Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

After ten minutes of standing around looking like a guy with nothing better to do and receiving a few odd stares from passersby, Mike approaches the women’s room.  Hovering just outside the entrance, he asks, “Is anyone in there?”

“Hey, whaddya want?” comes a raspy voice, surely belonging to a lifelong smoker who’s at least Mike’s age.

“Uh, never mind.  Thought my wife might be in there.”  My wife?  What the hell’s the matter with me?  

“Ain’t nobody else in here, pal.  Now, unless you’s lookin’ for a nice-lookin’ lady like me, I suggest ya hit the road and go take a piss in the little boy’s room.”  Raucous laughter follows.

Mike’s eyes bulge.  He walks away as quickly at his arthritic knees will allow and goes to the dining area.  Shelley is nowhere to be seen.  With a heavy sigh, worn with worry and the physical exertion on his body, he lowers himself into a chair.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

The sun is rising when Mike finally pulls into his driveway, but as he gets out of his car, that doesn’t matter.  The clouds obscure most of the light.  Snow pelts his face as he pulls the collar of his coat higher, muttering how stupid he was to not bring a hat and gloves to work.  He fidgets with his key at the side door, the chill of the wind numbing his arthritic fingers.  When the lock clicks, he heaves his shoulder into the door, pushing it open with great effort.

He shrugs out of his coat and boots and leaves them on the mat by the door.  He goes for the fridge and pulls out a beer, opens it, and begins drinking it before he reaches his worn armchair in front of the TV.  Flopping into the familiar comfort, he flips on the TV to watch the latest weather update.

“Damn weather people,” he grumbles.  “Stupid blizzard.  Half the time you guys ain’t right, and when you are, it’s usually even worse than you told us it’d be.”

Several inches of snow have already piled up.  The drive home from work took nearly two hours.  Mike looks out the window, only to see snow sticking to the screen.

He changes the channel to some old western and keeps the volume low.  He finishes his beer and belches, then lights up a cigarette and considers his options.  The weather man said the snow wasn’t expected to stop until that evening.  Even then, the roads would likely be a mess until tomorrow.

Mike already told his boss he wouldn’t be in for the next two days, explaining the situation.  Marty gave his condolences, told him not to worry, and that was the end of the conversation.

He finishes the cigarette and puts it out in the tray on the foldable table next to the armchair.  As Mike gazes around the living room at the shabby, stained carpet littered with takeaway wrappers, the dust-laden furniture, and the grimy windows, he knows Barb would be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, with him.

“I’m gonna go to Cal, honey,” he murmurs, pushing himself to standing.  

He stops halfway across the room, glancing from the treadmill to the entrance to the kitchen.  He turns and heads for the bathroom instead.  After relieving several ounces of coffee, Mike stares at the scale and weighs himself.  Five more pounds than last time.  He shoves the thing aside and returns to the kitchen for another beer and a new bag of chips.  Breakfast of champs.

It’s back to the armchair.  Mike drinks, smokes, and eats away his sorrows until he falls asleep.  He dreams of Barb, but she isn’t smiling at him.  

When he wakes, the snow hasn’t let up.  Mike grumbles as he removes his glasses to wipe the sleep out of his eyes, surprised to find tears gathered there.  With a growl, he stands and tosses the glasses to the chair.

He goes to the bedroom.  The bed sits unused and dusty, nothing different from the day Barb died.  Her clothes still hang in the closet.  Her jewelry box and bottles of perfume rest undisturbed on the dresser.  This room is a memorial, a monument to his dear wife.

Mike drops to his knees next to the bed, as if he’s about to pray.  He cries out in pain, but it’s his knees that hurt–or so he tries to tell himself.  He gropes under the bed and pulls out a box.  He opens it.

The first thing he removes is his wedding album.  He touches the faded photo of them walking down the aisle after their vows, in sickness and in health…till death us do part.  Mike shakes his shaggy head and doesn’t try to stop the tears now.  His vision blurs as he sets the album down and takes out the next one.  Calvin as a newborn, crawling, walking, his first haircut, preschool, kindergarten, and all those birthdays, milestones, and school pictures that mark a child’s life growing up.  

It’s too much.  Mike closes the album with a snap and returns both to the box.  The box is hidden away again, and he stands.  He has disturbed the sanctuary of this room, and he hates himself for it.

He returns to the armchair, his safe haven, and falls asleep.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

If turning forty was supposed to make Russ feel age’s sudden grip on him, he is glad he still has his usual energy.  His schedule doesn’t allow for him to stop of the rest area by mile marker 139 in Ohio this week.  Just because the weather is bad, shipments still have to be made.  A day or two shifts when he’s running behind schedule, but every time he’s home, he isn’t really home.  That apartment has only ever been a place to lay down his head.

He pulls off at a truck station in the middle of Indiana.  It’s late, but not so late that other truckers aren’t hogging every chair and couch in the lounge.  He showers and grabs some food, then returns to find an open spot.

“This taken?” he asks the guy sitting next to it.

The grizzle-haired, scruffy man shrugs and shakes his head.

“Thanks.”  Russ sits and watches some national news program, finding himself zoning out.

“The stuff’s depressin’,” the guy next to him remarks.  “Same ol’ shit ev’ry day.”

Russ chuckles.  “Someone could change the station.  I’d much rather watch ESPN.”

“Good huntin’ show’d be nice.”  The guy sits up in his seat.  His accent is Appalachian.  “You a New Yorker?”

Russ laughs.  “What gave me away?”

“Way yeh talk.  You got somethin’ nice waitin’ for yeh back home?”

“Funny you’d call it home.  My truck’s more my home than anything.  How about you?”

“Nah, and yeah, know what yeh mean ‘bout the truck.  Been drivin’ for damn near forty years, friend.”

“Damn, man.  That’s a long time.”

“Keeps me outta trouble.”  The guy winks, and Russ chuckles.


“Yep.  No drinkin’ on the job.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely not allowed, my friend.”  Russ tries for levity, but seeing the state of the poor sucker next to him unsettles dinner in his stomach.

The older man chuckles, which turns into a series of coughs.  He stands with the aid of the chair and fingers something in his coat pocket.  “These here things’ll be the death of me, son.  Don’ be a fool like me, boy.  Don’ smoke, drink, or fall ‘n love.”

As the guy walks away, still hacking, Russ says in a low voice, “I’ll try to remember that.”

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

Calvin’s words strike Mike straight through.  His mouth hangs open for several seconds, the intake and exhale of breath slow.  He’s lost, disoriented, and can’t seem to find the ground beneath his feet.  There it is–the bench solid under his backside.  The phone–real and clutched in his hand.  He closes his mouth and swallows, trying to get his bearings.  His gaze is vacant, the interior of the rest area blurring in the distance.

“You’ve got me, Cal.”  Mike’s voice is a whisper, a scratchy plea of unused words that should have been spoken a long time ago.

“Thanks, Dad.”  The call ends, and Mike is left staring at his phone.  He stuffs it in his pocket and lifts his gaze toward the exit.  

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

The coffee shop job and potentially dating a nice guy like Benny are great, but it’s not what she wants.  Five years ago, she had dreams of living in New York and striking it big in the fashion industry.  She imagined having guys ogling her, hanging off her arms.  From their many conversations while working side-by-side, Sarah knows Benny is the type of guy who wants to settle down, which means marriage and kids.  Seeing Zelda’s marriage and other people in her family who have been divorced or are still sticking it out, despite their mutual misery, isn’t encouraging.

“You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” Grandpa used to tell her.

Grandpa.  Sarah’s eyes mist over.  Who am I kidding but myself?  It was never about the fashion.

“Yeah,” Sarah mutters, sitting up.  She reaches for her diary and spends the next ten minutes scrawling her thoughts and feelings in it.  Her therapist encouraged her years ago to keep a diary, telling her that it might help sort out her thoughts.  The happy girl who smiles at the world echoes a lonely inside.  Sometimes, Sarah wakes from the nightmare that she’s a shell washed up on the seashore, her insides rotted away, and she’s just being tossed about wherever the current takes her.

She stops writing and sets the diary aside.  Waking early and working so many hours is taking its toll on her, and before she knows it, Sarah drifts to sleep.  Hours later when she wakes, she is surprised to find the sun much lower in the sky.  Just as she’s about to turn on some music to drown out the world and her mind, Mrs. Wilcox calls her for dinner.  With a sigh, Sarah drags herself to the kitchen to endure her parents’ questions about her day and their plans for her future.  It’s a conversation they have almost every evening, and Sarah plays the part well–answering questions in rehearsed fashion and keeping that smile plastered to her pretty face.

By the end of the day, she’s exhausted in every sense of the word.  She collapses into bed, its warmth and softness the most inviting thing she’s encountered all day.


Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

As she joins her family, although the jovial talk, singing, and laughter ring true, an undercurrent of concern for those who don’t have it so good hangs in the back of Sarah’s mind.  Jon, whose drug addiction has nearly broken his marriage; her aunt Anne who drinks too much; and a mysterious woman at the rest stop who has all the look of someone with her own sad history are the ghosts who haunt young Sarah.  Their songs aren’t about decking the halls.

As she partakes in her grandma’s cake, Sarah stares at the empty chair at the head of the table.  Grandpa haunts the space across the distance of time.  He picks up his cup of coffee and makes cheers toward Sarah.

Go knock ‘em dead, kiddo.

Sarah chokes down a mouthful of cake, washes it down with coffee.  Coffee.  A drink shared.  Pain shared.

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter 9

Chapter Nine: Russ Jacobs

“You know I ain’t gonna be surprised,” Russ grumbles as Brandy drives.

“Can you at least pretend?” his sister asks.

Russ casts a glance in her direction.  Her wavy brown hair is pulled up in a high ponytail, and she’s dressed up for her, which means her nice jeans and a new sports jersey.  Brandy was a jock in high school and is the soccer mom who coaches her kids’ games.  She’s happiest in a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, and other than the light brown eyes Russ and she share, you wouldn’t know they were brother and sister.  Where Russ has a hard time finding enough leg room in Brandy’s Focus and his head grazes the ceiling, Brandy has the driver’s seat moved as close to the steering wheel as it can go.

“I’m no actor,” Russ says, smirking.

Brandy huffs.  “If I weren’t driving, I’d pop you one in the arm, bro.  You know Ed and the guys went through a lot to put this thing together.  And on New Year’s Eve of all nights!  You know places are booked months, years, in advance.  The reservation fee alone’s probably more than your monthly salary.”

Russ chuckles.  “You don’t know how much I make month.”

“Well, no, but you ain’t exactly living in high society if that hole you rent in Inwood’s anything to go by.  I still don’t know why you gotta live in Manhattan.  It’s like a betrayal, Russ.  What’s wrong with your home back in Queens?”

Russ grins.  “What’s it matter to you?  Besides, you got a point.  I hardly stay there.  Maybe it’s time to move, but getting back to the previous point of this stupid party, I never asked for any of you loons to do anything.”

Brandy pulls the car into a private lot and parks.  After turning off the ignition, she turns toward her brother.  “Ah, Rusty, we do it ‘cause we love ya.”

Russ cringes at his childhood name, hating that his closest family members still call him it just to get a reaction.  “Uh, don’t call me ‘Rusty.’  Okay, fine.  I’ll go in, act all surprised, and grab a beer.  Seeing my pals is reason enough to have a good time.”

“That’s the spirit!”

They step out of the car to frigid wind whipping their faces.  Russ puts a protective arm around his sister as they hustle toward the bar, a hopping new place called Jazzy Sue’s.  Once inside, they’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the patrons.  Brandy calls over the noise of the crowd and the music to the bartender that they’re there for a private party.

“Back room!” the bartender mouths and waves them on.

Russ and Brandy shuffle through the crowd, and upon arriving outside the door to the party room, Russ smirks at his sister, shaking his head.

“What’s so funny?” she asks.

“How would you convince me to get to this party without me suspecting anything?  You know, Ed kept teasing me about throwing an ‘Over the Hill’ party for months.  He doesn’t really think I’m gonna be shocked.”

Brandy smiles, amused.  “Okay, okay, point taken.  Let’s just get in there and outta this body heat.  Ugh, I can feel the sweat between my–”

“Don’t say it.”

Brandy laughs.  “C’mon.”

She opens the door, and the crowd beyond the threshold shouts in one voice, “Surprise!”

Russ smiles in spite of himself as he enters.  Hands are clapping him on the back, and someone passes a beer to him, which he takes and knocks back.

“How’s it feel to be an old man, buddy?”

“I’m amazed you’re still walking without a cane!”

“Hey, happy birthday, man!”

Russ can’t help but chuckle.  So many faces, so many voices, it’s dizzying but great.  It doesn’t take long before he’s swept up in the chaos of celebration.  Some people he hasn’t seen in years, both friends and family, are there.  After a few beers, Russ’s guard is down, and any previous thoughts about not wanting a party are gone.  He’s caught up in conversations he won’t remember in the morning, but he’s sure he’ll remember the feeling of being thought of by all these people for a long time to come.

After rounds of junk room and a large slice of cake, Russ is full.  Some of the crowd has thinned, even though it’s not midnight.  In a corner, Russ leans back in a chair, his best buddy Ed by his side.

“You sure you won’t have another beer?” Ed asks, smirking.

Russ shakes his head, chuckling. “And get a beer gut like you, man?  No thanks.  Looks like I’ll be working out extra hard at the gym this week whenever I can afford it.”

Ed pats his belly and smiles.  “You’d have to go a long way to beat me.  But anyway, tell me, Russ.  It’s been too damn long since we talked.  Is there a special girl in your life?  Time’s tickin’ away if you ever wanna settle down.”

Russ frowns.  “Who said anything about settling down?”

Ed straightens in the chair and regards his friend.  “Hey, that was years ago, man.”

Russ shakes his head.  “Nah, there’s no one.”  He’s sure to put a stop to Ed’s attempt at getting him to talk about something that has no bearing on his life at present.  Despite what he says, Russ’s mind goes to a place he’s surprised.  Maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but Russ half-smiles and says, “Well, there’s this one girl, but she doesn’t really count.”

“Do tell.”

“It’s nothing.  I shouldn’t even be thinkin’ about her.”

“Okay, now you have to tell me.”

“Well, her name’s Shelley, and beyond that, I don’t know much about her.”

“So, how’d you meet her?  Online dating?”

Russ laughs.  “Nope, not even gonna go there.  You know it’s next to impossible to meet someone with my schedule.”

“Well, how’d you meet?” Ed persists.

“You ain’t gonna believe this, but she was at one of the rest stops along my route.  Somewhere in Ohio, past Cleveland.”

“Sounds romantic.”  Ed chuckles and finishes his beer.  “Sure you don’t want another?  You only turn the big 4-0 once, man.”

“Oh, what the hell?  Why not?  Sure.”

Ed leaves and returns with two bottles of some brand of Christmas ale.  The foamy liquid gold slides down Russ’s throat with ease.

“I doubt I’ll see her again,” Russ says.  “I think she might be homeless or somethin’.”

“Dude, that’s messed up.  You’ve got a thing for a homeless chick?  What’s her best feature?  The lice in her hair or the trash bag she wears?”

Russ stops smiling.  “Don’t be a jerk, Ed.”

“Sorry, sorry.”  Ed sets down his beer and holds up both hands in mock-surrender.  “Just a bad joke, but c’mon, pal, you don’t really think you’re gonna score with a chick like that.”

“No.”  Russ smirks, but he can’t help the prickle of sadness that creeps into his heart.  He hasn’t had any feelings for a woman in years.  The long hours on the road, the time away from home–it keeps him busy and thinking about anything other than falling in love again.

Ed slaps Russ on the back, snapping him out of his thoughts.  “Look at the time!  It’s almost the New Year.  I gotta find Susan.  Find a girl somewhere in here to kiss, man.  At least give yourself that.”

Russ smiles and shakes his head.  “Go get your wife, you crazy son-of-a-bitch.”

The TV in the corner above the bar shows the ball getting ready to drop in Times Square.  For how close 42nd Street is for Russ, he’s never been there on New Year’s Eve, but as the seconds count down to 2018, everyone in the room chants the numbers backward.  Arms are around Russ, pulling him into the fray, and he finds himself counting down with them.


“Happy New Year!”

Someone grabs Russ and lays a wet smacker on his lips, and when he pulls back, he’s stunned to see a girl who’s barely legal.  

“Who are you?” he asks.

She only laughs and darts out of the room, leaving Russ bemused.

“Happy birthday, old man,” he mutters.