doctor show up, I remember little except voices and lots of colored lights in Leftie. The next thing I knew, the operation was over! They helped me sit up slowly and guided me back to the wheelchair.

I have hazy memories from the next few minutes. Soon, a person wheeled me back to the small room and then outside to meet my daughter. Whee! I wore special sunglasses because my eyes were dilated to the max. To others, I probably looked more like an alien from outer space than a movie star.

At home, I had to avoid lifting and bending for a few days. I felt extra tired that afternoon and binge-watched a favorite TV show. I slept VERY WELL that night.

The next day, I went to the doctor for a recheck to test Leftie’s sight and pressure. Everything was good! I would go back in about a week for another recheck. My glasses no longer worked for me, so I needed someone else to drive.

The date for Rightie’s operation would arrive in a few weeks. I didn’t feel quite as nervous about that because I knew what to expect! Meanwhile, I used the special drops in Leftie and kept watch on the calendar for the day to start them in Rightie.

Being humans, we’re each different. You might wonder what made me the most nervous. I admit to worrying a lot about them touching my eyeball to measure the pressure at each checkup. I’m a world-class blinker and can’t stop when something comes at my eyeball!

I felt a little better after sharing my struggle about that with the kind and gentle medical workers. And I tried anxiety-calming techniques, like deep breathing and counting combined with breathing. I also tried distractions, like thinking about other sensory things in the room (what I could hear and smell, for example).

Of course, various doctors and surgery centers do things in different ways. But if any part of the cataract removal process makes you nervous, you might try those relaxation ideas. I hope reading about my positive experience helps you win against your own jitters!

EPILOGUE: Try to be flexible. The date for Rightie’s operation was changed by the surgery center just a day in advance. But I now have two “new eyes!” Becky

(Images from Pixabay)

Historical Houses as Fictional Characters

Laurium, Michigan

I have no idea about the names of the people in the photo shown above. But I know the house intimately. It was built around 1900 and had been updated countless times when I moved in over 20 years ago. The house still needed a great deal of work, and it really started to shine during the years when I was lucky enough to live there.

A kind resident of the small, Upper Peninsula town loaned me this old photo. They had known someone who lived on the street and realized I might be interested in this historical image of my house. I formed the mat around the copy of this picture with remnants of vintage wallpaper found hiding in the walls during renovations.

After mulling over my story, “Dinner for Two,” for years, I finally knew the missing piece. The house needed to play a more important part as a character, along with the man and then the woman, known only to the reader through the man’s recollections.

I’m pleased to say that my story now appears in UP Reader #6, which is published by Modern History Press! Because this just came out, I can’t share this tale with you, yet. But I’m happy to now post a story that I told you about last year…”Sumac Summer.” This is based on memories my father told me from his own childhood and was such fun to write. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about this young boy’s suspicions of a possible poisonous mistake!

Staghorn Sumac in Michigan

Sumac Summer

“Philip, why are you still awake?” Mom whispered. She carried a lantern to avoid the bright hallway bulb.

“Too hot,” I murmured, from my spot by an open window. Four brothers snored nearby. My six sisters were quiet in their room down the hall.

“A few more minutes and back to bed,” my mother warned, as she left on tiptoes.

Something outside moved from the shadows. Dr. Justin walked the path to my friend’s house with his black medical bag. Was Danny sick?

The stairs squeaked, and I dove for my pillow. I ignored the need for an outhouse visit, pressed my eyes shut, and fell into a sweaty sleep.

***

The air was even warmer when the rooster crowed the next morning.

“Looks like our next-door neighbors moved out,” my big brother, Harold, said at breakfast.

“No way. Danny’s my best friend. He wouldn’t leave without telling me.”

“When I delivered their newspaper, the window shades were still closed, and their car was gone,” said Harold.

“Dr. Justin was over there last night,” I said. “I wonder what happened.”

“I bet they didn’t move,” said my oldest brother, Ernie. “They probably got sick and died from poison, or something.” He clutched his throat and fell to the floor with a choke.

“Don’t tease,” Mom said with a frown. “Danny’s mother mentioned that his father had health problems. She said they might move closer to family in New York.”
                                                                     ***

By the end of that week, I decided Danny was gone for good. Harold reminded me it was my turn to cut the grass. I grabbed the wooden handle and gave our mower a push across the lawn. By the time I finished, the sun was high in the sky. My cheeks were on fire, and my mouth was dry as dirt.

I guzzled water at the kitchen pump and grumbled. “Why can’t we ever buy soda pop from the market?”

“Treats like that cost too much for a family of thirteen,” said Mom.

“Could we make more root beer?”

“That wasn’t cheap, either. And we had a terrible mess in the basement when a bottle exploded.”

“I have an idea for a drink,” Dad said, as he walked into the room. “It’s almost free and not messy to make.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Sumac (‘sue mack’) juice. It’s been years since I made any, but I remember the steps.”

“Never heard of it.”

“The sumac tree’s red berries can be used to make a lemon-flavored drink,” said Dad. “Some people even call it sumac lemonade.”

I pumped another cup of water and listened.

“The family next door has gone. No one cares if we cut berries from those sumac trees between the two houses,” Dad continued.

“Guess not.” Even though the neighbors had only been gone a week, I missed Danny. He’d been my best friend and could even make doing chores seem like fun.

Dad eyed the trees through the kitchen window. “We’ll soak the berries in water until it’s pink and lemony. Sugar or honey adds a bit of sweetness. The flavor will be strongest when the clusters turn dark red. Here in Northern Michigan, we won’t see that until late summer.”

A quick look at Mom told me she was okay with his idea.  Hadn’t my parents ever heard of poison sumac? With a gulp, I swallowed the words so they wouldn’t escape from my mouth. What if Ernie was right? What if Danny’s family was poisoned? I wanted to trust Dad on this. But it might make us sick, or even worse!

When I checked outside, the skinny leaves on the short, thick trees were mixed with light green flowers. I didn’t see any berries.

Sleep didn’t come easy that night. I jerked awake. “Argh!!!” Danny and some strangers with hollow eyes and red drool on their lips visited my dreams.  Could that nightmare be a sign that sumac juice might not be safe?
                                                                             ***

Within a few weeks, little green berries appeared. They turned a rosier color each time I dared to peek at them. No words popped into my head to warn my parents they might be poisonous. I had to learn the facts before it was too late. Since it was summer vacation, I couldn’t ask my teacher. The library was the best place to start.

“Chores are done, and I’m going for a bike ride.”

“Sorry, Philip,” said Mom. “You’ll need to watch your younger brother and sister.  I’m late for my women’s meeting.” The screen door slammed before I could argue.

Paul and Eunice weren’t too heavy, and I could pull them to the library in our wagon. The shortest way took us past the blue water of the bay. If only we could trade places with the people who played in the waves without a care in the world.

The air was cooler inside the small, brick library. My sister and brother ran toward the picture books. I started my own search for adult books about trees.

“Philip Ross, I haven’t seen you here in a long time,” said the librarian after a while. “Could I help you find something?” She eyed my sister and brother. Had they emptied all those books from the shelves?

“Ah…no, thanks. We should get going.” I grabbed Eunice by the hand and Paul by the shirt. The walk back home with the wagon was even hotter, and I hadn’t learned anything helpful.

Once we got in the yard, I reached to check the trees and found blood-red berries. Some clusters were even covered with white, sticky stuff. We were almost out of time. My new idea felt scary, but I had no choice. I wiped my hands across my pants and planned for the next day.

                                                                       ***

I awoke early to a gray morning. After sneaking from the house, I steered my bike through quiet streets. I headed to the drug store, where one of my older sisters had an afternoon job. While I waited by the locked door for the owner, Mr. Keiser, I peered down the road through the fog.

Teacher told us that druggists go to college for a long time. That’s how they learn to make safe medicines. Mr. Keiser should also know which plants were safe. His tall body finally appeared from the fog. I ignored the lump in my throat and told him my problem. With a strange look, he motioned me inside the store.

“Aren’t you one of Pastor Ross’s boys?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, I’m Phil.”

“Tell me the details.”

He sat on a high stool, and I began with the way Danny and his family had vanished. I ended with my fear that Dad didn’t know the red berries were poison.

“Your worries are over,” he said. “That’s harmless sumac. You can tell by the red or purple clusters that point toward the sky. The sticky part you described has the strongest lemon taste,” he added.

“Is there a kind of sumac that’s poison?” I asked.

“Yes, but that looks very different. It has green or white berries that hang down.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said in relief, and stuck out my hand to shake his.

“Make sure you always check with your parents before eating anything that grows in the wild,” Mr. Keiser reminded me, as I turned for the door.

I flew toward home on my bike and jumped off before the wheels stopped turning. Fat drops of dew sparkled on deep purple berries. “They’re ready,” I yelled, at the back door. “It’s sumac juice time!”

***

As the sun slipped lower in the sky, I sat on our wide porch with my family. Dad filled glasses with sumac juice for everyone. Mom added frosty chunks from the large block the iceman had just brought. The drink was cool, sour, and sweet on my tongue. Everybody liked it, except Eunice, who didn’t like most things.

“Afternoon,” said the mailman, from the bottom step. Mom traded him a glass of juice for a few envelopes. He drank it and talked with my parents on the shaded porch.

Mom sifted through the mail as soon as he’d gone. She held up an envelope, written with ink. A cloud of worry crossed her face. “It’s a letter from out East,” she said and opened it. Her frown soon disappeared. “Philip, it’s from Danny’s mother. She says they left early that morning to beat the heat and apologizes for not saying good-bye.  She’ll work in her family’s store while her husband recovers,” Mom folded the page. “Time will tell, if they’ll move back to Michigan.”

“I’m glad they’re okay,” I said and turned away to hide my sadness.

“Danny sent you a note, Philip.” She raised a paper written in smeared pencil.

I grabbed it and hurried to the side yard that overlooked my friend’s old house and the sumac trees. Danny’s story made me laugh out loud. On their way to New York, he and his mother had to change a flat tire. He described the scene so well that I pictured them in mud up to their knees as they search for a dropped lug nut. Maybe I could think of a tale to send back?

I had a whopper of an idea. I’d write about a missing friend, fear of a poison potion and a tasty ending!

Bottom: Paul, Eunice, Phil, Harold. Middle: Ernie, Rev. & Mrs. Ross; other siblings interspersed

Why Children’s Stories Are a Powerful Tool to Fight Climate Change – YES! Magazine

reading at beach

The children will inherit the environmental situation (mess) we have allowed on our planet, and we must make sure they have the tools to make life-saving decisions! This informative article discusses why children’s literature is so important for them, in addition to the facts of science…

“Stories that move us do so on a personal level and change us from within in ways that facts alone never could. This is especially true of young people, most of whom respond to stories with emotional intensity.”

Source: Why Children’s Stories Are a Powerful Tool to Fight Climate Change – YES! Magazine

Uncovering the Asian American Old West – YES! Magazine

I was fascinated to read how Linda Sue Park uses her childhood love of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books to bring Asian American characters alive in this setting!     ~Becky

“Asian Americans were conveniently written out of history about the Old West. But they were present—and prolific.”

Source: Uncovering the Asian American Old West – YES! Magazine

Hoping for Snow?

children playing in snow
Becky and sister Terri

Growing up in Michigan, the opportunity to play in winter snow was always a given. Many years would pass, before living in the much different climates of North Carolina and now Texas, to understand how scores of children (and even adults!) maintain such strong desires and dreams for that white stuff.

In 2019, I wrote a blog post with the happy news about the anticipated publication of my story, “Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta,” which revolves around two children waiting for snow. To check out the history of Heikki Lunta in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you can read that post here.

Today, I’m excited to share my full story with you, which was first published in U.P. Reader Issue #3.

frosty window

Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta!

Another winter holiday passed with no snow in sight. Not one flake. That glorious white stuff hadn’t fallen on Ella and Rae-Ann’s part of Texas in years. The sisters searched the sky when cold winds blew. They peered out the windows to see what was new. Nothing.  

“We had such fun playing in the snow that year,” said Ella, pointing at a framed photo.

“I only remember making snow angels when I look at that picture,” said her younger sister, Rae-Ann.

New Year’s Day came and went. The children said ‘good-bye’ to winter break and returned to their classrooms.

***

Mom shooed two dogs away as she sliced apples and spooned peanut butter onto plates for an after-school snack. Grandma sat in the kitchen finishing her coffee.

 “Y’all come to the table, girls. And don’t let the dogs get your food,” warned Mom. With a shiver, she turned the furnace up a notch before joining the others.

“It’s sure getting cold out there,” said Grandma. “I hear that Heikki Lunta might make a visit.”

“Hay-Kee who?” asked Ella, licking peanut butter from her fingers.

Rae-Ann’s eyes stole a quick look at the back door.

“His story’s rather long,” their grandmother said.

“Tell us,” the sisters begged in one voice.

“Well, you know I used to live w-a-a-a-y at the tip-top of Upper Michigan,” Grandma began.

“I sort of remember visiting you there,” said Ella.

“That was summer. You have no idea what it’s like in the winter.”

“Lots of snow?” asked Rae-Ann.

“Tons,” nodded Grandma. “The snowbanks grow taller than people. Schools sometimes close for a week at a time because of the blizzards.”

“Wow!” Ella exclaimed. The dogs cocked their heads to the side, listening.

“What does that have to do with this Heikki Lunta?” Mom asked.

“Quite a few families in Northern Michigan came from a far-away, snowy country called Finland,” said Grandma. “Many years ago, those who lived in Finland shared stories called ‘myths,’ just like most ancient people around the world.”

Scooping Snow in Finland (Pixabay)

“I learned about myths in school,” Ella said. “Those are made-up stories that explain how things work or got started. We read about how the elephant got its trunk.”

“Exactly,” said Mom. “And you’ve both seen a movie about Hercules, which is also a myth.”

“That’s right,” Grandma said. “Many of those stories include gods and goddesses. ’Heikki Lunta’ is like a snow god from Finland. People who live in Upper Michigan often talk about him in the winter when they’re hoping for snow. Hotels and restaurants looking for visitors to the area even put up signs saying, ‘Heikki Lunta, do your thing.’”

“Did you ever see him?” whispered Rae-Ann.

“He’s just pretend,” Ella reminded her younger sister. “Grandma, why did you tease us and say he’s coming here?”

Mom and Grandma exchanged knowing looks.

“The weather report says we might get a bit of snow tonight or tomorrow,” Mom answered.

Her daughters’ smiles reached from ear to ear.

Make it snow, Heikki Lunta, make it snow,” sang Grandma, when it was time for her to leave.

***

When Dad returned from work, the sisters rushed out to his red pick-up truck and told him about the forecast. After dinner, they drew pictures of their neighborhood covered in snow. At the bottom of hers, Ella wrote, “Please send snow Haykee Loonta.”

The girls welcomed bedtime that night. Ella left her blinds open in hopes of seeing some flurries. In another room down the hall, Rae-Ann was excited and just a little nervous. She peeked through long lashes at her bedroom door before falling asleep.

While she slept, Rae-Ann imagined someone like Hercules. He wore a heavy white coat with its collar turned up against the cold. Ella dreamed of a man with long gray hair and beard, who was dressed in a flowing blue robe. Wind and snow swirled around him. Heikki Lunta?  As the whole town slept, dark clouds gathered and delivered a bit of magic.

                                                                     ***

At the sound of Dad’s pick-up leaving in the morning, four eyes popped open wide. Rae-Ann and Ella ran to their windows and cheered at the sight of powdery snow on the ground and glistening flakes in the air. The time said 9:00. Why had their parents let them sleep so late?

“You’re taking a snow day,” Mom explained in the kitchen.

“School’s closed?” asked Rae-Ann.

“The roads are quite safe, according to the radio. We don’t get snow very often, so Dad and I decided to let you stay home and enjoy it.”

 “Yay!” both girls cheered, as they ran to get dressed.

“A warm breakfast comes first,” Mom yelled up the stairs. “Then we’ll hunt up our wooly hats and mittens. You’ll need to wear your snow boots and not just those ropers.”

***

dogs in the snow
Dogs Surprised by Snow

Light snow continued to fall throughout the morning. The three stomped trails in their backyard and built a small snowman. Ella and Rae-Ann lay down and flapped their arms to make snow angels. Their happy dogs rolled near them on the frosty ground. While watching their fun, Mom picked a torn section of blue fabric from a nearby bush.

“Maybe Heikki Lunta really did help us out,” Ella said with a secret grin, at the sight of the blue material. “Does Grandma know about the snow?”

“I’m sure she does,” said Mom. “Let’s pick her up for a snow ride.”

“What’s that?” asked Rae-Ann. “A car drive on the snowy streets?”

“It’s mostly melted from the roads. I’ll phone her to say that we’re coming, and then I’ll show you my idea.”

Ten minutes later, the laughing trio arrived at Grandma’s apartment building. When she slid into the front seat, she saw what was causing their excitement. Sparkling snowflakes floated into the car from the open moon roof.

Mom pulled back onto the street. People up and down the sidewalks turned in surprise. Echoes of four voices drifted through the winter air, “THANK YOU, HEIKKI LUNTA!”

snowman
Texas Snowman

Come to School with Me!

During the school year when leadership in the U.S. changed over from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy, I was a 3rd-grade student on the top floor of the school pictured, above. Already outdated by standards of the day, my building held dark, steep wooden stairs leading up from the first floor and a bell rope hanging over the stairwell, for some lucky kid to pull and dangle from while announcing the start of the day. A chilly cloakroom stood at the top of the stairs, and the classroom was furnished with the old sleigh-style wooden desks, fashioned with inkwells where bottles of ink had once rested.

That same year, some changes had taken place in the leadership of our school, as well. We had a new teacher! Miss Spaude was special for many reasons, I am certain. But the most obvious difference her students noticed right away was that she was bald! This teacher is my favorite and most memorable from elementary school, and I have incorporated her into several of my written works. Happily, my rhyming story, “Miss O’Blair Has Lost Her Hair,” is now published at Storyberries! I hope you will enjoy reading it (for free) as much as I enjoyed writing it, while walking down “memory lane.”

I would like to thank Sue Clancy, writer and illustrator extraordinaire, for the information she generously shared on her blog about Storyberries.

I hope you enjoy the visit to my old school through this post and in the linked story. Just several years after my tale was set, a more “modern” brick building was erected next to this one, and my white frame school was leveled. I felt very sad about that, and I like to keep the memories alive through my writing!

Wearing My Editor’s Hat!

As many writers have found, just having more time to work during the pandemic doesn’t necessarily make one more productive. That’s the case for me. So, in efforts to stay busy and earn some money while I’m at it, I’ve taken on many editing projects. In fact, I’ve completed around 100 manuscript edits since March.

Many of my projects have been children’s picture book edits, while others have involved middle-grade fiction and short stories for adults. I found most of these opportunities through online platforms that match freelancers up with clients. The feedback I’ve received from my clients has been very positive, which I find to be quite rewarding. I’m also excited to say that several of the books I edited are now published, such as the following:

                                             

I haven’t given up on personal writing and still attend my critique groups online. I’ve also completed several writing projects through these freelance platforms, as well, such as non-fiction articles, blog posts, and children’s leveled readers. All of this has given me something to work toward each day, which you all know can be a struggle right now!

In addition to communication with family and friends, my balcony gardening (and the challenge of the intense Texas sun!) also keeps me grounded. I finally took the plunge and purchased a fountain for my small outdoor space, which I love dearly. It’s no replacement for the Great Lakes, Atlantic Ocean, or St. Mary’s River, but it’s my little piece of heaven.

Lovely Sounds of Water

Uncomfortable Truths in our Fiction (and the winner is!)

In my last post, I asked those interested in winning a copy of U.P Reader Volume 4, containing my memoir piece, “Much Different Animal,” to let me know in the comments. Out of a shoebox, I drew Maria Donovan at Facts and Fiction as the name of the lucky winner! Thanks to all who entered, and I’ll be sure to post the story as soon as the rights revert to me.

Meanwhile…here’s a fictional story that was published a few years back, which I first wrote about in my post, “Inspired by a Dream.” This tale was, in fact, motivated by a dream. It also contains some snippets of the truth from a much earlier lifetime. Hope you’ll enjoy it!

SLIP OF THE LIP

“You awake?” Soft breath tickled the woman’s ear.

“Wha?” Words failed to form in her mouth devoid of saliva. She spotted a glass of water on the nightstand and swallowed a gulp. Beyond the edges of the thick comforter, the room was frosty. She glanced over the bedside and saw a young, dark-haired girl gazing back at her. A somewhat older, fair-haired version joined them in the room wearing an expression of both joy and worry.

“We made you some toast,” the blonde girl said, raising a paper napkin holding more butter than bread.

“I don’t…” started the woman.

“The baby’s tryin’ to climb over the side of her bed,” the older girl continued. “Dad said he was goin’ to play basketball. I changed her diaper in the crib but didn’t know if I should take her out.”

“I better check,” suggested the woman, rising from the bed and noting she had slept in corduroy jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and thick white socks.

The woman brushed the walls with her fingertips to calm the swaying that assailed her, as they walked down a short hallway together. Upon entering a smaller bedroom decorated with bright wallpaper, the youngest child stood and shook the rail, light brown hair standing on end, as if electrified. “Mama-mama-mama,” she repeated with a wide, toothless grin.

The woman searched the oldest girl’s green eyes.

“Remember us?” the girl whispered.

“Don’t be silly,” the woman replied, lifting the youngest sister from a dark wooden crib.

“It seemed like you were gone for a long time,” said the middle girl, trailing the small group from the room.

“Just a little while can feel like forever,” the woman evaded.

Upon entering the kitchen, a snowy scene greeted her outside the large window. On a calendar hung low from the wall, dates leading to a Friday in December were each crossed out in a childish scrawl. A flyer for an arts-and-crafts show hung next to it on a corkboard. She placed the baby in a highchair, turned up a nearby thermostat, and walked over to inspect the refrigerator’s contents.

Breakfast was a confusion of canned fruit, toast, and cold cereal drenched in the remnants of a milk carton. They ate out of mismatched containers since most bowls and plates from the cupboards crustily decorated the countertops and one side of the sink.

The middle child chattered and regaled the woman with snippets about a series of babysitters, while the toddler banged with a spoon on the tray of her highchair. The oldest girl didn’t say a word and studied the familiar stranger at their table.

The awkward morning passed, even though complicated by details that remained beyond the woman’s reach. “Baba, baba,” the little one begged and placated herself by sucking on a bottle of watered-down apple juice retrieved from under a chair. After giving up her quest of navigating the living room, she plunked down on her diapered bottom with a wide yawn and soon fell asleep on the worn carpet.

baby-shoes-1814348_960_720

The oldest grabbed an afghan from a nest on the sofa, where someone must have slept the previous night, and with a motherly pat covered the dozing youngster. The woman agreed when the middle child asked if she could go down in the basement to ride her bike.

“I’m Tina, and that’s Linda, downstairs. The little kid’s Nora.” Seeing the slight nod of acknowledgment from the woman, the girl offered, “You told me, once, that you ended all our names with an ‘a’ because your mom’s name was like that.”

Seeing another flicker of recognition, Tina said, “Sometimes you liked lookin’ at our baby books and stuff from over there,” and pointed with a chewed thumbnail at a shelf. “I didn’t like it when daddy made you cry,” she added, before she headed down the stairs to join her sister.

Tears closed the mother’s throat and stole any possible reply.

The afternoon was a treasure hunt. She moved in slow motion, while sifting through folders in an organizer on the kitchen counter and drawers of a small desk, finding past-due utility bills and Tina’s school papers printed with care. When she came upon hospital invoices and insurance correspondence, she noted the designation, ‘Patient name:  Elizabeth.’

The woman opened a purse set on top of a free-standing kitchen cabinet, saw several dollars in the change compartment, and took a long look at a driver’s license resting alongside the money.

After removing several prescription bottles from another zippered section, she examined the labels and scanned her recent memories. She hesitated for a few seconds, dumped their contents into the kitchen sink, and watched the rainbow of capsules swirl and dissolve in a torrent of hot water. The medicinal odor reached her nostrils, and memories of a stark and lonely room surfaced. Bile rose in the woman’s throat, and she vomited into the basin watching the last of the pills circle the drain.

She then sat cross-legged on the floor and leafed through baby books filled with hope and family picture albums telling the story of another lifetime. Her brimming eyes stared into the smiling faces.

Returning to the room where her journey had begun that morning, the unmade bed offered temptation of surrender. She ached to lie down, close her eyes, and stop trying to remember. Instead, her eyes focused on the surface of a dresser. She lifted a rectangular wooden box that smelled of cedar and hunted for a tool to open the lock. After resorting to a paperclip, she opened the box and peered through small plastic envelopes at tiny, pearl-like baby teeth and glanced at greeting cards saved from long-forgotten occasions.

At the bottom, a slip of paper lay folded. ‘If you go to the game tonight, is Beth coming, too?’ It was signed, ‘Natalie.’ Natalie? More questions than answers.

Car tires sounded outside the house on a snow-packed driveway. She snapped the lock into place and returned to lengthening shadows in the living room. The tempo of her heart accelerated.

Upon entering the room, the man’s eyes slid away from hers. “Sorry about the dishes and laundry, Beth. I meant to do all that before you got home last night…”

“I need to get something from the store,” she interrupted. “It won’t take me long. Tina and Linda are playing with Nora in her room.”

“I’m not even sure you’re supposed to drive, yet, Beth, and it’s getting a little slippery out. I’ll do it instead,” he insisted.

“It’s okay. I’ll just go to the nearest place.”

“Let me at least make sure the driveway’s clear enough for you to get out,” he said and headed back outside.

With a flash of irritation, she scooped keys from the desk, retrieved her purse, and grabbed a hooded jacket and gloves from hooks on the wall. The moment he returned, she hurried out the door.

Beth held her breath, and the light car balked in the deepening snow when she tried to back from the driveway toward the street. She wasn’t surprised he hadn’t cleared the way, after all, and a shadow that appeared in a window of the house next door caught her attention for a moment. Rocking the vehicle between reverse and drive, she finally was free.

As Beth drove, her headlights cut through the escalating snowstorm, and she recognized passing streets and buildings as if awakening from a hazy dream. At a sharp curve in the road, she visualized the dark river beckoning from beyond a tall stand of pines. Driving past the first little shop with a flickering entrance light, she slid to a stop at the second.

Beth wore no boots and picked her way through slush in the small parking lot before entering the market. She soon returned and moved to place the container of milk on the front seat. Without knowing why, she stepped back into the swirling flakes and opened the trunk of the car.

There she discovered two handcrafted ceramic pots under an old woolen blanket. Beth removed her gloves to caress the pottery’s rough lines and noticed the vessels were room temperature. Considering her options, she decided to leave them in place and slammed the trunk closed. Mentally arranging the pieces to fit, Beth followed tire tracks through the snow, in return to someone’s life, if not her own.

“June’s on the phone,” Tina announced, pressing the device Beth had left behind into her hands when she entered the warmed kitchen. The woman placed the milk in the refrigerator with a pounding heart and took a deep breath.

Words from the other end could have cut, but instead sounded reassuring through the stress roaring in her ears. “Several people saw him with Natalie buying pottery at the arts-and-crafts show, of all places, today. You’re much stronger than you know, Beth.”

Her friend’s voice was familiar and treasured, like a song recalled from childhood. She envisioned many hours spent next door with June, sharing endless cups of coffee and personal revelations, with the children dancing around them.

“Thanks so much,” she replied into the phone. After ending the call, Beth glanced at her three daughters, who played amid a sea of building blocks in the soft, yellow circle of lamplight. Tina’s solemn eyes met her own. The man looked up from the television and blushed over what he guessed was a new disclosure.

The volume from a blaring sports event faded into the background. Beth’s field of vision narrowed, and she peered down a long, dark passageway. Accepting the truth, her view then brightened, as vague uncertainties rearranged into recognizable order.

She descended the basement stairs and picked her way between bicycles, roller skates, and piles of laundry on the cement floor. Beth found what she wanted high on a dusty shelf. He met her at the top step when she returned and followed her along the hallway to the room they had shared. She opened the large suitcase on top of the bed and then hesitated.

“At least you can take the kids with you, this time,” he said.

“I’m not the one who’s leaving,” she answered.

A memory spread before her with the same clarity as the moment it occurred. She had sat, folding laundry in a beam of sunlight that slanted through the blinds, while inhaling the warm sweetness of just-washed baby clothes. Her husband had come home from work in the middle of the day and claimed they needed to talk.

“I love you, Natalie,” he had mistakenly begun.