Chapter 3 of A Laughing Matter of Pain

With the release of my newest book, A Laughing Matter of Pain, I’m going to be sharing the first four chapters with you in the month of October! Check back every Saturday for the next chapter. The book is available on Amazon here.

Chapter 3

The moment I wake up, Ma’s on my back like a heavy rock to do my chores. Erik and I pour sweat in buckets as we work in the garden. Every morning starts like this. Then Erik and I shovel vegetable soup into our mouths like we’re starving at lunch. When done, we dart outta Ma’s way before she smacks us for no manners.

“Honestly, you two,” she says, her brow stern, “act your age. Don’t forget that you have to spend the next hour either reading or sewing.”

“Since when have we ever chosen sewing, Ma?” I ask. “Even Pa thinks it’s ridiculous.”

“C’mon, Harry,” Erik whispers. “Best to just get it over with.”

We go upstairs before Ma can say another word. Erik picks up a tattered copy of Crime and Punishment and lies on his bed, immersing himself in the novel, his nose practically buried between the yellowed pages.

I sigh and pick up Huckleberry Finn.

After five minutes, I say, “That book should be a crime and a punishment to read. It’s certainly a punishment. Look how thick it is.”

Erik lowers the book enough to look at me. “You know, Harry, some books are actually quite good. You never have the patience to give anything a chance. This story teaches us about the human condition.”

“The human what?” I shake my head and reach between the mattress and the box spring and pull out my new pulp magazine. I slide it into my book and pretend that Huck Finn is as interesting as an alien invasion.

At the end of the hour, Erik remarks, “Don’t think I didn’t see that. What garbage are you reading now?”

“Nothing so enlightening as Crime and Punishment, I’m sure.” I make to set the book aside, but Erik is too fast and snatches it from my grip.

Attack of the Killer Moonmen?” He chuckles. “You don’t really think men live on the moon, do you?”

I shrug. “Maybe, but who cares? Our time’s up, so let’s get outta here before Ma comes up with another list of chores.”

Erik hands me the book back, and I stuff the magazine back under the mattress, placing the book on the night table.

Erik’s already gone, and I wonder whether I should follow him. As I walk past the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. There are three tiny hairs on my chin. I touch them almost reverently and smile. I’m becoming a man. I run my hands through my hair as I continue walking, feeling the botched job on top of my head. Ma was too enthusiastic with those scissors last week, so my hair sticks up in every direction.

When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I find Hannah practicing the piano in the living room. The music’s been coming up through the floorboards for the past fifteen minutes, but I’ve learned to tune it out. I watch her move her hands over the keys in well-practiced fashion, a bit envious that she has such a talent. She stops playing and whirls around on the bench.

I lazily clap. She scowls.

“What are you doing, Harry?”

I smile to indulge my little sister. “You always think the worst of me, Hannah. It’s like you don’t trust me.”

“I didn’t say that, but you’re usually looking for trouble.”

“Yeah, well, you know what they say about trouble and middle names. I’m officially changing mine to ‘Trouble’ when I’m of age.”

She smiles. “You’re completely bananas.”

“Mmm, bananas…sounds good to me. See ya later.”

Ten minutes later, I walk down Madison Avenue with a half-eaten banana in my hand. There’s no sign of Erik, so I check to see if Mitch Woods is home. I’m in luck as he comes to the door, and when my buddy sees the peel, he asks if I have any more food.

“Nah, sorry,” I say as we walk along the sidewalk and toss the peel into a neighbor’s trash can.

Mitch is two years older than me and has been friends with Erik and me since before I can remember. Plain’s the word to describe us. We don’t stand out with our brown hair and average builds.

“You haven’t seen my brother around, have you?” I ask.

“Nope. Why?”

I shrug. “Just askin’.”

“He’s off to college, right?”

“Yeah, soon. We won’t be seeing him for a while, but enough about my brother. So, what do you wanna do?”

Mitch eyes up Hatford Park across the street. “Remember?”

I share a devilish grin with him. “How could I forget?”

We dash across the street with the boldness of idiots. A few kids run around the picnic tables playing a game of tag, and off in the distance, a man is throwing a ball to his dog. Other than that, the place is empty. We approach a cluster of willow trees, the July breeze gently swaying the branches. Beyond the trees, the pond–what we called a lake when growing up–sits calm.

I chuck a rock into the water, creating ripples. As I throw another and then another, I don’t know what’s come over me, except that I want to disturb the peaceful water. “The girls were always trying to bust us when we were kids,” I say.

“Yeah, but they thought it was funny to spy on us.” Mitch chuckles.

“Ever think of doing it again?”

He looks at me like I’ve lost my marbles. “You crazy? We can’t go skinny-dipping anymore.”

I see the flush on his face. “Damn, you burn easy,” I tease. “We can afford to live a little.”

Mitch shakes his head. “In broad daylight?”

“Where’s your sense of adventure, old boy?” I take off my shirt. “I won’t let you live this down.”

Mitch turns around as I strip down completely.

“What’re you so worried about?”

I don’t wait for his answer as I back up and get a running start, then dash toward the water. I cannonball into the pond, and as my body makes contact, I close my eyes in the thrill of the moment. After a brief stay underwater, I bob to the surface, laughing. I swim around the pond in large, exaggerated breast strokes and roll onto my back, gazing at the sun.

Then I hear the voice that seems to have a hobby of following me lately. “What the hell?”

I stop swimming and am not surprised to see Erik standing next to Mitch. I’m not sure whose face is more amusing, but I’m too caught up in having a good time to feel any shame. Erik’s face changes from stunned to disappointed to downright disgusted.

“Get out and get your clothes on.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumble.

My good mood pops like an over-inflated balloon because of my brother’s over-inflated ego. I swim until the bottom touches my legs, then stand and leave the water. While grabbing my clothes, I keep my gaze on an interesting patch of bark on one of the trees and dress.

“Where’d you go, anyway?” I glower at Erik.

“What’s it matter?”

I turn toward Mitch, in the hopes that he might have grown a backbone in the past thirty seconds. I’m sorely disappointed to find him backing away with his hands held up in front of him.

“You know what, guys?” he says. “I just remembered…my mom wanted me to, uh, clean the toilet bowl before the day’s done.” With that parting remark, Mitch is gone.

“I don’t wanna argue with you, Harry.”

“Oh? That’s news to me. Seems to have become a habit for you lately.”

“Maybe I’ve grown up.”

I hate that I want to punch my brother in the face, but I also want nothing more than to wipe off that smug look. “You say you don’t wanna argue. Then what’re we doin’?”

Erik steps closer. For a split-second, I think he’s going to take a swing at me, but maybe that’s because my hackles are up. “You’re reckless. You don’t take anything seriously.”

I laugh bitterly. “You used to call it fun. Egging that cad Theodore Wilson’s house was worth it. He picked on me all last year.”

“What about when you tried smoking in eighth grade? I covered for you.”

“So, what? It’s called living a little. Ever think that maybe life isn’t all about grades and books? Real life, Erik…”

“Ah, so it’s experience you’re looking for? That’s your reason?”

“You say I’m never serious. Well, how’s this for serious, brother?” I storm up to him, even though he’s a good four inches taller than me, and shove him in the chest. He stumbles backward and falls hard on his ass. When I march off, he doesn’t pursue me. I wonder if that stick he’s got up his backside fell out when he hit the ground.

I don’t return home for several hours. By the time I approach the back door, darkness has settled in. I stop, in no hurry to enter and receive an earful from Ma for being gone all day. While I wonder if she left any food for me, my gaze falls on the board that covers the window on the door. There used to be glass in that window, but I couldn’t tell you how many times Erik and I broke it over the years from playing ball. Finally, Pa just put a plank of wood there and left it. I look up. No stars tonight. Only clouds. I grimace and make for the door.

Beyond the kitchen, light from the dining and living rooms spills through the doorway. The radio’s on, the volume low. I expect to find my parents in their usual spots: Ma in the rocking chair with her knitting, glasses perched on the end of her nose, and Pa in the armchair, listening to the jazz music that Ma so dislikes. Before I can take another step, Ma is upon me, throwing the kitchen light on.

“Oh, thank the good Lord,” she breathes, pulling me into a tight hug.

I awkwardly place my arms around her. “What’s wrong?”

“We had no idea where you’d gone off to. Erik returned hours ago and said he hadn’t seen you.”

“Sorry, uh…I’m fine.”

“Don’t ever do that again, Harry.”

Pa joins us and frowns. “You had your mother worried sick, son. I’d ask where you were, but I suppose we should just be glad you’re home in one piece. Never again, you hear?”

“Yeah, Pa. Sorry. I didn’t do anything, uh, bad if that’s what you’re thinking.” Pa’s disappointment stings worse than anything Ma could say.

Ma yawns and waves me off. The frown lines around her mouth are deeper than normal. Her puffy eyes are shadowed. “Eat something and be off to bed.”

She’s kept my plate covered. With nothing short of affection for Ma, I sit down and eat the chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. Despite the cold food, it sits well with me as a warmth at being missed settles inside.

The lights are out when I go through the living room and up the stairs to my bedroom. “Don’t tell me you’re still reading that garbage,” I say in way of greeting when I find Erik still up.

Erik lowers Crime and Punishment and glares.

I drop onto my bed. “You didn’t tell them about the skinny-dipping.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“And risk Ma having a heart attack?” Erik’s tone is light, almost teasing.

Our gazes meet across the short distance, and even though Erik isn’t quite smiling, I think he’s trying hard not to.

“Thanks,” I say.

LIKE WHAT YOU’VE READ?  PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG, WHERE I POST AN EXCERPT EVERY SATURDAY. ALSO KEEP UP-TO-DATE WITH MY WRITING PROJECTS!

My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available here.
My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.

 

Chapter 2 of A Laughing Matter of Pain

With the release of my newest book, A Laughing Matter of Pain, I’m going to be sharing the first four chapters with you in the month of October! Check back every Saturday for the next chapter. The book is available on Amazon here.

Chapter 2

“You knew today was going to be an early day.”

With a groan, I open my eyes, expecting to find Erik hovering over me like one of those strange alien space-things you read about in pulp magazines. Instead, sunlight blasts me straight in the eyes. I squint and manage to sit.

“Hey, good morning, brother,” I say, my voice scratchy. “I don’t suppose you brought some milk up with you?”

“You know Ma won’t let us eat anywhere but the kitchen. C’mon, Harry. If we’re late because of you–”

“No need to get all in a pickle. I’m up.”

I smirk, half-annoyed, half-amused. Lately, Erik’s sense of humor seems to have taken a detour out his backside. Maybe if he pulled out the stick he’s got shoved up there, his sense of humor would find its way back in.

“What’s so funny?” he asks.

I realize I’ve been smiling to myself. “Nothing you’d appreciate. Okay, let’s get you graduated and moving on to higher edu-ma-cation.”

Erik leaves, and I scratch at the poison ivy rash on my leg. I blame Pa for that one–making me clear out the weeds in the garden before planting a couple of weeks ago. By the time I’m downstairs, I find the kitchen table empty of people, my place setting left alone. Ma bustles about the place like a confused bee who can’t decide which flower to pick.

“It’s cold,” she says, her back to me, indicating the food with a wave of the arm.

I’m already shoveling the eggs and bacon into my mouth like I haven’t eaten in a week as she finishes talking. When I shrug and gulp down the milk, Ma turns and frowns. Hannah chooses that moment to walk in and wrinkles her nose at me.

“You’re disgusting, Harry.”

She’s already dressed for this momentous occasion, her dark blond, bobbed hair combed and held in place with a clip.

When I belch, Irma giggles as she prances into the kitchen and lands on my lap.

“Hello, itty-bitty Irma,” I say. Like me, she’s got Ma’s brown hair and Pa’s blue eyes. She’s much cuter than me, though.

Irma beams and hugs me, but Ma shoos me out. As I stand, I stop to whisper in Hannah’s ear, “At least Irma’s happy to see me.”

I leave her with those words of wisdom and run upstairs to throw together something that’s presentable. When I return downstairs, I’m not surprised when Ma finds something to criticize me for.

“Did you even brush your hair, Harry? When’s the last time you had a haircut? If we had the time now–”

“Pa’s waiting!” my older sister, Amy, calls from the back door.

Amy is the eldest at twenty-three and is basically a more mature version of Hannah in terms of looks. In personality, she and Ma could be two peas in a pod. I’ve never been close to her. I think the words I’ve said the most to her over the years have been “I already have a mother, thanks.”

Ma ushers me out the door. My sisters are crammed into the very back seat of our seven passenger Caddy. Pa is behind the wheel. I hope Ma and Pa don’t get any ideas of springing another kid on us because I don’t know where they’d sit. When Ma told us about being pregnant with Irma three years ago, I thought, for once, she was joking. You can imagine how well Ma took my remark at the time when I thought she was just putting on a bit of weight.

Ma takes the front passenger seat, leaving me my usual place next to Erik in the middle seat. Erik’s already dressed in his navy-blue cap and gown, a medal around his neck for graduating Summa Cum Laude.

Pa starts the engine and pulls out of the driveway. As he drives, he doesn’t remark on my tardiness, but that’s Pa for you. He’s Ma’s polar opposite. In his easygoing manner, he says, “You know, Erik, I only went to school until third grade. I’m proud of you, son.”

If Erik had any humility, he might’ve blushed, but he just smiles. “Thanks, Pa. Well, I worked hard. I won’t let you down.”

“Yeah, you’re the first one in the family to go off to college,” I say. “I guess the rest of us don’t know much about working hard.”

“Your grades could be better, Harry,” Ma says. “Now, this is your brother’s day. Don’t ruin it.”

Hannah sniggers in the back seat.

Eyeing Erik, whose gaze challenges me, I reply, “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

I lean back with exaggerated casualness, my arms raised and crossed behind my head. I close my eyes and try to imagine a house without Erik, a place where I might be noticed for something other than everything I do wrong.

Several hours later, after Erik has paraded himself across the stage and basked in the applause of hundreds, we’re back home. My parents go out to eat about once a year, so we’ve met our quota for 1925 because Ma and Pa indulged Erik in his request for seafood. As I step out of the car, the fish doesn’t sit well with me. Or maybe that’s just an excuse.

“I’m going for a walk,” I say.

“Be back in time for dinner,” Ma replies.

“That’s hours away, Lucy,” Pa says, then looks at me. “We’ll see you later, son.”

“I don’t think I could eat anything if I tried,” I say. “If I’m not back for dinner, don’t wait up.”

Hannah purses her lips. “You mean, you’re not hungry for once? Usually you eat like someone’s going to take your food away.”

I’m not in the mood for jabs as I turn and trudge down the sidewalk. I’m a good ten houses away when I hear a voice calling after me.

“Hey, Harry! Wait up, will you?”

I’m torn between stopping in shock and quickening my pace. Erik would probably outrun me, so I reluctantly halt and allow him to catch up.

“What?” I ask pointedly.

He raises his eyebrows. “Now who’s in a bad mood?”

“Did you come to rub it in that you’re moving up in the world?”

He holds out a basketball. “Actually, I was just gonna ask if you’d like to shoot some baskets, but if you don’t–”

“I never said I didn’t.” My stomach settles.

My brother walks alongside me for a while in silence. We reach the park’s courts and dribble the ball between us. The years fall away. The differences that have come between us seem to die as we become two boys playing a fun game again.

I laugh at the brother I used to know as he pretends to limp across the court and then shoots a perfect basket. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he says, “I wanted to tell you last night…”

I’m dribbling the ball as he speaks and lose my focus, the ball rolling away.

“What?” I ask.

Erik’s eyes shift, as do his feet. Left to right. Right to left. He opens his mouth like a gaping fish outta water. Next thing I know, he’s darts off to the left, grabbing the ball and dribbling around me in circles.

“C’mon, Harry. Show me what you got!”

“Ha, I might not be as tall as you, but don’t forget I’m not done growing. One day–”

“One day you’ll be taller than me? I don’t think so!” Erik taunts me as he lifts the ball just out of my reach, but I’m ruthless.

We go head-to-head like this for the next several minutes, teasing and laughing. I finally manage to snag the ball from him and make a basket. Stopping to catch my breath, I wipe my sweaty forehead with the back of my hand, my hair sticking to it. I wonder if Ma might’ve been right about the haircut thing.

“If we were smart, we would’ve brought some water and changed our clothes,” Erik says.

“Oh? Brainy-boy Erik’s admitting he’s not as smart as he thinks? But yeah, Ma’s gonna have a field day cleaning these. I can hear her now. It’ll be just like old times.”

“Old times,” Erik murmurs. His grin droops, like someone painted a smile on an otherwise drawn face.

“This here, right now, is the most fun I’ve had in…I don’t know how long,” I tell him.

I’ve never been the sentimental type. I trip over my words like my feet trip over my laces as I step back.

Erik tosses the ball at me. “Rematch?”

I catch the ball, sure and steady in this sport. “Oh, you’re writing your death sentence, old boy. I’m gonna wipe you out. You might be good on the ball field, but you got nothing on me in the court.”

The time forgotten, we while away our afternoon like that. By the end of it all, we strip off our dress shirts and stroll home in damp undershirts, arguing over who really won and who smells worse.

I’m not sure who smells worse, but as far as winning goes, I’d say today was a winner for me.

LIKE WHAT YOU’VE READ?  PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG, WHERE I POST AN EXCERPT EVERY SATURDAY. ALSO KEEP UP-TO-DATE WITH MY WRITING PROJECTS!

My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available here.
My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.

Chapter 1 of A Laughing Matter of Pain

With the release of my newest book, A Laughing Matter of Pain, I’m going to be sharing the first four chapters with you in the month of October! Check back every Saturday for the next chapter. The book is available on Amazon here.

Chapter 1

Damp. Dank. Dusty. Dirty.

It’s become a kind of game. I’m good at games. How many words that begin with the letter D can I come up with to describe this place?

Disgusting.

There’s another point for me. 1-0, Hank, old boy.

Of course, you never talk much. I’m lucky to get the occasional grunt from you, Hank.

I roll onto my side, the lumpy mattress beneath me protesting as it pushes back in all the wrong places. Hank’s sleeping, if you can call whimpering and moaning while he pisses himself sleeping. Nightmares, of course. Not that Hank ever has much to say about that.

But back to my game. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.

Dank. Yep, that smell of musty, rusty mold growing on mold has attached itself to my nose like a cold that doesn’t leave. It’s my constant companion, whether I want it or not. I suppose it’s like the games I’m so good at. So good, in fact, that when I lost one, boy, did I ever lose.

I don’t know what nightmares plague Hank. Maybe it’s what landed him here that’s got him all caught up in nightly visions of Hell. Rumors say he killed a man in cold blood, but a man who wets himself like that ain’t a cold-blooded killer in my book. Whatever his problems, I’ve got enough of my own.

I damn near laughed when the guard who swung by last week said Prohibition ended. Fourteen years of outlawing alcohol, and now part of the reason I’m here’s legal again? How’s that for justice?

Alcohol’s my problem. Yeah, I admit that, but that’s not my nightmare. Green accusing eyes, cruel laughter falling from a red-lipsticked mouth that kissed me silly too many times to count, and the red hair to match…like flames that burn my insides every time I close my eyes. I don’t have to be sleeping to see her. Red everywhere, from the smashed in windshield, to her smashed in face, decorated with shards of glass as her stunned expression stares back at me with those eyes. Always those damn eyes. Even empty, they accuse.

* * *

Eight years earlier…

It’s late, but the dusk is still dimly lighting the western sky. Overhead, the stars poke out from the black. Most wouldn’t believe I have the calm inside me to stop and notice. When the others aren’t looking, I sneak away into the back yard, that dewy grass tickling my neck as I lie in it and watch the stars.

Footsteps disturb my concentration. I bolt up, my eyes adjusting until a man’s silhouette rests against the freshly painted white siding of our house.

“What’re you doing, Harry?”

“What’s it matter? Is Ma looking for me? Tell her I already put the delivery away.”

“Ma said Mr. Morris was here hours ago and that you didn’t touch the stuff till after dinner.”

I try not to roll my eyes. “Then what’s the problem, Erik?”

My brother plants himself in the grass beside me and sighs. Even in the near darkness, he’s the pretty boy every girl wants. He got all of Pa’s charm and looks: the blond hair, the blue eyes, the smooth-talking way with the girls.

“It’s tomorrow,” Erik says. “Graduation.”

“Yeah? And? You haven’t shut up about it for weeks, even months. What, you scared you won’t be the center of everyone’s attention anymore? No more calls from girls? Hell–”

“Harry, if Ma heard you–”

“Well, Ma’s not here, is she? Virginia Williams called again, didn’t she? I heard you,” I say lightly, jabbing him in the side. “‘Oh, Ginny, honey…’” I raise my voice an octave, but Erik cuffs me roughly. “Jeez, what’s that for?”

“Can you be serious for a second, Harry?”

I raise my hands and eyebrows at the same time. “All right, I surrender. You wanna wrestle it out for old times’ sake? This grass has our names written all over it.”

Erik glares. “This was a mistake. Goodnight, Harry.”

As he retreats, he kitchen light goes off once he clicks the back door shut.

“What’s got his undies in a twist?” I mutter to the stars.

Erik and I were always scrapping in this yard as boys, always inseparable. In a few months, I’m gonna start tenth grade, and he’s off to college. Not only does he have the looks and the ways with girls all right, but he’s got smarts and talent on the field. Star pitcher of Benny Frankie High in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sighing, I stand and brush the grass from my pants. I head inside and find my annoying little sister standing on the landing of the stairs. It’s Hannah, the older little sister. Irma’s the other one, who’s still so young that she really is little.

“Hey, Hannah-panna,” I say, smirking.

“Oh, stop it, Harry. You think you’re so funny.”

“Actually, yeah.”

“Ma was looking for you.”

“Wow, I’m a popular guy. I almost feel like Erik, I’m so popular. Did a pretty doll give me a call?”

Hannah places her hands on her hips in a manner that’s suited her well for years and sticks her tongue out. I laugh as she turns and stomps up the stairs.

“You know, for a young lady, you’re pretty immature,” I call up after her.

I quietly chuckle to myself. Hannah’s always easy to get a rise out of. Sobering, I climb the stairs, and when the third step from the top creaks, I tip my imaginary hat at it.

“Goodnight, old friend.”

I turn for the second door on the right, ready to see my esteemed brother. The door to my parents’ room opens and Ma steps out.

“There you are.”

I stare back at my twin–well, except that Ma is a good thirty-five years older than me and female, but the mousy-brown hair, the square jawline, and the plain face, yeah…thanks, Ma. I got Pa’s baby blues, at least, but I ain’t complaining, I swear.

I pretend to yawn. It’s a convincing act, my mouth all wide and my eyes screwed shut, but Ma doesn’t buy into my cheap acts.

“Tomorrow is an early day. I trust you’re on your way to bed.”

I smile. “Righto. Erik’s big day. ‘Night, Ma.”

I kiss her gently on the top of the head. I’m taller than her now, so she tilts her head up.

“What was that for?” she asks.

The question’s so simple, but it’s not. Deep down, just like the times I seek out the stars by myself, some part of me reaches for my mother. I laugh instead.

“Can’t a son give his old ma a kiss? Maybe I’ll lay it on sloppy next time, like Flossie.”

Ma isn’t buying this, either. She doesn’t seem interested in anything I’m selling these days, but maybe what she’s buying into is more than just cheap tricks and one-liners.

“Harry, are you all right?” Her glistening eyes search me.

This look unnerves me. All the times Ma’s glared at me don’t probe me the way those hazel eyes see me now, like stripping me bare to my soul.

I shrug and smile. That’s what she expects. What they all expect. Why give her anything else? “I’m fine.”

LIKE WHAT YOU’VE READ?  PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG, WHERE I POST AN EXCERPT EVERY SATURDAY. ALSO KEEP UP-TO-DATE WITH MY WRITING PROJECTS!

My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available here.
My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.

 

Excerpt: Opening of A Laughing Matter of Pain (Now Available on Amazon – RELEASE TODAY!)

My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available for purchase here.

 

Chapter 1

Damp. Dank. Dusty. Dirty.

It’s become a kind of game. I’m good at games. How many words that begin with the letter D can I come up with to describe this place?

Disgusting.

There’s another point for me. 1-0, Hank, old boy.

Of course, you never talk much. I’m lucky to get the occasional grunt from you, Hank.

I roll onto my side, the lumpy mattress beneath me protesting as it pushes back in all the wrong places. Hank’s sleeping, if you can call whimpering and moaning while he pisses himself sleeping. Nightmares, of course. Not that Hank ever has much to say about that.

But back to my game. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.

Dank. Yep, that smell of musty, rusty mold growing on mold has attached itself to my nose like a cold that doesn’t leave. It’s my constant companion, whether I want it or not. I suppose it’s like the games I’m so good at. So good, in fact, that when I lost one, boy, did I ever lose.

I don’t know what nightmares plague Hank. Maybe it’s what landed him here that’s got him all caught up in nightly visions of Hell. Rumors say he killed a man in cold blood, but a man who wets himself like that ain’t a cold-blooded killer in my book. Whatever his problems, I’ve got enough of my own.

I damn near laughed when the guard who swung by last week said Prohibition ended. Fourteen years of outlawing alcohol, and now part of the reason I’m here’s legal again? How’s that for justice?

Alcohol’s my problem. Yeah, I admit that, but that’s not my nightmare. Green accusing eyes, cruel laughter falling from a red-lipsticked mouth that kissed me silly too many times to count, and the red hair to match…like flames that burn my insides every time I close my eyes. I don’t have to be sleeping to see her. Red everywhere, from the smashed in windshield, to her smashed in face, decorated with shards of glass as her stunned expression stares back at me with those eyes. Always those damn eyes. Even empty, they accuse.

* * *

Eight years earlier…

It’s late, but the dusk is still dimly lighting the western sky. Overhead, the stars poke out from the black. Most wouldn’t believe I have the calm inside me to stop and notice. When the others aren’t looking, I sneak away into the back yard, that dewy grass tickling my neck as I lie in it and watch the stars.

Footsteps disturb my concentration. I bolt up, my eyes adjusting until a man’s silhouette rests against the freshly painted white siding of our house.

“What’re you doing, Harry?”

“What’s it matter? Is Ma looking for me? Tell her I already put the delivery away.”

“Ma said Mr. Morris was here hours ago and that you didn’t touch the stuff till after dinner.”

I try not to roll my eyes. “Then what’s the problem, Erik?”

My brother plants himself in the grass beside me and sighs. Even in the near darkness, he’s the pretty boy every girl wants. He got all of Pa’s charm and looks: the blond hair, the blue eyes, the smooth-talking way with the girls.

“It’s tomorrow,” Erik says. “Graduation.”

“Yeah? And? You haven’t shut up about it for weeks, even months. What, you scared you won’t be the center of everyone’s attention anymore? No more calls from girls? Hell–”

“Harry, if Ma heard you–”

“Well, Ma’s not here, is she? Virginia Williams called again, didn’t she? I heard you,” I say lightly, jabbing him in the side. “‘Oh, Ginny, honey…’” I raise my voice an octave, but Erik cuffs me roughly. “Jeez, what’s that for?”

“Can you be serious for a second, Harry?”

I raise my hands and eyebrows at the same time. “All right, I surrender. You wanna wrestle it out for old times’ sake? This grass has our names written all over it.”

Erik glares. “This was a mistake. Goodnight, Harry.”

As he retreats, he kitchen light goes off once he clicks the back door shut.

“What’s got his undies in a twist?” I mutter to the stars.

Erik and I were always scrapping in this yard as boys, always inseparable. In a few months, I’m gonna start tenth grade, and he’s off to college. Not only does he have the looks and the ways with girls all right, but he’s got smarts and talent on the field. Star pitcher of Benny Frankie High in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sighing, I stand and brush the grass from my pants. I head inside and find my annoying little sister standing on the landing of the stairs. It’s Hannah, the older little sister. Irma’s the other one, who’s still so young that she really is little.

“Hey, Hannah-panna,” I say, smirking.

“Oh, stop it, Harry. You think you’re so funny.”

“Actually, yeah.”

“Ma was looking for you.”

“Wow, I’m a popular guy. I almost feel like Erik, I’m so popular. Did a pretty doll give me a call?”

Hannah places her hands on her hips in a manner that’s suited her well for years and sticks her tongue out. I laugh as she turns and stomps up the stairs.

“You know, for a young lady, you’re pretty immature,” I call up after her.

I quietly chuckle to myself. Hannah’s always easy to get a rise out of. Sobering, I climb the stairs, and when the third step from the top creaks, I tip my imaginary hat at it.

“Goodnight, old friend.”

I turn for the second door on the right, ready to see my esteemed brother. The door to my parents’ room opens and Ma steps out.

“There you are.”

I stare back at my twin–well, except that Ma is a good thirty-five years older than me and female, but the mousy-brown hair, the square jawline, and the plain face, yeah…thanks, Ma. I got Pa’s baby blues, at least, but I ain’t complaining, I swear.

I pretend to yawn. It’s a convincing act, my mouth all wide and my eyes screwed shut, but Ma doesn’t buy into my cheap acts.

“Tomorrow is an early day. I trust you’re on your way to bed.”

I smile. “Righto. Erik’s big day. ‘Night, Ma.”

I kiss her gently on the top of the head. I’m taller than her now, so she tilts her head up.

“What was that for?” she asks.

The question’s so simple, but it’s not. Deep down, just like the times I seek out the stars by myself, some part of me reaches for my mother. I laugh instead.

“Can’t a son give his old ma a kiss? Maybe I’ll lay it on sloppy next time, like Flossie.”

Ma isn’t buying this, either. She doesn’t seem interested in anything I’m selling these days, but maybe what she’s buying into is more than just cheap tricks and one-liners.

“Harry, are you all right?” Her glistening eyes search me.

This look unnerves me. All the times Ma’s glared at me don’t probe me the way those hazel eyes see me now, like stripping me bare to my soul.

I shrug and smile. That’s what she expects. What they all expect. Why give her anything else? “I’m fine.”

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow

“I would like it very much if you were all here with me,” Hannah said, wheezing.  She coughed several times.

“Mom!” Abbi exclaimed, rushing to her side.

The coughing spell subsided, and Hannah shook her head, holding up a placating hand.  “No, no, it’s nothing.  Please don’t make a fuss.  There’s nothing to be done.  Just, please… be here with me.  And call my siblings, please.  They need to know.  Harry would be devastated if he couldn’t come in time…”

“I’ll make the calls,” Abbi said, trying to occupy herself.

Brenda exchanged a look with Abbi and nodded, drawing up a chair next to Glen.  Abbi left the room and made the calls she dreaded.  Irma said she’d be on the first plane out, but Abbi thought, with a sinking heart, that she would be too late.  Within the hour, Harry was at the door.

Abbi supposed she could have let Alan or Tom answer the door, but she was a bundle of nerves as she flitted about the house.  When she opened the front door and saw the pain etched in every line of her uncle’s face, she couldn’t compose herself to speak.  Harry entered and hugged his niece.

“Chin up, Abbi, child,” he said in his usual gentle manner he’d used with her since she had been small.

Abbi half-laughed, half-hiccupped.  “I’m not a child anymore, Uncle Harry, but thanks.”

“Ah, you’re a child to me, old fart that I am.  It’s okay to fall apart, to be like a child, especially right now.  Where is she?”

“This way.”  Abbi couldn’t help but smile.  Her uncle always knew how to make her laugh.

Harry fell silent as he followed his niece to his sister’s side.  He took Hannah’s hand in a similar manner as she’d held his all those years ago in the hospital after he had been in the accident.

“What’s this all about, then?” he asked.  “I always imagined the roles reserved here, sis.  What are you doing in this bed, hmmm?”

Hannah’s chuckle came as a rasp, then a cough, but her eyes shone with mirth.

Recovering, she said, “You never let up, do you, silly brother?  I guess the good Lord has use of you yet here.”

“Can’t imagine for what.”

“There you go again, selling yourself short.”

“You think you know what’s best for me, eh?  Leaving me ain’t it, Hannah-panna.”

“You never stop, do you?”

They exchanged their friendly banter for a little while longer before Hannah grew serious.  “But don’t ever stop, Harry.  Don’t ever stop making people laugh and smile.  It’s what you do, who you are.  You and that big heart of yours.”

Eyes shining with tears, Harry said, “There’s one person whose smile I haven’t seen in far too long.  You tell Kathy when you see her – you tell her I’m coming for her soon.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Then it’s settled.  Maybe you can leave after all.  Don’t let an old bugger like me keep you.”

Harry hugged Hannah one last time and said his farewells to her children.  After he left, Hannah’s eyes implored her youngest daughter, then her other children, to sit with her.  Breathing was becoming increasingly difficult, so she didn’t waste her words.  Each breath, each utterance, and each heartbeat were precious, now more than ever for Hannah.

Hannah’s eyes slipped shut, and her hands fell loose at her sides.  To her children, she appeared to be sleeping with difficulty, as every breath was labored, rattling through her chest and out again.

 

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harryquote2

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#NewRelease 9/29!

Laughter can hide a lot of pain that’s drowned by the bottle and good times.
Even in the darkest depths of a prison cell, there is hope.

Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow

R

Rain hit Haley’s bedroom window, tracking down the glass like the tears on her face.  Her geometry homework sat unfinished in front of her as she lifted blurry eyes from the numbers and turned toward the wall separating her room from the bedroom next door.  She heard Pastor Rife’s muffled voice reciting the familiar words of Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.  Your rod and Your staff: they comfort me.”

She found no comfort in those words.

When the pastor’s voice stopped reciting the Psalm, he murmured a prayer.  Hannah’s voice, if she even spoke, was too weak to be heard through the wall.  Footsteps retreated down the hallway a moment later, and Haley listened for any sound, her breath caught in her throat.

Wiping away tears, she sniffled and stood, finding her resolve.  She went to the bedroom door and pushed it slightly open.  Down the hallway, the door to her parents’ bedroom was slightly ajar, and her dad’s voice travelled the short distance.  She picked up snippets of the phone conversation, and curious, she walked quietly to the bedroom and listened.

“I doubt she’ll live another twenty-four hours,” Alan said.

Dad thinks Grandma will be gone in a day?  Haley thought, refusing to believe it.

“She was still walking around last night, that’s right,” her father continued.  “To take such a turn for the worst overnight was unexpected.”

Haley refused to listen to another word.  She withdrew from the doorway and retreated toward her room.  When she reached the door, she made to push it open, but she hovered with indecision as her eyes fell upon the door to what was normally her brother’s room.  Grandma Hannah had spent the night in Randy’s bedroom, the bed more comfortable than the pull-out one she usually occupied whenever she spent the night.

Biting her lower lip, Haley entered the darkened room.  The shades were drawn shut on all three windows as the sound of rain continued to hit the glass.  Hannah was lying on the bed, propped up by several pillows, and Haley couldn’t discern her grandma’s face until she was nearly upon her.  She stopped at the bedside and tried to smile, but Haley’s heart wasn’t in it.  More than anything, fear filled her.  This figure lying here – this couldn’t be her beloved grandma!

Haley felt tears prickle again, and with a watery smile, she whispered, “Hi, Grandma.”

No rosy cheeks, no warm smile, no life in her eyes – Hannah stared back at Haley, so weakened and withered, and managed a faint, “Haley.”

LIKE WHAT YOU’VE READ?  PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO MY BLOG, WHERE I POST AN EXCERPT EVERY SATURDAY. ALSO KEEP UP-TO-DATE WITH MY WRITING PROJECTS!

My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available for pre-order here.My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.