Business and Pleasure

Annamaria Podge was an ordinary woman who led a quiet life. At 45 years old, she was, for Polk City’s townfolk, an established bachelorette. She enjoyed nights at home with her five cats, was a solid, if quiet member of the local Tuesday and Ta Ya Mim clubs and played hymns at the Baptist church on Sunday mornings. She answered when spoken to, but her timidity radiated around her plump form like a shield, keeping strangers at bay and those who knew her deep in pity.

In Polk City, she was plain old Annamaria. A shallow presence, a part of the woodwork. In her private life, Annie was a different woman entirely.

On the night of Friday, Jan. 23, Annie bundled up her fleshy figure in a bright track suit with geometric shapes in vivid blues, greens and reds. Her wilting dishwater blond tresses were pulled back in a tight bun fixed where fat from her back rolled up to kiss the nape of her neck. With sausage-like fingers, thick but always adept on the aged and always slightly out-of-tune church piano, she pulled on a wig of curls dubbed “burnt sienna.” It was a color more apt for walls than hair, but the wig effectively detracted from Annie’s pitted visage. After smearing on bright red lipstick, she ran her tongue over crooked teeth, tugged once more on the wig and stood from the dressing table.

The slicky pants whined as her lumbered walking rubbed the fabric between her thighs, but the sound wouldn’t matter when she got there. She lifted one of her many framed flower needlepoints from her living room wall to set on a highbacked floral print chair. From the concealed safe, she snapped on black latex gloves, then drew out her snub-nosed .38. She’d have to dump the gun, per usual, which was a shame. She’d really come to like the blunt revolver. It didn’t have the shooting power of some of the flashier guns she’d used, but it fit comfortably in her hand. She caressed it gently with one plastic-encased finger before slipping bullets out of a cardboard box to load in the cartridge.

With her weapon nestled in a leather fanny pack, she adjusted the strap, once, then twice, until it clipped comfortably around her middle. She said goodbye to the felines lolling about the small house and locked the back door.

Her 1985 blue Buick Century rumbled to life, and she wriggled the fanny pack to her side in order to stretch the seat belt to its buckle. With her heart bumping, she pulled out of the carport, the map and instructions spread across the passenger seat. She had them memorized already, she always did, but she enjoyed having the paper as back up. This job, in any case, was familiar. She knew the target, suspected she knew the client, but she never asked questions. When Roy had paged her, she’d called back to listen only. No questions, no trouble, no feelings. The money would be placed in an offshore account, and Annie was counting down the days until her fiftieth birthday when she could collect. She would miss Polk City – it was her home – but the call of white sand beaches and shimmering blue water was seductive. She would retire, move to paradise and immerse herself in romantic novels and greasy French fries until she keeled over. The thought of it made her smile as her headlights slashed through the night.

When she pulled up to the restaurant, her heart’s bumping had accelerated to pounding. She looked for a space next to the zippy red convertible and waited. The diners milling in front of the windows of the warm eatery looked happy, Annie thought. A small part of her yearned to be inside with them, dining on delicious food while engaging in witty banter with a handsome man. She would feel confident and beautiful, smart and classy and all the other adjectives that had long-ago escaped her pudgy grasp. But she’d found her calling in killing, and that was the way it was.

She pushed aside the thoughts of loneliness and the thick depression to focus. When she found her target, she nodded to herself. The woman was paying the check, and her husband was nowhere to be seen. Probably left early for a medical emergency. “Medical emergency,” Annie thought. Read: Meet with the Pastor’s wife, with whom he was having a relationship. The whole congregation knew it.

When the woman, slim and blonde, pushed out of the heavy restaurant door, Annie unzipped her fanny pack and pulled the gun out, fitting her pointer finger over the trigger. The blonde walked slowly, her gaze low and her features pulled downward. When she reached the convertible, Annie rolled down her window.

“Hello?” she asked.

The blonde looked up, her face revealing her shock at Annie’s garish appearance.


“Are you Cassandra Pickler?”

“Yes. May I help you?”


Annie lifted the gun and shot the woman twice. Once for the kill, the second for good measure As the woman dropped to the asphalt next to her car, Annie let out a long, slow breath and calmly placed the gun and the discarded shell casings on top of the papers. She put the car in reverse and drove the curving and dipping streets home, where a box of powdered donuts and a video of “An Affair to Remember” were waiting.

The car was later found in a used lot. The gun was never recovered. The bustling crowd in the restaurant never heard the shot, nor did they see a flash. The only thing they could remember was a heavyset woman with rich brown hair and a flashy jogging suit. No one remembered her face.

On Her Special Day

The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room would have been cozy, sheltering. Anna would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table.

Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her. It was a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and Anna could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.

The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the withering, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mother, dear. Can you let me in please?”

A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic in Anna, which she tamped down as much as she could. Today, right now, was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.

“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you?”

Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the dress hanging at the front of a boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.

Rose scowled, glared at her daughter.

“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? I thought I taught you better than that.”

Anna stood silently in the doorway.

“Why aren’t you dressed? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”

Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the barbs her mother aimed in her direction.

“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”

Rose narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace.”

Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid.

“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Sit down. Now.”

Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.

Rose clapped her hands.

“Let’s get started.”

She pulled and tugged at Anna’s wispy blond hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back to her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold, drops falling like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.

“Good. Make up.”

Chemical-spelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich red sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of Rose. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior her mother had painted on.

“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”

Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup falling off in flecks to drop onto bare skin. Her robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear. When she pulled the dress on, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.

“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”

Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.

“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”

Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painfully tight coif.

“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”

Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.

“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.

The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming foyer clapped politely. The smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.

The murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose pimpled flesh.

“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”

The guests parted, like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.

Rose pushed at Anna’s back.

She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her petticoat and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, hysterically, silently.

When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Behind her was a French door, its panes glistening, beckoning. With her arm behind her, she quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side, but no one noticed the bride inching her way out of the regal home, away from the much anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.

Anna continued backward until her slim calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She swirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. Her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, she leapt into the snow.

And she ran.

She ran and ran, flying across the field, her pale skin and hair and her wedding gown camouflaged by the strengthening storm. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and she felt the freshness of the air revive her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.

She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.

Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. Snowflakes fell one by one, covering her, burying her. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the gentle current.



Evelyn clicked the cap back on the marker. She rummaged through her junk drawer to find the scotch tape and pulled off four long strips to secure the two pieces of paper to the wall in front of her bed – perfect viewing for when she woke up in the morning. Hastily drawn in block letters were the words “Give It Time.”

She stood back from her handiwork and began to slowly and sadly peel away the night. First came her eyelashes, silky black and damp with tears. She sniffed and pulled off her dress, unhooked her bra, kicked off her pumps. After a rubbing her hands across her splotchy face, she wrapped herself in a chenille robe and curled in bed.

Funny, she’d always had a feeling about Charlie. Even though they’d been together for seven years, she’d had regularly fantasies about him cheating. About her walking in on him with another woman, and she would walk off in her self-righteous glory, and he would come begging, and she’d tell him, “It’s over!” And then she could return to a life of singledom and glorious girls’ nights without having to worry about him.

It didn’t happen exactly as she’d thought.

They’d gone out to dinner. He’d held her hand across the table. She’d gazed at him over the candle, taking in the way the flame highlighted the crinkles around his eyes, his full lips, the crease where the bridge of his nose met his forehead. He was so cute.

They ate, they talked, they kissed. He wanted to go home, she wanted to go out. They separated, he left.

Evelyn had met up with Cassie at a nearby bar for dry martinis and girl talk. She mentioned Charlie going home early (“I don’t know, he just said he didn’t feel like going out, I guess. He’s tired. He’s got a lot going on at work. You know how it is. It’s fine with me that he stays home. Better that he gets his rest so we can go to your dinner party next weekend. It’s fine, really. It’s fine.”), and Cassie pursed her lips.

“Honey, you know I love you. If you knew John were doing something that would upset me, you’d tell me, right?”

“Right,” Evelyn responded.

“Well, I’d do the same for you.”

“What are you talking about?” The martini sloshed uncomfortably in Evelyn’s stomach.

“I’ve just heard rumors, that’s all.”

“About Charlie?”


“What have you heard?”

“John just mentioned that Charlie had gotten close to someone.”


“I don’t know. He wouldn’t say.”

Evelyn set down the martini, her appetite for olives and gin gone. She stood up shakily and picked the coat off her stool.

“Be careful, honey. I love you. Call me, please.”

Evelyn nodded, reached to give her best friend a hug.

“I love you, too.”

She went outside, welcoming the cool air after the sudden stifling heat in the bar. She called a cab. And she wrapped her coat tightly around her.


“Evelyn!” Cassie shouted through the locked door. She pounded her fist again. “Evelyn, will you please open this door?”

Evelyn groaned. Break-up hangover. Her head pounded, her stomach was unsteady, her eyes were gritty with shallow sleep.

“Go away.”

“I’m not going anywhere. You get your ass up, and open this door right now!”

Evelyn rolled out of bed, landing on her knees. “Damnit,” she muttered before pulling herself up. She adjusted her twisted pajamas and made her way to the door, her bare feet slapping against the floor.

“What?” She asked, pulling open the door.

“Oh, dear God,” Cassie said. “Get back inside.”

Evelyn stepped aside, while Cassie walked in. She laid two grocery bags of cookies, chocolate and potato chips on the counter and turned to look at her friend.

“Where’s your hairbrush?”

“The bathroom,” Evelyn replied. She walked to the couch and threw herself on it, pulling down the blanket laid across the back. She flipped on the television, settled on “The Real Housewives of New York City.”

“It’s time for damage control,” Cassie said, returning to the room with a hairbrush, deodorant and mouth spray in hand.

Evelyn dragged the blanket over her head.

“I know you guys just broke up like a week ago, but I have someone I want you to meet.”

“Cassie, I’m not ready.”

“Honey, I know you’re not ready, but you’ll never be ready. Just give yourself a chance.”

“I’m giving it time.”

“Yeah, I know. I saw the sign.”

“I saw a sign. A sign with long legs, perfect hair and lingerie from La Perla.”

“Please. You and I both know his taste isn’t that good.”

Evelyn lowered the blanket and eyed Cassie.

“That’s not how I meant it. You were too good for him. Way better than he deserved. Now is your chance to finally realize what you’re worth. Sit up.”

Evelyn sat up, let Cassie run the brush through her tangled hair. Maybe Cassie was right. She’d been making excuses for a long time. And, the truth was, she’d always had reservations about Charlie. Whenever they were together – without the distraction of T.V., movies, friends – she’d worried about not having anything to talk about. It was exhausting coming up with things to say. Shouldn’t that have been easy?

“Who’s the guy?”

“Yes!” Cassie punched the hairbrush in the air. “You’ll really like him. He’s sweet, friendly, charming. His name is Levi.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a writer. For a men’s magazine.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know, who cares! He’s good-looking, and he’s available.”

Evelyn looked down at her lap, at her fingers. She flexed them, examined her nails.

“Ok. Ok.”

Cassie slapped the brush down on the table.

“Let’s go pick out something for you to wear. It’ll be good, trust me.”

“I trust you.”

They walked to Evelyn’s closet, passing through the bedroom and the sign.

Evelyn glanced briefly at it then let herself be tugged along.

“You look great in red,” Cassie said.


Evelyn and Levi walked down the hallway, fingers entwined, eyes locked. Evelyn smiled, suddenly shy and embarrassed, and looked away. Levi, delighted, unlaced his fingers to wrap an arm around her and kiss her on the temple. Evelyn blushed, her cheeks hot to the touch.

“So, would you like to come in? I think I have some cake, if you’d be interested.”

“Ok,” he agreed.

Evelyn combed through her purse, searching for her keys. They jangled in her hands as she clumsily unlocked the door. She giggled and shrugged, then mentally kicked herself for looking foolish.

She pushed open the door, held it for Levi as he walked in and surveyed her place. It was clean – sort of – and Evelyn scooped up scattered music to pile on a chair.

“Sorry, it’s not very neat in here” she said.

“It’s fine,” Levi said, taking a seat on the coach, laying an arm across the back. “Why don’t you come sit with me?”

“Don’t you want cake?”

“Maybe later.”

Evelyn smoothed the skirt of her dress, ran a hand over her mane of curls, mentally said a quick “Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up,” before settling herself on the couch within the circle of Levi’s arm.

“So,” she said, giggling again. And kicked herself for it.

“So,” he said. “Tell me more about yourself.”

“Ok, um…I’m a classical pianist. I play with the symphony, and I play with some ensembles around town. I teach in my spare time.”

“Could you teach me sometime?”

“Sure,” Evelyn said, relaxing into his body. Music was always a comforting, familiar topic for her. “What about you? What’s your passion?”

“I have lots of passions,” he said, winking.

Oh, God, she thought. He winked. It was so awful when guys winked, but when he did it…it caused a ripple through her.

He leaned over, kissed her cheek, the lobe of her ear. His fingers tangled in her hair to rub the back of her head.

Although she wanted, desperately, to let him take her over, she began to feel awkward, off-balance. Her mind was racing, flashes of Charlie, of his comforting, familiar touch. The thought brought a wave of longing, an ache deep in her chest that overwhelmed the brief curl of lust. She leaned back, turned to face him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just went through a bad break up. I’m not ready yet.”

Levi continued his gentle massaging, his fingers moving to the nape of her neck.

“I understand.”

He angled toward her, laid his lips softly on hers. She kissed him back. He withdrew, gripped her hands and gave them a reassuring squeeze.

“How about that cake?”


Raven stepped back from the bathroom mirror, her lips glistening, her cheeks rosy, her dark hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail.

“I’m ready,” she called.

Robin, her 4-year-old daughter, looked up from a stack of princess coloring books. With a sigh, she returned to her coloring, her fist gripping a pink crayon and rubbing faster, faster, faster across the page until it tore.

“Robin? Did you hear me?”

“Yes,” came the sullen response.

Raven strode into the neatly arranged living room. It had been the first project on her DIY/mommy blog. The sofa was white, the walls were white, the rug was jute, and piles of pillows added pops of color. Framed photos of mother and daughter, as well as graphic prints designed by Raven, were layered on every reclaimed wood table.

“Let’s go, come on!”

Robin dropped her crayon and twisted around in her soft blue wicker chair. Her legs dangled inches above the floor.

“Come on!”

Robin slid slowly down until her toes grabbed the rug, then she squeezed herself between the chair and the rehabbed desk. She slunk toward her mother, whose gaze rested on the black smartphone nestled in her palm.


“Ok, ok, ok.”

Raven dropped to her knees and hugged Robin to her. Robin, trapped in the tight embrace, struggled.

“Robin, please,” Raven scolded.

Robin crossed her arms, frowned.

“Smile, please!” Raven lifted the camera with her right hand.

Robin lifted one corner of her mouth.


Raven eagerly turned over the phone.

“Robin, seriously. I don’t have time for this.”

Robin, irritated, fed up, stretched her mouth to her ears.


“Ok, go sit back down.”

Robin turned on her heel, her skin scraping against the harsh ropes of the rug. She dragged the chair back before stepping in front of it. With her hands behind her, she twisted it to one side, then another, maneuvering it into place and climbing into the seat. She looked back at her mother to scowl, but once again, Raven’s eyes were on the screen.

Robin resumed her coloring.

“Honey, answer some questions for me.”

Robin sighed.

“Mo-om, I’m busy!”

“No, you’re not,” Raven replied, her finger tap-tap-tapping on the phone screen. “Now, what is your favorite animal? Do you remember?”

“Bird,” Robin deadpanned.

“Good! What would be a silly dinner?”

“Tomato soup and popcorn.”

Raven looked up, cocked an eyebrow.

“And…little, itty-bitty wormies,” Robin finished, her voice rising into forced joviality.

Raven smiled.

“Good! Last one: Who is your best friend in the whole wide world?”

Robin returned her gaze to the coloring book.


“That’s right, Robin-pie!”

Raven turned to update “Raven’s Nest.” “My baby girl is so adorable; check out our ‘Straight from the bird’s mouth!’” read the blog post description. “Cheeky! #selfie#lovethatsmile#kidsarecute” read the caption on the Instagram photo.

Raven settled on the couch to spend the rest of her evening moderating and responding to comments. Robin played alone.

The Writer Loses

“The wind ripped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Penelope sat back and laced her fingers behind her head. She read the sentence, approved it. Then she clicked away from the page, checked her email, updated her Facebook status, perused an article on introverts. Tweeted about it.

When she returned to the page, the sentence read differently. Wind doesn’t rip, she thought. That sounds stupid. Rip is an active verb, but how can something rip across a field? It should rip a direct object. She tapped at the delete key, erasing the word. A quick check of the thesaurus inspired her to insert “whipped.”

“The wind whipped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Better, she thought. Kind of like a tornado.

She pushed up from the kitchen chair to pour apple cider into a thick ceramic mug that said “Every writer is a reader.” After popping it in the microwave for a minute, she slurped at the liquid bumping against the lip and sat back down.

“The wind whipped through the field, slicing blades of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Maybe the grass shouldn’t be sliced in two, she thought, especially if it’s being whipped. Maybe it should rub together and make that squeaking sound. Like in the summer when you place a blade between your thumbs and blow.

“The wind whipped through the field, lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter. Blades of grass hummed as they rubbed against each other.”

Nope. Again, it just sounded stupid. Rubbing wasn’t right. Neither was humming. What if the grass was long? Stalk-like?

“The wind whipped through the field, bending thin whips of grass in two and lifting dandelion fluff into the air to scatter.”

Not bad. Not great. Okay for now. Terrible. God, she was never going to be a professional writer. The whole thing was awful. She had two “whips” in one sentence, and whipping didn’t even go with bending; the two verbs should be related somehow, part of a metaphor for life on the prairie. Plus, dandelion fluff doesn’t need to be lifted into the air to scatter. It should just scatter, no lifting necessary. As few words as possible. Neat and simple.

“The wind twisted through the field, snapping blades of grass in two and scattering dandelion fluff.”

An improvement, she  supposed.

The cider warmed her belly then, soothing and comforting. She took another sip, holding it in her mouth to absorb the full sweetness.

“The wind twisted through the field, snapping blades of grass in two and scattering dandelion fluff.”

She set down the mug with a clap on the table and pulled fingers through her tangled, curling hair.

No, it was horrible, she thought, grimacing at the ceiling. Who writes like this? Writing to impress always sounds like crap. But writing too simply lowers the quality, doesn’t it? How are you supposed to write cleanly with as little adverbs and adjectives as possible and still create an image with words?

It was the beast, she realized. The beast sharpening its claws on her words, sinking its pointed nails into her confidence to draw it closer. To nibble and lick. To devour.

The beast of insecurity.

It won. It always won.

She deleted the sentence and walked away.

The Wonderful World of Pink Clouds

They told her there would be problems. There were already complications. She’d been confined to bed rest, her swollen belly resting on a curved pillow she tucked between her spongy thighs. Daytime television already bored her, the bright figures with their asinine banter and helmet-like hair. Soaps were too confusing – and dull – and she just couldn’t stomach the mentally unstable women appearing on Dr. Phil. Only Jeopardy! was a relief to watch, but even that became monotonous after a few weeks.

Still, the boredom, the sacrifice of her independence and freedom was worth it. She could feel the pebble of life growing in her, and now she rubbed her hand over her tight abdomen.

Yes, it was worth the complications.

She pushed back stringy black hair from an unwashed, freckled face and reached over to the nightstand. Dan left a tray for her every morning before he went to work; today’s selection was brittle toast and peanut butter. She snapped off a corner to pop in her mouth and leaned back into poufy, goose-down pillows. The remote, her constant companion these days, rested next to her on the twisted sheets.

She’d recently come to the conclusion that this sliver of leisure time would be her last for the foreseeable future. Once the baby came, out would go Tracy of Sleeping In, Midnight Movie Premieres and Luxuriant Baths accompanied by Bestselling Novels. In would come Tracy, the Mother. She couldn’t wait.

Wiggling her toes in excitement, she allowed herself one bubbling giggle. She’d been so lucky to get pregnant in the first place, she thought, surfing through channels so swiftly they flashed by in a rainbow-like blur. All of her friends, bless their hearts, were still trying. Junie had just come to terms with IVF, Maude had suffered her second miscarriage a few months ago. But Tracy, she’d been blessed within weeks. Of course, Dan hadn’t known they’d been trying, but he’d come around. And he’d come around again, after the baby was born.

Yes, this baby was going to be perfect.

Dan still needed to get started on the nursery, too. He’d been reluctant to take on any projects, and the stack of books she’d given him lay unread on the floor next to his side of the bed. She knew he’d been avoiding them. The spines hadn’t even been cracked.

She sniffed, settled on a rerun of “A Baby Story” on TLC. It seemed appropriate (though why women got their pregnant tummies and enlarged breasts encased in plaster to paint and hang over their fireplaces was beyond her; how weird). She snuggled down into the pillows and pulled a soft blanket over her legs. When the phone rang, she reached out a hand, stretched to pick up the handset.


“Tracy, dear, it’s Mom.”


“How are you feeling, honey?”

“I’m fine, Mom.”



“Just…have you given any thought to what the doctor said?”

“He didn’t say anything. The baby is perfectly healthy.”

“Well, honey, that’s not what Dan said.”

“Mom, who cares what Dan said. He’s barely putting forth any energy over this.”

Tracy snapped off another piece of toast. Crumbs scattered over the unmade bed.

“But, honey, Dan told me what the doctor said about the baby’s problems.”

“What problems? There are no problems.”

“Tracy. Are you listening to yourself? The baby has defects. Cerebral palsy. Who knows what else?”

“Defects? What kind of word is that, Mom? Jesus. No, she doesn’t. Leave me alone. I’m very busy right now, and I don’t have time to talk.”

“Wait, Tracy, please. I’m concerned about you. I just want to–”

Tracy clicked off the call and tossed the phone on the carpeted floor, just out of reach should someone else call. She was done talking for the day. The only one she felt like conversing with was her sweet little baby.

She watched the flickering screen before her, watched as a woman gave birth to a red, squalling newborn. That would be her in just a few weeks. She was giddy with anticipation. (Although her baby would come out plump and pink, just like in the movies.) She’d already spent hundreds of dollars online shopping for adorable little girl outfits. Satin dresses with frothy lace and matching bloomers. Pink and purple onesies in soft organic cotton. A turquoise tulle skirt with matching slippers. A pink terrycloth robe with a hood sporting hippo ears.

Now the computer sat on a tray in the corner of the bed, its screen black and blank. Dan had taken her credit cards, forbidden her to keep shopping for a baby he supposedly didn’t want. Said he didn’t want to take care of. Couldn’t understand why they hadn’t terminated the pregnancy when the test results came back.

Tracy wiped at the hot tears now streaming down her puffy cheeks and dropping off her chin into the folds of her neck. Their baby was going to be perfect. Just perfect.

Humming a lullaby, Tracy opened a jar of cocoa butter and rubbed it over her stretch marks.

“I love you, baby,” she whispered.

Then she puckered her lips and sent it a kiss.

Fifteen Minutes

The video camera blinked red; the lens whirred and focused. It was pointed toward a wall plastered with movie posters. A sliver of a bed dripping with dirty clothes was on the right. Mary Lou, curly hair in pigtails, lips puckered and berry painted, danced into view. She wore only a cropped white undershirt and spandex underwear with “slut” bedazzled on the back. She sucked on a cherry lollipop then drew it from her mouth with a loud pop.

“Hi, I’m Mary Lou! You should totally pick me to be on Real World because, like, I love to party, and, like, I’m a really good time. Seriously. Ask my friends.”

She turned around to wiggle her bottom at the camera.

“I’ve got a cute butt, and guys, like, totally love me. I love to go out to bars and see how many I can get to buy me drinks. Sometimes, I even like to play them against each other. You know, just to see if they’ll fight over me or buy me more drinks.”

She giggled, drawing her hands in fists under her chin. The lollipop left a smear of pink on her smooth skin.

“But, seriously, like, I don’t go home with them. I just like to play with them. I’m like a master manipulator or something. But I don’t believe in sex before marriage. Like, seriously, you guys. Seriously.”

She smiled flirtatiously at the camera.

“Oh, also, I’m a student at the local university, and I’m studying psychology. I seriously want to help people. I feel like that’s my calling in life. To, you know, like, reach out to others and help them be the people they want to be. Like I’m so happy with myself, you guys, and I just know that I could have a positive influence on others. I’m just that kind of person.

“Anyway, you should so pick me to be on your show! I’ll get crunk and mess around with a bunch of guys – but not go all the way! – and totally teach people how to accept themselves. Brandy and Sandy (my boobs, you guys!) will, like, totally thank you!”

She blew kisses at the camera then danced out of the frame, heels bouncing off her rounded tush.

The camera blinked off.

When the red light blinked on, the posters from the wall had been pulled down, rolled up and shoved under the bed along with the dirty clothes. Only a vase of bright poppies sitting on a white IKEA desk could be seen hovering at the edge of the frame.

When Mary Lou strutted into view, she wore strappy silver sandals and a floor-length sparkling black gown. Her hair, released from its pigtails, fell in soft and glossy waves to just below her exposed shoulders. The berry stain had been wiped off, replaced with a classic dark red wine lip color, and her brown eyes had been traced with black liner. Jewelry glinted at her wrist, her neck, her ears.

“Hello there. I’m Mary Lou, and I’m looking for love.”

She posed, turning her body slightly so as to appear slimmer, and placed a hand on her hip. Her toned arm reflected the glow from the lamp lit in the corner of the room.

“I’m looking for a man who’s strong and sensitive and who loves to cook meals together as much as he loves to watch Sunday football. Go Chiefs!”

She giggled coquettishly and assumed another pose, this time with hands at her sides, one foot placed slightly in front of the other and turned out.

“I love a man who’s smart and tough, who understands integrity and what it means to be devoted. It wouldn’t hurt if he had great muscles and a brilliant smile as well.”

She flashed whitened teeth at the camera and slowly winked, lowering a powdered lid.

“A little about me: I’m earning a master’s degree in psychology – I love working out what makes people tick – and I’m an animal lover. If I hadn’t gone to school for psychology, I would have studied veterinary science. I’m an only child, still close to my parents, and I love to be pampered. I am a queen looking for her king. Call me.”

She sauntered out of the frame, flicking a hand at the camera in goodbye.

The red light blinked out.

When it came back on, the camera faced a long hallway. Whatever prints had hung on the wall had been removed and stacked behind the tripod. A flurry of footsteps could be heard before Mary Lou stepped in front of the camera at the end of the corridor. Her strappy sandals had been replaced with black heeled boots, her dress with black leggings and a loose black tank top. Her hair hung straight down to the middle of her back and chunky bangs obscured tweezed eyebrows. She marched down to the camera, kicking out each leg like a horse before placing it in the middle of the carpet. Kick, place, kick, place, kick, place. Expression fierce, fierce, fierce.

She stopped in front of the camera, hip cocked and knee bent.

“I’m Mary Lou. I’m America’s Next Top Model. I had a crappy childhood, but I’ve made it this far on my own. I have my own place, my own car and my own cat. She’s my best friend. I’m kooky and intense, and no one messes with me. I’m putting myself through school, but I want to be a model. I will be a model. Pick me, Tyra. Pick me and fix me.”

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, peeked up at the black lens through spiky lashes.

“You can make my dream come true. You’ll see me at the next casting session. I am America’s Next Top Model. Remember me.”

She pivoted on her heel, her sheath of hair swinging, and step-kicked her way back down the hall. She turned to give the camera one last glare then stalked into another room.

The lens whirred and closed. The camera light blinked off.

Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.


Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.



“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.

To a wonderful 2014!

Dear Readers,

Every year, I try to make — and keep — one (and only one) resolution. Every year, I usually give up by the summer, if not earlier. I guess life gets in the way. For 2014, though, I am determined to keep my resolution of actually completing a novel. I think I get a little closer every day to fleshing out the characters, strengthening the plot and cleaning up my writing. I’m going to put aside my desires to laze on the couch when I get home at night or veg out in front of the television, and instead, I am going to write. That’s my mantra for 2014: I AM GOING TO WRITE.

I wish you all the best in 2014, and may your resolutions make you happier!




Dear Readers,

There will be no story for the month of November. Instead of writing flash fiction or a short story, I’m focusing my efforts on NaNoWriMo (though I’m hoping to be more pleased with this year’s novel than last year’s).

As most novels are closer to 100,000 words than 50,000, which is the goal of NaNoWriMo, I may continue my break through December. Fingers crossed, however, that I’m super productive!

Have a wonderful holiday season,