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: http://fkbt.com/2017/11/13/time-big-november-giveaway/

 

Advertisements

Day of the Dead: Flash Fiction

A visit to a neighbor’s house and an offering in the dark inspired this piece, which I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some lovely writing going on. Maybe you’ll want to visit…read, comment, write. However the spirit moves you.

—–

The night is dark and cold, the full moon hidden behind a bank of clouds, and the glow in the distance calls to you. You are so weary, and the warm light is a beacon for your sorrow, a balm for your loss, a sleepwalker’s companion. Pinpricks of dancing candle flames form the arms of the cross extending to the walls of the shrine. You are late to the offerings; the shelter is quite full. You remember coming here before, and what you brought. You lit a candle for her, called her name, set down a small token that reminded you of her. Almost by rote you left your house on the first night of the Day of the Dead with something of hers in your pocket. A dried blossom, a poem, a picture she would have found amusing. Tonight you have nothing, because everything of her is now gone. You think of what you could have brought. The romance novel she urged you to read, every time you visited. The nail polish bottles she insisted you take, although you never wore it. All gone now. The house isn’t even there anymore. But this shrine is. It’s quiet; too late for visitors. You’ve always come late, to have your privacy, to say the things you never had the courage to before. A different thought is on your lips this night as you approach. “You want to know why I left him.” Silence. The candles flicker. There are no answers. At least, there are no good answers. No undoing what has been done. You can now only hope for forgiveness, and that he might find something good enough about life to continue. Maybe he too felt the tug to return to this place, and you scan the offerings for remembrances he may have brought. There are photos of people you don’t recognize. Tiny Bibles and teddy bears and… You bring a hand to your neck. The strand of pink-tinted fake pearls you once adored lay among some drawings you remember giving him, the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit you loved until it was nearly falling apart and…a wedding ring. Yours. The anguish scares you backward, out of the sheltering walls, and you wail into the night.

Olga

Growing up in a tiny village on the Russian steppes, where sometimes not even the wheat would grow, left Olga little to feel hopeful for, but when the odd, small airplane fell from the sky, its cargo still intact owing to some engineering genius, she felt like the God she had not been allowed to believe in had smiled upon her.

She looked left, then right, then up into the partly cloudy afternoon. The only witnesses to what had just happened were the hawks that circled overhead, hoping to swoop down for a rodent tempted by the scatter of wheat gone to seed. She snuck up on the wreck, knelt before it, breath held as if some alien being would burst out and consume her.

But it made no noise. There were some markings on the broken craft that she didn’t understand, some crooked letters that didn’t look like the Cyrillic her uncle had taught her. Similar markings were duplicated on the padded carton attached to the device. Curiosity overwhelmed her caution, and she used the end of her scythe to remove the packaging first from the metal framework and then to open the box itself.

She sat back on her heels, unsure of what to make of the second box fitted into a crumpled nest of paper. There was a picture on the box—pretty people staring at a screen and looking happy, and she didn’t know what to make of that either. It was nothing like their old television set. But somehow an instinct told her that one, this thing that had dropped from the sky was something magical; and two, it was something she wanted to run inside and show her uncle.

He was fixing a window in the living room, and in the background droned the one channel they could receive on their tiny old television. His eyebrows rose at the sight of her bursting into the house, for she was normally a quiet girl who did not slam doors. Breathlessly she pushed the box toward him and told him what had happened, and after a moment he relieved her of her burden and set it on the table.

But he didn’t look happy.

“Uncle, what is it?” He had been in the army before settling down to farm, before her mother took sick and sent her to live with him, and he knew far more about the world than she did. “And why did it crash in the field?”

“You left it out there?” He stood up suddenly, frowning. Before she could answer he was on his feet and heading for the door. “Then you will help me,” he said over his shoulder. “And we will tell no one about this. No one, do you hear me?”

Her throat constricted, so she could only nod as she followed him out.

They made quick, silent work of carrying the mangled plane into the shed, of breaking it into pieces. She was afraid to ask why they were doing this, afraid of his tight mouth and narrowed eyes. He sent her to her room when they returned, and when she was called down for supper, the small, magic box was nowhere to be seen.

“I got rid of it,” he said finally. “It’s for the best. Beware of these new devices, Olga. You are a very special girl, and we don’t want them to find you.”

The Council: Flash Fiction

The five men entered the exclusive club through the back door and did not need to be introduced nor shown the way to their private room. Each man’s drink of choice arrived moments after he sat down. One Diet Coke, one frosty draft, one sweet tea, one decaf, one vodka martini. The greetings were more somber, the smiles slower. Prior meetings had been, if not happier, at least more convivial occasions. The men would compare experiences and gray hairs, ask after each other’s families, show off pictures of grandchildren, suggest ways they could help raise money for disaster relief in poor countries. But this was not one of those meetings. This was a problem that the Council had tackled only once in their long and storied history, but these members had never faced it before.

Each lifted his glass in a silent toast. The first sip a kind of ceremony. Slow, calculating, bracing. When all the beverages were back on the table, the eldest—by only four months—spoke, his quiet crackle of a voice and decades of experience commanding the room, making them lean closer to hear.

“Thank you for coming. Assume you’ve received and read your briefing packages.”

The men nodded.

“Knew you would have, just wanted to confirm. Based on that, our prior conversations between and among, and the grave situation we are facing, thought it might be prudent for us to sit down and get on the same page.”

The men nodded.

“And want to add first, you two”—he waved a wizened, liver-spotted hand toward the draft of beer and the sweet tea—“excellent job speaking out. Know it’s not everyone’s wheelhouse to even whisper publicly about the new guy, but appreciate that you did. Kind of softens the target.”

The man behind the draft beer looked especially pained.

“Yes, Forty-four. Is there something you’d like to say?”

The tall, elegantly dressed man cleared his throat. “I’m as concerned as all of you,” he said. “And maybe for a few reasons, I have more call to be—with the exception of Forty-two, I can imagine.”

Forty-two, the ruddy man behind the Diet Coke, waved a hand. “No worries, brother. I wasn’t crazy about being back in that fishbowl again, know what I mean?”

Forty-four nodded, with a wry half-smile, and continued, gesturing toward the packet in front of him. “But pulling this trigger—literally, pulling this trigger–seems a little extreme. I was hoping we could achieve a more tenable outcome if we work at it from the inside. We still have connections in high places. Operation Twenty-five looked like a viable option. I do believe that our founding fathers, in their foresight and wisdom, would have thought that amendment to be a necessary failsafe, in the event. And I do think, and I think we are all in agreement, that this is, without a doubt, an event.”

“Yes, we can definitely agree about the importance of action,” Thirty-nine said, his voice a mere wisp with a Southern accent. “But I fear the damage he could do in the time it would take to invoke the twenty-fifth.” He tapped the folder. “And we are all running out of time. So it is my reluctant but necessary call that we go forward.”

Forty-three gave Forty-one the side eye. “And that injector gizmo in the Oval Office chair…it really will look like a heart attack?”

Forty-one raised a brow at his son. “That’s what J. Edgar Hoover told me.”

Silence fell over the table, and one by one, the men nodded.

Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”

Banned Books Week: East of Eden

EastofEdenCoverSometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that hundreds of books are either challenged or removed outright from schools and libraries each year in the United States. And many more bans or challenges go unreported. That’s one of the reasons Banned Books Week was formed—to address the growing number of challenges and to work to prevent censorship in our communities.

It’s one of the reasons I’m such a diehard supporter of the effort. Each year, to commemorate Banned Books Week, I read a book from either that year’s most-challenged list or choose one from the many, many classics that have had the most challenges lodged against them.

This year I picked East of Eden. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago (I don’t know why my English teachers didn’t assign us either of these books back in high school) and I wanted to applaud, it was so wonderful.

East of Eden is similarly marvelous and deals with mature themes—war, suicide, murder, racism, and sex, just to name a few. My main takeaway is that man is a mixture of good and evil and that we choose which impulses we act upon. Steinbeck tells it plainly with beautiful language, haunting in its simplicity, with sentences so powerful I kept highlighting them all the way through. And he tells it not to throttle a particular bias or to preach or to scold or to titillate, but to be truthful about real life. Which I think is what high-school-age readers need. At that age, our brains are thirsty for answers, even to questions we don’t know we have yet. It’s when we learn that the world exists not in black in white but in shades of gray. I can understand why some might want this book not to be taught in schools, but I don’t agree with them. Taught well and with open discussion, books like East of Eden can get high school kids thinking about complex and very human issues. Because we are all complex and very, very human. Learning about people in different walks of life—real, true, and unvarnished—can only increase empathy for and understanding of others.

What a loss it would be for the world if literature like this was not allowed to be read. These books are a record of our culture, good and bad and all the shades of gray in between.

Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

——

After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

The Last Image: Flash Fiction

When you heard the news, you had an idea. Recreate the picture. Get the team together one last time, toast Cassini goodbye in the same place you celebrated her successful launch. How many times have you pulled out that photo, stared moony-eyed at the third girl from the left. It was your first job, and how it thrilled you just to walk into that room in the morning and see scientists you’d idolized since you built a spaceship out of Lego and zoomed it up to an imaginary moon. You mumbled at your shoes for the first three days. Then you settled in, and found each other, in that way young people find each other in offices. In coffee rooms, at the copier, lingering after the staff meeting so you’d both be leaving at the same time, “helping her” bring back lunch. Staying late to pitch in. You teased her about her thick glasses; she ragged on your Star Trek socks. And you were the last one to know how she felt about you. By that time she’d been reassigned. Or at least that’s what she said.

You brought the picture with you. You distract yourself with comparing the faces that walk through the door with the ones in the photo. People laugh. The tall, sharp-eyed guy who made origami swans for everyone at the Christmas party—stooped over a bit, a little blurry around the edges. The round-shouldered dude who wore sweaters his mother made him. Still rocking them now, but in a grandfatherly way. You wonder what they might be thinking about you. If you ever got married. If she had… You dread the moment you know is coming, where someone will say: “You made such a cute couple, why didn’t you ever—”

And then you start to think this had been a really bad idea. You slink away to the bar with the excuse of ordering another round. The television monitor shows the last images Cassini will ever transmit. Your eyes mist over, remembering when the first ones came in. You thought of her then, too, and thought for sure she was out there, somewhere, remembering you, wondering if she’d made a mistake. Or counting her blessings that she’d moved on. Then you sense someone on your left. Myrna, the office “mother”—who made the birthday cakes and hugged them all so very tightly when their part of the mission was done.

She gives you a sweet smile, and her hand, a little smaller, a little more wizened, lands on your arm. You think of things to ask her but aren’t sure you want the answers. Is her husband still alive? Do her children appreciate her, do they come to visit?

She points up at the screen. “It was beautiful, you know. Being a part of that. Like we’re all out there.”

You nod, want to make some joke about all of you together plunging into Saturn, but you don’t trust your voice.

For a long moment, you’re silent, and the commentator jabbers something about the project he probably just read off of Wikipedia, and with a deepening hole in your stomach, you realize that he’s probably the same age you were when you started working on it.

“I called her,” Myrna said. “She said she’d try to make it. You know. For the picture.”

For the picture. Your fingers dig into the sticky varnished wood of the bar. The part of your mind that makes words has turned to jelly. Cassini’s time is done, and perhaps it’s time for you to move on, too. You put some cash on the bar and ready the least jerky goodbye you know how. You mumble something to Myrna as you head for the back door. You try not to think about the birthday cake she made you, in the shape of a rocket.

You’re in your car, about to turn the key in the ignition when your phone trills with a text. You don’t know the number but you know it’s her.

She’s written: “At least we didn’t crash and burn like Cassini.”

He grins, then replies, feeling brave behind his words. “Maybe if we’d gotten off the launch pad we could have.”

He imagines how she would smile, maybe giggle a little. Tease him for the corny joke. But her words blip slowly onto his screen.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

On six you take a deep breath, open your car door, and eject yourself into space.

Flash Fiction: The Pond

Inspired by a recent dry spell and the image of a little boy with a lot of questions. I think there’s more here, but for now, there’s this.

—–

I’ve been meaning to tell you. The old pond dried up. I took Billy out that way to do some fishing, since I remembered how you and I used to go over there when we were kids and come home with all those sunnies for Mom to fry. Yeah, I know she hated it, complained about the smell and the mess, but she loved it, too, in a way. So I was standing at, well, what I guess was the place we used to set up shop, the open end of the cattail horseshoe, by that nice big flat rock, and Billy looked up at me like I was crazy. His crazy auntie had taken him fishing where there wasn’t any pond! I’m standing there holding the bucket and the rods, and he’s asking all these questions: “Where did the water go?” “Where did the fish go?” “Where did the turtles and the frogs and the ducks go?” “Did they all die?”

I have never taken as big a breath as I did then. In and out and wondering what to say. That was definitely a sit-down sort of conversation, so I sat. And he sat next to me, on the lip of what used to be our cute little fishing hole.

“Let’s just take these one at a time,” I told him, and he was so quiet, his eyes so round and blue, his cheeks splotchy-red with upset, his mouth kind of crooked, like yours used to get when you were worrying over something.

So I said, “You know how it hasn’t rained in, like, a really long time?”

I knew he’d get that one. We’d just been talking about it that morning. How we couldn’t run through the sprinkler the way he liked, because of the restrictions.

He nodded.

“Well, just the way the leaves are drying up and falling off the trees way too early”—I pointed out a few trees that had started turning brown already. Can you believe it, autumn in July?—“if there’s not enough water, the ponds and such dry up, too.”

“But the ducks…?”

“Yeah, they’d be the first to fly off. I’m fairly certain they found themselves a bigger pond. They’re smart that way.” Were there ducks on our pond? The darning needles skimming across the water, I recalled. You don’t forget a bug called a darning needle. The minnow armies slithering underneath, I remembered, the gulp of the bullfrogs. There could have been a duck. I added a duck for him. It would have made a pretty picture. I have tried to paint that scene so many times, you and me fishing at the pond, but something stops me every time.

His voice hopeful, he asked about the frogs.

“Hopped away,” I said. “They can survive a bit out of water, so maybe they followed the ducks.”

“Not the fish,” he said.

“No, honey. Not the fish.”

His cheeks were all red now, and I worried he was going to have another one of his spells. I’m getting better with those. You just gotta keep your voice soft and hold him tight until he feels safe. He calmed down soon enough, and instead of fishing we went to get ice cream.

Don’t need much water for that.

It took a couple hours to get him to go to sleep that night. But I kept thinking about the ducks. You know, I’m gonna give that painting another try. One day I hope you get to see it.

The Outtake

PrintIn the first draft of The Call, I’d intended this scene to be the prologue. As I revised, and as some of my early readers gave me their thoughts, I realized that I needed to start a different way. Like a lot of writers, I’m loath to “kill my darlings,” but for the good of the novel, sometimes bits I love end up on the cutting room floor. Because I’m eternally optimistic that some scenes can either be used somewhere else or inspire a new story, I saved this chapter. I thought you might like to read it. 

—–

THE CUT

Margie’s twin brother had a wicked fastball, sharp and clean, and it landed in her mitt with a good solid thwock. She winged the ball back and pounded her fist into the pocket. Tim stood so tall on their improvised pitching mound, not quite sixty feet from where Margie crouched, squinting into the late afternoon sun that picked up the gold in his hair.

It gave him a halo, as if he needed one.

He stared down his target, turning the ball around in his hand, and she knew he was feeling for the seams, positioning it just right. Taking his damned sweet time.

“Okay.” She threw down her mitt and sprang to her full height, exactly one inch less than his, a fact that in the moment increased her irritation with him. “You suck.”

He smirked, tossed the ball a few inches up and caught it on the back of his hand, letting it roll down his fingers before he snatched it in his palm. “Bite me,” he said with a smile and pointed her back to the imaginary plate. “Assume the position.”

“No. You suck. I have homework.” She spun toward the house.

“It’s Friday, Margie Bargie. Homework can wait.”

With a sigh, Margie returned and prepped her mitt. Thunk. She held the ball, digging her fingertips into the red seams, imitating the holds her father had shown her. Her father, who’d spent most of his baseball career in the bullpen. Her father, whose mitt she now possessed. “It’s not fair,” she said, and whipped the ball back as hard as she could. Tim caught it, cringing as if it really stung. “Sorry. But it’s not fair that you get a free ride on baseball. That you’ll probably get scouted by some major league team.”

His face fell. “You’re saying I’m not good enough?”

“No.” She sighed. “You’re good. You work hard and you’re good.”

“So. You’re good, too. Stick with softball.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Softball’s decent.” Tim set up to pitch again. “Hey, it’s an Olympic sport. You can play in college.”

“Not for full-ride money. Not for Nolan Ryan money. I get to play, and then what? Nothin’. I might as well be a cheerleader.”

Tim went into his windup. “You could ump.”

The pitch skipped off the edge of Margie’s mitt and rolled all the way to the swing set the two of them hadn’t used in years. She trotted after it.

“It’s not playing, I know,” he said when she returned. “But you’ve got a good eye. Nobody ever challenged you when you called my Little League games.”

“Cause I’m a girl,” Margie said. Although her father might have thought otherwise. “Who’s gonna yell at a girl?”

“Point made. Okay. I gotta practice my breaker.”

But as Margie set to catch the curve, she started thinking about the possibility. When she and her dad used to watch the games, she knew all the rules. She knew the infield fly, the dropped third strike, interference, even some a few of the professional umpires got wrong. Her mouth quirked. “They got scouts for that? Drafts, like the minors?”

“I could ask Coach.”

“You gotta yell at me.” Margie squeezed the ball hard before flicking it back.

He snapped it up in his glove. “I gotta do what?”

“Yell at me. If I’m gonna do this. Those umps in the majors, players get right up in their faces and yell, and they don’t even flinch. I’m guessing that takes some kind of training.”

“Probably. Mom doesn’t yell enough for you?”

“Please.” Their mother yelled a damn sight, but she was a pipsqueak of a thing. “It’s Mom.”

“Right.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

“What, now?” Tim looked around like she’d just asked him to steal a car.

Margie stood and pressed her fists into her hips. “I gotta see if I can take it.”

“Margie.”

“Come on. Or are you scared?”

“I’m not scared. I just don’t wanna…you’re a girl.”

“Oh, please. I’m not a girl, I’m your sister. I’ve seen you puking your guts out. I’ve seen you comin’ out of the shower, like I don’t know what you’ve been doing in there.”

“Yeah. Not too embarrassing, Bargie.”

“Just yell at me already.”

Tim pressed his lips together and took two steps off the mound. “That was a strike!”

“Ha. You sound like Charlie Brown.”

Then he charged her, got nose to nose, his pale eyebrows scrunched together. Margie nearly jumped back. But she made herself stay. Waiting for it.

“You’re crowdin’ my strike zone! You’re givin’ the other team the inside corner, what the hell? Do you need glasses, you fuckin’ asshole?”

Silence. Tim’s expression crumpled. “Oh, shit. Margie. Margie, I’m sorry.”

And then she laughed; she couldn’t help herself or stop it. She laughed so hard she could barely breathe. She dropped to her knees in the grass, clutching her belly, still chortling. “If… you… saw… your… face!”

“That’s not funny!”

Margie couldn’t grab in enough air to reply.

His cheeks had gone beet red. “I’m not gonna help you get in now. You think I’m gonna help you?”

The screen door slapped open and their pint-sized tank of a mother shoved her upper half outside. “Hey. You two. Knock it off. Dinner in ten. And leave the friggin’ muddy tennis shoes on the porch. I just cleaned in here.”

Margie rolled onto her back, stared into the dimming sunlight, catching her breath, then turned to his sputtered-out face. “I’m sorry, Timmy. You just…you’re funny when you swear. You’re like John-Boy Walton.”

Tim grumbled something to the effect of what she could do to herself. And John-Boy. But with his straw-blond hair and innocent eyes, the resemblance was ridiculously easy. It would be his ticket. It would be his downfall.

She apologized again and even offered to do his laundry for a month, but he wasn’t having it. “Forget it, then,” she said. “It would be a total waste of time, anyway. Playing ball, umping. Either way, they’re not gonna take a girl.”

Then Timmy was standing over her, reaching down a hand. She stood without taking it. “You’re not a girl,” he said. “You’re my sister.”