Archive for January, 2010

Nothing inspires writing for me more than a Saturday morning jaunt to the nearest Barriques for a hot, hash wrap and latte miel.  Sitting by the toasty fireplace and listening to the murmur of conversation wafting across the cozy coffee shop.

Okay, so a morning espresso and biscotti on a Tuscan streetside plaza might win out, but at the moment, I’ll take what I can get for inspiration!

It’s a funny thing, motivation.  For each of us, there are finely differentiated stimuli, highly personalized and unique to our own psychological make-up, that allow the “creative juices” to flow.  Contentment is really the emotional source for me.  Relaxation.  Satisfaction with life in the moment.  And a connection in some sense with the natural world.  It’s this compilation of factors which frees my right brain creativity.

Nature is the true inspiration.  Always has been, from my earliest days.  Even sitting here, when I pause to reflect on my next sentence or thought, it is to the evergreens and random red-berried deciduous trees outside to which my attention is drawn.  I wonder sometimes if I could write a word from a coffee shop in a frenetic metropolis, a Manhattan or Los Angeles, Toyko or Bejing.

In any case, I’d love to hear what inspires other writers.  What sources of literary energy tap your creative capacity as a writer?  Please share your thoughts, and enjoy this fantastic weekend of writing!


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“How did that make you feel?” The deep voice resonated against the dark-grained wood paneling of the small room with an equally soothing and authoritative, almost paternal tone.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, describe for me what you feel when you think of that phone call.  How did you react when you heard it ring?  What emotions come to mind when you think of that night?”

Erin Dalton’s eyes were tightly shut, holding back the swelling tide of tears that pressed against the inner lids, threatening a flash flood down her trembling cheeks.  Don’t do it, she commanded herself.  Don’t you dare break down! Wait, wait…okay, now. That’s better. The tide ebbed.  Her pursed lips relaxed into the faintest of smiles, more felt than observable.  It was getting easier to suppress the waves of emotions, she realized, easier with every session.

In the shadows of the darkened office, her eyes cracked open just a slit and sensing no danger, slowly widened, revealing exhausted and bloodshot green eyes.  Focusing on the knotted wooden paneling on the far wall, she cautiously replied, “How would you feel if your phone rang unexpectedly in the middle of the night?”

Her therapist smiled, not entirely a friendly expression, but one of someone used to humoring such childish responses.  He wouldn’t give in, though.  “I guess I’d probably be pretty ticked, particularly if it was past my bedtime.  I don’t easily fall back to sleep.”  He paused before continuing, “So, how are you sleeping these days?”

“Alright, I guess,” Erin replied in a deadpanned voice. Please believe me, she silently begged.  She knew he wouldn’t, though.  He never did.

“How much sleep would you say that you typically get each night?” he prodded without missing a beat.  Silence stretched out for nearly a minute.  “Erin?” he said, a little too impatiently.

“Oh, what does it really matter?” snapped Erin. “Look, what do you want to hear?  That I’m still distraught over Kevin’s death?  That I pine my life away in hopes that this is all a dream and that one day I’ll wake up to find him lying beside me?  Or do you want me to say that I’m fully over everything, content with the lousy hand life has dealt me and that it’s been a learning experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world?”  Sarcasm dripped from her lips and she felt the warm, reddened flush of her cheeks glowing in the light of the amber lamp.  Her fists instinctively clenched and released, clenched and released.

The therapist said nothing and simply continued scribbling notes on his yellow steno pad.  She wondered what he was writing, although she probably could figure it out.  The silence was maddening.

Why do I let him get to me like this, she demanded, swallowing loudly.  Just play the game… just play the fucking game!

As if sensing a stalemate, the chirping of birds from the trendy natural sounds alarm clock signaled an end to the hour the way a bell separates two bruised and bloodied prizefighters.  Once again, what had started as a semi-productive therapy session had degenerated into anger and frustration.  Yet she’d be back in two weeks.  She knew it, as did he.  So, with a vaguely apologetic nod, she stood and quietly let herself out without another word, pausing at the front desk long enough to schedule another appointment.

She was satisfied.  Yes, she would tell her mother, she was still seeing Dr. Reynolds.  Yes, she would say, the sessions were definitely working, although she wasn’t about to explain how or why.  With luck, her mom would accept the update without much questioning.  That too was getting better.  The parental interrogations regarding her emotional fragility had been worst during the six months after Kevin’s death, but had grown steadily less frantic of late.  Yet, her chest still tightened and the pounding in her temples still grew more intense in the hour before the weekly phone calls home.  While that hadn’t changed, the recovery time had improved considerably.

Had it really been fourteen months, she wondered as the No. 3 bus pulled up to the curb and she hoisted herself aboard.  She slid into the second row.  A college-aged couple sat across from her, snuggling and giggling as their intimate whispers drifted through the front of the bus, barely audible like the sound of rustling leaves in the autumn afternoon.  Her face was toward the window, but in the reflection, she watched the pair of young lovers.  Her chest tightened and again she mentally cursed.  Fuck them, she thought.  A solitary drop of saltiness trickled down her cheek, but a quick shrug of her shoulder and the tear disappeared into the faded fabric of her sweatshirt.  Yanking on her hood, she hid her face.  Never again, she vowed. Never again.

By the time the bus pulled up to the corner of 10th Street and Fee Lane, the transformation was complete.  Gone were the visible sadness and pity, replaced by an expression of determination and seriousness uncommon even amongst her fellow graduate students.  For the 26-year old doctoral candidate, the return to school had been a godsend, a mental escape from the perpetual depression and self-pity that had scarred the past year.  She had resumed her studies with vigor and determination, which only somewhat spared her the frustrations that come from research and dissertation writing.  Isolation was known to be the most difficult part of a earning a Ph.D., she knew, but gone were the distractions of love and relationships.  At least that’s what she told herself, refusing to acknowledge the distractions that constantly tore her away from her research and writing, memories she could not erase.

She casually ascended the steps of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, or SPEA as it was known to its self-titled students, SPEANs.  Against the early evening sky, it was hard not to notice the only lighted office window in the building. Probably an untenured associate professor slaving away to complete that final published article that would all but guarantee job security on the faculty, she used to tell Kevin on those rare occasions when he had accompanied her to the library.  Even then, he had typically only lasted a short time before retreating home to his video games and movies.

Libraries hadn’t been his thing, or even books for that matter.  But Erin had been perfectly content being the intellectual half of the relationship.  In fact, that she was more educated and academically inclined was a matter of personal pride for her.  So, she had never pushed him to try grad school.  He had his hobbies and interests, and she had hers.  Accepting those differences was part of being in love, she recalled her mother once saying.  What a crock, she had expressed to Dr. Reynolds.  Love and acceptance only lead to pain and hurt.  Even the best relationship ends eventually, so who needs it?

Finding a seat in the nearly deserted library was easy.  For most, Saturdays were recovery days from nights of revelry and drinking games, not early morning therapy and dry research.  But she wasn’t like most.  She had been once, but those days had long past.  No, she thought as she settled into a hard library chair, I’m not like that anymore. This is where I belong. She looked around the empty library and smiled.  There was comfort in being alone, an internal pride in her efforts and dedication.  The next several hours would be productive, she knew.  Such was the case every week.

By the time the early afternoon swell of students began, Erin’s eyes burned and watered.  The smoke from the Dunn Meadow bonfire the night before had infiltrated her clothing and hair, saturating them with a sweet burnt aroma, vaguely reminiscent of childhood and camping trips with her father.  She hadn’t bothered washing away the smell from her body, but at least her outfit was clean.  It wasn’t the lingering smoke that bothered her now, though.  Four hours perched before the glowing laptop screen created the unpleasantly familiar eye strain and contributed to the dull ache that pulsed inward from each temple.

Pushing away from the table slightly, her thoughts returned to the night before.  She wasn’t sure why she had bothered with the pep rally at any rate.  Clearly, she hadn’t intended to do more than merely skirt Dunn Meadow on her way home, but something about that scene had made her pause.  Perhaps it was the festive excitement rampant in the wood-lined field that had stirred reminiscences of her undergraduate years.  Or possibly it was merely the inquisitive opportunity to people-watch that had piqued her interest.  She was certain that the appeal was not contained in the actual celebration at hand.  Her interest in sports had long ago waned, and homecoming hooplas had always seemed somewhat pointless.  Shrugging, she acknowledged to herself that indeed, she could come up with no plausible explanation for stopping other than the hypnotic warmth and crackling of the bonfire which radiated to the very edge of Fifth Avenue.  That had been wonderful, reminding her of camping trips as a little girl and later with Kevin.

Stop it, her internal voice chided her. Stop dwelling.  I’m not dwelling.  Yes, you are.  No, I’m reminiscing.  There is a difference.  Whatever…get back to work.

With her left hand, she gently massaged her forehead.  She was exhausted.  She knew that, but had in the past year come to accept permanent fatigue as a constant in her life.  It was one of the main concerns of Dr. Reynolds, she knew.  He was always harping about her sleep habits, even suggesting over-the-counter sleeping pills.  But that was something she wouldn’t do.  The occasional glass or two of wine before bed was one thing, but drugs, even legal and non-prescription aids, made her uneasy.  Nope, she would deal with life in a slight haze. Besides, she thought, that’s why there’s a coffee stand upstairs.  The mobile Java Joe’s was a favorite for SPEA’s sleep deprived residents, and she was the number one customer.

“Ahhh!”  The piercing shriek jolted Erin’s conscience, just as an intense burning sensation spread across her upper thigh.  Her own guttural response echoed the first yell, which she later realized had been intended as a tardy warning from the student across the table.  A torrent of mottled latte plummeted off the edge of the table and directly onto her legs.  Erin leapt to her feet, succeeding only in diverting the continuing flow of liquid directly onto her laptop.  She shrieked even louder.

“Oh, shit!” she yelled, grabbing the nearest absorbent material and thrusting it into the river of hot beverage.  She frantically pressed it against the laptop’s vulnerable surface, where liquid was already pooling between many of the keys.  As the flow ebbed, Erin’s eyes shifted to the blue fleece jacket in her hands.  It looked brand new, or it would have if not for the dripping, brown stain that now soaked it.  Her eyes moved in slow motion, from the sopping outer garment to its owner, who aside from the pointless warning had yet to move at all.  A hand covered his gaping mouth, horror apparent in his wide, unblinking eyes.  Looking back to the jacket, Erin felt her stomach churn.  In a barely audible voice, she whispered, “I am so sorry…”

“Are you kidding?” he stammered, the fear disappearing from his eyes with almost unnatural speed.   “Seriously, are you kidding?”

“Look, I just panicked and grabbed the nearest….”

“Hey,” he interrupted in a quiet, but firm voice, “I’m more worried about your computer than this ridiculous coat!  Why should you be sorry?  I’m the idiot!”

“What?  I mean…your coat looks new.  I just thought…”

“Don’t worry about it.  So, now it’s broken in.  Here, give it to me,” he said, reaching out for the half soaked jacket and proceeding to use it to sop up more of the pooled coffee that remained on the table.

As she watched him clean the last of the mess, she spoke in a low tone. “You know, I think this is why they require coffee lids in the library.  There’s a sign by the front door, you know.”

He didn’t answer, but gestured toward the far corner of the table.  Her eyes followed the motion of his arm past the tip of his finger.  There, conspicuously distant from the overturned Styrofoam cup, lay a pristine, white plastic coffee lid.


“Yeah, but no where on the sign did it say that the top had to be on the cup,” he pointed out.

She watched his face intently, not sure whether or not the stranger was being serious.

He continued, “Don’t they know to make rules for the lowest common denominator?”  When she didn’t respond immediately, he added, “That would be me…the lowest comm….”

“Yeah, I understood what you were saying,” she interrupted.  Don’t patronize me, her glare said it all.  Somehow being glib and sarcastic seemed hardly appropriate in the situation, she thought as her attention returned to the laptop.  Pressing the power switch, she waited for it to shut off before pressing the button again.  With a flicker and hum, the computer slowly came back to life, whirring through its standard booting process.  Everything looked intact, so far anyway.

“Is it alright?” he inquired, leaning across the table toward her and straining to see for himself.  The slight smell of cologne drifted across the table, and the hairs on Erin’s neck tingled.  It was the vaguely sweet scent of Polo, and to her it screamed of Kevin.  For years, she had mercilessly teased him about his sophomoric choice of cologne’s.  But now it seemed anything but juvenile.  Glancing up sharply, she eyes locked with the stranger across the table.  He quickly looked down, but in that second, Erin was momentarily paralyzed.  She caught her breathe and her heart pounded against her ribcage like a violent and out of control drum fill.   Something wasn’t right.

Get out! Her mind screamed as the dim light of the library seemed to close in around her, crushing fear gripping her mind as her hands clawed for the laptop and backpack.  Spinning around with a muffled grunt, her soul a stricken beast trapped and terrified of death in the jaws of a predator.  She ran.

Tripping madly over chairs in her way, she careened toward the library door, a pinprick of light in her darkening vision, an escape.  Twenty feet away…ten feet away…five now.  Almost there, her thoughts sputtered.  She blindly lunged toward the middle of the door, where the handle should be.  Instead, her arm collided with yielding flesh and she was briefly aware of a pained yelp as she barreled over a human obstacle and flung herself into the warmth of the sunlight, her feet pounding wildly atop the brick walk that separated SPEA from the Kelley School of Business.

Not until she had descended the stairs leading to the back parking lot did her feet slow, but even then only slightly.  Her breath wheezed from her chest like the sound of a balloon losing air.  Squeezing between a parked motorcycle and a Nissan Pathfinder, she quickly traversed the asphalt before coming to a rest against a large oak that guarded the darkened corner of the lot.  Her gasps had subsided only slightly, and she found herself hugging the old tree, her arms wrapped around its trunk and her fingers caressing the deep grooves of bark.  Her face was wet from tears that had started at some point, flowing freely and unimpeded from the reservoirs behind her eyelids.

What the hell was that all about? Her thoughts swirled madly and a sickening heat spread quickly over her face and down her neck.  Are you a fucking freak? Idiot! How the hell are you going to ever go back to the library now? You fool!

With her body still pressed against the oak and nearly hidden in the shadows by its arched limbs, she glanced past the parked cars that filled the lot to capacity.  There, standing at the base of the stairs, stood the young man.  Inching further to her left, she hid her thin body behind the trunk and slowly crouched down in the weeds until only half of her head remained visible.  Even from sixty yards away she could see his eyes searching methodically from left to right with determined and haunting intensity.  As his scan passed her hiding spot, they seemed to pause momentarily before resuming their path to the dumpsters at the far edge of the property.  Then, shaking his head slowly, he turned and trudged up the steps and back toward the library, his body and finally his head disappearing from sight.

Erin’s breath released with a loud whoosh and she slowly relaxed.  She did not move, though, choosing instead to remain firmly planted in the shadows of the trees and bushes.  It would be another five minutes before she cautiously headed down the nearby path, crossed the train tracks and headed west past the throngs of Hoosier fans gathering for the afternoon’s gridiron showdown with Purdue University.  But the swelling sea of crimson and cream, interspersed with black and gold helmeted Boilermaker fans, was lost on Erin, who stumbled along in a daze, bewildered by her uncontrolled egress from the library.  She’d had panic attacks before, but never like this.  Between the whiff of cologne and his peculiar expression when their eyes met, the bile still burned the back of her throat.

For the first time, the urge to talk was greater than the fear of exposure, and she suddenly longed for another therapy session.  She wanted Dr. Reynold’s advice.  She needed answers, and fast!

Reaching into her backpack as she walked, she found her cell phone.  Dr. Reynolds’s number was on speed dial, and with a few flicks of her thumb, she heard ringing on the other end of the line.  Perhaps he had some openings.  She hoped so.

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Torrential rains continued to pummel the picturesque seaside village for the third straight day.  Flash flood warnings monopolized the airwaves on the battery-fed, short-wave radio, balanced precariously atop a make-shift shelf of two-by-fours suspended between two cinderblocks.  Until the house was ready for permanent furnishings, this would have to do.

Monsoons felt like this, the young girl imagined, twisting and flipping her braids absent-mindedly.  She watched nature’s wrath through the double-paned picture window of the second floor living room, the pelting of rainwater intensifying and then dying away with each blown torrent of wind.  It surprised her to witness such a vicious storm.  The Midwestern tornados and hailstorms she had barely grown accustomed to in the past year had done little to minimize her awed reaction.

In reality, the sheets of blown rain that blanketed the town and pounded the seaside homes along this rocky coast paled in comparison to true monsoons. The ferocity of the early summer storm was impressive, though.  The howling wind ratcheted up and clawed at the roof and walls of the small house, imploring the pine siding and clay shingles to join it in the playground of the grayish-green clouds swirling overhead.  But despite the fury, this was a well-constructed structure, a two-year product of homegrown planning and ingenuity.

A talented up and coming architect and real estate developer from Seattle, Anthony Porter had spent nearly a year designing a home for the girl’s father and had painstakingly located a prime building site near Tillamook, two hours west of Portland.  It was a house that could withstand even the most brutal of Poseidon’s coastal storms, he had assured them.  The subsequent construction had been equally solid, as the concrete foundation, exterior, electrical and plumbing had been accomplished with few delays.  The interior of the house remained largely unfinished, but the structure was finally livable.  And for the past three days, the rustic elegance of the house had been violently buffeted by Mother Nature.  It had passed its first real test.  The initial results were pleasing.

Lightning crackled the air as the wide bay in front of the house lit up momentarily.  In the distance the red and green lights of a passing freighter flashed and receded hypnotically.  The girl imagined sailors battling the seas, navigating precariously beyond the rocks that jutted out into the darkness from hidden coves.  The bravery of such imagined mariners fed hours of fantastical observation for her.

For Megan, the storm was a thrill a minute.  Saltwater waves, spawned miles out at sea, eventually crashed on the breakwater structures and shoreline in front of her.  The house itself was in no real danger, pitched high above the jagged rocks and churning waters.  A manicured lawn, edged with native grasses and salt marsh reeds would eventually occupy the area in front of the westward facing windows, leading to the rock cliffs.  Her father had promised to build a stone pathway from the grassy lawn, a series of switchbacks leading carefully down the steep incline to the beach below.  But that was likely to be at least a year or two away.  For now, the rain cut narrow rivers into the brown dirt, snaking around rocks, flowing over the retaining wall, ultimately joining the churning surf below. 

Megan enjoyed watching the watery rivulets carving their way down the steep slope to the ocean.  She imagined a great chasm being cut into solid rock, the Grand Canyon continuously gouged out by the mighty Colorado River.  Sitting on the window seat, observing the natural world never seemed to grow old for Meg.

The same could not be said for Samantha, who lay facing the studded plywood wall at the far end of the room.  Groaning, she slowly rolled over onto her back and rocked up onto her elbows.

“Is it ever going to stop raining?” she whined, flopping back to the floor.  Her hands smacked the plywood in frustration.  “I’m sick of this weather. It sucks!”

 “And I’m getting really tired of hearing you complain,” her father sighed.  He stretched his graying head from shoulder to shoulder, easing the tension with a distinct pop in either direction.  “Get up and do something if you’re so miserable.  Either do something or just sit there in silence.  No one else needs to be miserable just because you are.”  

Michael snapped shut the laptop with a loud click.  If one thing drove him crazy, it was watching someone wallow in self-pity.  And recently, Sam’s insistence on announcing her boredom and dissatisfaction harkened Mike back to an earlier time in his life.  Despite the fact that she was striding full-force into puberty, Mike attributed Sam’s newfound negative attitude not to hormones, but rather directly to her mother.  Fair or not, it was one of the many attributes of his former wife that had driven him crazy during their twelve–year marriage.  Like nails on chalkboard, Samantha’s inherited flair for the dramatic never failed to ignite a smoldering anger in his gut.  The negativity needed to be nipped in the bud immediately, as far as Mike was concerned.  He silently cursed her mother, as well as his own impulsive passivity that had allowed Samantha to even experiment with this attitude. 

Across the room, Samantha sighed, with dramatic emphasis and volume clearly intended for one purpose, to evoke a response from he father.  Looking for a reaction, she was disappointed to spot nothing.  Just like Dad, she thought, clenching her fists.

 This was how most interactions between father and eldest daughter played out these days, it seemed.  Frustratingly, Mike sensed the impending social cesspool of puberty and too often dwelled on the gnawing feeling of male helplessness to do anything to bridge the growing gap in their relationship.  A single, divorced dad of up-and-coming teenage girls was not the life picture of anyone’s dreams.  And it certainly hadn’t fit into Mike’s grand plans. 

When had things gone so wrong, Mike silently wondered, as he stared at the shadows against the far living room wall?  And how much more would be ahead before this ship was righted and back on course?

This was the same internal dialogue that had been repeated for almost two years.  Of course, Mike knew the answer.  Or more to the point, he knew that he couldn’t know.  He no longer questioned where he had erred any more than where others had played definitive roles in leading to this path.  Ultimately, he was grateful for the opportunity to be in his daughters’ lives at all, despite the challenges and hurdles he had faced.  If anything, in much the same way that he had glibly judged paperbacks abandoned in airplane seatbacks during flights to Omaha or Tampa or Roanoke, the divorce and subsequent custody turmoil had buffeted Mike unexpectedly.  The romanticized book covers with sappy titles and ripped bodice had always been dismissed by him as emotional drivel.  Their single purpose, he instinctively felt, was to tap the withering conscience of a society starved for celebrity drama and all too eager for another unrealistic feel-good story.  Such tales spelled big bucks for so-called authors lacking true talent but full of entrepreneurial vigor.  They smelled the dollars such novels might produce and cranked them out five to six times a year, a formulaic, yet emotionally bereft endeavor at the expense of the intellect of the readers and the conscience of society as a whole.

Glancing at Samantha’s curled backside, silhouetted faintly against the light green mattress and the reddish brown, construction stained plywood, Mike marveled at the irony of life’s journey.  Without question, he remained skeptical of the validity of convenience store dramatic literature.  And yet the past year and a half had proved to him that even the most disciplined long-term life planning was subject to twists and turns that could render even the hardiest stomach queasy and tempt the most devout sailor to renounce his faith in an Everlasting Father if simply to quell the nauseous feelings from the perils of everyday life.

Mike closed his eyes and drew a silent breath.  Was it possible that only eighteen months had passed since the divorce?  He felt ten years older than when it all began.  Grey hair had slowly replaced the dark brown curls that sprouted along the nape of his neck.  Mike wondered if all his hair would be silver before long.  It was not the idea of grey hair that bothered him so much as the attribution for it that he gave to his ex-wife’s ill-conceived actions and decisions.

“Whoa! That one was awesome!” the high-pitched, prepubescent voice vaulted across the empty room from the darkened window, interrupting Mike’s spiraling thoughts.  Moments later, the sound of the rumbling thunder followed the flash that had spawned Megan’s exclamation.

Mike smiled.  In spite of all the challenging times they had all been through, he wouldn’t trade this moment for anything.  Here they were in a house he had dreamed would be everything he had ever wanted.  With Tony’s help, that reality was nearing completion.  And the girls were with him, another piece of life’s puzzle that he couldn’t have predicted a year ago.

Situated on a half-acre spit of forested land jutting slightly into the cold Pacific surf, Mike almost felt at home here already.  In the coming months, the interior rooms would be completed, and nearly all of the furniture and decor needed to outfit the place were ordered or already in storage at the Eastside Storage units in Portland.  Tanya’s skills at interior decorating had given the 3000 square-foot home just the right balance of rugged elegance and feminine detail, perfect for two soon-to-be socially-conscious teenaged girls. 

As a home office, it would be state-of-the-art, allowing him the connectivity and convenience to work exclusively from the first floor study overlooking the bay.  Business travel that had once occupied nearly three or four days a week would be limited to one 3-day trip to San Francisco and San Diego every month, one-on-one coaching meetings with the top executives of four major corporations, clients he had painstakingly nurtured and developed over the past decade.  The rest of his time would be spent managing and mentoring junior consultants who would shoulder the burden of long-term gigs with up-and-coming corporate clients in ten western states.  That he could virtually manage a team of clients and consultants from home was a luxury that Mike knew reflected strongly on his firm’s confidence in his abilities and work ethic.  He had expressed his profound gratitude and humbled loyalty to the firm’s partners at an in-person meeting last week.  They were taking a considerable risk, and he understood that.  He had assured them they wouldn’t be let down.

More valued than the exquisite home and the near-perfect professional arrangement, however, was the fact that the custody turmoil and adjustment issues with Megan and Samantha were nearly behind him.  The process had been tumultuous for all of them.  All had been emotionally scarred, but they were surviving and more fully than had been hoped.  Mike knew the trauma would require extensive recovery long into the future, but the infrastructure to a renewed healthy life for the girls had been carefully laid.  And his own personal journey was also taking shape, something implicitly tied to the girls’ futures, and yet, independent and vitally important individually as well.

The buzz of his vibrating smartphone snapped Mike back from his thoughts.  Leaning to his right to pick up the device from the floor, the flashing “34” next to his “Inbox” icon on the touch screen caught his attention.  He had successfully emptied the inbox early that afternoon.  Silently groaning at the growing number of messages that seemed to provide a never-ending influx of professional issues to be addressed, Mike clicked open the first message. 

A senior vice president of marketing at a California-based software development company, reacting to the company’s stock downturn, had threatened to withhold his sales staff’s vacation if numbers didn’t turn around by the following month.  The company’s CEO, one of Mike’s executive coaching clients, was asking for permission to reprimand the vice president who had clearly overstepped his bounds. 

In comparison to their normal interactions, this one would be easy.  And it could wait until later, Mike decided, shutting the phone shut and turning back toward his youngest daughter.

“Alright, Meg, it’s just about bedtime,” he announced, “If you want to read before lights out, jammies have to be on and teeth brushed in five minutes, no more.”

Without responding, Megan oozed off the window seat, her knees making a dull thud as they collided with the unfinished plywood floor.  Her eyes remained glued on the crashing waves outside and the flashes of lightening that illuminated the night sky.  Slowly she peeled her torso from the hard bench where someday a comfortable cushion would provide a more relaxing vista.  Between the loud peals of thunder that echoed throughout the bare house, Mike could hear each knee and palm hit the floor as Megan began slowly crawling toward the doorway leading to the hallway.  Beyond that, thirty paces separated the living room from a separate hallway with three large bedrooms.  Megan’s room was the furthest.

“At that rate, someone’s going to miss out on reading tonight,” Mike prodded.  His patience was being tested.  “Let’s move it, Meg.”

“Alriiiighty then,” Megan drawled, “I’m going.  I’m going.”  She craned her neck toward the still unmoving figure of her sister against the back wall.  “You’d better move it, too, Sam, or no reading for you.”

“Whatever, Meg,” responded the sedentary lump across the room.

Meg giggled, leapt to her feet and bounded out of the room, smacking the doorframe with her hands as she passed it. 

Mike didn’t respond to the provocation from either girl.  In the past he would have snapped and lectured both of them on respect, tone of voice, and responsibility for oneself, not others.  But time had tempered his responses to such exchanges.  Besides, he thought, Sam knows her bedtime and if she misses out on reading, she’s the only one disappointed.

As if reading his mind, Samantha rolled off the mattress and stood up, reached her arms straight out, interlaced her fingers and stretched.  A staccato of cracking knuckles punctuated the most activity she had undertaken all evening. 

Mike cringed at the sound of popping knuckles, but again, said nothing.  A habitual ‘joint cracker’ himself, Tanya never failed to point on his hypocrisy when he chided the girls for the same thing.  Her admonitions were having the desired effect, he realized.  He smiled at this revelation.

“Thank you, pumpkin.” Mike’s voice followed Samantha down the hall, as she disappeared from view. Several seconds later, he heard the bathroom door shut at the far end of the hallway.  It was one of only three installed doors in the house, the others being the front door and sliding door leading to the wrap-around wooden deck.  It seemed appropriate to him that the bathroom door was a priority over all others at this point.  Besides, the remaining doors would all be delivered and mounted within the coming week.  Until then, all three of them would get by without.

Mike pushed himself out of the chaise lounge that represented the most extravagant piece of furniture in the house and shuffled to the sliding glass door.  Satisfied that it was locked, he turned to his left and walked to the plate-glass window. 

From the outside of the house, it surely seemed a lonesome sight.  With minimal light and obviously no interior furnishings, a man stood in the window and stared out into the driving rain and gusting wind at a mud covered lawn.  Yet the dreariness of the scene belied the sense of beginning that Mike felt, a relational fog evaporating to reveal hidden vistas.

Hearing the light pattering of children’s’ feet behind him, Mike said softly, “I looks like the storm’s almost over.” 

Turning to the two pre-teens in flannel pajamas, Samantha’s with skulls and cross-bones covering it and Megan’s teaming with cartoon pandas munching on bamboo, Mike scooped them up in one motion.  Both were small for their ages, but even so, Mike was keenly aware that it wouldn’t be long before he would no longer be able to carry both at once.  Nor would they likely permit themselves to be carried much longer, particularly Sam.  These days were coming to an end.  But until the day that the girls no longer put up with his playfulness, Mike would continue this tradition.

With both girls wriggling and giggling in response to his tickling fingers, Mike roared in monstrous fashion and tromped down the hallway toward the bedrooms.  One by one, he laid them down on the mattresses in Megan’s future bedroom.  The girls had chosen to room together until the house was finished, or at least until school started again in the fall.

“Okay, you can each read for ten minutes, but then the lights have to go out.”

“How about letting us read for fifteen minutes tonight, Dad?” A voracious reader and constant schemer, Sam was always trying to extend their bedtime routine.

“How about just going to sleep now?” he replied. 

“Ten minutes is good,” both girls exclaimed, in unison.  Most nights ended precisely this way for them.

Kissing each girl and hugging them tightly, Mike turned to leave, pausing at the doorway.  “Sam, I expect you to make sure that the lights go out in ten minutes.  I’ll be peeking in at some point to make sure they are turned off.  Dealio?”

“Dealio,” Sam replied, only half-heartedly, as her real attention had already turned to her latest book, an adventure about vampires and other ghoulish creatures that he could never quite remember.

His own attention had drifted, too, as he pivoted and made his way back into the living room.  The mattress on which Sam had sulked earlier was his bed for the night.  The living room was closer to the girls than his bedroom, and until the furniture arrived, the mattress provided more comfort than the unfinished living room floor during the day. 

Mike rubbed his exhausted eyes, burning from exhaustion and strain.  The desire to collapse onto the mattress was growing with each passing second, and yet he shook his head.  The emails from work wouldn’t go away by themselves.  So, picking up the laptop, he headed for the window seat, promising himself to work for thirty minutes before packing it in for the night. 

As the laptop hummed to life, Mike glanced out the window.  The beam from a lone ship was visible now, most likely a Coast Guard cutter as it continued is patrol through the dark, stormy waters.  Indeed, he thought, the weather was definitely easing to the west. Only occasional flashes of lightning could be seen over the water.  Tomorrow just might end up being a nicer day.  Mike hoped so.  The storm had lasted longer than forecast, and they were all ready for sunnier weather.

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In the shadowy twilight, she lay in silence, awakened by a faint rapping.  Rolling over on the discolored mattress, her soporific eyes sought out the culprit.  The colored remnants of summer’s foliage, dried and dying in the cool autumn air, tap danced wildly against the warped glass with every gust of the wind.  Soon she would need to be heading home, she knew.  Still, she didn’t move.

The lone visitor to a dwelling long bereft of any human attention, Lucy often returned to explore the hidden nooks and dusty crannies of the aging estate.  Today had been no different.  Sun-drenched adventure spawned by a nimble escape from home had soured with the near run-in with the Terrell twins, irreverent in their sophomoric humor and intolerant of all else.  Only a quick detour through the damp alley that ran from Tremont Street to O’Malley Boulevard had averted disaster.   But the chase had left her exhausted and scared.  Hidden beneath the old sycamore, she had caught her breath before tiptoeing up to her favorite haunt.

The old Reynolds estate, that once had played host to gala social parties, now stood rotting, a decrepit wooden box sandwiched between opulent brick homes and three-car garages.  Surrounded by weed-covered paths that wound through knee-high crabgrass, its once brightly colored siding had faded, along with is majesty.  Condemned by the neighborhood and city alike, the dilapidated structure seemed to sense its fate, the sagging porch expressing its ultimate dejection.

An eyesore to most, Lucy found respite in the old house, a solitary comfort and peaceful escape from the bustle of a neighborhood increasingly impersonal and cruel.  Not that Lucy opposed the steady march of progress.  She didn’t.  Her preference, rather, lay with simpler pleasures, lazy strolls through the pastoral meadows and the freedom of unrestrained adventure.

Rising to her feet, Lucy yawned and stretched.  She shivered as the chilled tendrils of the seasonal  wind snuck through the old window and between the ramshackle boards of the door.  Only the spot on which she had laid was still warm, and she knew she couldn’t stay long.   She would be expected at home. 

Balancing on the edge of the bed, she carefully stepped down amid the remnants of window panes long ago shattered by thrown rocks of delinquents.  She knew right where to step, a visible path of petite footsteps imprinted on the dust-covered floor.  It was a trail she had used many times, a frequent sojourn across faded parquet floors that had once ornately decorated the parlor.  Now only dust bunnies waltzed to the whistling wind that wound through the empty corridor.

A dank, mildewy odor emanated from a soggy sofa, the only furniture that remained in a once-grand living room.  Following the hall past a door that hung awkwardly from one twisted hinge, Lucy cautiously crept into the kitchen.  The refrigerator was empty, she knew, having explored its innards on her first visit to the old house.  Nor did she pause as she passed the upturned pot that lay in the center of the tiled floor.  A warped and blackened cast iron reminder of past culinary concoctions, it too had outlasted its owners.  Its only service now as a reminder that dinner would be waiting at home.  Hunger drove her thoughts now. 

Dark clouds were gathering overhead, obscuring a waxing sliver of pale moon in the evening sky as Lucy squeezed through the small opening where vandals had once tried to break into the house.  She could smell the brewing storm and quickened her pace.  At the corner to the alley, she hesitated, memories of the delinquent youth vivid in her mind.  All was clear, though, and she quickly sped along the cracked cement, leaping stagnant puddles of water that gathered at the base of drainpipes.  Soon the rainwater would run steady from the rooftops, and she was determined not to be caught in the storm.

With hardly a glance in either direction as she exited the alley, and with a burst of speed between two parked cars, Lucy sprinted across the last stretch of asphalt.  Easing to a walk on the leaf-covered lawn, she heard the slam of the porch screen door.  Crouching down, she glanced toward the kitchen window, wondering if her afternoon absence had been noticed at all.  She crept forward slowly, confident in the concealment provided by the darkness.  As she neared the back porch, she froze.  There in the doorway stood a large woman, silhouetted against the light from the kitchen.  In one hand she held a meat cleaver and in the other a small bowl.  Squinting into the darkness, the woman reached to the side of the door and instantly the backyard was flooded in light.  Lucy flattened out along the ground, but it was no use.  The old woman had seen her.

“There you are, Lucy.  Back from your adventures just in time for supper, huh?” said the old woman, smiling toward her prone figure.  Swinging open the screen door, she set the bowl on the edge of the porch. “Well, come on.  It’s your favorite…tuna.”  Lucy purred in appreciation.

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The Willow

Swaying greenish hues of new growth accentuated the chalky blue sky beyond the tallest reaches of the old willow.  Or so Megan imagined.  From her vantage point, she was aware of only the chilling spring breeze that snaked between the drooping, long-leafed branches, tickling her exposed, pale neck.  Lying amidst the twisted roots that extend from the thick and deeply scarred trunk, her head lay hidden beneath a patterned polyester scarf of navy and jade diamonds, twisted into a macabre pattern across her face.  The rhythmic pulsing of the cloth where it obscured her mouth marked her shallow breathing, and a barely perceptible pulse fluttered inches from her exposed clavicle, disappearing beneath the slender curve of her jaw.

A meditative mood gripped Megan, brought about by thoughts of an imperfect life tangled in a pirouette of loss and recovery.  Her stubborn survival reflected in the nearby water, a warm pocket of comfortable numbness.  And yet this was not a senseless contemplation, a shield of defensive passivity, but rather a deliberate, spiritual acceptance of the ebb and flow of emotional tides that had long defined her existence.

Months had passed since her last visit to the old willow.  The long winter months had never before kept her away, she reflected, content to attribute her absence more to the long and frigid seasons than to anything more innately personal.  In reality, the past six months had marked a turning point in Megan’s adult life, a turbulent period of intensely passionate and hauntingly abusive realizations.  Her return to the banks of the slow river and to the gnarled and protective limbs of the aging tree signaled the end of a search for unanswered questions of her past.

A slender finger hooked the ragged and worn edge of the scarf, pulling the humidity dampened cloth from her mouth.  The raspberry tip of her tongue flicked across the edge of her small mouth, retracting slightly from the faint saltiness of perspiration trapped among the invisible hairs of her upper lip.  The corners of her mouth turned up slightly as she inhaled the cooler, dry air and exhaled humid warmth through her nose.  She had missed the subtle aroma of springtime, the earthy mixture of dew and thawed decay that signaled new beginnings.

Reaching up with blind fingers, Megan felt for the damp, waxy leaves that cascaded from the overhead branches almost to the shaded, naked ground.  Weaving her fingers through the long, slender tendrils for which lazy willows are known, she remembered a distant time when as a young girl, she had sought refuge under this very tree for hours.  Her father frequently joined her in its shadow, his hands stroking her waist-length, flaxen hair as together they absorbed the whispers of the wind through the young branches,  a sound that always reminded her of fingers across silken dresses.  The memories of the bond forged between father and daughter, precious and fleeting, had been dormant far too long, she realized, the smile on her taut lips obscuring the teardrop that threatened to overflow  her dark eyes.

The single, resounding bark of a distant dog interrupted her reflective moment.  An instant surge of startled adrenalin coursed through her young body, a dreadful emptiness, rooted deep in her core and emanating in nauseous waves through each extremity.  Its gnawing sensation transported her to her mother’s farewell confession, a dying plea for forgiveness that had served to simultaneously wound and heal Megan’s teenage soul.

A single father wracked with guilt and insecurities brought about by the failure of an immature marriage, Megan knew he had tried his best to be a supportive father.  His handicap, however, was the stereotyped boundaries of emotional rigidity.  She had long understood his struggles as a divorced dad, silenced from full participation in their lives by the decisions of an unhappy and recklessly flawed mother.  But it was the quenched flame of her mother’s influence, Megan knew, that had forced an inexperienced and uncertain father into the role of sole provider and ill-equipped comforter to a troubled and rebellious teen daughter.

Despite this, he had been there for her through it all, holding her and drying the tear soaked cheeks in the months that followed her mother’s death, patiently encouraging her as she navigated the treacherous waters of adolescence.  And when she had fled his arms in search of her own life adventure, he had bravely smiled and backed into his own solitary world once again, content to provide distant comfort across the phone lines, a bystander and silent partner.

In her father’s later years, Megan knew, the willow had become his private sanctuary, shaded from the prying eyes of outsiders and from which he could escape the pressures and judgments of others, as well as those he tragically held for himself.   On her monthly visits Megan would often find him under its outstretched arms, surrounded by his watercolors and rickety easel, painting away the tears and heartache borne out of the ominous, grayish-green storm clouds that stained his soul.  She looked forward to her own silent retreats to the lone guardian of the river, to reflect and restore the confidence that too quickly evaporated with her return to the bustle of city life.  In a strange way, this unusually common tree provided a healing force from which Megan found repeated inspiration in the darkest moments of her life.

And then suddenly, her father was gone.  Megan learned of the cancer only after his death, assuming instead that he had succumbed to the same despair that had claimed her mother.  The revelation not only served to ease her sorrow, but to elevate her respect for the stoic manner in which her father had lived his life, content to hide his own suffering from the others to minimize theirs.  Only in his death did Megan understand how strong his influence on her life had been, and how much she would miss his quiet, loving talks and knowing guidance, rarely spontaneously offered, but available when requested.  Although her selfish wounds had healed in time, the decision to once again visit the willow had taken longer to reconcile.  His final wish, expressed in a shaky, handwritten note was found next to his bedside.  When she had first read the slightly crumpled note, she had cried, not tears of sadness but in response to the reflected sentiment and deliberately vague description of his desire, instructions only she could comprehend.  Tears running down her face, she had resolved to honor him his request.

And so Megan returned, parking beyond the bridge and carefully making her way along the meandering river and around the final hillside, spotting the willow that seemed even taller and more majestic than she had remembered.  It was almost as though the tree’s timeless beauty had grown statelier since her father’s passing. Within its inner sanctum, she reclined and covered her face, content to relive snippets of the experiences they had shared there, father and daughter.

Megan rolled over and slowly pushed herself to her hands and knees, pulled the scarf from her face and rocked back into a crouch.  The breeze hit her overheated skin, strands of hair stuck haphazardly to the thinly beaded sweat on her forehead, and she shivered.  She had always felt protected within the interior branches of the tree, obscured from the outside world in a tent of green leaves and yellowing, flowing branches.  Reaching out she parted the swaying foliage, her face barely visible to the outside world, the way a shy toddler hides behind a parent’s legs, timidly curious about those she may encounter.  High atop the hill stood the old farmhouse, silhouetted against the cloudless sky.  For Megan, the clouded memories of a tragic childhood made her turn away, her brow furrowed like the plowed fields before her.  The willow itself had grown up at the edge of the farm, casting a long shadow across the banks of the shallow river, its normally clear water muddied by the seasonal thaw.  Only its proximity to the river had kept it from being plowed under like the others, the steady expansion of tillable dirt on which corn rows would soon appear in their annual thrust toward the heavens.

From nature’s hiding place, Megan doubted the current owners would mind her trespass.  After all, she had offered them a bargain for the small farm, although at the time it had seemed a fair price, a mere transaction in her mind of memories for money.  At first, Megan had missed the farm, with its rolling, golden brown prairies and supple pine forests. Its haunting memories accompanied her always, her constant and at times unwilling companion in the city.  Yet, she longed for solace amongst the branches of the towering willow, its leafy arms that had soaked up her tears and patiently born her mournful cries.    The words of her father echoed in her thoughts, “The tree is our refuge and our salvation.  It breathes life into us and takes little more than our sorrows in return.”

Reaching out, Megan hoisted the small backpack onto her lap, careful to avoid jostling its contents.  She paused and pulled open the zipper of the main compartment, exhaling and pausing momentarily as the indigo fabric gave way to the blackened interior.  A cold sensation swept over her, causing her to tremble and hunch her shoulders in uncertainty.  With shaking hands, she withdrew a hand-crafted, dark grained wooden box.  Crawling to the edge of the river, still under the overhanging willow fronds, she gently unclasped the top.  With her left hand, she grasped a hold of an outstretched root of the big tree, seeking reassurance and comfort from her old friend.  Holding her breath in anticipation, she squeezed her eyes shut, as if in a last attempt to hold onto the past.  Then, with three deliberate shakes of her wrist, she emptied the contents of the urn.  Opening her eyes, now wet with tears of relief and sadness, Megan watched the ashes disperse into the wind beyond the swaying branches, some alighting on the current of the river, the ash quickly transforming from a light grey to a muddy brown as it mixed with the spring thaw.

“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered in a barely audible voice as a gust of wind swept around her body, its fingers lifting her hair in a joyous dance.  Closing her shining eyes once more, she felt the strength of her father’s embrace in the gently swirling wind.  Climbing to her feet, her peaceful face bathed in the warmth of the setting sun, the last rays of an ideal spring afternoon.  She smiled and ducking her head slightly, pushed aside the willow’s leaves, as an actor parts a stage curtain, appearing before the audience to announce the coming performance.  The willow branches closed behind her as she stepped forward, content to leave her past amongst its whispered leaves.

The reason for her visit complete, Megan slowly made her way back toward the parked car, pausing once to look back at the deeply bending tree, its leaves turning faintly orange in the light of the setting sun.  Pressing her lips together and tilting her head back, she gazed at the wispy cirrus clouds overhead.  Placing a hand on her swelling belly, she felt the swimming push of her unborn child, an elbow or knee as it flipped within her, a reminder that the torch of nurturer and comforter would soon be passed.  It would be her role to embrace, much as her father had for her.  Warmth enveloped her, a feeling of fatherly contentment and confidence that marked the beginning, not the end.

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