Toby had built beautiful homes into the unlikeliest of places, fit rock against rock to craft the finest stone walls; he’d even designed a treehouse that disappeared into the branches. But nature always has the last word.

Yet you can’t tell a client that. Not when a windstorm uproots a mighty oak from waterlogged earth and smashes it through the roof of a back porch that had been one of his favorite projects.

He knew from the forecast it would be bad. He knew what those conditions meant for the things he’d worked so hard and so long to create. It meant phone calls. It meant backbreaking hours of excavation and reconstruction, and more thoughts that perhaps the business was becoming more trouble than it was worth.

But he couldn’t think of that now, as he wound his truck through the debris on the road leading up to Ms. Brandon’s house. Jane. Nice lady, divorced, about his age. She’d been a sweetheart to work with, never once balking at his vision or his price or his schedule. She’d inherited the house from her grandmother, and the only improvement she’d asked for was a screened-in back porch. A place she could sit in the warmer months with her books and her lemonade and her cat, a pudgy Persian who was not as young as he used to be and therefore couldn’t be allowed outdoors. And she was willing to wait for him. Which made Toby want to move heaven and earth to help her then; and to help her now.

She was standing on the front stairs when he pulled up. She looked a lot smaller than he remembered, her dark hair long and loose and wet from the rain. Her hands were clasped together as if in prayer. He almost felt as guilty as if he’d caused the storm that toppled her oak. As he swung out of the truck, he said, “I’m so—”

“Simon got out.” She wrapped her arms around her chest and started fast-walking toward the back. He followed. “The tree broke one of the screens,” she said, “and he must have been so terrified he bolted out, and now…”

Holy yikes, Toby thought, getting an eyeful of the damage the tree had done. The trunk had crushed that roof. She was damn lucky it hadn’t killed them both.

“Are you okay?” He scanned what he could of her, looking for cuts or bruises.

She nodded fiercely, then her gaze raked the length of the oak, which surpassed that of the porch by a good eight feet. “Yes. Fine. A little shaken up, maybe, but Simon…”

“You think he’s up there?”

As if answering, he heard a small yowl. He thought it would be easier to spot a white Persian cat among the green oak leaves, but it was one dense tree and one scared cat.

“Simon, baby, it’s going to be all right,” Jane said, in a kind of tremulous purr that made Toby want to fix every problem in her life. “Can I use the ladder on your truck? I tried already with Gran’s, but it wasn’t tall enough.”

“I’ll take care of that.” He hated the way his voice came out, the way his chest puffed of its own accord, like some kind of superhero. Idiot. “You just wait there and try to keep him calm so he won’t run off.”

It took some doing, and he had to shinny up the length of the fallen tree and past the roof line, where he hoped there was enough trunk to balance out his weight, and Simon and the tree gave him a few decent scratches, but eventually Toby got him down and settled in Jane’s arms.

“You’re bleeding.” She tipped her chin toward the front of the house. “Come inside, I’ll clean that up. It’s the least I can do.”

Soon Simon was fed and sleeping off his adrenaline rush. Sporting four new Band-Aids, Toby sat with Jane on the front porch, where she’d brought lemonade and a sketch pad. He watched her hands as she picked up a pencil. Those same hands had been so tender on him; why hadn’t he noticed last time the depths of her gray-blue eyes or the sweet huskiness of her laugh as she teased him about rescuing cats from trees? Funny tricks, the mind plays. What it lets you see or not see. Like the patterns in the way a rock wall fits together.

He pointed at the pad. “You want something different on that back porch, when I fix it?”

“No, I love it just the way it was. What I’ve been thinking lately”—she began to sketch the slope of the lawn—“is a little stone path leading up to a gazebo.”

“I think we can do something like that. But maybe more like this…”

She handed him the pad and pencil, their forearms brushing a spark in transit. The blue devil tails of the storm gave one last flick as they departed from west to east. Nature, as always, having the final word.


A Little Bit of Saving

This is a bit darker than I normally go, but it called to me. It’s still calling.


The cat scurried to the back bedroom when the doorbell rang. Normally Louisa followed, peering through her dusty, faded curtains until her visitor, usually another reporter, had left in frustration. But she didn’t know why she now felt a frisson of excitement over human contact, however brief or impersonal or potentially invasive. Because the emptiness of the house had been pressing down on her a little too pointedly? Because the prescription vial in the cupboard above the sink glowed a little too fiercely in the back of her mind? Something had her tiptoeing across the dirty living room carpet and reaching for the door. The two young men on her stoop looked innocent enough. Missionaries of some religious cause, certainly, with their black ties and white shirts and pamphlets.

Had it come to this? The loneliness, the desperate need for company even as she tried to repel it? Did they know about her? About Alex? Maybe they were new at this and thought they could save her soul. It was too late for Alex, but maybe her soul could use a little bit of saving.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the taller of the two said. Louisa cringed. His mouth softened, rounding. “Oh. I didn’t mean to offend you. I should have remembered some women don’t like–”

“It’s all right.” She told herself to be grateful for mothers who still raised their sons to say sir and ma’am and please and thank you. Like she had. She told herself there was no way this young man could have known that those were Alex’s last words: “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he’d said, barely above a whisper, as a female prison guard came in to administer his lethal injection. Louisa tried to shake the images out of her head. The stoicism on his face. Not of repentance but of resignation. He’d done what he’d done and this was the price he was made to pay. Worse, she sometimes thought it was the right decision. Like doing him a kindness, the way suffering dogs are put to sleep. “How…how can I help you?”

“Ma’am?” the other one said. Eyes wide. “Maybe you want to sit down?”

“Maybe…” Her stomach knotted; something buzzed in her head and her legs began to weaken. “Just for a moment.”

They were good boys. Raised right. They made her comfortable, fetched her a glass of water, asked if there was anyone they should call. Raised right. She thought she’d raised him right.

In the silence, the two boys looked at each other, and the one who seemed a bit older started. “Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?”

She thought she’d be strong enough for the words she knew were coming. But she saw it again, the little white church. The police cars. The odd phone number that had flashed on her caller ID. She gulped the rest of her water. Wishing she’d never opened that damn door. Wishing she’d had those pills in her hand. She’d gobble every single one.

“I think you boys ought to go now. Believe me when I say I’m beyond whatever saving your God can offer.”

After they left without argument, all polite and thanking her for her time, she moved blindly to the kitchen cupboard and reached for the prescription vial. Then the cat came in, mewling, rubbing around her legs. Louisa’s face dampened with tears she didn’t know her eyes were still capable of producing. She knew then this wasn’t the way. Instead of the vial and the last of the bourbon, she picked up the phone and the business card one of the reporters had given her. “I’m ready, if you’re still interested in writing that book,” she told the woman who answered. “But I don’t want it to be his story. I want it to be about those beautiful children. And every penny of profit to go toward making sure nobody gets to do this again.”

The Window Washer: Flash Fiction

Billie adjusts her harness and hoists the rake higher, aiming for the sheaf of ice that had accumulated on one of the skyscraper’s uppermost eaves. An occasional circus performer, she has no fear of heights. She doesn’t even mind most of the people in the building, who stare and point whenever she hauls the platform up the side to wash the windows or knock the icicles down. Sometimes she’ll put on a bit of a show for them, twirling away from the platform or doing a somersault.

Not today. It’s too damn cold, the ice too thick, and she doesn’t like the way the wind bangs the platform against the façade. Thank God for good support hardware. She knocks the rake against the eave and the ice cracks and falls, then she lowers herself to the next floor that needs her attention. A knot forms in her stomach.

It’s his floor.

She doesn’t know his name, but she’s seen him around. While she was getting her rigging together. When she’d taken a coffee break at the lobby café. He’s handsy with women, and they don’t like it, and when they try to dissuade him, he laughs. She’d caught one of them crying, one of those random comfort-a-stranger moments, and Billie shared her tissue and a shoulder. He’d threatened to fire the woman, in a veiled sort of way, and her complaints to Human Resources had been buried.

Even Billie is no stranger to his game. Yeah, there was always some guy who liked to play with the girl on the flying trapeze. Blow a kiss, give her a flirty smile, safe behind his window. This one… she could identify his privates at five paces. And she’d reported him, too. But his floor was high enough that those complaints also went missing.

Today he sees her, and grins slowly. Stepping closer, one hand finding his belt buckle. And she finds something with one hand, too. The lipstick in the pocket of her coveralls. Big and bold, she writes “SEX ABUSER” backwards on the glass, gives him a wave, and bashes the ice above his window. She knows she’ll get fired for this, but she doesn’t care.

She can always run away and join the circus.


She’d been writing articles about softball leagues and fishing gear and how to buy a barbecue grill, so when she looked up and saw the snow falling, the sight perplexed her. For a moment, she’d been lost in the promise of spring, and the dancing flakes and the chill in her feet felt like the ultimate betrayal. A joke on her, a slave to the almighty editorial calendar, always having to think three months ahead. If only real time could move like that. Fly past the difficult moments, the painful confrontations. The grief. The grief never moved. It sat like an uninvited guest who pawed every knickknack and drank your good scotch but would not take the hint to leave. Feeling leaden, she rose from her chair, stretched the creaks from long-suffering muscles and tendons, and put the kettle on. There, she felt grounded, realigned in time. But too fast, so fast she felt a bit lightheaded, and gripped the handle more tightly. He’d always been the one to put the kettle on. He saw to her comfort, poking his head into her room to see if she was too cold or too hot, wanted something from the store, or a cup of tea. She’d snapped at him, then. For taking her out of whatever she was writing, wrenching her out of the focus she’d needed to produce five hundred words on a myriad of topics, for which she was paid a ridiculously small sum. Articles that were easily forgotten; money that was quickly spent. Again she regretted each sharp look, each groan of frustration, each shouted “What?” when he’d tap-tap on the door, or peer in like a small child, hoping and not hoping to disturb her. Time she would never get back. Apologies she would never get to deliver. The snow had stolen him. Because she was living her editorial calendar life, she hadn’t responded to his whisper that he was going into town. She hadn’t answered the phone. Didn’t know he’d gotten stuck. And only learned about the accident when the police banged on her door. She slapped the kettle on the stove and, mouth frozen in anger, shoved her feet into his boots, always left by the laundry room, and stumbled out into the winter that also would not leave. She cursed the snow, the sky, the icicles hanging from the eaves like a Yeti’s fangs. She snapped the closest one she could reach and hurled it javelin style toward the trees, as if this was a monster she could stab. But it fell short and only landed with a muffled “ssshhh” halfway between the wellhead and the small red maple he had planted last spring. Crying tears of anger and frustration and loss, she shuffled toward the tree, stroked the bare branches with her bare hands, and sank to her knees in the snow. “I’m sorry.” She said it louder. Then she aimed it to the sky, and the only response was the fat, icy flakes that painted her face and sifted into her hair. When she could no longer feel her fingers, she went inside, and reheated the kettle, and began to write about winter. And snow. And icicles like monsters’ teeth. Spring would come, in time.

Wicked Cool Mid-January Giveaway

Not Just Another Rafflecopter Giveaway

eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Yes, we’re doing it again. In what’s starting to look like a tradition, eNovel Authors At Work is offering yet another wicked cool giveaway. Along with enjoying great deals on these books (and some are free), you can win:

  • eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksKindle Paperwhite
  • Vera Bradley Pocket Note Set with Pen
  • Fisher-Price Nickelodeon Shimmer & Shine, Bedtime Wishes Shimmer
  • Panasonic ES2207P Ladies Electric Shaver
  • Message Charm (46 words to choose from) Expandable Wire Bangle Bracelet
  • Inktastic – Life’s Better With Books Tote Bag Natural
  • Star Wars Black Series 6 Rey (Starkiller Base)
  • $15 Amazon Gift Card
  • Bass Pro Shops Active Watch for Ladies – Blue
  • Walking Tyrannosaurus Rex Dinosaur 21″ Toy
  • Panda Planner
  • Aurora Tears Purple Created Amethyst Butterfly Birthstone Water Drop Pendant Necklace, 18″

With so many gifts, you’re more than likely to win something. However, the giveaway will only run between the 17th and the 30th. Take part by going to the Rafflecopter.

Let’s get to the books! A whole bunch of them will be FREE or 99c until the 21st:

  • The Reluctant Hero by Jackie Weger: FREE. “This was a wonderful story. It was funny, full of surprises and I couldn’t put it down.”
  • Rain Clouds and Waterfalls by Piper Templeton: FREE Inspired by the artistry of the Beatles, each tale is framed by a Beatles song or event.
  • Don’t Tell Anyone (Trager Family Secrets) by Laurie Boris: 99c. “Poignant, moving and realistic.”
  • Hurricane Hole by RP Dahlke: FREE. “Romance and danger and a sweet and funny ending… a sailing adventure that will keep you riveted.”
  • Wolf’s Pursuit by Alexa Dare: FREE. Shifter Romance with an engaging coven of supernaturally talented women.
  • Storm Crazy, Bonus Edition by Livia Queen: 99c. “My new favorite series!”
  • Imperfect Love: A Sweet Romance by Rebecca Talley: 99c. A devastating diagnosis changes everything.
  • Musiville by Nicholas C. Rossis: FREE. “A funny, upbeat, music-filled story that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.”
  • DEFCON Darcy (Darcy Walker Mystery Book 4) by A.J. Lape: 99c. “That girl is in mysterious trouble again!”
  • Past of Shadows by Colleen Connally: “A well-written, exciting page turner.”
  • Murder in San Francisco by Dianne Harman: 99c. “Winston is such a smart dog! You gotta love him.”
  • The Reckless Year (Book 4 in the Misfit Series) by A.B. Plum: 99c. A psychopath in love?
  • Finding Home by Jackie WegerFREE with Kindle Unlimited. “Lol! I loved this book. Hilarious.”
  • Lies I Never Told by Martin Crosbie: FREE on

Thank you, Mr. Harvey

Doug Harvey died yesterday. He was an icon in Major League Baseball and the ninth umpire selected for the Hall of Fame. Not only was he one of my favorite umpires to watch when I was a kid, because of his cool, professional demeanor, standing up in the (sometimes literal) face of some of the hottest hotheads in the game, he was also one of my inspirations when I wrote The Call.

As I educated myself about umpiring and what it takes to make it, I fell in love with this Harvey quote, which I felt summed up the profession that to some can look like such a thankless pursuit. I ended up opening the novel with it.

“When asked what he was fighting for, General Washington, in writing to General Thomas, said the object was ‘neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life.’ He must have been an umpire. That’s what umpiring is about.”

Harvey also inspired the young umpires in the story. Margie admires his classy, in-command style and wants to emulate him. She’s never told anyone that before, and when a fellow rookie makes the comparison, she’s thrilled. (I’ve included an excerpt below.)

Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for all you’ve given baseball, and for inspiring generations to come.


As Margie rounded the right-field corner, Wes Osterhaus fell in beside her. His wiry limbs matched her stride, his pale, freckled cheeks pinking from the exertion and the Florida sun. In their morning classes, Wes sat Catholic-school-straight in the chair in front of hers, bobbing his head at the instructor. He always had the right answers, and a hundred other questions. The instructors had been patient with him, but more and more they said, “Let’s talk during lunch,” or told him to go look it up in the academy’s library. The “library” was a dingy, cinderblock-walled equipment room that smelled of sweat and old coffee and contained two metal folding chairs, an old TV, and an erector-set bookshelf of manuals and videotapes. Sometimes Margie passed the room on her way to Big Al’s office and Wes would be sitting there alone, staring at the screen, scribbling notes on his pad. She felt bad for the guy. He was smart, that much was clear, and he was one of the few people in camp who would talk to her. She overheard a couple of trainees calling him “Oster-cize,” and she wanted to kick them.

“Nice day for a run, huh?” Margie said.

“Technically, no.” Wes said some stuff about dew point and relative humidity that left Margie’s head spinning. Then he trailed off, and on the left-center warning track he said, “Forty-eight.”

“Excuse me?” Margie wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.

“Sixteen percent of three hundred.” He nodded toward the group of guys practicing on the field. “That’s how many candidates will get recommended for evaluation after we’re done. Fewer still will get minor-league assignments.”

She smirked. “I think you’re gonna do fine.”

He nodded toward Rocky Anderson, who was berating some guy until he hung his head. “But that instructor is lowering our chances. He’s doing it all wrong.”

Her eyebrows hopped up. “Whaddya mean, wrong?”

“Positive reinforcement has been shown to help long-term learning better than negative reinforcement.”

“You got English for that?”

“Okay, right,” he muttered, as if giving himself a reminder to dumb-down his vocabulary for the masses. “Your strike fist. If he said, ‘nice job’ when you tucked your thumb in, instead of making you do laps when you get it wrong, research says you’d learn better.”

“What, you saying I’m never gonna learn?”

“No, Margie, I believe you will.” He paused a moment and added, “Because you remind me of Doug Harvey. He’s the best umpire in the game.”

She grinned. “Really? Doug Harvey?”

“Yes. The way you make your calls. The way you know the rules.”

Damn. “You wanna race?”

“Not especially.”

She knocked an elbow into his arm. “Aw, come on. Race me to the on-deck circle. Loser picks up the beer tonight.”

“That’s negative reinforcement. And besides, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Winner gets to pick the game tape in the library later.”

“See? Now I’ll do it,” he said. “Because you’re offering me a learning opportunity.”

He took off. She took off after him. For the first time in Margie’s life, a boy beat her in a footrace. Probably because she let him.

Punch Drunk: Short Fiction

Nearly anything sounds like a good idea when you’re starched up with five or six shots and a couple beers and your buddies are clapping you on the shoulder and shouting your name. Hell, yeah, it had been a good idea then. Go get her, they said. You can do it, they said. She’d be a fool not to take you back, they said.

But at half past the rooster’s crack with a backpack over my shoulder and a bus ticket in my hand, I felt kind of stupid. I was thinking about cashing it in, when I turned toward the counter and wham! my arm bumped into this little old lady.

She was all blue eyes and white hair and smoothing out invisible wrinkles in my shirt even though I should have been the one apologizing, because she was such a tiny thing. I hoped I didn’t hurt her. My gran got laid up with a broken hip for just stepping off the sidewalk wrong, and here I was, this big lummox not watching where I was going. Story of my life.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, or that ma’am business, but thank you.” Her little blue eyes twinkled. “You going to Albany?”

“Yes, I’m—”

“Good, then you can carry this for me. I’d put it in the baggage compartment but I’m so afraid of what might happen down there.”

I followed her pointer finger to a blue gift-wrapped box big enough to hold a punch bowl. But before I could say no—as if I would—I was carrying it in one arm while she held on to the other and I was seeing her up the stairs into the bus. The only two empty seats were together, so I put my pack on the overhead shelf and started to put the box up there, too, but she stopped me.

That was how I ended up with a punch bowl sized box on my lap as we pulled out of the station and started for the highway. I couldn’t look away from that box and the silver ribbon around it and couldn’t stop thinking of what might have been. It wasn’t heavy enough for a punch bowl. I kept seeing Diane’s face. Kind of angry and disappointed at the same time. Like “who is this bull in a china shop and why am I marrying him?”

“It’s not gonna bite you, you know.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The old lady waved a hand toward the box.

“Would you feel better holding on to it yourself?” I asked. She would, and I let her. I knew this routine. Diane knew all the steps. Asking me everything without actually asking. Like it was some kind of game to get it out of me without using the words. Only I didn’t figure it out until she’d already won. Or I’d lost. Didn’t matter. Maybe getting on this bus to go charging up to Diane’s house had been a stupid idea. There were other people I could visit in Albany. She knew all of them, of course, and word would get back to her, and then—

The old lady rested a withered hand atop the blue striped wrapping paper, realigned the ribbon. “So who’s in Albany?” she said. “You’re going to visit your girlfriend?”

How the heck—? “Fiancée. She’s my fiancée. Or at least she… But I… And we… I mean, we’re supposed to get married, but…now I don’t know. I don’t know if she still wants…”

She laughed. Blood rushed to my face so fast I swore it might burst out the tips of my ears, and that only made me madder. “It’s not that funny.” I said.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. You remind me of my grandson. All tied up in knots wondering whether a girl likes him without actually asking her.”

That shut me up. Mainly because she was right. Diane and I had a fight, and I’d just walked away. And I really didn’t want to have this conversation with a stranger. I didn’t want to have it with anyone. “So what’s in the box?”

That shut her up. Then I felt guilty. I could hear my gran scolding me in my head. “Sorry. None of my business.”

She sucked in a long breath and let it out just as slowly. “If you must know, it’s my husband.” A sharp look followed. “Oh, put your eyes back in your head. The way you’re staring it’s like I’ve murdered him and chopped him up into little pieces.”

Had she? Maybe I should have turned in my ticket when I had the chance. “You mean, like, his ashes.” I’d never seen what a human being amounted to. Gran wanted to be buried in the old cemetery next to Pop, and my folks obliged. I’d helped carry Gran, and that casket was heavy. This box couldn’t have weighed more than four, five pounds.

“Not so loud,” she said. “Or they’ll make me buy an extra ticket.”

For a second I almost believed her, and she met my sly smile with one of her own. I tapped a finger against the box. “Not a bad way to travel,” I said. Nobody would ever suspect. I could see why she didn’t want him in the baggage compartment, or in the overhead rack.

“He always liked buses,” she said. Then her smile fell as she turned toward me. “What’s her name?”


“Your fiancée. Or the girl you’re not sure is whatever you think she is.”

I slunk down a couple inches. “Diane.”

“Well, when we get to Albany, you tell that Diane—” Then a phone started ringing. It wasn’t mine, ’cause I didn’t have one. Not since one of my buddies swiped it from me last night and threw it in the lake when I was trying to call her drunk. Turned out five or six shots and a couple of beers weren’t such a good idea in a number of ways.

“Is that yours?” It sounded like it was coming from her handbag, and she frowned into it. Then I noticed the ribbon on the top of the box was vibrating.

She giggled and gave the box a playful tap. “Now, Bertie, you stop that. You know how expensive those roaming charges are.”

“You wrapped it up in the box on purpose and set an alarm or something,” I said.

Her mouth pursed. “Aw, you’re spoiling my fun. Maybe that’s your trouble with this Diane person. You have no sense of humor.”

“She’s not ‘this Diane person.’ She’s my fiancée, and I’m…” A jerk. That’s what I’d been. A big oaf and a jerk. That was why I knew about boxes big enough to hold punch bowls. It had been the first wedding present to arrive. And the last thing I broke before I walked out. I could still hear the shatter of the glass exploding on the tile, and the echo of the awful things we called each other. I felt like an idiot for leaving her to clean up the mess.


“Nothing.” I slumped down more. At least the phone had stopped ringing. That was creeping me out.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“Fine. I’m sorry, Bertie. I’m sorry I’m sucking all the fun out of your bus ride.”

“No. Say it to Diane.”

“I don’t… I don’t know if she’s even interested in hearing it.”

“I see. You didn’t call first.”

“I tried. Sort of. And I’d ask to borrow your phone, but I don’t think Bertie is finished with it yet.”

She laughed. “I guess I was wrong about the sense of humor. But I was a little bit right about you.” She made a sweeping motion with one hand. “You thought you’d just ride into town like a knight on horseback and surprise her. The grand romantic gesture.”

“Kinda. Sorta.” I tapped a finger against my leg. “Just. You know. Hypothetically. If I was going to do something like that, what should I do?”

“You could bring a nice gift, for starters. Then just say you’re sorry and tell her how you feel. Easy as pie.”

Not so easy. Not the way I’d left. She had every right not to answer the door. She had every right not to marry a big oaf who—

“There ya go, thinking too much. I can almost smell it.”

Then I didn’t feel much like talking anymore, either. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and when we came to a stop at the Albany station, I took the box from her lap and turned toward the aisle.

I got up to let her exit ahead of me. Then I saw Diane. Through the window on the other side of the bus. I saw her standing in the small knot of people waiting by the door. I couldn’t take my eyes from her delicate face, as if she were an exotic flower poking out of the weeds. Passengers started streaming out. I tried to stay out of their way, but my eyes were glued to that window. Like we were back in junior high and I was seeing her for the first time—a heart-thumping dream with her long red hair and turned-up nose and cute little cheerleader skirt—while the big football jock I’d been felt as weak as a baby.

“She’s lovely,” the woman said, and nudged my arm. “Go talk to her.”

“But I don’t have a gift…”

“Oh, yes you do.”

I glanced at the box in my arms. Bertie? And her cell phone? I turned to tell her that she must have been crazy, but she’d already left. Maybe I could still catch up to her. I grabbed my pack and hustled off the bus. She was nowhere. I never thought she could move that fast. And how could she just leave Bertie—?

But then Diane was there, her green eyes staring up at me, and I couldn’t move at all. All I could think was what an idiot I’d been and that I’d do anything to fix this.

“What’s that?” she said.

Oh. The box. “I don’t know… There was this old lady from the bus…” Nope. Nowhere. Maybe I should have gone to lost and found inside the station, see if—

“But my name’s on it.” She gave me a little teasing grin. “Maybe you’re still a little drunk from last night. Eddie told me about your phone.”

I looked down again. And, indeed, “Diane” was written on the wrapping paper. With a heart around it. When did she—? “No, I’m, uh, fine.”

She hooked her arm through mine. “Hon, you’re looking a little pale. You want to go somewhere and get a cup of coffee and talk?”

I nodded. More than anything, I wanted to talk to her. Or at least try. I let her lead me to the diner across the street, a favorite of ours. She ordered us some coffee and before I could protest she had the box on the table and started opening it like a kid at Christmas. My heart was hammering and I wanted to stop her but what could I say? No, it’s not for you? That some crazy old lady left her husband’s ashes in there with her cell phone and wrote your name on the wrapping, maybe while I was daydreaming and maybe—

It was a punch bowl. My throat went dry. That old lady was nuts. Or I was. Maybe I was still drunk. I gulped my water, buying a moment for some kind of excuse. She’d put Bertie’s ashes in a punch bowl? But the box hadn’t been nearly heavy enough…

As she opened the top, I glanced up, preparing to say—I had no idea what. But she was smiling.

“It’s perfect,” she said. And took it out so I could see. No ashes. No cell phone. Just a bowl. “It’s acrylic.” She tapped a polished nail against it. “Unbreakable.”

Unbreakable. How the heck did she know about… “Unbreakable?”

“Yeah.” She turned it around in her Tinkerbell-delicate fingers. “This was the one Aunt Mary was supposed to have sent. Kinda glad you broke it, tell you the truth. If people would only use the registry. I specifically picked out things that weren’t so…fragile.”

“You picked…” But half my brain was still thinking about my seat mate. Damn, why hadn’t I even asked her name? Now all I wanted to do was thank her. “Did you see a little old lady get out of the bus, maybe a few people before me? Tiny thing, blue eyes, white hair…she’d been sitting next to me by the window all the way up.”

Diane’s mouth softened. “I watched your bus come into the lot, circle around and park. Nobody was sitting next to you that I saw.”

Nobody was sitting… She was tiny, but she wasn’t that tiny.

Diane pressed her cool, pretty hand over mine and gave me a patient smile. “Maybe you are still a little drunk, hon. Come on, let’s go back to my house and you can take a nap and I’ll put this with the rest of the incredibly unbreakable gifts and we can talk later.”

I nodded dumbly and picked up the bowl. I didn’t even like punch. Maybe I could learn to.

Silent Night: Flash Fiction

I did not want to be afraid. It was a beautiful evening, not so very cold, and the snow fell in tiny shimmering flakes, just like the first Christmas that Mama Svetlana and I lived in New York. She had taken a break from cooking in her restaurant and we saw the big tree in Rockefeller Center, all lit up and shining. But there was no tree this year. It was no longer allowed. By order of the government, there were to be no lights other than those that were absolutely necessary for public safety. Lights made for crowds which made for tempting targets, or this is what they claimed. So as I walked home, all I had was the snow. And a terrible feeling that I had been followed. I saw nothing, nobody out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was my imagination. Still, Mama Svetlana says that if I feel afraid, and she is out of town, to come to the restaurant and ask one of the men to walk me back to the apartment.

I knew all the men there. From the busboys to the waiters to the Russian businessmen who always took up the round table in the back corner and talked of things that I was not supposed to be hearing. But I happened to arrive when Alexey the dishwasher was due for a break, so he threw on his jacket and said, “I walk you, da?”

I nodded and followed him out. I felt comfortable around Alexey. Not just because he was big and could look intimidating. Or because he was good-looking with nice blue eyes but not so handsome as to make me nervous. But because he was only a few years older than me, and like me, his English was also not very good. So I did not feel the pressure to make conversation. He would always see me not just to the building but up to the apartment door and sometimes inside, to make sure it was safe. I thought that excessive, but gentlemanly, and I offered him tea or a snack, because that is what Mama Svetlana would have wanted me to do for a guest in our home. Usually he would decline, fumbling through enough English for me to feel reassured that it was because he had to get back to the restaurant, and not because I was a burden to him.

That evening, he accepted a cup of tea and some butter cookies that I had baked the night before. They were my favorite. And, it seemed, his too. Soon, though, he made his excuses, and when he reached for his coat, I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the inside pocket.

I nearly dropped my teacup and pointed toward the firearm. “You need a gun to walk me home?”

“Is not safe,” he said, looking almost apologetic—for the political situation in New York, for the secret immigration police that pulled up in their black SUVs and took people away. Like our neighbor, Mrs. Gonzalez, and her three children.

“But I am legal,” I said. Mama Svetlana had adopted me in London, and we had the proper paperwork to live and work in the US. Even though she had not renounced her Russian citizenship and I… Well, I was not quite sure where I stood. My father was Austrian and my mother a Syrian refugee. But what more ideal kind of American than one who carried the genes of so many civilizations?

He cleared his throat, shifted his eyes left then right as if deciding what and how to tell me. “You are daughter of Russian woman with powerful friends,” he explained. “You make target.” That silenced me. My heart was doing circus tricks, along with my stomach. I thought I might throw up. Then he put his hand over mine. “I not say this to scare you, Anya. I say this so you pay attention.”

That made me angry, and I pulled my posture up straighter. “I don’t pay attention? I have been paying attention my entire life.” I told him what it had been like to grow up in a country in which it was not safe to be a Middle Eastern refugee. I told him about how my parents had died. How Mama Svetlana had adopted me as her own. I even told him what I heard at the restaurant, that some of Mama Svetlana’s friends—the Russian businessmen—have been talking about a plot to undermine the American government and one of them went on in quite some detail about how it could be done. Alexey listened to my barrage of English—very patiently—but when I talked about the Russian businessmen, his eyes iced over.

“You should not listen to these men,” he said. “They are fools with not much better to do with their time.”

I felt afraid again. Of the tone in Alexey’s voice. Of the men. Of the horrible things they had said. Even if they were fools.

Perhaps Alexey saw that on my face, and he pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “Do not let them scare you, Anya. Everything will be fine. Everything will be…as it should be.”

I wanted to bathe in his reassurances, but a shiver went through my body just the same.

We made a bargain that evening. While the lights were out and the snow came down and he ate the rest of my butter cookies. He said he would keep me safe. He said he would not tell Mama Svetlana I had been eavesdropping. For giving me all of this, what he asked for in return was my silence.

I nodded. What else could I have done?

“You are good girl,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid.”

Then he kissed my forehead, transferred the gun to his front coat pocket, and left.

I peeked through the blinds and watched him disappear into the snowy night. Despite what he had said, I felt more afraid than ever. This time, for all of us.

Hartford: Flash Fiction

The hamster could be dead for all she knew. She longed to unzip her coat and check the coffee can for signs of life, because it was cold as hell in Hartford with an icy mix of snow and sleet peppering her face and neck and finding the gaps between her sneakers and socks. But she was afraid that if she stopped to look, either she’d find a dead hamster or a very live one that might escape and die from exposure. Or she’d end up murdered by some vagrant in the switching yards at two in the morning. Even before she’d had this thought of the hamster he’d given her—who gives someone a rodent for Christmas without even asking?—her boyfriend had been a good twenty yards ahead of her, head down, hands in his pockets, loping along like he went for long walks through the snow every night. Now he was even farther, a dark blur in the distance. She hurried to catch up, called his name but he didn’t answer. He was angry, and that’s what he did when he was angry. As if it were her fault he’d read the bus schedule wrong and there were no connections to Boston on holidays. As if it were her fault the only hotel in reasonable walking distance didn’t have any vacancies and the less-reasonable one was two miles from the bus station and the cab company didn’t answer their phone. As if the fate of the hamster were her fault, too. Again, she called his name. He stopped. Turned.

“You’re slow, woman.” He sounded like his father.

“It’s cold,” she said.

Even his grin looked like his father’s. Mean around the edges. “Then walk faster.”

He started telling her a story. No apologies for his silence, for ignoring her. The stories always had dragons in them, and princesses, and he pulled them out of his pocket to pass the time while they waited for buses, or during the long stretches when they were hitchhiking and no cars would come along. This was one she’d heard before, about a princess who ends up rescuing the dragon, and he’d told it to her the night they’d first met. It charmed her, then. But it was cold and late and while the charm was wearing thin, she didn’t have the courage to face the silence. He stretched the story out for the rest of the walk, disappeared while she laid her credit card down for the room, began a new tale in the creaky elevator ride up to their floor.

Her Christmas present was still alive. But something inside her wasn’t. The right words never seemed to come when he shone his blue eyes and stories on her. Only while he slept was there room for her. In repose his mouth turned into a scowl, exactly like his father’s. When he fell asleep that night, in a hotel room she couldn’t afford, she started what would be a series of notes, first to herself and finally to him, in which the princess rescues herself. And the hamster.

November Giveaway

Hi, everyone! I promised you a giveaway after the World Series and here it is. And I’ve brought friends!

Free Kindle Books and Tips (FKBT) is working with eNovel Authors at Work to put on a great giveaway of signed print editions (USA & Canada only, sorry) of the following books:

In addition to the books, two lucky winners will win a Fire HD10 tablet and a Kindle Paperwhite. Excellent e-thingies to read your books on.

The giveaway will run until November 27.

Go here to enter: