Sit Down

Hi, everyone. I wanted to share a story I wrote for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. I didn’t intend to be political, but sometimes the characters have other ideas. I hope you’ll read the brilliant work being posted on JD Mader’s blog, and maybe one week, you’ll join us.

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Betty liked to make one full circle of the main floor and the gallery before she left for the night, plucking up any papers or loose items strewn about. There was no need; the cleaning crew was spit-spot like Mary Poppins, in before the break of dawn preparing for the day ahead, but it was a small courtesy she prided herself on and had for the last twenty-five years she’d been a fixture in this place. On her last sweep through the first floor she found three empty coffee cups, several newspapers, and pair of eyeglasses someone would be dearly missing in the morning. She slipped them into the pocket of her apron and paused before leaving, admiring the gleam of the brass and the polished wood lectern and the deep blue carpeting. It was so much more impressive in person than on the television. That’s what she usually told people who asked. But because of her work hours, she rarely got to see any of the senators in action. She’d heard about what happened yesterday—who hadn’t—and she’d shaken her head, imagining those important men and women, in their expensive suits, sitting on the floor! She knew the carpeting was clean; the steamers had been in just last weekend, but still. The second-shift men in the cafeteria didn’t see what good would come of it, and they argued among themselves, but they’d stood at the ready, always a new pot of coffee brewing. One of them bragged he himself had served a cup of coffee to a man who had marched in Selma, Alabama, way long ago. That man. That man was sitting on the floor not ten feet from where she was standing. She slipped a glance right, then left, then walked over to that spot. One hand on a chair’s armrest, she lowered herself to the pile. It was sturdy, but soft, and she dug her fingers into it and listened carefully. She could almost feel them then, could almost hear their words still echoing around the room. She inhaled and exhaled in time with their chanting back and forth, their calls for justice to be done. She sat for a long while, imagining faces, speeches, and what, if anything, would come of it. And then she jumped at the sound of a thin, uncertain voice calling her name.

“Miss Betty?” it said again.

She turned. She knew that young man. He worked for one of the senators, she couldn’t remember which, and he reminded her of her son when he was that age, and she could not help but stare, even as embarrassment heated her face for being caught.

“You all right?” he said.

He stepped forward to help her from the carpet, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said.

It came out sort of snippy, and he smiled and said softly, “Well, all right then.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. The senator. He left his reading glasses here, he thinks…”

She fished them from her pocket. Turned them around in her fingers before extending her arm toward him. “These them?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

He held the frames a moment, but made no move to leave. Like he wanted to talk about something.

“You were here,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed up toward the gallery. “It was pretty wild.”

She patted the carpet beside her. “Tell me.”

He looked confused, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Miss Betty, ma’am, you can watch it on the computer in the break room. I can show you how it works, if you like.”

“No,” she said. “If you don’t mind humoring an old woman, I’d prefer if you sit right here where they sat and tell me how it started.”

The young man nodded. He smiled shyly, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, and despite the possibility of dirtying his nice suit, he folded his long legs beneath him, closed his eyes, and then began to speak.

Catering Girl

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Coming soon on Amazon!

Stand-up comic Frankie Goldberg is one of my favorite characters. She popped into my head while I was stuck in traffic in the middle of Woodstock, New York, and she had a story to tell me. That initial meeting eventually became The Joke’s on Me. But before Frankie reunited with her family, she wreaked a little havoc in Hollywood. Catering Girl is a novella from that chapter of her life.

Frankie keeps getting fired from her day jobs, thanks to her smart mouth and a lot of other bad habits. Now a thirty-something catering assistant on a movie set, she reluctantly agrees to bring a cappuccino to the resident diva. The young star Anastasia Cole is in tears, distraught about disturbing changes in the script. Frankie serves a side of common sense with the coffee, and excited to have an ally, Anastasia offers her the role of a lifetime. It’s not what Frankie had in mind—but being needed might be exactly what she needs.

I’m excited to share a bit of Catering Girl with you here, before I publish it this weekend.

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Catering Girl

Chapter 1

I wasn’t supposed to be smoking on set, even though it was an outdoor shoot nearly halfway to the Mojave Desert. I wasn’t supposed to be smoking at all, having promised everyone who still loved me that I’d quit. But lack of sleep and a vicious hangover made for a deadly combination that lowered my willpower to zilch. I’d just lit up, intent on spending my midmorning break in contemplation of my bad habits, when a voice perforated my muzzy thoughts.

“Catering! You there, catering!”

Busted. I ground my cig underneath one designer heel and prepared for another lecture. Snapping his fingers at me was the producer’s son, an entitled little creep with a Napoleon complex and a suspiciously low hairline. Per my contract with the studio, I didn’t have to man my station for another ten minutes. For almost anybody else involved in this movie, I would have hopped to, probably with a joke and a smile, but I had no intention of saluting this guy’s flag any sooner than required.

My deficiency of hop-to did not appear to please him. His eyes narrowed to nasty slits. “What are you, deaf? Cappuccino to trailer three, nonfat milk. Don’t screw it up.”

Speaking of entitlement. “I’m not going in there.” I’d yet to meet the performer in person, but the last coffee jock who’d gone into Anastasia Cole’s trailer had exited wearing the cappuccino, then kept on walking.

If either he or Miss Silicone thought that a slew of forgettable slasher flicks and one Oscar—best supporting actress, in a slow year—earned her the right to go full-on diva, they both had another thing coming. I didn’t care that my teenage nephew adored her and had seen all her movies, some twice.

The heir apparent sighed. “Okay, what’s it worth to you?”

“Excuse me?”

He pulled out his wallet. “Ten bucks?”

Ten bucks? I saw what that putz drove onto the set. My parents hadn’t paid that much for their house. “Fifty,” I countered. “But if she throws it at me, I’m walking, too. And I’ll take the entire catering unit with me.”

I had no authority to pull up stakes, but I’d been working with guys like this for years. It seemed a safe bet that beyond his own imagined influence, he didn’t have a clue who was responsible for what.

A vein bulged on his left temple. “Christ. You’re as bad as the agents. Anastasia won’t do the nude scene, the other producers are threatening to bail, and now the catering girl is shaking me down for a lousy cup of coffee.”

Catering girl? I straightened my spine, which probably didn’t make me any taller than my usual five foot five, sans moussed curls and impractical footwear, but it made me feel more intimidating. “What did you call me?”

He got right up in my face. “Catering. Girl. No power.” He pointed to himself. “Producer. Power. Get the difference?”

I smiled sweetly at him. “Thank you for clearing that up for me. Now let me give you some advice. When Daddy makes you drive to McDonald’s to pick up dinner for the crew, don’t forget the french fries. Makes the union guys pissy.”

Then I turned and started for my car, forcing a cool, confident walkaway so he wouldn’t see that I was having a quiet nervous breakdown over what I’d just done. It was a crappy movie, but I needed this job, bad. In the thirteen years since little Frankie Goldberg had left the East Coast and the comfort of my mother’s brisket, the career as a famous movie star hadn’t panned out. Nor had I been doing very well as a fair-to-middling standup comic. The only marketable skill I had left was a knack for cooking in large quantities. At the moment, I couldn’t afford to put my job on the line just to make a point. I had bills coming due, my beat-up Barracuda was on its last cylinder, and I owed my sister and her current husband, at her last accounting, six hundred and thirty-two dollars and fifteen cents.

It was the fifteen cents that bothered me the most.

“All right,” he said. “Fifty. And I’ll talk to her first.”

I let out my breath. For fifty bucks, I’d even draw a little heart in the foam. “Nonfat milk, you said?”

Relics

pharaoh-471589_1280I’m sharing a story I wrote from Friday’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some great writing going on. Click here if you’d like to see what we came up with this week. Maybe one week, you’ll join us. [Audio version on SoundCloud.]

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He was still attempting to reach her, still attempting to explain. From the moment Marta had stormed out of their house, where she’d discovered her professor husband with his best student, throughout her ride to the airport, and even as she was checking into her hotel room in Alexandria, she sent his calls, texts, and voicemail messages into the ether. The ancient Egyptians she studied had the right idea. If you wanted to vanquish an enemy, remove the evidence. Chip their names from edifices, strike them from scrolls, let their good deeds, if any, never be spoken of again. The memories were harder. Especially because the two of them had made this discovery together. They’d found the pharaoh’s mistress. And yes, the irony cut her like the high-tech tools they’d used to exhume the remains. She’d been invited to speak at the opening of the exhibit; he’d declined, and now she knew why. But it was too late to back out, and besides, Marta felt she owed it to the “secret queen,” as historians had come to call her, to honor her memory, to drag her from the burial chambers relegated to the pharaoh’s servants, where she’d been hidden for thousands of years.

There was time before the curators expected her, so she asked for a private tour. She trailed a hand over the Plexiglas covering the death masks and relics and the mummified remains of the woman herself. She must have been important to him to merit such an honorable afterlife. Buried among the servants, yes, forgotten by the ages, certainly, but what ordinary person at that time in Egypt, even a palace servant, was treated so well in death? “I know you all too well,” she whispered. Squeezing her eyes shut, she remembered a time when she was the best student, the eager disciple of the man who had declined to come to Egypt and share the spotlight. She ducked into a corner and called him. “Do you love her?” she said. His silence told the story, and she hung up, and deleted him.

The Bridge

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I’d like to share another flash fiction entry inspired by JD Mader and the writing cabal at his blog, Unemployed Imagination, where he generously opens up his comment stream on Fridays for 2-Minutes-Go. (And, if you’d prefer, here’s the audio version of the story.)

—–

She knew where he’d be waiting. On the left bank of the creek, just over the wooden footbridge, a small hollow flanked by two old, bent trees. She checked behind her. No one had followed. Her shoulders tightened, nearly bracing the straps of her heavy backpack of their own accord, and her breath was labored, rough as adrenaline spiked through her, as it chattered down her arms and curled her small hands into fists. Again she saw the storm building in her mother’s eyes, felt the crack of the palm across her cheek. Another note from school. Another reminder that she wasn’t like her brother, would never be like her brother, that pious freak, yes ma’am, no ma’am. She could not sit still in a succession of dull as death classrooms and listen to her droning teachers tell her things she’d learned on her own years ago.

But her father understood.

He would take her away from this.

Her sneakers squished in the damp grass, the patches of mud, as she dodged and wove the familiar ground, the same rocks, the same tree roots. The creek ran high with the recent rains; she heard it before she saw it, and she followed the sound toward the old bridge. Here, she worried. The rushing water could cover anyone’s approach. The social workers. The police. But so far, nothing but grass and pale-pink sunset clouds and trees whipped by the wind. She knew where he’d be waiting. But something ahead didn’t look right. The bridge lay splintered, half in and half out of the swollen creek. No way to cross. No way to get to where he waited. With her new chance, her new name, her new life. Something flashed ahead—a whisper of movement or maybe the wind. A light clicked on. Clicked off.

She chanced the question. “How do I get across?”

“Wait there,” he said. “I’ll come to you.”

He appeared from behind a tree like a vision. Like a holy mother vision from one of her brother’s Bibles. Even in the dimming sun she could see his smile. The promise in it. The promise of far, far away, which felt like the only safety she could imagine. Hands out for balance, he stepped foot by foot down the bank. She gasped as his left leg crumpled, as he slid to the water.

“Dad!” She skittered toward him, barely catching herself in time to avoid his fate. Then, breath held, she stared. Legs weren’t supposed to bend like that. Blood ribboned out into the water. When she followed it back to the tree branch sticking out of his arm, she nearly vomited.

“Go.” His voice was a weak rasp wheezing from his throat. A faint, rhythmic whine broke through the rush of the water. Sirens. “Shit. Your mother must have—left pocket. Take my keys.”

To reach him she’d have to swim for it. And after that— “I don’t know how to drive!”

He drew in a shallow, shuddery breath. “Time to learn.”

A Sudden Gust of Giveaways

GravityBookcoverSmallFebruary can get gloomy up here in the Northeast. There’s too much winter left, and baseball season is still too far away. Rather than wallow in my February-ness, I’m taking the advice of a wise friend, who says that doing something nice for someone else makes her feel better. I’m starting by giving away a few copies of my new novel, A Sudden Gust of Gravity.

There are two ways you can win. The first is from Goodreads. You can enter here to win one of four signed print copies. Giveaway ends February 13.

For the second, if you head over to this page and follow me on Amazon, you can click on the cute little treasure chest for a chance to win a copy of the book. This giveaway is for the US only (I do hope they change that soon) and ends when one of you hits the lucky number.

I hope your February stays bright, and thank you for reading.

12 Blogs of Christmas: How Mrs. Claus Got Her Groove Back

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How Mrs. Claus Got Her Groove Back

A fresh log glowed red in the fireplace; garland and twinkling lights lined the mantel. A most cheerful picture, normally, but the yuletide trappings still left Emma Claus cold. She’d tried everything to awaken her Christmas spirit: hitting the Black Friday sales online, reading letters from the children, baking tray after tray of cookies. Even the sappiest of holiday movies failed to lift her mood—even the ones with Colin Firth.

Just to make sure she’d given Hollywood a fair shake, she clicked the remote to the Hallmark Channel, which was showing the same snowed-in romance brewing at the same over-decorated country inn. Emma merely clucked her tongue. “Fools,” she said. “Do those innkeepers ever sleep? All that work! Cooking and cleaning! Sweeping up pine needles, drizzling everything with tinsel just so, tending the fires in every room and dusting twice a day from all the ash…what kind of life is that?”

And then her gaze fell to her own labor-roughened hands, still clutching a dishtowel, and she wept. She hadn’t even heard Santa walk into the room. “What’s this?” he said, voice so kindly that she cried harder. “Tears, Mrs. Claus? During the most magical time of the year?”

She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes with the cloth. “Oh, it’s just the story.” Emma gestured to the television. “This one makes me weepy every time I see it.”

The lines in his face softened. She could never get away with lying to him, the man who’d patented the Naughty/Nice meter. “Don’t you dare say it,” she squeaked out. “Don’t you dare say the same old things about bringing joy to the children.” Granted, it was an admirable mission. And she was grateful. Decades earlier he’d rescued her, a poor orphan girl from the village, and found her a job in the factory. Then, when she reached marriageable age, he’d made her the beloved bride of the most generous man in the world. But clearly, something was missing.

He nodded once, and then twice, and then muttered, “I’ll be in my workshop.”

She sucked in a few deep breaths and made a deal with herself to hold it together, for his sake. She’d done this forever, after all. Sat by the fire on Christmas Eve monitoring the sleigh’s progress on NORAD, fed the hungry elves, met him on the launch pad when he returned. And then endured the silence and loneliness when, exhausted, he collapsed into bed and slept for days. The sleep of a man happily consumed by his work.

Somehow, Emma managed to get through the long, bereft days leading up to the Big Night. Santa had to have noticed the misshapen cookies, the lackluster dinners, the depth of her sighs. Smart man that he was, though, he said nothing. Just made himself a sandwich and retreated to the company of his elves.

Then Christmas Eve came. As she’d done for more years than she could count, she pressed his velvet suit, polished his boots, and left him to dress while she prepared his favorite pre-flight meal. But he didn’t come down. She called for him, and he answered in a deep, wrenching moan.

Emma sprinted up the stairs and gasped when she saw him. In bed, clutching his belly. “Oh. Oh, my dear,” he said. “I don’t think… I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Just the thought of… Call the elves…” And then he passed out.

Her eyes widened and she rushed to him, pressing a hand to his less-than-rosy cheek. Still breathing and heart strong, thank God, although clearly he was in no state to travel. He’d never missed Christmas. There were emergency provisions, of course, in the event that NORAD had to alter his flight plans, but it had been such a long time and all had gone so smoothly that she didn’t even know where the binder was. She managed to calm herself enough to make the call. Doc Elf was on his way, and the other elves had been alerted, but there was still the matter of distributing the presents.

Emma took a few steadying breaths. The elves were good, and the factory ran well, but how could she trust them with this most important task, which she and Santa had magicked together from the very beginning. She eyeballed the red suit hanging in the corner and felt a shiver sweep down her spine.

She would do it herself.

With wobbling hands she dressed in the velvet coat and trousers, with shaky fingers adding the belt and cinching it tight. “I don’t want to leave your side, Mr. Claus,” she said to the prostrate, bearded lump of man on the bed as she smoothed the white hair from his forehead. “But we don’t have Amazon drones and these Kindles aren’t going to deliver themselves.”

As she fit the cap over her silver curls and strode for the door, a bit of the process started coming back to her. By now, the elves would have already assembled the sleigh and the reindeer; on many occasions of late, Santa had waved off praise for his efforts, saying that he had automated the practice so well that basically all he had to do on the Big Night was sit back and let Rudolph’s GPS guide the way. And thanks to her good cooking, she’d grown as well padded in the belly as he, so she doubted that anyone spying them from a distance would notice it was not Saint Nick at the reins.

Still, she allowed the air traffic controller to help her into the cockpit and nodded as he rattled off a list of instructions, a mix of excitement and dread spiraling through her stomach. Finally, with a last wave from the ground crew, she was cleared for takeoff. Emma gulped as the sleigh began a vertical ascent from the launch pad. She grabbed onto whatever was handy, bracing herself to be jostled about, but she soon discovered that there was no need. Even when they zoomed off into the night, climbing higher and higher, there was not a bump or a jolt to be felt. And soon she released the death grip she’d had on the upholstery and the dash—she’d even put down the reins and whooped like a giddy child on an amusement park ride.

The radio crackled, and a small voice cleared its throat. “With all due respect, Mrs. Claus, we need to focus on the task at hand. Just follow the coordinates on the monitor and you’ll find the addresses—”

“Oh, pish on that,” she said, emboldened by the magical ride and the power of being in the driver’s seat. “This was meant to be a labor of joy, not one for the auto-pilot. I’ve read all the letters; I’ve followed the radar maps for years; I know where the children live.” She laughed as she clicked off the radio, imagining all sorts of fright going on at headquarters, the gossip among the elves: The missus has gone rogue. “Hit it, Rudolph.” She flicked the reins. “It’s you, me, and your eight buddies tonight. Just the way it was supposed to be.”

And, following the stars, they flew from the North Pole all around the world, landing on rooftops of the good and the naughty, for she believed everyone deserved a little magic on Christmas. When every last gift was delivered, she directed Rudolph to take them home. She was still giggling with delight when nine sets of hooves touched down lightly on the launch pad. For a moment she sat, laughing up at the stars as a gentle snow began to fall and the sleigh’s bells jingled to a stop.

“Santa!” she gasped, remembering his state, and leaving the reindeer to the stable master, rushed into the house.

And there, playing video games, all manner of junk food spread before them, sat her husband and three of his elves. The old sod had never looked healthier in his life. When he noticed her staring, he gave her a slow grin and a wink. “Red is definitely your color, my dear.”

She pressed her fists into her hips. “You conniving b—”

“Ah. Language in front of the elves.” He jammed the joystick forward and digital explosions blasted from the speakers. Then he let loose a jolly ho-ho-ho. “Come on, admit it,” he said. “You’ve always wanted to drive that sleigh. And you’ve never liked auto-pilot.”

A blush overtook her face at being found out. And then a smile. “Can I do it again next year?”

He lifted his shaggy white brows. “If you always come home to me looking so happy, you can take the reins for the rest of our lives. Although we’ll have to fashion you a fake beard.” He patted the cushion next to him. “Now park it and let’s celebrate a job well done. I saved you some pizza.”

—-

Thank you to Martin Crosbie for pulling this holiday event together. I hope you’ll join us tomorrow for Heather Haley.

Miss one of the days? Here are the blogs posted so far:

Dec. 13   Ellen Chauvet

Dec. 14   Sarah Lane

Dec. 15   Keith Baker

Dec. 16   Virginia Gray

Dec. 17   Gordon Long

Dec. 18   RJ Crayton

Dec. 19   Jennifer Ellis

 

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Sarah Lane

Sarah Lane photoWelcome back! Today’s blogger is Sarah Lane.

Sarah Lane is the author of The God of My Art, the story of a young woman’s journey to become an artist, and a quarter finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Lane’s short fiction and poetry have also featured in a number of literary magazines, including The Antigonish Review, Roar Magazine, and Quills: Canadian Poetry Magazine.

Lane’s upcoming young adult novel is a psychological read about a cerebral seventeen-year-old who struggles to learn salsa dancing only to be shown up by her doppelgänger. (You can sign up on her website to be notified when it comes out).

Sarah Lane hopes you will enjoy listening to this reading from her young adult crossover novel The God of My Art. This chapter is taken from near the end of the book, when Helene visits her mother over the winter holidays. Watch the video here. Or view on her website.

(Next up: Keith Baker)

Miss one of the days? Here are the blogs posted so far:

Dec. 13   Ellen Chauvet