A Story, Spoken: Chapter Five

Annie has agreed to a date with Gavin, the handsome handyman from Cheney’s store, but a trust has been broken. Will Annie’s dreams be collateral damage? If you haven’t caught up, you can read the first four chapters here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four. Let’s see how Annie’s doing…

It wasn’t just that he picked his teeth with his thumbnail at the table, or that he tried to order for me, it was the way he laughed. I had put myself together, changing my outfit three times, rushed out the door with a fib ready on my lips if Nan asked who I was meeting. I had stumbled through the awkward realization that a smile and a cute butt was not enough for me, even for a “distraction from my life” date.

Gavin hadn’t stopped talking about himself since we’d arrived at the restaurant. We slid into a booth at the back of  Jimmy’s Family Cafe and perused the menu as he continued with his life story — how he had started the handyman business two years ago, how he still didn’t regret not going to college because he didn’t see the point, how loving and present his mother was in his life, but his dad was a hardass who died young and wasn’t missed. I couldn’t tell if it was nerves or if he always spilled his guts like this on a first date, but I was grateful because the more he talked the less I had to. I prayed silently that he had enough material to get us to the check so I wouldn’t have to answer or avoid painful questions about the current state of my family life.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as I was biting into the burger he’d cracked a joke about when I didn’t choose a salad on the first date, he zeroed in on exactly the last thing I wanted to discuss.

“So Cheney told me you have some internship next year for writing or something. What’s that about?”

My eyes rolled before I could stop them and he laughed. A loud guffaw, smile broad on his face, not realizing that I hadn’t joined him in his amusement.

“No, I don’t.” I took the bite and looked down at my plate while I chewed, occupying myself with squirting ketchup on the plate for my fries.

“You don’t, huh?” I glanced up to see him watching me, waiting for me to elaborate.

“Nope.” I popped a fry into my mouth and smiled through my chewing hoping he’d move on if I didn’t react.

“So you don’t want to be a writer?” His elbows were on the table now, food left untouched because he’d found a better treat in bothering me about things I’d rather him not know. I was furious with Cheney for putting me in this position and furious with Gavin for not getting the hint.

“I did,” I thought a short answer would give him enough satisfaction to move on, “but life happens, you know? A lot in my life changed very quickly, and now it doesn’t make sense for me to go. So that’s that.”

“Does Cheney know you aren’t going?”

“Yes, and I don’t know why she would tell you otherwise.”

“Well,” he said with another laugh, “seems like it’s for the best anyhow.”

“What does that mean?” I wiped the burger grease from my hands.

“I don’t know.” Gavin finally picked up his own burger, looking for something else to fill his mouth now that the words were running short. “Your heart doesn’t seem to be in it anyway. And I get it. Life does happen, and hobbies take a back seat when it does. That’s just how it goes, right?”

I felt like I’d been slapped.

“Hobbies?” I glared, no longer the least bit concerned about making a good impression.

“Yeah, writing, gardening, that kind of stuff. Sometimes we’ve just gotta get to work and push through and not get too caught up in time-fillers. Idle hands and all that.” Another bite. A drip of pink juice from his undercooked burger slid down his chin, but he didn’t seem to notice taking another bite before even swallowing the first.

“Writing isn’t my hobby. It never was. It’s what I wanted to do with my life. It’s what I studied at college. Everything I ever wanted to accomplish in life came down to being a writer.”

That laugh. It crept under my skin and needled its way into my heart so swiftly I was shocked at the surge of anger that swept over me.

“What the hell is so funny about that?”

“I’m sorry,” another chuckle, “no need to get your panties in a twist. Maybe I’m just naive about that kind of life. Hard work for a hard buck, that’s how I was raised.”

“And you don’t think writing is hard work?”

“Putting words on paper? I mean, I never liked it in school, but it’s just telling a story, right?”

I breathed in and out, using the gift of his momentary silence to try and steer myself away from yelling.

“You know what,” I set my napkin on top of what was left of my food and reached for my purse, “I could spit a lot of names at you right now, and I’m really tempted, but most of the words coming to mind are probably over your head, so I’ll keep this simple. Go to fucking hell you ignorant piece of shit.”

I didn’t wait to hear his response. I was across the restaurant and out the door in seconds and let each stomping step it took me to get home fuel the fire of astounded anger. I still had the consciousness to open the door quietly and softly open Nan’s door to make sure she was asleep before shutting myself into my room and pulling down the typewriter from its recent home in the back of my closet.

I set it down on mom’s secretary desk I’d squeezed into the corner and retrieved a small stack of blank paper from an open package on a shelf. I fed the sheet in and sat staring at the blank page, fuming, grasping for words, any words that I could pour onto the page.

My mind was a blur of pain and a deep feeling of betrayal. Cheney had told my secret. She had hung me out to dry and allowed me to be bombarded by a cute smile with a limited vocabulary for her own damn pleasure and I couldn’t stand the way it was making my stomach churn.

I typed a few words of frustration and crossed them out. I typed a sentence or two about what writing was or wasn’t and crossed those out too. I sighed and tried to put words to the storm of memories and fears about my mother that had consumed me over the last several months, but I didn’t get past “M-o-m” before I was sobbing and I couldn’t see the paper through the tears.

I stood up and pushed my hands through my hair, understanding why women in old movies tore at their hair in desperation after heartbreak. I stared at the typewriter, blurry until I swiped away the tears with the neck of my shirt. I knew now that everything that had happened, everything I felt, it had broken me. The life I’d imagined was dead. Just like my mother.

I pulled out my phone and opened my email app. I quickly read through the draft I’d typed earlier in the week but hadn’t had the guts to send. It was for the best, though. If I didn’t let go, I’d just keep hurting and I couldn’t bear anymore hurt.

I hit send and watched as the bar creeping along the bottom of my screen filled and my formal decline of the internship flew off to New York in my place.

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A Story Spoken: Chapter Four

Well, I have returned from my hiatus. Thank you very much for being patient with me! I really needed the rest and time away from the blog to work on my book…and be distracted by all the things I want to do around the house…and my kids…and my husband…and, well, you know how life goes! I’m excited to get back into the groove and share more books, chapters, and all the wonderful writerly things!

Let’s catch up with the girls and see how things are faring after Annie and Cheney argument on the way to The Hummingbird Boutique. If you haven’t read my previous chapters, you can catch up here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three.

The bell tinkled as I opened the door and danced again as I shut it behind me against the rain. My teeth chattered, the A/C chilling my drenched clothes, and I rubbed my hands together as Cheney headed for the back room of the boutique.

“Hi, sweetie! Oh, it’s so good to see you.”

Cheney’s mom cantered around the checkout desk and gave me a hug that was more patting my wet shoulders than an embrace. She held me at arm’s length, looking me up and down, judging the state of my clothes and lack of makeup, no doubt.

“Is it really that cold?” she raised an eyebrow as another shiver ran through me.

“Not outside. We just got caught in the downpour running to the car.”

She was already walking back around the desk, and I realized her question had been rhetorical. All these years of friendship with her daughter and she still hadn’t shaken the grudge she’d held against my mother. I shook my head, never understanding the pettiness this woman was capable of or how she’d managed to raise a child as kind as Cheney.

“Before I forget,” Cheney re-emerged from the stockroom with a stack of mail in her hand. “I have a book for Nan that I found online. I hope she won’t mind that I went ahead and ordered it, but if I keep clicking without buying something, I’ll lose it forever.”

She sorted through the mail as she talked, looking up every now and then, occasionally gesturing with an envelope.
“Well, that might explain the credit card bill you keep complaining about.” I chuckled at her silly, if not generous, logic.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She swatted my arm with the mail still in her hand, glancing at her mother to see if she’d heard.

“Anyway, it’s an audio slash hard copy combo that’s supposed to teach the basics of how to read braille!” She turned to face me with this last bit, eyes wide and mouth open with anticipation of my reaction.

I tried to match her enthusiasm, “Cheney, that’s so sweet of you. You really need to quit buying stuff for us though. You’re gonna go broke.” I eyeballed Ruth as I whispered the last bit. She had moved on to another part of the store, straightening and refolding odds and ends on the small sale display by the door.
“You’re no fun. Why can’t you just accept it and say thank you?” She pouted at me, still irritated by our conversation in the truck and using her gift as an outlet.
I stopped and turned to her, letting my hands fall to my side in mock exasperation.
“Thank you, Cheney. You’re the very best. No one is better at picking out gifts than you. No one, not ever.”

I bowed to her with flourish.

“There is that better?” I lifted myself back up and laughed when I noticed Ruth staring at me with a sternly raised eyebrow.

“Do you really think she’ll like it?” Cheney came around the counter and walked past me to the rotating card stand by the front door, adjusting the placement of a couple knick-knacks on a table as she passed by.
“Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so. That actually sounds really cool. She’s just been so against even trying to do anything like that. She always claims that as a purist, she couldn’t possibly enjoy the experience of reading when she can’t see the words.”

I heard Cheney chuckle behind me as she moved on to a different display.
“She does listen to audiobooks she checks out from the library from time to time, but she’s quick to find something to get frustrated by with those, too. The narrator speaks too slowly, or they do too many voices for the different characters and that’s distracting.”

I sighed thinking of all the late fees I’d had to pay when she’d talk herself into trying another one, get halfway through a book, and then forget to return it. She’d almost asked about the one Nan was listening to when they’d left but didn’t feel like having another bitter conversation about books. Nan didn’t refer to her blindness until it gave her a good excuse.
“Mostly, I just read to her. She’s not very picky, so I’ll just read aloud from whatever I’m already reading, and we make an old-school evening of it. Really she just needs a bonnet to complete the picture.”
“That’s so sweet that you do that. It would suck to not be able to do the one thing you really love anymore.”

I looked up when she said that, but Cheney didn’t let on if she had intentionally thrown the internship in my face again. Not wanting to give her a chance to realize it if she hadn’t, I half-joked a distraction.
“Well, at least she can still smoke,” I mumbled. Cheney laughed, but I could only manage a half smile, and I knew it didn’t reach my eyes.

“Where’s the desk? I want to measure it to make sure it’ll fit before I take it home.”

I turned away, ready to finish up and move to lighter conversation that could carry into lunch. Away from Nan’s eyes or internships to easy stuff I could nod through more convincingly.

The bell chimed again and I turned to see a man with day old scruff on his face and a backward ball cap walk through the door. He nodded with a half smile as he passed us, and walked toward the register where Ruth was clicking on the computer. I turned to look at Cheney whose eyebrows had disappeared under her bangs.

“Cu-ute.” she mouthed, lips pursed in an exaggerated “o” shape. I shook my head, trying to deter her from making a fuss. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d tried to set me up with a stranger, but it was the last thing I wanted to deal with right now. Even if he did have a nice smile. She ignored me and walked over to join them at the counter throwing me a mischievous look over her shoulder, shaking her hips in an exaggerated saunter until the man turned around and she stopped suddenly. I turned to face the window, hiding my laugh at her getting caught.

I wandered through the store while they talked, Ruth pointing toward the back wall and nodding along to whatever the man was saying in response. I was fiddling with a tangled tassel on the corner of a throw pillow when Cheney called over to me.

“Hey, Annie!”

Shit. I squeezed my eyes shut, for a moment, bracing myself for the awkward moment of forced civility with a stranger before turning to face my dearest friend and her good intentions.

“Yeah?” I forced the corners of my mouth into something resembling a good-natured, I’m friendly, but please don’t talk to me too long, smile and walked over to join them. The man returned the gesture, though his looked far more genuine.

“Annie,” Cheney took hold of my forearm when I got close enough and pulled me the last few inches to stand close to her and the gentleman. “This is Gavin. Mom hired him to help us with the new display shelves. Gavin, this is Annie.”

After having made eye-contact when I first stepped up, my eyes had begun to wander while she made introductions. I knew it gave my nervousness away, but I couldn’t help it. Cheney had always been the social one who never seemed to meet a stranger. I, however, met them all the time and while I wasn’t quite shy, I didn’t like being thrust into small talk with an expectant spotlight over my head.

His hand appeared before me, forcing me to look up. I shook it and smiled again, fumbling somewhere between awkward and annoyed. He did have very nice eyes.

“Hi, there. It’s nice to meet you, Annie.”

His voice had that born and raised twang to it that told me he must have just been a few years ahead of us in school because, while I couldn’t recall having seen him before, there was no doubt he was a local.

“You, too, Gavin,” I managed after clearing my throat.

“Annie, you should have him take a look at your desk before we load it up. Didn’t you say one of the drawers was stuck?” Cheney grinned from ear to ear before nudging me toward the secretary desk we’d come for that did not, and had never had a drawer stick.

Gavin followed me over to the back corner where Ruth had stuck a “sold” sticker on the scratched up surface of it. It had seen better days, but it had been a favorite of mine from Nan’s house. Mom always said it had character. She’d even added a bit of her own when she was a young girl and feeling rebellious. She’d shown me once where she’d carved her initials on the underside of the desk when Nan had sent her to bed without supper after she’d sassed her too hard one day. She’d been so mad and desperate to get back at her, she secretly defaced the old thing. Nan never found out, as far as I knew.

“Well, here it is,” I turned to face Gavin, resting my hand on top of the desk. “But, there’s nothing wrong with the drawers, as you’ve probably guessed.”

He had the grace to laugh at that.

“Yes, ma’am. I figured that was the case.”

I nodded with a sheepish look. I didn’t know why I felt guilty, but he seemed like a perfectly nice man who didn’t deserve to have his time wasted.

“Look, I know it wasn’t your idea, but…” Gavin broke into a wide grin, dropping his hands into his pockets before pulling the trigger. “You feel like humoring your friend? Can I take you to dinner on Friday? Nothing crazy, no strings. Just some company from a pretty lady for a meal we’d both be eating anyway.”

I laughed and was surprised to find I didn’t want to say no.

“Sure. I think I can make that work.” I smiled and rolled my eyes when Cheney’s bouncing back by the register told me my face had already given away her success. Gavin turned to look and chuckled himself, waving, which she returned with an insufferable smile.

“Well, here.” Gavin pulled his phone from his pocket and handed it to me after pulling up the right screen. “Just put your number in here and I’ll give you a call tomorrow to figure out timing.”

I typed in my phone number, adding “Annie” to the contact name before handing it back.

“Great. It was nice to meet you, Annie.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Gavin. Try not to look too smug when you leave? She’s already going to be a pain in the ass about this as it is.”

“I’ll do my best,” he laughed, sliding his phone back into his pocket and turning toward the door.

“Thanks, again, Mrs. Stevens,” he hollered back toward the open storeroom door with a wave, and I saw Ruth pop her head out for a moment to return it, hand over the receiver on the office phone.

Cheney skipped over to meet me after the door shut behind Gavin, fluttering her eyelashes in mocking flirtation.

“Oh, my. Does someone have a date?”

“Shut up, Cheney. I can’t believe you did that!” I shoved her gently as she exploded into giggles. I hiked the strap of my purse higher on my shoulder, waiting for her to hurry up with her gloating so we could go have lunch already and I could get back to Nan. She wiped tears of laughter from under her eyes but quickly flashed to a deep frown when I reminded her that if I even ended up going to dinner, that was where it would end.

“Oh, why?” she pouted.

“Because of Nan! Have you not been listening? I still haven’t figured out a long-term solution for me getting a job and how that’s going to work with her appointments and all that. I don’t have time for dating right now. I don’t even know why I said yes to begin with.”

Her smile returned with my last sentence, “Because he’s cute and charming and that’s good for you! Come on, Ann. You need a little fun in your life. I can’t be around all the time,” she swept her hair back in full diva glory and walked back to the office to retrieve her purse.

“You, know,” I called after her, “if this works out, I’ll just have one more reason to stay.”

Cheney walked out of the room with the shocked face of someone who’d just been had. I knew the likelihood of me actually being interested in someone enough to make life-changing decisions for was slim to none, but payback was payback and the look she had as her error registered was so very sweet.

 

A Story Spoken: Chapter Three

It’s been raining like crazy for weeks around here, and now the storm is hitting Annie’s hometown. This month, we learn that she’s been hiding something from Nan. What kind of secret would Annie keep from her beloved grandmother, and will Cheney convince her to fess up?

If you haven’t read the first two chapters of my serial or need a refresher before you continue, you can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here.

 

A rhythmic “shave and a haircut” knock rattled the front door to the apartment. Closing a bookmark into the novel I’d been reading, I glanced up at Nan’s old mantle clock. It was balanced somewhat precariously on the two by fours Mom had nailed together and mounted on the wall years before so we had a place to hang our Christmas stockings. A shelf would have worked fine, but I guess that hadn’t occurred to her at the time. If she had an explanation, I didn’t recall ever hearing it. Just another mystery quirk of hers I’d never be able to ask about.

I crossed the room, tapping the last two beats back to Cheney before opening the door.

“You’re early.” I smiled. It was getting easier, but guilt always tagged along quietly behind and I honestly couldn’t sort out which was right: being able to smile again, or keeping myself from it.

“Yeah, sorry,” Cheney huffed a bit as she lifted a box from the ground, “I wanted to go over putting the mailers together before we left if that’s cool?” She set the box of paper and envelopes down on the kitchen table with a loud thump that made the occupants of the lazy susan centerpiece rattle.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot you were dropping those off.”

Cheney looked up with concern, “You’re still okay with helping out with this, right?”

“Yeah! No, I just forgot. That’s all. I’m happy to help.” Another potentially disloyal smile.

“Oh, good,” Cheney sighed and opened the box to reveal the neatly stacked fliers for her mother’s boutique. “I’m already mad at myself for not just ordering the glossy postcard mailers. They were a little more expensive, but stuffing envelopes is such a pain in the ass. Thrifty is not always a good thing.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not sleeping much anyway. If I’m going to binge on TV late into the night, I might as well be productive while I’m doing it.”

“Have you seen that new true crime thing about the family in Minnesota that just vanished? Trent and I watched it the other night and it gave me nightmares!”

“I don’t know why you do that to yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the obvious residual distress on her face. “Take a break from the murders and missing person crap before you really freak yourself out.”

“You’re probably right,” Cheney sighed, “We’re just lucky to agree on anything at all, much less what to watch on Netflix.”

I helped Cheney empty the box, neatly stacking the fliers, envelopes, and stamps in an assembly line across the table.

“You guys still having a rough time?” While I knew they weighed heavily on her mind, Cheney’s problems were mundane enough to be a break from my own. It was easier to help her sort through dating problems than it was to cope with my grief and the ever-expanding effort of taking care of Nan.

“A rough time?” Cheney scoffed, “Yeah, you could say that. I don’t think he sees it that way, but I’m about through.”

“Really?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Two months before, Cheney was talking about rings and babies, ready to brave the meticulous and overbearing force that was her mother and plan a wedding.

“I just…,” she paused, visibly searching for the right words, “He’s a nice guy, Annie, he really, really is. I just don’t think I love him. I know I thought I did, but the longer we’ve been at this thing, the more I’m realizing that I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. He’s a solid guy, but not always the most compassionate, and I don’t really feel like hand-holding him through kindness my whole life. I want someone who cares if they hurt my feelings and cares if I hurt his.”

“He doesn’t care if you hurt his feelings?”

“Well, he cares, I guess. I shouldn’t have put it that way. He’s just so mellow that I can’t tell how he’s feeling most of the time. That’s harder than I thought. I don’t know where I stand with him and even when I’ve tried to talk to him about it, it’s more of the same! No reaction that shows me he even understands what I’m worried about.”

“That sucks, hon. I’m sorry.” I was quiet, letting her talk through what was bouncing around her head, knowing that she just needed the ear and not the advice.

Cheney trailed off, finishing her story and went through the steps of how they wanted the flyers mailed out. Cheney’s mom, Ruth, owned a small shop downtown and they sold everything from ruffled mommy-daughter outfits to embroidered tea towels. The Hummingbird Boutique was also known for having the best consignment furniture around and Ruth and Cheney were helping to sell the excess furniture we had after moving Nan in with me full-time. Most everything we’d given them had sold, but there was a small secretary table that was pretty beat up and hadn’t moved yet. Cheney had asked if I wanted to keep it on the floor for another week, but I wanted to take another look at it to see if it would fit in my room to use as a writing desk.

“Ready to go?” Cheney picked her purse up and started heading for the door, “Oh, crap it’s raining. Do you have an umbrella? I had to park pretty far down.”

“Uh, yeah there should be one hanging by the mail basket. I’m gonna let Nan know I’m leaving real quick.”

I knocked quietly on Nan’s door, pushing my arms through the worn denim sleeves of my favorite jacket while I waited for an answer. I poked my head in when I heard her call. She was lying on her bed, an old crocheted blanket loud with burnt seventies orange draped across her lap. She had pulled her headphones off one ear to hear me better.

“I’m headed out with Cheney. We’re going to run up to The Hummingbird and probably grab some lunch on the way back. Do you want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, honey. I can warm up some soup from last night.”

“Are you sure?” Nan tended to be overconfident with her ability to feed herself without at least some assistance, “I don’t mind bringing you something. That way you won’t have to mess with the microwave.”

I’d put raised stickers on certain buttons for her to feel her way around if I wasn’t home. She just needed to count how many thirty-second increments she needed for whatever needed heating up and then press start. Still too scared to leave her alone for too long so soon after the accident, I’d been making ends meet with the checks from renting Nan’s house out and odd jobs like stuffing envelopes for Cheney. I knew I’d have to find a steady job soon, but Nan wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss over me,” Nan grumbled. She didn’t wait for my answer. She replaced the headphones and pressed play on her audiobook.

Somehow knowing I hadn’t left yet, she waved her hand, shooing me away, “Go on, now. Have fun. Bye!”

I stepped into the room and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled, patted the hand I’d rested on her knee as I leaned over her, and gently pushed me away.

“Bye, Nan.”

When I returned to the living room, Cheney was sitting on the edge of the couch reading something. She looked up, and, upon seeing her expression, I knew what she’d found.

“What the hell, Annie?” Cheney lifted the letter with an angry shrug, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“There’s nothing to tell. I can’t go,” I lifted my purse off the hook by the door, sweeping the strap over my head in one fluid, practiced motion of a woman who didn’t have a lot of free time, “Come on. I want to get back by one.”

Cheney wasn’t buying it, “Nice try,” She shut the door again when I started to open it.

“Shhh!” I glanced back toward Nan’s room, “Let’s talk about it in the car.”

Cheney’s face flushed and her frown deepened, “You haven’t even told Nan?” she yelled the whisper in a huff, pursing her lips, but she followed me as I drug her through the front door and down the stairs to the parking lot.

“Annie!”

“No!” I turned to her as I walked through the rain, my shoulders lifted to my ears as the chilly raindrops dripped down my neck. Cheney had the letter in one hand and my umbrella in the other, but, in her frustration, she’d forgotten to open it.

“No, I haven’t told her. And why would I? She’ll want me to go, and when I explain why I can’t she’ll just get pissed. It won’t help anything. We’ll both just end up feeling guilty and shitty when it’s said and done,” I shrugged, turning away from her again, “I didn’t see the point.”

We’d reached Cheney’s hand-me-down truck she’d bought from her dad when we graduated from high school, but even when I rested my hand on the handle, waiting for her to unlock the door, she just stared at me, raindrops dripping from the tip of her nose.

“Cheney, get in the truck. It’s pouring out here!” She snapped out of it long enough to get us from the parking lot to the main road, windshield wipers screeching with each swipe, before she started in on me again.

“I can’t believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Annie, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted to be a writer. You wanted to get out of this town, head to a big city somewhere and write! Now you finally have a chance and you just aren’t going to go?”

“It’s just an internship,” I gazed out the window, switching my focus from the raindrops to the traffic beyond them.

“At a New York City publishing house!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“Hey!” I turned to face her then, anger getting the better of me, “You think I don’t know that it’s an amazing opportunity? I agonized over sending my application for that internship for months!”

“I know! That’s why I don’t…”

“Cheney! My mom died! She’s gone. Nan is blind and not getting any younger. Someone has to take care of her, and I’m the only one left. It fucking sucks. I know that, but there is no way that I can just pack up and leave after everything that’s happened. It’s just not in the stars anymore.”

“But…,”

“Stop! Please, Cheney. There’s nothing else to talk about.”

She wasn’t looking at me, eyes still focused on the road, but she clapped her mouth shut. We rode the rest of the way to the boutique in silence, but when she pulled into a parking spot and threw the truck into park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me.

“Look, I’m sorry. I know that this has been horrible for you. Losing your mom, taking care of Nan. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she looked down at the now crumpled letter in her hand, and lifted it up to my face, “but this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, and I can’t stand to see you give it up.”

I took the letter and looked at it, ignoring the burning threat of tears.

“It says you have until September 1st to formally accept. You still have a few weeks. Please, will you please just think about it some more? At least don’t make up your mind until you have to.”

I knew there wasn’t anything else to think about. I couldn’t imagine how I could afford to put Nan into a home even if she agreed to go, which she never would. I couldn’t abandon her. She was all I had left of Mom, and I know she felt the same about me. We’d lost her. We couldn’t lose each other, too.

“I’ll think about it.”

Cheney sighed with relief and beamed at me, satisfied that she had achieved what she’d set out to, and I would now magically come around somehow.

“But, please,” I stopped her when she turned to get out of the truck, “don’t tell Nan.”

She nodded and we ran to the door, squished together under my umbrella, as I shoved the letter deep into my pocket and away from my mind.

A Story, Spoken: Chapter Two

If you haven’t read Chapter One of my serial, A Story, Spoken, you can read it here.

Three months had passed since we’d lowered my mother’s body into the ground. Three months since I’d thrown a handful of dirt onto a brown box that contained the broken shell of bone and flesh that once held her soul. Three months of living a life that no longer made sense, but was my reality, though I hardly felt awake.

Nan had been released from the hospital a week after the accident. Neither of us wanted to be alone, but unable to bear speaking the words, I quietly drove her back to the apartment instead of to her house around the corner. She never asked me why.

I gave her my room, but I’d slept on the couch, pushing its aged springs and cushions past their limit with my heavy-hearted weight. It was second hand, to begin with, frayed and creaking, now it was a bowing cradle I retreated to at the end of every empty day, longing for the woman who’d rocked me in my first.

The medical bills came, then payment requests for a loan I was furious to hear Nan had taken out against her house to help me pay for college. All those years of sending checks with a simple explanation of, “It’s just something I had tucked away.” I was angry at her for the risk and angry at myself for not realizing the impossibility of her having that kind of money simply “tucked away”. Knowing that we couldn’t sustain the payments, we made the hard decision to rent out Nan’s house and officially move her into the apartment with me. We’d use the rent money to pay bills and climb out of the financial hole that seems to appear as a twin to tragedy. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but it was a place to start where we both felt comfortable.

Cheney, my best friend since grade school, had come over the day before the move to help me go through Mom’s room. I’d gone in a few times to look for documents required for a variety of things, and I’d picked out an outfit for her body to be buried in, but I hadn’t been able to handle the reality of vacant space. I think Nan had it somewhat easier in that sense. She was occupied with trying to figure out how to live without her sight, and I imagined how nice it would be to not see the obvious emptiness of life, of space, that my mother had filled.

Cheney left me in the jumble of my mother’s clothes and tchotchkes to pick up some storage bins. I had filled a box and most of a trash bag before I saw the glass on her bedside table. A thin beam of light from between the blinds was reflecting off the side and I could see a smudge on the rim. I held up the glass, staring at the rough, lined imprint of my mother’s mouth. Not one to wear lipstick, it was the slightly pink tint of cherry-flavored lip balm. I stared at that smudge, trying to trace every wrinkle into my memory. Unsure why it was so important to remember. Knowing I couldn’t ever, really. I lifted the glass and carefully aligned my lips with hers and pressed them into me. I drank the dusty water that shuddered in the bottom, taking it in like I was drinking her essence. I didn’t lick the excess moisture from my lips, not wanting to mar the sensation of the glass, and the print it held.

I stood and carried it with me outside to the flowerbed, unable to still the image of fairies scattering that flashed before my mind’s eye. I snapped and ripped the stems of the few blooms not wilting in the summer heat and carried them back to the apartment. I refilled the glass with water, placed the flowers inside, and set them on the window sill above the sink, turning the glass so the overlapping marks were facing outward to the sun.

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The next day found me alone in Nan’s empty house after the mover’s had left. Cheney had gone on to meet them at the apartment a few hours before and tell them where everything should go. I had stayed to clean the place up for the new tenants, enjoying the quiet of busy work without questions about where my memories of the house were to be stored or sold.

I was working on a scuff mark on the kitchen linoleum, lost in the mindless motion of the task when I realized I was writing a story.
I had been thinking about the scuff, the shape and sweeping lines of it that reminded me of an errant brush stroke. My mind skipped like a record from scuff marks to scuff marks on the soul, scuff marks on the soul that kept someone from living their lives the way they wanted to, kept them from reaching for their dreams because what dreams could come true when you are scuffed and broken.

I pictured a young man, one pained by abuse and abandonment, a true Dicksonian character. I saw him trudging down a windy city street, holding the hood of his jacket across the bottom of his face, trying to keep the rain and cold from stinging his tender skin. He was walking toward something important. No, he was walking to something mundane, but today he was aware that the act of doing it, or rather not doing it, stopping in his tracks with people bumping into him from behind, cursing him, would be life-changing. Garrett was his name, and he had just experienced a rare moment of knowing exactly what must be done to pull himself from his current state of existing and into something more.

I didn’t know the details of his story, just a very vivid understanding of that moment of clarity. I saw it play out in my mind. I saw his young face with early lines across his brow. I saw the rain dripping from his dark eyelashes. I saw him blink them away just as he blinked away the dazed life he’d been leading up until the moment that he wasn’t anymore.

He looked across the street, saw a park with open trails of calm and quiet, and then looked back toward the path he’d been walking. He followed the mundane continuation of his life stretching out before him and on into his eternity as a fabrication of a grieving mind. I watched him turn deliberately, coming to a decision, and walk toward the welcoming green of the park. I watched as the sun broke through clouds, and the rain slowed as he crossed the street into a new, unplanned future.
I battled with myself as I scrubbed, wanting to scratch the image down on paper, but not enough to stop the rhythmic motion of the brush on the floor. I was giving in to the excuses and comfort of my weaknesses, but I didn’t care. It was just a man walking to a park instead of down the street. He was nothing of substance – nothing I couldn’t call from memory later if I really needed to. I just kept swiping the brush over the scuff, silently damning the movers who’d drug Nan’s dresser instead of lifting, feeling the burn of tired muscles start to twist and tighten.

He was still in sight, not quite lost in the foliage. I could still get up and write him down. I could flesh him out. I could find out what his mundane life consisted of. I could find out what his past held, what made him afraid to be alone. I could explore whether I thought that loneliness ate at him, shaming him into solitude, or if he so craved attention and intimacy that he was cavalier with his heart and with his body. I could explore what future he was walking toward. I could find out what his dream was, the one strong enough to pull him from the ease of monotony. Would he succeed? Would he fail? Would any of that matter because it was really about the journey and not about the outcome, especially considering that stories never really die until a person does. And even then, they live on with all the other people they touched along the way. As I asked myself these questions, I was already answering them. I knew I could fill them out even more. I knew I could build his world, his entire existence into something meaningful.

But I couldn’t. Not anymore.

I moved on to another section of the floor, leaving Garrett and his story on the square of linoleum where I’d found them.

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The front door opened behind me, and I jumped, nearly slipping as I turned to see who had entered.

“Hey, honey.” Cheney smiled at me as she pushed the door open before hooking her arm back through the crook of Nan’s elbow and helping her step over the threshold.

“Nan, you didn’t need to come out here. Everything’s done already.” I stood and crossed to help walk her over to the window seat in the living room.

“I know that.” she snapped. “But it’s my house and I’m here.”

Cheney eye-balled me over the top of Nan’s head. Clearly, it had not been the first sharp moment for Nan’s tongue in the hours since I’d left the apartment that morning.

“How’s it going?” Cheney changed the subject, going back to stand by the open door now that Nan was safely seated. She wanted to go. I could see she was tired and she’d already helped so much.

“I’m done. Just being nitpicky now.” I lifted one corner of my mouth in the best smile I could muster and then let her off the hook. “Why don’t you go home. We’re all set for the night. Nan and I can drive through Jake’s on the way home for dinner. Tell your mom I said thank you for helping with the consignment stuff.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll tell her.” Cheney held her hands in front of her, wanting to say more, knowing it wouldn’t help.

“It’s okay, Cheney. We’re good.” I managed both corners that time and she nodded in acceptance.

“Okie dokie,” she chirped back, clearly trying to lift the mood before retreating. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you, Cheney,” Nan called just before the door shut behind my friend. I watched Cheney turn through the window, hearing Nan’s voice and waving before sheepishly pulling her hand back down and lifting her shoulders to me in apology for forgetting Nan couldn’t see it. I waved her on and smiled a little more easily.

“Cheney waved.” I couldn’t hide my mirth. Nan grunted a small laugh in response and then a deeper chuckle rumbled up.

“Oh, that’ll be fun to give people shit about,” she sighed. “Keep snitching on them, will you?”

“Doctor Reeves even did it at your check up the other day,” I confessed with a small laugh.

“Ha! That’s rich,” she shook her head, still smiling. “Remind me next time so I can tease him.”

“You’re gonna get me in trouble, but okay.” I laughed, stretching out the tightness in my shoulders.

“I sure hope so.” Her blank eyes wandered around the room as she turned her face from side to side. “Tell me what it looks like, Annie.”

“What do you mean? It’s an empty house.” I leaned my head down, resting it on her shoulder as I stared at the hollow space before us.

“Babe, I lived here for almost forty years. Your grandpa laid the bricks on the front walk. I brought your momma home to this house. Watched her grow up in this house. She brought you home to this house after your daddy disappeared. When you ran away from home, you came here,” she paused, wiping away a tear, sniffing back the threat of more. “I never thought I’d leave it. And now I can’t even see it for the last time. But you can tell me what it looks like.” She kissed the top of my head and waited.

“Okay,” I swept the tears from my own eyes and cleared my throat. I sat up and looked around, still seeing where everything used to be, picturing vividly the moments that made it so hard to leave.

“Remember the crescent-shaped burn mark on the counter by the stove?” I began. “It’s still there. I always thought it looked like a taunting smile, endlessly reminding Mom of scorching it with that giant stock pot you guys used to make soup in,” I looked back to see Nan smile at the memory and continued. “There are dimples on the carpet where all the furniture used to be, like everything is still there, just suddenly invisible,” I looked around for something else. “The sun is coming through the kitchen window, and it’s almost to the edge of the living room carpet. I used to look for that when I was little because it meant Mom would be here to pick me up soon.”

“Really?” Nan laughed, sniffing again as more tears ran down her soft face. “I never knew you did that.”

“Yeah, every day. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but it was like my own secret message that she was on her way. ‘When the light met the gold’” I laughed, quoting my childhood imagination.

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know the little strip of gold between the carpet and the linoleum?” she nodded in understanding.

“I don’t know. It’s just what I called it.” I shrugged, glancing around for something else to jump out at me that I could tell her, but there was nothing more to see. Stains and scuff marks were all that remained in the house she loved.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” I gasped in as the knot in my throat clenched and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “It’s just empty.” I fell back into Nan’s arms and even as she shushed me, she cried.

I suddenly felt sick of the whole thing. I didn’t want to be in the house anymore. It hurt too much to sit on the bench my mother had read countless books on waiting for Grandpa to get home after work. I hated that when I looked up to see what time it was, the mantle clock wasn’t there to chime. I couldn’t stand that all I could smell was cleaning products and the sweat of strangers and not the mixture of staling potpourri, fresh bread, and Pledge that should have been there.

I stood, realizing I was on the verge of a panic attack and needed to move, and then I saw Nan. Her eyes were wide and frantic, glossy with tears. She was lost. I didn’t know if she couldn’t tell where she was or just worried where I was, or if she was lost in the pain of memories she could no longer call forth with visual clarity. I pulled her up off the bench and wrapped my arms around her.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I held her gently and somehow swallowed the rest of my sorrow for the moment. I was needed and so couldn’t need. Not right now.

“Are you ready to go?” I whispered in her ear.

“Yeah, baby. I am.”

I took her arm and walked her to the door, opened it and stepped out before her to allow more space to walk through. I turned to face her, still holding one hand, but she stopped in the doorway. She reached up and set her hand on the wooden frame, patting it gently like you would a good pet.
“Thank you,” she said. Not to me, but to the house that had held her life for so long. I could swear I saw her absorb every memory she’d let the house carry for her so she wouldn’t leave them behind. Her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly as the weight of them settled around her. She grasped my hand tighter and stepped out on the stoop, the door swinging shut behind her.

A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

Today is the start of something special…I hope.

Each November, I participate in NaNoWriMo (more on that next time), and I attempt to draft a book before the end of the month. Yes, really. Last year, all my “good” ideas were super involved and would have required lots of research and time that I had wasted leading up to the start of the project. I had had an idea for a relationship, one you’ll be introduced to shortly, and thought, “Well, I’ll just start there and see what happens.”

I’ve never been one to outline whole stories or anything, but I approached this project as a writing exercise. I had a habit in previous manuscripts of rushing through to each designated plot point and missing out on the richness in between. That’s where this story began. I ended up with a bunch of little vignettes about these characters. It was choppy, the character building was erratic, so I saved one last time and didn’t open the file again until a month ago.

When I read what I’d written I was surprised by how much I really loved it. It needed a lot of work, and I still wasn’t sure where it would ultimately end up, but I wanted to do something with these snippets of a story. Of course, this was around the time I was first setting up this blog and planning what I wanted to do with it, and I had the idea to turn this story into a serial.

This post contains the first episode of what will be an ongoing story that I will add to each month. My goal is to bring this woebegone manuscript out of the shadows and have twelve volumes of a completed story by the end of the year. I hope you enjoy these people as much as I have. Truthfully, they’ve really stolen my heart.

Without further ado – A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

 

I was a child who believed. Magic, wishes, good luck, destiny – it was all real to me. Just as real as schoolwork, the friends that lived in the apartment two doors down, or the smell of bacon frying on Saturday mornings. I had such incredible faith in the power of belief that I had entirely convinced myself that fairies lived in the moderately landscaped scrap of grass behind the complex that we called the garden. Even if they didn’t at first, I thought that if I believed unwaveringly enough they would simply sparkle into existence. So I’d squint my eyes against sunlight and watch shadows flick in the trees as wind rattled their branches and I imagined with all my might a world of fairies.

My mother played the perfect audience to my lengthy retellings of the fairy adventures that took place just steps outside the back door. The queen and king’s arguments about what kind of flowers they should magic into blossoming first come springtime were quite the kitchen gossip for us. She would ask how the princess was managing with her willful dragonfly steed and I would tumble into a tale about how she had taken a horrendous fall. Her dragonfly had turned too quickly to avoid the back fence and she fell, breaking one of her delicate silver wings. I told how they had called for a special fairy healer from a distant garden across the street and how he had bound her with thread from the finest spider’s silk and spoke ancient magic words over her tattered wing. It had taken many weeks, but miraculously, the princess had a full recovery and soon married the healer who had traveled so far and worked so tirelessly to save her. And so it went for years, the neverending fairy saga of the Cedar Creek Apartment flowerbeds.

She was beautiful, my mother. Her smile was genuine even on her worst days and her eyes shimmered with a love of life. She found wonder in small things and cherished them for their fleeting weight. Her hair was a soft curl around my tired finger; her arms an elegant length just the right height to help me twirl. Secretly, I imagined the fairy princess with her face.

She indulged me, as her mother had indulged her. Where my mother was naive and shone with a delicate beauty of fairy tales, my nan was gregarious, loud, and handsome in a blunt way that mimicked her nature. Nan had showered her daughter with love, almost pushing it onto her, dropping her affection in my mother’s lap and then retreating before my mother had time to choose whether or not she would accept it. Love, for Nan, was abundant and all-encompassing. She had a way of making you feel like the center of the universe when she bestowed her love on you, but in a way, not unlike the Eye of Sauron, it was intense. You had no choice but to accept the love, the compliment, the gift she wanted you to have. For my mother, that kind of love had a much stronger hand in her development of character than either of them cared to admit. There’s was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other in subtle ways that I wasn’t really aware of until I matured enough to see the nuance of how they interacted. Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it and I found it truly fascinating. I had a front-row seat to most of it because we were almost always all together. Nan lived in a small house a few blocks away from our apartment, but I could have sworn there was a divot in the sidewalk that marked the path we had worn between our homes.

Most days, I would come home from school, Nan would arrive within an hour to sit at the kitchen table leaning towards the small open window with cafe curtains my mom had sewn, blowing the smoke from her Capri Slims out into the garden. Even as an adult, I still pictured the garden fairies hiding in their homes every afternoon from the smog that drifted into their kingdom when Nan arrived. It used to upset her when I would try to explain why the fairies I spent so much time pointing out to my mother never appeared when she was there.

I would start to put dinner together, dicing vegetables, simmering sauces, until my mom stumbled in after her shift at the kitschy boutique a few blocks away. As much as I was sure her feet hurt, she would join me in the kitchen, helping me finish up the meal, swaying back and forth to the beat of whatever oldie had caught her ear on the radio. Nan would pipe up for a verse or two, but mostly she would just watch us like we were a play. She’d sip on her cigarette and smile at us with a secret kind of pride only mothers, and then grandmothers can achieve or even understand.

After a meal, either laughing around the table or silently in front of an old musical dancing across our small television, we would quietly clean up and retreat to our chairs and read. Nan favored a floral printed wingback with a crocheted doily draped over the back. Mom usually put her feet up on the chaise, a garage sale find that Nan had gifted her for Christmas one year. I would flop onto the couch with the kind of slouchy positioning that is only comfortable when you are young and your muscles are more forgiving. And there we would stay, completely engrossed in whatever invented land, adventure, or situation we were reading about in complete silence aside from the small gasp or chuckle brought forth by those special nuggets of story that hit your humanity. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a blanket thrown over me, left behind to dream undisturbed.

Breakfast was like a book club meeting. We had diverse tastes, but honest respect and admiration for any book we encountered. Sure there were some genres we generally steered away from, but as true lovers of books and stories, we had such incredible regard for anyone who had successfully written and published a book. No matter how awful the content or quality might be, they had created something out of nothing. That was the magic we all saw and believed in long after my fairies went away to slumber in the hibernation of childhood memories. Our world was small, yet infinitely vast, only limited to the size of the library or the dusty boxes of paperbacks we collected from garage sales.

I graduated high school with honors, enrolled at the junior college and worked alongside my mother at the boutique until I was able to transfer to the four-year college where I earned my Bachelor’s in English. I split my time between the campus, home, and the random shifts I was able to pick up anywhere that would take me. I was grateful for the scholarships my writing and grades had earned me, but school wasn’t cheap. Mom and Nan chipped in as much as they could, so proud of me for pursuing my dream on a road paved with words. When I earned my degree, they coerced half the neighborhood into throwing me a massive block party to celebrate. As I waded through the faces that had made up my childhood, the question echoing from each of them was, “What’s next, Annie?”

And I would smile and not knowing what else to say would reply simply with, “Words.”

As the party was winding down, and the guests were trickling back to their houses, my matriarchs linked their arms with mine and walked me back to the apartment. They asked me if I’d enjoyed the party and if I’d said goodbye to so and so, but I could feel them glancing back and forth to each other with smiles of conspiracy. I knew there was one more surprise coming, but I wasn’t at all expecting what I found when I walked through our front door. A polished, black Underwood typewriter was sitting prettily on the Formica kitchen table. The glossy paint reflected the fluorescent light in a way that made it look like the whole thing was drenched in ink. And I felt like I would drown in it.

It was beautiful, and the most thoughtful and perfect gift I had ever received, but all I could do was pray that my smile was convincing these ladies that knew me better than the mirror in the bathroom. I had always known I would be a writer, but when suddenly faced with the gift of an empty vessel aching to be filled and no reason not to begin, the blank pages stacked beside the typewriter looked like a mountain I could never hope to summit. At some point along the way of infinite security and confidence in my abilities, not without validation either, a small seed of doubt had somehow found its way into my mind and confronted with the possibility of finally fulfilling my dream, I realized that this weed of a thought had somehow managed to worm it’s way around my soul, strangling and constricting me into a web of uncertainty that was debilitating.

And then my mother died.
I was twenty-two, newly graduated, the world at my feet, with a newly discovered fear of success. Nan and my beautiful mother were driving to the store to pick up some essentials for the week and coast by a few garage sales they had seen advertised. They had turned onto the main road after leaving the grocery store, and a kid with a newly minted driver’s license rammed into the driver’s side of my mom’s hatchback. Nan, never one to wear a seatbelt, had been tossed so violently that when she hit her head on the passenger door, she was knocked unconscious and her eyes went black forever. When she woke up in the hospital that evening, she had her first panic attack when she realized the world had disappeared. She had her second a few hours later when I gripped her hand and watched the horror contort her face as the doctor told her that her daughter, my angelic, vibrant mother, had been killed.

I don’t think she cared that she couldn’t see anymore – a small death had been dwarfed and swallowed in one swift and brutal wave. I watched my own agony mirrored in her and flinched with every sob. She clung to me like a lifeline, cracking the bones in my hand, reaching, dragging me into a hard embrace. I felt like she was trying to claw her way out of her own mind, out of a horror she couldn’t comprehend, to chase a dissolving thread of hope.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the doctor retreat from the room, heard the click of the door closing behind, and the rest of the world disappeared with him. Nan and I hovered, alone and drowning, in a sea of uncertainty about what life meant now. We didn’t speak. For the first time in either of our lives, words had failed us.