One more thing about grief

I’m sitting here filling up my Google calendar with appointments for those must-do things before the big move. It’s amazing to me how much has changed in my life over the last ten years…six years…year. I’m thrilled and terrified and missing my son so much. My father too, but today I miss my son more. I love that there are all these positive changes happening, but I wish my life wasn’t changing without him.

I thought about this the other day…
I miss being a mom.
I miss loving him.

I still feel love for him, obviously, but it’s more of a theory or a passive experience (that has the ability to gut me out of the blue.) It feels like he only exists in my head now. He’s morphed from flesh to memory.

I can’t hug him or laugh with him on the phone. We can’t argue or reminisce. I can’t recount some stupid human moment of my day with him and he can’t mock me for it. I’ve lost roughly 4,000 inside jokes that only he would get. I’ll never pass on another book to him or converse with him about a book he recommended. He’ll never read the end of the book I was writing. We’ll never sit on the deck in my new backyard and clink beers while fragrant meats burn on the grill.

In a few weeks I will never again turn down a road we used to live on and remember us as a family doing mundane stuff that only means something now because the memory of a son is all I have.

And don’t even get me started on those grandchildren I had imagined spoiling one day. I’ll end up spending the afternoon packing tears in boxes instead of books.

Death is a real asshole. Fuck death.

Departures and Grief

I’ve been preoccupied with death today. More accurately with grief.

A colleague found out on Monday that her sister had died. Based on what they know so far, she died in her sleep. The sister had not suffered with a long-time illness. She was healthy in all appearances. Strong, happy, and healthy is how my colleague described her. Happy. This adjective is the least meaningful in a diagnosis, but it is still so important to the people that love her. “She was happy, how could she die?” or “At least she had a happy life.”

To get that call — someone you love has died. Not a death you were expecting. Not an elder come sweetly to the end of their winter. Not the afflicted finally at peace. She was strong, happy and healthy. And now she is gone.

But you are still here — waiting your turn or running from the inevitable.

Following the theme of today’s thoughts, I received the unexpected gift of a poem postcard from my favorite poet. The poem was about death, or grief. Or it wasn’t, but my thoughts were about death and the interpretation got shadowed by looming gravestones in my memory.

The poem is called “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji and the last few lines hint that we might be inclined to chase that departing train, for one last touch, but “What lies ahead is not yours to embrace.” — at least not this time.
The lines remind me of the many dreams after my father died where I would wake myself up trying to hold his hand. Once my dream self recognized that it was a dream…when lucidity crept in to remind me that he was gone, therefore this must be a dream, I would stretch my arms out to catch his hand in mine. To pull him back? To keep us there in that moment? Or just to feel his hand — strong and solid, a constant of my life — one last time. Only to let go of it again.

Grief can be a form of self-torture. Or grief breaks down our defenses and causes us to engage in masochistic thoughts. Like examining all of the ways you took someone for granted.
“Why didn’t I answer the phone more? Why didn’t I skip that Thanksgiving with other people and go have one more holiday dinner with him? Was I kind enough? I should have been more respectful. Why did I argue with him about the stupid VHS tapes? Was he disappointed in me? I should have been a better daughter instead of a brat.”

You know they loved you but there is significant doubt as to whether you deserved it. Did they love you despite all of your many flaws? Of course. But how much happier would they have been if you had less flaws? Masochism.

There is a cavernous void in my life where my father belonged.

People like to say, “Time heals.” They say a whole lot of nonsense when it’s your loss and not theirs. At least not this time.
If you’ve ever lost a person you loved more than yourself (or at least the person you reeeally reeeally tried to put first but you were too tired to talk and your favorite show was coming on and the stuffing was so much better at Ant P’s Thanksgiving…so you failed.) If you’ve ever lost a person that meant more to you than everything except your most selfish moments, you know that time doesn’t heal anything. Loving a person who is a major part of your life is an addiction you didn’t know you had until they are gone. You have to quit cold turkey. The only thing time does is retrain your soul not to need them. As much.

After a year you stop reaching for their hand in a dream. After two you stop reaching for the phone to tell them things. After three maybe you can get through their birthday with dry eyes and some laughter. After five you can remember them and not fall apart. Most of the time. It’s been fifteen for me and today has not been a dry-eyed day. Every time someone else experiences a significant loss within my vicinity I revisit the hole my dad’s death left to see if it’s any smaller or hurts any less. Nope. Other people’s grief is like a smoldering butt in an ashtray that makes me want to light up. (Figuratively. Smoking is a disgusting habit I will never take up again but a former smoker will totally get what I’m saying.)

The hole they leave isn’t two dimensional either. It has X, Y & Z axes but it also crosses time. When I lost my father: I lost him giving me away at my wedding and the father/daughter dance; I lost the answers to all of the questions about his childhood I forgot to ask him, and the name of the Japanese girl he fell in love with before the Korean War broke him and sent him home; I lost the other end of the phone call for every day when stuff and things would happen to give us something to talk about. I lost his voice, his aftershave, his smile as we pulled into the driveway, his stubble scratching my cheek when he said hello or goodbye. He was my father, my mom can remarry, but I can’t get these things from anyone else.

There’s no methadone for the departed.

I don’t like to talk about it, but I can’t
write about this,
about grief,
about the hole left behind by loss
and the space-time it has punched through,
without thinking about the gut-wrenching grief
the other great loss.
Two great fissures have cracked open my soul.
The other has not reached the five year mark of not falling apart.

It may very well take longer without a Tardis.

Two generations, present and future, slipped into the void. Sacrifices made in the past became moot. Never again will there be unexpected messages that begin, “Hey Mom. It’s me. Your son. And you better know who this is, because I’m pretty sure you only have one.”

There is no methadone. No patch. No smiley faced Welbutrine. It’s strictly cold turkey and burning guilt.

“all points
erased in the null,…
lost to touch and forever beyond reach…”
excerpt “The Loneliness of the Last” by Robert Okaji


Author’s note: I’d like to say a special thank you to Robert Okaji. In obtaining permission to quote his poem I found out he has not shared it anywhere but the special snail mail poet’s bio card. Gracious as he is talented, Bob gave me the greenlight to use it anyway.

Transformation – Flamestorming prompt 1

My sweet sixteen

I’m not sure who decided that turning sixteen was so important for a young girl. I guess every culture has that line of demarcation where you shed the title of “child”, but in a middle-class family in the US when there’s no war or anything… turning sixteen basically means you can try to get your driver’s license. That is a big deal to the teen, but it’s hardly the same as becoming old enough to vote, or run for office, or serve on a jury of your peers.

When I was turning sixteen though, it seemed like the best and brightest moment of my life to date would spring forth from that day.

Then, I got grounded.

Two of the main invitees had be caught sneaking alcohol out of their house on the way to the beach earlier that day, and somehow that led to some confession or other that implicated me.

<em>Was I meeting them at the beach?
I don’t recall.</em>

Anyway, somehow I got drag in as accomplice in absentia and their mother called my mother…

Then my birthday got cancelled and my dad panicked that I might be an alcoholic, despite years of lecturing against even tasting alcohol… The whole thing was pretty awful.

At least I did get my driver’s license, in the end. And that gold necklace with my name stamped out in cursive. Aaaaah, the shallow Eighties.

Unconditional Love

In grade school, we used to decorate shoe boxes with paper hearts and shiny bits of foil to set at the corner of our desk on Valentine’s Day (or the weekday nearest). Our teacher would set aside time on that day for her students to slip their personalized valentines into the boxes of their friends and crushes. Candice, with her long blonde hair, always had an overflowing box by the end of the day. Chris, who looked like an underwear model even in the second grade, always had little paper corners breaking free of the shoe box slot because there was no more room inside. You could shake my box and hear the valentines thunk the sides.

I always received those popularity-measuring slips from the kids whose mothers had made them sit down and fill out one for each of their classmates. There would also be one from my dad. He would secret an unsigned valentine into the box the night before, but he always used a leftover from the box I had bought to give to my classmates so it wasn’t much of a mystery.

I would upend my shoebox at home – spreading my preprinted love letters out to see the names of the senders as I crushed ‘be mine’ and ‘you’re a cutie’ with therapeutic chomps. I would check each name off in my head against the list of those who hit every box and somewhere in that tally my father’s anonymous valentine would shake loose. I would hold it up to my mother, roll my eyes, and say, “Lemme guess. Dad?”, then drop it on the table like an empty gum wrapper.

I was too young to realize – that paper heart was the only one that mattered.

valetines dad peeking

“Promises You Can’t Keep”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 2, June
Prompt: Promises
Genre: Non-Fiction, Reminiscence
Word count: 1,962
Title: “Promises you can’t keep.”

The last time I saw my father…well the last time he saw me, I’m not one hundred percent sure he knew who I was. He’d been in the hospital for a week following an aggressive surgery to remove cancer from multiple organs. It took twelve hours, the surgery, and it was twenty four from the time they wheeled him off until we were able to speak to him again.

 

He had always been a terrible patient. Even on that first visit, after a surgery that had seriously reduced the length of his intestines and esophagus and had relocated his stomach to a spot just under his shoulder blade, he was asking when they’d let him go home. For three days our time with him was measured. Fifteen minutes per hour, twelve hours per day, only two people in the room at a time…

 

But it was only for three days and then he’d be in a regular room; a week after that he’d be home.

 

Nearing the end of the third day they decided to keep him in ICU just one more day. There was evidence of a small internal bleed that they hadn’t been able to track down. It was nothing really, but after such a major surgery – and since he only had one kidney – they thought it would be smarter to monitor him closely.

 

Dad insisted I leave. I had a job to get back to. My son was missing school. Everything would be fine. He promised. We packed up the car and spent the final seven hours of day three on the highway home. I spent day four at work with reports from my mother that Dad had a bad cough so they may not move him to a regular room just yet. Just after dawn of day six an ICU a nurse called me at home.

 

“If he was my dad,” she said in a furtive tone, “I’d want to be here.”

 

It was pneumonia.

 

Even though my brain quantified the news with words like ‘only’ and ‘just’, I called out to work and school. We headed back to the highway for another seven hour drive. The drive took closer to ten – accidents, pile-ups, the metropolis-style rush hour where traffic stands still. We arrived and had to wait an hour for the proper fifteen minutes on the clock.

 

What an hour. It was like hell. Not from the worry – just pneumonia, it’s like a bad cold – but from the company. My mother’s sister had arrived – Ione. Never have I met a more loathsome person. Ione is one of those that not only forcibly hugs you, she doesn’t stop until you are blue-lipped and tapping the mat. This is a woman so odious, my tender-hearted father couldn’t stand her; she’d been pole-vaulting over his tolerance bar for thirty years. But as my mother often said, “You can’t choose your family.”

 

Aunt Ione sat across from me and Adam in the family waiting room and said something like this:

“You both need to accept that Larry is not going to recover. Even now God is calling him home. All of the actions the doctors are taking are prolonging his pain, just like you are postponing your own pain by continuing to believe that he will live. The good news,” at this she smiled her version of beatifically and turned her palms up to the ceiling, “is that I’ve spoken with him and he has assured me that his love for God is real. Trust that Our Lord knows best and is taking him to a better place.”

 

I put my arm around my thirteen year-old’s shoulders and held tightly to one of his fists. The hug was a multi-purpose thing. I wanted to comfort him and myself, but I was also preventing someone from punching Aunt Ione in the face. It was a toss-up which one of us would have done it first. My mother always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Seemed like an ideal time to apply that rule.

 

I looked passed the aunt barricade at my mother. “What’s changed since I got on the road this morning?”

(It was 2002, none of us had mobile phones).

Almost breezily my mother replied, “The pneumonia is bad and they’re not sure about giving your father stronger medicine to combat it because he only has one kidney and it’s working overtime. They still haven’t found where he’s bleeding from, but they’re worried that coughing might make that small hole a bigger tear. Also, the pneumonia has caused a relapse of his Malaria. You might not remember how sick that makes him – you were a toddler the last time he relapsed – he gets delirious. His fever is really high and they can’t bring it down.”

 

She was working on a jigsaw puzzle through the last half of the explanation. It was one I had bought a few days before when I thought I was leaving her alone for a few days until he could be moved to a normal ward and then released – a Thomas Kinkade. She held the box top in her hand as she sifted through for pieces of a lemon-chiffon sky striped with clouds the color of pink lemonade powder. A Country Time day over an English garden and the thatched roof of a cozy little cottage where no one was dying.

 

I was baffled. The medical information sounded negative, but not dire. My mother was acting like it was just another day and my aunt was already writing his eulogy. Ione forced her way into my personal space again for a strangling hug. She pressed her face against mine. My skin crawled at the feel her chill skin against my cheek as she tried to rock me like a baby. My mother snapped pieces of the sky together with a satisfied smile and Aunt Ione encouraged me to let go of something. My father? My tears? My anger?

 

Then she fed us the tidbit my mother had left out.

 

“The doctor is putting him in a coma today to ease his suffering. They waited this long to give you a chance to say goodbye.”

 

I wriggled until I got my hands on her shoulders and forcibly pushed her off me. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”

 

My mother nearly dropped her puzzle box and immediately shushed me, looking around to make sure I didn’t disturb the other families. “They are just giving him something so he can sleep for a few days and really rest. They think the pain and stress are causing him to move around too much. They want him to be completely still so the little perforations he could be bleeding from will heal themselves. There’s just too much going on and he’s so anxious to go home. The doctors have had him on kidney dialysis to help him process all of the medication. He’s having the Malaria dreams… I told you they make him delirious.”

 

I stood up as Aunt Ione reached out for me again. I was way too taut to be respectful and ignore her bullshit, but I was also in a large room full of people who had someone they loved in a boat similar to my father’s. Grinding millimeters off my back teeth to keep it together, and one more ‘praise God’ away from a full on meltdown, I sat in the chair next to my mother and pushed the puzzle box out of her line of sight.

 

“Why would we need to say goodbye over that?” I asked.

My mom’s eyes strayed from my face to the colored bits of cardboard strewn across the table. “The doctor said they could put him in the coma and they would wake him up, but if he gets worse instead of better they won’t. It would be cruel. The goodbye is just in case.”

 

When my fifteen minutes came around, Aunt Ione jumped up and said she’d just be real quick. She wanted to blah, blah, blah. I cut her off and told her no. Under no uncertain terms was she to be allowed back in that room. I looked at her husband, my mother, and the elderly Pink Lady in charge of the waiting room, nobody jumped to her defense. When she tried to protest and treat me, a 31 year old woman, like an unreasonable child I pointed out that we had just driven nine and half hours to get there. My son and I were going to spend the full fifteen minutes with him – we were his blood and she was too inflammatory to be around a man who the doctor was instructing to lie still. Ione made that comment again that he was going to a better place.

 

“Stop saying that!” I snarled. “He would be the first one to tell you that there is no better place than with his family. My father would choose us over ‘heaven’ any day of the week!”

The nurse in the ICU room was not the one who’d called me. This one was just coming on shift and taking his vitals. I was surprised to see that Dad already had a tube down his throat hooked to a respirator. When we walked up to the bed the nurse was saying something to him about his stats, he turned to us and met my eyes. There was some message in the look he gave me, but I don’t know what it was; not for sure. Seeing us upset him. I know that because the nurse was watching his vitals on the monitor and gave me a warning glare.

 

“Is this your daughter, Larry?” she asked in that tone people use to ask questions of dogs and the elderly. “And you grandson came to see you. What a handsome boy. Remember to stay calm, okay. We don’t want to raise your blood pressure.” This last she said to him, but was really for us. “No emotion,” her eyes said.

 

I looked back at my dad, the look was still there. He was waving his hand a bit, as if trying to shoo us out of the room.

 

Adam caught his hand and said, “Hey, Pop.”

 

Dad’s eyes softened as he looked at Adam for the first time since we entered the room. I was back to gritting my teeth again, but that time was to keep from crying. I was surprised by my son’s casual way of just sitting next to his grandfather, holding his hand, and talking to him about some school thing that had happened the day before. I knew Adam was just as confused and hurting as much as I was, maybe more because he’d never lost anyone this close before.

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything to my father in the last 15 minutes I really had with him. I told him that I loved him, but we never significantly exited each other’s company without saying so. That strain was still in his eyes. It may have been the Malaria or the pain, or maybe he didn’t want us to see him that way. Being who he was, it might have been as simple as he disapproved of our traveling all the way back after he sent us home. I belonged at work. Adam shouldn’t miss any more school. It was just like him to worry about us as he lay there unable to breathe and operate his own kidney without a machine.

Maybe he was thinking, “Everything could turn out fine, but your mother always says not to make promises you can’t keep.”

 

I don’t remember saying much of anything, but before I let go of his hand I did tell him this:

“Don’t listen to Aunt Ione. You’re not going anywhere.”

“In My Time of Dying”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 1, July
Prompt: Tie-Dye
Genre: Sentimental Fiction
Word count: almost 2,966
Title: “In My Time of Dying”

Partially inspired by songs by The Be Good Tanyas including one titled “In My Time of Dying” which is quoted in part of the story.

 

“Why couldn’t it be winter? Everything dies in winter.” Maizie dropped the gauzy curtain, turning away from the window. She hugged her wasting frame and studied Pappa’s lined face.

“What is your objection to summer, Love?” he asked Maizie softly. Pappa caressed her shoulders gently and smoothed the top of her hair.

She leaned into his chest and played with a thread escaping his sleeve. His arms felt so warm around her; he smelled like dryer sheets and the cheap aftershave she’d been buying him since she was eight. Maizie realized she had never really liked the scent in the bottle, only the way it smelled on Pappa and how it seemed a part of him; a part she’d given him.

“I’m sick. I feel like I should be wrapped in blankets. I’d like the comfort of a heavy quilt and a soft cardigan that’s a few sizes too big. But it’s hot,” Maizie pouted, “I look out there and I see half-naked Brach twins running through the sprinklers and getting sticky from melting popsicles. They make me sweat just watchin’ ’em,” she grumbled.

Momma called from the kitchen, “Then don’t look out the window.” She came into the living room with a cup of tea and a squeeze tube of honey. “Sit down and drink your tea,” Momma ordered.

Maizie flopped on the couch (because Momma hated that) and glared at the tea cup. “I don’t want tea. It’s too hot. I want lemonade,” she pouted, eyes drawn again to the light through the curtains as the twins squealed at their fun and carefree lives.

“If you aren’t ready to go, Bluebird, wait for the winter. We don’t mind having you,” Pappa said as he pulled the heavy drapes across the sheer curtains. Maizie watched his darkened silhouette over the back of the couch and smiled sadly.

“Maury, what are you doing?” Momma asked in that way — blending stern and resigned in the form of a question that she always knew the answer to before asking.

“Turning the summer off for a little while so Maizie can get some rest.” Pappa shrugged at Momma. The spoken answer was a courtesy they always practiced even though the shrug should have been sufficient.

“Maizie, please drink the tea,” Momma said, placing emphasis on each word.
“Maury, you cannot just pull the drapes closed and call the summer off. And Maizie can’t just decide to stay. It’s not a semester abroad, it’s leukemia.”

Maizie had been squeezing the honey bottle’s contents into her mouth, she tipped the bottle back to upright and watched Pappa’s reaction to the conversation incursion by the ‘L’ word. For a moment he looked so lost and alone, and angry.

He pointed a finger at Momma that looked like an accusation, but when he found his voice all he said was, “I’m gonna put the A/C down to sixty and find a quilt.”

Momma huffed, but before she could verbally protest Pappa’s voice came floating down the hall in a rant, “Bluebird wants to be comfortable then she damn well will be! What am I paying the electric bill for anyway? I provide the money to keep my family happy and comfortable, and since my money doesn’t seem to be doing a damn thing to keep my daughter healthy then I’ll spend it to keep her happy!
“Semester abroad,” he grumbled. “Talks to me like I’m the fool. It’s just tea, Cheryl!”

“You and your father,” Momma said, shaking her head, “It’s like you don’t even need me in the picture.”

Maizie sat forward and put the tea cup to her lips. “I was just waiting for it to cool, Momma. I’m still hot from the car ride.”

“I thought it might soothe your stomach.” Momma opened her mouth to say more then looked away, considering. She started again, keeping her voice low. “Maizie, I don’t just assume…I mean, there’s no reason to think that the treatments won’t work. Remission is a reasonable assumption at this stage. Even Dr. Keel says he is hopeful. I just… …your father’s a dreamer. I don’t have to tell you that, you are his daughter –”

“You can’t tell a man what to dream, Cheryl,” Pappa interrupted gruffly. “Bluebird, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a quilt, but I found this old sweater in a box in the closet.” He held it up. It was her grandmother’s sweater.

It was definitely too big for Maizie and there was a hole near the elbow and another at the place where the arm was attached. Maizie was transported to the memory of how that hole was made. They had lost Gams when Maizie was eleven. The grieving child had worn it for months; she had even slept in it. Momma eventually insisted the sweater must be washed but Maizie had fought her on it. She knew that washing it would change the smell and Gams wouldn’t be there any more. The fight escalated into a juvenile tug-of-war that ended abruptly when the sweater popped a seam.

Momma recognized the sweater, too. “Good god,” she said, “I thought we gave that old rag to Goodwill.”

Maizie crossed the room and accepted the sweater from Pappa with a smile. “Thank you,” she said softly as she hugged him tightly for a beat.

“Thank you for the tea, Momma.” Maizie gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking down the hall to her old room.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The next morning Maizie waited until Momma had left the kitchen to tell Pappa, “I had a dream about Gams last night.”

Pappa smiled over his coffee mug. “I miss that old lady. Best mother-in-law a man ever had any right to. Why are we whispering?”

Maizie glanced around conspiratorially. “I don’t remember much of my dream, but I woke up with this image of Gams holding something and I’d like to make it. Will you help me?”

Pappa nodded with a wink as Momma walked in to make sure Maizie was eating her oatmeal and had taken her pills.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

For phase one of the project, Pappa helped by buying all of the supplies and tools needed. Then he set up his workshop for Maizie’s use and installed a second air conditioner. Maizie was still wearing Gams’ old cardigan for comfort and to hang on to the feeling that Gams was with her.

Phase two had father and daughter pleating fabric squares into various shapes and securing them with rubber bands. Pappa lined up a row of plastic bottles filled with a rainbow of dye colors and two work stations comprised of cookie cooling racks balanced across tin foil pans. They talked easily of music and art, and reminisced together over Maizie’s childhood.

Over the days they worked on the dye, the duo kept the windows open in the workshop to vent the fumes. They had each plugged their playlists into an old laptop attached to high output speakers. Father and daughter sang with each other through rousing versions of songs in their playlists, from Pappa’s Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr to Maizie’s Suzy Bogguss and LeAnn Rimes.

Momma stood outside their clubhouse sneaking cigarettes and weeping silently at the amazing voice her daughter had been blessed with. She wondered, not for the first time, if it had been the compensation for such a short life. Nineteen years was certainly not enough.

During a song Momma didn’t know, she fumbled her cigarette as Maizie sang out:
“Well, well, well so I can die easy”
Then found herself folding toward the boards of the porch as the words, “And if these wings should fail me lord won’t you meet with another pair,” floated to her across the Oleander. The very real possibility that they might lose their little girl struck her square in the chest and wouldn’t let her breathe. Momma wrestled with her emotions, not wanting to make a sound that would alert the family to her spying and early grief. The struggle to keep it together pushed her through the house to the front room where the drapes were still drawn in protest of summer. Momma knelt on the sofa and bawled into the cushions.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Once the fabric had been prepped, Maizie and Pappa cleared a large spot on the floor and laid the vibrantly colored squares out in a pattern that, once nudged, pinned, and tweaked, formed a scene. At Maizie’s insistence, Pappa climbed up on one of the work tables to take several photographs of the layout. Then Maizie numbered the squares from right to left with a fabric pencil and stored them in a ziplock bag.

The first few days of quilting the squares together went very slowly. Machine sewing was not a skill Pappa had ever honed and Maizie feared she had taken on too much trying to sew the composite pieces by hand. When they only had a few days until Maizie’s next treatment, Pappa enlisted the help of a local quilter’s club. He had barely finished his story when the ladies, many with wet cheeks, swooped in to help them.

Maizie sat with the group on the first day answering questions about her vision for the piece and learning techniques she’d never known existed. Two of the women were school teachers from different points in Maizie’s education, another had been her piano teacher for a number of years. They talked to her about their own memories of her growing up, bringing smiles to Maizie and Pappa’s faces and distracting them for a time with stories of a bold girl with hands on her hips and a song on her tongue.

As part of the original payment plan, Maizie sang for them; taking requests as they pushed their needles in and out of her carefully planned art and kept time with their clicking thimbles and tapping toes.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

“We spoke before the procedure about how radiation could help, but that it was also an aggressive approach,” Dr. Keel stated somberly. “The tests we took this afternoon are not positive. We killed a great deal of the blast cells, but Maizie’s immune system took a major hit as well.”

“What’s the next step, Dr. Keel,” asked Momma stoically as Pappa rubbed calloused hands down his face.

“Maizie will have to be kept in a ‘clean room’ until her body restocks the antibodies. Until then she is critically vulnerable to even the smallest infection.”

“Can we be in the room with her, Doc?” Pappa asked. “Can we bring her anything from home?”

“You can visit with her individually, but you will wear clean scrubs, masks, and gloves. Nothing from home for now, but we can revisit that in a few days after we test her blood again.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Momma and Pappa spent a month sleeping in shifts at the hospital. Hopeful every time a doctor came in to discuss the blood-work. Disappointed and heartbroken every time they left.

Pappa found some comfort with the quilters when he wasn’t at the hospital. During his days away from Maizie he would work on the project with them. If he had the night off instead, he would find himself invited to dinner at one of their houses or at the bar or bowling alley with one of their husbands.

Momma had her sisters and a group of society friends she worked on charity committees with. She and her husband passed each other in hallways and parking lots like strangers. They shared information on Maizie’s condition, but found nothing else to say.

Maizie tried to stay bright for them. She would scribble silly poetry on pieces of paper from the nurses and fold them into little origami shapes and paper airplanes for her Pappa. With Momma she would watch adaptations of the classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice or TV shows like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge and make an effort to talk about the shows and appear engaged.

Then a morning came when Pappa kissed Maizie goodbye through his mask and Momma squeezed her hand with a gloved one in greeting, Maizie was exhausted by the effort it took to accept and return these two simple pleasantries. When the nurse took her vitals, Maizie could barely move her arm to proffer her wrist or move her chin to allow the nurse to feel her glands. Maizie’s eyes were hot with fever and her throat too swollen to swallow.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

On an overcast morning when the wet air promised Autumn was on her way, Dr. Keel sat with the family and explained that Maizie was dying. It was no longer a possibility, but a fact. She would be moved to a private room where family members could come to say their farewells.

Momma and Pappa were bookends to Maizie’s deathbed as the parade of condolences came through the door like dry leaves on the wind, piling in the corners and crunching under foot. Maizie tried to smile and be gracious as faceless aunts, uncles, and cousins hugged and kissed her. She felt like a corpse whose eyes hadn’t died yet and whose ears were still picking up distant transmissions. After what seemed like a lifetime, the relatives stopped blowing through the door and Maizie whispered hopefully about a nap. Pappa asked if she could please stay awake for one more group who would like to say hello. He helped her to sit up a little more comfortably while Momma fussed with Maizie’s scarf and adjusted Gams’ sweater to a more refined frump.

The ladies from the quilter’s club filed into the room and stood at the end of Maizie’s bed in a line. Maizie smiled as wide as her energy would allow. She felt a spark of something inside that wanted more than a nap and more morphine. The ladies recited their greetings from the end of the bed and introduced themselves to Momma. Then Mrs. Rhodes, Maizie’s former piano teacher pulled a bundle from a large bag and handed it down the line as she hung on to a piece. Together the women lifted Maizie’s quilt high and let it unfold to the floor.

Bordered in a dark brown micro-suede, the quilt depicted a watercolor sunset over a tie-dyed barn and a patchwork field of greens, yellows and browns. In the foreground was a large, mottled, yellow-brown hen with a brightly dappled bluebird tucked under one wing. In front of the barn was the silhouette of a man sitting on a haystack, hunched over a guitar.

Maizie clapped like a child and her smile overcame the fatigue to spread across her face. Pappa exclaimed over the finished quilt and thanked the quilters with hugs for their perseverance. Momma, confused about the whole thing, stepped forward to thank the strangers for their kind gift. She was perplexed as to why anyone would give the dying a quilt, but there was certainly a lot of work involved and that should not go unremarked.

“This is such a lovely gift, Ladies. It seems to have made Maizie very happy. I’m sure it will be quite a comfort.” Momma smiled tightly. “I recall that only two months ago Maury and I were searching for a quilt around the house at Maizie’s request. So this is a timely coincidence. And lovely…” Momma’s eye was drawn to the bluebird under the hen’s wing. “Such an odd subject,” she thought, “yet it’s somehow…personal.”

“Do you like it, Momma?” Maizie asked hoarsely.

“Of course, Sweetheart,” Momma replied. “It’s wonderful with all of its color and swirls.”

“We made it for you. Pappa and I started it together, but we had to get the quilters’ help pretty early on. We were in way over our heads.”

Momma glanced at Pappa who looked proud of either the accomplishment or keeping it a secret.

“I’ve kept working on it while Maizie was in the hospital,” Pappa said. “There have been days where finishing this thing has been the only thought that gets me moving in the morning.”

Momma looked back at the quilt, but the churning colors blended into a Monet puddle under the well of her tears. “For me?” she repeated in almost a whisper.

The quilt ladies decided the family needed some privacy and quickly folded the quilt and handed it to Pappa. Maizie accepted their warm goodbyes and thanked them again for finishing the quilt for her.

Maizie flopped a hand towards her and Momma took it. “You always feel left out of my life. I don’t know why but it’s just easier for me, sometimes, with Pappa. That doesn’t mean that you are less important or less a part of me. I saw this picture in a dream and I knew it was us. I decided on sewing it because at the time I wanted to sink under a quilt for comfort and I thought, if things didn’t go well for me, you might need some comfort of your own. It’s a really nice flannel on the other side.”
Momma sat on the edge of Maizie’s bed and let the tears slide down her face. There were a million words trying to climb over each other in her throat. The only two that made it out were, “Thank you.” But a little while later, “I love you,” burrowed through. Pappa scrunched himself onto the other side of the bed and handed Momma one side of the quilt to tuck around her and their daughter. Together the family of three laid together in comfort as Maizie explained the imagery of the quilt in a fading dialog that ended in a soft snore as she slipped into sleep.

“Blood Feud”

Brigit’s Flame Entry – Week 4 June
Prompt: ‘History’
Word Count: 4,478
Genre: Science Fiction

“Keller here,” barked a voice from the car speakers.

Daniel thumbed the volume down as he replied wryly, “Keller here, too. How ‘bout that?”

“I’m in the middle of something, Danny. Call me back in an hour,” Caleb grumbled. The connection beeped off.

“Unbelievable,” Daniel muttered. “Un-frakkin-believable.” He fished his mobile from the niche below the car’s hands-free system and angrily fired off a text to Caleb. After he reread and reworded the text twice, Daniel hit send and dropped the phone into the passenger seat with a finger-flick for punctuation.

Three minutes later the car announced an incoming call.
Daniel pressed the button to accept. “Ladies and Gentlemen, my brother the Neandertal!”.

“Why do you have to say it like that?” Caleb sighed.

“Because, Big Brother, you laid down this epic directive that if we were going to meet at the tailor’s during your lunch break, I had better be on time and not leave you sitting here alone. Then when I call to see where you are you grunt something into the phone and hang up on me. I’ve earned the right to be sarcastic. Get over it.”

“No,” Caleb rumbled. “I meant ‘neander-tall’ without the ‘h’?”

Daniel exhaled loudly, “Because that is how the failed version of primitive man is referred to in scientific circles.”

Caleb audibly sucked his incisor, “Yeah, but you’re not a scientist so it just makes you sound like an asshole.”

Daniel closed his eyes and dropped his head back on the head-rest. “I actually am a…Never mind. How long until you get here?”

“About an hour. Maybe an hour and ten now that we’ve had our little chat.”

“Excellent. I’ll go in and hang out with the showgirls while you — ?”

“Interrogate a man about a murder,” Caleb replied nonchalantly.

“It’s always a murder with you,” Daniel sighed and hung up.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The Keller brothers pushed through the replica saloon doors belonging to master costumier Jean-Paul Beauchene, arms weighted down with two wardrobe bags each and stacks of twine strapped boxes.

“He’s an odd one,” Caleb remarked with a smirk.

Daniel shot his brother an annoyed look. “Can we at least get through the exterior door before you start insulting our next client?” The younger Keller used his butt to push the shopfront’s security door open and backed out onto the sidewalk. He stretched his foot out at the last second to catch and hold the door for his brother. From the corner of his eye Daniel thought he saw something falling towards him. He flinched and threw his arms up to protect his head. The boxes he’d been carrying bounced away from the curb as they fell to the ground.

“Geez, Danny!” Caleb wheezed. “Pull it together. It’s just the damn sign.”

The entrepreneurial Beauchene operated his tailoring and costume business out of his theatrical club, the ‘Moulin Rouge’. Like its namesake the Milwaukee version of the ‘Moulin Rouge’ had a windmill affixed to the building complete with slowly rotating blades.

Daniel, flushed with embarrassment, scrambled to pick up the boxes that had popped out of their twine. “At least you didn't pull your gun on it,” he muttered.

“Yeah,” the older Keller agreed, “I've finally gotten used to you overreacting to stupid shit.”

Daniel gritted his teeth and opted for dribbling the boxes back to the car footballer style. Caleb opened the rear gate of Daniel’s SUV, dropped his packages in the trunk and flopped his wardrobe bags over the rear seat. Then he relieved Daniel of his packages so the other Keller could pick the rest of his purchases up off the ground.

“Those are some expensive soccer balls you’re kickin’ around like that,” Caleb remarked.

“I’m aware.” Daniel snapped at him. “I guess I’ll be carting your clothes back to the cabin?”

“Relax, kid,” Caleb grumbled. “I know for a fact that I didn't piss in your cornflakes this morning so lose the tone.” Daniel opened his mouth to argue, but Caleb held up a hand and glared at his little brother in an unspoken warning. Caleb was not above getting physical when it came to Daniel. The brothers had traded bruises and busted knuckles on numerous occasions.

They stared at each other for a few beats as one decided if he was angry enough to push, and the other waited him out.

Daniel shifted his attention to re-organizing the boxes in the back of his car and checking on the contents of the box that appeared the most dented.

“I’ll be out to the cabin in the morning for our uh…expedition,” Caleb said casually. “Since I have to go back to work now, in the department vehicle,” he added with emphasis, “I’d appreciate it if you could take my clothes home with you?” Caleb didn't phrase it like a question, but he had the decency to imply a question mark at the end.

“That’s fine,” Daniel replied shortly. “Which expedition do you want to head out for tomorrow? The one in Perth or the sinking ship?”

Caleb made a scoffing noise. “We’re not executing that nutjob’s request without extensive research first.”

“If we don’t take his…,” Daniel growled then stopped himself, clenching his fist. “Caleb, we cannot afford the work he did for us, that’s why we are bartering with him.”

“Pretty convenient, don’tcha think?” Caleb commented with a sneer. “Guy tells us this stuff is thousands of dollars, AFTER he makes it, then comes up with this scheme to get us to go loot some sinking ship instead of having to lay out the cash. I don’t trust him. He wears eyeliner for chrissakes.”
“You are not that shallow!” Daniel exploded, his barely contained irritation boiling over. “I hate it when you try to play this bad-ass mo-fo…guy. Jean-Paul was a friend of Dad’s. They did stuff like this together all the time. And he hand wove sixteen yards of fabric for those kilts. Do you have any idea how much work that is?”

“No. Because I don’t play dress-up and flit around in costumes, lifting my skirts.”

“I’m leaving,” Daniel barked. “Go be a Neandertal with your detective buddies. I’ll do Jean-Paul’s job on my own.”

“You will not,” Caleb growled, catching Daniel by the arm roughly. He let go just as he noticed a woman pushing a stroller stop to stare at them. “I didn't say we wouldn't do the job. I just said I don’t trust the guy’s research. Just because he says he was like Dad’s business partner doesn't make it true. People lie, Danny.”

“I’m going on Ford Keller’s word here,’ Daniel insisted. “Dad wrote about Jean-Paul all the time in his journal. They've been working together since the guy first learned his trade — back when we were kids. Before Jean-Paul there was another man Dad worked with, another costumier. Jean-Paul was his apprentice. Our family has always relied on relationships like these.”

Caleb checked his watch and pulled his mobile out of his pocket. “I gotta get back to work, Danny. Just wait for me before you go anywhere. Oh,” he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and handed Danny a small slip of paper from it. “This guy texted me that our order is in. Can you swing by and pick it up on your way back up to the cabin. He’s right off the highway, exit 41.”

“Why am I your errand boy?” Danny asked the sky.

“Just get there before he closes will ya? We need that stuff for the expedition. And you’ll probably want to figure out how it all works and get extra batteries.” Caleb said this last as he closed his car door and started a conversation with someone via cell phone.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Caleb consulted a map inked on a piece of leather while Daniel tried to arrange stones as a parking marker that would not be noticed by anyone but a Keller. The time-travel machine could disguise itself as many things to keep it safe from theft or tampering (or notice) during a time jaunt. Given the heavily wooded area they landed in, Daniel chose the weathered boulder camouflage option and then worried they wouldn’t be able to distinguish it later from the other boulders.

The date was 30, September 1396; the place, Perth, Scotland. It was early in the morning on the historic day of the Battle of North Inch.

“I think I hear someone coming, Caleb. We need to get moving.”

“I can see the river, so I think that way is east.” Caleb pointed, then looked hopelessly at the dense trees all around them. “There should be a road in that direction,” he said with more confidence than he felt.

“I never checked if there were Highwaymen in this time,” Daniel nattered nervously.

Caleb chuckled. “Can you imagine if we got mugged in the middle of Sherwood Forest? Dad would be laughing at us from his grave.”
Daniel gave Caleb’s back a scolding look. “Or cursing us. I still can’t believe I let you talk me into bringing modern tech with us. Do you not understand the concept of an anachronism?”

“Kid,” Caleb said in a warning tone, “I understand far more things than you give me credit for. Quit talking down to me or we’ll be the ones on the battlefield.”

The brothers moved through the woods in silence and in the general direction Caleb suspected was correct. After a time, Daniel noticed aloud that the trees seemed to be thinning out and the underbrush was more manageable. In less than thirty feet they came to the edge of a cart trail. The brothers looked down the trail in opposite directions.

“I miss satellites already,” Daniel mumbled in amusement. “Which way to Perth?”

“Well, the river was going this way,” Caleb gestured with his arm, “and the battlefield was here,” he pointed to a spot on his wrist. “I couldn’t actually see the battlefield from where we parked, but I did see a piece of the bridge which is here,” Caleb pointed to his elbow. “So if the road is heading towards the village which is by the river (and we haven’t walked in a circle),” he made a right angle of his arms to demonstrate. “Then I think we should go that way.”

“This is not my beautiful wife,” sang Daniel.

Caleb furrowed his brow and opened his mouth to say something, then promptly shut it. A loud crack sounded up the road; it seemed to be just around a curve in the cart trail, opposite the direction Caleb had decided was the right way. Frozen with indecision, neither brother made a move to or away from the sound. They heard an animal groan and then possibly whinny, followed by the distinct sound of a man cursing.

“I think that man needs help,” Daniel whispered.

“We’re not supposed to help,” Caleb whispered back.

“I bet he knows where the village is,” Daniel suggested.

Caleb took one more look down the road to where he thought they should go. “Yeah, let’s see if we can get directions without creating a paradox.” The brothers moved toward the ongoing sounds of irritation.

“Do you know there are some quantum theorists who believe it is impossible to actually create a paradox?”

“Shut up, Egbert,” Caleb chided. “You’ll accidentally enlighten Robin Hood.”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

It took an hour to help the little man they found with his splintered axle. By the time he was travel-ready, both brothers had mud squelching through their period shoes and caked over various places on their $10,000 each kilt ensembles. The man who introduced himself as Henry, had remarked on their strange accents, but seemed to accepted Daniel’s story of growing up in the Orkneys and relocating for a marriage into a local clan.

“The wheel is serviceable,” Daniel said awkwardly, hyper-aware of the centuries of difference in their languages. “We must be on our way. I am afraid we became turned around on the road. Can you direct us to the village of Perth?” Henry looked at Daniel with something that seemed like pity and pointed up the road. It took both brothers a moment to reorient and realize it was opposite the direction Caleb had calculated.

Caleb nervously took a stab at talking to the local. “So you were on the road leaving the village? Did you not want to see the battle today?”

His reply sounded much like, “I kenny don. Iva promise to a mane in creef.” Henry pointed to the box Caleb had just loaded back on the cart after fixing the wheel.

“Crieff?” Daniel repeated. Henry corrected the pronunciation and Daniel repeated it.

After the third try Henry just said, “Aye.” and waved his hand.

“Henry,” Daniel started, “Are you the smith in Perth?”

“Aye.” Henry nodded.

“Is there another smith named Henry in the village?”

“Naan.” Henry shook his head.

“Are you sometimes called Hal o’ the Wynd?” Daniel asked.

“Aye!” Henry snapped and went off on a small tirade that neither brother could understand.

Caleb flinched at the vehemence in the small man’s response. “What are you getting at Danny?” Caleb muttered. “I think you just pissed him off.”

“He’s supposed to be there today,” Daniel said softly. “He’s part of the history. A vital part.”

Henry the Smith shook his crop at the Keller brothers and climbed up to the seat on his cart. Caleb and Daniel stepped back from the road as Hal o’ the Wynd followed his horse out of town.

“Shit,” exclaimed Caleb. “All we did was help a stranded traveler and now we've ruined history.”

“How the hell was our family able to do this for so long without creating an ocean of red journals?” Daniel wondered aloud.

“Do we still go to the battle?” Caleb asked Daniel.

“Should we chase him down and force him back to the village?” Daniel asked Caleb.

Neither answered the other, they stood beside the road and pondered the severity of possible repercussions and how much effort they had put into getting to this moment. The wrong moment. A broken piece of history.

“Okay,” Daniel said with confidence, nodding briskly. “We still go to the battle. We record what happens — for our first red journal entry — and then we go back home, figure out what changed. If the impact seems like a tiny ripple, we leave it alone. If the changes are significant, we come back to this moment and set up some kind of road block or trap or whatever — further down the road — for Henry Smith that will force him to turn around and head back to Perth.”

Caleb nodded his approval for the plan and the two headed towards the village to bear witness to the Battle of North Inch.

After what felt like a mile walked in slurping shoes they could see a small wooden bridge crossing a creek. Caleb jogged to the side of the bridge and unlaced his shoes to swish them around in the water. Daniel followed suit, then took his socks off to crouch on a stone at the water’s edge and hold them in the current.

Caleb called out to Daniel what sounded like a warning, coincidentally Daniel felt something slick and sinewy slide over his hand. He screamed and fell backwards into the brush.

A moment later Caleb was grinning down at him from above. “Did ya break anything?” he asked.

“What the hell was that?” Daniel asked tensely.

“Did it feel like an eel might?” Caleb countered.

Daniel thought about it and nodded.

“Then it was probably an eel. I saw a net full of them hung under the bridge,” Caleb informed his brother with a smile.

“Those things can take a finger off,” Daniel exclaimed as Caleb helped him up and pulled his kilt around to adjust it. “I saw them on this fishing show one time where the adventure fisherman guy was trying to determine if they could have dragged a little girl into the river and drown her.”

“I know the show you mean,” Caleb interrupted, “but this might not be the best place to talk about television.”

“O,” Daniel said softly. “What did you say to me before I fell?”

“Don’t get the equipment wet.”

Daniel felt around for the video recording equipment disguised as Highland embellishments. Then he shifted around to feel under his many layers of clothes to check that all of the wires were still connected, the battery packs were intact, and the mini hard drive was still humming inaudibly as it stored all of the audio and video the Keller brothers were collecting.

“You scream like a girl, you know?” Caleb chuckled as he laced his shoes on and set out for the bridge.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

The makeshift stands around the battlefield were filling up fast. There were already two clusters of armed men standing in the field; the colors of their battle dress the only indication that they were not all brothers-in-arms. Caleb had drawn the long straw before they left home, so he was nearer the stands and the King. Daniel was meant to film the more gruesome aspects of the day. He made his way along the top of the wall to find a seat with the best view.

Their clients had two goals in today’s time jump:
1.To determine the parties involved in the battle; a long disputed nugget of history that had never been settled.
2.To observe the battle strategy of Clan Chattan, the King’s demeanor, and the crowd’s reaction.

Question one had already been answered by listening to the crowd. Based on the research Daniel had done beforehand, there were some historians and history buffs who would be disappointed. What they knew — the Battle of North Inch had been arranged by the King to settle a dispute between clans or families who were not satisfied with a jurisdictional ruling. They requested a trial by combat.

For decades Clan Cameron or Clan Kay as they were also called, had been creeping into lands that belonged to Clan Chattan. That clan was formed by the family ties of two natural brothers and their sister’s husband — The MacIntosh, The MacPherson, and The Davidson. Following a battle that went wonky almost 20 years prior, the Davidson factor had been more than decimated. This caused The MacIntosh and The MacPherson to take into fostership their natural niece and nephew from the Davidson union and adopt management of the struggling factor.

What they didn’t know — in those 20 years, the children grew up, as did the children of the other Davidsons who lived. They sought to reclaim their birthright and resume governance of their own lands. The MacIntosh was not inclined to relinquish control as, his nephew, the man who stood to become The Davidson [family chief] had been known to dally with the daughter of The Cameron. It was his fear that the couple would wed, tying Clan Chattan to their sworn enemies. For years the families had sought a reasonable resolution, but the living son of David had his sense poisoned by the old Cameron – father of his beloved.

When the young man made his plea to the King that his uncle was trying to steal his lands. The King, Robert III agreed to the extreme resolution of a trial by combat. The Battle of North Inch was a feud among clan chiefs that had bled into the next generation to divide the clan over land and the right to love.

The men waiting to kill each other were a mix of all of the families involved. There was the main Davidson, joined by some of his kinsman, a handful of Camerons, a MacGillivray, and The MacPherson’s youngest son. On the other side, were the older men of Clan Chattan who’d fought in the campaigns against the Cameron’s and alongside the original Davidson. They were joined by their sons and while they were ready for the battle to come, they were disheartened by the prospect of fighting their own.

Daniel had not considered before leaving Wisconsin that he might feel for these ancient people. It was meant to be a replay of history; inevitable events they could not change. Yet by helping a dwarfish man with a wheel on a cart, the victory was no longer guaranteed. It was anyone’s win. Who should it be? Would the outcome be more significant for the old soldiers in their wisdom or the young warrior in his passion?

Settled in an excellent perch on a wall in Perth, Daniel Keller discreetly checked again to verify his equipment seemed in working order. He adjusted all of the little spy cams he was wearing to make sure they were unobstructed. The moment came when the side fighting for Clan Chattan called to the crowd for a volunteer to make up their one missing man. For the briefest insanity of a second, Daniel thought he should throw up a hand to pay his debt to the Chattan’s for helping their erstwhile hero leave town. Then he heard the crowd cheer as a small man clambered over the wall and threw in his lot.

It was Henry the Smith — Hal o’ the Wynd — the Gow Chrom himself. Daniel tingled with the realization that they had already come back to right their mistake and turn the day’s savior back towards the battle he was meant to win.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

“Caleb,” Daniel exclaimed in an excited whisper shortly after the brothers had crossed the small creek on their way to the time machine, “do you realize what happened out there?”

“Forty-eight men died over some brat’s lack of respect for his dead father?”

“Oh, I…” Daniel fumbled his words. He hadn’t really thought much about the ramifications of the battle once it looked like history had been set back on the right path. “I was talking about Henry showing up.”

“Yeah. That was weird. I wonder why he turned around and came back to the village? He seemed like a man on a mission when we saw him this morning.”

“Obviously he went back because he had to. We planned to come back if it was necessary and block his way to Crieff, so it would seem that we did.”

Caleb stopped a moment in the road and looked thoughtfully at Daniel. “Maybe you could be right, but that doesn’t feel right. We hadn’t decided to do it. We had discussed doing it if history was too distorted by the outcome of the battle without him. I don’t know, Danny.” He started walking again. “This shit’s just too complex and my brain’s not right after watching all those people get their heads cut off. I feel queasy and…after today I don’t know if I can do this time travel stuff. Maybe Dad was right to keep us out of it.”

“You’re kidding right?” Daniel jogged a few steps to catch up to Caleb. “You’re a homicide detective. I have not had a day in your company for the last year when the word ‘murder’ hasn’t come up.”

“I solve murders, Danny, or try to. I don’t watch them committed. Were you watching any of what went down on the battlefield?”

“It was pretty chaotic. I closed my eyes a lot.”

“You know what little brother,” Caleb growled, turning on Danny with a suddenness that stopped the younger Keller in his tracks, “there are days that I really don’t like you, as a person. Forty-eight men died horribly at the hands of their once-sworn brothers and you’re being glib. Life matters, Danny. The force that animates us and the choices we make, both of those things matter. It’s not something to be studied remotely, it should be respected.”

“You don’t like me? Caleb, I can’t remember the last time I thought of you as someone I’d like to hang with. And while you’re up on that high horse, cast back to last night and this morning when I made a similar argument against recording these events for the historian who hired us. I told you it wasn’t something to be ogled at and rewound for parsing, but all you wanted was the fat paycheck they had promised so we could put off doing any work for Jean-Paul.”

“Shut up!” Caleb said abruptly.

“What the f –?” Daniel started to say but Caleb roughly covered his mouth and struck a listening pose.
There was a sound coming from their left where the trees became more dense. Silently they brothers stalked the sound. A familiar cart had been forced back into the woods with such power a tree was leaning precariously and one whole plank had been sheared from the vehicle. A few minutes of careful walking took them to a pair of horses, still yoked, nibbling at some autumn berries.

Daniel opened his mouth to wonder aloud at the presence of the cart and horses, but Caleb held up a hand to stop him. There was still that other sound, out passed the horses. As they trudged along in silence, Daniel felt a thrum from the key fob that controlled the camouflage on the time machine. They were almost to the place where it was parked. Daniel felt his stomach drop as it occurred to him the sound and the proximity of their ride might be related.

Less than twenty feet from the boulder the brothers recognized as the time machine, they found Henry the Smith gagged and bound to a tree. The man was crying but did not seem injured. It took Daniel a second to realize that there was a piece of duct tape over Henry’s mouth.

He inhaled sharply and looked at Caleb. “Could we have done this?”

Caleb helped the man to his feet. Henry seemed grateful not angry, which relieved Daniel for the moment that they had not tied him up. Then, after a long confusing conversation, the brothers came to understand that the horses ran the cart into the trees and then broke the pin in their fever to escape. A strange and terrible noise and light had spooked them. Henry had been thrown from the cart when it stuck in the trees. He didn’t know anything after that until the moment he woke up tied to the tree, far from his cart.

The brothers spent two hours helping him get back on the road, noting that this time he headed toward Perth and not Crieff. Then they slogged, exhausted back to their time travel boulder to head home.

When Daniel clicked the button to turn off the camouflage, a strange grey square remained. Leaning in to the square the Keller brothers recognized it as duct tape, with the a note scribbled on it in an unfamiliar hand.

“You’re welcome”

Suzy Q

SuzyQ
“What’cha lookin’ at Suzy-Q?”

At the age of six, I was a very active child. Never stood still, rarely stopped talking and was into everything whenever the adults weren’t paying attention. So when my uncle came upon me that windy spring day, standing silent and still in his backyard – looking up, with one ear tilted to the sky – he was understandably curious.

“Tami Sue. Your uncle asked you a question…” Daddy said in his gruff but gentle voice, breaking my concentration.
“Whaaat? I didn’t hear,” I replied distractedly.
“I asked what you were doin’ out here all by yourself. Did you see a squirrel?”
“No. I’m trying to hear what the trees are talking about.”
My uncle listened for a moment then chuckled, “That’s not the trees, Q. Those are cicadas you hear.”
I shook my head, curls bouncing for emphasis, “Not the bugs, Uncle Finn. Can’tcha hear the trees whispering to each other?”
Daddy’s grin was visible through the porch screen as he and my uncle shared a look, “What are they saying then?”
“I don’t know,” I said with a touch of frustration, “but it must be a secret because they’re whispering. Uncle Finn, can you lift me up to that branch? Maybe if I get higher I could hear better.”
“No, little monkey. You don’t want to go climbing an Oak tree.”
“Why not?” I pouted.
“You’ll get your Easter dress dirty.”
“I’ll go change,” I said simply, heading for the screen door.
“You still can’t climb an Oak tree, Q. Feel this bark, it’s like sandpaper. It’ll rub your hands and feet raw.”
I tested the bark, but was undeterred. “I’ll wear Aunt Nene’s kitchen gloves and two pairs of socks,” I announced.
“Nice little girls don’t climb trees, Tami Sue,” my mother called from the darkness of the porch, “and they certainly aren’t so stubborn. You climb that one, you’ll fall, break your neck and ruin everyone’s day.”
Arms crossed, I scowled at my mother’s voice and murmured, “I’ve never fallen before.”
“She climbs trees like she was born in one, Lois. Leave it to me,” Daddy interjected.
I smiled at the tree, Daddy would help me.
“Go change out of that dress, Tinkerbell. We’ll get you up there.”

Minutes later I returned in brown, corduroy overalls and yellow, rubber gloves that brushed my shoulders. There was a folding ladder set up under the tree, with Daddy and Uncle Finn securing it from either side – cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths like movie stars. I still wasn’t allowed to climb the tree, was even warned not to reach out for the nearest branch. But I spent a happy hour sitting on the top step of the ladder listening to the trees converse in breathy murmurs while two of my heroes stood guard, exchanging stories and laughing.

To this day, I have never climbed an Oak tree, but I’ve never stopped wanting to try.

“Lessons Learned”

Prologue – Alternate History Fantasy novel temporarily named “How To Be A Princess”

Pronunciations Index:
Leaghsaidh: “Lehks-ee” or Lexi – Given name for protagonist of installment.
Brigit: “Bree’et” – Goddess of healing, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Brandubh: “Bræn-dooh” – Given name of an important figure in the tale.
Flidais: “Flit’us” – Goddess of the hunt, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Cernunnos: “Ker noo Nohs” – Also herein named as the Green Man.
Fearghas: read it as Fergus with a touch of brogue – another character name.
spioraid: “spear’ed” or spirit – entity having no physical body.
Laoch Spioraid: “Lock spear’ed” – mythic Warrior Spirit drawn to battle.
Bean sidhe: “Byan shee” – fairy woman, harbinger of death – herein also bringer of death.
Macha: “Ma-kuh” – One of three aspects of the Morrigan, Goddess of Battle.
Nemain: “Ne-main” – One of three aspects of the Morrigan -Frenzied force on battlefield.

On a wild spring day during the Year of the Phoenix, three screams were counted by those within hearing of the enchanting castle at the top of the bluff, over-looking the sea. The first scream started with surprise; there was a sudden pain, dawning realization, overwhelming joy, then…apprehension. For this mosaic scream came from the Queen herself and t’was the first sign that her child was ready to be born.

O what a special child she would bear – the ninth generation of the royal line of the great conqueror Kenneth the First. Kenneth himself was the ninth son, of a ninth son, of a ninth son and this child would compound the blessing of those nines, for the enduring family line had strengthened its bonds with nature and magick; with Gods and Fey; and with the people who called them lords.

That first scream served to alert those who would not miss attending such an auspicious birth. In no time there was gathered such a wondrous assortment of people, creatures, elementals, fey-folk and gods that none of those who lived within the castle walls could get anything done.

All four major winds and 7 of the 8 minor ones were gathered around the castle, dipping in windows and sailing down corridors. Hair was mussed, skirts were flipped, braziers were spitting out ash and more than the usual number of carts and tables were overturned.

Swarms of curious pixies flooded the sunlit rooms and antechambers of the castle, followed by droves of conscientious brownies (for even the best of pixies cannot be trusted). Castle folk reported vases falling off tables to smash on the floor and in the blink of an eye the same vase would be back where it belonged, without crack or scratch. In the birthing suite, a nurse cried out in alarm, a heavy drape was caught fire as lit candles rolled by, opposing the floor’s gentle slope. Her cry repeated when the bowl of water tossed at the flame-licked window covering splashed onto pristine cloth. When the water stain zipped back to it’s center and poofed into the air as a fine mist she harrumphed and mumbled something about cheeky sprites before returning to her reigning patient.

To pass the time, Flidais – goddess of the hunt – and the Green Man restored a few of the finest hunting trophies in the Great Hall to full health (and body where required), leading them in procession through the bustling village to the green places outside the castle walls. A shaggy-maned lion (prize of a former king’s exploration of a savage land) was initially quite put-off by the dripping forest and dismayed not to detect his pride’s scent on the wet wind, but Cernunnos sent a wild boar stumbling into his path. All stress left the lion as he stretched out his forelegs and chased the beast to its tasty demise.

Time passed in this peculiar way until a second scream echoed from the heart of the castle. This scream was frustration, exhaustion, unimaginable pain and apprehension which had turned to fear. For the queen, recently made a widow, had never produced a living child and this dear babe was the last chance she would ever have to see her husband’s eyes mingled in the same face as her own nose and her grandfather’s chin. The child must live. For the kingdom and for the queen’s own happiness to return.

The goddess Brigit, looked with concern to the Morrigan for a sign of what was in store for Queen Leaghsaidh and her unborn. But the reaping goddess merely sprouted feathers and turned a cold crow’s eye to the panting mortal before her. Brigit had offered advice to her peers that the best outcome for all was that the child should live. This queen was a devoted favorite of the goddess. Leaghsaidh was a wise and strong sovereign who would preserve the people’s way of life better than any of her contemporaries, but the complete assemblage of the Tuatha Dé Danann at this birth indicated that there was more than one player with a stake in the game. Brigit waved her hand in annoyance freezing the pixies, the winds, and the recently reanimated fauna to better concentrate on what came next.

The resulting hush was palpable, allowing the laboring queen a moment of blessed calm with a cool damp cloth on her brow. She felt the embrace of the goddess Dana in the silence and took heart that all would be well. Leaghsaidh drifted on the calm, recalling her last evening with Brandubh MacCune before a senseless skirmish robbed the couple of a future and the people of their king.

Anon.
Anon.

Calm exploded into chaos as the coming child seemed to claw at Leaghsaidh’s insides and terrible hands clamped her – heart and stomach, spine and tongue. Internally she twisted and fought to be free, reassuring her child that she was loved, wanted, and even needed. Indeed she funneled every last mote of her own energy into the tiny new life. Memories of her early romance with Brandubh…the first time they met, their first conversation of hours filled with laughter and mutual passion for the people of Albion, the first time she knew true love had found her…these scenes which had carried an empty queen through grief, were charged with energy and life. Leaghsaidh found that thin line connecting her to the child and pushed through it every happy moment for as far back as her mind had recorded. It was a mental and emotion exercise — a force of will.

As she swam deeper into the past for events to fill her child with desire for life, Leaghsaidh felt…lighter…fainter…as though she were fading away! She would not die and take this child with her. Kenneth’s next heir. The child she and Brandubh had prayed for to every god who would listen. This one would not die because the mother was weak.
Leaghsaidh felt again for the tether which tied her to that glowing new life and followed it – just pushed herself through it as she had done with the memories.

The queen was a spark – lightning running through the trunk of a tree. And then she was standing beside a tree blinking in the bright sunlight of a summer’s day. The ground felt as though it were tilting up to meet her, Leaghsaidh reached for the tree to steady herself, but crumpled to the ground.
A man’s voice gasped from somewhere behind her, “My Queen, your attention is required, anon.”
Before Leaghsaidh could find her voice, another answered, “Gilly, please save your strength. It will be hours yet until we can get you to a safe bed and a physician.”
“Look,” was his only reply.
Leaghsaidh had found her knees and was struggling to turn toward the conversation; to face the man who had called for his queen. Disorientation sizzled through her limbs and head. There was no child in her womb. The grass was wet on her palms. The pungent smell of smoke and something unfamiliar clotted the air. Then the ambient sound filtered through the haze of her thoughts and she stood in alarm – instinct reaching an arm over her back to pull an arrow from a quiver that wasn’t there. Battle!
The woman who had spoken stood before her with a surprised and curious expression. She was quite tall for a woman, armored, and crowned in the circlet of braided iron, silver and gold. The ruler’s crown Leaghsaidh had made by her own hand for Brandubh to don at his coronation. Rage began in her belly at the audacity of this woman. How could she have that crown unless she was the assassin who killed him? Yet she not only wore it as though it belonged to her, she wore it without apology in front of the widow she’d made. Leaghsaidh reached out – to attack by bare hand the brazen murderess. The other’s curious expression turned to one of question and alarm.
“Mother?” The assassin cried.

Mother.

That word reached Leaghsaidh from across a great chasm and pulled her into the moment with such clarity, such substance that the dying queen felt suddenly more alive than ever she had before. Now she could mark the thick, raven hair wound through an armored net, feeding into a healthy braid that was tucked into specialized clips on the shoulders of an emblazoned cuirass. The family crest was new, doubled hounds with intertwined legs – one clutching the leg of a bear in his mouth, the other the tail of an otter. The crowned girl’s eyes were Brandubh’s – liquid amber with flecks of green and blue. The raven hair, also a trait of the MacCunes, was a lovely contrast against her delicate, porcelain-bisque skin. The chin and mouth were Leaghsaidh’s own, as well as the shape of her brow, cheek and jawline. The tall, broad-shouldered physique she got from Brandubh, but it had been tempered well with womanly attributes and curves. She was striking and commanding, lovely and terrifying.
“Daughter,” was her much delayed response, for Leaghsaidh did not know her name.

They spoke for a time, Leaghsaidh crying silently through the conversation. Her daughter’s life had been one lived without a mother and without so many of the things the queen and king had planned for their family. The girl had endured and found help offered in times of need, but there had been so much loss and too much pain. Now she was leading a militia of clansman in the manner of Kenneth himself, to take back the kingdom and return the people of Albion to their once-fruitful lives. By all accounts they were losing this battle and, by whole, the war.

Between the lines of her daughter’s story, Leaghsaidh heard another. A number of betrayals had occurred that led to the queen’s presence at her daughter’s battle. Machinations which had begun when she married Brandubh, perhaps even before. Betrayals perpetrated by a brother she had loved unconditionally. As payment for his sibling’s devotion Fearghas had killed her husband, three of their unborn children, and finally the sister herself.

The dead queen turned to her daughter, tears pouring from her eyes as water from a pitcher. “You have not had the life we wished for, but you are the child we dreamt of and you have always been loved. I filled you with all the love I had, to secure your birth. I did not know that I would die from all that I gave you, but I would do it again. Fearghas has been squatting on the throne under a borrowed crown. Today his note comes due. With divine help, we will take back Albion and the world will not lose their best queen on the day of her birth.”

Leaghsaidh was spioraid now. Spirits, as you know, cannot caress or comfort with touch, but they still hold on to what’s within. Leaghsaidh reached deep inside herself to pluck the tiny kernel of light that had bloomed upon seeing her daughter for the first time. She held it in her fist and called to the gods of her kin. She begged of them continued strength and longevity for her daughter, and a future filled with happiness, laughter and the warm embrace of her own children. Leaghsaidh petitioned them for peace to be settled on the people of Albion once more.

The Morrigan attended the queen’s summons, soaring down from the upper branches of the same oak Leaghsaidh had arrived by. Before the crow’s feet touched the grass, the form of a woman unfolded from a crouch and stood, gazing upon each of the women in turn.

The Morrigan sighed.
“This is the moment when our Queen makes the bargain our lovely Brigit will curse us for,”

Leaghsaidh bowed her thanks to the Morrigan for heeding her call. Then she knelt before the goddess of war and sovereignty, holding out her hand. A single gem of unconditional love glowed bright yellow in the center of her palm; for it was a love filled with happiness and the warmth of a summer’s day.
“Macha, this is my offering and my plea. Please allow my daughter a long and happy life and victory over those who would seek to harm her. Please grant me the body and strength to fight today, to defeat the enemy and his followers who stole my life, robbed my daughter of the kingdom I bore her to lead, and filled her childhood with strife.”
“Brigit tells us you are a wise queen,” the Morrigan sang softly as if to herself, “and here you are appealing to our Macha, the most maternal of our faces, with the gift of a mother’s swell.”
The Morrigan, leaning in close to the proffered gem to inspect its quality, cocked her head in a bird-like way and settled one eye on the living queen, “What your mother offers is a powerful gift, because it is a terrible thing to sacrifice. She offers the seed of a mother’s love for her child. The sight of your face as it touched her heart the first time and bloomed to love. If we take this, Queen Leaghsaidh, of the line of MacAlpin, of the Clan of the Hounds, once true Queen of Albion, will never know that swell. She will travel to the Summer lands without ken of her infant’s birth…without the memory of your face. Your mother has already relinquished all of her memories to you this day, as she lay abed trying not to bleed you out as another failed babe. This is the one memory she made that came after.”

The Morrigan leaned back in to inspect the gem. “We’ve never seen one this pure,” she mumbled appreciatively.
The living queen made to protest on her mother’s behalf, but the Morrigan raised a hand to silence her, “It is not your decision but our’s. And you would dishonor her by begging us to say no.”

The Morrigan nodded to herself as if in agreement, “And we would not wish to dishonor a queen of men who has been so brave, for they are quite rare.” So saying, the goddess reached into the ether and removed the gem from a mother’s hand and grasped the shoulders of a former queen.
“Leaghsaidh mac Alba, in exchange of a mother’s love I grant your enduring family line prosperity of the heart and soul and longevity. Do you accept this bargain?”
The queen held her head up and replied, “Yes, for I do what a mother would for her child.”
The Morrigan allowed Mother one last gaze to be shared with Daughter. Both of the women had eyes flowing with tears but the Morrigan was showing her gentler face. Macha granted them clarity through the tears so the eyes might say farewell. When the space of nine heartbeats had passed, the Morrigan blew gently on the queen’s eyes and they clouded into stone.
“Leaghsaidh, Queen of Albion – you have offered your life today that there might be peace in the land of your birth, safety in the homes and fields of your people and the rightful sovereign as the heart of the kingdom – installed upon the throne of your ancestors. To make this happen you will become Laoch Spioraid until the battle is won. Do you accept this debt?”
The regal monarch held her fist up and cried, “Yes! For I do what a queen would for her people!”
The Morrigan shook feathers from her hair, they fell in a torrent over the the dead queen. Crow’s feathers,colored by pure intentions, gleamed white as they touched the Warrior Spirit’s aura. They scaled the incorporeal into solidity and wove her a pair of pristine hawk’s wings that blazed with righteous fire at the tips.

Once more the Morrigan addressed the reverent figure before her, “Warrior, you have offered your soul on this day in exchange for vengeance upon those who have unscrupulously and through the dark manipulation of nature and magick exploited the helpless, ruined lives, brought about senseless death, betrayed those most dear, and brought us to this battlefield today. Once the battle is begun, you will join us,” the Morrigan touched her own breast and flashed a razor-beak in wicked smile, “as the heart of Nemain with scores of the Bean sidhe in your charge. Do you accept this charge?”
The great beast of feather and scales beat its wings once to lift itself into the air above a goddess, a queen and one very proud old man. She no longer had words or a mouth that formed them, so she opened her beak and screamed.

The third scream was for justice and retribution.

What I did on my summer vacation

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I caught the travel bug pretty early in life.  My dad was really big on family vacations.  Since we were relatively poor and lived in Florida, most of those vacations involved road trips.  There’s lots to see and do in here in the gun-shaped state and not all of them involve mouse ears. 

Every summer, my parents would pack up the car (or van, depending on the year) and whisk us away to someplace hot and sunny with at least one attraction that offered the coveted reward of a wax souvenir, made on demand in an injection mold machine.  We stayed in roadside motels, near the highway or a large body of water, and ate our way through every diner and mom & pop ethnic restaurant in the state. 

I’ve seen the mermaids at Weeki Watchi Springs and floated on a blow up raft down the Itchnatukee River.  I’ve fed marshmallows to alligators at Homosassa Springs (from a safe distance) and been chased out of the Gulf of Mexico by clouds of dead fish who perished in the red tide.  AND of course, I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can remember. 

But my favorite summer vacation of all was a two week stay in a rental cabin, on a bay off Matlachee Island over on the west coast of Florida.  Normally, I hate the Gulf Coast – the water is gross (even when the fish aren’t dead), brown with tannin and algae, warm like bathwater, and the bottom is littered with sharp rocks.  That particular year, though, we didn’t hit the beach.  

The bay where we were staying wasn’t really something I’d swim in either.  It was deep and dark and my mom spent many an hour sitting on the dock fishing for these huge fish with pointy sword beaks.  I think they were tarpon, I’m not a fish expert but I think that’s what my mom called them.  All I knew is they were big and looked scary and I DID NOT want to swim with them. 

The little cabin where we stayed only had one bedroom, so I slept on a day bed in the living room under a window where the breeze off the bay woke me up every morning.  My mom always had something against air conditioning so open windows were just a fact of life for me.  There was a little drug store within walking distance, so once a day my dad and I would hike over the bridge between Matlachee and Little Pine Island to get groceries and he would buy me Ritchie Rich, Archie and Brun Hilda comics.  I still remember how that breeze felt when it danced through the curtains, the way the mini comics smelled, and the scent of boiling blue crabs. 

Oye the crabs!  Mom convinced Dad to buy the crab trap shortly after we arrived.  He baited the cage with meat and dropped it just off the little dock.  Each day my mom collected the spiny little beasts and cooked them up with special seasoning packets.  I refused to eat them because they stank and they looked like little more than bugs to me, but my parents loved them.  

One evening, when we were all on the dock, dad pulled up the trap to check the bait and there was a huge blue crab hanging on the outside of the cage trying to reach through the wire for the last bit of raw chicken.  The startled crab jumped off and lunged at my father.  His first thrust with one red-tipped claw drew blood. That crab clipped my dad right between the big toe and the second; hanging on for a moment before my father shook him off.

My mom and I were paralyzed with laughter as the thing chased my dad all over the dock and finally backed him into the water – Dad fell in, not the crab. The weird little creature stalked to the edge of the dock raising his claws in victory as Dad stood sputtering in water up to his neck. That Spartan of crabs did not end up in the pot. 

Another day, in a closet of the cabin, we found a metal detector that I immediately claimed.  After spending hours walking up and down the grounds finding nothing but half buried fishing lures, I decided that the metal detector could talk to dolphins. Every evening at sunset, we had seen pods of dolphin playing in the deep water, so that night as the sky turned orange, I sat on the deck turning the knob that made the metal detector whine up and down the scale, trying to summon the dolphins closer. It didn’t work, but in my child’s imagination it could have. I figured they were scared of the giant blue crab too, so they didn’t swim up to say hi.

It was simple and relaxing, a really great vacation.  During those two weeks, we made little day trips to see what attractions were on offer in the area and strangely enough, the most memorable tour for me was this place that harvested Orange Blossom Honey, the best tasting honey made naturally in the US. We got to watch them smoke the bees, pull screens covered in honey comb out of the hives and they even had a hive forming behind glass to show the queen bee and her little baby bees at the center. Mmmm, there was taste testing, too. We left the honey farm with several jars of the beautiful amber serum and tubs of honey butter for our morning toast. My mother even tried out the honey butter on the blue crabs, but that still couldn’t tempt me.

In my life, I’ve traveled all over the south and the eastern seaboard.  I’ve been to the Bahama’s twice, London once and even took my son to the Grand Canyon for our own family vacation.  I loved it all and have plenty of stories from the road to tell, but I will never forget the two weeks when I was nine or ten, that were so peaceful even the dolphins were dancing. 

Thanks Dad ❤