Friday, February 1, 2008

The Haggertys of Virginia

The water of the slow moving river flowed around the two men as they stood hip deep in the waterway, fly rods in their hands. The summer air was warm (for an Alaskan summer, anyway), and still. The only sound was that of songbirds who could be heard over the burble of the water. The two men weren’t swimmers, they were fly-fishermen. One man in his late teens or early twenties and the other a man in his forties. They had been fishing for several hours, and in that time, barely a word had passed between them. As the day wore on, the boy began to look as deeply troubled as the older man looked serene.

Young Cameron Haggerty looked at his father and quietly said: “Dad?” His father, standing only six feet away replied with an equally quiet “Yes Cam?” His son, sounding terribly upset, said: “Are you in trouble?” The boy’s father looked at his only child and said; “No, son… I’m not in any trouble… why do you ask?” When the young man didn’t answer, his father asked again, a little more forcefully: “Why do you ask that, Cameron?” The younger man, almost an exact physical copy of his father, knew he was about to tread in troubled waters, but he plowed on: “Two days ago… before we left home, there was a call at the house… it was the police. Some guy who said he was a Detective from Washington, DC. He wanted to speak to you” Thomas Haggerty’s stony gaze at his son was anything but loving as he coldly said: “and what did you tell the Detective? Did you follow the instructions that I gave you about what to say if you take a call for me?” “I sure did, Dad! I told the cop that you were unavailable, and then I took a message like you told me told me to do” The boy’s father relaxed a bit and said: “Good job, son! Do you remember what the cop’s name was?” The boy thought for a minute and said “I remember now, his name was MacDonald. Hamish MacDonald. Does that ring a bell, dad?” The father cocked he head in thought and his face took on the look of someone who was trying hard to remember something. He looked at his son and said: “No, Cam, that name doesn’t ring a bell at all.. Now let’s see if we can’t catch some more fish…This is our vacation, and I don’t want to waste a minute!

Back at the expensive and opulent lodge that served the wealthy would-be outdoorsmen & women on their fly-in nature vacations, Christopher Haggerty sat at the bar, feeling lonely. It wasn’t because his son Thomas and his grandson Cameron had gone fishing without him… not at all, at his age, it was best to take some things easy, and it was easier for him to take in the expensive, but not gaudy, trappings of the lodge, than spending the day in hip-waders, flicking around a fishing pole. “Besides, you never know what kind of action you might get in the lodge…. Lots of ladies love an older man, you know.” He had remarked to Thomas before he and Cameron had departed in the morning. His son and grandson left with smiles on their faces at the old fellow’s joke, but what Christopher Haggerty felt more than anything else that afternoon, was loneliness.

At age 66, when he was only newly retired, after having built a successful family business, Christopher Haggerty lost his wife, life partner, and best friend, to breast cancer. He missed Millicent terribly, and occasionally caught himself talking to her as if she were still at his side, as she had been for forty-one years. He sighed and looked into the glass that held his second hot buttered rum in the gathering twilight. “Well, Millie..” he thought, “Here’s to you, baby… Wait for me. We’ll have a good time together when I get there” Haggerty was looking forward to the return of his family from their fishing excursion, because he missed them. They were all had left that was living from Millie. He was proud of his only son. Proud of the discipline that he had instilled in his boy, who he had turned away from the study of music and directed him into business, where he belonged. He trained his son in the ways of business, and showed him, through hard work, how he had taken a small, struggling cement works, and built it into one of the largest home-building companies in the mid-Atlantic states. He was also proud that Thomas had taken such a shine to the world of crunching numbers and making them come to a profitable sum. Those years of making his son work under various managers at the works had really paid off. There wasn’t much that happened at Prince William Homebuilders, from pouring cement to securing capital, that Thomas Haggerty couldn’t do himself.

While he was working on his second drink, his son and grandson had returned to the lodge, taken showers and joined their patriarch at the bar. Thomas ordered a Tom Collins, while Cameron ordered a glass of white wine. “White wine?” his father said… you aren’t even old enough to order a drink, and when they let you have a drink… you are drinking white wine?” His son looked thoughtful and replied: “Dad, I like white wine, and if these people will serve me because of Granddad’s and your money, I’ll have a glass of white wine… at the very least, I’ll be drinking it because I like it, and not because it is what my father expects me to drink.” Before Thomas could reply, Christopher calmed the waters by proposing a toast: “To My Boys!, God bless ‘em!”.

Sitting down to a dinner of Chinook salmon, grilled to perfection on a cedar plank with wild onions, peppers, and a glaze made from scallions, red pepper flakes and a reduction of high quality maple syrup, the Haggerty men started to relax. They enjoyed the lodge's hearty fare, and afterwards, retired to the well-ventilated, glass enclosed smoking lounge with brandy & cigars. This time is was Thomas who proposed a toast: “A toast, to my father for building the family and the family business… and to my son, the future of our family and it’s business!” Young Cameron, who was feeling the effects of his wine as well as the effect of his Arturo Fuente Opus X, 47 ring-gauge, Presidente maduro cigar, kept his own counsel.

Eventually, the conversation moved into the business realm, and Thomas asked Cameron if he was done playing sculptor, and if he was ready to accept his resonssibility to the family business. The elder Haggerty admonished his son to take it easy on the boy, he had to make up his own mind about the company. "What?," he said, "you mean like I got to make up MY mind, Dad? You made me give up my music scholarship to learn the family business!"

"Well, son"..., the old man said carefuly, "I robbed you of the desires of your future so that you could give a future of possibilities to your own son. I hope you can forgive me for it. Now, please, it's the second night of our vacation, I was hoping that we three generations of Haggerty men would be able to celebrate our bonds to the past and future, and be happy about what we have been able to accomplish through hard work, honesty, and obeying the law. I don't know how much life I have left, and I would like them to be spent at peace with myself and with my heirs."

Thomas Haggerty seemed like he was about to relent until his father said something about obeying the law, when he flared back into full anger, "Obeying the law??? Do you have any idea how many times I had to bend or even break the laws to rescue the company from the things you did in the past?"

"No, dad... why don't you tell us?!" Cameron Haggerty had finally found his voice... He wen't on: "I presume that whatever laws you have broken, you are still breaking them, hence the call from the DC cops just before we left."

The eldest Haggerty noted that others were starting to notice their conversation and hushed his son and grandson, saying: "I think we have provided enough entertainment for the other patrons for tonight, boys... perhaps we should speak of other things. Anyone want to tell me about today's fishing?"

After the long day of fishing, and a long night of eating and drinking (too much), the new day came late to Thomas, as he awoke to the sound of an airplane engine, racing with full power for takeoff. This was no real surprise for him, as the hotel/lodge was where this particular fly-in outfit had their headquarters. When he could bear to open his eyes, he realized that it was already noon. He took a shower and got dressed, and then went to wake up the others. There was a note on his father's door that said the the elder Haggerty had gone to breakfast, and that he should join him. His son's door had no note, nor did he answer his father's knock, leading Thomas to conclude that he had just gone on without him.

When he arrived in the dining room, his father looked at him with sad eyes and siad the Camaeron had gone back to Virginia. He had departed, en route to the airport at Anchorage on the first flight out. When Thomas said nothing, Christopher invited his son to sit and order breakfast... or lunch, by this time. Once that was done, and the first cup of black coffee for the day had been poured, Christopher continued talking, he told his son that he knew more about what Thomas had been up to than he really liked knowing about. Moreover, he knew how Thomas was diversifying the investments of the business. While he thought that this was a sound business practice, he was upset that Thomas was investing heavily in a company call White Sands, USA... a private military company.

"White Sands is just a large contracting agency, dad... they do things for the armed forces that the armed forces can't do for themselves."

"They are a mercenary outfit, Thomas! How can you ignore that?"

"Well dad, good business is where you find it... now tell me about why Cameron left."

"Your son isn't very happy, you know. He isn't interested in business... he wants to be an artist. He didn't think that this vacation would be particularly fun for him, but he came becasue I asked him to. Last night was a bit too much for him. He just couldn't take what he saw as your disappointment in him. When he left, this morning, he told me that he was quitting school to take a job at the Smithsonian Institute, and that by the time we got home, he will have moved his things from your home."

"Moving out?" Thomas sputtered, "with what? He hasn't got a dime of his own, and I'm not going to subsidize his Bohemian artist's lifestyle"

"Well, you needn't worry about how the boy will live, Thomas, I'll see to that with a bit of management for his trust fund. Besides, Cameron says that he knows a guy who is planning to sublet his apartment on Capitol Hill, so he will be close enough to home for us to keep an eye on him."

Thomas was unconvinced, but kept mum for the rest of the meal. When they were finished, Christopher went to find their guide for the day's nature walk, and while he was doing that, Thomas made a call on his sattelite Blackberry phone, dialing the number from memory. When a throaty female voice came on the line, he said: "Caren?... It's me, Thom Haggerty... I need a favor..."


Today's story was inspired by Wholly Burble. Here were her story guidelines:

Setting: A fly-in vacation in Alaska

Create, in more depth, three characters:

A. Christopher Haggerty, sixty-six years old, retired CEO of his own company. Only retired one year and already realizing all he ever did in life was make money--and now he wants to see what living life is really all about.

B. Thomas Haggerty, forty-four years old, present CEO of what had been his father’s company. Wanted to be a musician, went to college initially on music scholarship. Father nipped it in the bud, and made him change over to Business major all the way through to Master degree. Then groomed him every summer of his life from sixteen years of age on, as a summer apprentice in every line of the workings of the firm. He now is so swamped with the CEO position, he doesn’t even have time to dream of the life he gave up, or “could have had”.

C. Cameron Haggerty, twenty-years old, ready to start his second year in college after the summer hiatus. There on an art scholarship, and wants to be a sculpture. His father expects him to change his major to business. He's promised him much in material goods to get him to change over. But Cameron sees more than “things”, and isn’t afraid to say so.

Create conflict(s) for these story choices:,

A. In my father’s footsteps . . . Giving up “self” for the family good?

B. The family legacy . . . Honoring father, by becoming father?

C. The business of life is in the living, not in the business?

I took some liberties with the story... and if a couple of additional names sound familiar, it isn't your imagination.


Thursday, January 31, 2008


Constance182 began every song with an apology. “I know this is cheesy,” she’d say (or something like it), “but I’ve been humming it all day and I’ll never be rid of it if I don’t let it out.”

That was Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller’s cue to relax, to fit the headphones snugly over his ears and ease back into the desk chair. To let the world dissolve for a few minutes. The woman’s voice was breathy, but clear in the high notes. Whenever he heard her he was reminded of the bells his mother kept on the top shelf of her china cabinet. It wasn’t so much the sound as the forbidden pleasure of holding something so fragile and beautiful.

Not that he’d held Constance. He’d never met her. Never even seen her, except for the grainy userpic on SingIn – the one he’d used the unit’s equipment to enlarge until her photo evoked something almost grotesque – a fractured, pixilated puzzle of a woman. He slid the computer’s mouse aside and flipped over its pad. As usual, the portrait taped to the underside left him unsatisfied. He wondered for the hundredth time how he might justify a surveillance order. And for the hundredth time he sighed, turned the pad over, replaced the mouse and vowed to be content with just her voice – for a few days more.

Officer Stiller wasn’t looking for love when he’d logged onto the virtual karaoke site three months ago. His intentions were rather closer to its opposite. At 48 years old, with a bum knee and an iffy ticker, he was about to be discarded. ‘Reassigned’ was the official term – but that didn’t fool anyone. The Grenzschutzgruppe 9 was a young man’s game. Wegener himself had told him that once. And yes, it was plain that he could no longer perform the more physical aspects of the job. He would likely never again storm a building or wrestle a weapon from a gunman -- but there was more to a man’s worth than that. He could still shoot a pimple off a gnat’s ass. And there were situations that required more subtlety than brute force.

Situations like the one that had brought him to SingIn. The tip had fallen to him as if out of the sky. Earlier in his career he might have been suspicious of the ease with which it had all come together, might have thought it was a trap. But years in the field had taught him that providence was real, and that being in the right place at the right time (or the wrong one) had far more to do with success than anyone but God might imagine.

The transmission that started it all was otherwise unremarkable: “Gehen sie zur karaoke nachtklub heute abend?” “Nein. Wenn arbeitend ich bin, schränken sie mein singen auf den computer.” ‘Are you going to the karaoke club tonight?’ ‘No, when I am working I restrict my singing to the computer.’

A younger man might not have thought twice about it. But then, most of the younger men in the unit wouldn’t think twice about anyone who didn’t speak with an accent, or sport a turban and a beard. So many of them had yet to learn that terrorism employed without regard to race, creed, gender or national origin. Even for the few who understood, a behind-the-scenes man like Jakob Richter wasn’t glamorous enough to merit study. That Richter enjoyed singing, or was partial to 80’s pop songs? Officer Stiller shook his head. He doubted any of them would grasp the significance of the transmission even if he’d taken the time to make a formal report.

Notice of his impending reassignment and the Richter tip arrived, providentially, on the same day. It was the punk, Mueller, who dropped both packets on his desk. “Sorry old man,” he’d said, then frowned as if to prove his apology was genuine.

Karl fingered both envelopes and chose the bulkier one. Bad news traveled in slim packages – that was another thing years in the field had taught him. He’d slipped the disc into the player and started the machine. Eighty-three minutes later, he was fighting drowsiness as one staccato conversation after another yielded nothing of interest. And then a familiar voice, though he couldn’t place where he’d heard it. He stopped the disc, reversed, and listened again. He was hearing it for the fourth time, or maybe the fifth, when he absentmindedly opened the second envelope.

The memo started benignly enough: the storied history of the GSG9, acknowledgement of past achievements and Officer Stiller’s exemplary contributions, blah, blah, blah … Something about assessments and insuring optimal use of resources, and then the kick in the teeth: Infolgedessen werden sie zur Anweisung Einheit am 30 April übertragen. As a result, you will be transferred to the Instruction Unit on April 30th.

He had logged off the computer. Signed out at the desk. Zipped his regulation jacket against the January chill and left without a word to anyone.

The sound from the television was nearly deafening when he opened the door to the dim apartment. He took off his shoes but before he removed his coat, he stepped into the livingroom. “Mutter?” he said. When his mother didn’t answer, he crossed to the hospital bed in the middle of the room and switched on the bedside light. Medicine bottles lined the table under the lamp and the young nurse had left a note about admitting his mother to the pflegeheim.

Something that teetered between rage and despair rose up in him but he pushed it back down, used one remote to drop the volume on the tv, another to lower the head of his mother’s bed. “Mutter, it’s me, Karl. I’m home.” He watched her eyelids flutter and thought about how small she had become when once she loomed so large in his life. He opened the glass door to the china cabinet and lifted the lid to the keysafe. He reached into his pockets – and discovered the disc. Never, in 24 years, had he been so careless with his employer’s property. Maybe Mueller and his bunch were right. Maybe he was slipping.

Or maybe it was providence. Perhaps he was meant to be there, in that room, with the disc in his hand. It became harder to argue against this line of thought when the music channel on the television offered up the 80’s classic, Jungen Schreien Nicht, Boys Don’t Cry. Suddenly, Officer Stiller remembered who the voice on the disc reminded him of. And no, not a member of The Cure. It was Richter. Yes, that was it!

From there it was a matter of logging in to online karaoke sites until he found him. Once he did, he thought excitedly, he’d pinpoint the location, hand it off to his superiors and prove that he still had value to the unit. Even a sniffling pup like Mueller would respect him if Richter was brought in and made to reveal who he was working for, or what he was working on. What if it was something big?

Officer Stiller could not recall whom he had stumbled upon first. Was it Richter, or the woman that had caused him to give more than a cursory search to the SingIn site? To be sure, Richter had been easy to spot. Almost too easy. Wansemann? He’d chosen Bug Man as a screen name? Maybe Herr Richter was getting old too.

It didn’t matter how he arrived, Stiller told himself. He was there now, and his comfortable banter with Constance182 had actually aided his efforts. It leant him credibility. He was surprised at how simple it was to “talk” to her. Women had always been difficult for Karl. For all his bravery in the line of duty, he’d usually start to shake, stutter and sweat when a pretty girl expected him to speak. He guessed it was the anonymity of the internet that stemmed his nerves. Or maybe it was just Constance.

She had a way about her. The self-effacing apologies at the beginning of each song. The graciousness with which she accepted compliments on her singing. The genuine interest she’d established right from the start of their relationship. It made this private man hunger to tell her the most intimate things. After just a few weeks, he’d found himself spilling the details of his mother’s illness. (His co-workers at the unit didn’t even know she was sick.) And if he was a little too open, so what? These were just words on a screen, attached to nameless, faceless entities.

At least until he could verify that Wansemann was indeed Jakob Richter, and until he could isolate his location. The advent of laptops and Wi-Fi had made that task more difficult, but not impossible. Each time Richter’s icon appeared online, Officer Stiller halted his other actions and moved through the process of tracking the coordinates. He kept a log of these in his desk drawer, slipped between the pages of an espionage novel.

Besides, it wasn’t just anyone he was sharing with. Constance knew what it was to watch a loved one die. Her husband had succumbed to the very same disease that was now stealing his mother from him. The hand of providence -- again? Years of trained mistrust bristled at the coincidence.

He couldn’t point to one thing that he had said, something though, he was sure. He could tell she sensed a change in him, and that it had stung her. “If I’ve been too personal with you,” Constance typed, “I’m sorry. I’ll back away now and you can forget you ever met me.”

Sorry? No! He was the one who should be sorry. He apologized promptly and begged for another chance for their friendship to grow.

Seven days of silence followed until her icon came to life again. “Vern?” she typed.

Officer Stiller smiled at the sight of his screen name under her hand. He’d chosen it with a nod toward Richter’s brand of cleverness – Vern Ichter – the exterminator, but when Constance typed it the name took on a different bent.

“I tried to stay away, but I’ve missed you,” Constance’s words spilled across the screen. “And I’ve been wondering why you visit a karaoke site but you never sing? Sing for me, VernIchter, sing.”

He’d hatched some story about the poor quality of his microphone when, in fact, the equipment in his bedroom (microphone included) was state of the art. He’d “borrowed” most of it from the unit, smuggling each component out one piece at a time. They wouldn’t miss it, he reasoned. And when he delivered Jakob Richter’s address, all would be forgiven anyway.

Just then, Wansemann/Richter broke into their textual conversation. “I’ll sing for you, Con,” he typed. And had the nerve to add one of those ridiculous winking faces to the message.

“Jimmy, stop. I’m talking to Vern now,” Constance replied.

Anger bubbled through Stiller’s body at the familiarity between the two. It was quickly replaced by fear. He had to do something to keep the monster Richter from this beautiful bell of a woman. But what? The answer came almost immediately.

“A few of us have been talking offline about setting up a meeting. Come. We’ll sing a duet.” Constance paused in her writing while the invitation snaked its way into Stiller’s brain.

Go to America? It wasn’t such an outlandish idea. Not really. He had the money. He had plenty of vacation time accumulated. A passport under Vern Ichter’s identity wouldn’t pose too great a problem – not with the unit’s capabilities. He could fly to the United States, finally see Constance with his own eyes … and he could take out Richter/Wanseman/Jimmy all in the same trip. If things went well, he would return home triumphant, not only with a notch in his holster, but with a beautiful woman on his arm. No one would dare consider him old and used up then.

Just as the plan took form, it stalled. As if she could read his mind, Constance typed, “Oh Vern, I’m so very sorry. You couldn’t possibly come now. Not with your mother …”

His mother. She’d grown steadily more frail in his weeks online.

“Well, Con, I guess you’ll just have to be satisfied with my company,” Richter typed.

“NO,” Karl responded. “I’m sure there is a way.”

Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller overslept the next morning, for the first time in more years than he cared to count. He dragged a razor across his chin and opened a cut. He wondered if Mueller would turn his lapse of punctuality into further evidence that he was no longer fit for the job.

But what seemed to be a misstep, soon turned to another bit of luck. The moment of his leaving coincided perfectly with the home nurse’s arrival. “Ahh, gut,” she said, as she flipped her long hair and removed a pair of iPod earbuds. “Habe ich sie treffen gewünscht, um über ihre mutter zu sprechen. Sie benötigt mehr, als irgendein von uns jetzt anfassen kann. Wirklich ist die Zeit gekommen, sie in das pflegeheim zu legen.” I've been wanting to meet with you to talk about your mother. She needs more than either of us can handle now. Really, the time has come to place her in the hospice home.

Just that easily, the last piece fell into place. By the end of the day he had made arrangements for the hospice, procured a passport that would fool all but the most observant airport official, purchased a ticket for his flight and had begun packing. Once he’d filled his own bag, he set to work on his mother’s.

More than a twinge of guilt assailed him as he did so. His mother was dying. How could he think of leaving -- but how could he not? There was little he could do for his mother now, other than to make sure she was comfortable. He would pack a few mementos, the bells perhaps, to ease her days during his short absence. If she was alert while he was gone (and truly, those periods of lucidness had grown few) the sight of her treasures would let her know he was thinking of her.

If he could do nothing to save his mother, he could still save Constance. So affable and open, she would be easy prey for a man like Richter. This sustained him as he wrapped each of his mother’s bells in tissue and placed them lovingly in a box. He fitted the lid once, then removed it. He took out one bell, the porcelain one, with the robin painted on it – his mother’s favorite, and laid it aside.

“Was tun sie, Karl-Heinzie?” What are you doing? His mother’s voice was barely a whisper.

How could he explain? “Das beste kann ich,” he answered. The best I can.

Five days later he was seated on a plane, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He wished the flight wasn’t so long. There was too much time to think. His co-workers had taken the news of his vacation strangely. All but Mueller and the Commander had greeted his freshly dyed hair and his travel plans with amused surprise.

Mueller acted as if he hadn’t noticed. The Commander drew him aside. “Wir gehen sprechen zwischen diese tage, meinen alter freund zu lang,” he said. We go too long between talks these days, my old friend. When the Commander asked him to step into his office, Stiller politely declined. “Ich nehme an, daß es bis ihre rückkehr warten kann,” the Commander had said. I suppose it can wait until your return. But when Karl turned toward his cubicle, the Commander laid a hand on his arm.

“Ja?” Karl asked.

“Nichts.” Nothing.

But on the plane it didn’t feel like ‘nothing’. Officer Stiller wondered if the Commander suspected him of wrongdoing. Perhaps the equipment he’d borrowed had indeed been missed, along with the transmission discs that carried Richter’s voice. Perhaps the passport and other papers he’d produced had been discovered.

If all of this weighed heavily on Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller, elder member of the famed GSG9 German Anti-terrorist Unit, none of it felt as heavy as Constance’s unnatural quiet. He had barely “spoken” to her since he’d announced his trip. Busy making arrangements, she’d claimed. She’d make it up to him once he arrived.

He had planned to take a taxi directly from the airport to an apartment building in Virginia where a handgun waited for him. Instead, certain he was being followed, he ordered the driver to take him to his hotel. After checking in and inspecting his room, he used the stairs to reach a side entrance and walked three blocks before hailing another cab.

It was nearly 8:30 before he finally stepped into the Coyote Café. He recognized Constance immediately but he held back, stood just inside the bar and watched. She was at least as lovely as he had imagined. Petite and fair-haired, with a sprinkle of freckles across her cheek that surprised him. As soon as she turned in his direction, she was up and making her way toward him.

“Vern?” she called. “Vern Ichter? Is that you?”

He smiled at the sound of that other name, that other person, the one who had created this other existence. He nodded and she flew into his arms.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t really come,” she said.

He wanted to tell her something clever but his mind was too full of the way she felt in his arms. She pulled back and placed both of her hands on his face. And then she kissed him.

It wasn’t so much a kiss of passion, at least not at first. But then she’d relaxed her lips and accepted his tongue and something stirred in him that he had never known existed. Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller was a man who loved his country. He had believed it was something worth dying for. But in all his years he had never, until this moment, found something worth living for.

“Come on,” Constance said. “Let me introduce you to our friends.”

Apprehension gripped him again. It had been a decade since his last meeting with Richter and even then, Karl had been disguised. Still, it was possible that the terrorist had access to information that would identify him. He glanced over the top of Constance’s head toward the table. No Richter. Maybe he was late.

Constance moved through the introductions, pausing long enough at each new person to give both their user id and their ‘real life’ name. When she’d completed the table she pointed to the stage. “And that’s Jimmy,” she said.

The man under the lights was finishing a rendition of Karma Chameleon but other than his choice in music, he couldn’t be more unlike the terrorist, Richter. Short, where the other was tall. Round, where the other was fit. Bald, where the other still sported a luxurious head of graying hair.

Karl/Vern laughed so hard that he doubled over with the effort.

“What’s so funny?” Constance asked.

“A private joke,” Karl/Vern answered. “I’ll tell you about it one day.” At once he started revising not just his plans for the evening, but his goals for the rest of his life. Maybe the training unit wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. He could picture himself leaving for the office each morning, arriving home to Constance every evening. They would invite friends to dinner, he would have friends. They would laugh together, just like this. Was there a karaoke bar in Sankt Augustin? He made a mental note to check and sat down to begin this new life.

The evening was growing long and the cold American beer had made him feel loose when Constance rose and made her way to the stage. “I don’t know if you’ll like this one,” she said. “I haven’t had much time to practice it and, well, here I go anyway.” At her first notes, Karl/Vern eased back into the chair and closed his eyes. Her voice was even lovelier in person – just like a bell. He was reminded of the package he’d brought for her.

His hand brushed the gun as he reached into his jacket pocket. The feel of it repulsed him in this setting. He removed the coat and placed it carefully on the back of his chair. He laid the wrapped gift before Constance’s empty spot at the table. Applause erupted at the end of her song; no one clapped longer or louder than he. She kissed him again when she returned, then grasped his hands.

“Now it’s your turn. Sing for me, Vern. Sing. For me.”

Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller hadn’t sung in front of people since his confirmation days in the boys’ choir. He’d known this was inevitable though, so with the courage he’d once used in hostage situations, he rose and stepped briskly to the stage. He’d chosen his song days ago, or maybe it had been months. The tune was a favorite of his in his younger days and it was the only one he thought worthy of singing for Constance.

Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah cued up and he drew a breath. Out in the audience, he could see Constance finger the gift and pull at the ribbon. By the time he finished the second stanza she’d laid the wrapping paper aside and was pulling at the box lid between glances at him. Somewhere in the third stanza she lifted the bell from the box and he caught her smile. Mutter would have liked her, he thought, when the glint of a tear shone from her eye in the fourth stanza.

He watched her though the interlude, his gaze broken only when the door to the bar opened, letting in light from the street. The two figures at the door tripped the start of something in his memory but he pushed it aside and turned his eyes back to Constance. She rose from her chair and approached his spot on the stage. A red line of light drew through the smoke in the room, from the door to just above Constance’s head.

Karl/Vern began the fifth stanza, then stopped. He focused on the front of the bar again, at the figures near the entrance, the source of the light. The cock-sure stance of the smaller man, the silver gleem reflected in the taller man’s hair. In silhouette, they might have been anyone – but Officer Stiller knew better.

Constance was nearly to him now. In a few seconds, she’d mount the stage. There was no time to go for his gun. He’d be dead before he reached it, and Constance might be hit in the fire.

“Mueller, Richter” he said into the mic. "Wartezeit." And then, "Bitte. Das lied wird beendet fast." Wait. Please. The song is almost finished.

Constance stared from him to the front of the bar and back. He couldn’t tell if the significance of the laser registered with her. Probably not, her life was untouched by such things. And so it should remain.

There was a nod to the shorter man’s head and the beam was extinguished. Karl held a stiff arm and a hand out to Constance, bidding her to stop. He listened for a beat to find his place in the music, only a few lines left. He tried to sustain both her gaze and the final note as long as possible. The bullet pierced his chest at the exact moment the song ended.

The last sound he heard was the beautiful, fragile ring of a bell.

Apologies first to gunfighter, for taking such liberties with his excellent story ideas. Apologies to the rest of you for:
A. My Babel Fish German.
B. The incredible length of this piece. It's been years since I tried to write something short -- and it shows.
C. Accidentally deleting the e-mail that contained the original story starters. I'll list the ones I remember.

Story Idea: A love story from a man's point of view.
Characters: A member of German's famed GSG9 anti-terrorist unit who sees the hand of God in his work and has romantic ideas that he cannot show to his fellow unit-members.
A bored suburban housewife who longs for the lost days of her youth.
An affable Washington DC office worker named Jimmy who enjoys 80's pop music.
Conflict: Internet Addiction

Thank you Jen, for hosting this game! It was fun (in a torturous sort of way)!

Truck Stop

Chloe rubs one nyloned leg against the other in front of the space heater and wipes down the counter for the millionth time. The Truck-n-Dine is so quiet that she can hear Fred humming to himself in the kitchen; more than likely, he’s sitting on a stool with his feet up on the big stove reading the paper. Not terribly sanitary, but hey, it’s his place. If there were anything to talk about, she’d go back and make conversation just to pass the time. But she and Fred have nothing to say to one another. Chloe knows very little about the Pittsburgh Penguins, and she assumes Fred is entirely ignorant about art, Berlin, single parenthood, or manslaughter.

(Fred actually does know more than a bit about manslaughter. But he would never guess that he and Chloe have something in common after all.)

She can smell the coffee slowly turning to acid in the industrial-sized pot behind her; probably she should make a fresh batch, but why bother? Chloe doubts anyone will stop in before her shift is over at dawn. The new Hess station, complete with mini-mart, oversized parking lot, and large, well-lit bathrooms, opened up a few months ago a couple of exits farther down I-84. Since then, business at the truck stop during the graveyard shift has been almost nonexistent. Chloe sighs; she could use the tips. It seems like Jake outgrows his school shoes every two weeks, and she’s not sure how she’ll pay for Anna’s piano lessons this month.

Light slides along the textured, faux-bamboo wallpaper, not high enough to be a semi; Chloe guesses that it’s a car full of penniless college students on a road trip, stopping in for caffeine and whatever is cheapest on the menu. A minute later, the bell on the front door tinkles, and a rush of cold air swirls in and around Chloe’s legs.

“Fire up the stove, Fred,” she turns and calls through the order window. She searches for her hospitable smile, pastes it on and pivots back towards the counter.

“What can I get for you?” she asks automatically.

The customer looks into her face and grins. “What are your specials tonight?”

I should have made fresh coffee, Chloe thinks. Henry is so picky about his coffee.

“Hello, Henry,” she says aloud, trying to stall for a moment. “I didn’t know the dead cared about food.”

His clipped Oxbridge English gives almost nothing away of his Swiss upbringing, yet conveys detached amusement perfectly. “Alcohol, not so much anymore,” he says. “But food still holds appeal.”

“Right,” Chloe murmurs. His skin has a healthy glow; his pale blue eyes are as bright as they ever were. He looks the same; if she hadn’t been to his funeral, she’d never know he was dead. Come to think of it, if she hadn’t cracked his skull with his own crystal paperweight, then seen him slump open-eyed and lifeless to his office floor, she’d never know he was dead, either.

Henry raises his eyebrows at her, prompting her to answer. She blushes and thrusts her thumb at the chalkboard on the wall behind her.

“Our soup is Cream of Mushroom, and the entree is Meatloaf with Gravy and Mashed Potatoes.”

“Hmm. So very tempting. I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat. And pie. Is there any pie?”

“Lemon meringue or apple?”

“Do you have any vanilla ice cream?”

Chloe nods.

“Then apple. A la mode. And coffee.”

Chloe hesitates, fearing Henry’s snobbery and temper. “If you can wait, I’ll make a fresh pot.”

Henry’s eyes crinkle, but his laugh is bitter. “I’ve got plenty of time.”

Chloe scribbles the order and rings Fred’s bell. “Order up,” she calls out of habit. She dumps the coffee and scrubs out the pot with hot water and baking soda, then fills it with fresh, cold water. All the while, she can feel Henry’s dead eyes on her back. She wonders why she hasn’t screamed or fainted; isn’t that what one does when one encounters a ghost?

The coffee is brewing; Chloe has run out of things to do. She turns to face Henry again, squaring her shoulders and smoothing back her short red hair.

“What brings you to Port Jervis, Henry? It’s a long way from Zurich, let alone…” not heaven; surely not that, “the afterlife,” she finishes lamely.

“I’m here because you’re here. I wanted to see the children.”

Chloe’s spine turns to ice. She moves closer to the space heater, momentarily heedless of the danger of melting her stockings. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Jakob barely remembers you, and Anna doesn’t even really know who you are. Besides, they think you’re dead. They know you’re dead,” she corrects herself.

“Where are they now?”

Chloe looks at Henry’s hands as he settles the cheap, battered flatware precisely on the paper napkin in front of him. His long, tapered fingers with their perfectly manicured nails are as familiar to her as her own; in the early days of their courtship, she sketched his hands constantly. Holding a coffee cup, the newspaper, a pen, a book; they fascinated Chloe endlessly.

(Later those fingers inspired a different kind of fascination, leaving bruiseprints on her arms, legs, and chest. Even around her neck, that last time.)

Chloe forces herself to meet Henry’s eyes. “They’re at home, with my mother. We live with her now.” Since you left me with nothing, she silently adds; since I spent all my savings on my defense and several years of therapy. Henry purses his lips and nods as if he’s heard this last.

“How is Janet?” he asks.

Suddenly Chloe’s had enough. “Why do you care?” she challenges. “You always hated my mother. You treated her like garbage when she came to visit us. I can’t believe that death would have changed you that much.”

Fred rings the bell and slides the plate with Henry’s sandwich under the heat lamp. He looks out the window suspiciously. He and Chloe may not be close, but Chloe knows he feels protective of his waitresses. “You okay, Chloe?”

Chloe smiles and nods with a calm she does not feel. “Fine, Fred, fine. Just a visit from an old friend.”

Fred gives Henry another long, measuring look, then shuffles out of sight. Chloe sets the plate in front of Henry, curious to see whether he’ll actually eat it.

“How is Janet,” Henry repeats, a little more forcefully this time.

Chloe gives in to the social nicety of the question. “She’s okay. She was always on your side, you know. She told me I should have kept on taking your crap; that’s what good wives do.”

“We weren’t married,” Henry points out.

“We lived together. We had two kids together. In Mom’s mind, we were married. It’s easier that way for her, neater.”

Henry shrugs, picks up his sandwich, and takes a bite. “Mmm.” He nods and chews with satisfaction. He swallows, then says, “I think that coffee’s ready.”

“Oh, right; sorry.” Chloe pours him a cup and gets fresh cream for him. She gets his pie as well, setting it beside his elbow. She shivers and hugs herself; these echoes of a former domesticity bother her more than the fact that she’s talking to a ghost. Henry sips the hot liquid, and either death has blunted his taste buds, or he’s developed tolerance in the six years he’s been gone, because the coffee seems to pass muster. Chloe relaxes a fraction.

“So, the children,” Henry says, slowly rubbing the edge of the cup against his lower lip, back and forth, back and forth.

“I can’t let you see them,” Chloe blurts out. “I’m sorry; I know it’s been a long time, but it wouldn’t be good for them. You have to understand that.” She hates the way her voice has gotten the slightest bit whiny; how much therapy has she been through, and she’s right back in her old patterns that fast? Of course, Dr. Scott couldn’t have predicted Chloe would face a trigger of this magnitude.

Now she wonders whether she’s dreaming; that certainly would be a preferable alternative to the possibility that this is all a psychotic break. But Fred’s here, right? He saw Henry. So she’s not crazy; she really could be dreaming. The thought gives her a certain freedom; she can do whatever she wants in her own dream. Sometimes she’s awakened from a dream and wished she’d known while it was going on so that she could have done things differently. Now is her chance, it seems.

Henry forks himself up a bite of pie and chews it with obvious appreciation. He sets his fork down, folds his hands, and gazes at her over them, like a meditative priest. “I do understand. I know the children are in good hands. But I’m not sure I can stay away.”

“You have to,” she says, but realizes as she does so that she has absolutely no leverage; she’s quite sure the local authorities won’t issue an order of protection against a dead man. “You have to,” she echoes weakly.

Henry stares at her for a long time, then exhales and nods. “Very well, then. I’ll go.”

Chloe feels off balance suddenly, as if they’ve been playing tug-of-war, and Henry has just dropped the rope. “That’s it? You’re giving up? What’s happened to you, Henry?”

“Things are different now. There are lines I can’t cross.” Henry stands up and fishes out his wallet. “What do I owe you?”

Chloe hesitates. “Don’t worry about it; it’s on the house.”

Henry gives her his usual graceful, dancing-master’s half-bow. “You have my thanks.” He starts to go, but turns back after a few strides. “So Janet has recovered from her accident?”

“Oh, yes, she’s fine now,” Chloe answers. “It was rough going for awhile, but the insurance paid for this great physical therapist who came to the house….”

She breaks off, remembering her mother’s hysterical phone call from the car just moments after the collision. She’d been babbling about having seen Henry, he was right there on the road, he’d come out of nowhere, but how could he really be there, he was dead, and she’d swerved to avoid him….

"You were there,” she whispers. “She insisted that she’d seen you.”

“I’m afraid that’s true,” Henry acknowledges.

Chloe feels a wave of panic surge through her; she’s not sure it won’t carry her away completely. “Why did you come here?” she cries. “You’ve got to go back wherever it is you came from. Get out of here, Henry! Go to hell!”

Faster than thought, Henry is back at the counter. He lays his dead hand against her flushed cheek; his cold touch is somehow as soothing as a compress. She looks into his eyes, and for the first time, she sees a shadow of the old Henry, the self-assured, mocking Henry she’d known so many years ago.

“My dearest Chloe,” he murmurs. “Where is it, exactly, that you think we are?”


The fabulous CableGirl at 42 supplied my story fodder (I had to change just a few details):

1) Woman has coffee with the mother of her dead ex-boyfriend
2) Single mother tries to make her way supporting herself and her young children as a waitress in a truck stop
3) An argument between a woman and her boyfriend

Chloe Mills - thirty something, independent minded single woman. She went to art school in Berlin after getting her GED and traveled Europe for many years going from job to job, anything she could find to keep her with enough money for her next train ticket. Her life long dream has been to spend the night in the Louvre in Paris unwatched by security.

Janet Harshaw - Janet has just turned 65 and is not happy about where her life has taken her. Four years ago she got into a car accident and was hospitalized for months as she went through intensive physical and emotional therapy.

Henry Bueler - Henry was an architect at a major Swiss firm with a weakness for alcohol and women. Although while sober he was a pleasant person, when under the influence his temper would erupt. More than one assault charge had been put on him.

Chloe is responsible for Henry's death.
Janet blames Henry for her injuries and inability to fully recuperate.

--Luisa Perkins at Novembrance

For Love or Garlic

Garlic sensation by Gio JL on FlickrI can't believe it's 2 a.m. and we're stuck within nose-shot of the garlic capital of the world, thought John as leaned back against the front bumper of his Mercedes. He zippered up his new lightweight jacket, one that was never meant to weather any actual weather, and crossed his arms in front of him.

“It’s not my fault, you know,” Melinda yelled through the passenger side's open window. They had been together for 10 years and she knew what John was thinking by the way he sighed as he looked toward the sign pointing the way to Gilroy. “And there’s no need to wrinkle up your nose. You can’t actually smell garlic from here.”

She pulled her head back inside the car and wrapped her scarf a little tighter.

John Russo and Melinda Wayne had a peculiar history with the town least likely to be a setting for an Anne Rice novel. A few summers before, Melinda had finally convinced John to drive out from Los Angeles to the famous Gilroy Garlic Festival, assuring him that it’d be a perfect spot for an upcoming shoot.

The studio head didn’t agree, though, and John had to endure finding cloves of garlic on his desk for many months after he suggested the idea. Of course those silly pranks were better than his eventual reward of a brand new although garlic-free desk at a different studio with a boss 15 years his junior.

With the young buck to compare himself to, John increasingly felt as if his own 45 years were speeding toward the half-century mark like a getaway car.

Getting away from what was the question he struggled to answer.

The mere sight of the Gilroy sign complete with festive garlic cloves started that old film reeling in John’s head--and it didn’t do much to unwrinkle his nose either.

Besides, there was definitely something pungent in the air.

He turned his head away from Gilroy so sharply and quickly that he felt blood rush to his head. Anger or hunger? thought John realizing that he had skipped dinner figuring they would be home in time for late night takeout, his usual fare.

He picked up some gravel in front of the car and started throwing the tiny stones one by one as hard as he could away from the highway. On his third sweep of the ground, he felt something jab into his pinky finger, just above his father’s diamond pinky ring.

“Son of a bitch!” he yelled as he pulled a small chunk of what used to be part of a green beer bottle from his finger. He fired the offender in the direction of the previously displaced rocks and shouted a few more expletives. He held his hand straight out in front of him, careful not to drip blood on himself or his new jacket.

“Character is who you are when no one is watching dear John,” sang his wife from inside the car as she adjusted her wedding band. It had been feeling snug lately and Melinda knew it was because of her poor eating habits. With John working more and more hours to impress his new boss, she was often left on her own for meals. Cooking for herself just wasn’t worth the effort so fast food it was, and her clothes, and now her ring, were not so subtly telling her that something had to give.

“I just love having a life coach for a wife,” he said with a smirk, glaring into Melinda’s brown eyes as he walked toward the passenger side window. “All the fortune without the cookie. Or is it all the cookie without the fortune?”

He laughed to himself and squeezed his finger near the ring. A few drops of blood fell to the ground. For as big as the piece of glass had been, it didn’t end up doing too much damage.

Melinda tilted her head and smiled sweetly at John. She pulled her purse up onto her lap and ruffled through it for a few seconds, finally finding what she had been looking for. Lip gloss.

Although her theater career had ended in Chicago a decade before, she never underestimated the value of good stage presence. Soon the AAA man would be arriving with some gas to rescue them, and she always did play a great damsel in distress.

“Hey Marilyn,” (she hated when he called her that), “you don’t happen to have any tissues in that abyss of makeup do you? A band-aid perhaps?” Tape for your mouth, he thought but was far too polite (or hungry or tired) to say it aloud.

She flung a pack of tissues out of the window in the direction of John’s face. His natural reflexes made his hands shoot up to protect himself. He caught the tissues just before they reached his nose, and a drop of blood streaked across the front of his jacket. He stared at Melinda for a few seconds before opening the tissues, and a few more droplets of blood fell to the ground. Then he removed one of the tissues and applied pressure to his wounded finger, balancing the rest of the pack in the palm of his good hand.

“I want a divorce,” Melinda said as she ripped the pack of tissues from John’s fragile grip and threw them in her purse. She untied and retied her scarf.

John wrapped the tissue tighter around his finger as he walked around to the front of the car. He leaned up against the bumper again, and a few minutes later when the tissue fell away from the cut, he didn’t notice.

He had been trying his hardest to look away from the highway before him and away from Gilroy and its garlic so instead he gazed up at Orion, who, without a doubt in John’s mind, was pointing his arrow directly at him.

And despite his Italian heritage, John vowed never to eat garlic again.


Thanks so much to NYC/Caribbean Ragazza for the following fabulous springboard of information:


A married couple driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles on Route 5 run out of gas. It's 2:00 a.m. and they are stuck near Gilroy "the garlic capital" of America.

The Characters:
Melinda Wayne, 37 and holding. Former actress turned life coach. Originally from a small town called Brooklyn, Iowa. Moved to L.A. 10 years after a successful theater career in Chicago.

John Russo, 45, Brooklyn born and raised. Move to L.A. to attend USC b-school. Was a hot-shot studio exec now reporting to his new boss who is 30.

Can they keep their marriage together during the 30 minutes it will take AAA to rescue them with some gas?

Come visit me at Bleeding Espresso!

Cooking for Romance

This is my first writing game! Happy to play ... Signed Capitolady


A cooking contest that goes awry
Two out of shape hikers who dared each other to make it to the top of a (doable) mountainAn NRA convention

Betsy Boolean - Betsy is a third grade teacher. She's 32 years old and has never been married and desperately wants to get married. Her biological clock is ticking so loudly it could be mistaken for a time bomb

Arnold Drescher - an ex-con who used to seduce little old ladies on cruise ships and steal money from them. He wants to turn his life around. He hasn't been in jail yet, and he had a life-changing experience that helped him to see the error of his ways. But not enough to go back and give the money he bilked back to the old ladies.

Ellen Draper - Ellen is a hard-boiled journalist who does the crime beat for a big city newspaper. She's been at this game for at least fifteen years and she's seen it all and done it all.

Conflict:A desire for instant celebrity on the part of one of the players.

And now… Drum roll…Cooking for Romance -----------------------------------------

Channel 12-action news is reporting today from the sunny city of Everdale. Everdale has a population of 200 people. It is within about an hour drive of the big city of Landburg. Everyone knows each other and their family history in Everdale. Things don’t often change in Everdale and the only time there is news is when the local government comes to town a yearly even that sends Everdale into a metropolis for a few weeks.

Ellen has been covering the news for many years but as a crime beat reporter for a newspaper. She loves being the field reporter, but to have to cover a cooking show is so beneath her but she suffers through. Ellen was often compared to Lois Lane. She found her superman and settled in this suburbia. She is stuck reporting at the dinky local TV station. To say her talents are under used at a cooking show is an understatement. She draws in a deep breath and picks up her mike.

Betsy Boolean walks up to the mike. Ellen has known Betsy for the past 10 years. Betsy was Ellen’s daughter Pam’s third grade teacher. It was Betsy’s first year teaching at Roosevelt Elementary when she taught Pam.

“To think, Pam will be graduating college this year.” Betsy remarked to Ellen. “My, my how time does fly. I can’t believe my favorite student is getting married, and I am still single. At least I still have my career.” The last part of the statement was stinging with a twang of disappointment.

Ellen signals for the interview to start…

“So I hear congratulations are in order Betsy. You were honored with teacher of the year for the entire state!”

“Yes, thank you. I love kids. It has always been a joy working with those young eager faces. In third grade they have such a thirst for knowledge. They still enjoy going to school in the morning. I like making a difference in young lives.” Betsy remarks with a glow about her.

Ellen makes the hand wave across her neck to signal the TV crew to stop filming. She pulls Betsy aside.

“Betsy, I hear there are going to be a ton of good looking men in this contest! Maybe Mr. Right is here” Betsy makes a sour face. “Don’t give me that look we have been friends for a long time. It is time you come out of that shell and talk to people… More importantly men. I know how you love kids, and you aren’t getting any younger. I know how much you want your own.”

“Come on now! I know my biological clock is ticking like a time bomb but I am not going to just settle. Like you did, we aren’t all that lucky.”

Ellen picks up her mike again and motions to the crew. She glances back at Betsy … “Well maybe you’ll win more than a contest tonight.”

Ellen continues over to do another interview. She silently thinks to herself “I settled into a beautiful community where my kids grew up safe and sound. I spent 15 years at that newspaper working the crime beat and all I got was fear for my kids’ safety. At least now I feel safe. But I can sniff a criminal a mile away. Something about Mr. Drescher doesn’t seem right.”

“Mr. Drescher, Welcome … What dish will you be cooking tonight?”

“You can call me Arnold. Well, my dear I have been cooking, in more ways than one for many years now. My specialty is Italian Lasagna. My grandmother was from Italy. She taught me this wonderful dish. All my ladies love it. Making Lasagna is like making love. You do it slow and right.”

“Well Mr. Dresher… Arnold, we look forward to sampling your fair.”

After several interviews the contest is finally started. A battle of words breaks out as Arnold gets angry at the judge who suggests he forgot to put cottage cheese in his lasagna.

Carol who thinks that her age and longevity working in a medical clinic makes her an expert at everything. “After all,” she states “all the finer Italian restaurants make it that way. I have been all over the county that is how I know.”

“A woman of such beauty and intelligence must realize that a person who is only 2 generations removed from the boat would know how to make lasagna the ITALIAN way.” Arnold states as his handle bar mustache swaggers at the thought.

“Well maybe YOUR family didn’t like cottage cheese.” Carol states emphatically

“My apologies madam, surely you must be right! Someone as well traveled as you would know better.”

Betsy as well as the other ladies are impressed by Arnold’s composure when he was insulted. Surly the good looks and that accent are worth further investigation. She walks up to talk to him.

“Mr. Dresher, that was so nice the way you handled that woman. I am quite impressed.”

“well my dear, I don’t have to wear ignorance on my sleeve! I know she was wrong to argue the point would make me look foolish. What are you doing after the show my dear?”

Betsy giggles. She is truly taken by his looks and accent.

When the camera turns back on we see Carol playing to the camera. She minces words with the other judges. Secretly her desire for Arnold is growing. After all he is the first man in a long time that came that close to standing up to her.

As the contest starts the cameras pan the room. Each time they do Carol tries her best to get the focus on her. At one point Carol accidentally pops a button on her blouse primping herself for the camera. The button shoots across the room and lands in Sarah’s pan causing the sauce to fall on to her silk blouse.

She screams as she the sauce starts to burn her and runs off out of the room. Before getting totally out of the room, she slams into another contestant’s table causing a chain reaction that gets all the food on the floor.

The shocked looks pour around the room. Then one long minute later laughter erupts.

Arnold is amazed by Betsy’s composure and decides to ask her out.


Eleanor Cass, blogger C Major Momma (CMM for short), lived just outside Gladstone City, and started the whole thing once she found out Candice Pace, blogger High-steppin‘, was coming there for a family reunion. It didn’t take long for both of them to begin working on Jillian Carmichael, blogger Homogenized Fodder, since Eleanor knew she only lived about twenty-five miles from Gladstone. And although they put the word out for others to join in the fun, only Pat McFadden, blogger Belle Pepper, had signed on for meeting with the other three in “real life”.

All of them had known each other from their blog entries for over two years. Eleanor had actually begun on a Yahoo group called “Kitchen Table Writers” with Jillian some five years ago. That’s how she knew they lived fairly close. Yet in all those years, she had never been able to persuade Jillian to meet with her. Jillian’s writing was brilliant, and she had acquired a real following on her blog site.

Finally Eleanor was going to get to meet her. They would share a leisurely lunch exchanging thoughts and playful banter. It would be the high-light of the luncheon for Eleanor. Well worth all the effort she’d put into this gathering.

So now, after a fair amount of emailing, nailing down all the particulars, all four of the gals were going to meet at Langley’s Garden of Eaten. It was located on Gladstone’s main street, and afforded a great view of Gladstone Lake. If the weather hadn’t been so iffy, they might have been able to eat outdoors on the patio over-looking the marina. Eleanor decided not to risk it. But the view would be great and the food out-of-this-world. She felt she’d picked a winning spot for their luncheon.

Although they had agreed to an informal lunch, Eleanor couldn’t resist making table decorations replete with place cards with each blogger’s name and their identifying blog site logo/picture. As she prepared these, she realized she was the only person who had her picture posted. She thought that a bit strange, that none of them would know each other, but they’d all know her on sight. No matter, at least they’d find her when they came into the restaurant. And because none of them had seen the others, she also made name tags with both blog name and real name. At least until they got to know one another, no one would be embarrassed not remembering their real names.

Eleanor arrived early and a very pleasant young waiter who introduced himself as Jazz Wilson, helped her set up the table right next to the central large picture window. It had a completely unobstructed view of the lake. She really thought she had only a little to do to set up, but it required three trips to the car. She was grateful Jazz insisted on accompanying her on the second and third trip.

She and Jazz worked around the table, arranging the decorations, place cards, and name tags, along with her center piece--a globe of the world with a sign going around the “equator” saying “Blogosphere”. There were pink fluorescent-headed pins stuck in each of the four cities the girls lived in, and bright pink thread from the pins to a pin stuck in Gladstone City. Eleanor and Jazz stepped back and took in the view to its full advantage. Both nodded and sighed in joint agreement it was “perfect”.

It seemed like forever, but in under ten minutes a smiling Jazz approached the table escorting a woman of undetermined age. She was dressed in a floor-length sky-blue sequined evening gown, hair rolled in a French twist anchored in with a diamond encrusted hair comb that matched her high-heeled diamond encrusted pumps. At first Eleanor thought this person had a daughter who had “bedazzled” her mother’s attire. Either that or this person had gotten lost after a late night at the Holiday Inn’s Lounge.

Batting her overly long black eyelashes (quite expertly glued to her overly blue eye shadowed lids), and extending her gloved hand to Eleanor, “I’m Candice Pace, and you MUST be our darling hostess, ‘C Major Momma’. I’d know you anywhere from your picture Eleanor”. This was all said in fairly breathy, gushing exuberance, with the final affect leaving Eleanor wobbling as she stood to accept the out-stretched gloved hand. She wasn’t sure whether she was to shake it or curtsy and kiss it. Fortunately Jazz seemed to have the matter well in-hand, and pulled out Candice’s chair and continued with some small banter while Eleanor sat back down and collected herself.

It was a blessing that Candice, who assured Eleanor she was just “one of the girls” and insisted she call her Candy, and not to stand on formalities, continued to gush on about her trip there. The accommodations she managed to acquire at great personal expense, but with amenities she felt were wholly inadequate, she believed must be for the summer trade that a tourist attraction such as the fish-smelling lake would certainly draw.

Eleanor was trying to scan her brain for what bits must have been there, written between the lines of High-steppin’s blog entries. Wouldn’t there have been signs. Surely in two years something of these traits would have surfaced, wouldn’t they? She barely had gotten her mind around all of this, when she saw the ever-smiling Jazz approaching with another woman in tow.

A very petite woman half standing behind Jazz, was wearing a yellow gingham blouse with a Peter Pan collar, tucked into tailored belted black pants showing off the tiniest waist Eleanor had seen since her daughter was ten. Only because of her salt and pepper hair and a few drawn lines around her eyes, did she guess the woman to be in her early to mid-fifties. Of course, it was hard to tell much about her face because her black-rimmed glasses were the size of Detroit. They looked like they must weigh a ton, stuck out on either side of the thin and drawn face, and because the woman kept looking down at her feet, they had to be continually pushed back up on her slender nose.

In a barely audible voice, the tiny woman said, “Hello, I’m Jillian Carmichael.”

Before Eleanor could stand to greet her, Candy had extended her gloved hand and gushed in her throaty night-club voice, “Oh my, our darling Homogenized Fodder. What is a sweet bitty thing like you doing with such a heavy blog handle? Why my dear, you write absolute poetry. Why I’ve gained IQ points just reading your posts, truly I have.”

With Eleanor still trying to gain her feet, Jazz swiftly pulled out Jillian’s chair, helped her push it back in, and then tried to assist Eleanor who’s chair leg had stuck to the carpet. She finally decided his best help would be pushing her chair back up to the table. As she tried meeting Jillian’s eyes, a full throttle booming baritone voice brought her gaze back up just in time to see the arrival of her last guest.

“Oh my girls, it has been SUCH a trip. And here you all are! I’m misty, truly I am, just misty.”

For once Jazz was frozen in place. There standing next to the table was a six foot two inch Dolly Parton look alike. And out from under the ten pounds of blond-wigged curls came this husky deep voice sounding as if it was coming from an underground train tunnel.

“Oh my, to think we’re all together. Belle Pepper, or as you now know, Pat McFadden here. When I told my associates at Madden, Gladden and McFadden I was just going to drop all my court cases and come here to meet all of you, WELLLL you can imagine they thought I was hormonal. But I was NOT going to let this opportunity pass me by. I mean, how often do you actually get to meet those you share your whole daily agenda with, but never meet in person--I mean REALLY? And now we’re here, I’m getting all choked up again.”

At this announcement, Jazz had finally recovered enough to pull out the chair for Pat, and with some effort, helped push it back in again. Eleanor noted that this turn of event had even silenced Ms Candy, if only momentarily. No one seemed to be able to say much as Pat dabbed his tears with a dainty lace-edged hanky.

“Oh, I hope you’re not uncomfortable with my being here? Am I over-dressed?”

To this all three women tried to offer assorted assurances that they were glad Pat had been able to join them. Nothing was said too articulately, but there was a general effort to say welcoming words.

“Oh thank you for the kind words. I just feel pretty in these. You know, Dolly is SO provocative, so effervescent. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be her?” All of this was said with ever widening gestures, showing more of Pat’s hairy arms, until Jillian’s water glass was bumped. But faithful Jazz was at hand, and captured the glass before it actually tipped over.

“May I take your orders now?”

Eleanor was glad Jazz spoke up, as there seemed to be a dark hole similar to the ones in space, and all sound that had tried to come out of her mouth had been swallowed up. Everyone took some minutes with heads buried in their menus, and then began offering Jazz their orders. For Eleanor, all too soon the orders were placed, and Jazz disappeared.

Evidently completely recovered from Pat’s arrival, Candy took over the conversation. Eleanor tried several times to catch Jillian’s eye, but she seemed to have her stare trained at her plate, or out the window at the lake. And finally, when Eleanor thought she was about to speak, Jillian excused herself and headed for the lady’s room.

The breathy gushing and the booming train tunnel voices continued on. Jillian had yet to return from the restroom, and Eleanor could hardly blame her.

With her gaze trained out at the lake, Eleanor was lost in thought. Who were these people? She read their blogs every day. She sent comments back and forth, emails off boards. Where were the signs that identified Miss Lounge Act 1966 and Miss Belle of the Balls? She snickered at that last thought and then reprimanded herself for her narrow-minded, and naughty remark--hum, maybe CMM wasn’t who she said she was either.

Jillian returned and slid into her spot so quietly Eleanor didn’t notice until Jazz showed up and began to distribute everyone’s salads. The conversation between Candy and Pat continued so seamlessly, Eleanor began to wonder how their salads were being eaten. Neither appeared to be chewing, just talking. And every once in a while, she thought she saw Jazz reach over and take a cucumber off of someone’s bowl, or a tomato, and eat it--but that couldn’t be right, could it? No, she was definitely out of her element and she was seeing things.

Between each part of the meal, as Jazz collected and delivered plates, refilled glasses, and still appeared to be gaining a partial meal of his own off their entrees, Jillian would disappear into the lady’s room. And each time, just as the next dish was being set out, there she’d be, sitting in her chair, head down, staring intently at her plate. Eleanor always seemed to see her go, but how the heck did she get back in her seat without detection?

And finally it happened. Jazz showed up with each person’s check neatly placed in a leather folder. As the bills were paid, credit card bills signed, Jazz seemed every where at once, pulling out chairs, handing little left-over baggies to Candy and Pat, and bowing to everyone. Eleanor noted where she could see the payments, Jazz was coming out well paid for his smiles and service--but then with this crew, and all he’d taken on from the beginning of the ordeal, she felt he could not possibly have been over-paid.

Eleanor attempted to say her goodbyes to each one. And each one stopped to get a hug, and express how wonderful and gracious Eleanor had been to organize the luncheon, what a guiding force she’d been, how the blogosphere would know about just how marvelous a soul C Major Momma was!

Jillian was the first one gone. Whether she was hiding out in the lady’s room, or had actually escaped to her car, Eleanor wasn’t sure, and wasn’t going to go see. Candice and Pat walked out together, arm in arm, exclaiming how IF they put their heads together, perhaps there would be something in this burg to hold their attention for the evening. And Jazz, ever present, dutifully gathered the remnants of the table decorations and helped Eleanor get them back out into her car.

Eleanor sat there waving one last goodbye to the still smiling Jazz, who then re-entered the restaurant leaving her alone in the parking lot. She tried to feel something. She tried to think what she could say in summation to the meeting. Her mind felt like she’d come from the dentist and it had been numbed with Novocain during the entire luncheon.

Inquiring minds would want to know. Come Monday, High-steppin’, Belle Pepper, and Homogenized Fodder would post their blogs. C Major Momma would post one too

Monday Morning in the Blogosphere:

Homogenized Fodder wrote:
“This past weekend proved to be one of those special and endearing life experiences for myself and three of our fellow bloggers, as we were treated to a luncheon arranged by our hard-working and gracious hostess C Major Momma.

“Even though the past two years have given all of us opportunities to exchange ideas and share each other’s creativity and thoughts, much of our friendship has been based on long distance--but now, thanks to our hostess, we have all gained an extraordinary opportunity to get to know our fellow bloggers in a richer and more in-depth context.

“I wish to thank our gracious hostess, C Major Momma, our effervescent Belle Pepper, and our eloquent High-steppin’ for making this matchless meeting. Just maybe CMM will offer to host again, and more of you will be able to come join in the merriment.”

High-steppin’ wrote:
“As many of my readers know this past weekend opened with a new opportunity for me. C Major Momma offered to host a luncheon for those of us who were going to be in the Gladstone area. I had my family reunion scheduled there at the lake this past weekend, so I was able to attend. I’ll write more about the family reunion in a later post.

“Right now I want to tell all of you just what a grand time our dear and faithful hostess, CMM gave all of us. Right down to the smallest detail, she was on top of her game. The table decorations were so very creative, and made each one of us feel welcome and special. And with her arrangements, she managed to get us a lakefront view that would give a photographer reason to pause--just breath-taking, my dear CMM, just breath-taking.

“And to finally have names and faces to go with each of my blogger friends--well, it just goes beyond words. Belle Pepper and I were able to spend some extra time together that evening, and, well, we were definitely “high-steppin’” it! A grander time I’ve not had in eons. Once again, thank you, CMM, and sending hugs to Homogenized Fodder and Belle Pepper as well. Maybe next time more of you will join us--oh CMM, let’s not let it go too long for another meeting!”

Belle Pepper wrote:
“I am still choked up every time I try to talk about this past weekend. People, you missed out on SUCH FUN! Our dear C Major Momma out did herself, really she did. We all were welcomed with out-stretched arms. The table setting was dazzling. I’ll keep my party favors in my Memory book--truly one of my cherished memories was made all the more special because of your thoughtfulness.

“Homogenized Fodder, my respect for you and your writing ability is all the more keen now that I’ve had this opportunity to spend such quality time with you. Each remark you made, well, just sterling!

“And our darling waiter, Jazz--I told you to click on in to my blog today, because I’ve not forgotten you. There wasn’t a detail you missed, and I know you and CMM made every effort to treat us all like princesses! Thank both of you from the bottom of my heart! We must do this again--and more of you need to join us for the fun!”

C Major Momma wrote:
“I cannot say enough to express my gratitude for all three of my blogger buddies’ gracious blogs today. It was a once in a lifetime event and I will never forget the impact it has had on me. Truly, I don’t think it could ever be duplicated. I am almost speechless as I try to say what it has meant to me. Thank all of you for participating.”

Eleanor finished reading the blogs and closed her laptop. She would never read another blog nor think of her fellow bloggers in quite the same way again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Twas Brillig (my gifted muse for this writing) suggested these ideas:
STORY IDEA: A group (four or five people) of blogging friends get together for lunch one day to meet in person for the very first time.
Blogging friend A: who is dressed up in very fancy clothes as though instead of going to lunch, she were going to a night club.
Blogging friend B: writes a fantastic blog, but is apparently so shy in person that she can’t even form a complete sentence, and spends most of the time staring at her plate or hiding in the restroom.
Character C: is a flirtatious, handsome 20-something waiter who returns to the table way more often than is required and seems to be sneaking samples of everyone’s food.
PLOT TWIST: One of the blogging friends turns out to be extremely different from how they had described themselves on their blog.
From her lead, I created this story.

27 Woodland Lane

I have not written a short story since freshman year in college, you know, back in the stone-age. I have no idea what I am doing but here goes. We were given some guidelines, which I will post at the end of the story. Please feel free to give any suggestions, thoughts etc. here or at my blog nyc/caribbeanragazza

27 Woodland Lane

He didn’t like it at all. Not one bit. Bob Waters stood in the backyard and wondered what had happened to his house. The glass walls exposed everything.

Bob lingered for a moment watching as Susan ran around the kitchen. He was fond of Susan. She had that same kind of sneak-up-on-you-type beauty as his wife Rose. Bob walked around to the front of the house. The boxy, sleek structure looked out of place among the towering oak and maple trees in the historic section of Greenwich Connecticut. What distressed him even more were his poor rose bushes. They looked horrible. The petals were the color of a polluted river. Susan had been distracted lately with the remodeling but he couldn’t cut her any more slack. The roses were dying. He had to do something.

Susan tried again to snap her barrette shut.
“Mommy said a bad word,” her five-year-old daughter Grace yelled as if no one had heard the first time.
“Don’t worry about Mommy. It’s time for you to go to bed.”
“I want to stay up until dad gets home. Can you read another story?”
“No, it’s past 8:30. Let’s go”
“Noooo, I want to stay up!”
“Grace. I am not telling you again.”
“Look you made Mom mad. You’re a pain,” Jack, age six, said to his sister.
“No, you are a pain!”
“Grace use your inside voice and get upstairs.”
“Yeah Grace,” Jack added.
“You too Jack. Let’s go.”

Finally the kids were down. Susan brought a ’97 Barolo up from the cellar, poured herself a glass and opened the Sunday New York Times. She was getting to it on Thursday, which was a record of sorts. The house was quiet. There was only the soft hum of the refrigerator. Her husband felt for the price they paid for the six-bedroom house it should be completely silent but Susan liked the company.

She was reading the business section, which featured a story about one of her former Wall Street colleagues when her husband, Peter rushed in. In his early 40s, Peter still had the build and good looks of a Division I athlete.

“Hey honey,” Peter said as he gave Susan a quick peck.
“Hey yourself. There’s dinner in the fridge.”
“I already ate in the city.
“Your assistant neglected to mention that this afternoon when she called to go over the guest list for the housewarming. The list is too long.”
“No it’s not,” Peter said gently, waving off the subject. “You won’t believe what Casey did today during a conference all.”

As Peter went on about his day, Susan thought about her typical schedule.
Get kids ready for school.
Drop kids off at school.
Volunteer at school for three hours.
Drop off donated items at Greenwich Junior League thrift shop.
Pick up Peter’s dry cleaning.
Return home. Reheat for lunch dinner from last night that Peter did not eat.
Let Rosalie in. Tell her not to worry about cleaning Peter’s bathroom. She did that yesterday after Grace threw up in there.
Go to supermarket for groceries.
Pick up kids from school.
Drop kids at their play dates.
Update RSVP list for housewarming.
Check email. Delete spam.
Pay Rosalie.
Pick up kids from respective play dates.
Cook dinner.
Try to eat dinner.
Get kids ready for bed.
Sit here and listen to husband talk about bumping into all our friends in the city.

“Are you listening to me?” Peter asked.
“No, I’m not.”
“You are so funny.”
“No, I’m not.”
“The landscaper is coming tomorrow. He’s going to deal with the rose bushes once and for all.”
“Oh. I forgot to prune them.”
“We’re getting rid of them. They don’t fit the house.”
“We can’t. Mr. Waters planted them. I promised his kids we wouldn’t dig them up.”
“You were okay with tearing down old man’s house, but you want to leave his flowers?”

Bob wondered whom Peter was calling an old man? He was a spry 66 when a heart attack killed him. He had walked into the kitchen and had been eavesdropping on their conversation since Peter had come home.

“I think the bushes are beautiful,” said Susan. “It’s sweet he planted them for his wife.”
“Yes, yes it’s very romantic,” said Peter. “But let’s be practical.”
“Oh, you mean like this house?” Susan shot back. “The roses stay.”
“The landscaping has to be finished before the party. Susan, we have to get rid of those nasty rose bushes.”

Bob couldn’t take it anymore. He had planted those bushes after his wife’s accident. He promised her once he retired they would travel and he’d spend more time with the family. She died two weeks after he took the commuter train into the city for the last time. Those bushes were his life the twelve months before his heart attack and he wasn't going to let Peter disparage them. Couldn’t Peter see? Bob used to be like him.

Bob pushed a glass off the counter and it shattered sending shards racing across the tile floor and startling Peter nearly out of his skin.

“I guess Mrs. Waters doesn’t like my idea,” Peter said trying to pretend he wasn’t freaked out.
“Mrs. Waters is not a ghost in this house.” Susan smiled and gave her husband a kiss.
“Ask the landscaper to help you nurse the rose bushes back to health. I’m going upstairs to change. Save me some of that wine.”

Susan picked up a broom and swept up the glass.
“Thanks Mr. Waters.”
“You’re welcome,” Bob said. He knew Susan couldn’t hear him. He ran out to tell the roses the great news.

I drew Soccer Mom in Denial's idea.
A. A ghost visiting his former house. A living couple is gently aruging over how to decorate the house.
B. The ghost lived in the house most of his life, raised his family there and lived alone in it after his beloved wife Rose died. He tended rose bushes in her memory. One partner of the couple wants to make changes now the other isn't in a hurry. The rose bushes haven't been tended to in a while.
C. The ghost overhears someone say "those nasty rose bushes" have to be removed.

Meet Me in Saskatoon

I snuggled closer to the warm body beside me and pulled the blankets over my head to block out the morning’s invasive light. My mouth was filled with cotton and every heartbeat echoed in my head. Alana didn’t normally let me drink enough to feel like this, so the feeling was a vague memory from my college days. She moved beside me to crawl out of bed.

“No, Al, stay a while.” I reached for her unsuccessfully.

“Not Al, honey. It’s Leah.” Her voice was soft, and not the least bit angry. I shot up in the bed. It made me dizzy. I tried to focus on her. She was tying on a fuzzy pink bathrobe, and even though she was rumpled, she looked fresh. I’d lived with Alana long enough to know that even though the bathrobe did nothing for her, it was hiding a smokin’ bod, and despite the mashed down look of her hair, she was very pretty. I tried to take in my surroundings, but as the room was spinning at little, I struggled.

Closing one eye to help me focus, I saw I was in a sparsely decorated bedroom. One lonely posted was tacked to the wall – one of those pre-Raphaelite deals with the princess and the knight. The duvet was covered in something that must have come from IKEA. It look like a child had attacked it with markers.

“I, uh, I’m sorry?” It was the best I could do.

“You told me all about her last night. I didn’t realize people still ran away to California in this day and age. Weird, eh? Anyhow, I was just going to get you a glass of water. I lost count after your 12th tequila shot.”

“That explains the marching band in my head.”

“I don’t imagine you remember much else? I get black spots from tequila.”

“Black spots?”

“Yeah. Voids in my memory.” She was smirking at me. I have to admit, I was a little intrigued. Going home with strange women was never my style. Going home with strange women in foreign countries was way off. Not that Canada was really foreign, but still.

“Right. Yeah. I remember the bar after the game. And I remember you buying me a Bud and making fun of me,” I trailed off, trying to recall the rest of the night, “and the beginning of the tequila shots. What happened to the guys?”

“Your friends? They hopped a cab at some point. You know, none of you sounded like what I expected you to sound like.” She walked into the bathroom and ran the water.


“Well, I expected, I dunno, Fargo or something.” She laughed and brought me a glass of water.

“That’s North Dakota. I’m from Minnesota.”

“Whatever. So when is your flight?” She dismissed the difference with a wave of her hand.

“8:30.” It never crossed my mind to ask her how she knew I was flying home this morning.

“I hope you had trip insurance then, sunshine. It’s after ten.” She nodded toward her alarm clock. I glanced at it, to confirm what I knew was inevitable.

“I am gonna kill them.”

“It’s hardly your friend's fault.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not in some strange woman’s house, with no clue of how you got there, no recollection of what was probably really terrible sex, and no way to get back to your own country!” I was a little panicked. “And it goddamn figures! I let them convince me that coming here to see the Wild play Edmonton was a great idea. ‘It’s not really a foreign country, Erik, they speak the same language, and it’s only a couple hours on the plane.’ ‘You need to experience life, Erik. It’s the safest trip in the world. Hockey game and home again.’ Goddammit!!” I punched the pillow.

Leah had sat back down on the edge of the bed and was giving me that smirk of hers again.

“We didn’t have sex.”

“Are you sure? Because if we did, I think I’ll need to apologize for more than just not remembering where I was and who I was with.” I looked her in the eyes, searching for the lie. All I got was a wicked twinkle and the knowledge that her eyes were an intriguing olive green.

“No sex. You weren’t really in any condition. Look, get dressed. I’ll take you to the mall and we can get your ticket changed.”

“Then why were we in bed together?”

“I never said we didn’t make out.” She laughed and disappeared into the rest of house.


“The next flight I can get you on is at 6:30, connecting through Calgary, Vancouver, and Denver.” The travel agent was young and hot. I was beginning to notice a trend with these Canadian girls.

“Sure.” I handed over my credit card and checked the clock over her head. I had 6 hours to get to the airport, but to her credit, Leah was still hanging around. I considered asking her to take me to the airport, but dismissed it. I didn’t want to sit around the airport for six hours waiting. Surely there would be a shuttle. West Edmonton Mall was supposed to be the biggest mall in Canada.

“Oh.” The tone in the travel agent’s voice was disheartening.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Well, it appears the Edmonton leg of that flight is overbooked. I can confirm you on that flight from Calgary, but not from Edmonton. Let me see what else I can find.” She went back to tapping on her keyboard and squinting at the monitor. She pulled her glasses off, absently, and cleaned them.

“Is there an earlier flight into Calgary I can get on?”

“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Olafson, everything is booked up. Hmm. I can get you on the same flight on Tuesday though, connecting through Calgary, Vancouver and Denver.”

“Is there any way you can get me to Vancouver today?” I clenched my hands in my coat pocket and counted to ten in my head to calm myself.

“No sir, all the remaining flights to Vancouver connect through Calgary today.” She smiled sympathetically at me. I wanted to smash my head into the table. Leah sat down beside me.

“Calgary is only about 4 hours from here. Want me to drive you down?” She offered.

“Are you kidding me?” I was dumbstruck.

“Not at all. Give me gas money, and I’ll drive you down.” She shrugged. I looked back to the travel agent and nodded. Her fingers clacked away on the keyboard again and the printer behind her began to whir to life.

“Book me out of Calgary, please.” I looked back to Leah, “do we have time to stop at that electronics store we saw on the way in? I promised my sister an iPod for Christmas.”

“As long as you know what you’re looking for.”

“Mr. Olafson? Here are your tickets, sir. If you’ll just sign the credit card receipt.” The travel agent handed me a pen, and I signed the next six hours of my life into Leah’s hands.


We walked into what was apparently the Canadian version of Best Buy, a store called Future Shop. A perky girl with a nose ring and too much eye make-up on approached me.

“How can I help you?”

“I need an iPod for my sister for Christmas.”

“Right this way.”

She led me toward a display that was brimming with mp3 players of all types. I looked for the telltale Apple and found that half of them were iPods. I closed my eyes and sighed. Nothing was going to be easy today. Looking back at the display I was disappointed to find I hadn’t been seeing double.

“I’ll be right back.” Leah whispered in my ear.

“So what kind of iPod did you want to get for your sister?”

“Uh. How about I just look around for a second?”

“Sure.” She stepped back to the sales counter and started joking around with her coworkers. I starred blankly at the display in front of me for a moment and was just about to give up when Leah rematerialized at my side and handed me a Styrofoam cup.

“What’s this?”

“Booster Juice. It’ll help your hangover.” I took a sip, cautiously. It looked a little froo-froo to me and I was somewhat embarrassed to be seen with the bright yellow and pink cup. The salesgirl came back. I could have sworn she eyeballed my drink and smiled.

“Any luck deciding?”

“Well, no. Which one holds the most music?” I was completely out of my element. I’m probably the only man in the world who doesn’t get wood from electronics. I’d paid a fortune to have some snot-nosed know-it-all come set up my home theatre. He’d made condescending comments the whole time he was in my basement.

“Probably this one. It has an iTunes wi-fi music store, widgets and tft lcd display including accelerometer.” She held up a black shiny model.

“A tufty why-fie with a whaterometer?” I didn’t understand a word the girl had said to me.

“No, an iTunes wi-fi music store, widgets and tft lcd display including accelerometer.” She said it slowly and giggled at the end of her sentence.

“Is it possible to get that in English?” I asked her. I looked at Leah, who was smirking, “I didn’t realize Albertans spoke French.”

“I am speaking English.” The sales girl flipped her hair and rolled her eyes at Leah.

“You might want to try Hockey Jock.” Leah offered with a shrug.

“Right… It’s very shiny. It holds lots of music. You can even order music from the internet with this iPod without involving your computer.” She said slowly and winked at Leah. I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Right.” I shook my head and smiled, despite myself.

“Did I mention it was shiny?”

“Yes, fine. That one will be fine.”

“Great. I’ll grab one from the back and meet you at the till.”

“You’re an utter snob, Leah. Hockey jock?” I snorted. Leah laughed.

“I went to university with Carson. She was an applied computer science major, and basically tutored everyone through the course. I was just teasing you a little with an old joke between us.”

“If she’s so smart, why is she working here?” I challenged.

“Staff discount, my friend. Besides, I like helping people walk in with that little lost lamb look. Like you have.” Carson said from behind me. She quickly rang up the sale. “Did you want extended warranty?”

“I doubt it will be much use, I’m taking this back to Minnesota.”

“No problem, just activate the warranty through Best Buy when you get home. I think we sell it for cheaper, but we’re the same company.” She wrapped everything up and handed me the bag. Leah looked at her watch and swore. I looked at her.

“Come on, we’ve gotta get your butt to Calgary. It’s a damn good thing we picked your stuff up before we came here.” She grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me from the store.


The road between Edmonton and Calgary is long. It runs North-South and really doesn’t deviate from straight much. With a layer of snow and countless cars in the ditches along the road, I was surprised to see other drivers passing us. According to Leah’s speedometer, we were doing the speed limit, which I figured was around 70 mph. And we were one of the only cars on the road. Everyone drove trucks.

“People on this road have a death wish?” I watched a fully loaded logging truck fly past us, kicking up snow in its wake.

“They just get cocky. Probably drive it lots.”

“Do you?” I have to admit, Leah piqued my interest.

“What? Drive to Calgary lots? Nope.”

“So, why today?”

“You needed to get home.”

“I’m a total stranger, Leah.”

“You’re a nice guy, Erik. You came home with me last night because your buddies ditched you thinking you were looking to score. We got to my place and you said you weren’t that kind of guy. And even though you don’t remember anything from last night, you were funny and nice to talk to. And despite being so drunk you could barely walk, you’re a pretty good kisser.” There was laughter in her voice. My chest tightened and I found myself wishing she lived on my side of the border.

“So because I was funny, nice to talk to and didn’t extort drunken hook-up sex out of you, you figured you should drive me to Calgary in the dead of a Canadian winter?”

“It’s an adventure. I’ll crash there tonight at my cousin’s place.”

“Look, I’m in debt to you forever. But you’re crazy.”

“Here’s my philosophy. You’re only young once.”

“Which means ‘drive to Calgary with a strange man’?”

“Well, it’s not like I’ve got to be anywhere tomorrow.”

“No job?”

“No. Just finished my degree. I sub every so often.”

“You’re a teacher?” She didn’t strike me as a teacher. She wasn’t old enough, or frumpy enough. Or anything else I associated with teaching.


“How do you pay your bills?”

“I make enough to get by. And my parents sometimes help me out. Damn!” Leah slapped her steering wheel. I glanced back to the road. Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. I sighed and my hopes fell.


We sat in silence, slowly creeping forward. I tried not to check my watch obsessively, but you know how when you’re trying to restrain yourself, you are much worse about obsessing? That was me. I thought I was being discreet. Apparently I wasn’t.

“If you look at your watch one more time, I swear to god I’ll break your wrist.” Leah snapped without looking away from the road.

“Sorry.” I stared out my window at the snow-covered fields as they whizzed by. It really didn’t look much different than home. I picked up my juice from the cup holder and drank. It was more tepid than cool but it was refreshing. Alana had never thought to get me a drink like that the entire time we’d been dating. I said as much to Leah.

“Yeah, well, you looked pretty awful. And it’s going to be a long night for you. So.”


“So. I dunno. Anyhow. I still don’t get how you wound up in Edmonton. You sort of explained it last night, but I didn’t make all the connections. I think because you weren’t really making all the connections.”

“Oh. Well. My girlfriend left me to chase fame in LA. The guys thought I needed to blow off some steam.” I wasn’t ready to tell anyone about the night Alana left. I had no idea how unhappy she’d been. I got down on one knee, holding a few thousand dollars in a pink satin box out to her. She’d laughed.

“So you end up at a hockey game in Canada because your girlfriend was an idiot.”

“More or less.”

“Why a hockey game?”

“Why not?”

“Seriously. Why not a trip to Jamaica, or Mexico?”

“I went to university on a full ride for hockey. My dad played in the NHL, so did my granddad. It’s kind of in the blood.”

“Ah.” It was a knowing sound. I snuck a peek at my watch as we passed a distance marker. I was just going to make my flight. As long as there were no more delays.


“We’re almost there!” Leah punched me in the shoulder, waking me up. I didn’t even realize I’d fallen asleep. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window. There were neighborhoods popping up next to the snow-covered wheat fields. And in the distance, I could just make out the skyline of a city. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced anything as stressful as that last 25 kilometers into Calgary. It just keeps going and going and going. And just as you think you’ve finally made it, there are more outskirts to drive through. We finally saw an exit for the airport and then, before I knew it, we were driving up to the departures entry. Leah hopped out to open the trunk. I fished through my wallet before I reached in for my bag. I handed her the cash to cover her gas and reached into the trunk to grab my bag with my free hand. Suddenly her arms were around me and she was squeezing the air out of me.

“Uh, Leah?” She had her head nestled into my chest. She took a deep breath and pulled away. I waved the bills.

“Oh, thanks.” She stuffed them in the pocket of her jeans and looked at her watch, “you need to run!”

I looked down at my watch and cursed. I looked back up at her and was caught off-guard by how pretty she was, even though I’d been admiring her looks all day. The wind was blowing, making her hair fly in the wind, and bringing up a flush in her cheeks. She had her hands stuffed clumsily in her jeans pockets and her hoody was zipped up right under her chin. I dropped my bag and pulled her into my arms.

“Thank you so much.” I whispered in her ear. As I pulled away, I was caught by the same crazy impulse that had led me to Canada in the first place, and I kissed her.


The set I received was as follows:

- A brand new college graduate who is expecting to be independent but still is also expecting to be taken care of. They expect everything to work out so they don't try to keep things under control. They are not sure what they want to do with their life, but they are sure it will work out fine.

- A man just dumped by his girlfriend of a few years. She wanted to move to California and he didn't want to leave Duluth. His family has lived in that area for generations and he feels a deep connection to that area.

- A geek girl in her twenties who is a sales clerk at Best Buy. She likes gear a lot and she like people and she likes to help people. She got the job out of college and just never moved on. She has friends of both sexes but no boyfriend.


- A trip to a foreign country has gone awry. The character is alone, doesn't know the language, and doesn't have anywhere in particular to settle down and think. The location isn't particularly dangerous but it isn't particularly inviting either.

- A trip to the bottom of the Ocean has gone awry. A tourist submarine can't surface because of a storm. If the storm blows over in 3 or 4 hours as expected everything will be fine, but all 30 strangers on the sub are frightened.
I obviously didn't use this scenario


- The main character has 6 hours to get from one place to another but doesn't have any transportation or know how to get any. Perhaps they have a dinner appointment. Maybe they are going on a first date. Maybe they just need to go home.

- The character needs help to do something personal that they can't do for some reason and normally wouldn't feel comfortable asking for help with. Perhaps they have a broken leg and need to tie their shoelace.

These ideas were courtesy of Jen's hubby, Veriano of Haikuku. But thanks for the great stuff, D!