Kraznir Complications: Continued

Hoof beats pounded in our direction.  Pulling my terrified eyes from the warg droppings took a lot of will power, but I did, in time to see Athor riding toward us, his horse in a lather.

“Ride,” he screamed.  “Ride!”

Just as we had kicked our horses into a gallop we were stopped by a wall of wargs.  Their tusks gleamed in the scattered rays of sunlight that fell through the leaves. Each held a nasty-looking weapon: axes, broad swords and spears. And the drool…pretty disgusting tendrils of drool hung from their mouths as if they were anticipating a good meal. Which would be us.

Rather than being dinner, I rolled off my horse as silently as I could and slid under a log, just like in the children’s tales that I’d loved as a little girl.  I was pretty sure that no one had seen me, which meant that I was in a great position to keep an eye on what transpired and possibly try what magic I had to protect my partners.

One of the wargs grabbed Colwen by the head, lifted him off his horse, and then dropped him into his mouth.  Drool poured from its mouth as he crunched Colwen, bite by bite.

Athor, Doughty, and Little John fought valiantly.  They danced around those wargs, slicing at legs and then dashing away.  I was so proud of them!  I tried sending protection wards over my companions, but since I have yet mastered that talent, I didn’t think they worked.

Perhaps Little John and Doughty’s small size helped in the fight, for the injured  wargs screamed in anger and pain as my companions rushed their legs over and over again.

When one warg fell to the ground and couldn’t get up, the rest ran away, cradling slashed arms or limping on injured legs dripping blood.  Only then did I crawl out from my hiding place, find my horse, and rejoin my companions.

“Mount up quickly and quietly,” Doughty growled.  We complied, then headed in the opposite direction of the wargs even though we knew it would lengthen our journey home.

An hour passed of silent riding through the flat forest. I was glad when Athor called a halt along a slow-moving stream for my backside was tired and I was extremely thirsty. “I heard the wargs coming,” Athor said after we’d drunk and watered our horses. “That’s why I rode back in such a hurry. I hoped to warn you, but the wargs moved faster than I.”

“It’s okay,” Dolwen said. “We made it through with just a few cuts and bruises, and even though Colwen lost his life, none of the rest of us was taken as hostage.”

Athor brushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes.  “Do you think they’re gone now?  I’m too tired to fight another battle.”

“Quiet.” Little John cupped his right hand around his ear to amplify his excellent ability to hear, and sat completely still.  Seconds went by.  “They’re gone, but not too far from away. Let’s ride out before they find our trail.”

We were too exhausted to talk and there was little to say anyway. We all carried the image of Colwen being eaten alive. Our horses seemed refreshed, so we hopped on. Muffled our weapons to reduce sound, and continued toward home.

An hour later the forest opened up and we were at the edge of a rather steep cliff.  Down below was the River Siln.  Athor saw a deer trail to our right, so we followed it down, single file.  To our right, nothing but a wall of granite. To our left, a sheer drop.  I stared straight ahead, trusting my horse to get me down safely.

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College, her local community college, Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples. Some walked hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces. Some sat on benches, walls and lawns, often with arms and legs entwined. Still there were others leaning against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster?

Jessie didn’t know which description fit her best. All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. But she set her sights low as she was not pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster at the ripe old age of eighteen.

As days passed she got to know the names of people in her classes. There were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. There were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. Jessie thought about joining them, but realized that even at her age you were defined by your friends. She knew she was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught skills to sew more fashionable clothes, nothing changed. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some alcove tucked into a recess. The only change that she noticed was what was happening to some of her classmates. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note, like she saw kids do in high school. When Jessie opened it later, she discovered an interest quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note during the next class.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George sat down next to her at class, Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes throughout class, struggling to contain tears that filled her eyes. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled demurely. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned red. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to picnic and hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would behave poorly.

When Saturday arrived, Jessie put on her best jeans, and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, positive that when she was finished, that it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes and pickles, plus a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

George arrived driving a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata. When he got out of the car, he smoothed back his hair, tugged the hem of his college sweatshirt and headed to the door. Before he could ring the bell, Jessie opened it with a smile on her face.

She escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead glowered at him as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you interested in her?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led Jessie out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be like that. Well, I feared he would, but I had hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, I can bring you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap. She stared at her fingers as she said, “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before. You’re my first.”

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, even discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird for Jessie as she’d never talked about schoolwork before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some deer.”

As they walked, they talked about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that were still in bloom, typical for California. The dragonflies that zipped about, the giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie into a copse of trees. He leaned against a trunk as he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not even from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life. Called her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  George’s kind words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. It was wonderful. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George resisted, pulling her tighter against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “Remove your hand.”

George’s grip around her waist increased until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra, then moved to her chest.

“No. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You said you’d never dated. You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His hands went under the waistband of her jeans, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.

“No!” she yelled as she grabbed his hands and pushed them away. Jessie pulled her sweatshirt down and ran back down the trail toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably even smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake. She had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents to come get her. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want was her body, not her love.

The walk home was too far. Granted, she was in good enough shape to do it, but the park was at the top of a huge hill, on a street with no sidewalks that, on a Saturday, was filled with fast-moving vehicles. Jessie thought about flagging down a friendly-looking driver, but realized that was as dangerous, if not more so, than riding with George.

“I knew you liked me,” he said as he walked up to the car. He pressed her against the hood, forcing her to bend backwards. He resumed kissing her, fondling her, ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he hastily pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the uniform of a park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered at George as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George left, the ranger led her to an information booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“No. My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He walked her to the parking lot and stayed with her until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun of her with an intensity she’d felt over and over as she grew up.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed down the hall to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes.

 

The Sound of Surprise

“It’s time for me to go,” Sunshine laughed as she tossed the last of her breadcrumbs to the ducks swimming around her legs.  Violating all rules, she had jumped into the duck pond, first splashing around like a child in the heat of summer, then reaching into a pocket of her shirt and pulling out a crushed bag of bread.  Wading in the murky water of the pond, the young woman sang in a clear soprano, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Exuberant, lost in the moment, she spun in the water, moving as if enchanted by a water sprite, head tossed back, eyes closed, arms straight out with palms turned toward the sun.  She danced as she sang, circling closer and closer to a huge marble fountain spewing a constant spray of clear blue water.  She slid onto one edge, feet dangling in the duck-crowded water, arms raised, gathering the spray and pouring it over her hair, her face, and her arms.

“Young lady,” a bullhorn-enhanced voice traveled across the pond, awakening Sunshine from her play.  Looking around, she spied a park ranger, dressed in khaki uniform, standing parallel to the fountain.  “Young lady,” the ranger repeated, “please get off the fountain and walk to me.”

Sunshine laughed and waved a friendly “hello,” then resumed catching spray and pouring it over herself.

“Leave the pond now or you will be arrested.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“You’re breaking the law.”

“What law?  This is such a beautiful place to spend a hot afternoon.” Sunshine dove into the shallow water with the expertise of a master swimmer.  With strong strokes, despite the weight of her clothes, she quickly returned to her point of entry.  She ducked her hair into the water, smoothed it back over her head, and then stood.  She pulled her soaked peasant blouse over her head and then twisted it as tightly as possible, wringing out the water, unabashed by her nakedness.

“Please get dressed,” the ranger commanded. “Step up here next to me. You are creating quite a spectacle.”

She pulled her blouse over her head.  Imperiously holding out her right hand, Sunshine blessed the ranger with what would have been a regal smile were it not for her soaked clothes, matted hair, and dirt-streaked face.  “Help me, please.”

The ranger complied, as she knew he would.  Shee took in the ranger’s deep brown eyes, closely shorn hair, tight fitting sleeves, and bulky chest.  “Ranger Sanchez,” she said as she read his nametag.  “Too beautiful of a name for a government employee.”

“And you are…?”

“Sunshine.  That’s me.  Can’t you tell?  My father says I do.” The young woman twirled around, water flying from her skirt and hair, spraying Sanchez’s uniform.

“Miss Sunshine, you have broken at least ten park rules, but since you complied with my directives, I will not write you a ticket.  This time.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!  My father would be very upset if I got a ticket.  He really cares about that kind of stuff,” she said as she picked up her worn leather sandals and overstuffed backpack from the edge of the pond.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m not sure.  I was thinking of just walking wherever the sun leads me.”

As Sanchez helped her settle her backpack into place, he said, “I hope you are not planning on camping in Central Park.  That is also against the law.”

“Of course not.  I have reservations at a hotel.  Why?  Are you asking me out for a date?”  She pouted, swaying suggestively.

Laughing, he took hold of her right arm and guided her away from the pond.  “I might.  If I said yes, what would you say?”

Clapping her hands and squealing with joy, she answered, “Yes.  I would say yes.  I don’t know anyone in New York except for some of the staff at the hotel.  We could go out to lunch and tour the city and maybe see a play on Broadway and then go to a nice restaurant for dinner.  Oh, would you do all that?”

“Miss Sunshine,” Sanchez replied as he bowed, “I would be honored to do all those things with you after you’ve had a bath and put on some clean clothes.  We can visit the zoo, walk through the flower gardens, and tour the castle.”  Sanchez led the still soaked woman down the cement path that wound its way to one of the many exits of the park.

“Oh, I am so excited.   This is almost as good as Christmas.  When can we go?”

“First, my name is David.  Second, I have Friday off.”

“ So do I,” she laughed.  “Fate has brought us together.  I feel it.  I was meant to feed the ducks and you were destined to greet me.”  Suddenly she wrapped her arms around David, squeezing him as tightly as a favorite teddy bear, and planted a delicate kiss on his right cheek.

“Hold on, you’re getting me all wet,” David laughed as he pushed her away.  “I’ll pick you up at noon, if that’s fine with you.  But I need to know where you are staying.”

A dark look flew across Sunshine’s face.  She frantically looked about, and seeing Dali’s Deli across the street, instantly brightened.  “I’ll meet you over there, at the deli.  We can buy sandwiches and picnic in the park.”

“Sure.  Why not?  What play would you like to see?”

“Can we see Rent?  Is it still playing?”

“Yes.”

“I would like that very much.  One of my friends has a part in the play.  I’d love to see her.  Just like high school days.”

Tipping his wide brimmed hat goodbye, David ambled down the path toward the pond.  He whistled as he walked, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Once he was out of sight, Sunshine sped off.  She pushed through bushes, climbed over small boulders, squeezed through densely grown trees, seemingly with no direction in mind.  Eventually she came to a small meadow, where no light penetrated through the carpet of leaves overhead.  Placing her backpack against a large tree, she stretched out on the dirt floor, ignoring the crumbled detritus that quickly attached itself to her damp clothing.  She lay as if bewitched, frozen in place like the princess in an old story.

 

She dreamt of friends who had drifted away, leaving her behind.  At times laughing, others crying, she slept curled in a fetal position, her dreams playing games with her emotions.   At the screech of an overhead hawk, she abruptly awakened.  “I must go.  I’ll be late,” she said to herself.  She arose, picked up her backpack and pushed her arms through the straps.  Forgetting her sandals, she hurried away, heading east, knowing exactly where the path broke through the bushes, stopping only when she stood across the street from a grand old hotel.

She stood still for a moment, taking in the stone structure of one of the oldest hotels in New York City: the Park Plaza.  She loved its gray granite exterior, dark mahogany double doors, and circular stone steps that carried its patrons into a wonder world of beauty.  She felt as if the Plaza was her kingdom, to rule as she pleased, to live out her fantasies and revel in her dreams.

Dashing across the street, she bounced off the grill of a cab, fell against the side of a slow moving delivery van, and meandered through a maze of vehicles, until she arrived, slightly bruised, at the steps of the hotel, a smile of anticipation spread across her face.  Running up the steps as easily as a seasoned mountain climber, Sunshine brushed past the surprised doorman, and then flounced into the lobby.

She froze momentarily, as she always did, mesmerized by the hotel’s old world ambiance. Breathing deeply, Sunshine inhaled the orange-spiced furniture polish the staff used on the walnut tables and cabinets, the perfume of huge bouquets of flowers scattered about with seeming nonchalance, and the old, slightly musty smell of the Oriental carpets gracing the lobby floor.  It was as familiar to Sunshine as the smells of her home in San Francisco.

 

Taking a moment to scan the employees working in the lobby, she saw none that she knew. Disappointed, she headed for a quiet corner.  She spotted a group of rose-colored overstuffed armchairs near the front window, completely unoccupied, and shuffled over.  She slipped off her backpack and sat.

Her glow slowly returned as she watched a pair of hawks dancing on the air currents between the nearby buildings, the pair moving like old accustomed lovers responding to a song that only they heard. When they disappeared from sight, her eyes fastened on a Steinway grand piano to her left.  Sunshine ran over, pulled out the bench, and opened the lid. Closing her eyes, she launched into a series of compositions with the grace of a master pianist.

Her fingers caressed the keys.  A Mozart concerto drifted across the lobby as Sunshine’s tangled hair fell across her sunburnt shoulders. Her dirty bare feet worked the pedals as the music flowed, filling the lobby with the rise and fall of one piece after another.

The manager strode across the lobby; the tails of his tuxedo flapping like a jay’s wings.  As if sensing the manager’s approach, Sunshine jumped up and strode to a backlit display case.  Intrigued by a Swarovski elephant that seemed to lift its trunk in greeting, she waved in response.  Next she examined a collection of Ukrainian eggs on loan from a local collector, perfume bottles crafted by a French artist, and lace doilies made by fisherwomen on the island of Murano.

“Young lady,” the manager said in a starched voice, “what are you doing?”

She spun around, hands raised in a defensive position, knees bent and shoulders dropped.

“Please,” he hissed.  “You are creating a spectacle.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I was just looking around a bit.”  Tossing back her dirty hair, her unwashed neck was clearly visible.  “Sunshine.”

“What?”

“My name is Sunshine.”

“Perhaps you are in the wrong place,” the manager said, maintaining the requisite stiff demeanor while wrinkling his nose at her raw smell.  “The youth hostel is across Central Park, Miss Sunshine.”

She strolled to her backpack and pulled out her MP3 player with the manager nervously tagging along.  She plopped onto a pale rose ottoman as she pushed the earphones into place and cranked up the volume.  She leaned back until her hair touched the ornate carpet, her legs akimbo. The manager’s unobstructed view of her underwear caused him to sway.

She raised her arms over her head, placing one hand on each side of her hair. As her shirt rose, her abdomen slid into view, exposing her pierced navel and tattooed belly.

“Please, cover yourself.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than stare at my butt?”

Then, springing to her feet like an acrobat on a trampoline, Sunshine stared at the manager.  “Oh, you must be Mario,” she squealed. “I heard you were gorgeous, but I didn’t expect an Adonis.”  She smiled what would have been a beatific smile were it not for her stained teeth. “My mother says you give excellent massages.  I’m desperately in need of one.”

Mario blushed a deep crimson, brushed imaginary lint from his impeccably pressed jacket, pulled his body stiffly upright, then said, “Your behavior is inappropriate for the Park Plaza.  You look as if you just trekked across the Mohave Desert.  You smell, your clothing is disgraceful, and you act as if you are deranged. And I will definitely not give you a massage.”

“Sunshine.  You forgot to use my name again.”

Miss Sunshine, you must leave now or I will call the authorities.”

“I think not, Mario,” she murmured, as tears pooled in her eyes. A steel-like resolve filled the young woman. With shoulders squared, she commanded, “Take my backpack to the desk, Mario.  I will check in now.”

“What?”

“I will check in now.” She strode to the desk, leaving a startled Mario behind.

Gingerly picking up the backpack by its shoulder straps, struggling with its weight, Mario followed the girl.  “I think you are mistaken,” he huffed as he got within speaking distance.

Sunshine silently marched to the front of the line, unbothered by the scalding looks of  patrons who covered their noses with monogrammed handkerchiefs, eyes agog.

“I would like to check in, please.”

Mario dropped the backpack next to the young woman’s feet. “We have no available rooms.”

 

Anger and hurt marched across her face.  Looking deeply into Mario’s eyes, tears unabashedly streaming down her face, she said, “I have a reservation.  I know that you are holding a room for me.  Please stop embarrassing me.”

“Take your filthy bag and leave,” Mario whispered as he picked up the desk phone.  “I am calling the authorities.  If you do not leave before they arrive, you will be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.”

“What did I do?  Am I some thief or murderer?  My father’s a millionaire.  He holds majority shares in this hotel.” Staring into his eyes with the fierceness of a cornered lioness, she continued, “I am his daughter. I graduated from Harvard University, suma cum laude, with a PhD in Music Theory.”

“I am happy for you, Miss Sunshine.”

“My father is expecting me.  I promised that I would arrive early enough to bathe, put on a gown, and meet him for dinner in the Atelier at 7:00 when he finishes with the Board of Directors.”  She pushed Mario aside as easily as moving a feather, and placed her elbows on the check-in counter.  Smiling at the startled clerk, she cheerily said, “May I check in now?”

The clerk opened the reservation book on the computer. “I have no reservations for Miss Sunshine.”

“Sunshine is my nickname,” she laughed. “I am Sarah Smythe, daughter of Dr. Paul Smythe,” she proudly stated, blue eyes flashing.  “I believe he has the suite on the 22nd floor.”

The clerk smiled as the reservations popped up on the screen.  Mario’s face went from red to ghostly white in seconds.  As the clerk printed up the confirmation paperwork, he scuttled off to wave away the newly arrived police officers before unnecessarily intensifying the bizarre scene.  Sunshine seemed not to notice the commotion behind her, standing with one leg tucked inside the gauzy skirt, debris still clinging as if part of the design.

“Do you have some identification, Miss Smythe?”

“Oh, yes, of course” she said as she unzipped the top pocket of her backpack.  She pulled out a handmade beaded purse, and then reached inside for her driver’s license.  Handing it to the clerk as if giving out a hundred dollar bill, Sunshine held her head aloft like a princess examining her court.  “You see,” she said, “ I am Sarah Smythe.”

“Yes, I see that,” the clerk replied as she returned the license.  “Welcome to the Park Plaza Hotel. You are staying in the Royal Suite, as you know.  It’s a beautiful room overlooking Central Park.  You should find everything to your liking, especially the high-powered telescope, the 700 thread-count linens, and the Frette candles in the bath.”  Smiling, the clerk gave her the room key and then hastily turned away, barely suppressing the hysterical giggles that threatened to explode.

“Thanks,” Sunshine said.  “You have been very kind.” Picking up her backpack as easily as lifting a bag of taffy, she marched up to Mario, stopping inches from his face. “I suggest you treat your patrons with more respect.”

“Yes, Miss Smythe.”

“Have you ever heard the expression that you can’t judge a book by its cover?”

“Yes.”

“Learn it if you enjoy working here. And my name is Sunshine.  My father says I am the sunshine that brightens his day.  Remember that.”  She spun around, marched to the elevator doors, and pushed the button for the express car to the suite.  When the doors opened, she stepped inside, flouncing her tangled locks in a wave of triumph as the doors closed.

She maintained tight control as the elevator arrived at her floor, as the doors opened, and even as she stepped into the plush suite her family loved.  She walked through the living area, poked her head into her parents’ room, and seeing no one, deposited her backpack in the closet of her bedroom.  Only then did she allow the tears to flow.

Sunshine loved her world in San Francisco, where people dressed as they pleased and no one held her in disdain.  Amongst her family’s friends, she was not considered “bohemian,” but rather quaint.  Respected for her musical talent, she frequently entertained the many guests of her parents, both of whom were prominent physicians at UCSF Medical Center.  Even when guests dressed in tuxedos and formals, no one scoffed when she showed up wearing gauzy shifts or tie-dyed t-shirts and faded jeans.  Eccentric behaviors aside, Sunshine danced through life, bouncing from one adventure to another.

While New York City was high on her list of favorite places to visit, she had never had the opportunity to play the role of tourist, despite countless trips to join her parents at one conference or another.  She longed to meander about the city with a handsome man as guide, but every man she met was only interested in her family’s money.

Dressing in “hippie” clothes gave Sunshine permission to act outlandish, to step outside of her role of spoiled rich kid. On top of that, by not brushing her hair or changing her clothes, she didn’t have to worry about attracting potential molesters or kidnappers. Unfortunately it also kept away anyone who might have penetrated her disguise and found the intelligent, talented woman beneath.

In New York her only friends were the ducks in Central Park and some of the staff in the hotel suite.  Rosa took care of her clothing and room, while Miranda brought her tamales and rice and beans to make her feel at home.  Sometimes when Joey was the concierge on duty, he escorted Sunshine safely across the hectic streets, and then bought her a gelato at a deli before returning to work.

Realizing that it was almost time to meet her father, Sunshine dried her tears and stripped as she walked into the luxurious bathroom, dropping her clothes on the floor.  Rosa had left her favorite bath gel and shampoo on the side of the tub.  Miranda had pressed the black chiffon evening gown her father purchased for this evening. Everything was perfect, as it always was.

She tried to pull out the tangles in her hair, but it hurt too much.  “Rosa, are you here?  Miranda?  Is there anyone here who can help me?”

“Senorita Sunshine,” Rosa responded as she hurried into the bathroom, “I am here.  What can I do for you?  Oh, my goodness!  Look at your hair!  What have you been doing?  Your father would be horrified if he saw you like this.”  Rosa sat the girl on a chair in the dressing area, and then slowly brushed out the tangles.  “First you take a long bath and then I’ll brush out your hair.”

“I know, Rosa.  But I forget to bathe when I get distracted.”

“You must behave like a lady at all times.  You cannot run around like a homeless child.  This is New York City, Sunshine,” she said as she finished.  “Come, child, into the bath.”  Rose threw the filthy clothes into a laundry bag as Sunshine stepped into perfumed water.

Immersed in the steaming warmth, she meticulously cleansed herself from top to bottom.  Burning candles filled the room with a cinnamon fragrance, while the flickering lights created mesmerizing patterns on the pale pink tiles.

“It is time, Senorita,” Rosa called as she held up a white Turkish towel and enshrouded the now clean woman in its soft folds.  “You must get ready.  Your father has already called for you.”

“I met someone today,” Sunshine beamed. “His name is David and he works in the park and he’s taking me out tomorrow.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Talk to your father first.  What do you know about this David?  Put on your underclothes while I press your dress one more time.”

After Rosa left the bathroom, Sunshine picked up a new toothbrush and paste.  Just as she put the brush in her mouth, David’s pleasant face appeared in her mirror, standing protectively over her right shoulder, shimmering in the steam of the bath.  She reached up to caress the fingers that were not there, smiling as she felt the ticklish hair on the back of his knuckles.  “I’ll be there tomorrow, David Sanchez.  You won’t be disappointed.  I’m your kind of girl, and you’re my kind of guy.  I knew it the moment you shouted at me with that foolish bullhorn.” She finished dressing, then caught the elevator.

As she stepped through the doors on the lobby floor, her father’s face lit with pride.  Sunshine ran to his open arms and fell into his loving embrace.  After exchanging kisses, she deliberately marched past Mario.  Dressed in black heels, gown, and shawl, she was the picture of elegance.

During dinner her father described the antics of the Board members, spoke about his turbulent flight in which several passengers became nauseous, and trivialized a recent surgery to repair a little Guatemalan girl’s cleft palate.  Normally she would have listened intently to every word, but not tonight.

“You’re not here, are you, Sunshine?’

“What?”

“Something’s on your mind. I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said.”

“Yes, I did.  Well, I think I did, but I can’t remember anything except something about an operation.  I’m proud of you, Dad.”

“So, what’s on your mind that you can’t listen to your old man?”

Picking up her glass of ice water, she drew tracks through the condensation.  “I met someone and  I think he likes me.  We’re going to out tomorrow.”

“Were you wearing that hippie get-up?”

“Yes.  But he doesn’t care.  He smiled, Dad, and held my hand.  And laughed with me, not at me.”

“How do you know he is someone you can trust?  He might be a rapist or a murderer.  You know the oddball types that you attract.  I don’t know why you won’t date the men at the country club or from the Haight Street Clinic where you work.  You exasperate me sometimes.  I worry that you are going to get hurt.”

Reaching across the table, she held both her father’s hands and looked deeply into his eyes.  “I’ve tried dating those types, but they bore me.  They’re all looking for a little woman to keep at home and take care of the required two children.  I don’t want that.  Plus as soon as they find out who my parents are, all they love is the thought of marrying money. I want someone who loves living, someone who is a free spirit, someone who doesn’t know about my background and still loves me.  I think this guy might be the one for me.  I want to give him a chance, anyway.”

“Okay,” he sighed.  “But be careful.  Carry your pepper spray.  And don’t wear those foolish sandals.  Wear solid shoes for running in case something goes wrong.”

She scooped up a huge bite of her newly arrived penne pasta.

“Where are you going with this David?”

“Oh, he’s taking me on a picnic and a tour of Central Park, then to a play, and finally out to dinner.  He said we could see Rent.  Jesse has the lead role.”

“I’m excited for you, Sweetheart, and I hope that this David treats you well.  You deserve to be happy.”

They talked as they ate, sharing stories, their love for each other obvious to anyone within watching distance. After the waiter brought the check, Sunshine left her dad at the table and hurried outside for a quick look at Central Park.  “I’ll see you at noon,” she whispered.

She smiled at the evening concierge and at all the desk clerks as she strode past, reveling in their obvious pleasure in her changed appearance.  She called her elevator, rode upstairs, went into her bedroom, undressed, and crawled into her bed, thinking of David and all her hopes that he might, indeed, be the one for her.

Dreams filled her night.  At times she ran in terror from an assailant who followed her down the streets of San Francisco.  Sometimes she danced like Cinderella in a grand ballroom, swirling around and around with David.  Once she broke into a cold sweat and woke, feeling David’s strong hands holding her to the floor as he moved rhythmically on top.  Fighting to push him off, she awakened, shaking and crying.

Unable to return to sleep, Sunshine passed the rest of the evening looking through the telescope at the stars and the moon and at the nocturnal birds stalking their prey.

Miranda appeared shortly after nine.  “Good morning, Senorita Sunshine.  How are you today?” Miranda removed the bedclothes and the still damp towel, placing them in her service cart, then remade the bed to its normal pristine condition.  “You are so quiet.  You have been crying, yes?”

Without responding, Sunshine staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, hoping to see David’s apparition once more.  Only her pale face, reddened eyes and tangled hair looked back.  She slowly went through her morning ritual, and then stepped into the bedroom to see what clothes Miranda had chosen for the day.  Finding a silk blouse and matching blue slacks, she balked.

Not wanting to flaunt her family’s wealth, she dug into her backpack and pulled out a wrinkled pair of light blue jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt with “Angel” embroidered in pink thread dancing across the chest.  She put on her hiking boots and wool socks. She left her hair hanging loose, beautiful waves cascading down her back.

“Goodbye, Miranda.  Wish me luck,” she said as she stepped into the elevator.  Humming as it flew downward, Sunshine hugged herself, reveling in the love that she knew David would throw her way.

When the doors opened, she bounded out of the elevator like a freed tigress, shouting, “Wish me luck, everyone!  I’m off on a date!”  Spying Mario, she flashed him a huge grin, gave him a thumbs-up, and then ran out of the hotel, not waiting for Joey to escort her across the street.

She flew into Central Park, past the zoo entrance, under the animated cuckoo clock, around the rose garden, and over to Dali’s Deli with the hopefulness of a small child.  Still beaming, she scurried around a family blocking the entrance and peered inside. No David.  She went up and down the aisles, thinking to find him picking out a bag of chips.  He was not there.  She looked in the refrigerated section, hoping he was selecting a chilled bottle of White Zinfandel.  He was not there.

Worried that her date might be waiting outside, Sunshine ran out of the store.  He was not there.  Spying a green plastic table and chairs, she sat with her back against the wall, in position to see David approach.  Eyes pooling, she watched a nanny escort two small children into a playground just inside the park gates.  She chuckled as a young jogger dragged a Labrador puppy on a leash, jerking to a stop every time the dog found something intriguing to smell.  But still no David.

Her head fell onto her crossed arms and she sobbed a heart-wrenching cry.  Shoulders shaking, ribs aching, her grief filled the afternoon.

“Excuse me, Miss.  May I sit here?”

Responding automatically, she said, “Sure. No one else wants one.”

“Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Looking up, Sunshine discovered none other than her father sitting across from her, smiling and eyes sparkling.

“My meeting was cancelled, so I was hoping to spend an afternoon with my favorite daughter.  How about it?”

 

“Well, you’re not the man I longed to see, but I am pleased you came,” she said as she wiped away the tears with the hem of her shirt.

“Do you think you could spend the afternoon with your old man?”

“Yes.  Thanks, Dad, for coming.”

“Anything for my Sunshine.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“I asked Joey,” her father laughed.  “He said you love the iced gelato they sell here.  Come, my darling. A picnic and a play and an evening on the town awaits us.”  He stood and offered his arm, humming, “You are the sunshine of my life….”

 

Survivor

Weather-wise, there was nothing special about the day. No rain. No snow. Or smog or fog. Or heat waves radiating over the road. Nothing but feathery clouds scattered across a bright blue sky.

Stan Ellis sat right behind his father who drove staring straight ahead, one arm draped on the armrest, the other loosely gripping the steering wheel. Stan was too young to understand the mechanics of driving. At eight all he cared about was getting there. Sometimes he paid attention to whatever was happening outside the car, but mostly he read or listened to his parents talk or followed along with whatever song came on the radio.

On this day, July 14, they were going camping at Hebgen Lake somewhere near Yellowstone. Stan’s family had never been there before, but that was what made it special. They loved to check out new places and this was one that they’d heard good things about.

Stan’s mom had planned out the details. Food. Campground. Packing the station wagon. She had given Stan a list of stuff to bring and he had packed all that and more.

One thing his mom loved was music. Their station wagon was old, so it didn’t have a CD player. Only a radio. So his mom was constantly searching for a station that came in loud and clear.

Whenever a news program came on, his parents rehashed every topic. Stan didn’t understand politics and didn’t really care. Instead he read. He was currently immersed in a Louis L’Amour book, Down the Long Hills, a story in which a wagon train is attacked, only two surviving. Two kids. A seven-year old and a three-year-old. He imagined himself being there, hiding during the attack, then trying to survive on his own.

Just like the kids in the book, he would have to keep moving, searching for help, building shelter, finding food. Stan thought he would be thoughtful like the older kid, for he had grown up camping and hiking. But would he be too terrified to think clearly? Hopefully he’d never have to find out.

The road climbed into the hills, twisting and turning. His father complained about his limited view, fearing that a careless driver would cross the dividing line or that something would jump out in front of the car or that something would go wrong mechanically and he would lose control. When his dad worried, things got quiet. So no radio, no conversation, just tension.

When it happened Stan wasn’t paying attention. He’d leaned back and closed his eyes, picturing himself alone in the wilderness, searching for berries, not afraid, but approaching each task in his usual logical manner.

When the car suddenly swerved to the right and the tires screeched, he sat up, instantly alert. The crash jolted him, sending him forward, banging his head against the back of his father’s seat, then flinging him backward into his own, hurting his neck and shoulder. Shattered glass flew everywhere.

When the noise stopped, Stan realized that they were jammed up against the hillside to the right, the front caved-in, the windshield spider-webbed. Stan leaned over the back of his father’s seat and saw blood pouring down his mom’s forehead, the funny angle of his father’s neck. Stan knew enough from watching television shows that his parents were in bad shape. Possibly even dead. The only hope for their survival was him.

He slid across the seat and climbed out on the right side, forcing the door open with his feet. Once he was free, he surveyed the situation. The other car, a silver Honda, was jammed against the left side of their car. That driver was immobile, just like his parents. Stan looked inside that car and noticed that the man’s legs were at funny angles. And blood was everywhere.

Knowing he needed to have a strategic plan, Stan found a good sized boulder and sat in the sun. His first thought was that his parents would wake up and tell him where to go and what to do. But as time passed and they didn’t wake up, Stan figured he was on his own.

He got his bag out of the back seat, then took off down the road, heading back where they had come from. As he walked he sipped from his canteen, but also kept an eye out for a fresh water source.

The road wound down and down, twisting around one hillside, then the other. He never saw any traffic. Stan got tired, but knew he couldn’t quit. Too much was at stake.

Night approached. Stan saw no lights of nearby buildings, no indication that anyone was about, so he turned into the woods to seek shelter. The kid in the book used low-hanging tree branches as shelter, so that’s what Stan looked for. He found none, but he did find a hollowed-out tree with an indentation just big enough for him to squeeze into.

Before it got completely dark, he gathered fallen leaves into a body-sized pile for him to sleep on. Then he carried more over to use as covering. Even though it was summer, it would get cold as the night progressed.

Stan was normally a brave kid. He stood up to bullies when a little kid was being picked on, he volunteered to go to the blackboard whenever he could, and he explored his neighborhood with friends, always the leader. But this was different. At home he knew his parents would be waiting for him, dinner cooked, a soft bed, a warm embrace.

Out here he was on his own, and as it became darker, Stan lost confidence in his ability to survive. Every sound terrified him. Every snap of a twig was a predator coming to eat him. Every grunt was a gun-toting killer. Stan shook from head to toe, and not just from the cold.

He pushed himself as deep into the tree as he could, then covered himself with leaves, only his face sticking out. He hoped that he was invisible to whatever evil forces were out there. And when he got cold, he curled up, trying to contain his body heat as best he could.

When the sky lightened, Stan stood and brushed off as many of the leaves as he could. He picked up his bag and headed downhill, moving as quickly as he could. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but he kept moving, taking only the tiniest sips of water in order to make what he had last as long as possible.

The land flattened out, thankfully, and off to the left Stan saw a ranch. When he got to the dirt road that seemed to be its driveway, Stan picked up his pace. He listened for charging dogs, not wanting to be bitten before he could get help for his parents.

Laundry swung from a rope line stretching from a pole to the barn. The buildings were bright white with green trim and seemed to be in good repair. No rusted-out vehicles or appliances were visible. Flowers bloomed in trim gardens running along the driveway. There was nothing threatening, nothing that indicated danger, so Stan approached.

Just as he was about to go up the first step, the door opened. A grandmotherly woman smiled at him. “Whatcha doin’ out here, young man?”

Stan told her about the accident and about the condition of his parents and the other driver. He held back the tears that threatened to fall, but it was hard. He thought of the kids in the book and how brave they had been. He wanted to show this woman that he was also brave.

“Come in,” she said. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“No, thanks. Can I wait out here?”

She smiled. “You’re a smart boy. I wouldn’t go inside a stranger’s house either. How about you sit on the porch while I phone the sheriff and then bring you something to eat and drink?”

“Thanks, ma’am. That would be great.” Stan sat in a rocking chair to the right of the door. He thought that someday he’d want a chair like this one, out on a porch so that he could look out over his land.

The woman returned with a glass of lemonade and a tray of sandwiches and cookies. “The sheriff is on his way. He’ll go up the mountain first to check on your folks. The ambulance is also coming. And the doctor.” She sat in the chair next to Stan. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket or a jacket?”

“A blanket would be nice,” he said. “And can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure.” The woman opened the door, saying, “It’s down the hall. Second door on the left. I’ll wait out here so you feel safe.”

After using the toilet, Stan looked in the mirror. He had a cut in his forehead, but it wasn’t deep and had already quit bleeding, but it was bruising. Purple and blue and red radiated out across his face. He looked as if he was wearing paint for Halloween. Stan wondered if he looked that bad, what did his parents look like?

Stan didn’t see the sheriff go by, but he did hear the siren of the ambulance. The wait for information was horrendous. He rocked, ate, maybe even slept after he wrapped the blanket around himself.

In time, in what felt like late afternoon, the sheriff drove up. He knelt before Stan. “Hi,” he said. “Were you in that accident?”

Stan nodded. “How are my parents?”

The sheriff sighed as he put his large hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I have bad news. Both of your parents are dead. The only consolation I can offer is that they most likely died right away, with very little pain.” He sat next to Stan. “Now, let’s figure out what we can do for you.”

“Okay.”

“Who should we call to come get you?”

Stan thought for a bit. He knew he had aunts and uncles somewhat nearby where they lived, but he seldom saw them. His mother’s parents were both dead. All that was left was his dad’s parents. “My Grandpa and Grandma Ellis live near Bozeman.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He opened it to the back cover. “Their phone number is right here.”

“Can I borrow this?” the sheriff asked. Stan handed it to him and then the sheriff went inside. After a few minutes he returned, a smile on his face. “Well, the good news is that they were home. They are leaving now to come get you. Mr. Ellis said it would take them a few hours, but they wouldn’t stop along the way.”

The sheriff looked at the woman. “Ma’am, thanks for taking care of the boy. I told his grandparents that he’d be at my office, so we’d better leave now.”

Stan smiled at the woman. “I never asked your name.”

“Mrs. Willoughby. My friends call me Norma.” She handed Stan a slip of paper. “That’s my number and address. If you need anything, no matter how small, send me a note or give me a call. You hear?”

“Thanks,” Stan said. He followed the sheriff down the stairs and got into the back seat. On the way into town, the reality of what had happened hit Stan. Tears poured down his cheeks. He mourned his mom and dad, his home, his friends, his school, all the things that were gone.

Life with his grandparents would be good because they were kind people. Whenever he visited them, he was allowed to roam the ranch at will, as if it was his. Now it will be.

The task

It was supposed to be easy.  All Stan had to do was clean out the loft in the barn.  As a young teen, he frequently got assigned the “dirty” work.  Most of the time he didn’t mind, even when it meant mucking out the horses’ stalls.

So, here it was, a steaming day in July, and Stan was  going through the junk in the loft, organizing it, and getting rid of anything that was too broken to fix.

He knew what was up there for he was the one who dragged designated detritus up the steps to be stored.  Over the years, Stan had brought up a rocking chair with a cracked runner, an ancient bed frame that lacked one wheel, and at least five boxes of mismatched glassware.

How did his grandfather define too broken to fix?  He truly didn’t know, and rather than risk making a mistake, he decided to simply go for organization.

It was supposed to be easy.  That’s what Grandpa said, but he was wrong.  This place is a mess.  Where should I begin?  Stan picked a pile of junk just inside the door as a starting place.

There was a cardboard box filled with plastic hangers that no one had used since his grandmother died.  That can go.  Stan carried the box down the stairs and put it in an empty stall.  Back up the stairs again.

Next he tackled an old brown trunk whose hinges were made of leather, and the lock was so badly rusted that it would never latch again.  He lifted the lid, and found a pile of dresses.  Now what do I do with these?  Grandpa must want them, or he wouldn’t have stored them all these years.  Does he ever look at them and think of Grandma? Maybe I should leave them alone.   He gently closed the lid, lining it up as carefully as he could.

In the corner he found several broken tools.  The handsaw was badly rusted and the handle cracked.  The other tools were in equally bad shape, so Stan carried them down.

As the sun rose, the temperature in the loft soared.  It had no windows that opened, and the swamp cooler broke last summer.  Sweat poured down his face, back, and legs.

Stan moved on to Grandpa’s old chest of drawers, covered in dust.  It needed to go, as the back leg could not be repaired, but it was too heavy for Stan to move alone.  I’ll go through the drawers and see what I can get rid of.

The top drawer was filled with county fair ribbons.  Most of them were for prized horses, some for the cows, and a few were for sheep.  They spanned the years from the early 1980s to 1995, when Grandpa quit showing.  That was the year that Nightingale had died.   Grandpa was so devastated, that he almost quit living.  He went days without eating, and refused to work the ranch at all.

I think these can go.  They’re pretty old now.  Stan found a paper bag stuffed behind the dresser, and put all the ribbons in it.

The second drawer had a bunch of colorful handkerchiefs and some rope ties.  Since his grandfather hadn’t worn any of them in years, Stan added them to the bag.

The bottom drawer held photo albums.  Stan gently lifted out the top one.  Its leather cover was faded and frail.  Stan sat on the floor, and put the book in his lap.  When he turned to the first page, he smiled.  There was his grandfather as a young man, standing proudly next to his wife.  Nightingale was dressed in her white leather wedding clothes.  Her hair was braided, and piled on top of her head.  On her feet were the beaded moccasins that her sister had made.

Grandpa wore leather leggings, a buckskin jacket, and rows of beads around his neck.

This is a keeper.  No way would Grandpa ever let this go.  Stan turned a few more pages, and saw photos of Nightingale’s father, who was a chief in the tribe.  Her mother, a shaman, in a different photo.  There were pictures of horses,and people on horses, and the building of the ranch house and barn.

Stan put the album back away.  He really wanted to look at the rest of the photos, but the heat was worse and he was feeling somewhat dizzy.

I’d better go get some water before I pass out.  Stan closed and locked the loft door, then went downstairs.  When he stepped from the darkened barn into the morning sun, the brightness blinded him for a few minutes.  It didn’t matter, as he could make this walk in his sleep.

Across the drive, up the five steps onto the porch, and then through the front door.  The swamp cooler was doing its job, for the house was comfortably cool.  Stan went into the kitchen and fixed himself a tall glass of ice water.  He carried it into the front room, and settled into “his” chair.

Even though he wanted to turn on the television, he didn’t.  Grandpa had rules about when it could be on, how long it could be on, and what type of programs could be watched.  Stan had learned quite young that the risk was not worth the limited enjoyment, so he left the set off.

He was reading a Louis L’Amour book called Bendigo Shafter.  It takes place in an area of Wyoming that Stan knew.  What he liked about L’Amour’s books was that he wrote about cowboys and ranchers.  Stan identified with the author, as he also wrote poetry and short stories.

Bendigo had just met the widow Ruth Macken who was both beautiful and crafty.  Wanting to know if the hero would put aside his dreams of finding gold to settle into married life, Stan found his place and began reading.

The afternoon sun came in through the front windows, falling across Stan’s chest and lap.  Soon he fell asleep.  In his dreams, he became the leading man.

Ruggedly handsome, he swaggered up to Ruth’s front porch.  She stood in the doorway, leaning suggestively against the frame. “Howdy, Miss.” Embarrassed by his dusty boots, he wiped the toes against the back of each leg.

“Come in and have some water.  Or would you prefer somethin’ a might stronger?”

Bendigo followed the beautiful woman inside the cabin.  Ruth’s furniture was more elegant than anything he had ever seen before.  Out here, living was rough and fancy goods were hard to come by.

He headed for a stuffed armchair near the fireplace.  It looked strong enough to hold his muscular body. 

“Don’t sit there,” she said.  “That was my husband’s favorite chair.  Come in the kitchen.” Bendigo did as told.  The kitchen was painted a bright yellow.  Sunlight filled the room, and the smell of flowers wrinkled his nose.

 

The table and chairs were store-bought, a might too fancy for Bendigo’s taste.

“Here’s some whiskey.  So what do you want?  Men never just drop in.”

“Well, I was hopin’ that you’d step out at the dance with me.  I don’t dance too good, but I have fun.  Are you gong’ with anyone yet?

“Why would I go with you?  You’re a runt, you don’t own a durn thing except for a beat-up horse and a patch of land with a might small cabin.”

Bendigo shrugged.  She was right about everything.  After downing his shot, he got up and headed for the door.

“I’ll go.”

“What?”

If you really want to take me dancin’, then I’ll go with you.”

Bendigo walked out the front door.  “Seven.  I’ll come by and escort you.”

Stan didn’t hear his grandfather’s old truck pull into the drive, or the angry voices just outside the front door.

Stan awoke, somewhat disoriented.

A shot rang out.  Stan, ran over to the rifle cabinet and pulled out his favorite gun, a Browning cynergy 28-gauge sporting rifle, with a walnut oil finish that he kept well polished.   He liked the feel of the gun, the way it nestled against his shoulder, and the lightning smooth pull of the trigger.  It made shooting easy and accurate.

After closing the cabinet, Stan hustled to the front door, afraid of what he might find.  His Grandpa was a bit of a character.  He frequently “riled” the neighbors, to use Grandpa’s term, by scheming against them in poker games, auctions, and even in drinking contests.

“Git off my land.” Grandpa stood with his hands planted firmly on his hips.

“How am I supposed to do that when you drove me here?”

Stand stepped outside, his rifle held against his chest.  “What’s going on?”

“This dang-gum liar says Rosie isn’t a Mustang.  He won’t pay more’an a hundert for her.”

Stan looked at the man, and recognized Mr. Werner, the principal of his school.  Decked out in jeans, cowboy shirt, and high-top boots.  Mr. Werner was a good guy.  He was fair and honest and liked kids.  Stan lowered his gun and quietly came down the steps.

“Put your gun down, Grandpa.”

“Nope.  Ain’t a gonna do it.  Not ‘til this here cheater is long gone.”

“I’ll take him home.”

“You don’t have a license, do you?”  Mr. Werner knew every student, so there was no use lying.

“No, sir.  I can drive on our land, though.  That’s legal.  I can take you just over the bridge and out to the highway.  From there you could walk home.  It’s only a couple of miles.”

Mr. Werner backed away from the cocked rifle.  Step by step, he slowly moved.  Stan pulled open the creaky door.  He kept an eye on his grandfather, whose arms now shook from the effort of holding the gun.  He still glowered, and Stan knew that look.  He had seen it many times when he had disappointed his only living relative.

 

Werner got inside the cab. Stan turned the ignition.  The truck, as always, didn’t catch the first time, or the second.  Thanks goodness it kicked in on the third try, as his grandfather had stalked up even with the truck and was pointing his gun right at Werner’s sweat-streaked face.

“Don’t you never come back unless you offer a fair price.  You ain’t no charity case.  You make more at that school than I do in a good year.  You got no business cheatin’ ranchers that way.  It’s disrespectful, that’s what.”

Werner sat still, staring straight ahead.  His face had a peculiar green tinge around the lips and eyes.  Stan thought the man was going to puke, right there in the cab.

After putting the truck in gear, he turned left and headed toward the bridge.  Just as they pulled into the shelter of the surrounding quaking aspens, a shot rang out.

“He’s old and cranky,” Stan said.  “He hasn’t been feeling too good lately.”

“Humph.”

“He’ll get over it, Mr. Werner.  He works hard on the ranch.  Lots of folks laugh at him, as he never finished school.  He reads some, and is pretty good at math, but he has a hard time writing.  It embarrasses him, ‘cause he feels stupid compared to the college-educated ranchers moving in.   Grandpa’s a proud man, and he does get upset when he thinks someone is cheating him.”

After crossing the bridge, Stan turned off the engine.  “This is as far as I can take you.  There’s a bottle of water in the glove compartment.  It isn’t cold, but it’s wet enough to get you home.”

“Thanks.”  Mr. Werner’s hands trembled so badly that he couldn’t open the bottle.

 

“Let me do that,” Stan said as he reached over and twisted it open.  “I’ll see you Monday.  If you want, you can call me and let me know that you got home safely.  Grandpa never answers the phone.  He says he’s too old for gadgets, yet he owns a pretty good tractor that he maintains himself.  He’s good with his hands.  Did you know that he built the house by himself?  For my grandmother.  It was his wedding gift.  She was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen.”

When Mr. Werner got out, he looked at Stan, as if for the first time.  “Thanks.  I appreciate your help.  That old man had me pretty scared.”

“Next time you want to buy something from him, don’t haggle over the price.  Folks think it’s easy to cheat him, but they’re wrong.  He’s a smart man.  Smarter than most.”

Werner nodded, and then shut the door, the rusty squeak filling the blue skies.  “I’d still like to buy that filly.  Think he’d sell her to me?”

“Give him a few days to calm down.”

Werner patted the truck door, and then stepped away.  Stan watched him amble onto the paved highway and head south, toward town.  As the man’s figure got smaller and smaller, he thought of Bendigo Shafter.  Bendigo might not win the heart of Ruth Macken, but there were lots of other women out there and lots of other battles to fight.  Like Bendigo, Grandpa Ellis was a handsome, proud man, who would pull a gun rather than be thought back down on a fight.

Stan smiled when the engine kicked in on the first try.  He smoothly turned around and headed across the bridge.  Grandpa was standing in front of the barn, with a scowl on his face.

 

“You were supposed to clean out that loft,” he said as soon as the motor died.  “It was an easy job, and you didn’t follow through.”

“It wasn’t easy at all.  You got all kinds of memories stored up there.  I was afraid to throw much of anything out.  Maybe you could help me a bit?”

“Let’s tend the horses first.  Then we’ll go take a look.”

Stan followed his grandfather into the barn.  The horses whinnied at the promise of fresh hay and oats, and maybe an apple or two.  Like Bendigo, Grandpa knew good horseflesh, and only bought and bred the best.  That part was easy for him.

 

Raging Insanity

“Never again would they dare to call me insane,” Joe Witherspoon said as he rubbed his hands rapidly down his thighs.

“Why do you say that?” Steve’s forehead wrinkled with curiosity.

Joe slapped his hands on the table in front of them, causing their coffee mugs to rattle. “Come on. You know what really happened, don’t you?”

Steve stared into his friend’s deep blue eyes, wondering if the doctors were right about Joe’s emotional status.  “I’ve heard Sarah’s version, but never yours.”

Sighing, Joe picked up his mug and brought it carefully to his mouth, his shaky hands causing the hot liquid to spill.  Not noticing the drops falling to the table, Joe allowed the steam to caress his face as he inhaled deeply, drawing the soothing aroma into his trembling body.  “I’m not insane.  I never have been.  Sarah made up all that nonsense about me throwing that butcher knife at her.”  He sipped cautiously, staring into Steve’s eyes for confirmation.

“You admitted in court that you threw the knife.” Steve leaned forward, his eyes focused on Joe’s.

“So what?  I was drugged out and so I have little recollection of whether or not I did. It might have been you that threw it, for all I know.”  Joe placed his cup on the kitchen table, and took a minuscule bite of a freshly made chocolate chip cookie.

“Sarah was shaking like a leaf.  It took a strong sedative to calm her down.”

“She’s the nervous type,” Joe responded as he meticulously scraped crumbs into his open palm which he then poured into his mouth. He brushed his hands together, then resumed rubbing his thighs. “She’s nuts, you know.  Sarah can’t sit still for more than a few minutes and never sleeps.  And she lies.  She makes me so mad.  Sometimes I feel like strangling her.  She tells her friends that I’m nuts.  I’ve heard her.  She goes downstairs when she thinks I’m sleeping.  She calls everyone she knows and makes up stories about me.  That’s why people think I did it.  That I was trying to kill her.”  Joe stood and began pacing the floor.  Three steps to the sink, four to the back door, two to the refrigerator, one to the table, and then start all over again.  “Sisters shouldn’t do that.  Sisters shouldn’t do that.  Sisters shouldn’t do that,” he chanted.

“Settle down, Joe.  You’re making me nervous with all that walking,” Steve said.

“Can’t do it.  Once my feet get moving, I can’t stop them.”

“Did you take your meds this morning?”

“Don’t need ‘em.  Doc says I’m cured, remember?”  Joe’s speed picked up to a trot.  His hands twisted into knots, then untwisted, then twisted again, in time to his steps.

Steve quietly stood and then walking backwards, moved toward the kitchen door, never turning his back on his friend.

“I never did it,” Joe intoned.  “I never threw that knife, but I wanted to, I tell you.  She makes me so mad.  So mad.  I hate her!  I hate that lying woman!”  Now pounding his forehead as intensely as splitting logs, he moaned with each blow of his hands.

Steve tiptoed out of the room, barely breathing for fear of distracting the crazed man.  Joe dialed 911.  When the operator answered, he explained the situation.  When told to leave the house immediately, he complied.

Standing out in the freezing Seattle rain, Steve watched as the police arrived, followed shortly thereafter by an ambulance.  After knocking at the door and receiving no response, the officers entered the house, guns drawn.  Within minutes, one of the officers stood at the door.  He signaled the waiting paramedics, who grabbed their medical kits, clipboards, and the gurney before going inside.

Steve felt sorry for Joe.  Joe had struggled with mental illness since his teenage years and had been hospitalized several times.  When on the proper medications, Joe seemed like any other guy.  Without the drugs, he went ballistic, with superman strength and fearsome rages.

Within minutes the paramedics guided the gurney out the front door toward the waiting ambulance.  One had his hand on Joe’s right arm, patting him as one would a dog.

“Don’t call me insane,” Joe whispered. “Don’t ever call me insane again.  I swore that no one would ever dare to call me insane again.”

Tears ran down Steve’s face.  He knew that Joe couldn’t control the obsessive rages, but it scared him.  Sarah, too.  After Joe threw that butcher knife at her, she packed her bags and moved to New York, swearing to never return.  Shaking his head, Steve walked back into the home and tidied the table and counters.  He rubbed and rubbed and rubbed some more, trying to erase the remnants of Joe’s craziness.

 

 

Nighttime Adventure

It was not a dark and stormy night but rather a clear spring evening, the sun just going down, rays of golden light streaking across the sky. It was a night for being out, for great adventures, for having fun before the expected rains began to fall the next morning.

And so it was that Jon Michaels and Steve Johnson huddled against the back wall of the high school, obscured by shadows that had fallen as the sun slowly sank below the horizon.

Steve, the older of the two, had bulk and brawn on his side. He played football, basketball and baseball, the star of all three. The golden boy, the most popular kid in school, but not necessarily the brightest.

Jon, on the other hand was slim with narrow shoulders and hips. His head barely came up to Steve’s abs, but what he lacked in size he made up for in dexterity. His fingers flew over the keyboard, tapping out code faster than any other kid in school, even faster than his teacher.

For some unknown reason the two dissimilar boys were friends. Had been since Jon moved into the neighborhood during the summer before freshman year. Shortly after Jon climbed out of the family’s minivan, Steve showed up. Four years later they were still friends.

Tonight, however, would test the strength of that friendship and Jon knew it. Success depended upon him and he was so nervous that his teeth chattered.

Steve stabbed Jon in the chest, pushing him up against the wall. “Look, you can do it. You’ve practiced it a hundred times.”

“No, I can’t,” Jon whined. “My hands are shaking.” He held both hands out for inspection and then stuck them in the pockets of his baggy jeans.

“Just remember the steps,” Steve said. “It’s not rocket science.” He turned Jon around to face the downspout. “All you have to do is shimmy up, find the door and pick the lock. Piece of cake.”

Jon attempted to step away, but Steve had him trapped. “What if I can’t climb this thing? What if I get caught?”

“It’s Sunday night. There’s no one on campus. You won’t get caught.” He smiled encouragingly and slung his arm over Jon’s shoulders. “We’re buds, remember? Buds help each other out. I’ve been keeping you safe from the bullies, now it’s your turn to save me.”

Jon sighed. “What if there’s an alarm, hunh? I’ll be caught while you run away.”

Steve wrapped Jon’s hands on the spout. “Climb.” He held his interlaced fingers together, forming the first step of the climb. “Do it. Now.”

Jon put his right foot in Steve’s hands and using his own, pulled himself up to a standing position.

“Pretend it’s a rope. Use the clamps as leverage.”

Jon climbed, but it wasn’t easy. The bricks left his knuckles red and raw. His sneakers slipped over and over, causing him to slide down several inches each time he moved his hands up. The spout, despite being made of metal, seemed fragile. Jon was afraid that it would collapse, sending him flying to the ground where his body would break into a thousand pieces.

Because of his fear, it seemed to take forever, far longer than either boy had imagined.

The plan was simple. Scale the spout. Pick the rooftop lock. Go down to the first floor where English classes were held. Pick the lock to Grady’s classroom. Find the test on Grady’s desk and take just one copy. Then go out the front doors even though it would set off the alarm and run like heck. By the time the cops showed up, both boys would be sauntering down Main Street as if nothing had happened.

To prepare they had watched videos on YouTube about picking locks with nothing but a hairpin. Getting the pin was easy: Steve took one of his mom’s when she was watching television.  She’d never miss just one.

Unfortunately it took ten before they successfully picked the first lock, then another three before they could do it in five seconds or less. With his nimble fingers Jon was the fastest, which is why he was now scaling the spout.

Up and up Jon went, moving slower than a snail, but making progress. Steve whispered encouragement, not daring to shout for fear that a passing neighbor might hear noise and investigate.

It was scary enough waiting until all the groups of kids shooting hoops had left. Steve and Jon had joined in, pretending to be interested in the activity, all the while silently hoping that the others would soon give up and go home but it wasn’t until sunset that the playground was finally empty.

Jon reached the roof and slithered over the small wall at the top. He landed heavily on his left side, temporarily pinning his arm under his body. It hurt like heck. Added to that was the pain from the scrapes, the cramps in his legs and the persistent shaking of his entire body.

He lay there for what felt like hours but was probably only a minute or two. Once his breathing had stabilized, Jon stood, leaned over the wall and waved at Steve. But Steve was not there.

Jon looked all over for his friend, but couldn’t see him huddling against the fence or by the wall. He shrugged. “Might as well get to it,” he said.

Jon had never been on the roof so he had no idea what a maze of pipes and vents it was. He had to zig and zag to avoid tripping or banging against something. On top of that was the bank of solar panels that created deep shadows.

He was proud of the panels, though. It was nice to know that his school was embracing the new technology.

When he reached the door, Jon took out one of the hairpins which Steve had straightened using a pair of pliers so that it would easily slip into the keyhole. Jon bent down until he was eye-level and stuck the pin in the slot.

Jon maneuvered it as he had practiced, waiting nervously to hear the satisfying click, but nothing happened. He moved it up and down, side to side, over and over, taking way more time than any of the practice locks had taken. Finally, it happened. The click. Jon felt it and heard it. A sound so small that it there had been any noise, he wouldn’t have heard a thing. But it was there. It was real.

Jon turned the knob and pulled. The door opened and best of all, no alarm sounded.

It was dark inside, so Jon pulled a mini flashlight from his pocket, turned it on and flashed it around. There was nothing texcept a flight of narrow metal stairs, pretty much what the boys had expected.

He carefully went down the steps, wondering when he might trigger an alarm. But nothing happened. No screeches, no wails, no sirens.

Jon came to another door. He picked it, much quicker this time and pulled it open. That’s when it happened. The alarm went off so loud that it hurt his ears.

At first he froze, standing as still as possible, hoping the noise would end if there was no movement. But that didn’t work, so he ran down the remaining two flights of stairs.

At that point he had a decision to make: get into Grady’s classroom and steal the test or make a run for it out the front doors.

Steve would be angry if Jon didn’t get the test, so he headed to the room. As the alarm wailed, Jon calmly picked the lock. It only took one try. He ran in, found the test in the center of the desk and then took off down the hall and out the front doors.

As planned, he ran toward the trees next to the schoolyard fence and ducked behind the first one. He crouched down, making himself as small as possible. He hoped that his black clothes would make him invisible.

From his hiding place he saw a cop car pull up in front of the school, soon followed by another. Two cops got out of the first car, paired up and headed around the back of the building the remaining two went to the front. Jon watched their flashlights bounce as they walked. They scanned every window, most likely searching for a breech.

Jon had watched enough cop shows to predict what would happen next. He knew that once they found the unlocked doors, they’d search the neighborhood. So he took off running, hoping to find Steve huddled behind a tree or boulder.

He didn’t. He was alone with the stolen test tucked under his shirt.

When Jon came to the end of the trees, he stuffed his hands in his jeans’ pockets and strolled across the park as if nothing was wrong, even though the test seemed to burn his chest.

He came out on Second Street and turned left. He passed Melanie’s house which was lit up, a light on in every window. She was a senior like him, only super good at socializing. The type that belonged to every club on campus. Jon would have liked to be her friend, but he was invisible to her.

Next was Luke’s house. He was two years younger, but in his senior year. One of those super smart kids who skipped grades, graduating from middle school at twelve.

Jon strolled across Alder, waiting as a cop car zoomed by, lights flashing. He was surprised that the town had so many cops, then thought that maybe the chief had called for backup. That scared him so much that he almost peed his pants. He ducked behind a bush in front of a dark house and urinated against the wall.

Before stepping out, thankfully, he looked left and right. Another car went by, this time using its beacon to scan both sides of the street. Jon ducked down, making himself as small as possible, even though the smell of his urine gagged him.

He stayed like that until the streets were quiet. When he thought it was safe, Jon headed to Steve’s house.

When he threw a rock against Steve’s window, Steve opened it and stuck out his head. “Did you get it?” he asked.

“Yeah. But I almost got caught.”

“Hand it over.”

“Not until I get to look at it first. That was the deal,” Jon said, “and I’m sticking to it.”

Steve extended a hand and pulled Jon inside. “Let’s look together,” Steve said. “That way if anything happens to it, we’ll both have seen what’s on it.”

They sat on the bed. Jon took it out from under his shirt and smoothed it out. They bent over the paper, eager to find out what questions Grady was asking.

“Wait a minute,” Steve said as he shoved Jon in the chest. “You got the wrong test.”

“No,” Jon said. “I took the one from the middle of the desk, just like you said.”

Steve pointed at the top of the paper. “Read it.”

“First period. College Prep Junior English.” Jon fell back on the bed. “All that for nothing.”