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 WIP Arianna – Part of Chapter 4

When I walked into Nana’s house that day, she turned, elbow-deep in flour as she made bread, and said, “You’re home early.”

“I quit.”  I took a seat at the table, placed my interlocked hands on its surface, and stared at my peeling nail polish.

“You what?”

“I quit my job.”

“Why would you do that?”  Nana wiped her hands on her apron near her hips and went to the sink to wash up.  After the water turned off, she grabbed the tea kettle and filled it.  I knew what was coming.  “We’re going to talk about this over some tea, Ari.”

“Isn’t it a bit hot for, um, hot tea?”

“Fine, then.  I’ll make iced herbal tea, but it’s still best to let the water boil on the stove, the tea bag steep, and then add the ice.  None of this instant nonsense.”  While the kettle warmed, Nana joined me.  “Now, what’s this about?”

I pointed at my face, half-smirking.  

“Your choice of decoration?”

I laughed.  “Yeah, Jeanine didn’t approve.  She wanted me to remove it, said it was against the rules or some garbage.  I didn’t agree, so I quit.”

“Hmm, seems a bit rash, dear.  But then again, you don’t seem that broken up.”

“I thought I might be more upset, but to be honest, I feel free.  And if I’m going to be completely honest with you, Nana, I don’t think I want to continue with beauty school, either.”

Nana’s eyebrows rose.  “Don’t you think you’re making an awful lot of changes, Ari?  I understand if you’re not happy with that way things are going, but too much change too quickly is, well, not healthy.”

I laughed humorlessly.  “Don’t I know it?  Don’t we both know it?  What choice did we have when my parents died, Nana?  None.  I wanna make some choices that are gonna have a better effect on my life.  Example–my whole relationship with Brad was coming apart at the seams for years.  I was living in his shoes.”

Nana chuckled.  “I never really cared for that boy, but I tolerated him because I thought you liked him.  He never stayed for dinner.  A man who doesn’t like my cooking automatically gets a lower grade in my books.”

I laughed at her spunk.  “Oh, Nana.”

Just then, the kettle whistled.  Nana stood and took care of making iced tea the right way.  We enjoyed her creation and further conversation.  I then helped her bake vegan bread, which was something I’d never done.  It was a lot of work, but something was therapeutic about it.  By the end of the afternoon, we had three loaves, one of which we used with dinner.

Excerpt from WIP Arianna – Beginning of Chapter 3

 

After leaving Brad’s house, I drove in circles until I pulled into McDonald’s and ordered a large fries, two cheeseburgers, and a Coke.  I found a spot under a tree in the corner of the parking lot and turned off the car.  I kept the radio on and spent the next ten minutes eating away my sorrow and pretending that the girl singing the latest song of heartbreak was belting out those lyrics just for me.  After finishing the Coke, I felt sick.  The food didn’t sit well with me, and judging by the tightness of my shorts, I knew I should stop my bad habit of getting fast food almost every day.  Nana’s meals weren’t keeping me full.

I wondered about texting Kelly from work to see if she was still out with some of the other girls.  Maybe a few drinks with “the girls,” even though they weren’t my girls, would be the escape I needed–from thinking about Brad, my parents, my dead-end job, my supposed beauty career.  

I pulled my phone out of my purse.  My finger hovered over the screen in indecision.  Biting my lip, I glanced at the fence in front of me.  My eyes locked onto a sign there.

“Looking to make big money?  No experience needed.  Call 216-555-7634.”

I wrestled a pen out of my overstuffed purse and wrote the number down on an unused napkin.  Why I was doing this, I wasn’t entirely sure.  It was probably a scam.  Something too good to be true.  All I knew was that I needed a change.

I turned for home.  When I entered, Nana was sitting in the armchair in the small living room, reading her evening Bible verses.

“You’re back sooner than expected,” she said as she set her materials aside and removed her reading glasses.

I dropped onto the couch.  “Yeah, um, things didn’t exactly go as planned.”  My voice gave way at the end.  Damn it.

Nana left her seat and joined me.  “Ari, what’s the matter?”

“Brad and I, we br-broke up.  I mean, I broke it off with him.”

“Oh, Ari, honey, I’m so sorry.”  Nana drew me into a hug.

“I don’t know why I’m crying.  I should be glad to be rid of that– that–”

Nana released me and gazed at me with a small smile.  “It won’t be the first time a young lady had her heart broken, even if it was your choice to end things.  It sounds like things must have been going south for sometime if you weren’t happy with him.”

“Maybe.  Yeah.”

“Isn’t there anyone you want to call, Ari?  A friend?”

I shook my head.  “It’s pathetic, but I don’t really have any friends, Nana.”

“Really?  There’s no one?”

“Not really.  I kinda pushed the few friends I had away since Mom and Dad died.  I’m not really close with anyone at the salon or at school.  I mean, sure, there are some girls I talk to at work or school, but we’d never do anything social together.”

“What about that one girl you were close with back in high school?  What was her name?”

“Lori?”

“That’s the one.”

“Lori and I haven’t talked since the summer after high school, Nana.  She went away to college, somewhere on the west coast, I think.  I never heard from her again.”  That wasn’t completely true.  We were Facebook friends, but I didn’t think that counted.  We never interacted on there, and Nana understood social media about as well as I understood how a car worked.

“Maybe when you go to beauty school tomorrow, you should consider getting to know someone there better.  You have something in common, after all.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.  I think I’m just gonna turn in for the night if it’s all the same to you, Nana.”

“Well, good night, then, Ari.”  Nana kissed my cheek.

I offered what I hoped looked like a smile and not a grimace and went to my room.  Pulling out my phone and plopping down on my bed, I went onto Facebook and pulled up Lori Hensen’s profile.  She was still single and was now in a master’s program.  She had a ridiculously big grin on her pretty face in her profile pic.  As I clicked through her photos, she was almost always surrounded by friends.  My finger hovered over the message button.  Oh, what the hell?  Why not try?

Hi Lori, sorry we sorta lost touch.  How’s life?  I didn’t say anything on here but I lost my parents last month.  Plane crash.  Sorry if that’s tmi.  I just thought I’d check in and say hey.  If you got a sec I’d love to talk sometime.  Miss you. X

I sent the message, but it didn’t look like she was on.  Deciding that maybe Nana had a point, I tapped on Kelly’s number.  I’d never actually texted her before.  We’d exchanged numbers early on, just because Kelly was the type of person who was nice to everyone.

Hi Kelly, its Arianna from work.  Hope ur havin fun 2nite.  

I was surprised when the phone pinged.  Up popped a message from Kelly: Hey arianna!! Whats up girlie?  Ur missin a fun time.  U sure u dont wanna come out w/ us?

If I were the partying type, I would’ve jumped at the prospect.  I walked to the vanity and glared at myself.  My eyes shifted to the journal and black binder, and my hand hovered over them.  Stay home and write away my sorrows or go out on the town?  You want change or not, Arianna?  This is a chance to get out there and make that happen.  As Nana would say, to take the bull by the horns.

Excerpt from WIP Arianna – Chapter 22

I stared across the room at Great-Grandma’s painting called “Mom” for a while, the mess of colors blending and blurring.  I nodded.  “I don’t even know where to begin.  I’ve been trying so hard to rebuild my life these past several weeks, Nana, and now–now it feels like it’s crumbling apart.  It’s pathetic that a huge part of that is because of some boy.”

“We both know Marc isn’t just ‘some boy.’”  Nana smiled ruefully.

I sighed.  “You’re right, as always.  I guess I didn’t realize how much of my happiness hung on him.  That’s what’s wrong with this picture.  I shouldn’t need a boy, a man, whatever, to complete me.  I should be able to stand on my own just fine.”

“Contrary to Simon and Garfunkel, no man is an island.  Or woman.  And I suppose I ought to attribute that metaphor to its true creator, a poet named–”

“John Donne.”

Nana smiled.  “I’m impressed, Ari.”

“Well, I do write poetry and have read my fair share of it.  It speaks to me.  Anyway, you were saying…”

“Well, then you know what I mean.  No one should feel the need to walk life’s path alone.  Maybe you have lost Marc–although I hope not–but you have me and that dear friend, Kelly…who you still need to bring around.”

“I know, Nana.  You’re right, of course.”  I laughed hollowly.  “Would you believe my boss congratulated me on a job well done today?  The one thing I’m excelling at it my work.  There’s not much satisfaction in that, though, for some reason.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m glad to hear you aren’t satisfied with just your job, Ari.  When a person dies, no one wants to be remembered for being successful at their job, how much money they had, or how many degrees they held.  At least most wouldn’t.  No, I’d like to think a person would want to be remembered for how they treated others, for the lives they impacted by being a good friend.”

“Maybe that’s why this hurts so much.  Marc was a great friend, Nana, even though I didn’t know him that long.  And he put up with so much crap from me.  Anyone else would’ve left weeks ago.”

“All the more reason to get in touch with him, my dear.”

Excerpt from Arianna (Unpublished WIP)

I started the first call…only for it to ring four times and go to an answering machine.  I hung up.  We didn’t ever leave messages, so that person’s number would just go through the system again and would be called by someone tomorrow.  It was all automatic.

I smiled grimly, thinking of all the times my parents’ phone would ring, and someone would just hang up on the other end.  They screened their calls and just let the answering machine take anything that was from a number they didn’t recognize.  Some of the same numbers called daily, much to Mom’s annoyance.

“Why don’t they just stop?” she’d ask.  “I’m not interested in whatever it is they’re selling.”

Now I was one of those annoying people who called…well, the computer called.  

“H-hello?”  The voice of an elderly woman cut in the middle of my wandering mind, snapping me back to reality.

“Hello, may I please speak with Mrs. Wilson?”  Amazed at how steady I kept my voice, like the proverbial well-oiled machine, I half-thought it couldn’t really be me who was speaking.

“Who?”

“Um, Mrs. Wilson.  Is she available?”  Oh, boy.  

“Oh, silly me.  This is her.  May I ask who’s calling?”

“Hello, Mrs. Wilson.  This is Arianna from Affection for the Afflicted.  Is now a good time to talk?”

“I’m afflicted with what, dear?”

“Oh, no…you’re fine, Mrs. Wilson.  I’m just calling for an organization called Affection for the Afflicted.  We help our people in Africa who have diseases like AIDS and malaria, who don’t have clean water, or enough food.”  Just my luck that I would get stuck with someone who’s hard of hearing…or she’s got dementia.

“I have clean water and plenty to eat, dear.  But thank you for calling.”

Tempted to sigh, I smiled in pain into the microphone.  What was the point of continuing this conversation?

“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Wilson.  Have a nice day.”

“Oh, you as well, dear.”

I ended the call.  Funny that she heard me just fine at the end.

The next several calls remained unsuccessful.  Mostly answering machines picked up, which wasn’t surprising since a lot of people would be at work, but I had one customer who offered to give me a tarot card reading.  I figured if she was so clairvoyant, she should have expected my call in the first place and not acted all caught off-guard when she’d picked up the phone.