Test Flight, episode three

“The toilet’s in there,” Merv pointed at the narrow door beside the dinette table. “But it’s broken.”

I crouched beside him. There wasn’t room for both of us in the entryway to the camper. “Is there one I can use?”

“Oh, you can use it–for storage and the like.” I saw him peek at me from the corner of his eye. “If you brought anything that needs storing, that is. But if you need to do your business, you can use the washroom in the back of the store–the door’ll be unlocked.”

I felt like I’d landed in Mayberry; Merv had a vintage, if not foolhardy, charm about him. He even looked the part in the garish glow of the overhead light, all blended hues of granite and ash. “You don’t lock up at night?”

“I do when I know where the spare key is. Unless you want to do your business in the bushes out back–but I wouldn’t if I was you.” He turned to me and leaned in close, his eyebrows furrowed into one long, silver caterpillar over his glasses. “Coyotes.”

“Ah.”

“Yep. I’ll make a key for you tomorrow.” He straightened and tapped the dinette table. “Table goes down and turns into a bed.”

The table took up half the camper’s space but still didn’t look like it’d comfortably accommodate anyone over the age of twelve. “The table is the bed?”

“You pull the latch beneath it, and it slides into the grooves of the bench seat–the cushions become the mattress. It’s quite cozy.” He turned to me, beaming. “It’s custom.”

“I see.” I didn’t want to see. “This is truly kind of you, but I don’t have a problem sleeping in my car.”

“No need if there’s a perfectly fine bed you can use.”

“I’m only here one night.”

“So you said.” He turned and motioned towards the door. “Let me see if I have a spare blanket or two–the space heater ain’t as good as it should be.”

I slid onto the bench seat; the cushions were stiff and threadbare. A film of grime covered the table. I wiped my hands on my dress and tried not to grimace. “Can I tidy up a bit while you’re looking?”

“I’ll bring some paper towels and Windex,” he said, shakily navigating the drop-down step of the camper. “Sink’s broken.”

The sink was no bigger than a dinner plate, right in the middle of the counter. A cobweb stretched between the rounded faucet and the latch of the window behind it. “What’s wrong with the sink?”

“Same thing that’s wrong with the toilet.” He poked his head through the door and waved. “I’ll be right back.”

The camper door banged shut, and I was alone. Mostly alone. A tiny spider busied themselves in the space between the panes of glass in the window beside me, shadowed against the dying light of the day. The curtains were the same fabric as the cushion covers, only more faded and less worn. One side hung a bit lower and straighter than the other. 

A small placard leaned against the window, imploring someone to Bless This Mess. The words were wreathed with daisies and mushrooms and butterflies, all hand-painted in the harvest-gold and olive-green that hallmarked the 1970s. I’d bet money whoever had sewn the curtains had also painted the sign.

Except I didn’t have money to bet–if I had, I might have rented a room at the murder motel across the street. I would risk a gruesome death; at least I’d have died in a bed I could stretch out in. As for now, I’d be spending the night in what amounted to the employee’s quarters of Thierry’s Country Corner. But it was only one night.

BANG!

I jumped. My knee slammed against the leg of the table; I caught myself and bit my tongue to keep from crying out.

BANG!

The door jostled again, but the latch held against the force. The hook of the hook-and-eye lock jangled against the jamb.

“I know you’re in there–I will yank you out by your greasy man-bun if you don’t open this door.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t move. It wasn’t Merv pounding on the door, and it didn’t sound like David–not that he’d come after me himself, anyway. Had he called the police? Was there was a missing person’s report already? What if they’d found my car and–and what? Tracked me down to a dilapidated camper that’d been forgotten in the thickets behind an even more forgotten corner store? Not likely. It didn’t matter who was banging on the door; they weren’t looking for me.

Whoever it was pounded on the door again. “Last chance.”

“Go away.” Because that was a brilliant comeback.

They paused on the other side. I held my breath.

The doorknob started to turn.

I stood to lock the door, and my knee slammed against the leg of the table again. I cried out this time and fell back to my seat. The knob stopped turning. The door didn’t open. The latch was stuck in the doorjamb. The person on the other side jiggled the handle and turned it the other direction. They were not going to give up. I needed to buy myself a few minutes. I braced one hand against the seat cushion, stretched the width of the camper, and grabbed the hook lock.

The door opened. I lost my balance and tumbled off the seat, landing in a heap on the worn linoleum. This time my shin hit the table.

“Son of a–” I winced at the pain traveling the length of my leg.

The man at the door was scowling, his jaw tense, and his lips pulled tight. The crevices in his forehead were knit together and underscored by his narrowed eyes. He didn’t make a move to help me up from the floor.

Not that I would have let him.

“Who are you?” His words were as warm as his gaze.

I glared back at him. Two could play this game. “Who are you?”

He put his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond. He just stood, looking at me. Fine. Whatever. Keep waiting. I untangled myself from the table and stood up, smoothing out the front of my dress. I folded my arms across my chest and matched his raised eyebrow. My knee throbbed, and my shin burned. I’d have a bruise tomorrow.

“Evenin’, Beckett.” Merv sauntered from behind him, a stack of faded quilts in his arms. “See, you’ve met the new girl.”

“New girl?” Beckett was not impressed. “Where’d she come from?”

“Where they all come from, I reckon.” Merv ducked around him and held the quilts out to me, a small rectangle of plastic nestled on top. “Took the liberty of making you a name tag.”

Beckett grabbed the tag and looked at it before he looked at me, his eyebrow still reaching for his hairline. “I don’t think you spelled that right.”

“I’m pretty sure I got it right,” Merv handed the nametag to me. It was old, its edges worn and rounded. There were still adhesive marks from the previous names that had been placed on and peeled off before. Mine was written in black marker.

Joleen

Great. I couldn’t even fake being Jolene. “No, he spelled it right.” Not like I’d admit that he hadn’t. Or that it mattered. I took the nametag and smiled. “Thank you.”

Merv grinned from ear to ear. Beckett rolled his eyes, took the stack of quilts, and helped Merv up the step.

“I already told you the latch was under the table, and the door’ll be unlocked for you if you have to–you know…” I nodded. “If you need anything else, just holler up the back steps. Make it loud, though, sometimes I don’t hear too good. You are welcome to whatever you might need in the store. Just make sure to write it down, and we’ll settle up at the end of the week.”

“I’m only going to be here one night–“

“So you said.” Merv gripped the counter as he lowered himself back down the step. “There’s snacks and sodas if you need ’em. Beckett is open until ten o’clock, if you need something of more substance.” He chuckled and patted Beckett’s arm. “Best burgers in town.”

“Only burgers in town.” Beckett turned back to me. “But we’re closed.”

Closed. Such a liar. I could still smell the char-grilled deliciousness drifting on the wind. I cursed my stomach for growling and nodded. “Of course.”

Merv waved as he headed for the backdoor of the store. “My program is on soon, but I’ll be up for a bit after that if you need something. If not, then I’ll see you at six.”

I blinked. Six? In the morning? My insomnia had been horrible for the past few months. I was lucky if I fell asleep before dawn. I wasn’t sure I could wake up before that. The backdoor closed behind him before I could say anything. It took me a moment to realize Beckett was still staring at me, just as annoyed as he had been a few moments earlier.

“I don’t know who you are–“

“Joleen.”

“–and I don’t care. Be gone before that old man opens the store, or I will remove you myself.”

I studied his face for a moment; the venom in his voice matched the dark of his eyes. Neither of them frightened me. “What is your problem?”

“You are my problem.”

My heart began to rattle in my chest. “You don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to. That man takes in stray people like they’re lost kittens, and you are not a lost kitten.”

“You have some serious stranger-danger issues.”

“You’re all either drifters or grifters–and I take issue with that.”

Drifters and grifters? Really? That’s original.”

“More original than Joleen-with-a-double-E?” He shoved the stack of quilts in my chest. “You don’t belong here, whatever-your-real-name-is.”

“I–“

“Still don’t care.” He plodded the dirt path that led to the side of the store, his boots kicking up dust. He barely glanced over his shoulder as he lobbed another comment my way. “Be gone in the morning, or I’ll show you stranger danger.”

I wanted to call after him, hurl an insult at him that would land squarely between his eyes. A brilliant insult, like the one I was sure to think of later. But I froze and silently watched him disappear around the corner. Typical.

I tossed the quilts on the table. The nerve. Did he think I was going to steal the cash from the drawer? The Cheez-its from the rack? I may not look like a Joleen, but I certainly didn’t look like a thief. I pulled on the backdoor of the store, and it creaked open. I hated that I had to go in at all but–you know, coyotes.

The stock room was organized chaos, stacks, and racks with no rhyme or reason. A calendar hung on the wall, turned to June 2008, only the first two weeks crossed out in green marker. Boxes of product towered over a desk in the corner, a ledger laid out in the middle, and an old, cumbersome calculator sat at the side. I hadn’t seen one of those since my accounting class in high school. I didn’t need to get too close to see the ledger had more red marks than black.

The store itself wasn’t much better; the live bait cooler stood next to the ice cream freezer, which butted up against the household cleansers. There was beef stew beside the pickles, mustard beside the Oreos, and tissues beside the hair dye. Merv probably carried anything a person could want as long as they didn’t actually want to find it, buy it, and take it with them, too. It was a mess perfect for scavenger hunts, not so good for business.

My stomach growled again. I didn’t dare take anything from the shelf, though the fudge-striped cookies were tempting. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and Beckett had made it clear that I wasn’t going to be here at the end of the week to settle-up any tab I might incur.

Not that I needed to be there the entire week to work off a pack of cookies. At minimum wage, those were worth fifteen minutes, tops. It would take me that long to straighten the shelf the cookies were on, which just happened to be the same shelf as the hemorrhoid cream.

My eye twitched, and I forced myself to walk away. The bathroom was in the back of the stockroom. The hand towels were not. I found those in a box at the top of a stack nearest to the desk. I ripped a pack open–surely this didn’t count as running up a tab, right?

I glanced at the ledger open on the desk. It was like looking at a car wreck, both stomach-churning and fascinating at the same time. How had he stayed in business for decades with this level of bookkeeping? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to stay in business long if he kept going the way the book indicated.

My tummy rumbled again. There was no way I was going to meditate myself out of these hunger pangs. There were a lot of hours between now and dawn, hours that would be as empty as my stomach. Beckett said I had to leave by dawn–he didn’t say I had to sit in one spot and not move. Besides, who was he telling me what to do?

Merv was the owner, and Merv had given me permission to do as I pleased. Well, he’d given me a nametag and an open store, and that was just as good. I could kill two birds with one stone; I could earn my cookies and maybe straighten out Merv’s bookkeeping. Fair trade.

I shoved through the swinging doors and headed for the cookies, past the mustard and the dish soap, past the tampons and the hair dye. It wasn’t like I was at home listening to David debate the pros and cons of my every decision. I could stay up all night playing with numbers if I wanted to. I reached for the cookies but stopped mid-grab. A piece of fruit might be a better choice for this late in the evening. Or maybe a granola bar, I could find a nice low-carb one–

I shook the thought from my head and grabbed a pack of peanut butter cookies. The peanut butter had more protein than the fudge striped ones, and that felt like an easy compromise. I made my way past the groupings of pickles and the beef stew and the boxes of hair dye. The shades weren’t sorted in any way that made sense; Betty Boop black next to Marilyn Monroe platinum, the Cool Ash of Gloria Steinem beside the bright auburn of–

I stopped. The bright auburn of…Jolene. I touched the box, the woman on the front smiled seductively, her eyes were green. Forget it. I grabbed the cherry cola from beside the Sun-In highlight spray and headed for the stock room.

I’d never so much as had highlights in my hair. There wasn’t any way I would be able to pull off a jewel-toned ruby red color. That demanded more bravery than I had. That kind of color took the guts of the real Jolene, the one of ethereal beauty and musical myth. I was Joleen, written in black marker on a dirty nametag.

The truth was, I wasn’t even that. I was a stay-at-home mom who’d lied to her family and run away from home to go on some top-secret rescue-mission that was going to bring her more heartache than answers. I wasn’t brave. I’d never been brave.

Even now, standing alone in a corner store in only God knows what town, I was still too afraid to eat cookies without second-guessing myself. Joleen would eat the pack cookies without guilt. Jolene would eat two packs.

Screw it. I turned around and grabbed the pack of fudge-striped wafers. And an Mt. Dew. It was going to take a couple of hours to straighten out Merv’s books, and if I was going to do it, I might as well do it right. I had the rest of the night, and I didn’t have to leave in the morning if I didn’t want to. What was Beckett going to do? Physically pick me up and put me in my car?

Best of luck, buddy. He had no idea who he was messing with. He was messing with Jolene. 

Sorry– Joleen.

I stopped again and stared at the shelf, then grabbed a box of hair dye and headed to the back.

Life, After Death

Another older piece. Based on real events, written with permission from my patient–who became my friend, and whose heart beat beneath my hands

There once was a man–a good man. A decent man. A man who was wheeled into an ER with chest pain and promptly dropped dead. 

He was resuscitated for over an hour and a half by an ER doctor who refused to give up and by a team who shook their heads in disbelief at the number of times his heart was ‘shocked.’ 

13. 14. 15. 16. 

16 times they heard “Clear!” 
16 times they heard “Continue CPR.”

The 17th time shocked the staff–it was the 17th shock that restarted his heart. 

An EMS crew braved blizzard-like conditions to transfer the man to another facility where he underwent open-heart surgery. And lived. 

It would be nice if our story ended here, but shocking a heart 17 times causes irreparable damage. The man survived, but his heart was weak. Eventually, he was told the only way he would live was with a new heart. But the man knew he could only be so lucky so many times before his luck and his time ran out. 

He was wrong on both counts. 

Through the ultimate gift given by a grief-stricken family, he got the call. 

I saw him this morning, the first time since he’d gotten his new heart. He embraced me in a bear hug, as he normally does, and I stood in wonder at how good he looked. Healthy. Happy. Alive. 

“Okay, let me feel it!” Because I’m not shy. 

He grinned and placed my hand on his chest. 

I stood looking into the eyes of a man who should have died long ago and felt the heart of a stranger now giving life to my friend. And I smiled. 

Every moment of my 20 plus years in the medical field had come down to that moment; standing beside him, his heart beating beneath my hand.

It was proof that miracles do exist– even when we can’t find the faith or the strength to believe in them anymore. 

I am eternally grateful to that family, to every family, who has decided to give the gift of life to a total stranger–even while their own hearts were breaking. 

And I encourage all of you to become organ donors when you renew your license. Let your last act on this Earth change someone’s life. 

Thank you.

Test Flight, episode two

It looked like a cheeseburger.

I tilted my head and squinted. Okay, not exactly like a cheeseburger, but the last cloud really had been shaped like a sundae. My stomach rumbled, and I patted it until it stopped. My trick was going to stop working soon, and then I’d be out of luck. I should have taken the free sandwich when I had the chance. Too bad swallowing your pride didn’t kill hunger pangs.

The sun was still bright. The hood of the car warmed the backs of my legs as I stretched out against the windshield. Ethan used to love to sit on the hood of the car and watch the clouds or count the baby ducks as they trailed behind their mama.

But he’d been little back then, and a day at the park is the highlight of your week when you’re four-years-old and fascinated by the ducklings. Duckwings, he’d called them. Baby duckwings. My stomach rumbled again, and I took a deep breath. Perhaps I could Zen my way out of starvation.

The diner across the street wasn’t helping. The burgers smelled divine. Divine and juicy; perfectly seared and a little pink on the inside. Served on fluffy buns toasted golden, with melted cheese and crispy lettuce and fries so hot they burned your tongue–

Oh, knock it off.

I hopped off the car. I’d spent three days making and freezing meals. I’d made so many soups and stews and casseroles my stomach had begun to wretch at the very thought of having to eat them, too. Now I was stuck in the middle of nowhere without so much as a granola bar, and now it demanded sustenance? I slid in the front seat as another rumble escaped my tummy. I poked at it.

“Three days’ worth of casseroles you missed–so pipe down.”

I pulled the bills from the center console–just in case I’d counted wrong the first time. I hadn’t. David had “rules for the road” he still made me follow. He’d made a show of pulling a stack of cash from his wallet while giving me the standard lecture about my never being prepared. Then he peeled off the smaller bills and shoved them in my hand. I muttered thank you, and he smiled as he put the $20s back into his wallet.

There was seventeen dollars. Seventeen. It might have been enough to get a half tank of gas or a meal–but not both. I shouldn’t complain–it was seventeen more dollars than I’d had otherwise. I should be grateful–it’s what David would want.

I glanced from one side of the road to the other. This was the perfect place to contemplate my life choices; a gas station on one corner, a diner on another, and what at one time must have been a thriving corner store on the last. I was in the parking lot of a motel that boasted the “cheapest rates this side of Snake River.”

It could’ve doubled as the set of any number of slasher films, with dark rows of dusty windows and room numbers faded against chipped paint. The “vacancy” sign creaked on one hinge, an ominous welcome. It appeared their entire business model was based on a horror theme.

I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. It wouldn’t have been a big deal to go back in and ask the man in the pink shirt for help–he seemed nice enough. Or try to make my way back to the gas station where I’d left my wallet and hope someone had turned it in. I’d lose a day’s travel at most. Or I could have–

“Stop.”

I needed to be strong. People disappeared into the wilderness all the time and survived on nothing more than gumption, a paperclip, and working knowledge of poisonous plants. And urine–occasionally, there was a story that included someone drinking their own urine. But I had a car, and cars beat paperclips, so there needn’t be any drinking of urine. I’d be fine if I could get through a few days.

I turned the radio on and dialed through static until I landed on something clear. A Dolly Parton song filled the car, her voice bright but desperate, pleading with Jolene not to steal her man. I used to love that song. I’d pretend it had been my emerald eyes and a fiery mane she envied, and I was the temptation that threatened all common sense. I wanted a voice like a summer rain–one that would make men fall so madly in love with me they would talk about me in their sleep. But that wasn’t me. I just made men fall asleep.

I was never the exciting one. Everything about me was a perpetual before picture. And I have never lured anyone’s boyfriend away from anything–not even my own. And I tried. One day I’d borrowed pom-poms Candy still had from high school and did my best cheerleader impression–naked. He’d jumped from the couch and pulled me away from the TV, yelling that I’d made him miss the kickoff. I’d been mortified and humiliated. Hard to believe I went ahead and married him anyway.

I touched my fingers to the roots of my hair. One of the other class moms said I was lucky–the gray was blending nicely into the dishwater blonde, turning it from murky to mousey. I might have added the “murky and mousey” part, but she had said I was lucky since color upkeep wasn’t going to be a thing I needed to worry about. I think it was a compliment. Maybe. I shoved a stray curl behind my ear without looking in the rearview mirror. I was never going to be a Jolene.

But I would be stuck in this little town if I didn’t figure out a plan. I weighed my options again; one corner offered gas, beer, and cigarettes at state minimum pricing. The opposite one hinted at a hot meal and heartburn to match. The corner store promised fresh milk and live bait, according to the hand-painted signs. The corner I was on foretold of a gruesome death I likely could have avoided had it not been for a series of ill-advised choices and blatant disregard for some not-so-subtle foreshadowing.

I took one of the bills from the center console and headed for the corner store.

It, too, looked like a movie set; overgrown weeds tangled around the posts of the covered porch. Weathered steps led to a set of doors, and bells, still flecked with silver, hung in front of the screens. Rocking chairs faced each other, the chessboard between them left mid-game. A phonebook dangled from a chain attached to the payphone, its pages faded and tattered.

The bell clanged, and I looked up, half expecting to see Atticus Finch saunter out and ask me if I’d seen which way Scout had run off to. It was a teenager, earbuds in, head bouncing to the music, cracking open an energy drink. Not Scout, and not Gregory Peck. The ice machine sat along the wall, clattering away in a rather upbeat death march. I doubted the ice was really only a nickel.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout; it was as if everything had been shoved to wherever it fit, or wherever there had been an outlet. At the front stood the only register, a relic that still “ching-ed” every time the man running it pushed a button, which wasn’t often by the looks of it.

He pulled his glasses to his forehead and squinted at the can. “What’s that say?”

“I don’t know, Merv. I can’t see it.” The woman tipped her head back and peered down her nose. “How much did you put on the pork and beans?”

He shrugged. “Didn’t know we had pork and beans.”

She waved the can away from her face. “Just charge me something.”

His glasses fell back to the bridge of his nose. “How much’d you pay last time you bought pork and beans?”

“Why–I don’t know.” The woman looked down like it was written on her shoe. “Seventy-nine cents?”

“Seventy-nine cents sounds fair.” He studied the register. “Let’s see–there’s the point, and I think that’s the seven…”

I’d had enough; I made my way to the aisle marked ‘headache remedies’ and grabbed the cheapest box of aspirin I could find. I passed the hot-dogs rolling on the cooker, turning just a touch brown and crispy. My stomach growled, and I turned away. I didn’t have money for both a hot dog and aspirin.

Merv had moved on to a can of lima beans by the time I returned. The woman was bagging her groceries, gingerly placing each item beside the last.

“You need one of those scanner things like they have at the Walmart,” she said.

Merv pushed his shoulders back, his dowager’s hump smaller in the folds of his dress shirt, and glared over the top of his glasses.

“Elva Luella Richards, I’ve been keying groceries in for fifty-four years. If you like them fancy scanners so much, then get yourself down to the Walmart.”

Elva stopped bagging, her mouth open. “I just meant…”

“I know what you meant.” He turned to me and shoved the can up to my face. “What’s that say?”

I tried to read the faded sticker. I wanted to check the expiration date more.

“A dollar-twenty-nine.”

“A dollar-twenty-nine?” Elva stopped bagging again. “You’re crazy! I’m not paying a dollar-twenty-nine for that. Merv, she’s crazy if she thinks I’m paying that.”

Merv stared at the can a moment, then lifted an eyebrow. “That really say a dollar-twenty-nine?”

I nodded.

“Huh. Must’ve been the new guy–must’ve been the new guy, Elva. But it’s on sale today–seventy-nine cents.” He peered at the keyboard. “There’s the point, and I think that’s the seven…” He glanced at me. “Don’t ‘spose you see the seven, do you?”

I reached up and pushed the worn number.

“How ’bout that, there it is.” He chuckled. “And the nine?”

The nine was more faded than the seven and harder to push. He slid the lima beans over and handed me the next item.

“Would you mind? The new guy didn’t work out so well.”

He stepped aside, and I resisted the urge to ask if there were any other sales I needed to know about. I finished ringing up her items and thanked the Patron Saint of Sales Tax that I hadn’t needed to figure that out, too. I handed back her change and noticed that she’d stopped bagging altogether. Apparently, I’d become a full-service Good Samaritan.

“You are so kind,” she said as I started bagging her items. “And fast!”

“Had to pay for college somehow.”

“College?” she smiled again and patted my arm. “Maybe you can go back and finish up one day.”

I said nothing. The bell clanged, and the screen door banged shut behind her. I followed her out, grocery bags in my arms. I didn’t stop her when she gave me a dollar for a tip–I’m assuming for that college fund she thought I needed.

I went back to pay for my aspirin, but another customer had taken my place in line.

“New girl, Merv?” the man asked through a jowl full of tobacco.

“Yep.” Merv was studying the keyboard again.

I shook my head and got in line behind him. “I’m just buying aspirin.”

Merv looked at me from over his glasses. “You’ll want the one in the yellow box then. That’s the one I take when my arthritis kicks up. It’s the only one that works.”

“I didn’t see a yellow box.”

“We’re out.” He went back to pecking at the register. “Be in Thursday.”

“Where’s the new guy?” Tobacco Man asked.

“Moved on, I reckon.”

Tobacco Man shook his head. “Ain’t your year, Merv. And Lydia not here to help.”

“Nope. Good Lord knows I sure could use some.” He turned to the man and pretended to whisper. “Can’t even tie my own shoes no more. I had to get them Velcro ones. Best she can’t see ’em–she hated Velcro shoes.” Merv put his hand over his heart. “God rest her soul.”

Tobacco Man snatched his cap from his head. “God rest her soul.”

Merv was looking at me from the corner of his eye. I scowled at him, and he went back to studying the register.

“Just gotta get through to Thursday,” he said. “I used to get by with just coffee and a bit a gumption. I reckon that’s gonna have to do me ’til Thursday.”

“God always provides. He’ll send you the answer to your prayers.” Tobacco Man rocked back on his heels; his thumbs hooked into his suspenders. “One way or ‘nuther, He always does.”

I sighed, grabbed his roll of chewing tobacco, and rang him up.

“You train her already, Merv?”

“No need, she’s college-trained.”

“Dang.” Tobacco Man stared at me. “A college-trained woman working at the corner store. This is progress, Merv.”

“Progress, Clive.”

I counted back his change. “This is not progress.”

Tobacco man chuckled. “Darlin’, you have no idea. A college-trained woman working here is exciting, Merv.”

“Plenty exciting, Clive.”

Great. I was finally exciting to two old men in a dusty corner store.

Tobacco Man grinned at me. “What’s your name, new girl?”

Merv studied me over the top of his glasses. I felt my heart freeze in my chest as the panic began to build.

I could tell them my name, or I could tell them nothing at all. I didn’t have to answer–I wasn’t playing by the rules today, remember? Today was the day I threw expectations and caution, and my phone, to the wind and said screw it. Today I was free. Today I was… exciting.

“Jolene,” I said. “My name is Jolene.”

“Huh.” Tobacco Man shrugged, took his bag, and walked out the door.

“Funny,” Merv said, picking up a feather duster. “You don’t strike me much as a Jolene.”

The odd gift out

I coordinate my Christmas wrapping paper–like the holidays aren’t stressful enough, right? I do not have OCD– but I am a Virgo. It’s what we do. There aren’t many rules, just an overarching element of color or pattern or theme. One year might be blues and silvers, and another old-fashioned brown paper with jute string and red bows. I even have a rule for those; if the bows don’t match the paper, they should at least compliment it. The work is worth it for those few breathtaking moments when everything is under the tree in one shimmering wave of color-coordinated splendor. And I love it.

Except for that one gift. Because there’s always that one gift.

We spent months cleaning out my grandfather’s house after he died. Poppa had been fiercely independent well into his nineties–independent but forgetful. We went through piles of junk; books and pictures, old phones and unopened mail. Pots and pans that hadn’t seen the outside of a cupboard since my grandmother died twenty-five years earlier.

I kept my grandmother’s half-finished cross stitch but said goodbye to her china. I clutched Poppa’s mug to my chest as though it were precious treasure and not a ninety-nine-cent relic, still stained with coffee. There were a few other things I tucked away; a roasting pan. A jewelry box. A roll of Christmas wrapping paper I found buried beneath some clothes.

The paper is red and green–and ancient. And probably from a dollar store. It had been lost for years under a pile of vintage suits and dusty luggage. It is perpetually wavy and never flattens, no matter how tight you pull it. The first year it smelled musty and old. It still had that scent on Christmas morning when I handed the gift to my mother. It made her cry.

It no longer makes anyone weep, but it has become a favorite Christmas tradition. I only ever wrap one gift with it every year–mainly because I’m afraid of running out sooner than I’m ready to. It has never matched any of the paper I have used over the years; I’ve made a point of it. It is bold and bright and sticks out like a glaringly sore thumb against a sea of perfectly matched everything. And I love it.

When writing becomes mediation

I’ve gotten quieter the past few weeks. There’s still the same Facebook chatter and pleasantries and commentary that amount to nothing, so you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know me well. But it’s there, like a pause in the conversation or a break in the white noise.

It’s not a bad thing–I’m not hiding. I don’t feel fragile or vulnerable–at least no more vulnerable than other writers who go digging for material in the darkest recesses of their lives. This isn’t an aloofness rooted in the depression that has seemingly befallen all of us. Quite the opposite; I’ve spent so much time with my own thoughts lately, I’m no longer working double time trying to deny their existence.

I have a friend who can tell when my nerves are at capacity, and I’m ready to call a moratorium on all human interaction; she says I get super chatty. And happy–like I’m trying way too hard to prove how chatty and happy I am. She says I laugh too loud and interact too much and appear just all-around… normal. I think in her eyes, I’m the marginally adult version of this…



She says she knows what’s coming when my newsfeed becomes a steady stream of wine jokes and cat memes–radio silence is coming. She says I retreat to my “cave,” and I don’t come out until I’m good and ready. It’s an analogy I kinda dig. I like caves. They’re quiet.

I am not currently hiding in my cave, but I’m certain it appears that I’ve signed a long-term lease. I would bet money looking in from the outside, it seems I’m about to lose my grip on reality; I am disheveled and can barely keep my eyes open. My face is marked like someone slapped me. I’m eating cold ravioli from the can. I do not give off the vibe that I am grounded and have my act together.

The truth is, I’ve never been better.

My hair is a mess because I’m letting it air dry–no point in damaging it with heat if I don’t have to. I’m exhausted because I’ve had one cup of coffee today. I think I’ve taken the Drink coffee &; write mandate too seriously, and my migraine monster is getting a little cranky. My jeans are covered in white fuzzies from writing all day while sitting on the ivory floor rug with the chenille-like texture. I poked myself in the eye while trying to rub off the smudge I left when I thought I could apply mascara in the shadowy mirror of the living room. I can’t. And the cold ravioli–well, you got me there. It’s totally gross.

In my defense, you pick up weird habits while working 24-hour shifts with no break in EMS. Eating a cold dinner from a can was one of mine. Granted, I’m not working a 24-hour shift, and I haven’t been in EMS in 25 years–but none of the kids are home, I didn’t feel like cooking, and fast-food sounds more disgusting than cold ravioli. So… There.

My point is I look like I need an intervention. And a housekeeper. Maybe a nutritionist. But I feel strangely content.

No offense, but I don’t know anyone who feels content right this moment. I know the world is still a difficult place; I’m watching a friend’s helplessness as she loses a family member to this damn virus, and we’re still in the middle of political turmoil that doesn’t appear to have an end in sight. That’s on top of the incessant doomscroll that has been 2020. I’m just as tired as everyone else–except I’m content beneath the weariness.

I’m attributing it to writing every day–it’s the only thing that’s changed. I made a joke early on about writing being like meditation, but I’m starting to think this experiment has had a far-reaching benefit I don’t truly yet understand. Spending time sitting quietly every day with what feels like internalized chaos is making it less chaotic.

I have friends that run, and I never understood a “runner’s high.” Exercising yourself to euphoria has never sounded good to me–nor plausible–but apparently, it’s a real thing. I wonder if “writer’s high” is a thing? And if it is, shouldn’t we be marketing it a little better?

This is the eighteenth day in a row I’ve written; twelve of those have been for “public consumption.” Last week I was still stressing out; today, I feel more grounded than I have in years. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow I’ll even warm up the ravioli.

My goal is to continue writing every day for the rest of December and into January. It wasn’t a goal I’d stated, mostly because I was afraid of failing. But I’ll put it out here and invite anyone who thinks this might be good for them to give it a try. It absolutely cannot hurt. Now it’s your turn; tell me what you’ve been writing…

The Big, Big Bang

I tuned in to watch the launch of the SpaceX Starship SN8. The commentators gave a tight rundown of everything happening at ground zero–is that the right term? Ground zero? Everything was exhilarating to them, from condensation rings on the fuel tanks to the stillness around the launch pad. At long last, sirens wailed, signaling the official countdown had begun. You could hear the giddiness in their voices. I didn’t understand any of it, but I was curious, so I kept watching.

The computer system aborted the mission with 1.3 seconds to go. Seconds. That barely qualifies for the plural.

The disappointment was tempered with relief; the mission would live to see another day. Maybe tomorrow. Better safe than sorry.

That I understood.

I live most of my life on the “better safe than sorry” path. It’s an easy one to travel; well-lit, fewer bumps, eventually you get so good at it you can set the cruise control and enjoy your time watching the world go by… inch by painful inch. I won’t bore you with the details; I’m a white woman of a certain age from the middle of Ohio–use your imagination.

I had every intention of tuning back in to watch the next attempted launch. Of course, I missed it. I didn’t know the Starship had launched until I saw it had landed.

“Landed” isn’t quite the word. Behold…



I thought it was a joke. I checked sources and did a quick search of my own, but it was true. It had exploded upon returning to Earth. I’m not a rocket scientist, so allow me to explain what happened as I understand it;

Ship + Earth(Fuel + Speed)= Fire(BOOM)ka

Elon Musk used another word, “success.”

Wait. Success? I sat thinking, “Poor Elon!” (not words you often see together, I know), and worrying about the loss of money and time and–Oh, dear, there wasn’t a loss of life, was there?

Negligible, not really, and no.

Elon didn’t call it a failure. He didn’t even call it an explosion. I gotta admit– “rapid unscheduled disassembly” does sound much better. Instead, Elon was ecstatic. In a tweet immediately following the fireball, he explained everything had gone according to plan, right up until it didn’t. Everything worked well, they got the data they were looking for, and it was perfect–except for the whole hard landing business.

He wanted to see if his idea was possible. That’s it–can it be done? Turns out—it could.

I’ve been so afraid of failing this experiment I’ve been living for the past year, afraid I’m going to end up nose-diving into one final, breathtaking, glorious inferno. Blazing mayhem. White-hot I-told-you-so’s. Maybe I’m terrified of failure because I have the wrong definition of success.

I want to wax poetic about the future being clearer once the smoke dies or the path to victory being lit with the glowing embers of failure. But I won’t. I will do a TL/DR paraphrase and say, “Shit happens. Sometimes it explodes. Learn and move on.”

Because that’s what I took away; Sometimes you soar, and sometimes you rapidly and unexpectedly disassemble. The key is to enjoy the kaboom, then gather the data and move on.

What kind of writer am I, anyway?

“You must be a FACEBOOK writer?”

That’s the message I opened this morning, complete with the capital letters. He caught me off guard. Why the emphasis on Facebook? Was he insinuating I call myself a writer but only write on Facebook? Kind of like that woman who calls herself a model but only models on Instagram, and only ever on her own page? Was he asking me if I am a REAL writer?

How the heck should I know? I’m assuming it must be true–it says so on my coffee mug.

What is a real writer, anyway?

It probably didn’t help I’d just spent a hopeless hour looking for jobs to utilize my bachelor’s degree in Adult Education. The only way I could make myself less useful is to have added a minor in art history. Not that either course of study is a waste of time, but neither is in high demand in rural Ohio. There is time before I need to start worrying about a job, but I need an escape plan formulated in my mind. I call them contingency plans. My friend calls them “plans to fail.”

I didn’t know if the person asking me if I am a FACEBOOK writer was genuinely curious about my craft or asking for proof of my writing pedigree. Or perhaps he was making small talk. I told him I use social media as a platform on which to share my writings. I didn’t phrase it exactly like that–I might have come across more convincingly if I had.

I remember wanting to be a writer from the time I was young. Exceptionally young. My first memory of creating something includes standing in the lunch line with the other first graders looking over my shoulder to see the poem I’d written my mother for Mother’s Day. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember I’d put kitten stickers on the paper. I gingerly pulled it from my pocket, let them read it, folded it, and hid it away. I repeated the same pattern for the next thirty years; write it down and hide it away.

I hid it the most unimaginative way possible, in a purple folder under my bed. I’d take it out every so often; to read aloud but quietly in my room, or to show my mom–who remains my biggest fan. I went so far as to enter a poetry competition in college once. The first place was $50; the second was $25. I won first. There was no second. I asked why and was told I also won second place, but the judges didn’t think it acceptable I got both–so they skipped it. I might question that response now, but at the time, it seemed logical; I wasn’t good enough to be that good. I shoved the accolades behind the work and slid the folder back under the bed.

It was still there seventeen years later; dog-eared and dusty, spots faded to lavender. The pages inside were yellow stained with time. I found it while in one of those cleaning fits that comes with a crumbling marriage, the kind where you try to symbolically clean up the mess by literally cleaning up the mess. I sat down and flipped through the folder, combing for a glimpse of who I used to be or a hint as to who I was to become. I didn’t find one.

I started writing again, in part because it was fun, but mostly because it was my connection with the outside world. I remember telling people I was trying to be a writer. Trying. Because the impertinence of calling myself a writer was unimaginable. Who did I think I was? A writer. Please.

One day I saw a clip of an interview with Oprah Winfrey–I love Oprah. Go ahead, judge me–I don’t mind. She was talking about telling someone she was “trying to be an actress,” and that person chided her; she either was or she wasn’t–there was no “trying.” I might have been listening to Yoda, doesn’t matter–it struck a chord. I could work to be a better writer or a published writer–but I’d accomplish nothing if I didn’t first believe that I am, in fact, a writer.

Since then, my work has been varied; personal essays for friends applying to graduate school, op-ed pieces in the newspaper, a brief stint as a columnist for a magazine. I’ve donated my time more than I’ve been paid for it. I’ve written other people’s stories more than my own, and I practice more than perfect. I’ve learned not to measure my success by the number of bylines I rack up or the praise I receive. I still think accolades should be filed away behind the work.

I don’t know if I’m going to need a contingency plan in a few months. I can’t say if I’m going to make it on talent and determination alone. It might be the only work I’ll ever do is this blog and my WIP, and the only time they will ever be seen is when I link them to social media. FACEBOOK or otherwise. The only thing that matters at this point is the title I claim proudly.

Writer. 

Besides… it’s already on my coffee mug.

A piece from the past

I’d like to post an older piece occasionally, just to revisit it. I’ve always been a writer, but I haven’t always shared my work. Some of these early writings were my first attempts at storytelling. This is a piece from 2014, written on my phone, from my car, on the eve of my uncle’s death.

Sometimes when you say goodbye, you don’t realize you truly mean ‘goodbye.’

I’d hugged him so many times over the years. If I had known that time was the last, I’d have held him a little tighter, a little longer, and made sure he knew I loved him. I think he knew. I hope he did. That’s the way it is with family; you take for granted the other person knows you love them, even if you don’t say the words you will someday wish you had.

I think we forget our time in this world is limited. Especially when someone has always been around, a constant–like the sun, the moon, or the stars. You don’t think much about how beautiful they are until the clouds roll in and the sky falls dark. But you realize the clouds will fade and the sky will be bright again–if you wait long enough.

It’s on those dreary, seemingly unending days that we have the most faith. We know the sun still shines, and the moon still glows, and the stars still twinkle just as brightly behind the clouds. They don’t cease to be when they are hidden from our view.

The same is true when someone we cherish is gone. They may not be there for our hands to touch or our eyes to hold, but they live just as loudly and love just as fiercely–even if only in our hearts.

Yesterday I took care of patients at work while trying to hide my broken heart. Every moment a reminder someone like me was taking care of my uncle in a hospital far away as they prepared to let nature and God take over.


I’d been caring for a lovely woman who didn’t speak much English and had asked her to cough for me. “You cough,” she said. “No, YOU cough!” I told her.

I was instantly thrown back to a moment as a little girl, laughing with my beloved grandmother over a traffic sign. It’d quickly devolved into something reminiscent of an old black-and-white comedy routine.


“No U-Turn. You turn?”
“No. You turn.”
“No, grandma, you turn!”
“No, YOU turn!”

The memory was so vivid, so immediate. I heard her laughter, saw the blue of her eyes, and felt the way she pointed her finger into my chest to tickle me. Her face was smooth, her smile bright. For a moment, she was real, and she was right beside me. I ducked into an empty room and quietly broke down.

“No… you turn,” I whispered.

His turn.

It was as though she (the universe, God, my own grieving heart, whatever you feel comfortable with) was there to tell me his turn had come. It would soon be over, and he would live only in our hearts and our memories. And like her, he would be perfect and happy and laughing. Though the memories might make us cry, they would be as beautiful and as real as the moments they’d captured. He would be with his parents, his babies, and everyone he’d ever loved– everyone we’d ever loved.


I realize these words won’t help his family much as they sit holding his hand, tearfully whispering their love and apologies, clinging to every moment they have left. They won’t give his wife one more sunrise in his arms or his children the last hug they so desperately wish for. It doesn’t give me back the few moments when I hugged him last–when I could have told him that I loved him and thanked him for being a good uncle. But didn’t.

I hope those memories of him will help my aunt cherish the nearly 40 years they had together. I hope they will help his children remember their father always loved them, even when he couldn’t always put his arms around them the way fathers do.

If you have a moment, please remember them, all of them, during this challenging time. Pray for his wife and his children, for his grandchildren, and his sister. And pray he spends his last moments without pain and instead wrapped in the love of the family and friends who will miss him so very much.


You have been a wonderful uncle, Michael. And I love you.

Being a good writer… means having the courage to suck. Bad.

I wrote something this morning–something gratuitously pretentious and magnificently arrogant. Something so over-the-top I cringed while typing it. And now it’s going in someone else’s novel.

I couldn’t be prouder.

I belong to a writing group where people often post tidbits of their work, asking for critique. I don’t post much because I tend to fall into the rabbit hole of social media easily, but every so often something begs for attention. And commentary. And obsession. And I am compelled to reply.

The writer was asking for a critique of the first few paragraphs of her current work-in-progress.

It was dreadful.

Hear me out before you skewer me; the premise was good, and the writing was likely fine… it was hard to tell–and that was part of the problem. It had been written by someone clearly in possession of a thesaurus. I’m not one to bash another writer, so my comments were gentle and reiterated what most other people were pointing out; that the use of grandiose, and usually obscure, verbiage was mind-numbing at best and illegible at worst.


The original poster (OP) seemed a bit defensive (as we writers sometimes are–especially when we’re new) and was seemingly questioning another writer’s opinion. That’s where it got odd; the continued use, and misuse, of those “highfalutin” words. And that’s when it clicked;

“…English isn’t your first language, is it?”

“Nope.”

After some brief conversation with the OP, I learned that the story takes place in the future, and this character is grounded firmly in the distant past. Her speech is meant to be formal, intimidating, and somewhat obnoxious. It’s a trait the rest of the cast will find annoying, and it will be part of this character’s development. See? The premise isn’t awful. Thus, there began some discussion of more practical applications of language, tone, and grammar.

But let’s sit here for a moment, shall we, and contemplate the unmitigated chutzpah the OP has–and I mean that with the utmost admiration and respect. Most people have a difficult enough time writing in their native language. My attempts at writing in a foreign language would be pathetic. Spanish would result in “Hola. Adios.” -but considering the social constraints upon us right now, it could pass as an entire conversation. My French is limited to what I picked up from the song “Lady Marmalade,” but again, depending on what I’m writing, it might work. Except for that whole copyright infringement thing.

So, imagine deciding to tell a story, set in the future, with a character who is several steps out of the norm. Now imagine trying to write that story in a foreign language and feature a character who frequently uses vernacular that could be considered almost archaic. Now blend the two languages, and try to write an entire freaking book, weaving them artfully and seamlessly together.

That takes some courage, now–I’m telling you. She makes me question whether I have it.

I took the liberty of rewriting the first paragraph of her work to illustrate the examples I’d been giving. It sounded like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey with a thesaurus lodged squarely in his rectum (Squarely? Rectangularly? Hmmm…) For those not familiar with Downton Abbey, Mr. Carson is a loyalty-to-the-royalty kind of man. He is butler in the house of a WWI-era Lord, and enjoys formality and regulations. He fancies his station to be somewhere above the servants he leads and just below the aristocrats he serves. It’s not a voice I typically use, but it was deliciously fun (and apparently, I’m stuck with it the rest of the day–I’ve read this entire passage in Mr. Carson’s voice. Golly.).

I posted the paragraph I’d written within the thread and offered my apologies if it seemed rude. The OP loved it.

Loved. It. She asked if she could use the example in her book, and I humbly gave my blessing. I’d be honored to be part of such an awe-inspiring undertaking.

I am certain I’m going to spend a good portion of the day thinking about this writer from somewhere on the other side of the world. I’m going to think about the guts it takes to do what she’s doing, the imagination and determination. I’m going to compare it to my own, and I’m probably going to feel a smidge inadequate. And then I’m going to let her inspire me to try something new in my writing, something gutsy and audacious.

It’s probably going to be dreadful–and I will be incredibly proud of it.

Test Flight, episode one

Episode 1

One.

Don’t answer.

Two.

It goes to voicemail after four. Come on, four.

Three.

Please don’t answer.

Shrieking laughter broke the silence on the other end. My heart skipped a beat and sank into my chest. So close.

“Oh my God–what?”

“Honey, it’s Mom–“

“I know.” Of course, she did–who else did she use that tone of voice with?

I forced a smile and tried to envision my voice light and cheerful and engaging and–

“Okey-doke, sweetheart.” Okey-doke? I sounded like a pygmy goat choking on Lisa Frank stickers. No wonder she never wanted to talk to me. “How did your biology test go?”

“Fine.” There was cheering somewhere behind her.

“That’s great! Good job.”

“Yep. Thanks. Anything else?” Her school stories used to take up the entire conversation at dinner–now I got one-syllable answers and eye-rolls.

“Just making sure you were taking your brother to soccer tonight.”

“Why can’t Dad do it?”

“He’s busy. He has a meeting.”

“A meeting.” Did she snicker? “Yeah, well, I’m busy too.”

“Juliet–“

“I’ve gotta go, Mom.”

I closed my eyes and focused on my voice again; forget cheerful, I’d settle for calm.

“Did you put dinner in the crock-pot?”

“Nope.”

“I left a week’s worth in the freezer, and the instructions on the–“

“Dad can manage. He’s a big boy now.” That was definitely a snicker this time. A whistle blasted in the distance. “It’s time to warm up. I gotta go.”

“Juliet, I–“

“Bye, mom.” The phone went dead. I leaned my head against the glass door of the cooler case; the only sound came from the humming of the overhead lights.

I took a deep breath and let it go, envisioning the tension in my head melting away with it. At least, I think that’s the way it worked; you breathed in the air and breathed out stress. And anxiety. And deeply-rooted demons with names you couldn’t pronounce that you’d picked up along the way–probably from uncovered toilet seats in public bathrooms. I might have that last part confused with something else. I only got halfway through that lesson on the meditation app. I probably should pay more attention next time.

My phone buzzed to life, but I didn’t look at it. There was no point; Ethan didn’t have a phone, Juliet had nothing to say, and I’d agreed to the GPS tracker so I wouldn’t have to talk to David at all. The only other person who would call me was the one I’d been avoiding for three days.

Candy.

I pressed the heel of my hand into the corner of my eye because that pain was better than the knot growing at the base of my skull. My finger hovered over the green button. I’d been practicing my story for days, and I knew exactly what I was going to say. I even had an excuse to get off the phone fast–one that she couldn’t bully past. I was ready. But I stood there, unmoving, watching her name light up. It stopped after the sixth ring. I’d listen to the voicemail later. There was always a voicemail.

The man was watching from behind the counter, inconspicuous in his bright pink, Hawaiian print shirt. I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. He leaned against the counter, arms folded across his chest, peering at me from over his glasses, a little too intently. Maybe there’d been a rash of robberies recently, and I looked suspicious. Maybe there were entire packs of perimenopausal women cruising around demolishing gas-stations, she-wolves rageful at the poor selection of cheap wine and organic snacks.

I’m certain I oozed middle-aged desperation. I’d picked my sundress up from the floor of the hotel room that morning, and most of my hair had been shoved into a messy-bun somewhere near the top of my head. And I will admit that I still smelled like gas-station hand soap since I’d literally bathed in it an hour earlier–but it was better than smelling like cat puke, and that had been the alternative.

He uncrossed his arms, a little too stiffly, and I wondered if he had an alarm button beneath the counter–or worse. Maybe I had been loitering a little too long, making calls, ignoring calls, trying to remember how to do breathing exercises with my face plastered against a case of kombucha and cold brew coffee. I made a show of tucking my hair behind my ear so he wouldn’t see that my cheeks were nearly the same color as his shirt.

I picked out an iced-tea and a bottle of water and headed towards the front. There was a display of wine beside the register, and I grabbed the bottle closest to me and planted it on the counter. I’d need it later. For that voicemail, I was sure I got.

“All set?” He still wasn’t smiling. Maybe I smelled worse than I thought.

“Yes, thank you.”

I unzipped my purse and grabbed for my wallet. My stomach dropped to the floor. My glasses were there; my keys were there. Even the coupon Ethan’s reading teacher had given him for a free personal-sized pizza was there. But not my wallet. I plopped my purse on the counter and desperately rooted around the bottom of it. Maybe it was just buried under something. Please, just be buried under something.

“Problem?” If he wasn’t agitated with me before, he was going to be after this. At least his hands were still where I could see them.

“I–um,” I stopped. Good breath in. Plague of locust out. “I think I may have left my wallet on the sink while I was washing off cat puke–“

“You brought your cat on a roadtrip?”

“No.” I found a quarter stuck in the secret pocket of my purse and put it on the counter. It clinked hard against the glass. A little too hard.

He waved me away, which I’m sure was supposed to make me feel better, but only made my cheeks burn more. “Never mind. It’s not worth it.”

“Every sale is worth it.” I pulled out another quarter and a couple of dimes. “Isn’t that what they teach you in business school?”

“I meant for you.” He waved me away again, and my eye twitched. “You look like you’re having a rough day. You want a sandwich to go?”

“I do not want a sandwich to go.” My eyes began to burn as I fished the last few coins from the side pocket of my purse. “I want something to go right.” I slammed the change on the counter and straightened my shoulders. “Just the water, please.”

“Special of the day–buy a water, get an iced tea for free.” He pushed them across the counter, hesitated a moment, and slid the wine beside them. “This, too.”

I shook my head and shoved the wine back across. I’d been a lot of things; a charity case had never been one of them. “I can’t accept that.”

“You can.”

“No, I–“

He put his hand up to silence me; it worked. “This place has an echo. On purpose–helps us hear the little shits trying to steal or get someone to buy them booze. Means we hear everything else, too.”

I stared at him, letting his words sink in. He put the bottle of wine in my empty purse.

I nodded and swallowed hard against the lump beginning to form in my throat. I turned to make a humble retreat to my car, but my purse caught on a display, and I pulled everything over in one fell swoop. Everything came crashing to the ground; the energy drinks, bottles of male-enhancement pills, and nicotine replacements scattered across the floor.

My cellphone bounced twice and landed beneath a display of corn chips. I dropped to my knees. I’d survived the past seventy-two hours, but a bottle of wine and some smashed Cheetos were threatening to take me out of the game.

The man practically leaped from behind the counter and gently tugged me up by my elbow.

“I got it,” he said.

“I can do it,” I said, the heat rising from my face. “I apologize. That was careless.”

“Bad place for those.” He handed me my phone. “Better check that. You knocked it a good one.”

“It’s fine. My son put his military-grade case on it for this trip.”

“But you never know about those–“

“–and then tested it by throwing it off our roof. I’m fine.”

I’m fine. I was going to keep saying it until I believed it. He was right; it wasn’t worth it. I plucked my stuff from the litter of aptly-paired bottles and pills and trudged outside.

The sunlight hadn’t warmed my skin before my phone started ringing again. I didn’t care who it was this time. The chirping alone sent a wave of dread over me.

I bounced the phone against my leg, that silicone-encased instrument of torture. The world’s shortest umbilical cord. The more it rang, the harder I bounced it. It started again. And then again. The tenth time it rang, I’d finally had enough, and I raised it to look at it. I swear I only meant to look at it–except I didn’t–I just kept raising it.

And then I let it go.

I stood there, watching it sail over my car, past the roofline of the gas station, past the barriers on the perimeter of the parking lot, until it finally fell out of sight. I put my hand over my mouth and tried not to laugh. So much for stress management.

I tried to find it because I’m not completely crazy. You don’t just throw away your only line of communication when you’re traveling. This is not the 1990s; I didn’t have a map, and payphones weren’t exactly commonplace anymore–not that I’d have any money to pay for those things even if I could find them. I had the address seared into my memory, but I didn’t know where I was going outside of the general location, which is west. And that way–I think. 

My phone wasn’t under the only other car in the parking lot, or in the grass, or up against the parking barriers or the trash cans. I saw it land, I saw it bounce, and I am almost positive it went–

The chirping started again. Distant, and strangely echo-y. It rang again, and I followed it until I was on my hands and knees, staring several feet down a sewer drain. Candy’s name stared back at me, which I found somehow fitting. The screen went dark again, and I got up, brushed off my knees and went back to the car. Maybe I could find something to MacGyver my phone from the bottom of a sewer drain.

The car was warm. And smelled like cat puke. I turned the key and rolled down the windows, grateful for the breeze. Maybe I could go back in and ask the man to–what? Pry off the cover and fetch my phone? Call Roadside Assistance? Call David, or Juliet, or even Candy–since those were the only people whose numbers I could remember? I wasn’t admitting failure. And I wasn’t about to tell them where I was.

I couldn’t finish the rest of the trip without that phone. I had no idea where I was, no way of telling anyone I was stranded. Except I wasn’t stranded, I was just silent. But who was going to make sure Ethan got dinner before he went to soccer? What about Juliet’s test next week? Who was going to make sure David filled out the forms for the class trip? If anything, they were stranded.

I sat there, watching the traffic, the silence broken only by the chirping of birds. No more phone calls from Candy. No more silent treatment from Juliet. I ran my hand along the steering wheel. No more David-loaded playlists, full of music I only pretended to like.

I used to watch the shore when I went fishing with my dad when I was a kid. I mean–I had to. I was always worried that some razor-toothed fish would nibble at our anchor and we’d drift away while we weren’t looking and then we’d be lost. And he’d laugh and threaten to cut the line to calm me down because really, what was the worst that could happen? You could go from one edge of the Earth to the other, but it wasn’t like you were going to fall off, right?

Right?

There was food in the fridge–entire meals waiting for someone to heat them up. They had clean clothes and snacks and lists and emergency money. They were in better shape than I was, and none of us were in danger of falling off the planet because I wasn’t there to anchor us to it. They were going to be fine.

I was going to be fine.

I put the car in gear and headed for the road because I needed to go west, and west is this way.

I think.