Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Gap-Toothed Girl by Ray Harvey


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Contemporary Fiction
Date Published: August 2018
Publisher: Pearl Button Press

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“Tournament night in a sweltering Las Vegas stadium, and the girl with the gap-toothed smile stood bleeding in her ballet slippers.”

Thus begins Gap-Toothed Girl, the story of Dusty May, a Lakota orphan with an iron will, who runs away from the horrific circumstances of her foster home and her foster father — a man of beast-like brilliance and power — to pursue her dream of lightness and ballet, even as her foster father unleashes an army to bring her down.

Part literary fiction, part thriller, part dance story, Gap-Toothed Girl is at its core a tale of human joy and freedom of will — a “relentlessly paced novel” combining “the surreal imagery of Nabokov with the psychological complexity of Dostoevsky” (Fort Collins Forum) to investigate the depths of the human psyche and the indomitable will to succeed, ultimately plumbing the very nature of human happiness and the human soul.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

Tournament night in a sweltering Las Vegas stadium, and the girl with the gap-toothed smile stood bleeding in her ballet slippers. The sodium lights of the arena lay upcast on the low-hanging sky above. An electrical charge hummed through the air: a crackling undercurrent that came neither from the lights nor from the distant heat lightning, but from the galvanized excitement of the crowd.

Before her, some twenty feet away and elevated four feet off the ground, there stretched a long green balance beam, atop which, at the southernmost end, stood eight empty whiskey bottles. The bottles were perfectly upright and in single file. A small springboard crouched in front.

High above her floated a long banner which said, in  shimmering red letters:

A CONTEST OF MOTION

She closed her eyes and inhaled. The air was dry. She stood alone upon the stage. She was dusky-limbed, Lakota. She held her breath a moment and then she released it.

When she opened her eyes, her gaze settled on the objects before her: the springboard, the balance beam, the whiskey bottles. The heat hung heavy. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. She didn’t see the tiny camera-flash explosions igniting everywhere around her from within the darkness of the stadium. She forgot that there were thousands of eyes fixed upon her. She forgot also the pain in her toes and was unaware of the bleed-through and the blood leaking like ink across the entire top part of her slipper.

Offstage in the shadows, a lanky youth in a baseball cap gave a thumbs-up, but it wasn’t directed toward her.

A man with a microphone emerged on stage. He was thin and well-dressed and darkly complexioned.

A hush came over the crowd. The man held the microphone to his mouth. His voice came booming through the speakers with great clarity.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. May I have your attention, please. Thank you. We are finally at the end of the night, and — my Lord — what a night it’s been. What a competition.”

The crowd erupted.

“We have seen — excuse me, please — we have seen tonight some of the very best dancers in the world, and I’m sure you know this is not an exaggeration. We have only one more to go. Did we save the best for last? Need I remind you that there’s fifty thousand dollars at stake here?”

He paused.

“Now,” he said, “now, then. Do you see this young woman up on the stage with me? I’m told she’s about to do something that only one other person in human history is known to have done, and that was Ms. Bianca Passarge, of Hamburg, Germany, in 1958 — except Ms. Passarge, I am told, was not mounting a balance beam when she did her routine. Can this little girl — all 115 pounds of her — I say, can she do it? Can she steal the money from these big city boys and girls, the Bronx break dancers and West Coast B-Boys and all the others who have astounded us here tonight with their strength and agility and their grace of motion? Folks, we are about to find out.”

The crowd erupted again. The MC turned and looked at the girl on stage behind him.

He winked.

He lowered the microphone and said in an unamplified voice that sounded peculiar to her:

“Are you ready?”

He smiled kindly.

She nodded.

He gave her the A-OK sign with his fingers and nodded back. Then her lips broke open in return, disclosing, very slightly, her endearing gap-toothed smile.

He brought the microphone back to his mouth and turned again to the audience.

“Here we go!” he said.

The crowd went dead-silent in anticipation.

“Okay, okay!” she thought. All ten of her fingers wiggled unconsciously and in unison.

Abruptly, then, the lights above her darkened while simultaneously the lights behind her brightened, and then the music began: fast-paced and throbbing and happy.

She bolted forward.

She sprinted toward the balance beam and with astonishing speed executed a back handspring onto the springboard, vaulting into a full fluid backflip on one foot upon the beam — which in the very same motion turned into another back handspring, and then another, all to within inches of the bottles at the far end of the beam. This entire process took no more than five seconds. Here she paused for a fraction and then performed a half turn. From there she leapt lightly onto the first upright whiskey bottle, which wobbled only slightly under her weight. She placed her other toe catlike upon the next whiskey bottle, and then she raised herself en point to great heights….



About the Author

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Ray A. Harvey, novelist, essayist, published poet, athlete, and editor, son of Firman Charles Harvey (RIP) and his wife Cecilia, youngest of thirteen half brothers and half sisters, was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. He’s worked as a short-order cook, copyeditor, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, pedi-cab driver, bartender, and more. He’s also written and ghostwritten a number of published books, poems, and essays, but no matter where he’s gone or what he’s done to earn a living, literature and learning have always existed at the core of his life.


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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Dragon's Shadow by Allison Morse



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Tween High Fantasy / YA
Date Published: September 24, 2018
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press

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Royal twins ripped apart at birth become reluctant champions of good and evil.

Kylie, a teenage science geek, has no faith in people. Instead, she relies on what she trusts the most, the facts––what she can see, touch, and hear but never feel. With enough pain to deal with in her own world, she is thrust into another––a kingdom at war whose strange inhabitants fear one thing the most––the return of the dragon.  All of this is illogical to Kylie, but even more so, when she discovers she belongs there.

Her brother, Prince Jarlon, journeys to kill the dragon who has laid waste to his kingdom.  His only hope for destroying the beast is help from his sister, whom he has never met. Will their paths cross before the beast’s malevolence infects Kylie and turns her into his creature or will Jarlon have to destroy her, too?


Advance Praise

“A heartwarming fantasy adventure featuring winning characters.” – Kirkus Review


Excerpt

A deafening screech sounded. Jarlon’s limbs vibrated from the piercing cry of a teledicthus. The dragon’s minions.

The twenty-foot-high shelves rumbled, and books rained down. Screams came from outside the library door. “Jarlon you must escape,” the king commanded. “Go into the forest and find the Lady of the Eyes. I need you safe. Go.”

The library doors flew open. A teledicthus, flapping large leather wings and screeching its horrible wail, flew into the room. The monster’s red face featured a mouth that was more like a barracuda than that of a bird. Its lower jaw was longer than the top, and both were lined with a double row of razor-sharp teeth. The creature’s large, black eyes darted about, then settled directly on the prince.

The master of arms pushed Jarlon toward the doorway, but the giant bird swooped closer. The soldier lifted his sword.

Too late.

The teledicthus swiped. Blood sprayed from the soldier’s shoulder, and he fell. The bird screamed in triumph and flew upward, preparing to attack again.

Jarlon leapt to the soldier’s aid. Using a sleeve of his waistcoat, he made a tourniquet by tying it around the man’s arm to stop the bleeding.

The Sword of Legends in his hand, the king yelled to Jarlon to run and hide.

Jarlon looked up and saw the glistening teeth of the giant bird come closer. Blood covered the bottom double row. The beast then closed its mouth, and the blood vanished. The creature dove toward him.

Unsheathing his sword, Jarlon waited for his moment to strike. The wind from the teledicthus’ wings whisked across his cheek and a touch of saliva brushed his arm. He swung his saber at the bird’s neck.

The teledicthus dropped in midair to dodge the blade. Still, the bird did not avoid the sharp blow to the back of his head as Jarlon hit downward.

“Maglot!” he swore. He hit the bird squarely but with the flat side of his sword. The sharp end had failed to pierce the beast’s skin.

The teledicthus flew up and out of reach. A second screeching bird swooped into the room, and the two circled their prey, their sights set on the king.

Jarlon ran toward his uncle. Everything slowed. His heart pounded.

The teledicthus dove closer and closer still.

With arm held upward, Jarlon placed his body and his sword in front of the king, waiting for the beasts’ jaws to tear into his flesh. Instead, his uncle shoved him to the floor, and Jarlon watched the king ram the Sword of Legends into one of the great birds.

The bird fell dead.

Jarlon pushed himself to his feet but not in time.

The other teledicthus sliced into his uncle’s chest, leaving a gash that exploded in red and ran down the king’s robe. His uncle was dead!

A scream, more primal than any teledicthus could make, erupted from Jarlon. “No!”

The giant bird flew back to the roof of the library.

Watching it circle above, Jarlon held his sword tightly and waited to die. Then the stone floor rumbled beneath him. Something grabbed his leg.

“Jarlon!”

Tryff! Where was he?

Jarlon looked down. A stone from the floor had been removed. He scrambled through the opening and dove into the darkness.


About the Author

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Allison Morse is the author of three very different novels: Fallen Star a Hollywood Gothic mystery, The Sweetheart Deal, a Rom/Com and Dragon’s Shadow a YA Fantasy & Adventure all published by The Wild Rose Press. She lives with her wonderful husband in a house in the hills filled with books.






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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

River of Shame


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Mystery
Published: Presale, August 1 / Release Date: September 12
Publisher: Tirgearr Pubishing Company

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Something evil has taken root in Ashland, Oregon. And with it, an uneasy feeling sweeps down on Detective Winston Radhauser. If someone doesn’t intervene, that evil will continue to multiply until the unthinkable happens.

While on vacation with his wife and their newborn son, Detective Radhauser receives a call from Captain Murphy--a high school kid has been branded with a homophobic slur and is hospitalized in Ashland, a small town known for, and proud of, its diversity. And this is only the beginning. White supremacy, homophobia and racism are one thing. But murder is something else.

Radhauser will do whatever it takes to find the perpetrators and restore his town’s sense of safety. With such hostile opposition, can he succeed and will justice be done?



About the Author

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Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She has been writing poems and short stories since she could hold a pencil and was so in love with writing that she became a creative writing major in college.

Prior to an early retirement which enabled her to write full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. It was there she met her husband, Andreas, one of the deans in the University of Arizona's Medical School. About five years after their marriage, they left Tucson to pursue their dreams in 1991--purchasing a 35-acres horse ranch in the Williams Valley in Oregon. They spent a decade there. Andy rode, trained and bred Arabian horses and coached a high school equestrian team, while Susan got serious about her writing career.

Through the writing process, Susan has learned that she must be obsessed with the reinvention of self, of finding a way back to something lost, and the process of forgiveness and redemption. These are the recurrent themes in her work.

After spending 3 years in Nashville, Susan and Andy now share a quiet life in Grants Pass, Oregon, with her growing list of fictional characters, and more books than one person could count. When she isn't writing, Susan enjoys making quilts and stained-glass windows. She says it is a lot like writing--telling stories with fabric and glass.


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Monday, 10 September 2018

Saving Phoebe Murrow


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Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Upper Hand Press
Date Published: September 2016

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Inspired by the tragic story of Megan Meier, who committed suicide following a cyber-bullying incident, Saving Phoebe Murrow follows DC lawyer Isabel Winthrop as she struggles to balance work and the responsibilities of being a mother and wife. She does everything in her power to keep Phoebe safe but fails when the mysterious Shane appears on Facebook and flirts with her teenage daughter.



This novel, which has won three separate awards (most recently a 2018 National Indie Excellence Award), explores the devastating impact social media can have on teenage girls along with the difficult, yet delicate relationship between mothers and their teenage daughters through five different points-of-view.


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Excerpt

Monday, November 10, 2008

At the end of the day, as Isabel stepped through the large glass doors of her law office, a strange thing happened. Outside in the cold, she suddenly felt trapped in a bright cone of light. As if some alien spaceship were training its eye on her.

Uneasily, she gazed into the dark November sky. There was the culprit. A smiling gibbous moon. Or was it smirking, maybe even mocking her? Yes, she thought, that would be more appropriate. Work had become insanely busy, though in its own strange way that kept her mind from dwelling on her recent topsy-turvy personal life.

Which included that awful teen party at Sandy Littleton’s, an event that had ruined the weekend. Phoebe drunk, and when Isabel brought her home, Ron found their daughter’s wobbly walk vaguely amusing. In front of Phoebe, they’d kept a united front. But later, in the bedroom Ron told Isabel she was being too harsh on their daughter.

‘She’s thirteen, Ron.’

‘Almost fourteen,’ he’d said.

She really couldn’t understand Ron’s blasé attitude toward the drinking that Sandy had allowed, encouraged even, nor could she understand Phoebe’s recent obsession with some boy named Shane. They’d met on Facebook, of all places, and he’d promised to show up at the party, then hadn’t. Ron had attributed Phoebe’s drinking to her disappointment over this no-show, as if that made it okay. Not okay, definitely not.

Nor did she like the fact that Phoebe had never actually met this character Shane, that all of her communication with him had been online. Who was he anyway? Again, Ron thought it was no big deal! ‘That’s the way kids communicate these days,’ he’d said.

In the end, Isabel had caved, and Phoebe was only denied use of her computer and phone for a day. Mostly because she feared the possibility of the ninth-grade kids teasing and taunting her as so many classmates had the previous year. Now, she was eager to get home to find out how Phoebe’s school day had gone. She hoped there had been no fallout from the Saturday night fiasco, though of course Phoebe didn’t know what her mother had done. Kids could be incredibly cruel.

Isabel strode hurriedly to the underground garage. The wind, gusting up Pennsylvania Avenue, tossed stray bits of paper into the air, bouncing them about inside tiny swirling tornadoes. She flipped up the collar of her raincoat.

Traffic seemed unusually heavy, though rush-hour congestion in DC was routine, and cars were backed up as far down Pennsylvania as Isabel could see. As she inched along in her BMW, she mused on the few recent signs of behavior that Ron, her husband of sixteen years, had exhibited only once before. It had been two presidential campaigns ago, to be precise, after he’d been on the road for several weeks covering John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination. In early 2000. At home, Ron had turned sour, testy, distant. She’d attributed his mood to work. He’d wanted to be on George Bush’s campaign trail, in the company of the sudden darling of the Republicans and his attendant court of megawatt reporters. Traipsing after McCain, Ron saw himself as nothing more than second string. She’d tried to soothe him, and he’d come around, at least a little.

But then she discovered the true source of his discontent. One night she picked up the phone to call her mother and stumbled on Ron speaking with a woman in an unmistakably amorous tone. Making plans. Her insides had grown watery. Their relationship suffered a blow. She’d been on the verge of calling it quits. If not for five-year-old Phoebe and their infant son, Jackson, she might have. No, she would have. She wouldn’t suffer another betrayal. She’d made that clear. And Isabel was a woman of her word. Actions had consequences.



When Phoebe entered her Cleveland Park home, an elegant Victorian where she’d lived her entire short life, she could feel the void of human vibration. She hated coming home to an empty house. It depressed her. ‘Hagrid,’ she called out. ‘Where are you, kitty?’ At least their housekeeper, Milly, had left the light on in the foyer.

She’d had a tough day. Shortly before lunch, her once best friend Jessie had hissed accusingly, ‘Your mother called the cops on my parents, do you know that?’ Followed by: ‘Do you get what a b-i-t-c-h she is?’ Phoebe had stared at her mutely. Had her mother done that? It was true on Saturday there’d been drinking at Jessie’s party, but afterward Phoebe had been with her mother and she hadn’t heard her make such a call. It would completely suck if she had. So embarrassing. Not to mention that her relationship with Jessie had been on the precipice of a thaw.

Phoebe switched on all the lights in her path – ‘Hagrid, here kitty, kitty!’ – and stopped in the kitchen. If Milly had been home, she would have offered her some cookies and milk, and they could have had a chat. She loved their housekeeper Milly, her reassuring grandmotherly manner. But it was probably best that she not have cookies. No, cookies were the enemy. Had her mother been home, which she rarely was at this time of day, she’d probably have given her carrots.

Phoebe rummaged through the fridge, found a couple of plastic-wrapped cheese sticks, grabbed those along with a small bottle of carrot juice and trudged up to the third floor, her heavy backpack weighing her down. As she ascended, one thought brightened her mood. At last she’d be able to talk to Shane. Well, sort of talk. On Facebook.

She’d finally be able to ask him the question that had plagued her since Saturday night. Why hadn’t he shown up at Jessie’s party? He’d promised, and she’d waited. And waited. Then, on Sunday, because she’d been caught drinking, she was denied use of her computer, her phone, basically all forms of communication, and she hadn’t been able to contact him.

Now, at last, she’d discover what had happened, and even more importantly she’d remind him of her birthday party, only five days away. She and Skyla were turning fourteen and they’d invited the entire ninth grade, plus Shane, who lived … well, she didn’t know exactly where he lived, but his handsome Facebook visage hovered in her mind. That mischievous dimpled smile that separated him from all the other boys she knew. Even Noah.

In her room, Phoebe flopped onto her bed, burrowing her back into a mad pile of pillows and favorite stuffed animals; she flipped on her computer, then logged on to Facebook. It had taken some doing, but her mother had finally agreed to let her invite Shane even though he went to Walter J High, a public school about twenty minutes away in Bethesda, and was only a Facebook friend. Phoebe knew she’d mostly agreed because there, at the party, her mother could meet him in person and oversee their encounter.

Still, excitement and relief descended on her at the thought that, finally, she’d meet the real live sophomore boy who’d picked her and friended her. Who said he really liked her and was ‘dying to hook up’ with her. Whom she’d set her sights on after several weeks of private chats on Facebook. He was the single bright spot in an otherwise bleak Monday.

Her eyes darted to her private messages on the lower right-hand side of her Facebook page. Five awaited her. And, yes!, one from Shane.

 Eyes affixed to the screen, she read, I don’t want to see you. Ever. Her hopeful smile faded into a frown. Ever?

Phoebe read the message a second and third time. What was Shane talking about? Her stomach dipped. She checked for the little green dot that indicated he was available to chat, but it wasn’t lit. She stared at his name in the right-hand column of her Home page and prayed he would log on. Her mouth felt dry. I don’t want to see you. Ever. ‘Ever?’ Why was he saying that? What had she done? And her birthday party only a few days away.

Phoebe’s glance zigzagged across the room, her attic hideaway, landing first on her childhood saddle and riding gear, then on her Victorian dollhouse with the hidden box cutter, and, finally, on the wall to her right, where the lime green and purple bulletin board hung chock full of photos and memories. She’d pinned Shane’s Facebook photo in the middle of all the other memorabilia. He had gorgeous wavy hair and green eyes that blazed with self-confidence.

The green dot popped on next to his name. Her fingers typed as fast as they could: Why are you saying that? You’re joking, right?

She held her breath.

Not joking.

            A tiny gasp escaped her lips. Shane, what are you talking about? Again, she waited.

            Your mother called the police on Jessie’s parents … you tattled about the booze at the party. And then the Littletons were arrested.

            I did not tattle, she thought briefly, but that was replaced by the bitter realization that Jessie may have been right: her mother had called the police. Had she? Panicked, Phoebe wrote: I didn’t say anything to my mom, I swear.

So why’d she go inside the Littletons?

I don’t know, I guess she was looking for me.

            That’s so lame.

            Her thoughts swirled as she wrote. You weren’t even at the party, so how do you know all that stuff?

            No response. She waited, barely breathing, then his reply appeared. Don’t you worry how. I just do.

            She was hardly paying attention to these strange words; she could only think how much she wanted to see him, talk to him, get him to kiss her, to understand this was all a terrible mistake. What should she say? Finally, she wrote: Why didn’t you come to Jessie’s? You promised.

I didn’t because I heard you’ve been messing around with Dylan.

            What? Who told you that?

Instead of private messages, his response now appeared on her Facebook Wall, where everyone could see what he was saying: I don’t tell on my friends.

            She wrote back a private message: It has to be Jessie, but if it is, she’s lying.

            Again he posted his message on her Wall: You’re calling Jessie a liar?

            And now, to defend herself, Phoebe switched to making her responses public too:  No, I meant if she said that about me, she’s not telling the truth. Why don’t you believe me?

Again, several moments passed before an answer appeared: I don’t trust you. I heard you said Jessie was fat and no boy wants her, especially Dylan. That’s bitchy. Nobody likes bitchy girls.

            Tears sprang to Phoebe’s eyes. Why was he making things up? That’s not true, she wrote. I never said that!! Please let’s talk. On the phone? In the four weeks they’d been communicating, she’d never heard his voice. All their exchanges had happened right here, on Facebook. He’d suggested that hearing the sound of one another’s voices would be a wonderful surprise when they finally met. And to save it for that special day.

            But then this from Shane: I get it, your mom hates Mrs. Littleton, so you hate Jessie.

            She stared at the words. That’s sooo not true. I swear, she wrote. Though in fact she knew her mother didn’t care for Jessie, and probably not Mrs. Littleton either. This was happening because of her mother. All because of her mother. She glanced at the dollhouse. Through the blur of tears, she saw Shane’s green dot disappear.

Her gaze fixed on his name. If only she had his cell number. She began rubbing her arms, her fingers absently running over scars and recently healed wounds. ‘No, no,’ she muttered softly. She typed a private message: Shane, please believe me. I didn’t say anything. Whoever told you I did was lying.

            She waited for him to respond, her breath catching. Her eyes flicked to the box cutter’s hiding place and lingered there for several moments before returning to Shane’s photo. He was the cutest boy who’d ever friended her, and a year and a half older than she. His dimpled smile grinned at her from the bulletin board. He looked amazingly like the guy in Twilight, though without the ghostly pallor. Why didn’t he believe her? Why would he believe Jessie? Had someone else said something? Yet, who could that be? Skyla? How could things get so messed up? Phoebe saw her dream of Shane as her boyfriend slip away.

Why had her mother called the police on Saturday night? This was all her fault. About to retrieve the blade from the dollhouse, she snatched her cell phone instead and angrily tapped her mother’s number.



Isabel’s iPhone released its symphonic chime. Without taking her eyes off the road, she grabbed the phone. ‘Hello?’

            A frantic voice shouted into her ear: ‘Mawm, you’ve ruined everything! You called the police on the Littletons! How could you? Now Shane thinks I lied and he won’t see me. Ever!’

            Phoebe’s attack caught her by surprise. ‘Calm down. What are you talking about?’ Isabel said, although her daughter was right. She had called the police. She’d felt duty-bound. Irresponsible parents feeding young teens alcohol! But how had this ridiculous Shane found out?

Phoebe’s response came in the form of loud panicked sobs.

‘Phoebe? Sweetheart, talk to me.’ Isabel kept her voice even despite the sudden onslaught of guilt. ‘Exactly what did he say?’

            Between sniffles, she managed, ‘That he couldn’t trust me because obviously I must have told you about the drinking. And you know that’s not true! And then he claimed that I said Jessie’s fat and no boy would ever like her.’

            ‘Did you? No, I mean—’ Isabel cast around for the appropriate thing to say.  ‘Phoebe, darling, are you there? I know you wouldn’t say that. Where did he get such an idea?’

            ‘Mom, what difference does it make? I like him and now he says he won’t see me! Not at my birthday party! Not ever!’

            Isabel recognized the panic in Phoebe’s voice. For the past year, she’d been flying into emotional overdrive at the drop of a hat, but she was also sensitive, overly sensitive. For an instant, Isabel saw the wounds on her daughter’s arms, self-inflicted cuts that made her want to cry. The whole thing actually did sound like a mess. But how had it happened? This guy was only a Facebook friend. ‘Honey, I’ll be home in ten minutes. I’ll make you some hot chocolate and we’ll sort this out. Okay?’ She knew it might take her as long as half an hour, but she’d get there and calm her daughter down.

Why wasn’t Ron home yet, she suddenly wondered. He’d be there shortly, she reassured herself, unless some assignment had delayed him. She’d call him.

            ‘This is horrible,’ Phoebe moaned.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ Isabel said soothingly. ‘Just get off Facebook, okay?’

Once home, she’d explain the truth to Phoebe. She would explain how sometimes you have to make difficult choices, stand up for your beliefs, and that you can’t worry about what other people think. Is that what she’d tell her? And then there was this mysterious Shane character; she’d been wary about him, apparently for good reason. Who was he to treat her daughter this way? Maybe now, for once, Ron would listen to her. That’s when she remembered he hadn’t called her all day.

She waited for Phoebe to say something, but there was silence on the other end. ‘Phoebe, honey, talk to me.’ She had to keep her on the phone. Then she heard her weeping miserably. ‘Phoebe, sweetheart, I’m sure he’ll see you. It’s just a misunderstanding.’ The sounds of distress suddenly grew distant then stopped.

            ‘Phoebe?’

            She glanced at the phone and saw that Phoebe had disconnected the call.                 

The latticework of cuts on the inside of Phoebe’s pale arm, and many more on her thigh, swirled into Isabel’s mind as she finally reached 22nd Street and sped north, aiming for the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway near Dupont Circle. She had to get home, but traffic in the nation’s capital – oh hell, the light was turning red. She stepped on the gas.

Seconds later, a siren wailed behind her.

The furious lights of a police car blinked in Isabel’s rearview mirror. ‘Oh, God, not now.’ She looked for a place to stop on the one-way street, hoping the siren was intended for someone else.

But the vehicle stopped behind her. ‘Damn it,’ Isabel moaned. In her side mirror, she watched the policeman’s eyes sweep the length of her new convertible BMW, probably making a judgment about her. He sauntered up to the window in that idiotic, languid way some cops have of showing off their authority. If ever she needed to exhibit self-control, now was that time.

            She rolled down the window, drew on her lawyerly restraint and explained to the man an abbreviated version of what had just transpired on the telephone with her daughter. Surely he’d understand her need to hurry. Seeing his bemused expression, his complete lack of interest, she went on to describe Phoebe’s high-strung personality, and then against her better judgment and sense of privacy told him of her tendency to cut herself when under extreme emotional distress.

But he just stared at her. ‘You ran a red light, lady,’ he said, ‘I need to see your license and registration.’

            Isabel fished through her purse, finally managing to locate the documents. ‘Please, officer, I’m telling you the truth.’

            He took the items from her, glanced at them, said, ‘Be right back,’ and strolled to his vehicle. She watched him retreat in her mirror. She picked up her cell phone and tried Phoebe again. After five rings Phoebe’s voicemail switched on.

            ‘Hi,’ her sweet young voice said. ‘You know what to do … so do it.’

Isabel felt the same alien anxiety she’d experienced earlier. I have to get home. With one more backward glance at the police car, she cut the lights, put the BMW into gear and eased into traffic. She drove toward the P Street entrance of Rock Creek Parkway, only a couple of blocks away. Never in her entire life had she done anything like this.

As the smiling gibbous moon shone overhead, she kept looking in the rearview mirror, but saw no sign of the police. Her foot pressed harder on the gas, one eye fixed on the odometer. She could kick herself for what she’d done on Saturday night. Calling 911 had been spur of the moment. She always said you shouldn’t act in the heat of anger. Still she’d been right to do it. Damn that Sandy! Now she had to explain it all to Phoebe. She tapped their home number and waited for someone to answer. Despite two more calls to Phoebe, plus one to Ron, no one picked up. Damn it!



Phoebe fought back her tears. She was struggling to make sense of the fact that her mother had called the cops. Now she knew for certain that Jessie and Shane had been right. But Shane had also accused her of having been complicit in Mr. and Mrs. Littleton’s arrest. Why can’t you just admit it, he’d said. And yet there was nothing to admit, she hadn’t told her mother! Worst of all, he was no longer interested in meeting her and he WASN’T coming to her party! She’d NEVER get to know him. She’d never be a ‘10’ in his eyes! And now everyone would HATE her for what her mother had done.

She fetched the box cutter and began marching around the room. What could she say? How could she defend herself? She ran her thumb across the blade’s sharp edge, then returned to her computer on the bed and laid the box cutter beside it. She would announce that she was sorry, very sorry, but she couldn’t be held responsible for her mother.

Before she typed a single word, there in broad daylight, posted on her Facebook Wall, she saw that all sorts of people were slamming her. Messages from girls and boys, some she hardly knew. A couple she didn’t know at all. What a loser. Glad you’re not my ‘friend.’ Several accused her of tattling to her mother about the drinking and called her mother ‘sick’ for calling the police.

Oh, please, not again, Phoebe thought, she couldn’t take another year like the last one. She just couldn’t, and this was definitely worse.

How low! You are such a piece of trash!

The words on the screen became a grating noise in Phoebe’s head. She closed her eyes and covered her ears. This can’t be happening. Make it stop. Please! And where was her friend Emma? She knew she could count on her. But the slights and insults kept coming.

Her hand flew to her mouth when she read: The world would be better off without you. Don’t you know that? She might have expected something this cruel from Skyla or some of the others, but not Shane. No, not Shane.



Isabel maneuvered the car along the curves of Rock Creek Parkway. She pressed harder on the gas pedal, allowing the speedometer to climb well past the speed limit, half an eye on the road, she kept the other on her iPhone. ‘Hell’s bells,’ she said aloud, fumbling with the icons, touching the wrong one, banging ‘end,’ then striking another. Finally, she tapped Ron’s name again and listened to the phone’s endless ring.

‘Damn it,’ she said viciously, ‘answer the fucking phone.’

A feeling of dread lodged itself in Isabel’s gut, and a sense of foreboding and darkness galloped through her mind. One moment it was the certainty that something bad had happened to Phoebe, and in the next the irrevocable fact that only minutes earlier she’d escaped the policeman, who couldn’t be far behind.

She looked into the rearview mirror every few seconds, knowing that when he or another cop caught up to her there’d be hell to pay. How would she talk her way out of this? Could she be disbarred? She only knew that she had to get home and make sure Phoebe hadn’t resorted to anything drastic. Anything, God forbid, irreversible. Then she remembered something she’d read on the Internet about cutting: the worst thing of all about self-injury is that it is strongly connected to later suicide attempts and death by suicide. No, no, no, she told herself. NO!

Concentrating, watching the car lap up the road, she chased the thought from her mind.

Once more, she tried the home number. But no one answered. The gibbous moon continued to stare down at her with its mocking smile.




About the Author

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Herta Feely is the author of numerous short stories and memoir published in literary journals and anthologies. She received two fellowships for a novel in progress, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and an Artist in Literature from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and an American Independent Writers award for a personal essay.

Now an editor, writing coach and ghostwriter at Chrysalis Editorial, a company she founded, Herta has worked with hundreds of writers helping them to perfect their writing as well as find agents and publishers for their work. She has ghostwritten three memoirs, all of which have been published. On occasion, she also reviews books for the Washington Independent Review of Books.


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Sunday, 9 September 2018

Pandemonium


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Dark fantasy/action adventure
Published Date: September 9, 2018

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 Jackson Armstrong is blessed with an extraordinary memory and a young son who loves him. He is also cursed with a compulsion to gamble that has cost him nearly everything. While chasing another big win, Jackson is killed in a car theft gone wrong and finds himself trapped in Pandemonium, a hellish, urban netherworld where demons rule over man.

Before long, Jackson begins having visions of a mysterious portal.  Convinced his visions are the key to escaping Pandemonium and returning home to his son, Jackson forms an unlikely alliance with Lilith, a mysterious demon who has an agenda all her own. As the two are relentlessly pursued by an evil older than time itself, they must navigate their way across a brutal, fantastical landscape and find the portal before it closes forever .

Pandemonium is a dark fantasy adventure that will take readers to the depths of a richly imagined hell unlike any they have experienced before.


About the Author


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Sean Farley is an author living in Detroit, Michigan. “Pandemonium” is his debut novel.  He attended Wayne State University where he received his master’s degree in English. He has also written for The Detroit News.




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Monday, 3 September 2018

Throw the Key

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Psychological Suspense
Date Published: 10/06/18

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 "Lock the doors and windows...don't talk to anyone...keep the kids with you."



Jenna Bradley knows she needs to be afraid, she just doesn't know what she should be afraid of. An evening phone call from her husband, Eric, rattles her to the core. "I'm coming to get you and the kids. We have to go away for a while."

No explanation, just a few orders laced in panic.

Jenna can only assume that as a reporter, Eric has exposed the wrong people. It’s only a guess. The distance between them grows every day, Eric living his life, Jenna living hers. She doesn’t know what he’s been working on any more than she knows where he went that morning. If only the gunmen holding her and her children hostage believed that.

Eric has the answers Jenna seeks, but when the engine of his private plane stalls over Lake Michigan, his desperation to get home and whisk his family to safety takes a back seat to a seemingly futile struggle to survive.  

Federal inmate, Kurt McElroy has answers too, but heavy prison monitoring prevents him from sending a clear warning, not to mention getting the help he needs. The private prison he’s been contracted to is as corrupt as they come, but that corruption reaches beyond the prison walls to officials with everything to lose. 

Jenna fears it's her family that will lose, namely their lives. The clock is ticking. The gunmen are growing restless. Can she find an escape before it's too late?



Excerpt



Chapter One

August 5, 7:00 p.m.

My husband didn’t even greet me when I answered the phone. “I’m coming to get you and the kids.” He sounded rushed, almost panicked, and his deep voice squeaked as if puberty had returned.

My three-year-old son sat on the kitchen floor in front of me, banging on a stainless steel pot with a wooden spoon. I pulled my cell from my mouth and cupped it with my hand. “Please be quiet, Jack. Mommy is on the phone.”

He kept beating the pot, his head jerking from side to side as he belted out a made-up song. “I want to play all da-a-ay, I want to play all day…”

Cute as could be with big chocolate eyes, smooth cherubic cheeks, and dark hair the shade of his eyes. Picture perfect, actually, the kind of child on television and in magazines. But if he had been my first, I probably wouldn’t have had Emma, so quiet and poised, the exact opposite of her brother. Thank goodness. As much as I love the little guy, I never could have kept up with two of him.

I plugged a finger in my ear, paced to the French doors, pulled them open, and stepped onto the cobblestone patio off the kitchen. “Eric? Sorry, Jack is…”

“Jenna, just listen.” Prickles stung my skin, tiny pins jabbing my flesh. “We need to go away. For a while.” His words were clipped, the steadiness in his voice forced.

“What? Why? What is wrong?”

Eric paused. “I need you to pack everything we’re going to need for the next couple weeks or so. Whatever you can fit into four suitcases. No more.”

“A couple weeks? I can’t. Lucy…” Even though I quit my job as a speech pathologist a few years ago, I continued to work with Lucy a few times a week. She needed me in so many ways. I couldn’t just leave her, especially without having a chance to talk to her about it first. She’d be heartbroken, has already suffered through more than any child should know.

“I’m sorry. We have to.” He didn’t sound sorry. If anything, he sounded like the Eric I’ve come to know lately. To the point. Distracted. Disinterested. A far cry from the man I married.

I could hear my own breath huffing over the line. “Why?”

Another pause, short this time. “Lock the doors and the windows. Turn on the security system. Stay in the house and keep the kids with you. Don’t talk to anyone. Do you understand?”

Why wouldn’t he answer my question? “Eric, you have to tell me what’s going on. You can’t just…”

“I’m sorry. Really. Lock up, turn the security system on, and pack.”

“But…”

“I’m in the Lance, getting ready for take-off.”

His plane? Had we grown so far apart that I didn’t know my own husband left in an airplane that morning?

Then again, he hadn’t known where I’d gone either.

I tried to think, picture the morning, but it blurred with every other day, the goodbyes ranging from a half-hearted kiss on the cheek to the distant click of a door. I didn’t allow myself to think too far back, remember the long, warm kisses, loving embraces, and playful touches.

“I’ll be home in a couple hours. Be ready. Stay inside until I get there. Don’t even come out to the hangar.”

The hangar was so close, right across the street. “Eric…”

He hung up.

I stood on the cobblestone with the phone still pressed to my ear. My heart pulsed in my throat, constricting it, allowing only wisps of oxygen through. I stared past the patio, the potted geraniums, and the fire pit into the forest.

Lock the doors and windows…don’t talk to anyone.

A violent shudder rattled my body. I scanned the forest twice. Was someone lurking in the shelter of the trees? I didn’t know who or what to be afraid of - or why I should be afraid at all - yet I felt cold despite the sticky August air.

Eric, should’ve given me an explanation, a clue, anything.

With a silent gasp, I jerked the phone from my ear and examined it as if I expected a rabid creature to slither from beneath the screen. Maybe Eric didn’t explain because he couldn’t. Maybe he feared our phones were bugged.

The phone felt like fire in my hands, scorching my skin, driving me to toss it across the yard and get the device and whoever may have been listening as far away as possible. I didn’t do it, though, tried to calm my mind, think logically, breathe.

My cell was always with me. Except for Eric and the kids, no one could’ve done anything to it. I allowed my arm to relax at my side, the phone still in my hand. If anyone’s phone was bugged, it was Eric’s.

I checked the forest again. I didn’t see anything, just the soft shadows of evening settling over the foliage. If anyone was out there, they couldn’t be too far. The wooded land only ran so deep before butting up to the Newman’s property. It gave us enough privacy and distance, but they were close enough that I never felt alone. Until now. Miles seemed to stretch between my home and the nearest soul. I swallowed hard, looked to the ground but even the yard took on a life of its own, breathing in hushed tones.

I shot my gaze next door. Greg Callaghan, an old friend of my father’s, lived beyond a row of Arborvitaes and through a patch of mature maples. At night I could see bits of light poking through the branches, but it was still too bright out. Was he home? Could I call out if I needed him?

Don’t talk to anyone.

But why?

I stood alone on my corner lot, a row of green to my left and forested outcroppings to my right. Prime property for Chicago’s North Shore, but it suddenly felt like an island, its natives on the hunt for me.

I chewed on my lip, the deep green of the forest fading, images blurring together like a Monet. Think…

Realization pulsed through me, an electric zing through my veins.

Eric had mentioned that he was onto a major story that would give his career a boost. He bragged that it would take him from suburban reporter to the Chicago Tribune. Had he uncovered something that put him in danger? More specifically, had he uncovered something that put the kids and me in danger? 

I glanced behind me, through the French doors that led to the kitchen. I could still hear the muffled banging of wood on steel, Jack’s squeaky voice filling the void between strikes.

Jack and Emma. Why was I standing out here staring into the woods?

I strode toward the glass, catching my reflection. Just those few minutes in the humid air had managed to wilt my hair, the brown mass lifeless. I pulled the door open, stepped inside, locked the door behind me, and set my phone on the counter.

“I want to play all da-a-ay…” Jack sang at the top his lungs, accompanied by his makeshift drum. I walked over to him and squatted beside him onto the Brazilian cherry flooring, my legs weak and my hands trembling.

It didn’t matter that I knelt right in front of him, he bellowed as if he needed the volume for me to hear. The banging of the pot throbbed behind my eyes. I reached for the wooden spoon and lifted it from his chubby hand. “Okay, that’s enough for now, buddy.”

His mouth puffed into a frown, his dark hair slightly disheveled from swinging his head about. I ran my hand over it to smooth it. “But I want to play all day.” He crossed his arms.

I cleared my throat, hoping to steady my voice. “I need you to help me with something, okay?”

“Help with what, Mama?” He looked down at the pot still propped between his legs.

I slid the spoon across the floor behind me, pulled my hands together in a shaky steeple, and forced a wide smile. “We’re going to go on a trip!” I didn’t mean for my voice to slip, but it did.

Jack didn’t seem to notice. He cocked his head. “A trip?”

“Yes, a vacation. Daddy is on his way home to pick us up in his plane. We’re going to leave tonight.”

Jack smiled widely and pushed himself to his feet, kicking the pot aside. “Tonight?”

“Yep, tonight!”

He jumped up and down and clapped his hands. He tugged on my hand as if to pull me from the floor. “We tell Emma?”

My fake smile started to hurt my cheeks and the deep breaths did little to calm my heart rate. I didn’t want the kids to sense a problem. There was no point in causing them panic. “Sure.”

Jack tipped his head to the side, his deep brown eyes studying me, so warm and caring despite his young age. He inherited that compassionate gaze from Eric. I could only hope that it wouldn’t fade from my son like it had my husband.

Jack’s smile straightened. “Mama sad?”

I blinked. My eyes stung and a tear slipped onto my cheek. I hadn’t even noticed it there, had been too busy avoiding hyperventilation. I squeezed Jack. “Of course not. We’re going on a trip!”

Jack smiled and jumped. “Tell Emma!”

I got up off the floor. “Yes, let’s go tell Emma. I just have to check a few things first.” I picked up the pot and spoon, absently setting them on the counter beside a vase full of yellow roses. The kind of flowers Eric used to bring me. The flowers I now bought myself.

I allowed myself a precious second to take in the cheerful petals, relish in the peace of the sight. Yellow roses had been my favorite as far back as I could remember, symbolizing everything beautiful and right about the world. That’s how I saw them, what the brilliant petals and deep perfume aroma meant to me.

It also meant something else to me, something entirely opposite of peace. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Yellow roses had been mom’s favorite, too.

"I could really use you now, Mom," I muttered under my breath. How I longed for her calm manner, comforting smile, and encouraging words.

But all I had right then was my three-year-old, his precious face staring up at me, trusting me to take care of him, keep him safe. I held my hand out to him. “Come with me.”

Jack grabbed on tightly and toddled beside me in more of a dance than a walk. “I’m going on a tri-i-ip. I’m going on a trip.” His voice boomed as loudly as before.

I moved as quickly as I could with Jack bopping beside me. I checked the window over the kitchen sink. Locked. I stepped past the cherry cabinets to the sliding patio door at the other end of the kitchen. Not locked. I flipped the lock, tested it, and made my way to the family room, past a family portrait taken just after Emma’s birth. Eric had insisted on that photo. He'd been so excited to have a family started and wanted the moment preserved.

I steadied my hands to flip the lock on the family room window, Jack’s song still bouncing between the walls, piercing my temples. I suspected a story at the root of Eric’s call, but I wasn’t sure if he told me what he’d been working on. He could’ve shared every detail and I would’ve simply nodded, my eyes not meeting his, too many other things rushing through my mind. He brought it on himself when he didn’t put his family first. He said I didn’t get it, but it was Eric who would never understand.

Jack drifted from my side, pulling my arm as we approached the living room window. His song stopped as he looked from the television to the couch. I tugged him, hoping the motion would be enough to get his focus back.

I checked the latches on the windows, and moved toward the dining room. With a jerk, Jack pulled his hand from mine, his bare feet pattering over the carpeting, carrying him back to the window. “Jack…come on.” I walked over to him, reached for his hand. “We have to pack.”

He pressed his nose against the window, his finger pointing. “I want my ball.”

I looked out the window. On the opposite side of the sidewalk, Jack’s large red ball sat beneath the branch of a bush.

“Not now. We have to hurry.”

He wiggled away from me, his feet stomping, cheeks reddening. “I want it!”

I didn’t have time for a tantrum. Lock the doors and windows. Turn on the security system. My heart pulsed with urgency. “Daddy is going to be here soon. We have to pack your things.”

“I wanna pack my ball!”

“It won’t fit in your suitcase, but if you’re good, maybe we can grab it on the way out.” I reached for Jack, but he squirmed away and ran toward the foyer. “Jack!” I called, taking off after him. My heart beat faster, harder. I didn’t know what lurked around each corner, yet alone beyond the doors.

At the front door, Jack twisted the knob with both hands. I scooped him up and propped him on my hip, despite his kicking feet and blood curdling shriek. “Do you want to go on the trip?” My words rattled as they escaped my throat.

Jack nodded back at me, his arms crossed, eyebrows knit. Another expression of Eric’s, this one much too recently familiar.

“Then you need to stay with me. Do you understand?”

He surrendered with a grumpy nod.

I bounced him slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s finish up down here so we can go tell Emma.”

I backtracked to the library and then made my way through the dining room, the television room, back to the foyer… Still three more rooms to go, and it was only the first floor. I loved this big house. It had been a second home to my dad before he signed it over to us because of lack of use. I loved it so much that I kept it over his mansion after he died. Suddenly it seemed too big, as if there was no way I’d make it to every room in time.

But in time for what?

I moved faster, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I headed for the staircase. He started singing again, his mouth much too close to my ear. Song or no song, I was not going to set him down again. I grasped the banister and headed up the stairs. My feet moved in a labored jog, my memory attempting the same. What had Eric been working on?

The danger could be over something else, though. It didn’t have to be a story. My pace slowed, my legs heavy, rubbery. Could Eric have been involved in… What? Eric was as straight-laced as me, maybe more. But he had been gone a lot lately. I wouldn’t have known where he was. I didn’t even know he’d left in his plane this morning.

Thoughts buzzed through my mind like a swarm of bees in a shaken hive. I thought of an angered mistress’ spouse, a vengeful reader who thought Eric portrayed them in bad light, even possible involvement in a drug ring.

I continued up the stairs, Jack’s feet bouncing against my thigh, his weight burning my arms. Nothing criminal fit Eric, but I couldn’t be so sure he wasn’t having an affair. The thought made me cringe, betrayal, loss, and even guilt colliding in my heart. It wasn’t the first time it crossed my mind.

I bit my lip, didn’t want to think about it. I doubted it had anything to do with the danger we faced, anyhow. That was what I needed answers to.

I paused and shifted Jack to my other hip.  It had to be a story and it angered me to even think about it. Eric didn’t need to work. We had the inheritance from my high-profile, defense attorney father to live off of. He could’ve spent his days doing the things he loved, actually living like I tried to do. Instead he insisted on working.

“I need to make my own way, Jen.”

Whatever.

I understood the need to do something worthwhile. I did that too, continued as a speech pathologist in a very part time, volunteer capacity. I had satisfaction and freedom, a balanced life that Eric was suddenly jerking me away from as if I had no responsibilities at all. Lucy needed me. I couldn’t just disappear.

I really needed to focus, get up the stairs.

“I’m going on a tri-i-ip.”

At the top of the stairs, I gently turned Jack’s face to mine and put my finger to my lips. “Shh, you’re going to ruin the surprise for Emma.”

Jack threw his hand over his mouth and nodded dramatically, his eyes wide.

I rounded the balcony and headed to the master bedroom. I’d finish locking the windows upstairs before I went to Emma’s room. At seven-years-old, my examination of the house would cause her to suspect something that Jack wouldn’t. The French doors in my bedroom leading to a small balcony had been left unlocked, so I flipped the lock into place.

I moved quickly through each bedroom, but in the guest room I stopped so suddenly it caused Jack to tense. The window hung all the way open. I know I hadn’t opened it. The air conditioning had been on for the past week and there was no way I’d have given the excessive humidity an inlet. Jack couldn’t have opened it. The window was over the bed. He would’ve had to have climbed onto it to reach the window and the comforter sat undisturbed. Emma couldn’t reach either.

I glanced over my shoulder, shifted my eyes fast enough to make me dizzy. Had someone slipped into the house?

Jack started singing again, sending my heart into my throat. I held my free hand to my chest. “Jack, the surprise,” I reminded him, once again raising my finger to my lips.

“Oops!” He slapped his hand over his mouth.

I stepped closer to the bed, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I examined the cream colored carpeting and nightstand near the window. Nothing seemed out of place and the carpet still looked freshly vacuumed. I squinted, inspecting the window. The screen was locked in place. I reached up, slapped the window shut and secured the latch. No one could’ve come in. If they had, I’d at least have seen a footprint. Maybe Eric had opened it before I last vacuumed and I didn’t notice.

The logic did nothing to calm me.

I stepped into the hallway and made my way to Emma’s room, wishing my hands would steady before I got to her. Surely, she’d notice.

I tapped on Emma’s bedroom door and then slowly pushed it open. She rested against a pillow on her bed, her fingers sliding over a tablet. Princess, the white Persian kitten we’d given her for her birthday, snuggled on her lap. Emma looked at me as we stepped inside.

I set Jack down and he ran over to her and jumped on the bed. “Emma, we’re going on a trip! Daddy’s coming to pick us up right now!” Startled, Princess hissed and then jumped to the floor.

Emma started to reach for the cat, but turned to me, her smile wide and eyes shining. “Really, Mom?”

I tried to act excited and hoped the red had faded from my eyes. “Yes, really!”

Emma sat up straight and held her hands together, her shoulder-length blonde hair bobbing. “Where are we going?”

Good question. Just play the game, Jenna. “I have no idea. Daddy said it was a surprise!”

Emma squealed. “Maybe Disney World?” She’d wanted to return to the happiest place on earth since we left there two years earlier. Jack would have no memory of the trip, having been just a year old and spending the week in a stroller. We’d planned to return there someday, but I doubted Eric was whisking us off to any such place now. By the way he sounded on the phone, I pictured a secret hideaway in the middle of nowhere.

I cocked my head. “Well, I don’t know about that. Wherever it is, I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

“Can Princess come?”

Another good question. If I couldn’t talk to anyone, how could I arrange for someone to take care of the cat? We couldn’t just leave her here for two weeks. I nodded to Emma. “I don’t see why not.” Eric wouldn’t be pleased, but I didn’t care.

“Yay!” Emma slipped from her bed to the floor, straightened her pink flowered t-shirt, and gingerly limped toward the kitten. “Did you hear that, Princess? We’re going on a trip and you get to come, too!” It triggered another round of song from Jack.

“Okay, Jack. Enough. We know.”

He smirked at me.

Emma ambled toward me, dragging her left leg. Her hip always bothered her most after she’d been still for a while. So many tests and Irritable Hip was the only diagnosis the doctors could come up with. Nothing seemed to be wrong with her. They said she’d outgrow it. I hoped it would happen soon. She’d been dealing with it for five years now.

“Okay,” I said, holding my hands up to get their attention. “I need both of you to listen carefully. Daddy is planning on being here in just a couple hours. We need to pack fast.”

Jack ran for the door. “Where are you going, buddy?”

“To pack my stuff.”

Keep the kids with you.

I waved my hand, motioning for him to come back. “Let’s make this fun. Why don’t we take turns helping each other pack?”

“I wanna go first!” Jack squealed.

I glanced at Emma. She rolled her eyes, more hazel than brown like mine. “Just let him, Mom.” She leaned into me, held her hand next to her mouth as she whispered, “Maybe then he’ll shut up.”

I nodded and winked at her. “Okay, Jack gets to go first.” I still needed the luggage from the basement storage room. I also had to flip on the security system from the panel in the master bedroom, but I couldn’t do that until I knew that everything was locked in the basement. I should’ve thought to check that before coming up here.

“Before we can help Jack pack, we need to go downstairs to get our suitcases. Why don’t you both come help me.” I turned to Emma and took a glimpse at her leg. She might not be ready for a trip down the stairs.

I glanced to the window and then back to my daughter. “Do you think your hip is okay or should we wait a minute?”

Emma walked back and forth across her room a few times. “I’m okay.”

“You must have been up recently?” She never moved quickly this soon. It could take up to an hour before she felt capable of taking the stairs.

Emma nodded, squeezing Princess in her arms. She followed behind me with Jack marching behind both of us. I moved slowly in case Emma had problems. She gripped the railing, taking each step slowly, favoring her hip while hugging Princess to her chest.

I paused. I could’ve left her in her room, let her walk it off for a bit while I checked the basement. Jack could have stayed with her, too. I’d be able to move faster on my own, make sure the house was as secure as I could make it. We weren’t too far down to turn back.

But, I thought of the open guest bedroom window. It was better that they stayed with me. Just in case.

I moved slowly down the stairs, allowing Emma time to recover after each step. We made our way to the main floor and then down a second flight of stairs to the finished basement. We passed through the recreation room, past the air hockey table, and to the storage room. I flipped the light and quickly retrieved our bags.

Jack took his own suitcase, and Emma reached for hers with her free hand. Princess dangled from her other arm, seemingly oblivious to her position. I closed the door to the storage room, both kids behind me. “I just need to check the locks down here. Gotta make sure everything is locked up tight before we leave.”

When I felt confident that every lock was latched, we made our way back up to Jack’s room. “Okay, Jack, pick out your favorite clothes. As many as you can fit into your bag.”

I paused, looking at my kids. The security system still had to be turned on, but I couldn’t let Emma see that. She’d know something wasn’t right. I normally only turned it on before I went to bed or when we left the house, if I remembered to turn it on at all.

There was a panel in my bedroom at the other end of the hallway. I’d be fast. I’d been through the whole house and no one was here. “I just have to check on something, okay?”

Jack didn’t answer. He scrambled to his dresser, tossing aside different shirts in search of his favorites, his song beginning again.

Emma plugged her ears. “Mom, can you tell him to stop?” She dropped onto the bed with her kitten.

“Jack,” I held a finger over my lips. “Let’s do this quietly, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispered loudly. In the same loud whisper, he resumed singing.

Emma rolled her eyes. At least it was a little less annoying. I stepped across the hall toward my bedroom. I’d move fast. I knew I had to. Despite my rush, I welcomed the break from the kids, the moment to stop my fake smile and excited words.

As I stepped into my room, the anxiety bled from me. My heart pounded as if I’d just run a marathon and my breathing returned to quick gasps. My arms hurt from my efforts to keep them from shaking in front of the kids so for the moment, I let them go, watched them tremble at my sides.

That moment was all I would have. I stepped to the wall beside my closet, searched the security panel, selected the right setting, and punched in the code. Now I just had to keep Jack and Emma away from the windows and doors. Easier said than done, especially without scaring them.

Despite the four windows in my bedroom, it began to darken in the eerie orange sunset. An amber glow highlighted the down comforter on my bed. Just that morning, I’d woken beneath it with Eric by my side, each of us in a hurry to get away from the other. At least, I assumed he couldn’t wait to get away from me. If that wasn’t the case, whoever called him at the crack of dawn must have convinced him otherwise.

It took little to separate us, so unlike when we first met in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Back then, we looked for every excuse to spend our free time together.

“Do you have some time to help me with a stanza tonight?” I’d ask him, really just wanting to be with him, but also enjoying the inspiration for my poetry.

He never declined and it wasn’t like I had to ask often. Eric usually beat me to it. “Coffee tonight? My plot is weak and it would really help to bounce it off you.”

We fell for each other fast and hard, each of us no longer needing an excuse to spend time with the other. Now, it felt as if nothing could keep us together. I looked away from the bed. It was time to get back to the kids and play calm again.

I paused. Silence. Jack was never quiet for long.

The next sound I heard was my heart pulsing in my ears.

I sprang for the door to get to my kids, but stopped with a start.

A rumble.

And then a shrilling scream. “Mama!”

Jack.



About the Author

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Christine Barfknecht has a passion or weaving the darkest bits of the human psyche into page-turning fiction. She is the author of Apple of My Eye and the upcoming The Man I Knew. She lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband, children, and pets.








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Still Breathing

Women’s Fiction Date Published:  November 17, 2018 Designer: Damonza Publisher: Acorn Publishing ...