Saturday, May 18, 2013

Strum the Heart Strings

Heart Strings photo HSFinishedVersion-Color.jpg

Struggling to write a new book is just that -- a struggle. It is worth it, or at least that's what I tell myself as I slog on through days when it feels like I'm prying the words out one by one with a toothpick or pair of eyebrow tweezers. There are days, however, when the words flow and time ceases to have meaning. I often stop when the light goes to turn on a lamp and realize I've been writing nonstop for 12 hours or more. Those are the days I look forward to.

When my father died, I decided to put myself out there and began writing a series of stories about myself and my family for various anthologies. The words came easily then. I felt like I was writing for my father, showing him the world of our family through my eyes and experiences. I amassed a lot of contracts in those, a few of which fell through just before publishing because the publishers needed to cut a few stories to make the anthology just the right size. I accepted their last minute rejections with equanimity. After all, it was only one book and I could sell the story elsewhere, and I usually did.

It seemed during those days that a new anthology came out every couple of months containing one or two of my stories. Those were heady days as I decided who would get a copy from my box of author's copies. I always had more names than books, but people decided to buy the books instead.

I get excited even now when I put out a new book. It's that sigh of relief that all the fussing, editing, and frustration are behind me and the fussing, frustration, and review ahead that energize me to keep moving forward. Getting bogged down in the work-a-day world is a problem, but I manage to slog through most of the time without resorting to playing games or picking up my latest cross-stitch project.

Today is another one of those heady and exciting days because I have put out another book. This time the book is a collection of the anthologized stories I wrote mostly for Dad. Instead of buying a whole lot of books, readers can now pick up Heart Strings and read them in one place, with a little something at the end of each story about its history.

So, without further ado, I offer Heart Strings: A Collection of Memories. Buy it here on Red Room or at Amazon or through Smashwords for $1.99 and share the good times and the bad, the laughter and the tears.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

There's nothing new about FBI staking out organized crime in San Francisco, but Alexandra Sokoloff adds a twist. The head of the organized crimes division, Special Agent Roarke, is on his way to meet Greer, an undercover operative. Greer has used the signal that means he has either been made or there is something of dire importance he needs to communicate to Roarke. On his way to meet Greer, Roarke is across the street from the undercover operative and he spots a slim, striking woman all in black wearing a sleeveless turtleneck sweater behind Greer. She and Roarke lock eyes just before a truck passes. In its wake, the woman is gone and Greer is roadkill.

Stunned by what seems like an accident, Roarke is even more shocked by the feeling that he recognized the woman, but he isn't sure from where. As the reports from eye witnesses come in, it becomes more apparent that the woman was involved in Greer's death, an assumption that becomes fact when they trace the woman back to her hotel and discovered the whole place has been wiped clean of trace evidence and reeks of bleach.

The woman could be that rarest of individuals, a female contract killer hired by the organized crime bosses in San Francisco to terminate Greer. Was that why Greer needed to talk?  That can't be since an organization that traffics in women wouldn't hire a female assassin. A search reveals two more murders within the past year and a half tied to the woman and Roarke is on the hunt. He must find the woman and stop her from killing anyone else. And Roarke is intrigued, a female serial killer is rare.

Huntress Moon is riveting. Alexandra Sokoloff dives right into the action and spins a tale that becomes more exciting and confounding with each page. The story proceeds at a fast pace and gets more complex and more exciting as Roarke peels back the layers of the mystery woman's past. Here is a murderer which is neither black nor white with considerable shadowy gray in her personality that turns this FBI thriller into something darker. Sokoloff blurs the line between right and wrong where justice is seen through a glass darkly.

There are no wasted words in this razor's edge tale of suspense and horror in Sokoloff's signature style. Huntress Moon is just the beginning of what sets a new benchmark in thrillers. Very seldom do I award 5 stars, but Sokoloff's Huntress Moon deserves no less.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Just a Breath Away

During the years that one stroke after another took my grandmother away by inches, as she changed from a vibrant, sassy, intelligent, and loving woman into a shell that looked like her but whose eyes lacked the sparkle and simple joy of life. I went to see her less and less often. It’s hard to lose someone in a senseless accident or after a protracted illness, but to watch the lighthouse of their mind dim slowly is worse.

Strokes took my grandmother’s physical functions first, and each succeeding stroke took a little more of her mind until her body was reforged into a tightening fetal ball that could not be straightened. The gentlest and most loving touch tore her fragile skin and brought screams of pain. During the six years my grandmother existed in the nursing home, my mother went every evening to see her and sit and talk with her and I often went along. Age-dimmed blue eyes looked back at us with no recognition, on her face the smile of an infant to whom our faces and voices were a soft blur of colors and sounds. We reached out to her but she could not reach back to us, a prisoner of her deteriorating mind and weakening body.

The strokes continued to kill half of her brain and the doctors intervened time and again with tubes and medication, cutting holes in her body to force-feed her when the muscles in her throat ceased working, so they could keep her alive a little longer. Finally, when her body could take no more of their interventions, the doctors decided to take my grandmother off all the machines and let her die.

“My brother will be there,” my mother said. “I think your grandmother would like it if you were there.”

I could hardly keep the tears back as I answered, “My grandmother isn’t there any more. She’s gone.

“Well, I want you there.”

I thought it over, trying to match the painfully thin and angular body with the strong and vibrant woman I had known all my life. “I don’t want to be there. You’re treating her death like some sort of circus attraction. I can’t be there to watch.”

“All right. Suit yourself,” my mother’s favorite final words. Suit myself. If I had suited myself I would never have let the doctors forced-feed her or keep bringing her back from the brink of death to lie in a lonely bed among strangers.

The day the doctors took my grandmother off all the machines and took out all the wires and tubes, I stayed home and cried, unsure if I had made the right decision of if I was being selfish and disrespectful. What did Granny Good Witch, my name for my grandmother, want?

She wanted a quiet and simple funeral, and she made and paid for all the arrangements before her first stroke, right after my grandfather died. She wanted love and respect, and what was happening in the nursing home room wasn’t loving or respectful, at least as far as I could see.

When the phone rang later that afternoon, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I knew before I picked up the phone who was calling.

“Mom slipped away peacefully. She’s gone,” my mother said, her voice breaking through her usually iron control.

“Thanks, “I said and hung up, my word lost in the sound of muffled sobs. I knew my mother missed Granny Good Witch terribly and she always would. They had always been close and that was never more evident than watching my mother hold my grandmother’s hand while grandma looked up at her with unfocused innocent eyes, a sweet smile on her face, while Mom cried and said, “Mama, please don’t leave me alone.”

I didn’t feel alone, but I had let my grandmother go many months before when she no longer recognized any of us. I felt that what had died that afternoon was the shell of my grandmother, not the woman with whom I spent so many happy afternoons together laughing and talking and cooking. I clung to those moments like a drowning woman clinging to a bit of wreck-age in a storm-wracked sea.

I went to bed early that night, worn out from crying and unable to concentrate long enough to do anything productive. I tossed and turned, tried to read, and finally, a little after midnight by the nightstand clock, I fell asleep.

I don’t remember any dreams. What I do remember is a light burning brighter and brighter against my eyelids. I sat up on the side of the bed, thinking I forgotten to turn out the hall light, and went to bedroom door. Groggily, I fumbled to open the door wider, reaching around the doorframe for the light, but it was off. I flipped the switch on and then off again, but the light persisted. I walked into the hall and saw a figured dressed in blue. It was my grandmother. She was wearing her favorite ankle-length smocked blue robe with the quilted mandarin collar. Shining with a soft white light, she stood there as if waiting for me to recognize her.

I couldn’t stop the tears running down my cheeks as I reached out to her. She took my hands and held me closely, my chin grazing the soft halo of her silver hair, and patted my back while I cried.

“I’m sorry,” I said between sobs,” but I couldn’t stand to be there today. I just couldn’t watch.”

“It’s all right,” she murmured. “I knew you were there for me even if you weren’t in the room. It’s all right.”

Still holding her hand, I stepped back, and looked down at her as she smiled up at me. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t want to let her go, but I knew I must, just as I had let her go when she no longer recognized me and I knew she wasn’t coming back.

“I wanted to tell you something,” she said. “I have always believed in you even though you don’t believe in yourself. Believe in yourself and follow your heart and remember I’ll always be just a breath away.” And then she was gone.

When I woke the next morning I wasn’t sure at first if I had dreamed that my grandmother was standing in the hall or if it had been real, but it didn’t matter. I still felt her around me.

I went to the funeral three days later and went up to the coffin, not because it was expected but because I wanted to touch her one last time. Her body was straight again and she wore her favorite blue dress. I touched her cold cheek, but I knew she wasn’t lying in the box; she was just a breath away.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Phone Call

Can you come home?” my sister asked when I answered the phone.

 “What’s wrong?”

 “Brandon’s dead.”

 As the oldest child, it has always fallen to me to take care of my brother and sisters. My favorite chore was watching Tracy. She was a bright, inquisitive child full of laughter and love.

 When she was a teenager she came to me for advice about boys and sex. Sitting on a cushion to see over the steering wheel and dash of my car, we drove the back roads and side streets near Mom and Dad’s house when she was practicing driving to get her license. We went to rock concerts together and sat up long into the night when she had a problem or needed to talk. She watched my boys when I worked a second job or on rare nights when I went out with friends. When she got married she asked me to do her makeup and hair and help her find the right dress. I even made the bouquet she carried and the bouquets for her bridesmaids. We were inseparable even when my husband was stationed far away from home and kept in close contact.

 When Brandon was born, I lived in Louisiana, but I was the first person she called with the news. My baby sister had a baby boy and I saw him for the first time at Thanksgiving when he was still a sweetly scented, tiny, wide-eyed bundle of waving arms and kicking legs. He was just as precious and bright-eyed as Tracy had been when I saw her for the first time.

 My short vacation was just long enough to catch up on all the news and get to hold my nephew with a little time for my sister and me to get away for a few hours for a good long chat. She glowed with happiness and contentment.

 Two months later I got another phone call. Brandon was dead.

 It was late when I finally pulled into my parent’s driveway. I pulled off into the yard, slammed the gear shift into Park, got out of the car and ran across the yard and through the door my mother held for me. My snow-covered shoes slid across the tile entry and I stumbled across the carpet toward my little sister. She looked up. “Oh,” she said, “you made it. I’ll bet you’re tired.” Taking my coat she brushed away the melting snowflakes and laid it carefully across the arm of the sofa, smoothing the folds, flicking away a splash of dried mud. “Did you stop and get something to eat? Are you hungry?” I shook my head.

 Cold wind slashed through the space between us as my father kicked the snow from his shoes against the door frame and clattered into the house. He stood in the doorway. “Didn’t you bring any bags?”

 “I’ll get them later,” I told him, watching Tracy poke up the fire in the stove, knock off the ashes and place the iron back into the holder. She rubbed her arms and stared into the fire for a moment oblivious to the rest of us.

 “Would you like some cake or pie and some coffee?” My mother took my arm and led me through the dining room and into the kitchen.

 “I don’t drink coffee, Mom.”

 “There’s plenty.” She turned on the coffee maker. “And lots of pie. Sister Friend brought apple pie and I don’t remember who brought the peach pie or the chocolate cake.” She turned to the refrigerator and looked into the freezer. “There’s ice cream if you want it.” She put a gallon of vanilla on the counter. “You can heat the pie in the microwave.”

 Mom wandered past me, into the foyer and up the stairs. Dad followed. “Don’t forget to put away the ice cream,” he said.

 I went back into the family room. Tracy had fallen asleep in a chair facing the stove. Taking an afghan from my mother’s lounger, I draped it around her, carefully tucking in the edges and smoothing the warm hand crocheted wool over her tightly clenched fists.

 Dark circles hung like old drapes beneath her honey brown lashes. Feathery lines spread out from the corners of her eyes and a knife-edge line creased the smooth skin between her eyebrows. I laid down on the sofa and pulled another afghan over me, as I watched my little sister shift and mumble in her sleep through the night while the logs shifted and fell in a spray of sparks that woke the ash-covered embers into a brief comforting life.

 The next morning the snow was gone and a light drizzle dampened the frost rimed ground as we left the house.


As the minister spoke, Tracy took my hand, curling her fingers tightly around mine, her nails digging into my skin. She nodded as the minister spoke, her face calm and still. Her grip tightened on my hand as she looked up and past the black suited minister to the tiny white coffin behind him.

 When the service was over Tracy held my hand as she sat there looking at the empty stand. “I gave him CPR. His lips were so blue and cold and stiff. I still feel them,” she said as tears slipped down her cheeks. “I still feel them.”

 I followed the long procession out onto the highway south to the little country graveyard where Brandon would be buried. As they lowered his coffin into the ground at my sister’s feet, the icy drizzle turned to snow. Tracy dropped a rose into the gaping hole while everyone drifted silently away. I walked back toward the cars, said goodbye to my family and a couple friends and turned for one last look at Tracy before I got in the car and drove back to Tennessee.

 “I’m pregnant,” Tracy said when she called a month later. “Brandon sent him.”