Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Short Story - It was an Accident

It was an Accident
Word count 2777
By Mackenzie Littledale


Something was wrong. My skin prickled and ears itched. I recognized the sounds coming from my daughter’s room and burst in just in time to see Cuties on the TV screen. Tory scrambled to turn it off, but my husband and I had already seen the film the night before. I saw enough.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing watching Netflix without permission?” I demanded. “Mature adult means not for you.”

“Mom!” Tory protested.

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me.” I took the remote control with no intention of returning it anytime soon. “You couldn’t hope to understand the societal message of that film, young lady. You’re ten years old. Neither adult, nor mature.”

“That’s not fair.” My brown sugar baby girl pouted.

This back and forth continued for no good reason. She had to have the last word. Ludicrous for a child without any means of providing for herself.

“I’m gonna be a dancer in rap videos when I grow up. And I’ll never have to do what you say again.” Tory folded her arms and plopped on her bed, glaring at me.

The lit fuse reached my dynamite and exploded. “You wanna grow up to be a whore? Nobody aspires to be a hoochie mama in a rap video, or a pole dancer, or a stripper. That is not for you. You are going to maintain high grades, do your schoolwork, and eventually go to college so you can have a worthwhile future.” A wave of epithets came out of my mouth like sludge, bitter to taste and immediately regrettable. I was talking to her as if she was already a whorish junkie sleeping in the gutter with a mangy mutt beside her shopping cart.

“I hate you!” she screamed with tears and every ounce of her being.

“No television. No boys. No sleepovers for a month.” I slammed the door shut and stormed a trail of fire to my room.

I tried knitting booties for the baby growing in my belly to take my mind off the fight. Over, under, loop. The repetition normally put me in a peaceful state of mind, but the words kept coming back. We both spoke so many cruelties to each other. I had no idea she could be so shitty at ten years of age. She pushed all my buttons, and a river of acid had flowed out of my mouth. I meant all of it in the moment, but the moment after each poisoned wound was followed with the salt of and shame. I’m the adult; I’m her mother for God’s sake. Her one and only mother-- terrified of rehabilitation centers, terrified of seeing her in mug shots, terrified of pimps, but still. How could I have spoken to her that way? My profanity and fear couldn’t create or erase her future.

Needle over: revised conversation. Needle under: I wanted a do-over. Loop: I’m sorry, Tory. The endless repetitions of the needles weren’t putting my mind in a meditative state like I’d hoped. No amount of knitting could repair the past.

Knitting until my fingers cramped, I took a closer look at my handicraft. The booties were two radically different sizes. I sighed. Knitting was hard anyway. Trying to distract myself wasn’t working and my heart felt disassembled from the torrent of barbed words still taking turns in my head. I’m a lousy mother. I should flush myself like vomit or shit. Piss and vinegar. My own mother’s words came to me at precisely the most infuriating moment. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. True, and it was too late for honey.

The house phone rang. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” said my husband. “I’m getting off work in a few. Do you want me to pick up anything?”

His thoughtfulness raised my spirits a bit. “I had a fight with Tory. Do you know what our daughter was watching?”

“How could I?” he asked.

Cuties on Netflix. She said she wants to be rap video dancer when she grows up.” My blood began boiling on the fires of fear all over again, but regret tamped it down. “We’re canceling Netflix, Alphio. I’m serious.”

“How does that solve anything?”

“It just does,” I said, heat warming my face from the inside. My mind flashed forward a few beats. “I think I fucked up. I said such horrible things to her.”

“How horrible are we talking?”

I told him the filth that had poured out of my mouth.

“Eliza! You shouldn’t be getting into it with anyone while you’re pregnant, you know that.”

“No lectures, okay?” I got a good look at my reflection in the mirror over the dresser. The baby bump barely showed if I turned at the right angle. Even though Alphio was right, I didn’t want an impassioned sermon on minimizing stress during pregnancy. I’d smooth it over. Too bad I had no idea how.

“I’m thinking some ice cream might help open the lines of communication again. I’ll pick up mint chocolate chip. How does that sound?” he asked, totally the voice of reason.

I sniffled. “Ice cream sounds crazy enough to work. Maybe you should be the one to talk to her to calm things down and then I’ll come in, too. I’ll apologize, but we’re her parents. We have to guide her away from skid row.”

“That sounds like a ‘yes’,” said Alphio. “I gotta jump off now, but just stay clear of her if you can’t keep your temper in check.”

“Okay.” My shoulders drooped in concession. “Now I can hardly wait for you to get home. This is important.”

“Love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Back to knitting. But my mind wouldn’t cooperate and get into that blissful meditative state. Time was ticking too slowly and the concrete wall of tension between Tory’s bedroom and mine seemed impenetrable. I switched on the television and surfed channels. Characters kissed--switch. Comedians told jokes--one laugh, switch. Nincompoops babbled on--breeze on by. Politicians made promises of how much more integrity they had over the opposition--please, switch. Bad guys blew things up, detectives chased the bad guys. Before I knew it, I was in the foreign language channels. I just wanted the ice cream savior. The baby kicked. He must have wanted some, too.

A half hour later, Alphio called again to say something came up and he wouldn’t be able to stop for the ice cream after all.

Dammit.

Unable to focus on anything but the memory of sharp words between Tory and me, I tried unknitting the oversized bootie, but everything I did made it worse, which made me wonder if I’d just fuck it up further with Tory. But I was her mother; I had to try. I threw the needles and shapeless mess of yarn to the loveseat and got up. I grabbed my purse and stepped out of my bedroom. The silvery flickers of TV light shone from under Tory’s bedroom door. So she wasn’t too lazy to use the controls on the television after all. Rhianna blared into the hallway.

“Honey, I’m gonna run out for ice cream. We can talk when I get back, okay?” I called out. She couldn’t have heard me. No matter, I’d be back soon enough with a peace offering.

I pulled my blue down jacket close against the damp wind and headed to the convenience store a half mile away to get the ice cream. I could hardly wait and the baby kicked over and over. I rubbed my belly, telling him silently that we’d all get to enjoy it soon enough. Patience, little guy. I got the treasure and headed toward check out, when suddenly four other people jumped in line before I got there. My foot tapped restlessly. I could use a little patience, myself.

While waiting, I considered Tory’s points. Perhaps I could give her a bit more freedom to meet with friends. Maybe take on an extracurricular activity so long as her grades held up. But had she really meant it when she called me a monster? I had to apologize for cutting her meat like she still wore diapers, and for saying I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college. I didn’t believe she would grow into a whore, so why had I said it? The thoughts collided in my brain while the baby kicked in my belly. I needed to use a restroom, but I’d wait until I got back home to a toilet I could trust.

With the ice cream loaded in the passenger seat, I left the convenience store, heading south. I had the right of way to turn left at the next intersection, but a driver pulled out in front of me. In the blink of an eye, I realized he couldn’t clear the intersection in time, and reflexively, I jerked the wheel to the left, crashing into his hood. My head whipped forward and the brief but searing heat of the airbag cushioned the blow. My head pounded with sharp throbs and tiny white lights spun around a carousel before my eyes.

“Oh my God.” Metal crumpled like discarded paper, cracked windshield, blood. That was the other driver’s car. I couldn’t tell what damage had been done to mine. I put my car in park and got out. The sky sent down a misty rain in the disappearing light. All I could think of was my baby and Tory. If Tory came out of her room and didn’t find me, what would she think?

“Mister, are you alright?” I asked, standing by the driver’s door. His face was obscured with blood, his head lolling against the headrest.

Panic set in. He was moving, but I had no way of knowing how badly he’d been injured. Headlights came on as cars passed slowly by. They didn’t stop, as though an ocean separated us. I reached for his door handle, just when I heard a thump coming from his trunk. My eyes opened wide. Did this asshole have a dog in his trunk? That’s absurd, Eliza, I said to myself. It must be a bowling ball come loose or something. I walked to the rear of his car and heard another thump.

“Hello?” a muffled voice asked from inside. “Hello? Help me, please.”

My heart stopped and then started beating overtime against my breastbone. The voice was too familiar, too surreal.

“Help me!”

“Tory?”

“Mom?”

“Tory, can you breathe? How in God’s name did you get trapped in some man’s trunk?”

“Mom, please, get me out. He’s a monster!”

I ran back to the driver’s side and opened the door. His eyes opened, dazed, head still rolling. He moaned. Under any other circumstances, I would have taken pity on him and tried to help him. My eyes narrowed, slits of frosty fury. Never before had I anticipated looking at a kidnapper live in the flesh. His nostrils flared and his eyes rolled sideways, backward, sideways again.

Every nightmare a parent could ever have flashed before my eyes. I pictured Tory hurt, at his mercy, afraid for her life. No one with pure intentions puts another human in the trunk of their car. I pulled my right hand back into a fist and punched him in his cheekbone. “You animal.” My fingers throbbed as I took the keys from the ignition, went back to the trunk, and popped it open.

My daughter’s face was pale against her black hair. She was wrapped in a greasy, torn blanket that had probably been used to work on the car. “Tory!” I helped my daughter get out and we crossed the street as the rain came down more heavily.

I called 9-1-1, shaking, waiting for help to arrive. “Tory, are you hurt, did that man hurt you?”

“He put something over my head so I didn’t see much. I never saw his face. I thought I was going to die and then there was a crash. That must have been you.” Passing headlights lit her up, pale, bluish. Streaked with rain, tears and scratches. My God...

“I thought you were in your room. What are you doing out?” Future Tory waiting on line for her driver’s license passed through my mind, then her as a graduate in cap and gown, and as a bride walking down the aisle on her father’s arm toward the love of her life.

“Mom, not now, please.” She ran the back of her hand against her face, smearing a line of blood.

The force of nature took over me, a Goddess of Justice and Truth maybe. “No, you have to tell me,” I said with my voice rising, and took her by the shoulders. “I didn’t even know you weren’t safe at home.” My mind flashed images of her soaring on a swing to get the adoring attention of God, as a two year-old in footies cranky at bedtime, and an earlier infant Tory tossing her spaghetti over the edge of her highchair.

“Jonathan texted me, so I sneaked out the window to meet him at Baker Park. But when I got there, that man started talking to me. Asked me if I wanted to see the new prototype for X-box. I told him no, but he jumped out at me and put something over my head....” Her voice cracked and she threw her arms around me. “I was in the dark and it smelled like tires. I thought I was going to die. I was just waiting to be killed.”

Sirens pierced the night, louder and louder, bringing swaths of relief. I needed the police to know the victim was my daughter and not the driver. His injuries paled in comparison to the horrors he surely had in store for Tory.

The police and paramedics showed up on the scene, parked haphazardly so traffic had to get re-routed. I explained the situation and the police ran the driver’s license and registration.

“James Kane is an alias,” said the officer, returning from his cruiser. “He’s a prime suspect in a sex trafficking ring. Targets girls under the age of sixteen. You’re really lucky.”

“I am.” I turned to Tory. “I am so very lucky to have you. I didn’t mean anything I said earlier.” I tugged her closer, feeling her shiver in my arms. There was something hollow about the way she felt, like part of her was elsewhere--in that godforsaken trunk. “I will definitely press charges and testify, whatever I have to do to put that piece of shit away.”

“Mom, can we just go home?” asked Tory.

I stroked her unruly hair and looked into her dark brown eyes, so relieved she didn’t become a statistic. “We can if the police say it’s okay.” I remembered why I was out. “I have mint chocolate chip ice cream for us.”

“I don’t want any right now.”

Did I believe ice cream was appropriate at this moment? “It was silly.” My thoughts wandered back a beat to the anticipation of the ice cream, how utterly important it had seemed as a symbolic gesture. “I thought it would be a peace offering and we could talk it out.”

“We don’t need ice cream for that, Mom. I’m sorry, too. I just wanna go home.”

“I want to go home, too, honey, but we should go to the hospital first.” The ice cream was surely ruined, a thought vaporizing into nothingness as I looked at the priceless young life before me. My Tory could have wound up anywhere, maybe never been found, so I counted my blessings in seeing her alive.

On the way to the ER, Alphio’s question over what problem would be solved in canceling Netflix echoed in my mind. What would I have accomplished if we canceled Netflix? It wouldn’t have brought her back or spared her. Canceling wouldn’t have brought any relief if that monster had hurt her and gotten away with it. Granted she was too young to process the dangerous nature of Cuties. My temper put her in danger. My anger sent her through the window and into a predator’s primetime for hunting. With or without Netflix, nothing could have returned my daughter to me but savvy investigators and detectives. I’d never been so grateful for a car accident in my whole life.


~*~

Please visit these fine nonprofits and donate as generously as you’re able to further their missions.

Organization aimed at preventing sex trafficking - Radical Empathy
Twitter: @reefcares, Website: www.reefcares.org

Organization for empowering women and girls who were the victims of sex abuse - Gwyneth Montenegro Foundation
Twitter: @ThisIsGwyneth, Website: www.gwynethmontenego.foundation

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Random Thought - Pride

***9/7/2020 UPDATED-EST UPDATE***

All six books on my required reading list have been purchased! The GoFundMe is more than fully funded. All extra amounts will be applied toward groceries and filing Littledale's Writers Rescue LLC. October 7 is the first day of the course and I'll be there. This is the best feeling I've had since my niece's girls were born. Thank you so very much. Your support is appreciated beyond words. Oh, my heart πŸ’–πŸ’


***UPDATED UPDATE***

Four of the six required reading books have been generously purchased! Only two books remain. I knew I was blessed, but I'm choking up now at the overwhelming support I'm getting. 😭. I'm going to give this class my all. Full heart, full attention.


***UPDATE***

My GoFundMe for the developmental editor certification from UCLA online is FULLY RAISED!!! The only thing left are the required books. If you'd like to help out with the books, they're on Barnes & Noble ---> HERE


It's an ironic situation to be in. I rarely, if ever, swallow my pride to ask for help, but I also take pride in what I do. Since I've been furloughed from massage work at the spa since mid-March (going on six freaking months), I started beta reading to fill in my time and stay connected to the writing community.

Guess what, I LOVE it. The writers love the insights and attention to detail I bring to the reading experience and they know I go way above and beyond the typical beta read. I can identify a passage that isn't working like anyone else, but I can also explain why it doesn't work and suggest ways to reword it (or eliminate the sentence altogether) to MAKE it work.

That's editing.

I take pride in massage. I take pride in writing. I take pride in editing. And then there's that issue of being furloughed for nearly six months. My bills didn't stop coming. Why should they?

Being on lockdown with little physical activity has done a number on my back, so returning to massage work may not even be viable, which brings me to that issue of pride. Swallowing it and asking for help. I don't know if the dilemma is clear. I'm sputtering here. Sorry.

I've got a GoFundMe going. I'll get to that in a sec.

I have this thing about trying not to wallow in self pity for too long. By too long, I mean a day or two. If I let myself wallow much longer than that, I wind up circling around the rim and FLUSH, fucking myself.

So, with this attitude of finding a constructive way forward, I searched for developmental editing certification courses. I found two. One is offered online by UCLA, and the other is offered by University of Chicago. Two heavy hitting educational stalwarts. However, University of Chicago tops $1200. Simply out of the running, even if I was still working. That leaves heavy hitter #2 at $700.

Sadly, $700 is still a shitload of money when you're out of work for six months.

I want to work to restore my pride, but in order to restore it, I have to swallow it and reach out for financial donations.

Either my future exists or it doesn't, so I figure I have nothing to lose.

The course description --> HERE

My GoFundMe --> HERE

Asking for charitable donations is a bitch, and fundraising means I have to pester and pester and pester (OR, I'll call it persist and persist and persist) until I can be in control of my fate and be as constructive a member of society as I can be. My opinion remains, however, that my future is a worthy cause, so here goes!

That's all I want. To help writers improve their manuscripts as much as possible to close the gap between them and book buyers.

I won't ask you to "have a heart". I will ask you to reach into your wallets and be as generous as you're comfortable with.


Have a magical day!

Mackenzie
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/account/wishlist.jsp?giftlistId=gl45612055012

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

On Writing - The Competitions

For the first couple months of the global coronavirus pandemic, I had writer's block. Then out the blue, a few different prompts yanked Prison Break out of me and I thought I was on fire. I was and the flame sputtered out into oblivion as quickly as it had lit me up.

Fast-forward a few months, it occurred to me that I had to make some dough in a hurry, so I scouted out some paying writing gigs and contests.

The Masters Review Summer Short Story Contest
Cherry Italian Ices for Summer (competing)
BLURB: Mark's wife, Cerise, is a high risk pregnancy and she isn't too keen on his mother, who fawns all over her. Circumstances dictate they must get along. What will it take? A premature delivery where help is nowhere to be found except in each other.

Fragile-19 (competing)
BLURB: Carissa isn't the most approachable person in the world, but she has one favorite cousin, Lyle. When Lyle enlists in the US Army without telling her, she slips into a depression. Her family likes her better when she's "playing nice-nice", but it isn't who she is. When Covid-19 strikes her inner circle, she feels she's to blame for endangering their lives. She has to find redemption from the unbearable weight of guilt before the virus claims a victim.


Gestalt Media July Short Story Contest
Freedom 500 (won πŸ†)
BLURB: Gloria Mooney wasn't expecting to rehabilitate anyone besides abused animals on her 500-acre farm, until six year-old Shevonne is ordered by the court for a pilot program in therapy. All hell breaks loose just as the child starts showing signs that the program may work.


Gestalt Media August Short Story Contest
Mrs. Larrimore's Lemonade (competing)
BLURB: Fifteen year-old Jake wants nothing more than sleek wheels to impress Lilla, and nothing to do with his old witch of a neighbor, Mrs. Larrimore. He has to choose whether to use his impressive savings for the car or to come to his parents' aid at a time of crisis.


International Oz Group 2020 Writing Contest (nonfiction category)
Lessons in Personality Integration from the Movies The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz (2nd place)
Essay exploring the two movies from a psychological perspective


Fractured Lit
Under the Mulberry Tree at the Center of the Universe (romantic prose about the anticipation of a kiss)
Shattered (a funny misunderstanding surrounding a marriage proposal)
The Model (an artist's model learns to see herself as a work of art)
(competing together as one submission)



TinyWords.com
Totem
Elemental Fire
Sacred and Profane
(competing together as one submission)
800 characters total, too short for blurbs


Kallisto Gaia Press
Sleeping Bear (competing)
BLURB: Ecuadoran immigrant Julio and his wife live in squalor in Miami. His luck and time are running out, when a rash decision freaks out a driver so much, she pulls over and starts a fight. SeΓ±ora Johanna finds it in her heart to help him get to a significant job interview that will turn his life around. The rest is up to him.


The Texas Observer
Second Chance at Heaven (competing)
BLURB: Charlotte wakes up to a dream lover, but as soon as she steps outside the door of her hotel room, a white family makes it clear they don't want her or other Blacks on the property. They're not ready for desegregation. As tensions run high and the threat of a brawl escalates, the words come to Charlotte in an almost supernatural way. Was her dream lover trying to teach her something, or was he even real?


The New Yorker Magazine Flash Fiction
Silly Hobby (under consideration)
BLURB: Mom Justina plans an elaborate birthday party for her three-year old son, but Murphy's Law prevails. New neighbor, fashionable and alcohol-loving Lola, may become a lifelong friend, except for an offhand comment about Justina's passion.


I'm not going to go into any great length about the stories that got REJECTED, but I've been stung, believe me.

In the meantime, since money is tight and getting tighter, say a little prayer for me and my stories, please.


Have a magical day!
Mackenzie





Saturday, August 8, 2020

Short Story - Mrs. Larrimore's Lemonade

Mrs. Larrimore’s Lemonade
By Mackenzie Littledale
8/3/2020


“Jake,” my mom called out from the kitchen. “Go answer the door.”

I knew the knock -- three quick raps -- meant Mrs. Larrimore from next door. She kept herself doubled over, holding a cane with a hand as brittle as oak bark. She was also crinkly, like the crepe paper I used for arts and crafts back in first grade.

Three more quick raps. “Hello-o-o?”

“Jake!”

“Alright, Mom.” I put down my X-box controller, unhappy because I was on the verge of beating the school bully’s best score. I opened the door, and sure enough, crinkly witch Mrs. Larrimore stood with her crazy tangle of white hair like a bouquet of spiderwebs. The creases on her face lit up in the afternoon sun and she breathed in sharply as though we hadn’t seen each other in forever. I faked a polite smile, but then she held out a pitcher covered over with aluminum foil. The acrylic pitcher with sunflowers printed on it meant lemonade--one bright spot to this visit.

“There’s my Jake,” she said, the downturned corners of her mouth turning upward. I supposed she would have patted my cheek with her ancient hand if she hadn’t been holding her cane and that pitcher. “I brought more lemonade. I know how much you like it. Is your mother here?”

I bit back my sarcasm because her lemonade is mouth-watering. “Come on in, Mrs. Larrimore,” I said, standing aside and wishing she could have dropped off the lemonade without staying. Her visits always felt like Playtime with Baby Jake.

She handed me the pitcher and stepped inside. “I just stopped by to make sure you got home safe from school.”

I rolled my eyes as soon as her back was to me. My mom told me a million times to show respect to widow Larrimore, but I didn’t like the old lady’s attention on me. I was almost old enough to drive without adult supervision, and it had been a long time since this old witch babysat me.

“Mom! Mrs. Larrimore is here. She brought something for you.”

My mom came out of the kitchen, with a smear of red sauce on her white T-shirt. She made the best spaghetti and meatballs ever, but she didn’t like cooking as much as baking. My mom liked the precision of baking. Anything that could be improvised gave her anxiety. “Why, hello Loretta,” said my mom. “It’s nice to see you.”

“I made lemonade again. I hope you don’t mind,” said Mrs. Larrimore. “Jake’s birthday is coming up soon, and I was hoping to get some clues as to what he might like this year.”

“A 2015 Dodge Charger SE,” I said, completely serious.

“You like those Matchbox cars?”

My spirits sank. Did I really believe my witchy old lady neighbor would buy a car for my sixteenth birthday?

“Jake, be serious,” said my mom. “If Loretta finds it in her heart to give you a Matchbox car, that’s a gift and you’ll be grateful, understand?”

“Hey, she asked.” I shrugged.

She shook her head. “A gift is something extra, and you should always be grateful for one.”

“Yes, Mom.” I wanted Mrs. Larrimore to leave already, so I could get back to my game. “I’ll put the lemonade in the fridge.” I exited the room for the kitchen and hung out in there.

“Jake, pour some lemonade for us, please.”

That wasn’t a bad idea. I always wondered what Mrs. Larrimore’s secret ingredient was.

“Just pour for yourself and your mom,” said Mrs. Larrimore. “I’ll be on my way. My lady friends are coming over to play bridge at four, so I can’t be late.”

I brought two glasses of lemonade with ice and set them down on the coffee table. “Okay, Mrs. Larrimore. Nice to see you, and thanks. I was only kidding about a car for my birthday.”

Once my mom saw Mrs. Larrimore out the door, she took her seat in the living room. “Jake, come sit with me. I need to know something.”

I slumped on the couch across from my mom. My mom: pretty, naturally tanned skin, and with hair dyed in a maple red kind of color in tight curls. “What’s up?”

“There’s something you should know.” She stared into her lemonade and stirred the ice with her finger.

“Like what?” I asked.

“About your dad.” She sighed and threw her head back.

Panic lurched in my chest and I left my glass untouched. “What about him? Is something wrong?”

“How much money have you saved up from working at the grocery store?”

“What happened to my dad?” I demanded.

“I'll get to that, Jake, I promise, but first I need to know how much you have saved up.”

“A little over six-thousand dollars. I saved half of what I earned and you know it’s for a car. Please tell me.”

“I didn’t realize you’d saved up so much.” She gulped down some of her lemonade and put the sweaty glass down gently on a coaster. “Your father…”

“What?”

“He got laid off. He’s been out hitting the pavement every day looking for work, but we don’t know how long it’ll take for something to come through.” Her chest heaved, glistening with sweat. The artery in her neck throbbed right through her skin.

“Mom, how long ago did Dad lose his job? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wish you didn’t have to worry about it, but you’ll have to contribute toward paying the bills for a while, honey. There’s no other way.”

“When did Dad lose his job?”

“A few weeks ago.”

I gasped and scowled, angry at being left out. “And you’re only now telling me?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “I know you want a car and you’ve worked so hard for it, but we need to keep the lights on. We have to pull together as a family.”

I couldn’t let my family down, but helping out meant giving up on buying the Charger I had my heart set on. Giving up on the car meant either riding the bus senior year like a dweeb or buying a cheapo, ugly clunker that would never get girls’ attention -- Lilla’s attention. Helping my family meant dooming my plans at being cool. I’d gotten really good at advanced math and chemistry, but not so good at weightlifting and wrestling. I’m still a stick figure in jeans and Polo shirts. The school bully picked on me almost every single day. The car was supposed to be my ticket to the cool kids’ table. I could have been Lilla’s ride. Lilla was a sophomore and the most beautiful, artistic girl in school. The only thing she hated worse than the school bullies was nerds with ugly cars.

I looked at my mom, her face masked in shame and desperation. A trick, I’m sure, to guilt trip me, and I couldn’t help but explode. “I can’t believe you’re ruining my life!” I rose to my feet, nearly kicking the coffee table. “This isn’t fair. It took me two whole years to save up that money. You and Dad told me to work for what I wanted, and if I saved up half for the down payment, you’d help me out. ‘Learn the value of a dollar,’ you said. ‘You’re not a little child anymore,’ you said. It’s not fair to go back on what you promised me, and you know it.”

“Jake, honey. I’d never ask you to man up before your time, except this is a family emergency.” She got up, took hold of my hand and squeezed too tight. “Please. We need your help paying bills for a while.”

My whole body screamed inside me. I couldn’t contain it and I couldn’t put the agony into words. My muscles twitched, my legs antsy. I needed to run, so I bolted upstairs to my room and slammed the door. I’d sooner sell my X-box than give up the chance to impress Lilla. That Charger meant freedom, no more borrowing Mom’s minivan or taking the city bus. “How can you be so selfish?” I yelled through my closed door.

Quick footfalls on the stairs. “Who’s being selfish?” asked my mom, her voice breaking. “Jake, I cannot believe how selfish you’re being right now. It’s hurting your father’s pride to be unable to provide for us. We have to pull together. We need you.” She slumped loudly against my door. “We need you.”

Unwanted tears flooded my eyes. I flung myself into bed and pounded my pillows. I knew she was right, and I had to make up my mind whether to dig in my heels or soldier through the sacrifice to help.

“The longer you wait, the harder I’m going to make the choice,” said my mom.

I couldn’t imagine the choice being harder, but for some reason it felt like a challenge. “Why do I have to give you an answer right now?”

“The electric bill is already late. We have to pay it in a couple days or the power is going off. If the power goes off, all our food is lost. There’s no TV, no X-box, no Internet, no stove, no oven, no microwave, no lights at night, no hot water.” She paused. “Dammit, one.”

Uh-oh, my mom started counting, and that meant she was at the end of her rope. If my dad had already been out of work for weeks, then she must have been worried and anxious all that time. I could barely get my head around what she was telling me about what we stood to lose without electric power. I had no idea electricity powered so much. I mean, I guess I did, but the thought of losing so much terrified me.

“Two. I’m warning you, Jake. If I get to three, you may as well move out. You think you’re grown, support yourself.”

“Mom!”

“Open this door right now,” she shouted.

“Alright.” I got up from the alleged safety of my bed and let her in. Her make up was smeared to the outer corners of her eyes. Eyes red, swollen from fear and flashing with anger. I’d nearly pushed her too far, but I still didn’t feel heard. “Mom, I’m sorry, but you don’t understand what that car means to me.”

“Riding Lilla around, impressing her, freedom to get yourself to work, taking your friends to the movies. How could you think your father and I don’t get that?”

I took a step back, eyes opened wide. She did understand. “You know I have to give all that up, and you’re still asking me for my savings?”

She sighed loudly, her shoulders trembling before they relaxed. “Your father and I have discussed this -- you can’t imagine the back and forth -- but in the big scheme of things, keeping the electric on is more important…”

“It still doesn’t seem fair.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. This is so hard to ask of you, but we ran out of options. Once your father finds a new job, all the money we borrow can be replaced, but how long can we go without food, or air conditioning, or cooking, or hot showers? How would you do your homework without Internet access? How could any of us get by once we can’t recharge our cell phone batteries? Jake, this is serious. This is urgent.”

I bowed my head and hid my face in my hands. My mom took me in her arms and we cried -- blubbered really -- holding onto each other, her hot tears soaking through my shirt. Our insecurities flowed into each other, and it was unbearable. I held her tighter. “Don’t cry, Mom.” I couldn’t help but notice my ceiling fan kept spinning, the air conditioner whirred, and the lights never flickered.

Later, when my dad got home from job-hunting, Mrs. Larrimore called. My mom took the phone into the kitchen and spoke in hushed whispers, shooting glances at me while I poured a glass of lemonade. Nobody made lemonade as tart as Mrs. Larrimore. It was the best. I had a weird feeling Mom was blabbing our family’s financial woes.

“Jake,” said my dad. “Come here, son.” He sat heavily in his Lazy-boy, but he didn’t lever his legs to a reclining position. Instead, he leaned forward on his elbows, with his fingertips pressed together, like an old-time villain plotting on taking over the world, except for the creased brow and defeat in his eyes. My dad had always been my original superhero. We weren’t rich, but we’d never been without power or food.

“What’s up, Dad?”

He stared at his polished, brown leather shoes. “Your mother told me you agreed to help out with the bills, and I just want to say thank you for manning up,” he said, nodding. “It’s not easy to get laid off, not by a long shot.” He looked up at me with a desperate spark of hope in his eyes. “Something’s going to give soon, and I promise you’ll recover your money from me.”

“I believe you, Dad. Mom told me.”

“Honey,” said my mom, coming into the living room. “Loretta Larrimore invited us for dessert tonight after dinner. She made your favorite, tiramisu.”

“That sounds nice, I guess,” said my dad, shuffling a deck of cards to lay out a game of Solitaire.

“Do we have to go?” I asked. “Her house smells like cedar and mothballs.”

“Yes, it’s a nice offer. Jake, honestly.”

While my mom put dinner on the table, my dad took half my savings. His hands moved slowly at first, but then he closed his fists on the money and withdrew his hands as quick as lightning. That felt worse than a million wasp stings, but I stood straight and tall. The power would stay on.

At Mrs. Larrimore’s, my mom put me to work, cutting the tiramisu and serving tea. Mrs. Larrimore patted my cheek, called me such a fine young man. “I remember babysitting you, you know,” she said. “You were such a joy to watch. Then you started getting older and going to school. I helped you learn your addition and subtraction tables. It wasn’t long before you needed help memorizing your multiplication tables. Remember that, Jake?”

I breathed out, remembering. “Yes, Mrs. Larrimore, I do. You helped me with math, and that’s where...that’s where my love of numbers came from. You taught me to add and subtract with chocolate chip cookies.” I smiled. “Those are my favorite.”

“That’s a lovely memory,” said my mom. “Loretta, you should see how complicated his math is now. Trigonometry and pre-Calculus. I can’t even keep up with it. He’ll be ready for college in no time. Thank you for all the times you kept an eye on him.”

“It was my pleasure. He was the grandson I might have--” she cut herself off and a ghost of sadness came over her eyes. “Well…”

My mom closed her mouth tight and looked at my dad, ever so slightly shaking her head.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Have you found work yet?” Mrs. Larrimore asked my dad.

“Still looking. I’m sure something will open up soon.”

“I could make some calls for you. I worked for a big technology firm for fifteen years. I know a lot of people,” she offered. “A lot of higher-ups who can make hiring decisions.”

“I’d appreciate that a great deal, Loretta. Thank you.”

My mom winked at Mrs. Larrimore, but my dad didn’t notice.

We played a few rounds of cards. My mom had me help Mrs. Larrimore clean up the dishes and teacups, and then we headed across the lawns back home. A hot humid breeze rustled through the oak leaves and wrapped around us, without a shred of comfort.

“Dad?” I picked up a twig and peeled the bark off.

“What’s up, son?”

“Why does she like me so much?”

“You mean Loretta? Your mother would be the one to know.”

My mom sighed and put her arm around my shoulders. “Honey, she’s always had a soft spot for you. It goes back to before you were born.” She glanced back over her shoulder toward Mrs. Larrimore’s house. “You know she makes her lemonade from lemons on her own tree, right?”

“Yeah, so?” I tossed the naked twig.

“When she was younger, she had two kids of her own, twins, a boy and a girl.” She gripped my shoulder.

“I’ve never seen kids visit her.”

“Oh, honey, they were killed in a car accident when they were about thirteen years old. It’s maybe thirty years gone by now. Their graves are under her lemon tree. Some people know how to make lemonade from life’s lemons, and Loretta is one of those people. When you were born, she took right to you, like she was recovering a chance at motherhood.”

“That’s… that’s ridiculous,” I said.

“Maybe it’s silly, maybe it’s impossible, but she always loved to shower you with affection. I was grateful for that, so I could go back to work part time. You were in good hands.”

At bedtime, I stared out at the unlit windows of Mrs. Larrimore’s house, pondering the mysteries of life, death, and the power of borrowing second chances from neighbors. I’d recover my money from my dad, maybe soon if Mrs. Larrimore’s connections landed him an interview. Mrs. Larrimore would never recover her real kids, but she had some kind of hope in me. She gave me a gift: love for mathematics by way of chocolate chip cookies. Despite looking like a witch, she was the kind of woman who kept her children close, even in death. I could practically taste her love and sadness in the lemonade. I wonder if it’s a combination of love and sadness that makes it so perfectly tart.


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Thursday, August 6, 2020

On Writing - Beware

Very early on in This Darkness is Mine's nascent life, a small press approached me. They read a fairly raw version of chapter 1 and offered a publishing contract. I'd already read Cal P. Logan's blog post on his similar experience of being approached by a small press to publish his fantasy novel.

I had reservations. I didn't feel GO.

My Twitter twin Steven Viner did some research into the small press's list of published works. Not one had significant rankings on Amazon. He said it was a sign that they didn't support the authors' marketing or promotion efforts. Meanwhile, the press specialized exclusively in mental illness titles. It could have been a great fit. Except I didn't feel GO.

Plus, in the back of my mind, I felt newb-ish and naive and vulnerable. While I believed wholeheartedly in This Darkness is Mine, I didn't feel it was ready enough. I had braced for criticism, and expected a publisher to say, "It'll get edited."

This publisher also wanted a cover design fee.
I so totally didn't feel GO.

Royalty-Free Stock Photo of a wait street light | #53858 by Maria Bell |  Royalty-Free Stock Photos

I ignored them. Rude, but I didn't know what to tell them. (Weird for a writer, right?)

Flash forward a year or so later, a friend who also has a mental illness was approached by the same small press and he signed with them. I wished him luck and told him I'd walked away.

Right as they went to print, the press went out of business. He decided to go the self-publishing route after all that.

Draw your own conclusions.

I'll say this. Vet your sources. Do not sign on a dotted line with an agent or with a publisher unless you have a list of questions answered to your satisfaction. Don't even know what questions to ask, my friend C D'Angelo turned me on to some guidelines: check this out.

If you're a creative, then intellectual property laws apply. If you can't afford a celebrity lawyer, then try A) searching the local universities with law schools. They may have supervised student clinics that study intellectual property and can help you for free or for a significantly reduced fee; B) call your State or County Bar Association Referral line. The referral line for my county charged $50 for the referral which included a half-hour consultation with the lawyer. The lawyer I was referred to is PHENOMENAL and charged $250 to review my contract. He drew my attention to specific clauses and went over them with me.

I'm assuming your book baby means a lot to you and you're expecting its success to change your life. That's a lot on the line.

Don't treat it lightly. Go into negotiations informed and empowered. There's no guarantee of success, but you can certainly tilt the odds in your favor.

Have a magical day!

Mackenzie
Twitter: @mackenzielitt13 / @calplogan / @cdangeloauthor

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Short Story - Red

Red
By Mackenzie Littledale
06/16/2020


My office closed operations for the day hours ago, but I had a special project to put the finishing touches on, some deep-pocketed potential client wanted the big guns on his side. It was on me to impress their team of buyers. Now that I could sign my name to it with pride, time to get home for Tuesday night tacos.

As I stepped out under the white light of the street lamp, a couple of teens were yelling and shoving each other in the parking lot behind my office building. I’d never seen these boys before, so I didn’t know whether to step in. They could have been riling each other on their way for burgers, for all I knew. Another man, also dressed in office attire, came out of the rear entrance. We glanced at each other, and a knowing look passed between us that nondominant males can never quite get right. I grabbed one kid, and he grabbed the other.

“Hey, back off,” we both said. “Break it up.”

The boys called us names in Spanish and tried to shrug us off, but we successfully pulled them away from each other. Typical teenage males with raging, aimless hormones.

“I’ve never seen you two around here before,” I said. “You best get on home to your folks and stay out of trouble.”

“And don’t come back around here,” said the man, smacking one teen upside his head. Better a smack than a police baton, so I let that go.

The kids shrugged us off, and the man’s jacket flew open, revealing a pistol similar to mine. The boys took off together, and the man looked at my hip. “You packing heat?”

I had to admit he was sharp to notice and trained my eyes on his holster. “So are you.”

“You expecting trouble?” he asked.

“My moms raised me to avoid it, but to be prepared. This neighborhood is pretty safe. Never had trouble before.”

“Ol’ Ginny here,” he said, patting his gun, “keeps it safe, just the way I like it. I live nearby.”

“Ol’ Ginny, huh? I call mine Django,” I said, not sure what he was getting at and taking a disliking to his tone.

His dark brown eyes shot me a warning. “I moved here to start a family.”

“Uh-huh. I have a family, too,” I said, raising my eyebrows, wondering where this conversation was headed. “We like it here.” My blood began to simmer.

“Which car is yours?”

What in the hell? “There’s only one car in the lot, buddy,” I said, pointing to my two-year old Camry about ten spaces behind him.

He turned to look and back at me with pure disgust.

My Camry sat alone under the parking light. It looked lonely and vulnerable, kinda like I was feeling at the moment. I imagined my wife, son, and daughter packed in it for our upcoming summer road trip. We’d voted on Grand Canyon this year. Was this prick gonna let me make it to my car? My heart rate and breathing sped up and my blood grew too hot to calculate.

“Where’s your car?” I asked. Maybe stalling for time to think would save me. Maybe stalling until more late night office workers came out back would let me get to my car in peace.

“My car’s behind you,” he said, nodding his head and looking over my shoulder.

I glanced behind at the only other car in the rear lot, a Honda Accord, in a similar color to my Camry. No other cars beside his and mine meant no one else would be coming. Stalling or not, I needed a plan.

“You play poker?” he asked, hand still within a couple inches of his piece.

“If you want to call my bluff, the fact is I don’t trust you. I’m uncomfortable with whatever this is, man. What exactly is this?”

“I don’t trust you, either.” He spat to his side, but his eyes never left me. “My wife is making my favorite dinner, and I get the impression you’re standing in my way.”

“Way I see it, you’re in my way. I would also like to get home to dinner and my wife,” I said, beads of sweat pouring down my forehead and back. My button-down shirt clung to my shoulders and my mouth went dry.

“You should be clearing out,” he said, jerking his head toward my Camry. “You sure you live in this neighborhood?” He took a few steps to the side and back, patting Ol’ Ginny like a pet.


Two Pistols Symmetrically Directed Down The Trunks Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty  Free Image. Image 130693758.



“I know where I live. You’re the one should be clearing outta here.”

“I’ll leave when the threat is gone,” he said, sneering, his eyes becoming defiant. “My brother’s a cop.”

“The only threat was those kids, and they gone. Long gone. And before you get too high up on your horse, my cousin’s a cop.”

“Fuck you, I’m a goddamn law-abiding citizen. Haven’t done anything wrong.”

“You the one brought up calling police. I ain’t done anything wrong either.” The angrier I got, the more my office vocabulary escaped me. He was getting down into my core, where the words reigned raw and unrefined and jagged.

“Yeah, but we both know the truth, don’t we?” he said, coming close enough for me to feel the heat of his breath. “Cops don’t like niggers.”

We stood eye-to-eye and a cold shiver coursed through me. I imagined my wife getting a phone call that she’d been dreading for our whole lives. “Who you calling nigger? With bologna on your breath, pasty-faced piece of shit,” I demanded, standing my ground. I stood straighter, clenching my fist. I peered into the hate-filled abyss of his soulless eyes, breathed in his stink. His sweat stains spread around his neck, his cocky expression summoning my outrage. I had no way of knowing what my chances were of getting home alive.

“You don’t belong here. This is my neighborhood,” he said, growling.

“Listen, I pay my mortgage, taxes, and bills just like you. This neighborhood is mine, but damn you make it hard to trust a white man.”

“What was that, boy?”

Being referred to as a boy unleashed a blind rage from even deeper than the realm inside me of jagged and raw words. It may not have mattered after that point who shot first, but his shot hit me square in the shoulder. I got off two rounds, hitting him in the chest and blowing out his right kneecap. It’s just as anyone could have known, should have known: the blood pouring from our wounds cascaded in red. It pooled on the asphalt, with glints of silvery light from the streetlamps, taking with it some element of our souls, and laying it to waste.

Closed door and puddle of blood Royalty Free Vector Image

I ran behind the enclosure for the Dumpster and called my cousin. Claiming my cousin was a cop had been a bluff; he was an EMT. He and two ambulances arrived within minutes. The prick and I got taken to the same hospital, and that’s all I knew of his fate for the time-being. After they admitted me to a room, I called my wife to come see me. “Can you bring me a couple extra tacos?”

While I waited for her arrival, I had time to reflect on the night’s events. I never knew where in the human anatomy racism resided, but it surely wasn’t in the blood. Blood has ever been, will ever be, universally red.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Short Story - Freedom 500


Freedom 500

A Short Story by Mackenzie Littledale
07/18/2020


“I’m glad you’ve set your reservations aside, Mrs. Mooney,” said Ms. Washington, standing with the shy child’s hand in hers.

“Call me Gloria,” said Mrs. Mooney, leaning on her desk and taking an offhand swipe of her jeans.

“You were even harder to convince than the judge.” Ms. Washington shook her head.

“It wasn’t really a choice was it?” said Gloria. “You know I got a call from…” she tilted her head toward the little girl. “The parents. I had to put them in their place. Rude people, conniving and manipulative. I didn’t like them at all.” She eyed the reddish blotches on Ms. Washington’s cheeks, and tapped her boot heels on the wooden floor. She assumed it must be rosacea but was struck that her cheeks were the boldest color in her drab country office. Why put any effort into decorating the least used space on the farm?

The little girl in the pale yellow dress squirmed, wriggled her hand out of Ms. Washington’s and clutched at her leg.

Gloria pulled her mouth taut into a sympathetic smile as she looked at the girl. “Oh, she’s shy. Your name is Shevonne, right?”

The girl nodded, her eyes searching the old carpet, and her ringlet curls bobbing in unison.

“That’s a pretty name,” said Gloria. “Your social worker said you’re six years old. Is that correct?” She couldn’t help but wonder how this child had wound up here. She appeared a healthy weight, though her skin was a little on the ashy side.

Shevonne nodded again, shifting her gaze out the window toward the pasture. “Yeah,” she mumbled.

“You’ll be safe here, Shevonne. I’ll bet you and the animals have a lot more in common than you think.” Gloria returned her attention to Ms. Washington. “Those bruises will go away soon enough,” she whispered. “I still don’t know anything about children, and it’s still such an unorthodox idea. The idea has merit, but I don’t know. I just don’t see why we’re being used as guinea pigs. What if it doesn’t work? Then what?”

“I can’t go against the judge’s orders, Gloria,” said Ms. Washington.

Gloria sighed and looked at Shevonne for a long, hard minute. “Freedom Five-Hundred is a welcome sanctuary. If there’s a place with enough healing to go around, it’s here.”

Ms Washington stroked Shevonne’s hair. “There are five-hundred acres here, Shevonne. That’s plenty enough space for a sweet, young girl like you to find a place where you can feel free. Would you like to see the horses now?”

Shevonne still had hold of Ms. Washington’s ankle-length, floral print skirt. She let her smile peek out, but just as quickly hid it away again.

“It’s okay,” said Ms. Washington. “The folks here want you to be happy. It’s all right to smile, Shevonne.”

Shevonne began trembling and tears made a slow descent from her tawney eyes. “I-I like...c-cats,” she said, lisping through her missing two front teeth.

“That’s right, child. You can say what you like here. No one will hurt you for saying what’s on your mind.” Gloria wondered if she was saying the right thing.

Shevonne’s rigid posture relaxed. Gloria was touched to see such a young child tap into her reserves of fortitude.

“I always wanted a cat,” said Shevonne, almost inaudibly. She buried her face in Ms. Washington’s skirt, and peeked out. She blushed and smiled. “Do you have cats here? I w-want to see the animals.”

“We have plenty,” said Gloria, clapping her hands. Shevonne’s bluish bruises against the tender, golden skin on her arms tore at her heart. “Are you ready to come with me? I promise you’ll be safe.”

Shevonne shook her head, then nodded, and shook it again. “Maybe if Ms. Washington comes, too?”

Gloria glanced at the social worker. Ms. Washington nodded.

“Come along, Shevonne,” said Ms. Washington. “We have a bit of time.”

“So young to be fighting such demons,” murmured Gloria, and she sighed, extending her hand to Shevonne. “It’s awful weather today, so I think the animals will be very happy to have you as a guest.”

“Are you going to stay with me?” Shevonne asked the social worker.

“Yes, I’ll be observing. It’s important that you feel comfortable. We’ll see if you and any of the animals take a shine to each other, and then I’ll design a therapy program around that bond.”

Gloria smiled with half her mouth.

“Can I ask a question, Mrs. Mooney?”

“Sure, Shevonne. What would you like to know?”

“Why is your eye droopy and smile lopsided?”

“Oh, dear,” said Ms. Washington. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate to ask an adult a personal question like that.”

“It’s all right,” said Gloria. “I had a stroke, must be a year gone by, and it made the left side of my face freeze up like a car battery in a Midwestern blizzard. It’s called Bells Palsy, and I have no control over it.” She turned a kind face to the social worker. “We should head out to the stables and have a look at the horses.”

Gloria led the way out of her office and down a short hallway that ended in a door. The pitter patter of rain on the corrugated metal roof was familiar and comforting to her, but the little girl cringed at the noise.

A teenage boy in jeans and a plaid button down shirt was sweeping a stall as they entered the stable.

Shevonne held her nose and kicked at loose strands of hay. “What’s that smell?”

Gloria laughed and tilted her head at the teenager. “That’s just John.”

“Eww, he needs to switch soap.”

“I’m sorry, kiddo. I was just joking. This is how real farms smell. That’s the scent of living creatures. I love it.”

A golden honey-colored horse with a platinum blonde mane whinnied and Shevonne jumped.

“Don’t be afraid of our horses,” said Gloria. “They’re very sweet and like people. It looks like Buttercup is real curious to see you.”

“Buttercup?” asked Shevonne.

“She’s a Palomino mare. The sheriff rescued her and asked if my husband and I would take her and get her patched up. She was malnourished and treated something terrible wherever she’d been before. Makes me angry as hell when people can be so cruel. Took me ages to get her to trust people, but she has the sweetest disposition.”

Shevonne stood at a distance to the Dutch door of Buttercup’s stall, just far enough that she couldn’t touch or be touched. Tilting her head back and gazing up at the Palomino, her mouth fell open. “I didn’t know horses were so big. They’re as big as monsters.”

“Monsters?” said Gloria. “Oh no, not horses. I think you and Buttercup will be good friends.”

Shevonne shook her head and ran to Ms. Washington, dropped to the ground, hugged her knees and started humming and rocking.

“You hear that?” asked Ms. Washington. “Buttercup had a rough life but now she’s safe here. You will be, too.” Turning to Gloria. “Maybe there are smaller animals so she can dip her toes in the water first?”

Buttercup whinnied again and bobbed her head.

“Well sure,” said Gloria with her perplexed gaze squarely focused on the little girl. “But what’s she doing?”

“This is an example of her impulsive behavior. When Shevonne feels threatened, she tries to make herself tiny so she’s not in the way. Her parents made her feel unwanted, so she tries to disappear. The humming and rocking are maladaptive coping mechanisms to self-soothe.”

“Shevonne, honey,” said Gloria. “You don’t disappear from here. You’re welcome and I want to know you’re alright, you hear? Now get on up, okay? Let’s head to the barn and you’ll meet the animals more your own size. You need some friends.” She felt this gamble’s odds of success were stacking up against her. Yet she wasn’t willing to give up hope easily.

Ms. Washington bent over and prodded the child to her feet. “That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Friends? Come little lady, you’re going to get your pretty yellow dress all dirty. Dust yourself off now and let’s go to the barn with Gloria.”

They left the stable under the protection of umbrellas and crossed a gravel and dirt driveway to a barn painted white. “The pigs, donkey, and goats are in this barn. The cows are in the cow barn. The cats, ducks, and geese are everywhere, but mainly they stay here with the pigs and goats.”

“Would you like to feed the animals?” asked Gloria. “I’ve got some nibbles here. You just hold it in your hand and they’ll come right up to you and eat.”

While Shevonne held the nuggets in her hand for the goats, Gloria pulled the social worker aside. “Who could hurt a child, much worse to hurt their own? It’s revolting.”

“Pay attention, Shevonne, it’s normal and beautiful to eat healthy portions of healthy food. Even the animals know,” said Ms. Washington, leaving Gloria puzzled if the social worker was talking in code.

Shevonne smelled the food pellets. “Yuck.” Something caught her eye. “I want to see the cat, please.”

“That grey tiger cat is Mortimer,” said Gloria, as the cat slinked around the outer edge of the barn wall. “He’s not the friendliest cat on the farm. He’s a tough old coot.”

“Can I pet him?” asked Shevonne.

“We have lots of friendlier cats,” said Gloria. “I’m sure you’ll love the others.”

Shevonne took off running toward Mortimer, who arched his back and hissed at her. Shevonne slowed down and reached to pet him. He swatted at her hand. “What happened to you?” she asked. “Your fur is messy and you’ve only got one eye.” She turned to Gloria. “What happened to Mortimer?”

“Mortimer, well, what can I say? He came from a horrible home and he tends to pick fights with animals bigger than himself. He lost an eye years and years ago, so he doesn’t always see where he’s going and gets himself bumped up.”

“Oh, I see,” said Shevonne. “Hello Mortimer. I could be your friend. I wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Careful, he bites.”

A truck engine rumbled outside on the gravel and dirt driveway. “I’m not expecting anyone,” said Gloria. “The whole staff is here already, and we have no tours scheduled.”

The women stepped outside the barn. A truck, at least ten years old and worse for wear, parked outside with a driver and one passenger.

“Howdy, can I help you?” asked Gloria.

“Boy, it was hard to find you,” said the man getting out of the driver’s side. “You got some property here, lady.”

“You have no business being here, Mr. Georges,” said Ms. Washington. “You need to get back in your truck and head home.”

“Who is this?” asked Gloria.

"These are Shevonne’s biological parents.”

“So she’s here,” said Mrs. Georges getting out of the truck. “We’re takin’ her home where she belongs. This has all been a big misunderstandin’. That girl made up some far-fetched stories that you made her tell.” She pointed an accusing finger at Ms. Washington. “You forced our little girl to lie on us.”

“Like I said, you two need to move on. You lost your custody and visitation rights. No one coerced answers out of Shevonne,” said Ms. Washington. “Gloria, you may need to call the sheriff.”

“No sheriff ‘round here, but me and my shotgun,” replied Gloria.

John came out of the barn. “Trouble out here, ma’am?” Buttercup could be heard snorting.

Shevonne poked her head out, and Gloria shooed her back in the barn. The girl’s face registered fear and terror, and she ran back inside.

“Come back out here, girl,” called Mr. Georges. “Yer mama and me gonna take yah home now.”

Thunder rumbled across the blackening sky, which Gloria took as a sign that they needed to hurry this up before the rains poured again. The hair on her arms stood on end as static lightning snaked through the clouds.

“You’re not welcome on my property, said Gloria. “I have work to do and when I come back out, you’d better not be here.” She headed back to the barn. “Ms. Washington, I don’t reckon there’s a chance of talking sense to these folk, so come with me.”

Gloria Mooney headed to the barn and retrieved her shotgun from a rack in a horse’s stall. Buttercup had gotten out, but Shevonne was nowhere to be seen. “The child must be hiding.”

She rounded up the animals and led them to their pens. When she passed Buttercup’s stall, she noticed yellow in the corner of her eye and doubled back. Shevonne was curled up in the corner, humming nursery songs to Mortimer, the grumpy cat.

“You stay there,” said Gloria. She headed back out, shotgun still in hand.

Mr. and Mrs. Georges stood in the barn entrance, facing off with John, who was armed with a rifle. “Ya’ll must be hard of hearing. Your chance to clear out of here alive is quickly slipping away from you.”

“You talk pretty tough for a kid,” said Mr. Georges, sneering. “Shevonne! Come on, baby girl, mama and me gonna take you for ice cream if you come nice and easy.”

Spoken like a true predator, thought Gloria.

“The court order is perfectly clear, Mr. Georges,” said Ms. Washington.

“I don’t give a damn about words on paper,” said Mrs. Georges. “Yer holding our child hostage and we’re not leaving without her.”

Buttercup came up behind the couple, rearing up on her hind legs and snorting. Gloria wondered why the horse was so protective of Shevonne, and assumed they must have spent a good amount of time bonding in her stall while she was outside. The animals know good from bad, right from wrong.

“I ain’t skeered of no dumb horse,” said Mr. Georges.

“You call that beast off of us,” said Mrs. Georges, latching onto her husband.

Buttercup continued rearing and snorting, pawing at the ground and pacing behind them.

“That won’t happen unless you turn around and leave,” said John, aiming his rifle at their knees.

“The horse is blocking our way.”

“Excuses, excuses.” John whistled. “Buttercup, come.”

The horse obeyed, and Mr. Georges took a swing at her hind quarters. Buttercup kicked him square in the chest, sending him to the ground, gasping for air. Mr. Georges scrambled to his feet, grabbed his wife by the arm and they hustled out. John and Gloria jogged to the entrance and stood with their weapons aimed until the truck engine tumbled on and the couple left.

“That was tense,” said Ms. Washington.

“Not as tense as wondering what happens to Shevonne. Has she been adopted?”

“She’ll return to her foster family, but she’ll come here for the experimental animal-assisted therapy. It seems we may need another trial run, since she didn’t have a chance to bond with any animals today. Would that be okay?”

“I think she already made a favorable impression on Buttercup, or the horse wouldn’t have defended her like that,” said Gloria. “Come see this.” She led Ms. Washington and John to Buttercup’s stall, where Shevonne still sang nursery songs to Mortimer. Mortimer lay in her lap, scruffy belly up and legs sprawled.

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen this before,” said Gloria.

“How do you feel, Shevonne?” asked Ms. Washington.

“I was scared, but the monster horse is my friend, and Mortimer is my baby. It’s nap time for the baby. I’m hungry.”

“Come,” said Gloria. “I think we’ve all worked up an appetite.”

“Can I eat here with Mortimer?”

“We’re going to bring Buttercup back in. This is where she sleeps. Come to the house for lunch,” said Gloria Mooney, who was toying with the idea of becoming Mommy Gloria Mooney.

Shevonne got up, carefully moving Mortimer from her lap and setting him down on a bale of hay. “I’ll see you later Mortimer. I’ll sing you to sleep again if you want.”

“So, Ms. Washington,” said Gloria, while they made their way with umbrellas back to the house kitchen. “What does it take to officially certify the animals for therapy?”

“We plan to blaze that trail with you and Shevonne.”

“I see. So tell me…” she paused, gathering her thoughts. “What does it take to adopt a child?”

***
The first animal sanctuary in the world to combine animal rehabilitation with therapy for human patients. Please make a generous donation to Ranch Hand Rescue of Argyle, Texas:

https://www.ranchhandsrescue.com/
Twitter: @RanchHandRescue







Saturday, July 18, 2020

Prose in Precisely 100 Words

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If time is a waterfall that carves its memory into a map on our skin, will you wade through the cascading flow with me? Let it wash away the pain even as it etches wrinkles on our faces. Let them see we have lived. Lived hard and long, without fear as deep as love dare go. Dare with me through the falls. What’s on the other side is meant for us to see and to claim. Isn’t it equally likely the dystopian writers are mistaken? Let us prove a new dawn is nothing to fear as water keeps us alive.