Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Six

Chapter Six: Russ Jacobs

It never fails.  The drive from New York City to Cleveland should take about nine hours at most, not counting breaks.  Russ doesn’t usually have a load to drop off in Cleveland, but with traffic delays that inevitably happen, he’s forced to stop for the night somewhere near the Midwest city.  While his weekly schedule varies a day or two, Russ tries to spend his weekends back home in the Big Apple.  He leaves New York first thing Monday mornings.  

With no need to stop off at Cleveland, he’s on the Ohio Turnpike, bypassing the traffic around the city.  He’s just passed several miles south of Cleveland now and is heading toward his destination for most major deliveries coming from New York: Chicago.  But he knows he’s got to stop soon.  As he approaches the rest area at mile marker 139, he remembers his encounter with Shelley from a few weeks earlier.

“What the hell,” he mutters.  “Might as well stop off here for the night.  They’ve got decent enough facilities.”

Russ makes a face, tired of his own stink.  A hot shower and some time to stretch his legs in the truckers’ lounge would be just the thing, so he pulls off the turnpike and parks his truck behind the rest stop facility.  It’s another unseasonably mild night for December as Russ steps out of his truck.  The snow from a few days ago has melted.  As he walks to the building, he half-expects to see Shelley.

Shaking his head, he thinks, Don’t be ridiculous.  Why would she be here?

Fifteen minutes later, Russ enters to the longue and drops into one of the comfy chairs.  That shower was great.  If he’s not careful, he just might fall asleep in that chair.  Instead, his stomach growls, so he leaves the lounge after a short while to grab something to eat.  He passes the janitor, an older man with a gut, as he mops the dining area.  Most of the chairs are up and a wet floor sign warns him to be careful.

Russ orders a burger and sits down at one of the tables with chairs on the floor.  Even though it’s the middle of the night, people still wander in and out.  While Russ chews his burger, his phone vibrates in his pocket.  He reaches for it and pulls it out.

“Hey bro, what’s up?”

It’s Brandy.

“Just stopped off for the night, sis.  Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

After he hits “send,” Russ sets the phone down and is about to take another bite when the phone starts to vibrate.  Damn it.  She’s calling.

“Bran, it’s almost three in the morning.”

“Oh, come on, Russ.  You know a mother never sleeps.”

“Jack’s still waking up a lot?”  

“He’s only two months old.  Maybe if you become a daddy one day, you’ll know what it’s like.  You could, you know, babysit–”

Russ chuckles.  “Not on your life, Bran.”

“What are you saying ‘no’ to?  Being a dad or watching my kids?”  Brandy’s accent grows thicker when she gets worked up.

Russ nearly laughs again.  “Both.  So, okay, what’s up?”

“You’ve got that big birthday coming up.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me.”  Russ groans and rubs at his face with his free head, the exhaustion from the day hitting him.

“Okay, I’ll lay off, but you are gonna be home for Christmas, right?”

“That’s the plan.  I don’t need my head on that Christmas platter with all of Mom’s cookies for not bein’ home in time.  Don’t worry, sis.  I’ll be there.”

“Great.  But hey, about that party–”

“Bran, enough.”  Russ stops talking as he spots her outside the building, walking across the sideway toward the picnic tables.  “Hey, I’ve gotta go.  Sorry.”

“All right.  Talk to ya later.”

“Yeah, bye.”

Russ ends the call and wraps the last bit of burger up, stuffing it in his coat pocket.  He stands and tries not to jog out the doors in his haste to find her.  When he catches up with her, he realizes how silly he must look running around out here at an hour like this.  Shelley has stopped walking and is seated at one of the picnic tables.

“Hey,” Russ says.

She startles and seems about to stand, but Russ raises his hands in surrender.  “It’s me, remember?  Russ, the trucker from a few weeks ago?”

Shelley releases a long breath through her nostrils.

As Russ joins her, he keeps some distance between them and remains standing.  “You sound like you’re either coming down with something or getting over something.”

“What?”

“Your breathing.  Are you stuffed up?”

“I’m fine.”

“What are you doin’ out here, then?”  Russ takes a step closer, hoping he doesn’t scare her away.  She shouldn’t be afraid of him, but as he watches her, he can’t help but wonder if she really is crazy.

“I, um, well… What are you doing back here?”

Russ laughs.  “I’m a trucker.  I drive pretty much the same route from New York to Dallas and back every week.  I pass through here a lot.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to stop at this rest area.”

Russ half-smiles.  “Okay, guilty as charged.  Maybe a part of me wondered if I’d see you again.  Something about you from last time — the way you were out there in that blizzard around the same time as right now, lookin’ for all the world like you were lost — I dunno.”

“Why would you come here to see if I was here?”  Shelley’s voice is guarded.  She’s got those weird sunglasses on again, and she’s picking at a hole in the thigh of her jeans.

“Can you at least go inside?  It’s damn chilly out here.”

“Well…okay.”

Russ moves to the side to let Shelley pass, but she halts and turns, lowering her glasses to survey him.

“Are you coming?”

“What?  Yeah, of course.  I just–”  I didn’t wanna walk too close.  Russ begins to follow, but Shelley keeps her pace slow until he’s next to her, albeit with several feet between them.  I guess she thinks I might try something if she can’t see me.  “It seemed rude to walk ahead of you,” he settles on.

Shelley shrugs.  Once they arrive inside, Shelley removes the sunglasses and stows them in her coat pocket.  

“Did you, uh, want something to eat or drink?” Russ offers.

“No, but thanks.”

“You sure?  I mean, not to assume anything, but you–”

“You must think I’m homeless.”

Russ’s face heats as he grimaces.  “Sorry, but yeah.  Why else would you be outside?  I thought you might live here or somethin’.”

Shelley walks toward the dining area.  While passing the janitor, the old guy stops in his tracks and stares at her with wide eyes.

“Hey, you finally came inside,” the janitor says, smiling slightly.

“Yeah,” Shelley says quietly, avoiding his gaze.

Russ raises his eyebrows, his eyes snapping from Shelley to the janitor.  “You two know each other?”

“Wouldn’t exactly say that,” the old man says in a scratchy voice, “but this young lady and I share a cigarette or two together sometimes.  Told her to come inside several nights ago.”

“So you’re here every night?” Russ asks Shelley.

Shelley is glaring at the janitor.  “Let’s not talk about that, okay?”

The janitor shakes his head and chuckles.  “Better luck to you with her,” he says to Russ and shuffles off, the wheels on his mop bucket squeaking.

Russ watches him go and then asks, “Can I at least get you a cup of coffee?”

“If you insist.”

“I do, actually.”  As Russ and Shelley approach the coffee place, he wonders why she’s so cold, and he isn’t thinking about the freezing temperature outside that must chill her to the bone.

After she orders a cup of regular coffee, they find seats.  Russ pulls the rest of his burger out of his pocket and says, “Hope you don’t mind.”

Shelley shrugs.

For a few minutes, they eat and drink in silence.  Every so often, Russ glances at her, but her eyes are on the table top.  

“My full name is Russell Daniel Jacobs, and I’m about to turn forty in a couple of weeks.  I ain’t lookin’ forward to it.  Now, Shelley, tell me something about yourself.”

“What?”  Shelley sets the cup down with such force that it nearly spills.

“I told you a bit about me.  Now it’s your turn.  It’s called gettin’ to know each other.”

“Is this what this is?”

“Do you have an objection?  Do I have a third eye growing outta my head I don’t know about?  C’mon.  I ain’t promising I’ll be back here anytime soon…if ever again.”

Shelley creases her forehead.  “It’s just been a long time since I have a conversation like this or any reason to have one, I guess.  Okay, my name is Michelle Parkinson, but no one calls me Michelle, at least when I had people to call me something.”

A dozen questions whirl through Russ’s head like the snow that’s starting to swirl outside.  He stares out the window at their reflections mirrored back against the darkness.  Shelley is back to looking at the table like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.  He knows if he pushes her too much, she will close up.

For now, it’s enough to know her real name.  Russ finishes the burger.  If he knew it wouldn’t scare her away, he’d place his large, warm hand over that boney, pale hand that rests on the table next to the coffee cup.  

Despite what he said, Russ knows he’ll be coming back here.

 

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Five

Chapter Five: Sarah Wilcox

A jazzy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” plays in the background.  Most people are oblivious to the music, but as Sarah spins out another order on the cappuccino machine, she sings softly and rocks her hips.  Caught up in the love of Christmastime, she whips up peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes by the dozen.

“Here you go,” she says with a wide grin as she sets another order on the counter for pickup.

The middle-aged couple returns the smile.  

“Thank you,” the woman says, slipping a dollar into the tip jar.

“Merry Christmas,” Sarah replies as they walk away.

She glances at the full tip jar.  Normally, at the end of each shift, the workers divide the money evenly, but during the holiday season, they’ve been collecting the money to go toward buying gifts for underprivileged kids.

“We’ve made quite the dough today,” remarks Benny, a handsome African American man who’s been working beside Sarah that morning.

Sarah smiles at him.  “That’s part of what I love about this time of year.  It brings out the best in people.”  

While they talk, their hands are busy making drinks.  Benny winks at Sarah, and she feels the blush on her face.  She’s been working beside him more than just this morning.  In fact, they’ve been spending hours working together, and Sarah wonders if he’s into her like she is into him.  He can’t be much older than her, and he’s tall and lean, not overly-muscular.  Maybe he played basketball in high school or college.

“What are your plans for the holidays?” Benny asks over the rush of noise.

“Gotta work till noon, but then my family’s spending the afternoon and evening with my aunt and uncle and their kids and grandkids.  The grandkids are young, so it’s that fun age of watching them open gifts, still believing in Santa and all that.  There will be tons of family there–even more than I can remember.  How about you?”

“Would you believe they gave me off work like I requested?  My last day before we leave for Florida is the 24th, and then I won’t be back until after New Year’s.  My family’s all down there.”

“You’ll be having more days off if you aren’t careful, Benjamin,” the assistant manager, Tina Ross, barks.  “Now, pay attention and get back to work, both of you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Benny says.  When Tina turns her back, he mock-salutes her.

Sarah and he are reduced to a fit of giggles.  

“Careful,” Sarah says lowly, “if you aren’t careful–”

Benny snickers.

Hours later, Sarah finishes her shift and steps outside to gently falling snow.  She walks slowly to her car, savoring the peace that the snow brings.  Despite the revving of semi-truck engines getting on and off the turnpike, Sarah finds a certain stillness as she gets into her car.  She sits in silence for a minute before turning it on, then turns the radio dial until she finds a station playing Christmas music.  The song ends within seconds, and the radio announcer starts up.

“And we’re still going strong on our drive to touch the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, who don’t have the money to have a Christmas dinner and a few gifts around the tree.  It’s true that our families and friends are greater than what money can buy, as is the birth of Jesus Christ.  That’s why in the spirit of giving and love, we are asking those who are able to call in and make a pledge.  We’ve already reached–”

Sarah turns off the radio as her eyes fall on the woman who sits at the picnic table every day.  Before she can let fear change her mind, she goes back inside the rest area and orders a cup of coffee.  Nothing fancy, just something warm.

“You know you don’t have to pay,” Janice says as she rings Sarah up.

“I know.”  Sarah shrugs with a soft, sad smile on her face.

“Hmm.”  Janice hands Sarah the coffee.  “See you tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”  

Sarah holds the cup carefully between her hands, like she’s cradling a precious treasure.  She stops at the stand where the cream and sugar are and grabs a few, stuffing them in her coat pockets.  She heads back outside into the snow, which is still falling gracefully.  With every step in the direction of the strange lady, Sarah’s heart thuds in her chest and up through her head.  She eventually reaches the woman, who is staring in the direction of the woods.  Standing a few feet away, Sarah hesitates with what to say.  She closes the distance between them and gingerly sets the coffee on the table, adding too many creams and sugars next to it with shaky fingers.

The woman turns — a sudden, jerky movement that takes Sarah by surprise.  She’s wearing sunglasses.  Sarah half-smiles.

“I just, uh, wanted to give you this.  It’s cold outside and all, so I thought you might want something to keep your warm.  If you don’t like coffee, I can get you tea or hot chocolate.  I work at the coffee place right inside.”  

Sarah stops babbling as the woman picks up the cup and takes a sip.  “Coffee’s fine.  Thank you.”

Sarah’s face eases into a full smile.  “You’re welcome.”

The woman doesn’t say anything else, but as she takes another sip of the coffee, Sarah is certain she hears a contented sigh.  Before the happy moment falls into awkwardness, Sarah says a quiet goodbye and leaves, smiling to herself all the way to the car and all the way on the drive home.

“What are you smiling for?” Sarah’s mom asks when she enters the kitchen.

“Just, you know, Christmas and the season of giving and all that, Mom.”  Sarah kisses her mom’s cheek, asking, “What can I do to help?”

 

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Four

Previous chapters: one,  two, and three.

Chapter Four: Mike Popkins

He’s out of breath.  Mike rests his hands on his thighs as he leans forward a bit, trying to calm his heart and get some oxygen.  He glares at the treadmill next to him.  Ten minutes.  Ten lousy minutes and the thing whooped his backside.  Barb used to walk on the damn thing at least thirty minutes every morning, even before breakfast or a cup of coffee.  And look where that got her.  For all her commitment to regular exercise and eating healthy, she’d died of an unexpected heart attack.

When Mike finally catches his breath, he heads into the kitchen and grabs a beer and a bag of chips.  Right to his favorite, well-worn recliner it is.  He plops down with a grunt and flicks on the TV, mindlessly clicking through the channels.  There’s nothing but talk shows, infomercials, news, and soap operas on in the mid-afternoon.  

“I pay how much every month for how many channels, and there’s nothing good on?” Mike mutters to himself.

He sighs and opens the beer, taking a long drag.  The potato chips are calling him, so he spends the next fifteen minutes eating through half of the bag and finishing his beer while a lady on TV goes on about buying “the special woman in your life a dazzling gold charm bracelet.”  And “If you order in now, there’s guaranteed delivery just in time for Christmas.”

The ringing of the phone shakes Mike out of his dream.  He was just about to kiss Barb and give her one of those silly bracelets.  Not realizing he’d fallen asleep, he momentarily panics as he reaches in his pocket for his phone.  It’s already 7:30, but there’s still time before he needs to leave for work.  Seeing his daughter-in-law’s name on the screen, he sighs.  Let it go to voicemail or pick up?

“Hi, Annie.”

“Hi, Mike.”  Annie sounds cheerful, like always, but Mike isn’t fooled.  She wears her smiles like they’re painted on and is that forced kind of happy you find in Disney World workers.  “I was hoping I’d reach you.”

“Well, you have.  What’s going on?”  Mike asks the question, even though he knows the answer.  Annie tries too hard to play the peacemaker between his son and him.

“Well, we missed you at Thanksgiving.  We were hoping to see you for Christmas.  The boys would love to see you.”

Mike’s heart clenches.  “By ‘boys,’ I’m sure you mean my grandkids, not my son.”

“Come on, Mike.  We’ve got an extra bed.”

He knows it’s petty, but Mike wants to know why his son’s family doesn’t come visit him.  He’s the old man.  The kids aren’t that little anymore.

“I’ll think about it.  Might be hard to get the time off work.  Lots of people traveling, you know.  Gotta keep the rest stop clean.”  Yeah, lots of people traveling but you, Mike, he thinks sourly.  Still, his pride won’t step aside long enough for him to give his poor daughter-in-law a straight answer.

“All right.  Just give me a call, all right?”

“Sure thing, Annie.  Thanks.”

“Bye.”

The line goes dead.  Bless Annie.  She was the one who’d really invited him for Thanksgiving, not Calvin.  Ever since Barb died, Mike and Calvin have been at odds.  They couldn’t be the same room without someone starting an argument.  Mike knew what Calvin thought of him — that he was lazy, that he hadn’t honored his mom’s wishes that he take care of himself, that he wouldn’t make the effort to keep the family together without her.

What did Calvin know?  

“Your mother was the picture of perfect health, young man, and she’s gone now.  Ain’t nothing gonna change that.  Not I’ve gotta figure out how to do things on my own.”

Mike knew grief.  Hell, Barb and he had known it together for years.  He often wished he would have had a daughter.  Maybe she would’ve understood what his stubborn son didn’t.  Annie didn’t need the burden of trying to fix a broken family.  But Mike and Barb were lucky to have the one child they did.  Years of miscarriages or not conceiving at all nearly drove them apart, but then Barb became pregnant with Calvin.

Mike shakes his head, trying to push the thoughts of the past away.  He stands, leaving crumbs on the chair and the empty beer can and half-empty chip bag on the tray next to the chair.  After a quick shower, he puts on his uniform of a light blue shirt and black pants that are getting too tight.

As Mike gets in his car, he marvels at how mild it’s been so far for December.  Besides that snowstorm right before Thanksgiving, the white stuff hasn’t been back.  On the drive to work, he knows he’d be smart to wrestle it out with that damn treadmill again come tomorrow.  

When he arrives, he is greeted by several people who work in the restaurants and by Gloria, who’s working in the gift shop.  Mike nods and waves to them.  They’re nice enough people, but he’s not much of a talker.  He sidles up to the burger joint and orders some food.  There’s still a half-hour until his shift starts.

“The usual?” asks Wayne from behind the counter.

“Yep, two doubles, a large fry, and a Coke, Wayne, young man.”

Wayne smiles.  “One of these days, it should be on the house, Mike.”

Mike waves him off and forks over the cash.  He doesn’t carry credit cards, much to the younger generations’ shock.  He adds the change to his other pocket.  It’ll go in the change jar that sits on the kitchen counter when he gets home, a leftover from when Barb was alive.  “Fun money,” as she liked to call it.  

Ten minutes later, Mike is done with his dinner.  He can hear Calvin’s whiney voice saying, “Dad, this is exactly the sort of thing Mom would’ve hated.  What, you couldn’t take a few minutes to cook yourself dinner at home?”

But cooking for one lonely old man isn’t practical, and Mike doesn’t cook.  He eyes the clock.  Still fifteen minutes.  Clocking in early isn’t okay with the boss, so Mike steps outside to smoke.  He grumbles at himself for eating so quickly as the indigestion hits him.

Lighting up, he scans the outside in the dark.  Of course, she’s not there yet.  It’s too early.  A few minutes later, Mike puts out his cigarette and goes inside to begin his shift: 9:00 to 6:00 every day but Wednesdays and Sundays.

Several hours later, Mike takes a break and reaches for another cigarette.  This time, he sees her, sitting in her usual spot, that crazy lady.  Mike isn’t sure what propels him, but he walks over to her.

“Hey, you mind if I join you?” he asks, offering a cigarette.

“What?”  She seems snapped out of a daze.  Removing her sunglasses, her eyes settle on Mike.  Recognition stirs in them and she even smiles slightly as she takes the cigarette.  “Thanks.”

Mike sits down slowly on the seat.  “You know, you’re lucky winter hasn’t really started yet.  Are you still gonna sit out here then?”

The woman takes a couple of drags from her cigarette.  “I haven’t thought about it yet.”

“It’s warmer inside.”  Mike finishes his cigarette, stands, and crushes it in the cigarette disposal.  “Gotta get back to work, but think about what I said.  Warmer inside.”

He leaves her gaping at his back as he walks away.

 

Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain – Chapter 15

There’s little joy around here.  It’s not like the guards put up greenery along the hallways and wind garland around the bars.  There aren’t any Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling.  It’s just the same dull, dim overhead lights, the kind that make a guy look even more like death than he already does in here.  It’s a week before Christmas, give or take.

So, when I’m told I have a visitor, my heart leaps with the first joy I’ve felt in a long time.  A guard brings me into the meeting room, where I’m seated on one side of a long table with bars separating the prisoners from the visitors.  I sit and stare into Ma’s concerned hazel eyes.

“Hi, Ma,” I say, although it sounds more like a croak.

Ma’s mouth moves, but nothing comes out.  Instead, she starts sobbing.  She keeps wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief, sniffling, and shaking her head, looking for all the world like she wants to speak but can’t.  Finally, she sets the handkerchief in her lap and pulls something outta her purse.  It’s bright red.  She shoves it toward me through the bars.

“I made it for you,” she says.

Picking the item up, it’s soft.  I realize it’s a hat.  I glance toward the guard, who’s got his eyes on me, and pull the hat down over my ears, hiding my messy hair.  Heart-gutting gratitude stabs at me.  God, Ma, why’d you have to make me something?

“I don’t have anything for you, but thanks, Ma.”

She shakes her head.  “Nonsense, Harry.  Why would I expect you to have something for me?  The best gift I can ask for this Christmas is to see you.  I just w-wish–”

My eyes drop to my hands.  The hat feels warm on my head, a piece of home.  “I know, Ma.  So do I.  I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry we haven’t come sooner.  I just– I just couldn’t bear that thought of seeing you here.”

“I’m sorry.”  I don’t know what else to say.  It’s pathetic but true.  Somehow, two little words do next to nothing to explain how much I wish I could undo the past and make right.  I wanna tell Ma that she’ll one day be proud of me, that when I get outta here, I won’t let her down ever again.  But it’s a lie.  It’s not a promise I can make.

Ma starts sobbing all over again, and before I can say another wretched “I’m sorry,” the guard says our time’s up and ushers her out.  I’m about to stand and leave, because if I need to blubber like a little kid, at least let it be in my cell instead of here, but the guard tells me I have another visitor.  I plant myself back in the seat, but I’m on the edge, my legs shaking.

Pa comes in and sits.  He tries to smile, but the pained grimace doesn’t reach his dull eyes.  “Hi, son.”

“Hi, Pa.  How’re things at home?”

Pa shrugs.  “Quiet.  It’s just us, Hannah, and Irma now.”

“How’s work?”

“I manage.  Not as much business as I used to get, but I’m holding it together fine.  Hannah’s been helping out with paying the bills when her money.”

“That’s Hannah for you.  Always lookin’ out for others.”  I try to smile.

“Yeah…”

“So, uh… Any plans for Christmas?”  I wanna kick myself for speaking to my father like I’m making small talk with a stranger in a food line.

“Amy, Jack, and Jean will be there.  Don’t know about Erik and Lily yet.  We don’t really hear much from your brother anymore.”

My insides churn as my thoughts darken.  What’s Erik’s problem?  He’s got all the freedom in the world, yet he can’t pick up the phone or be bothered to visit his family?  “He’s lucky he’s not in my shoes.  You know what I’d give to be there?”

Pa sighs.  “Don’t be too hard on Erik, Harry.  We all have our own battles to fight.”

I cross my arms over my chest.  “Yeah, well…”  

“It won’t be forever, son.  I hate seeing you in here, but just give it time.”

“Time’s all I’ve got, Pa.  I’m losin’ my mind here.”

Again, Pa tries to smile.  It’s who he is, what he’s always done: give that smile to fill us with hope, to cheer us on, to make us believe in ourselves when we couldn’t on our own.

“I wish I’d have known you had that problem, Harry.”  

His words are soft, but the firm undertone is holding them up.  He won’t even acknowledge what “that problem” is in words.  Go ahead, Pa.  Say it.  Tell me I’m an alcoholic.  Instead, I nod and am man enough to look my old man in the eyes when I reply, “I know.  Truth is, Pa, I never thought it was a problem.”

“Until it was too late.”

“Yeah, until then.”  You must be ashamed of me.  That’s the real reason why you and Ma haven’t come to this hell-hole till now.  I don’t blame you, Pa.  If I were you, I’d stay away from me, too, but I’m kinda stuck with myself.

“Time’s up,” the guard says without feeling, and he waits for Pa to join him at the door to see him out.  

As Pa stands, he says, “Ma and I will be back soon, son.  I promise.”

“Yeah, see you around, Pa.”

And then he’s gone.  Just like that.  I stand and walk toward the door on my side, looking through the bars one last time, maybe expecting to see the other side without that barrier that tells me exactly where my place is.

Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain – Chapter 8

The living room is filled to the brim, so it’s with relief that I take Kat upstairs.

I hadn’t realized what I was doing until we find ourselves standing at the top of the stairs.  The short hallway with its five doors — the three bedrooms, the bathroom, and the stairway to the attic — invites us, and Kat accepts the invitation.

“Which one’s your room?”

“Second door on the left.  ‘Course, I shared it was my brother for most of my life.”

Kat doesn’t seem interested in talking, as she’s already down the hall and entering my room.  I follow her, a bit uneasy because of the crowd just down the stairs.  “Kat, what’re you doin’?”

She flops down onto my bed and laughs.  “Aw, come on, big boy.  Don’t tell me you’re choosing now to play coy?”

I close the door carefully.  “Of course not.”

She eyes up the room.  I wonder if she’s expecting to find some sort of big secret, like I keep a collection of fresh eyeballs in a glass jar or something.  There’s nothing remarkable about this room, however.  A few of my brother’s old baseball trophies linger on our dresser, and there are my basketball ones as well.  Kat sits up and approaches the trophies.  Maybe she saw the way I was scrutinizing them.

She picks up the largest — a behemoth from Erik’s senior year, recognizing his years of excellence on the field.  “Jeez, you could use this thing for weightlifting,” Kat jokes, placing it back.  She studies the trophies for a few moments and then asks, her eyes still on them, “Does it bother you?”  Her voice has turned soft, gentle, like she’s talking to a kid.

“What?” I ask, the sunlight coming through the window gleaming off the trophies, uncomfortable on my eyes.

“That all these, I mean the ones that belong to your brother, are still here.  It’s like, I dunno, it’s like he’s still hanging around here, not giving you your space.  Look, his trophies are all bigger than yours.”

I can feel my eyebrows arching inward.  “Do we hafta talk about this?  Ain’t it enough that Erik had you under his spell downstairs?  Yeah, maybe I oughta just throw the damn things out.”

I pick up the biggest trophy and open the window, making to toss it.  Kat stops me by placing her smaller hand on top of mine.  “Sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you.  I might be older than Will, but I’ve still felt like he’s the older brother.”

I return the trophy to its place, rightful or not.  Its shadow hovers over the smaller trophies, making sure they all know who’s the boss around here.  “I’m gonna ask Erik to take them with him before he leaves today.  This hasn’t been his room in years.”

Kat doesn’t reply, but instead she’s guiding me toward my bed.  I’m like a rag doll as she pins me down and claims my mouth with hers.  I don’t think as I return the kiss hungrily.  Our hands are all over each other.  We can’t seem to stop.  Breathing doesn’t seem important anymore.  All I want is her, the girl who gets me.

And she can get me all she wants.  Kat undoes her blouse, and I see them — her boobs just asking to be touched.  I push the bra away, but she’s already unfastening it.  I may have just gone to Heaven, because damn, this right here is better than any gift under the tree.  She’s unwrapping herself just for me.

As Kat runs her hands under my shirt, I begin to fumble with the buttons.  She yanks the shirt off, losing a couple of buttons in the process, and smiles deviously at me.  As she runs her hands through my hair and kisses me again, my eyes are closed.  Sure, we’ve necked before, but this…this is a whole new level.

I feel like a firecracker ready to go off, and as I tug at my fly, our little party on the bed is rudely interrupted by a knock from the door.

“Oh, crap,” I hiss as I bolt up from the bed, making to fasten my shirt.  I feel like someone simultaneously punched me in the gut and hit me over the head with a frying pan.  “Just a sec.”  I quickly glance at Kat and find her tugging on her blouse, her bra already on and closed.  She looks frazzled and equally annoyed.

“Harry, Ma’s about to serve dessert.  We wondered where you’d gone off to,” Erik’s muffled voice says behind the door.

I can’t help but smile at Kat.  Trying to contain my laughter, I say, “We’ll be down in a minute.”

There’s a pause.  If I’d heard footsteps retreating down the hall, I’d’ve thought Erik left.  Finally, he says, “What are you doing in there?”

“Can’t a guy show a girl his room?  Jeez, brother.”

“I’ll see you downstairs, Harry.”

Finally, the footsteps.  I let out a sigh of relief, and Kat begins giggling.  “Oh, you should’ve seen the look on your face,” she says.

“My face?  What about yours?”

Kat chucks my belt at me.  “You might need that.  Think they’ll notice your shirt?”

Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain – Chapter 6

We wave goodbye as we step out the door.  The beams from the headlights of the jalopy pulling into our driveway are the only light we have to see by.  The car screeches to a halt, and something bangs under the hood.  The driver’s side door opens and a man steps out, followed by the back door opening to reveal a woman.

The man holds out his hand to Hannah.  “Hello, you must be Hannah.  It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Hannah giggles softly as they shake hands.  “Hi there.  And you must be Will.”

“That’s right.  My sister has told me lots about you.”

The woman who must be Kat steps next to Will.  She hugs Hannah and whispers something in her ear.  Hannah smiles and turns her attention to Will.

My sister and her new boyfriend seem to fade away as my eyes fall on Kat.  The dark hides most of her features, but from what I can glean, she’s a looker: full lips–good for kissing–and a small nose–again, good for kissing.

“Ah, you must be Kat.”  I grin as my hands dig in my pockets to keep my excitement down.

“Well, hello there, Harry.”  Her voice is like chocolate in my mouth.  I could savor the sound of her words alone for days.  She holds out her hand.  

I take it and kiss it.  No handshake for this dame.  She giggles and takes hold of my hand, yanking me into the back seat.  Everyone’s in the car in no time, and Will takes the wheel.  Kat explains that we’re going to a party at a house that belongs to her friend who married some big wig doctor from the Cleveland Clinic.  Damn.  Millionaire’s Row.  Everyone who lives in Cleveland has driven by those small palaces on Euclid Avenue, but how many have actually gotten the chance to go inside one, and to a party nonetheless?

I half-listen as Hannah goes on about our folks and Pa’s job, but Kat doesn’t seem to care about that.  She turns to me and asks, “And what about you, big boy?  I hear you’re following in your father’s footsteps.”

“That’s right.  Even in these tough times, there’s a need for deliveries.”

Kat’s practically sitting on my lap.  Hannah focuses on Will.  I take this moment to get a better look at Kat and see that she’s got vibrant red hair.  I can’t tell the color of her eyes in the dark, but I’m banking on knowing by the end of the night.  Her heart-shaped face is decorated with a pouty smile and lots of makeup.

“So, tell me more about yourself.”  Kat wraps her arms around my neck.  She smells like vanilla and cigarettes.  An intoxicating combination.

“What d’you wanna know?”  I bring an arm around her lower back and draw her closer.

“Hmm, are you a good kisser?”

“Ah.  I’ve been told so on a few occasions.”

“Just a few?”

“Okay, more than a few.”

Kat laughs.  “So, you’re an experienced man.  Lots of heartbroken girls in the world because of you?”

“Something like that.”  I grin.  “What about you?  You a heartbreaker, Kat?”

“Why are you asking?  You worried?”

“Nah.”  I wave her off.  

Her smile widens, and she whispers in my ear, “I’m yours for the taking, baby.”  Her breath tickles my lobe, the tingle going all the way down to my groin.  

Excerpt from Arianna – Chapter 28

“Maybe we can go bug my big brother now.  He’s always good for a laugh.”

I gave his shoulder a little shove.  “You’re downright awful.”

“I’m the younger sibling.  It’s my job to instigate, no matter how old I get.”

We walked farther down the hall and stopped at the door at the end.  Marc knocked.

“Mom, I told you I’m not comin’ down,” came an irritated reply.

“It’s not Mom,” Marc said.  He flashed me a grin and then looked back at the door, his smile widening.

“Marc?”  A few seconds later, the door opened.  A man a head taller than Marc stood there, his dark blonde hair unruly.  A light brown, trim beard covered his jawline.  “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”  He smelled of beer and cigarettes.  His eyes landed on me.  “Who’s the pretty lady, little bro?”

“Her name’s Arianna.”  Marc wrapped his arm around me, almost possessively.

Justin chuckled.  “Don’t worry, Marky-Marc.  I’m not gettin’ any ideas.  All I can say is, about time.”

“You sound like Dad.”  Marc frowned.  “Speaking of stuff being ‘about time,’ what’s up with you, loser?  Got a job yet?”

“You’re hilarious,” Justin said, shoving Marc in the chest a little too hard for it to be only in jest.  “What about you?  Make it big in Hollywood yet, you pathetic dreamer?”

“I’m a stage actor, dipshit.  And hey, at least I’ve got ambitions.  More than anyone can say about you.  Who’s your latest hooker?”

Justin’s eyes darkened.  “You don’t know shit, Marc.  Donna’s the real deal.”  Then he seemed to remember I was there and frowned.  “Uh, sorry.  Hope this little douche isn’t too whiney for you.”

I glared.  “Marc’s the first good guy I’ve really been with.  I’ve been around the block enough to know about guys like you, Justin, and yeah, maybe that makes me just as dirty as you, but at least Marc had the balls to see something good in me.”  I gasped as the last of the words left my mouth and covered it with my hands.

Marc smirked.  “We’ll be seeing you, Justin.  Glad to know you’re as charming as always.”  He took my arm, and we walked down the hall to the stairs.

The slam of Justin’s door echoed down the hallway, but with the noise downstairs, it was unlikely anyone else heard it.

I leaned against the wall as we stood next to the steps.  “I can’t believe I said that.  D’you think I pissed him off?”

Marc waved me off.  “Who cares?  Maybe he needed to hear it from someone outside of the family.”  He took my hand and squeezed it.  “That was… What you said about me…”

I met his gaze and found him blushing.  “It’s true.  Your brother seems to rub you the wrong way.  I’ve never seen you so…”

“Rude?”  Marc chuckled softly.