Saturday, December 29, 2012

Preview: Snow Shadow

Snow Shadow

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. He probably should have written that you can go home again, but it won’t be pleasant.
For Meredith Godwin, coming back to Manitou Springs stirred up memories best left to rest. For five years, she had been free of her grandmother’s—Miss Frances’s—iron rule. No matter how hard she tried, the rules stuck even now that her grandmother was dead. One thing that wasn’t on the to-do list this trip was visiting Miss Frances’s house. There was no need now that she was dead and the house sold to developers who turned the grand old Victorian into apartments. Maybe the new tenants were able to exorcise the ghosts Meredith had been unable to outrun when she moved to Ft. Lauderdale. Some ghosts, like some habits and her grandmother, were impossible to outrun. The past caught up with her and dragged her back to deal with a legacy that hadn’t been part of grandmother’s will. It involved a legacy left in trust by her father Stuart Godwin. It should have been settled twenty-five years ago when her parents died, but had been overlooked. The worst part was that it couldn’t be handled long distance, necessitating a return trip to a place Meredith had sworn she’d left behind.
The snowy streets of Colorado Springs passed in a blur of colored lights and red and green banners. Tourists and shoppers darted in an out of antique stores and shops on Colorado Avenue looking for post-Thanksgiving holiday bargains. Past the shops of Old Colorado City and the fast food restaurants, the wide, well maintained four-lane city street dwindled down to a two-lane highway pitted with potholes filled with dark, slushy water. The road curved off the main drag and under an overpass for Route 24 past aging motels that had seen better times and down into the narrow streets of Manitou Springs. Turning off 24 onto Manitou Avenue and then onto Ruxton, Meredith pulled up in front of Victoria’s Keep and parked.
The air was sharp and cold, laced with the smell of wood fires. Meredith closed her eyes and breathed in. Oh, how she had missed the crisp, clear air and the brilliant blue skies. Florida’s skies were a pale blue smudged with pollution and exhaust that seldom freshened even on the white sand beaches. Pikes Peak dominated the landscape in Manitou as it dominated the southwestern horizon everywhere in Colorado Springs. Rising above the snow dusted pines of the lower peaks, Pikes Peak’s craggy sides were solid white. The wind raked tears from her eyes. Meredith set her jaw and dashed them away with one gloved hand while she unlocked the trunk and pulled out her luggage.
She was not going to cry. There was no reason. If Miss Frances taught her anything, it was to keep her emotions buried. “No sense putting on a show, Meredith. It only makes you look weak and foolish,” her grandmother told her over and over. She branded the lesson by giving Meredith something to cry about, usually a sharp backhand and exile to her room without supper as a small child and withering disapproval when she was eleven or twelve.
Inheriting her father’s tall stature gave Meredith an edge over Frances Godwin’s five-foot-five height, but no amount of height could stand up to the glacial silences and iron determination that gave everyone who faced her grandmother in a boardroom or in any establishment the length and breadth of the Front Range. No one stood against the Godwin money or influence for long unless they were simple-minded or foolhardy, and Meredith was neither. All she wanted was to get the legacy business finished and go back east.
For now, breakfast, a hot bath and a few hours of sleep was what she needed before facing Lawrence Charlton at three. With luck and fortune on the side of the angels, in two days the wintery slopes of the Rockies would be little more than a memory in the balmy breezes and afternoon showers back in Florida. Two days, she could handle that.

After an ample breakfast and a hot bath in the Parlor Suite, Meredith turned down the bed and set the travel alarm. Out the window, the Miramont Castle looked like the inside of a snow globe dusted with falling snowflakes that whirled around the turrets and gables. Pulling back the drapes for a better view, Meredith climbed into bed and watched the soft drifting snow dance outside.
One of the few things she missed about her childhood was high tea at the castle with her grandmother. Although wearing white gloves that never seemed to stay clean for more than a few moments and frilly dresses and hats were out of character, Meredith endured the weekly ordeal of bathing and dressing just for the privilege of a half hour prowling the rooms after a delicious tea. She would have endured more to be able to savor the delicious cakes, sandwiches, Earl Grey tea and a walk through the castle rooms instead of the simple and bland daily fare Miss Frances considered proper for a child.
Meredith often wondered how her father turned so unaffected and happy. Where Stuart was concerned, his mother believed he could do no wrong. She doted on him and never hemmed him in with rules and social convention. Stuart had been a happy child with a winning personality and easy disposition, so there was no need to restrict him—until he fell in love with Daisy Yarborough, a nobody transplanted from Berkeley, California. Worse yet, Daisy was the daughter of artists working her way through college.
It didn’t matter that the Yarboroughs owned a successful gallery or that Daisy ran it at a profit, attracting celebrated artists from around the world. All that mattered was that Daisy came from the wrong kind of family.
For the first time in her life, Frances Godwin didn’t get her way. Stuart and Daisy were married in a quiet ceremony in the Garden of the Gods among the “riff-raff” and two years later Meredith was born. From what Meredith remembered, they were a happy family. Life was full of color and laughter until the day of her sixth birthday when Frances swooped down on the celebration with the news that Meredith’s parents had been killed flying home from a show in Montreal. Stunned by the news and before they could gather themselves, the officious little man in black tagging along behind Frances served the Yarboroughs with custody papers while the chauffeur swooped in and hustled Meredith in a Lincoln Town Car and away toward a cold stone and glass mansion built into the bloody-faced cliffs overlooking Manitou. The Yarboroughs were allowed to visit once a year on Meredith’s birthday, but the visits stopped three years later. The Yarboroughs just stopped coming. Miss Frances told Meredith her grandparents moved away and left no forwarding address. By that time the nine-year-old knew enough not to ask questions or make a fuss. There was no point.
Meredith glanced at the clock: eleven o’clock. At this rate, it would be time to get up and dress. Pounding the pillow into shape and closing her eyes, she counted her breaths in an attempt to relax. With nerves strung tighter than a drawn bow, sleep stayed out of reach. One and two and three and four and one…. She focused on her toes, tightened and relaxed, moving upward counting each breath. One and two and three and four and…. Heartbeat slowed and knotted muscles loosened and the first drifts of sleep fuzzed her mind.

A tinny jangle seeped into dreams where Meredith wandered through chilly rooms and fireplaces burned with cold blue flames. Tears froze on her cheeks.
Meredith reached out and knocked over the travel alarm. Somewhere a bell jangled insistently. She sat bolt upright unsure where she was for a moment. Out the window snow piled up on the sill and the solid stone angles of a castle appeared and disappeared amidst a whirling white vortex. Right. Back in Manitou and back to the old dreams. A strident bell jangled again. The phone.
“Miss Godwin, you have an urgent message from Mr. Charlton’s office. Your appointment has been canceled due to the storm. His secretary suggested you call and reschedule in a couple of days.”
“Two days?”
“Yes, miss. The city is shut down. We’ve had over a foot of snow in the last hour and the forecast is for two to three feet.”
Resisting the urge to scream and curse, Meredith thanked the woman.
“Since none of the local restaurants will be open, until the storm is over and the roads are clear, we will serve lunch and dinner.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.” Two days. Stuck for two days. Just what she needed. At least work wasn’t going to be a problem.
Meredith got up, dug her cell phone out of her coat pocket and called her assistant. “Clear my calendar for the next week. I’ll be here longer than I expected.”
“I heard about the storm. Tough luck, Meri.”
“No doubt, Carla. I can tell your heart just bleeds for me.” Meredith stifled a giggle picturing her assistant looking over the books and trying to figure out which of the shoots she thought she could handle on her own. She’d been promising Carla a chance to try her hand at one of the easier sessions, but only if she could be there to keep an eye on things. Carla had talent, but she needed seasoning and a year out of school wasn’t seasoning enough. “No, before you even ask, you cannot take the gallery shoot.”
“It’s an easy job.”
“Not that easy, especially not working with Francois.” There was no doubt that the reason Carla wanted to work with Francois had nothing to do with photographing the show and everything to do with schmoozing Francois. He was good looking—too good looking—and he was married, a fact that didn’t seem to matter to Carla or the dark and brooding Frenchman. No, Carla wasn’t ready to go out on her own, not when she still hadn’t learned not to mix business and pleasure.
“I can handle Francois.” Carla practically purred.
“There’ll be no handling of Francois. Clear my calendar and take the rest of the week off. I’ll call Francois and explain the situation to him.” Carla’s pout was obvious even over the crackle of static. “Don’t forget to set the alarm. I’ll call if there are any changes.”
“Right. Yeah. Whatever.”
There were times when Meredith wondered why she had hired such a novice, times like this when Carla’s lack of experience, youth and attitude were so evident. She wanted everything now and had little to no self control, especially where men were concerned.
There had never been time for men, or boys for that matter, growing up. Life consisted of school and study. Dances were forbidden and dates were out of the question, even if there had been time for dates. Miss Frances supervised all activities and chose the curricula and the one extra-curricular activity allowed: skiing. To bed at nine and up at five-thirty. After school there were lessons in how to behave and endless lectures on cultivating a public persona. College was chosen for her, as were classes and wardrobe, and Meredith did as she was told. Fighting her grandmother wasn’t an option. It’s no wonder classmates thought her odd and out of step; she was.
After Miss Frances broke her hip during senior year at college, Meredith dutifully visited the hospital and then the rehab center while her grandmother recuperated and regained her strength. It was a short reprieve and Meredith determined to make the best of it, accepting an offer to go to one of the professor’s gallery showing and ended up feeling awkward and uncomfortable.  Her classmates seemed so polished and worldly, so at ease in tight, short skirts and cleavage-baring, skin tight tops. It wasn’t just the clothes—she had beautiful clothes, her grandmother saw to that—it was the way the girls flirted and wound themselves around the men like opportunistic ivy, slipping into dark corners or into the shadows out on the street to kiss, fondle and exchange numbers. She’d never been comfortable around boys, or men, half afraid Miss Frances would dust her for fingerprints.
The only time she had been allowed on a group date at seventeen, Miss Frances made the boy brave enough to walk Meredith to the door come in and watch while she checked her neck, shoulders and breasts for love bites. At least the boy, Trevor, was safely gone before her grandmother lectured on the evils of premarital sex while grilling her about where and how Trevor had touched her and then shoving a hand between Meredith’s legs to check for evidence of arousal. Humiliated and furious, she had endured it all until allowed to get a shower and go to bed. After that, turning down offers of dates was easy. All she need do was conjure up her grandmother’s rough poking and prodding hands and any thoughts of dances or dates or getting close to any boy died a quick death.
There was no way she’d be able to retain her sanity shut up in this suite for two days. Being in Manitou was bad enough. Not here even eight hours and already she had fallen back into maudlin thoughts and old habits. Lunch was over and dinner was a few hours away.
Wind howled and whistled down the chimney in the parlor. Ghostly golden lights winked against the sheer white of the storm. She’d never make it the two blocks to downtown in the storm, but she had to do something.
Dressing quickly and tucking the room key in a side pocket of her purse, she shouldered the bag and walked out into the lobby, locking the door.
“Miss Godwin, lunch is still laid out in the dining room if you’re hungry. There’s coffee and tea on the sideboard and I can whip up some hot cocoa if you’d prefer that.” The owner led her into the dining room. “There are movies and quite a few books in the parlor if you’re interested.”
“It’s so quiet.”
“Well, there’s only one guest other than you.”
The buffet was laden with sliced ciabatta and sourdough bread, cold meats, cheeses and an assortment of condiments and sandwich fixings. A large bowl held fresh strawberries, apples and a fruit compote. Meredith made up a plate while the owner went to the kitchen to fix a pot of hot cocoa and sat down at a table near the window looking out onto the wraparound porch. The bread was fresh and the fruit compote a fresh and delicious contrast to the silky richness of the cocoa.
“There’s more if you’d like.” The owner topped up the cocoa.
“I didn’t realize how hungry I was.” Meredith thanked her and turned down seconds, lingering over the hot cocoa as she watched the snow pile up against the window and bury the cars parked on the street. For the first time since arriving, she felt at ease and comfortable.
Taking the drink into the parlor, Meredith looked at the books and movies on the shelves, choosing a documentary on the Trojan war. And then she spotted it, a romantic comedy Gavin took her to see on their first date. The idea of watching a movie wasn’t so appealing any more.
Heady with a first taste of freedom since her grandmother died, Meredith had ventured onto the social scene with a few friends from college intent on cheering her up. Six months was long enough to mourn they said, never suspecting she wasn’t sad or depressed, quite the contrary. She was free, but leery of enjoying that freedom too much. There was the ever present fear that Miss Frances would appear with a chilly smile and look down her long, straight nose with a disappointed and disapproving frown, one perfectly sculpted eyebrow disdainfully arched and Meredith would tuck her tail between her legs and follow ashamed and contrite to accept punishment for having smiled or laughed or thought for one second she was free to do as she pleased.  Taking a chance, Meredith agreed to meet her friends in Vail for a ski weekend.
She’d gone on ski weekends when Miss Frances was alive, but always with her grandmother, never alone. It was a safe first venture.
The night before, a storm dropped a little over two feet of powder and the lodge and slopes were crowded with snow bunnies. Managing a couple of good runs before the slopes got too crowded, Meredith and her friends met in the main lodge. After lunch, Sheila and Frederica decided to lounge in the hot tub. They agreed to meet for drinks before dinner and Meredith decided to run into town to get her bindings tightened. She hadn't expected to run into Gavin White Wolf.
Or to come face to face with the past.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sneak preview: The Remittance Man

The Remittance Man

By J M Cornwell

Chapter One

Twenty years should have made a difference. It hadn’t. Jack Cain had not changed and neither had his habits. I expected towering stacks of newspapers and magazines and books and Jack weaving a path through a darkened room to the door, not that I could see him until he opened the door, but I was not disappointed.
Head tilted to one side as if awaiting an answer to a question, Jack looked the same, exactly the same. I guess that had a lot to do with his mother being the CEO of a cosmetic company, although I thought he only got a check once a month and not product, so his lack of aging could be due to good genes.
I felt swept back through the years to the first time I saw Jack Cain when Dad took me to see him at his apartment in Colon. Then as now, he wore an Egyptian cotton shirt the color of half lit shadows, khaki pants, and slip-on canvas shoes the same color as the shirt. His buzz cut was faintly threaded with grey and he wore the same black horn-rimmed glasses. I’d half expected contacts over his squinty eyes, but he clung to familiarity like a life preserver, especially now his mother was dead and his younger brother controlled the family fortune.
What I had been able to glean from gossip among the scattered friends that were once so close they lived and partied as a single-celled organism was that Jack’s brother had cut him off, no more monthly remittance checks and no more exile. That was what brought Jack back to the States, lack of funds, so he mined his friends for money using their secrets for trade. Who knew a bunch of middle class noncoms and civilian contractors could get into that much trouble with their families in tow. I certainly didn’t and wouldn’t have found out any of the sordid details had my father not decided to bring me in to deal with Jack, hoping I could twist him around my little finger the way I had always twisted men into knots. Since Jack likely still saw me as a nine-year-old child instead of a woman grown, I’d have an edge. I hoped Dad was right, but more than that I wanted to get rid of Jack as quickly as possible and spare the scene that Mom would cause if she found out Jack was back.
Mom had never trusted Jack and she didn’t like him. That much was obvious in her stiff posture and the way she shrank in on herself when he got too close, too close being within thirty feet of her. She acted the same way with spiders, mice, and other vermin. She sometimes acted that way with Dad, but that was their problem and not mine. Dealing with Jack was my problem.
“How do you do, Mr. Cain?” I asked after he opened the door and said hello. “I’m here on behalf . . . . “
“I know why you’re here, Maria. Did you bring the money?”
“May I come in?”
He stood back. “No sense discussing business in the hall.”
Jack hadn’t been in town long. The piles were only halfway up my shins and I’m a tall girl, five foot ten inches barefoot. Since I was wearing heels, add another three inches. Jack was still taller, but only by a couple of inches. His white skin reminded me of an albino cockroach I once saw crawl across his dining room table from beneath a stack of books the day Dad took me with him to Jack’s apartment. That hadn’t changed either, nor had the prickly feeling at the base of my neck or the gooseflesh racing along my arms and down my spine. The hum of fans and multiple air conditioners gave the room an arctic chill that added to my own internal chill in spite of wearing a thick vicuna coat, cashmere sweater, and the usual complement of lingerie. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack that it was autumn outside and the weather a bit on the cool, crisp side.
The apartment was sparsely furnished with whatever the lease had provided and was accented with a few of Jack’s extensive collection of Japanese screens and a select few Miros, Picassos, and his favorite framed da Vinci sketches. I wondered briefly how he had managed to get the carved mahogany screens with their fragile silk panels and mother of pearl inlays onto the planes.
Sensing my curiosity, he answered without hesitation. “My screens. I never leave home without them,” he said. “I pack them in coffins when I travel.”
As if Jack wasn’t creepy enough, that admission would have pegged the creep-o-meter in three seconds flat.
“The paintings are carefully crated and the rest,” he swept out his arm to include the paper bundles and stacks of books, “I leave behind. They provide company and information, but aren’t good traveling companions. For that I would need to travel by C-5 and I am not suited for such discomfort.”
No doubt. “That’s why you’re here, Mr. Cain, to alleviate further discomfort.”
“Just so.” He pushed his glasses up his aquiline nose and ran the hand across his bristly scalp.
The glasses had carved furrows on either side of his head above his ears with a look that spoke of years of etching. Though Jack was a bulky man, he wasn’t fat, except above his ears and at the nape of his neck where small hillocks of fat heaped above the slender column of his neck. He was a man of contrasts, from his black hair and eyebrows, a five o’clock shadow at nine in the morning, and the pallor of his skin. He wasn’t muscular, but there was evidence of steel beneath skin only visible when his languid movement turned sharp and decisive.
There is power in silence and I was determined to make Jack speak first. I crossed my legs, folded my hands in my lap, and looked wide-eyed at him. He spoke first.
“You’ve changed a great deal, Maria. It suits you.”
I nodded and smiled. “You’ve not changed at all.” You got a good bargain for your soul.
“Tranquility is the key. Tranquility and a quiet life.”
“And you’d like to continue your tranquil and quiet life.”
“Just so.”
Dad didn’t tell me what Cain had on him, but it must be big to warrant the substantial payment I carried in my bag. I wondered how many securities Dad had sold to raise that kind of money, but didn’t dare ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” He rose and took a couple of steps towards the kitchen. “You’d prefer coffee or cappuccino? I have a machine.”
I wanted vodka. The sharp, hard, quick bite would steel me for what I must do.
“Tea would be lovely.” I might not want to know Dad’s secrets and yet concluding our business prematurely would be a mistake. I had to impress on Cain that this would be the only funds he would receive and nothing, not even revealing some dread dark secret, would prevail in the future. Cain had to disappear and not return. He could feed in other waters. The sooner the better. There were no other options, not as far as I was concerned. Cain had to go one way or another.
“Just so,” he replied.
Had I not been watching him as he moved to the kitchen, I would not have heard him. That, too, I remembered, the way he had of appearing and disappearing so swiftly and quietly. There was something ominous and deadly about the way he moved, as though his appearance was a deception cultivated to lull victims into discounting his physical prowess and power, both of which I was keenly aware of. I still remember the strength of his hands and the way he nearly jerked my arms out of the sockets when he rescued me from the eels converging on me where I’d fallen into the water during a group fishing trip. My feet had been lacerated by the coral I fell onto, but the accident would have been much worse had Cain not stepped in and intervened. I owed him my life and I was grateful, but such debts weigh nothing when a daughter’s love for her father is on the balance.
“So pensive,” Cain said. “Just like when you were a child.” He set a lacquered carved tray on the table laden with petit fours and everything for tea. The tea set was an ornate silver affair that had a patina of oft polished age about it and Maria doubted it was less than two hundred years old from the style of the workmanship. “There now. A proper tea.”
“For this hour of the morning?”
“For any hour.” He set the table for tea, declining Maria’s help. He was obviously preferred playing the grand host and he did it well. It made me uncomfortable, so I excused myself and followed Cain’s directions to the bathroom, which was no less grand than the rest of the apartment.
It wasn’t the expensive fabric on the walls and at the windows or even the plush carpeting on the floor that made me want to take off my shoes and walk barefoot, but a sense of style and wealth that was understated and more noticeable because of its subtlety. If I didn’t know he arrived in town two weeks ago, I’d think he’d been here for years, except for small stacks of printed material. That’s a dead giveaway.
I finished as quickly as possible, placing the thick plush hand towel back on the rack as neatly as possible. I suppressed the urge to wipe down the sink and went back to the dining room.
“You look much more refreshed, Maria.” He indicated her seat and offered the burgeoning tray of petit fours, which were delicate spring confections decorated with tiny flowers and leaves. “Cake or biscuit?” He offered a small plate of macaroons.
I took one of the macaroons and accepted a cup of tea. After refusing sugar, milk, and lemon, I sipped the piping hot tea and nearly swooned. Ginger, jasmine, and the complex oolong tea lingered like a balm on my tongue. “This is good,” I said and nearly bit my tongue. I wasn’t here for a tea party. This was business and we’d better get to it.
“Mr. Cain,” I began.
“I’d prefer we wait until after tea. Pleasure first. Business after.” He sipped his tea and closed his eyes in delight before settling comfortably against the back of the chair.
I fretted at the delay but saw no other way to handle things. He was calling the tune so I’d follow along as long as my patience lasted. I took another sip and nearly choked.
Cain smiled. “Mustn’t rush,” he chided. “Enjoy the fragrance and the taste. It’s better when enjoyed slowly to get the full effect.”
I gritted my teeth and smiled. “It is lovely and the cookies are very good, but I really must get back to the office. I only came here . . .”
“Such haste. You were much calmer as a child.”
“Was I? I remember it differently.”
“You were such a precocious thing, all eyes and ears, but respectful. You were special, too special to be Stephen and Helen’s child. I often wondered how they missed the changeling in their midst, especially with Stephanie lurking always about. Now there was a nasty piece of work.”
I shrugged. There was nothing to say. I was my father’s daughter and my sister Stephanie was all Mom’s. Stephanie even looked like Mom in certain lights and people often mistook her for their mother. The acorn didn’t fall far from that tree. I suppose I should’ve defended my sister, but there was no need. Stephanie could defend herself. I certainly wouldn’t.
“You and she were as different as night and day.”
“Blondes always stand out.”
“Not at all. You were the one everyone noticed.”
“Only because I was climbing trees or getting into trouble.”
“I would not have saved Stephanie from the eels. The eels would have needed saving.”
A chuckle slipped my control and Cain, completely out of character, winked at me. His dark brown eyes danced behind the thick lenses of his glasses, almost twinkling with humor, and I laughed.
“Now that is a pleasant sound. You should laugh more often.”
Maybe it was our shared dislike of my sister or knowing that at least on that point we were in agreement, but the taut muscles in my shoulders and jaw relaxed and I began to enjoy the tea and the company so much, I chose a petit four when Cain offered. I had to admit he was being quite hospitable and even likable in spite of the business at hand.
As a child, I found him fascinating. He was so different from my parents and their friends, still and composed no matter the surroundings. There was something odd about him to be sure, but nothing frightening and I never felt wary in his presence. My mother hated him and the way he ate chicken of all things. Cain chewed off the ends of chicken legs and sucked out the marrow. I’d tried it once. The marrow tasted rich and buttery and I liked it, but that habit stopped before it got started. My mother forbade me to do it ever again. She had looked at me with disgust and shuddered, the same way she had looked at Cain.
“As a child, you were a bud and now you have flowered into a stunning woman. I knew you would.”
A heated blush flared across my cheeks and my ears were hot. “Thank you.” I inclined my head in thanks and didn’t dare say another word for fear of appearing silly or, worse yet, stupid. I actually liked Cain, not for saving me or for his gracious hospitality, but because I sensed his compliments weren’t empty. He was just who he appeared to be and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“The tea and cakes were lovely,” I said, glancing pointedly at my wrist watch. “I do have a busy afternoon.” I looked up and he closed his eyes and nodded, a look of resigned sadness on his broad face. Putting down the tea cup, I took out the envelope and laid it on the table between us. Cain continued sipping his tea, avoiding looking at the envelope. “I’d appreciate it if you’d count it.”
“No need of such vulgarity between friends.”
“Mr. Cain, please understand. There will be no further payments.”
“And no need for you to return?”
“I . . .”
“No need for words.”
After opening the envelope, Cain thumbed through the bills with practiced ease. There was no doubt he knew exactly how much was there, not because it was the amount he specified, but because he had counted it that rapidly with a minimum of movement and fuss. He was businesslike when the situation called for it. His movements were fast and economic, as much to preserve his delicacy and satisfy my request.
He looked up at me and his look asked if I was satisfied now as he slipped the envelope beneath the tray.
“Would you like another cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.” I wanted to stay. I wanted to go and put all this behind me and yet there was something else here and it wasn’t only the views we shared of my sister Stephanie. She was a sneak and reveled in manipulating people, especially our parents when she wanted something and one of them denied her. A few carefully chosen words and our parents would end up fighting each other while Stephanie walked away with whatever she wanted.
Telling Mother and Dad what was going on always ended up with my lip bloody or Mother’s handprint scalded on my cheek, or both, and more punishment would follow. Dad seldom stepped between us; he knew better. Mother’s wrath would fall on him next and he had to sleep with her. I didn’t. I could take my wounded pride, anger, and betrayal to my room where I’d end up spending a few weeks or a few months, depending on how angry Mother was at the time. Stephanie stayed to watch the show and gloat over yet another triumph until I got smart and kept my mouth shut. If they couldn’t see what Stephanie was doing, I wasn’t about to tell either one of them. It always ended in tears: mine.
Yes, Cain was right and I felt sorry for him. I wanted to reach out and touch his hand or clasp his shoulder, offer to come again, but I knew I wouldn’t come back. In a different situation, I’d welcome his friendship and could appreciate it more now that I was an adult. That would not happen. Not now. Not ever. Not as long as blackmail stood between us. It was just business.
“Mr. Cain, our business is concluded. There will be no further payments or gifts. I hope you understand.”
Cain put up his hand. “I shall not return nor shall I be here long. I have appointments elsewhere.”
I am glad he stopped me. Leaving on such a note would have been difficult after all his generosity. I almost laughed. His generosity was paid for by his friends and now by my father.
Teeth clenched against the angry words about to spill out, I stopped. He was right. There was no need of words. Our situations and the unfortunate circumstances that brought us together now made anything more impossible.
How did we get here?
Right. The monthly remittance checks from his family, now that his brother was in charged, had stopped and Cain had resorted to the only option left to him, to depend on his friends and their secrets to keep him in the style he’d grown accustomed to.
“Thank you for your hospitality.” I stood, put on my coat, and walked to the door. I heard Cain rise behind me. As I reached for the door knob, his hand was there and I soon stood out in the hall facing him.
“If you find yourself at loose ends, please stop again. I shall be leaving at the end of the month. It seemed a shame not to see more of the city while I am here.”
“I can’t promise . . .”
“No. Of course not. A young woman like you would have many demands on her time, many social engagements. I shall not expect you, merely look forward to the possibility.” He extended his hand and I hesitated for a brief second only before taking his meaty paw. It was neither damp nor unpleasant. His handshake was firm and his fingers and palm strong. I noticed his nails were manicured and buffed.
Resisting the urge to kiss his cheek or hug him, I nodded and left. When I pushed the door open at the end of the hall, I glanced back. The door was closed and I had forgotten to ask him what secret he knew about my father. Maybe that was a good thing. I’d love Dad no matter what he had done, but it would be easier if I didn’t know all his secrets, just as he would never know all of mine. A little mystery is necessary in any relationship, especially a relationship between parent and child.
A raw wind slapped at me and rain spattered my cheeks as I ran for the car before the storm broke in earnest. I’m still not sure if the moisture on my face was all rain. It must have been. Tears would’ve been hot.
There was no reason to cry for Cain or about him. He chose his path and I had chosen mine. We wouldn’t see each other again and that was for the best. A friendship between us was not possible, I reminded myself. Best to put him and the whole business behind me, but the best laid plans . . . and all that jazz.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From The End of the World to Possibility

This last year jittered on the edge of a big bang that fizzled just as surely as the predicted computer apocalypse of 1999. I never believed the whole end of the world portents and fear because I knew that the end of the Mayan calendar was the beginning of a new age and a new calendar. The Mayans were entrenched in the practice of planned obsolescence.  Their calendars lasted for an entire age and, as Xmas is over and the last days of 2012 tick to the end of another year, I am poised for possibilities.

I don't do new year's resolutions because they always amount to the same thing: lose weight, publish more books, become a wealthy and famous author whose name is on the tongues of billions, and write the kind of books that will become -- and remain -- classics. The only one in that list of wants that has any chance of happening is publishing more books. I have 3, and possibly 4, books poised to be published in 2013, one of which was postponed from this year due to death, too much working for a paycheck, and loss of steam. Losing my 2-year-old grandson Connor took the wind out of my sails and it has taken a long time to find the energy and the will to keep going. Sending my son David Scott the stocking I cross stitched for Connor helped a lot. It was closing the last page on a very long book that ended on a sad but hopeful note.

That is where I am right now, poised on a hopeful note as I look forward to 5 days off after working every holiday this year, including Xmas.

The political horizon gives me no hope since the same greedy oligarchs are still in power and moving on with their plans to demoralize, diminish, and destroy the United States of America in the name of greed and ephemeral power. There is little hope on the economic horizon even with the price of gas below $3.00 for the first time in years. And there is even less hope on the war front in spite of more and more soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and the black wars that few of us know about.

If I smoked pot, which I do very rarely (twice in the past 15 years), I could look forward to buying and smoking at least an ounce of marijuana without being thrown in jail. I could look forward to a year without another death in my family, although, considering the past 5 years, I doubt that is realistic. I could look forward to just about anything, but I will hang onto what I know for sure.

The mild winter here in Colorado took a nose dive with a real white Xmas and Xmas snow. That was enough to put a smile on my face and to give me hope for the future when everything out in the real world has been nothing if not daunting. This being my last work day of 2012 also helps broaden the smile and I heave a sigh of relief that I will be able to stop racing against the clock and fretting that I don't have enough time to get settled into the work mode for another night shift. I have 5 days, 2 of them weekend days, to relax and let this year settle, much like a heavy dinner.

My grandson is still gone, and so is my mother, appropriately on Friday the 13th last January, but I have plans. Last year was filled with preparation for this Xmas. I bought the materials and stitched my way through 7 Xmas stockings, a few ornaments for the kiddies, and gathering together the gifts that would go with the stockings (which were a hit by the way). I was surprised that my oldest grandson, Jordan, actually wants a stocking. I didn't make one for him since he's a teenager. I guess my friend Mary Ann was right and kids never outgrow wanting a stocking to hang on the mantel with care even when the hope of St. Nicholas has given way to teenage pragmatism and the belief in Old St. Nick has waned. There is always room for a stocking no matter the age.

I need a new project, or at least a good idea for next year, since this year is going to be hard to top, hence the books. I have let 3 books languish over the past months of this year and it's time to take up my pen, poise my fingers over the keyboard, and get down to business. I'll never become a wealthy and famous author unless I get back to basics: reading, writing, and more  writing -- not to mention editing. The book covers are done. All I need to do is fill the pages that go between the covers, and I can do that. That magical Xmas snow helped put me in the right frame of mind.

There are other plans afoot for 2013. I have to convince Beanie to bring her boys with her and spend Xmas out here in Colorado with me. I want to share an old-fashioned Xmas with my family. I might even invite my boys and their kids -- as long as they understand they won't be able to stay here with me since space is limited. I'd need a much bigger house to host 9 grandchildren, 3 sons and their wives/girlfriend, Beanie and her 2 boys, and maybe her fiance's 2 boys and the fiance, not to mention my granddaughter Sierra's maternal grandparents, since I'm sure they would not want to be left out. Too bad I'm not wealthy already because I could rent one of the big cottages out at the Broadview or maybe a big modern cabin up in the mountains at Tabernash. Now that would be perfect, and another reason for me to get on the ball and finish more books.

That glistening carpet of white beneath the winter sun on Xmas day flashed with emerald, ruby, and diamond lights and the whole neighborhood was hushed. The only mark in the snow was where Santa's sleigh drove through the parking lot that surrounds my cottage (flying reindeer don't leave tracks) and stopped in front of my house. Even though I had to work Xmas day, the time went by quickly and visions of Xmas future grew in my head. I have work to do -- a lot of it -- and I'm ready for whatever challenge 2013 brings. Plans are being roughed out and will be filled in as the new year progresses and next Xmas will be better than this one, especially if there will be Xmas snow.

Whatever you plan for the next year, or even for tomorrow, be ready for hurdles and detours and meet them with hope and a smile. Hope and smiles can cut through the toughest times, especially when the end is a year of family -- and so much more.

Happy New Year. I'm ready for 2013 now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas for One

An old friend popped up on Facebook earlier this week asking to be friended. Normally, I don't friend anyone I don't know and this person knew only 2 people on my list. I have standards, and yet something kept niggling at me to check him out. I went to his profile and the 2 people  we shared in common were two people I respect and admire. I said yes to his friend request, and then he sent me a message.

As we chatted, I realized I knew him and hadn't heard from him in a couple years. He used to buy a lot of my blog posts and articles for his website. He's another someone I respect and admire, and we share a great deal in common. This year, we share being away from family and home for the holidays, he by choice and I because I have been traveling farther and farther from my hometown and what is left of my family. He asked me to write about what it was like to celebrate Christmas and the holidays alone without family.

I don't remember all the holidays I have spent without my family, but I do remember the first holiday here in Colorado alone at the cabin. That was really alone because I knew no one in the area and the people in Winter Park I knew had their own families. I wasn't about to horn in on their holidays. I'm sure they would have included me if I'd dropped a tear and a sniffle along with a whine in their direction, but I decided not to intrude.

I didn't have a cut Christmas tree that year and was feeling especially sad that year because I'd decided not to have a tree when it dawned on me that I had lots of trees surrounding the cabin, and one really perfect balsam pine that would look lovely decorated. I didn't have much money since I was laid off a few months before so buying ornaments was not happening. I had to save the money for food. What I could do was take some of that food and decorate the tree the old fashioned way, so I got busy.

I shelled nuts, scooped out oranges to make orange baskets, popped corn and strung it on thread (I had a lot of thread), strung cranberries, and thoroughly enjoyed myself making edible ornaments for the tree in the yard.

It snowed heavily a week before Christmas, but I packed all my ornaments into the canvas bags I used at the grocery store and trudged through waist high drifts to the tree. The rest of the bags were ready inside the French doors onto the deck; the tree was close enough to the deck for me to decorate the top and I was ready to go.

Orange baskets filled with peanut butter, suet, and seeds were hung on the branches with care. Strings of cranberries and popcorn festooned the branches from top to the bottom branches still above the snow. Home made suet and seed bells came next and I decked out the tree with strings of peanuts in the shell and little lettuce baskets filled with shelled nuts. In spite of the cold, and losing the feeling in my legs and hips, I sang Christmas carols and whistled while I worked, finishing up the decorations at the top of the tree from the deck, and tossing the rest of the garlands in somewhat graceful loops down the tree.

By the time I was back in the cabin and thawing in front of the stove, the sun was down and the stars came out in glittering stars like a treasure chest of jewels scattered across an endless black sky like midnight velvet. The moon rose and glowed across the snow, softening the hard edges of melted dunes and sun struck drifts.

With a large mug of hot cocoa in hand, I wrapped up in a blanket and walked out into the crisp cold of the winter night and stopped on the threshold. The night was alive with whisperings and snufflings and shuffling among the snow. The first animals of Christmas Eve had arrived and filled the night with their sounds of curiosity and pleasure. I slipped back inside the cabin and quietly shut the door so as not to disturb my first visitors and I pulled the recliner close to the windows so I could watch the celebration.

I fell asleep in the chair and woke Christmas morning with the sun streaming down from a pale blue sky. I got up and looked out and the tree was swarming with birds, pine martens, and mule deer as they came to the feast. The animals cleared everything from the tree over the following days until it was clear of all but empty string and the shreds of orange cup empty of contents.

I didn't mind being alone that year and, every time I think about another Christmas without family when I have to work, I remember that magical winter when I celebrated Christmas with the animals.

I miss living at the cabin when it's cold and dreary here at the foot of the mountains and the soft, silent perfection of a new snowfall is spattered with dirt and muddy water, and another day of work lies ahead with too little to look forward to, knowing I can look back on Christmases and Yules spent with friends while I look forward to sharing the holidays with my friends scattered here and there around the planet. I know that even though I have to work and will spend another holiday alone, I am not alone. Billions of families and groups of friends are gathering to share their gifts and meals in honor of this midwinter festival when the nights are the longest and we are farthest from the sun, and when a silent night can be filled with the wonder of sharing the holiday with whoever -- and whatever -- are there, and with memories of times long past and those yet to be. 

Merry Christmas. Merry Yule. Happy Chanukah. Happy Holidays.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review: The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma

Victorian horrors and thrills built on the bones of established fantasy.

Herbert George Wells intends to meet the American writer who wrote a sequel to War of the Worlds and Wells intends to give Serviss a large piece of his mind. Wells is livid at not only how it was done but also that Serviss turned his book into a showcase for American excess. When Wells and Serviss meets, the American excites Wells’ passions and his curiosity in a different way, a way that ends with an inebriated Wells being led to London’s Museum of Natural History to see a real Martian spacecraft and a dead Martian. An accident, a cut, and a drop of blood fuel a new trilogy of stories that begins in Antarctica and ends with a Martian invasion. As with The Map of Time when Felix J. Palma used H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as the basis of his trilogy of tales, once again Palma goes to Wells to find inspiration for The Map of the Sky.

Not content with using Wells as his only inspiration, Palma adds Edgar Allan Poe, The Thing from Outer Space (also known as The Thing, a 1950s science fiction tale of horror), and a bit of Jules Verne to the mix. It seems there are no stories, writers, or movies that will not be used to fuel Palma’s trilogies, and yet The Map of the Sky is still fresh, if a bit over written in the Victorian style.

As soon as I realized the genesis of the first part of this trilogy came from the movie, The Thing, I expected a rehash of the movie. What I found was a fresh viewpoint and characters, although some retained the original names, although the story was set in Antarctica instead of the Arctic. Though there were no planes, flame throwers, or electricity, Palma managed to dispatch the alien with dynamite—and then stopped dead and rewrote the ending so that the Martian would end up in the London museum for Wells to awaken. Sheer guts and a bit of genius changed my mind, and I continued to read.  

The Map of the Sky is a heady stew of the familiar spiced with eccentricity and Victorian excess that is sure to thrill, chill, and enchant.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Season of Thanks

It is the season of giving -- and depression. It is not just the lack of sun as the nights grow longer moving closer to the winter solstice, but the lack of resources that makes us unhappy.  Those who have give and those who have not . . . say nothing and hide. People never realize how little it takes to say thank you and believe that giving something of less cost would be rude. The best thing, many people believe, is to do and say nothing and nothing could be farther from the truth.  Manners and kindness cost very little.

Who among us would but put out or frown when receiving a letter from a friend or acquaintance, something that did not for once contain a bill, but a piece of someone life shared in a few lines of type or handwriting? I always smile when I go to the mailbox and find, instead of bills and a mountain of catalogs and advertisements, a card or a letter. That someone took the time to write -- or type -- a letter means so much.

I prefer to write my notes and letters longhand, although I have in the past typed up letters and sent them. I carried on long correspondences with many writers, friends, and family. Sadly, many of those pen pals are gone, but I still keep writing. It costs very little to write a letter or send a card, a few pennies for the envelope and paper and 45 cents for the stamp. A small cost, but a very big reward in strengthening the ties of friendship and sending a bit of our lives and memories into another's safe keeping. If you cannot afford a computer (rare these days), there are lots of libraries around that will let you use their computers and the cost for printing out the letters is about 10 cents a page, at least at our local library. I have often used the library for research and when my computer is being repaired and I wanted to get something out as soon as possible. Add 45 cents for the stamp and instant happiness, or as instant as it ever gets with the U. S. Snail.

If someone in better financial circumstances sends a gift at birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays -- like the holidays coming up -- I was taught a thank you card is the best way to say thank you, and yet gifts are sent and the recipients seldom even acknowledge the gift with a text message, IM, or mention on Facebook. A handwritten or typed card is obviously out of the question, and yet good manners cost nothing.

Perhaps the recipient is unable or uncomfortable with writing. A phone call works as well. In a small way, it is rather like going to the doctor for a biopsy or tests and because there is nothing wrong the doctor never calls, thinking that if the news was bad you would expect a call. No news is good news. In the matter of a personal gift, no news is quite simply no news . . . and pretty rude. Don't get me wrong. I often prefer rude, but only when polite responses are ignored. There is a time for rude and a time for thanks. Telling the difference is fairly simple.

Yet, what if you cannot respond in kind to a friend's gift? Isn't it better to stay silent than to expose your poverty? No. Not ever. Think how you would feel if you sent a friend a gift -- or gifts over several years -- and received neither a thank you nor a gift in exchange? How would you feel?

Inexpensive gifts are just as precious as ostentatious and expensive gifts. So you can't afford that 250-foot yacht or the diamond studded toilet seat with the built-in warmer and cell phone charging station, there are lots of other options.

Homemade gifts are the best, be it food for friends and family nearby or a handmade card. A gift of found items fashioned into jewelry or Xmas tree ornaments is always acceptable. Some of my favorite ornaments are those made by friends or even ones I made in more difficult times. One such time, I made a set of ornaments for Beanie, my youngest sister, and she still uses them on her tree every year. I made the ornaments out of scraps and bought 12 grapevine wreaths for about $1.00 and the result was more than 20 years of memories -- for both of us. A homemade gift card for housecleaning for someone who is working extra jobs or shifts to make ends meet or someone having health problems is a wonderful gift, rather like offering to do chores for a brother or sister in exchange for a favor later. In that case, the favor would be a heartfelt thank you for a gift you received from them instead of a night off doing dishes because you want to go to a movie or on a date. Different times, different reasons, but the result is the same -- everyone is happy with the swap.

A $5 or $10 gift card for coffee or lunch is a wonderful thank you and gift. You might even consider such a gift card for soldiers who will spend their holidays overseas. I'm a big fan of Cup of Joe at Green Beans and budget a little to send a hot cup of coffee to say my thanks for all the soldiers do standing in harm's way on foreign shores. 

There are times when a phone call and a chat that lasts more than 5 minutes is a welcome gift and a wonderful way to say thank you. These days, the call costs next to nothing, and hearing a friendly voice is always welcome, even if it is just to offer thanks or catch up. If there is time for watching television, there is time for a phone call. My Uncle Bob doesn't write letters, but whenever he receives a letter from me, he calls and we talk and catch up for a little while. I cherish those moments and the thought behind the call. I haven't seen him in a very long time because I don't get back east very often, but we keep in touch, me with my letters and he with his phone calls. Memories like that are priceless.

In this day and age with all the wondrous methods of keeping in touch, it is sad to say that we have lost touch with simple manners. There really are no good excuses, just excuses. If you can't write, type. If you can't type, call. If all else fails, let the people that matter to you know their gifts, their caring, and the time they took to remember you with a gift or a card or a letter means something to you. Keep in touch.

As Reese Witherspoon says, "Good manners cost nothing but are worth everything," a sentiment I hope we all will remember during this holiday season. Make this a season of thanks.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Taking Back the Backlist

When the heirs to A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Steinbeck's works went to court in 2009, they wanted to vacate publishing rights and regain control of the works and money generated. Milne's heirs failed to win against Disney studios and the Supreme Court refused to hear Steinbeck's heirs case.

The window for filing to regain author rights signed over to publishers is fast approaching and authors like Stephen King, Judith Krantz, John Le Carre, and Ken Follett could be making a run for the border with their back list in hand, or so says Jeff John Roberts in his recent article. What this means for publishers is a season of loss and court cases unless publishers make some very sweet deals with authors to retain copyrights to billions of dollars of best sellers and big name authors. Considering what that will mean to the bottom line -- and to digital rights -- is likely forcing publishers to crack the whip over their legal eagles to burn the midnight oil and find a solution that will allow them to keep control of their biggest cash cows.

While big name authors make money on the front end, it is the back list, those books that comprise the body of the authors' years of work, that keep the money flowing into publishers' pockets. Authors have gotten rich, but publishers get richer off backlists. Losing backlists, in addition to the control of ebook royalties and rights, in light of their short-sightedness over the longevity and viability of ebooks and the way the public has embraced the digital format, would be a near fatal blow. After all, ebooks were supposed to be a fad and not the multi-billion dollar business that it has become.

It is doubtful that big name writers will want to spend their days -- or their money -- paying lawyers and going to court, and publishers will be all too happy to use that issue to keep control. However, never say never.

This next year, 2013, looks to be a big year for publishing, a bigger year perhaps than previous years when more and more writers jumped the big publishing ship to go independent and cut publishers out of the digital revolution. There are loopholes (there are always loopholes) that publishers will be more than happy to exploit, but it is more likely that authors will negotiate to get a bigger slice of the pie that they worked so hard to fill -- and from which they have been excluded. Publishers deserve to benefit from their part in publishing and marketing the books that reside in their backlist, but not in perpetuity. I look forward to seeing how many authors will jump ship and sell their backlists in digital format for a fraction of what publishers continue to gouge out of an increasingly cash strapped public.

The heirs to Milne's Winnie the Pooh may have lost to Disney, but the outcome of future cases has yet to be decided.

Monday, November 19, 2012

At the Heart of Every Story

My favorite stories are usually intergenerational, like Andre Norton's Witch World series and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. Then there's Anne McCaffrey's dragons of Pern and, my latest favorite, George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which is all about family drama.

I don't think there is a more far reaching and intricately connected intergenerational science fiction series than Frank Herbert's Dune series, and his torch is now being carried by his son Brian. Even J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the stories set in Middle Earth had at the heart families, the short lived families of Hobbits, like Bilbo and Frodo with cousins, Merry and Pippin, and the ever faithful retainer Samwise Gamgee. The horse lords of the Riddermark and the immortal elves and their families and intertwined relationships made what was supposed to be a world changing adventure story so much more.

Science fiction and fantasy have always been my first loves because they take family to new heights and to the farthest reaches of the universe and the mind and remain always stories about families and family drama. Feuds and romance, war and faith, they are all in there. Without the smaller canvas (even when it spreads out in all directions) of family, adventure stories would just be stories of the moment. Add family, like the triplets born of a Witch who turned her back against the might of the ruling witches to fall in love with and marry a mortal man and still retain her power though she lost her jewel, and invest those triplets with powers and strengths (and weaknesses) of their own and a simple story turns into so much more, and so much less than just magic and mayhem. People are at the heart, the very core of fiction.

Where there are people there are families. None of can truly claim to have popped into existence without familial ties, even though those ties often bind, gag, and even strangle. Those ties can weave a platform that can boost us to the stars and the farthest reaches of imagination.

I doubt I can choose one writer or one intergenerational story that is the best or the closest to my heart, not with Marissa Meyer turning Cinderella into a story with so much breadth and family, both in stepmother and stepsisters and in a family on the moon struggling for power and ultimately control. Where would Cinderella be, and indeed Cinder, without stepmother and stepsisters? It's about family, the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

One of my first books, a gift from an aunt, was Heidi, and that was about family. Grandfather still angry at his son and regretting their fight before his son and daughter-in-law died before the beginning of the book when the aunt drags Heidi, a 5-year-old child, up into the alp to dump her on Heidi's grandfather's doorstep. And there is Peter and his mother and grandmother and Clara and her father, Herr Sesseman, and even the butler Sebastian, who was more family than Fraulein Rottenmeier, the governess who governed Clara and Heidi's lives. It was through Heidi's love and longing for her grandfather and the extended family of Peter, his mother, and grandmother that drives the story and gives the story such power and heart, so much power and heart I remember it nearly 50 years later with joy.

Sweeping tales of of stars and earth-bound adventurers are really just interesting stories without family and the complex and often puzzling power of relationships that makes good books great and give them the star quality that makes them last for a lifetime.

Where would Herbert's Dune series be without the vendettas and power struggles of the family houses: Atreides, Corrino, Harkonnen? The interconnected families of the Fremen and their cache of water to make Dune a planet of green and rain? How about Frank L. Baum's Oz series? Dorothy wanted to get back to her family and created a family of choice in Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion? And let us not forget Martin's sweeping saga of familial relationships with Stark against Lannister against Baratheon against the Dragons of the once great ruling family that culminates in Daenaerys Storm Born and her extended family of khalasar and slaves -- and dragons reborn into the world.

These are stories of war and strife and adventure, but they are also stories of families. How could they have touched so many lives and hearts without family at the center of all?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Choice and Blood

The family I often prefer is the family of my choice, the people with whom I have shared good times and bad and have become close to. Blood family can often depress and repress. And sometimes, like today, family is irritating and petty.

On Sunday, I wrote about a man who visited our home many times. Mom always said she thought he was a cousin but I called him uncle. He fired my imagination and stirred my tenderest emotions because he had survived the Bataan Death March. He was a POW in Japan until the end of WWII and I still remember the scars on his thumbs by which he had been hung up and tortured. I've met a few veterans over the years, and interviewed many more, and I am always amazed they can find humor in the most horrendous situations. Their humor, I was told once, was a way for them to shield their families from the horrors they knew and lived with every day of their lives, as Uncle Lacy lived with his horrors.

One veteran, a man who had served in the first group of the 101st Airborne gave me a copy of his memoirs. I still remember the humor that runs through the tale of freezing nights in foxholes in the forest and overturned jeeps and dead cattle among the tulip fields in the Netherlands. One part of his story is about how he found a bicycle while on patrol in Holland and pumping hell for leather to get to a local cafe where they were serving steak. I still smile when I think of him pedaling along the canals to get to the cafe for his share of steak past a bloated, bullet-ridden corpse of a cow in a field still smoking from tanks and vehicles that were bombarded with shells and gunfire. Everyone in his squad rode that bike past the same dead cow along the canal to the cafe to get a steak dinner, a luxury after weeks of living on cold beans out of a can.

Then I think about the puking runs during basic when their evil commander told his men there would be no run that afternoon before releasing them for chow, which turned out to be spaghetti and meatballs, a meal they tasted again after their punishing run up that suicide hill. The 101st was the best airborne group in the Army maybe because of the trials and tribulations they endured to be a part of that elite group.

Uncle Lacy wasn't part of the 101st but he was a soldier, an ordinary soldier, who was caught up in an extraordinary series of events, the high point of which was the Bataan Death March. Then, as now, I see him as a hero, just as I see the men and women who serve in all branches of the military who stand in harm's way for each and every American.

That was the point of my post on Sunday, not my relationship to Lacy Prater but my respect and honor for the men and women serving in the military and walking in harm's way. That is what brought out the petty perniciousness in one of my cousins and reminded me why I prefer my chosen family to some of my blood relations. She thought I was trying to steal a little of Lacy Prater's glory by calling him uncle and sharing that with other members of the family, including her son who has served several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. She couldn't have been more wrong. I am not a soldier. Her son, Lacy Prater, and the sons of several friends are soldiers. My father was a soldier and served two tours in Korea, once during the Korean War and the second time during the Pueblo Incident. I know these people or know of them. I honor and respect them. They are heroes. They deserve so much more than I can ever give and more thanks than they will likely ever receive for leaving their families and their homes to serve in the military. My post wasn't about me; it was about them.

I remember Uncle Lacy every year at Veterans Day. I'm sad to say that I don't remember him every day. He deserves more of me and of us all.

Whether the war is popular or not, these men and women have chosen to serve in our stead and many have died. We should remember them every time we exercise our freedoms because they are the reason we still have those freedoms. I honor those veterans and all the veterans who have gone before, even though I wish their sacrifice had not been necessary.

Now and always, thank you, veterans, for walking in harm's way for me and for all of us. As far as I am concerned, you are the family I would choose.