Somebody Help Me!

Here’s a blog post I think you might enjoy. I don’t reblog a lot but this is worth it.

Ann Malley

I’m addicted to adrenaline and, well, BINGING.

If this is YOU, inclined to binge read stories that make you go bump in the night–that’s bumping around turning pages–do I have a deal for you!

15 #THRILLERS for .99 cents!

Yes, your tired eyes are working just fine. But hurry, because October 12th is closer than you think. No imaginary stalker. Calendars have always made me cringe. But it’s all good.

Today’s most popular #MYSTERY& #SUSPENSE authors have teamed up. All women. All dead set on delivering YOU the thrills, chills, and dangerous choices you can make from the safety of toasty bed covers. Or that steaming bubble bath we too often deny ourselves. (But these little lovelies can be squeezed in while waiting for the kiddos in the pick-up line at school. Those days have flown for me, but I remember them well. The need for #metime is real…

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Okay, guys. Here it is. The September free story. A non-romance unless you consider a love of life to be a romance of a kind. Which I do, and I enjoyed writing this story that was inspired by every school kid’s September writing assignment of telling the story of what they did during summer vacation. I wondered what an adult would write if given that same assignment and here’s what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it.

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

The cruise was supposed to be fun. You know, dances with great-looking guys, never-ending platters of gourmet food served by great-looking guys, live shows every night featuring great-looking guys and day in and day out tons of great-looking guys hanging over the railings looking for someone to talk with. Someone like me.

Didn’t work out that way. Not for me, anyway, and even though I knew the complete failure of what I labeled ‘cruise happiness’ was because of a bad attitude – mine – that didn’t change the fact that I felt cheated.

I suppose I shouldn’t have blamed the cruise line. I should have put the blame squarely where it belonged, on my newly ex-husband and his equally new wife, aka his former assistant, who was half his age and half my size. I wanted to squish her between my thumb and forefinger and could  have done so without breaking a sweat if I’d tried.

But I was nice so I simply smiled as I took my half of our accumulated net worth and laughed all the way to the bank while my ex tried to figure how to support his new wife on half of what he’d expected from the divorce. She loves expensive shoes, purses, and just about everything else that costs big bucks and he’d thought he could afford her and he could have if he’d gotten everything. But I had a great lawyer, which was actually more important than guys on cruises who look great. But I’d hoped to have both.

When my great lawyer handed me that beautiful check, I went straight to the bank and then to the travel agency and booked a cruise. After looking through brochures I decided to sail across the Caribbean and soak in the sun and run along sandy beaches and swim in the boat’s pool and enjoy myself if it killed me. I figured the great-looking guys the travel agency hinted at would help.

I expected to come back from the cruise a new woman and get on with my life and laugh at my ex’s failure to satisfy his very young and very expensive wife. Actually I wouldn’t laugh because I’d be too busy being a new, gloriously happy me to even remember who he was.

That was the plan. The reality was a tad different, mainly because of the total lack of great-looking guys who weren’t afraid of me. My angry – no, make that furious! — expression that was in danger of becoming permanent may have been part of the problem. Might have been what chased them away from me and into the arms of all the other middle-aged women looking for fun who’d also booked the cruise and were happy and looked it.

But there was one bright spot to the cruise and I looked forward to it eagerly. I’d booked that particular ship with its particular itinerary because it would stop at a small tropical island owned by the cruise company that was used for a stop-over complete with a beach party beneath the stars. Other than when the ship stopped to have a party, the island was deserted. Completely. No towns. No people. Just another tropical island covered with trees and rife with exotic wildlife.

I’d never been on a tropical island and the concept enchanted me. I didn’t care if great-looking guys were included because it would be more than enough just to experience an unspoiled tropical paradise. I could hardly wait and when our ship docked at that private island it didn’t disappoint. It was gorgeous. Right out of a movie.

I was the first person off the boat. Ship. Whatever it was called. I doffed my sandals and dug my toes into hot, white sand and knew I’d remember this cruise forever as a wonderful experience because of the white sand beach and the lovely island. Nothing could be better.

Of course, the beach party was nice too. After hours of walking on carefully marked trails during the day I was both hungry and thirsty and glad for the bonfires blazing every few yards along the beach so there were enough for everyone to enjoy without crowding. It was the start of a perfect night.

The thing was, there was alcohol available. Free alcohol. Now I’m not a drinker. A glass of wine now and then if the occasion warrants or maybe a cocktail that I never finish because… just because.

But this was different. An occasion. The completion of my separation from a man I now wondered how I’d ever been in love with. That made it a life changing event and such events often involve alcohol, don’t they? Well, I’d just had such an event and that meant the night definitely qualified. So I decided it wouldn’t hurt to drink just a tiny bit more than usual. To celebrate. So I did.

Bad decision.

As the night wore on and the drinks kept coming complete with tiny umbrellas and fruit slices on the sides, I decided I was done with people and wanted solitude and that this island was the place to find it. Lots of trees to hide behind, lots of stars to gaze at, lots of everything tropical islands excel at and if I left the hoards of noisy people behind I could pretend the island was deserted and believe that I was the only person on Earth and a competent, single woman who would get on with her life pronto. A nice thought.

So I sought darkness and solitude and found it, following the beach until the bonfires were no longer visible and the night crept into my soul and I found everything I’d been seeking for longer than I realized. Since the day my marriage started to crumble and now that I was alone and being honest I admitted that day was farther in the past than when my now former husband had hired a young assistant.

I found a tree to lean against and sat and contemplated the sky, the stars, the ocean’s bright waves, and life in general until I heard the very loud and very persistent klaxon call of the cruise ship’s horn telling everyone that it was time to return so we could continue our travels.

I planned to do just that after a few more moments of contemplation of moonbeams on the water and listening to night songbirds. Just a couple moments more.

Another bad decision.

The next thing I knew, the sun was shining brightly on the water that moments earlier had reflected the light of stars and the moon and how’d that happen, anyway? And why did my head hurt?

More important, I decided, I’d better find the boat – ship – and get on board because that horn had said it was time to leave. The horn had blasted the silence of the night to smithereens and now that I thought about it and checked the bright sunshine, I decided it might have been more than a few minutes since I heard it so I’d better hurry.

Except when I reached the beach after ignoring a head that throbbed with each step, the boat – ship — was nowhere to be seen and how could it have disappeared in the few minutes that I’d spent contemplating life? How had it made all the passengers disappear, the ones that had been on the beach a short time earlier?

As I stared at the empty dock, I realized that it couldn’t. Making that many people disappear instantly was totally impossible. So I was missing something, I just didn’t know what.

I paced the beach and checked the dock again and the metal fire rings nicely spaced along the beach that had once held blazing bonfires and now contained cold, black ashes and I realized something. Something awful.

It was the next day and I’d missed the boat.

I was alone and stranded on a deserted topical island.

Oops.

Still – as I walked among the cold fire pits, I didn’t feel like someone who’s just become a castaway. In fact, I felt kind of good. It wouldn’t last, I told myself as I considered the trees swaying in the tropical breeze and the lapping of blue and white frothed waves breaking across the white beach. No, Paradise wouldn’t last because it never does but while it had hold of my body and mind, it was wonderful.

“Hey!”

I turned. A woman about my age was emerging from those swaying trees. So I wasn’t alone after all. “Hey, you!” she shouted again.

Okay the island had a caretaker and she didn’t like left-over people making tracks on her beach that had already lost the tracks of the many people from the previous night and looked like it had never been trod upon, except for me. Waves do that, I decided in some corner of my mind. Waves and water and wind. All lovely things and maybe it was nice that there was someone else on my island after all because she’d know what to do about missed connections.

“Are you talking to me?” I waited for her to come to me because she didn’t look happy and the first rule of warfare is to hold your ground against the enemy. She looked kind of like the enemy.

Which meant she looked kind of like me. The me since my late husband walked out. Antagonistic. Angry. Not to be fooled with. Dangerous, even. So I folded my arms in a deceptively innocent way and asked again, “Are you speaking to me?” I would have tapped my foot except tapping on sand isn’t effective.

She reached me. “Where’d the boat go?” She stared at me. Hard.

“How should I know?” I stared back. Harder than she stared at me.

She kept staring. “Because you’re the only person left on this island, that’s why you should know. Caretakers know things like that and I’d like you to call the boat back so I can continue with my cruise.”

My mouth dropped. “Me? You’re insane. I’m not a caretaker.” I poked a finger at her. Another warfare tactic. “You’re the caretaker and I was about to ask you to call the boat back so I could continue with my cruise.”

We stared at one another until she said, “You’re not the caretaker?”

And I asked, “You’re not either?”

A pause after which we spoke in unison. “We both missed the boat.”

We sat down then. On the sand. Hard. And said nothing for the longest time. Then I ventured with, “What do we do now?”

“How should I know? I’ve never been shipwrecked before.” I could have reminded her that we weren’t shipwrecked because the ship was fine, wherever it was. We were the ones with problems.

“Cell service?” She pulled out her cell and tried to get it to work, then she put it back in her pocket. “Nope.”

We stared at the beautiful blue-green ocean and multi-colored birds flying against the brilliantly summer blue sky. We stared for a long time. Until she said, “My name is Emily and I’m hungry.”

“Jan and me too.” I shaded my eyes with a hand and examined the trees. “Coconuts, maybe?”

She followed my look. “They are pretty tall. And scratchy looking. I’d prefer something easier.”

I thought a moment. “Maybe they keep supplies on the island. For beach parties.” It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. “Let’s look around. We might find something.”

“Like a two-way radio.”

So we looked and, yes, we found a shed and it wasn’t even locked because there was no need for locks on deserted islands. And, yes, there were a few industrial sized cans of peaches and boxes upon boxes of tiny umbrellas. Then we found sealed cans of crackers and cheese and we sat down right then and there and ate our fill of crackers and cheese and peaches but we ignored the little umbrellas. We’d had enough of little umbrellas the previous night.

“Time slipped away from me,” Emily said, finally picking up an umbrella and holding it at arm’s length. “Too many of these little things and too many lovely, fruity drinks.”

“Me too. They were very good drinks.”

“I was celebrating,” she said defensively. “I don’t normally drink that much.”

“Me too – celebrating — and neither do I normally drink that much, but I did last night and I’m not sorry. Except for the being stranded on a deserted island part. I’m kind of sorry about that.”

“What were you celebrating?”

“My recent divorce.” There. I said it. Out loud. Just tossed the words out as if it wasn’t important.

“Really?” She turned towards me and our eyes met. Two middle-aged women who were neither thin nor cute. “Me too and though I thought I’d die when it happened, I’m now happy to be free of the rat-fink.”

“That makes two of us,” I replied and realized that was exactly how I felt. Happy to be rid of my former husband. Free even though I was temporarily in a difficult situation.

We sat there on the sand with tiny umbrellas in our hands without the alcohol that went with them. And without knowing quite what triggered it, we started to laugh and before we knew what was happening, we were rolling on the sand with laughter and telling each other our life stories and they were so alike that we laughed even louder and decided we were sisters in every way but blood.

Then our mouths became sort of parched from laughter and the sand that was quite gritty and we decided that survival was more important than sisterhood so we searched further because peaches didn’t have enough liquid in them to keep our thirst quenched, especially since we’d also been eating salty crackers.

And that was how we came upon the tiny creek that trickled among the trees and the other sheds that had been erected in such a way as to not be noticeable to tourists who were looking for a deserted island but were handy for the people who kept those tourists happy.

One was stocked with tables and tablecloths and napkins and candles and elegant plates and cups and everything needed for a banquet. “We didn’t get a banquet.” Emily sniffed as she examined the exquisite napkins.

“We got bonfires. Maybe other cruises get banquets.” It also had plastic glasses like the ones we’d drunk from the night before and we used a couple to scoop out cold water from the creek and drank until we were sated. Never mind that we might die from who knew what disease that water held, we felt great.

And happy. We smiled and laughed and danced on the sand and set one of those tables for a banquet for two and while we did those things everything that had been wanting to come out of me for a long, long time came out and danced with me and Emily said the same thing was true of her.

“So now what?” she finally said, when our euphoria had subsided and we had to once again face our situation. “When is the next cruise ship scheduled to stop here?”

“Surely there will be other ships passing by before then. We can signal them.”

She gave me a long look. “With what? And what if it’s an airplane instead of a ship? How will we signal it?”

“We can write in the beach sand.”

“The water washes everything away almost instantly.”

So we thought further. “Let’s look more. We never did find that short wave radio.”

So we looked. And we looked some more. And then we looked still more. We never did find a short wave radio but we did find a whole bunch of things that we thought were rather unique. We found flares.

Emily – ‘Em’ by then because being stranded on a deserted island speeds up the friendship process a lot – said her father had worked for the railroad and she knew about flares. “You snap off the cap and rub it against the flare and it lights up. No matches needed.”

There were lots of flares. Dozens. So she showed me and soon we were both brandishing flares much as we’d done sparklers on the Fourth of July when we were kids. Except the flares were more colorful and way bigger. It was fun. Real, idiotic fun.

“Now all we need is someone passing by to see a flare.”

“They’ll come,” Em said with what I thought was a slightly diminished degree of the self-confidence that had lifted both of us to an emotional high since finding each other and discovering we shared similar backgrounds. And similar ex-husbands.

I couldn’t help what happened next. I started drooping a bit, too. “It could be a teeny tiny while.”

We stared at one another and then at the small, well-hidden shacks that contained all we had in the way of survival equipment. “No clothes,” she said forlornly, all pretense of swagger gone.

“We have clothes. We’re wearing them.”

“Do islands get cold at night?” We didn’t know. During the one night we’d already spent on the island we hadn’t been in any condition to take note of our surroundings or gauge the temperature. “I hope not.”

At which moment, we heard a sound. Not the birds or the ever-present tropical wind or the trees swaying in that wind. Something else. Some other kind of sound.

“A ship!” Em ran to the beach and I followed. “It’s a ship.” She turned and ran back to the shed we’d just left. “Flares! We need flares. Lots of them.”

“They’ll see us. They will.” I added ‘I hope’ and ‘please’ but I added them silently because I didn’t want to seem like a kill-joy as we grabbed arms-full of flares and ran back to the beach, where we snapped the caps off two flares, rubbed them as Em instructed, and to our delight watched as they burst into flame.

“We’re saved. We get to go home.”

“Home.” We both wondered what home would be like. Different than before was all we knew. Worse? Better?

We looked at the ship, then held our flares high as we waded into the ocean and waved them wildly, and then we looked at each other standing in the ocean and waving a bunch of flares like a couple of idiots. And we started laughing once more, our optimism renewed and our lives looking better and better with each passing second.

Because with the arrival of that ship, we suddenly knew that we had a future. Maybe we didn’t know what it would be like but we did know it waited for us with open arms.

As the ship drew closer we also knew – we felt in our bones – we internalized the knowledge — that that waiting future, like the approaching ship, would be wonderful. Absolutely awesome.

The flares turned out to be unnecessary. The ship was our ship – the cruise ship – that had realized two passengers had been left behind and returned to pick us up.

We walked onto that ship with all the grace and dignity we could manage, strolling slowly as if this was an every-day occurrence for world travelers like us. As if the whole thing was a lark. As if we’d known all along that we’d be rescued and it was only what special people like us deserved. When we reached my stateroom, which happened to be the closest one, we collapsed on the bed.

“Did you see the dirty looks we got?” Passengers had been lined up all along the side of the ship as we boarded and every eye had been on us.

“I’m guessing the ship had to skip some excursions because of the time it took to come back for us.”

Em shrugged elaborately. “Not that I care.” But her lower lip trembled and we both knew that joining the rest of the passengers for social events was going to be hard. Very hard.

Those great-looking guys would look at us and shake their heads and we’d not know if it was because we were so angry that we scared the crap out of them – which had been the case before we were stranded — or because we were a couple of dumb, middle-aged women who didn’t have the sense to return to the ship when the klaxon went off.

Em held her head high. “Who cares what anyone thinks? We had an adventure. A real adventure.”

“Yes we did and it was wonderful.” Which, in retrospect, it had been. Absolutely awesome.

We looked at one another and burst into laughter. Again. I held my middle but couldn’t stop the laughs. “Laughing is getting to be routine.”

“It’s good for us.” She tossed her head back and let the laughter roll out of her. “So what if we are two addle-brained women who got stranded on a deserted island?” She thought a moment, then said, “Two very addle-brained middle-aged women.”

My next words came out unbidden. “And isn’t that great? Wonderful? Fabulous?”

We stopped laughing. We stared at one another. And we found ourselves nodding. “What happened was all of those things,” Em said quietly. “Wonderful. Fabulous. Amazing.”

The laughter dissipated and we knew, somehow, that it wouldn’t return because it wouldn’t be needed. Because we’d got beyond needing it. “And some day we will look back on this cruise as the best thing that ever happened to us.”

“We survived.”

“We did. We are survivors.”

 “We are also now two truly happy women.”

I stood up, straightened as tall as possible, strode across the stateroom and opened the door to the outside and all those people who would be looking down their noses at us. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”

And we did. We danced to the ship’s band with each other and alone and both ways were fun and we didn’t notice or care whether those great-looking guys were checking us out or not because they were no longer important.

We ate unhealthy food until our stomachs rebelled and we had to go outside and stare over the railings at the sun-streaked sky long enough for our stomachs to settle and the sky to turn to night with stars and shining waves becoming part of us.

As the days passed, we met other people and talked with them and discovered that some were out of sorts because we’d changed their itinerary but others thought we’d had the most exciting adventure they could imagine and they were jealous and wanted to hear the details over and over again.

When the cruise ended, we exchanged contact information. Because we’re going on another cruise next summer. Together. One with a stop at a tropical island.

It’ll be fun and hopefully we won’t end up stranded once again. The brochure said there’d be a gourmet feast on their own private island and we both truly do like islands. But not being stranded on them. I mean, we’ve done that and don’t need a repeat.

But you never know…

THE END

Convergence episodes 1 and 2 are published and free

CONVERGENCE

(Book 2 of The Space Between Stars, but you don’t have to have read the first book to enjoy this story.)

http://www.Amazon.com/dp/B09CZWDS9W

Episodes 1 and 2 are online in Kindle Vella, Amazon’s newest way to read stories, one episode at a time. Since the first 3 episodes are always free, you can start reading CONVERGENCE for zero cents to see if it’s your kind of story.

Here’s what it’s about:

New planet. New home. New life. Pray things go right because calls for help trillions of miles from Earth don’t get answered.

There’s the pollen. Pollen is harmless. Isn’t it? And there are the whisperers who followed the colonists to this new place. Are they from Earth? They must be. Unless they aren’t.

But these colonists traveled between stars to start a new civilization on this particular world and they don’t intend to let anything stop them. They’ll fight for their new home. Problem is, winning is never guaranteed.

And here’s an excerpt:

The first team to the planet’s surface wasn’t expected to survive so no cameras were allowed. Without a record of whatever disaster befell them, it could be hushed up. The powers that be could come up with a logical explanation for dead or missing team members, a tragic fall, perhaps, or some other story. But that wouldn’t work if there were pictures.

They planned that if that happened – and they were pretty sure it would – they’d suitably mourn those lost, wait a while, and then send down a second team. If that team suffered a similar fate, they’d send a third. And, if necessary, a fourth. And so on.

Because this was the place they’d been heading towards for generations. This particular, specific planet. Not the next planet or the one after that. This planet and no other. They would stay here. They would colonize it no matter what. Danger and death be damned.

Turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

At first.

Kindle Vella Street Team. Interested?

I’m looking to create a street team for my stories on Amazon’s Kindle Vella.

If you don’t know what Kindle Vella is, you’re not alone. Amazon did little to nothing in the way of promotion. I suspect their reasoning was to give authors free reign to do whatever they choose and Amazon will then follow by doing those things that are most successful. In the meantime, every author is on their own.

So I’m thinking of creating a street team and together we’ll strategize how to publicize something new. The kicker is that you can’t even read Kindle Vella on your Kindle. Not yet anyway and don’t know if they’ll ever do it. Instead you read it on your phone, computer, etc. Just like social media, in short episodes of 600 to 5,000 words each.

Mine normally are between 1,000 and 2,000 words each and the first 3 episodes are free, which is nice, and you can purchase ‘tokens’ to read the rest at greatly discounted costs, and every new subscriber is given 200 tokens free. So the cost is nothing or minimal if you keep reading.

Anyway, if you are interested in helping me publicize my stories and figuring out how to publicize a new story medium, contact me at witkopflorence@gmail.com (the email I use for writing, not my personal email address) and we’ll go from there.

And just to have a picture to show with this post, here’s the cover for my second Kindle Vella story, titled CONVERGENCE. I chose a warrior woman because I remembered that faces are the best covers of all and I liked her expression. That’s one tough woman who is also feminine. My kind of cover.

The link if you are interested is http://www.Amazon.com/dp/B09CZWDS9W

Love Me, Love Me Not

LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT

“These are beyond their prime,” Lola said with a frown. Lola being my boss at Flowers4U, the best flower shop in the city according to the customers who kept us in business. “Do what you want with them but do not use them in anything that is for sale.”

I examined the flowers, red and white and still pretty, though, as Lola had said, past their prime. “I’ll bring them home with me.” Which she knew I’d say because it was what I always said when she decided flowers were past their prime. “They’ve still got some life in them and my apartment could use a bit of cheering up.”

“Humph,” Lola said in the faux grumpy voice she uses sometimes. “That place could use a few windows is what it could use.” Referring to my two rooms and a bath on the second floor of an ancient apartment building overlooking a tiny yard featuring grass with flowers around the edge. But the only way I could see that lovely piece of nature was to stand on my tiptoes and stare out my single, tiny, living room window. So flowers in vases scattered throughout my apartment, even those past their best days, were a welcome addition to my at-home life. I brought home all the blooms from Flowers4U that would otherwise be tossed.

I kept them alive as long as possible in vases and jars filled with water and all the best nutrients Flowers4U had on their shelves, complements of Lola who loved flowers and wanted to know they’d lived as long as possible. I’d care for the flowers and remember my grandfather’s farm and the flowers he grew for my grandma. Red flowers were her favorite. Red like the ones I was looking at now.

When there was no life left in the drooping petals that were past their prime, I’d toss them into the can for composting that was beside the dumpster that was beside the gate that led from that tiny spot of natural beauty to the great beyond, otherwise known as the bustling center of our small city.

I loved the city. I’d moved there from that beloved farm so I could visit museums and art galleries and restaurants featuring food from everywhere on Earth. I couldn’t do that in the country. So I chose the city and missed the flower garden and my grandparents but they were happy for me as long as I visited occasionally.

So now in my city apartment, I considered those red flowers that would eventually be so far gone that even I would have to say goodbye to them. But I never knew what happened to them after they were tossed and had never been curious until now. I presumed they went to the landfill along with the rest of the apartment building trash. Of course they did. Where else could they go? Where else could any trash go?

Of course, before that happened, I played my flower game. In fact, even before finding the perfect vase from among my many garage sale finds and filling it with water and nutrients that would revive the aging blooms, I held the flowers in one hand and counted the petals with one finger of the other hand.

“Love me, love me not,” I’d say as I touched each petal and when I reached the last petal on that particular blossom, I’d know whether or not I was loved. Of course the fact that I had no current boyfriend made the game irrelevant and the additional fact that I had an armful of blossoms and so ended up with about the same number of ‘love me’ and ‘love me not’ petals didn’t make the game any less fun.

Lola says I’m an introvert and that’s why I play the flower game. I see myself as a quiet person who didn’t happen to know any more people since moving to the city than I’d known before living there. I had a total of one friend. Lola.

So my game with flowers was an exercise in imagination that brought that ‘harrump’ from her every time she caught me at it, saying I should count men instead of petals and why hadn’t I found the right one yet? Lola was big on me finding the right man. She said it was major life event. I wasn’t in any hurry and was happy with my flowers.

Until they died and I threw them away.

Except that one time, when the red and white petals grew limp and I knew the time had come to say goodbye to them, for some unknown reason, curiosity caught at me and I wanted to know exactly what happened to them next. When did the trash guys come and bring my lovely flowers to their final resting place? Did they bury them in the earth as I deemed proper or were they thrown carelessly on top of other peoples’ left-over dinner?

I decided to find out. I had a lot of time on my hands and two days off when they finally reached the end of their lives. So I took them to that trash can and dropped them in and went back upstairs and found a book to read and a tall chair with a lot of pillows on it to sit on so I could be high enough to see through that tiny window because I didn’t know when the trash was picked up but I hoped it would be while I was watching so I could run down to the yard before they left and ask them what they did with old flowers.

I never found out, mainly because my dead flowers didn’t stay with the kitchen trash very long. In fact, it was afternoon of the morning I’d tossed them into the trash can that a movement caught my attention. You know how it happens. You’re reading a book and are in the middle of the most exciting scene of the whole book when there’s a flutter in the corner of your eye. Something that can’t be ignored no matter how much you try to pretend it’s not happening. Then you remind yourself that the reason you’re sitting where you are – on a really tall stool stolen from your kitchen so you can actually see out the tiny window – is because you wanted to know when the trash was picked up.

Which was happening at that exact moment. Except there was no trash truck. No noisy behemoth chugging down the alley. No workers shouting orders and gossip to each other as they turned a dirty piece of city into a clean piece.

Nope, there was just one person – a man – and he was only interested in the can full of kitchen waste and my dead flowers. I left my stool and pressed my nose against the window to see better as he carefully inspected the contents of the can and carefully, almost reverently, pulled my dead flowers out, along with a few other things that might have been green and growing at one time, and dropped them to the ground beside the trash can as he rummaged further to see if there was more to be salvaged. To be saved.

Why save dead flowers and other dead green stuff? I had to know so I dropped my book to the floor after carefully marking my place so I could later find out how the author resolved the unresolvable crisis in the book, and then I ran down to the ground level two stairs at a time.

And found a nice-looking guy walking across the lawn carrying green stuff and my flowers in his arms. And smiling happily.

“Why are you smiling about dead flowers and even deader green stuff?” I stood in front of him with my hands on my hips and my feet apart in what anyone would recognize as a confrontational gesture.

Startled, he stopped. His mouth dropped open. He considered my confrontational stance, head to toe and back again. And then he smiled. Again. “Because they are wonderful.”

“Dead flowers are wonderful?” I stuck my head towards him and knitted my brows in my most threatening expression.

“Absolutely and they are exactly what I need.”

“You need dead green stuff and dead flowers?”

“Yep.” Then he just stood there and let me try to figure out what he was talking about, knowing I couldn’t and enjoying my confusion. Until he possibly felt sorry for me and explained. “As compost.”

“Compost? Really? In the city? I doubt it.” I worked at a florist so I knew about cities and green growing things and flowers and stuff like that.

He took a few steps around me and continued on to a corner of the yard where he dropped his armload of dead stuff on a pile. Then he picked up a pitchfork just like the one my grandfather still uses on his farm a few hundred miles beyond the city and turned the pile until my lovely dead flowers and all that other dead green stuff disappeared in a pile of rich, black, beautiful dirt.

Rich, black, beautiful dirt. Just like the dirt on my grandfather’s farm that was made from organic waste. Except my grandfather’s waste was country waste. This was city waste. Flowers from a florist. But it did the same thing. Served the same purpose. Turned dead stuff into dirt to feed and sustain new living, greenery and as many lovely, beautiful flowers as any gardener could wish for.

“I apologize,” I said in a very small voice as I came beside him and examined the lovely, beautiful black dirt he was in the process of making.

“No apology needed,” he grunted as he stopped long enough to point in the direction of a second pitchfork. “But help would be appreciated.” He wiped his forehead because it was a hot day and he was working. Like on a farm but in the middle of the city. “Not necessary, of course, but if you’re in the mood for exercise and don’t mind getting dirty, there’s a lot of dirt that needs to be turned.”

Was I in the mood? Was I ever! Pictures of my grandfather floated through my mind as I actually ran to that pitchfork and grabbed it and found a place on the other side of the dirt and proceeded to do what I’d done as a kid and loved doing it. That day, too, I loved every second that I worked, every splotch of dirt on my arms and expensive jeans, and every ray of sunshine that warmed me both inside and out, and every smile that I found myself sharing with the stranger who made his own dirt just like my grandfather.

“I’m Peter and you’ve done this before.” As I tossed still another pitchfork of dirt exactly the right way to aerate it.

“Yep, lots of times on the farm and I’m Carin.”

“Hi, Carin, and it’s nice to meet another city farmer.”

“I always thought farms were for the country.”

“There are lots of farms in cities. You just have to look in the right places.”

I examined the tiny yard behind our apartment building that I’d always admired and never paid much attention to because it was, after all, the city and, therefore, not worthy of the notice of a real farmer. “Guess I’ve been a snob. Sorry about that.”

“No apology needed. Just strong arms and a willing body.”

I giggled and soon learned that there were lots of city people who took off their work clothes when they got home evenings and put on farmer duds and went to work digging in dirt that they’d pretty much created themselves out of old flowers and weeds and kitchen trash that they then turned into tiny gardens and mini-farms stuck between tall buildings and on rooftops and around playgrounds and everywhere they could dump some of that dirt and plant seeds and then get to work.

I decided they were faux farmers and called them that — but not out loud. Peter didn’t label them at all but he philosophized about them. “Some people like the earth. And dirt. And flowers. So if they prefer being surrounded by dirt after work, that’s okay.” He grinned the grin I’d come to know well because it blossomed so easily when he was working out of doors. “People like me.”

We just stood there and stared at each other like idiots. I’d never thought about what kind of person I was before but suddenly I did as the sun beat down hot and heavy and the scent of flowers hung on the air in that tiny garden between two apartment buildings with the rich scent of black dirt adding a pungency to the day.

And I thought of Peter and how alike we were. City people with dirt beneath our fingernails. We were wet with sweat and covered with home-made dirt and it was glorious and beautiful and exactly what I wanted. A farm in the city and a friend who felt the same. A real friend. My second city friend after Lola.

What could be better? Nothing.

What could happen to ruin it? Nothing.

Except rain. Too much rain. More rain than tiny yards with grass and flowers need, more than they want, more than they can absorb. Unfortunately, that’s what we got. And that rain turned that pile of beautiful black dirt into mud and the dirt that had already been made into a garden into more mud and then still more mud.

Eventually the flower garden that enclosed the tiny green yard I’d come to love disappeared in a carpet of black, gooey mud and Peter and I had to face facts like all farmers do now and then when the weather doesn’t cooperate. We were out of the farming business.

I wondered if I’d also lose a friend because he was a farm type friend and we no longer had a farm. I hoped not but didn’t know for sure.

Lola noticed my glum face at Flowers4U. “Are you intentionally trying to chase customers away or do you just prefer looking like yesterday’s roses?”

“My farm died.”

“Your farm?” Her eyebrows shot up. “You mean your grandfather’s farm?”

“What? Grandpa? No, his farm is fine. It’s my farm that died.”

“You live in the city. Farms are country things.”

“Not this one. Not the one that my apartment overlooks.”

“Your pathetic apartment with no windows? That apartment? It has a farm?”

“Yep. There’s a yard with a flower garden.” I remembered and used the proper tense. “Was a flower garden until the rain came. That kind of a farm. A sort of one.”

“Hmmmm.” She thought for a long time. “So you actually do have a garden. A real not pretend flower garden. Did have one.” I nodded sadly and explained about flowers and compost and Peter all in one long sentence without stopping for breath and she listened intently. “You had flowers. And a garden. And a friend named Peter. Three wonderful things.”

Then, with that harrumph that she’s famous for, she said, “It’s about time you found a friend. We’ve got to do something about this friend before he disappears.” Then she added, “And the flowers too, of course.”

The next day, Monday, when Flowers4U was closed because even florists need time for a personal life, I slept in because there was no garden work to be done and I didn’t feel like wading through mud and Peter was somewhere doing whatever Peter does when he’s not being a city farmer. So why wake up? No reason.

Except there was a knock on my door that couldn’t be ignored no matter how hard I tried. So I staggered to the door, opened it, and ushered Lola into my apartment. “Get up,” she said as she swished through the two rooms to that single high window to look out and see my former garden for herself. “We’ve got work to do.” Stared at the mud. “Lots of work from the look of things.” Then, “That’s a lot of mud out there.”

“It used to be dirt. Before it was mud. Dirt with flowers growing in it. Beautiful flowers.” I pointed a finger at her. “Do you  know what dirt is made of? What it is if it isn’t mud? Do you know that you are staring at the pathetic remains of your former flowers?”

She snapped her head in the affirmative. “And that’s why we must do whatever we can to bring that mud back to what it should be – dirt — so it can bring still more flowers to life and so this yard can once again be beautiful.”

I’d revived enough to realize what she’d said, so I asked, “How?”

“With fans that I borrowed from a lot of people I know and with the help of most of those people.”

“What people?”

“Why my customers, of course.” She gave me a look that said I had a lot to learn about life. “The people we’ve gotten to know over the years who we provided with lovely flowers for all that time and, therefore, made friends with.” She sniffed. “Those people. Those wonderful people.”

She was right. Before I knew what was happening, that tiny yard was full of people in rubber boots with shovels and rakes and pitchforks that they must have borrowed from country farmers because there’s no such thing as city pitchforks and a few huge fans that blew that mud that they were tossing every which way until it was dry. Until it was dirt. Black dirt. Beautiful dirt. Former flowers dirt.

Peter was in awe of all those people and of Lola. “You have some pretty powerful friends.” He rubbed some newly dry, black dirt between his fingers and I could just see him planning a brand new flower garden.

But Lola wasn’t done. She then talked with Peter about flowers and gardens and other stuff they had in common and when they finally ran out of things to talk about she provided him with seeds and bulbs for a flower garden beautiful enough to make the entire city bloom. And all the nutrients that were needed for those flowers.

Given enough time for all those seeds and bulbs to become flowers, that small part of the city did bloom and I had to stop counting petals because I didn’t have the time any more. I was busy. With Peter. We are now partners in a tiny garden in the middle of our small city that becomes more lovely every year.

Because we work at it. Like we work at getting to know one another better. Lola says both are rewarding enterprises though I suspect she prefers the getting-to-know each other work because, like I said earlier, she worries about my single state.

Which won’t bother her much longer. Peter and I are planning next spring’s garden to be extra special because it’s where we’re holding our wedding.

Provided it doesn’t rain.

THE END

The Space Between Stars is complete on Kindle Vella

THE SPACE BETWEEN STARS

http://www.Amazon.com/dp/B094XFNL99

In Kindle Vella, completed manuscript with Amazon, last episode due to be published August 19.

5-star reviews:

Inspiring, adventurous, and wholly relatable as we contemplate the stars and beyond! Witkop, true to form, has again demonstrated her mastery of story form.
Makes me eager to explore space!

The Space Between The Stars received 5 star reviews because it’s a good, readable story about real, relatable people who choose to board a starship and colonize a distant planet. Who’d do such a thing? Lots of people. Scientists. Homemakers. Adventurers. Rebels. Those with paranormal abilities. And more. Read it and meet some interesting people as they travel between the stars.

The colonial starship Nova One leaves Earth on mankind’s first journey beyond the solar system to colonize a distant planet on a trip of many years. These are the stories of the colonists on that starship. Ordinary people on an extra-ordinary journey. One woman starts a journal to record her life on Nova One. Others continue it with their own stories. Funny, romantic, heart-warming, tragic, and always human. The stories of rebels, peacemakers, entrepreneurs, scientists, those born with paranormal gifts, and more.

The Space Between Stars will be live Friday

THE SPACE BETWEEN STARS

http://www.Amazon.com/dp/B094XFNL99

It’s coming live to Amazon Vella on Friday! You can read the first 3 episodes for free and the rest for a pittance.

It’s a story about a multi-generational starship headed beyond our solar system to colonize a far distant planet.

Each person on that ship has a story. Funny, heart-wrenching, scary, romantic, dangerous and more.

Together the stories weave a portrait of the first starship to carry people between the stars.

With Horses At Sunset

I hope you enjoy this month’s free short story. A clean romance, of course, with horses and sunset. Perfect for a quick summer read.

WITH HORSES AT SUNSET

by

Florence Witkop

When I pulled into my driveway I didn’t notice the hole in the fence.

Why would I? It was mid-day and I was eagerly anticipating a wonderful afternoon because it was our boss’ daughter’s birthday and in a fit of largesse he gave us all the afternoon off. With pay. On a beautiful day. What could be better?

We scattered as fast as possible, me to home and a couple extra hours of riding Peaceful, my mostly gray Appaloosa. It had been a while since I’d had time for a good, long ride and I knew Peaceful wanted to get out, too, and explore the countryside.

So I charged into the house, discarding office clothes as I went and grabbing my riding jeans from the dryer on my way to the bedroom. I hadn’t bothered to look towards the barn and the corral. No reason to. NutterButter, the pony who liked to go visiting and take my four full-sized horses with her whenever and wherever she went, was currently with a family half a state away who’d taken her with option to buy her if NutterButter and their son got along well.

I hoped they would. I was tired of chasing four horses and a pony all over the county, collecting them, and then herding them back home. So the day had an extra fillip of enjoyment. A couple extra hours of riding with no worry about my other horses meandering everywhere they shouldn’t while I wasn’t around.

Then my cell rang. “Hi, Shauna. Michael here.”

“What gives?” Michael, my good-looking neighbor who’d ridden the school bus with me when we were kids and, like me, stayed in the area when he grew up, connected every so often as neighbors do, especially neighbors close enough to see smoke rise from each other’s chimneys on clear mornings.

“The herd came visiting.” He paused, then continued, smothering a laugh I knew so well. “Again.”

“Impossible!” I held the cell away from me so as to better see the picture he’d sent of four adult horses sneaking across his back yard. “NutterButter isn’t here.”

“Guess she taught them well.” The laugh exploded as he could no longer hold in his merriment. “Like how to escape and go walkabout.”

I sank onto the nearest chair, almost falling in the process because I didn’t check where I was sitting. I was that upset. Disappointed. Disgusted. “And here I thought I was done with escape artist horses.”

“Guess not.” I could see his tears of laughter in my imagination. “I was too late to stop them. They were across the yard and gone by the time I grabbed a rope and went outside.”

I groaned. “Where do you think they went?”

Another chuckle, followed by, “The last I saw of them – their rear ends – they were headed towards the river.”

I groaned again, louder this time because the river is famous among us locals and not for its peaceful nature. “There are so many trees. And really tall, prickly bushes. And creeks coming from everywhere that crisscross each other on their way to nowhere. And, of course, there’s the river itself.”

“Bring rubber boots,” he added helpfully, choking on laughter. “Or prepare to go wading.”

“It’s awful by the river and if they decided to walk down a creek there won’t even be a trail to follow.” I groaned again and said goodbye to my pleasant afternoon.

“I’ll help.” Managing to control a last hiccup of laughter, he said he’d be over in two minutes, which meant he’d been watching for me with his truck at the  ready to help collect my horses. Again. For about the thousandth time. “See you,” and then he hung up and I was left staring at my cell phone and pulling on my toughest and oldest clothes so I’d be ready when he pulled into the driveway.

Thank goodness he had a sturdy, old pickup with a huge engine that never quit and enough dents that if it acquired a few more in the river breaks they wouldn’t be noticed. Thank goodness my neighbor was a mechanic who could make trucks do amazing things — and a horse lover — and an all-around nice guy.

He was cute too, a fact I’d noticed only recently and how all those years ago I’d missed how well his jeans fit and that his eyes creased in the sunshine was something I couldn’t figure. But I noticed now every single time we got together for anything, which was rather often because we were next-door neighbors. Okay we were country neighbors with a bit more distance between us than if we lived in town, but not so much as to not notice each other’s lives.

I always knew what he was doing, especially since noticing how well those jeans fit. I wondered if he knew the same about me or if he cared what was happening in my life other than laughing when my horses went walkabout and he helped me corral them. Which he always did. I could count on him absolutely.

When his ancient truck chugged loudly into the driveway, I was ready with halters, ropes, grain, feeders, and anything else I could think of that might help convince my wayward horses to come home.

He examined my gear and nodded approval. “My contribution is lunch.” He tipped his hat to shade his eyes and added, “I bet you haven’t eaten yet.” He stared at me accusingly. “Have you?”

I admitted I hadn’t, and he insisted we find more food in the kitchen to add to his stash. “So you don’t die of starvation. I’d hate to have to bury your emaciated body.” He shuddered. “The ground is hard by the river. Rocks and nasty, thorny bushes. Tough digging.” Then he laughed. Again.

“Just drop me in the river and let me float away.” But my mouth turned upwards because, as usual, he’d made me feel better. In fact, as we pulled out of the driveway and bounced across the field and beside the ravine and between the rocks on the shortest route to the river, I realized that the lovely afternoon that had made me feel like singing was still beautiful, the sky was still blue, the horses would be found eventually because they always were, and Michael was beside me, eyes crinkling as he whistled the usual few tuneless notes that I’d come to think of as Michael’s Song.

When we reached the river, it was – the river. Fast running and cold, frothy around rocks and undercutting the banks so as to make standing too close dangerous unless you were okay with falling into the water along with a large chunk of mud. Which I wasn’t. So I stood far back and stared across and hoped to see at least one horse, hopefully four grazing peacefully so we could get them and bring them home before it got dark.

“Not here,” Michael said breezily. “Where should we look?”

“I don’t have a clue,” I said as I wondered whether I should be depressed because finding the horses could take us both all afternoon or happy because finding the horses could take us both all afternoon. Whistling, calling, cajoling, climbing trees to see farther. And doing it all together.

Of course, together or separately, it was work. Hot, dusty, frustrating work. Until I climbed still another tree and spotted them. “I see them!”

“Where?”

I pointed. “Across the river. Not far.” If we got there before they wandered away.

“So we go wading.”

I shuddered. “The water’s cold.”

“Not too cold.” He stooped enough to test it with a hand and sputtered.

“Liar.” As I shinnied down the tree.

He shivered. “At least it’ll wash away the dust.”

Soon we were both in the river and shivering, with our jeans rolled up and holding our boots and glad it was only a couple of feet deep. When we reached the other side, we headed to where I’d seen the horses.

And there they were, munching sweet grass that grew wild and tall, fed by the river’s water. Peaceful raised her head and flicked a fly from her rump.

“She has no shame,” Michael said.

“None of them do,” was my reply. “They never do.”

Michael inspected them. “They are here. The ropes and halters are in the truck on the other side of the river.”

“I’ll get them if you’ll keep an eye on the horses.” Not that he could stop them if they decided to go for a walk but he could follow them and know where they were.

“Don’t fall in the creek on your way back.”

I headed back through the cold water and about an hour later made the return trip with halters and ropes to lead them back where they belonged.

It wouldn’t be easy. We each had to lead two horses to the river, then across it, then lead them through the thorn bushes to where the truck was parked. Not far but it would be a very slow, difficult trek leading two large animals each who’d prefer staying where they were and eating grass. We knew that but had no choice.

We stopped before crossing the river to get them used to the fact that they’d have to go wading and to take off our boots. Then we crossed very slowly. Then we stopped again on the other side to pull our boots back on and let the horses graze a bit. Then we very, very slowly started through the underbrush.

It didn’t work. Two horses simply took too wide a path. The bushes wouldn’t allow it. So we ended up tethering two of them to trees near enough to the river for them to drink while we led the other two through  the underbrush single file and tied them to the truck when we reached it.

Then we went back for the last two and repeated the same, slow process until we finally had four horses tied to the truck.

And realized what time it was.

“Sundown,” Michael said in a voice oozing with meaning.

“What are you trying to say that I don’t understand?” It was a gorgeous sunset. As usual.

“There’s no road. We came across fields, remember, and then through underbrush and around potholes and between ravines and across rocks.” He gave the sinking sun a bleak look. “It’ll be dark in minutes.”

“Are you saying we can’t get home safely because we can’t see where we’re going?”

“Yep. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If we didn’t have the horses we could make it before true dark so without them it would be okay. But we can only go as fast as they can walk.” He slanted a look in my direction. “Which means we can’t make it home today.”

“Oh.” That was unexpected. In all the many times Michael and I had collected my meandering horses, we’d never had that problem before. “What do we do?”

He rummaged among the things in the back of his truck. “I’ve a bucket back here somewhere that can hold water for the horses. We hobble them. The water and grain will keep them nearby so they won’t wander away during the night.”

“What about us?”

He dropped the bucket and a sack of grain on the ground and then checked the back seat of the pickup. “I think I have a blanket here somewhere and I brought enough food for an army so we won’t starve.”

“I hate the idea of staying here all night”

“It’s what we’ll do unless you have a better idea, one that won’t get us killed trying to get home in the dark.”

I didn’t and was glad he had a blanket because nights can get rather cold, especially near the river. Two blankets would be better, of course, one for each of us. But he only had one.

On the other hand, was I glad he only had one? I examined my thoughts and decided I preferred one blanket because sharing is a good character building experience.

We prepared for the coming night. We scrounged among the green stuff growing all around us for anything we could find that was soft enough to turn into a makeshift couch for the evening and, later, a bed for the night. Not an easy task when almost everything had either prickles or thorns or was sticky with sap.

But we managed and when we were done, we told each other that we deserved the dinner that was whatever Michael had brought from his house plus whatever we’d found in my kitchen. Left-overs from both places and we agreed that it was a repast fit for a king – or two very hungry commoners.

We laid out our bounty between us and then, our looks meeting as we realized that we’d be hungry in the morning, we set some aside for breakfast. “Of course we’ll be home in time for a second, more substantial breakfast.”

I agreed. “But it’ll be nice to have something when we wake up.”

“Coffee would be nice,” Michael said with a yearning that tugged at my taste buds. He finished with, “But the river water is excellent. And cold. And will wake us up as efficiently as coffee.”

Then we settled down to eat. And watch the sunset, which was spectacular as are all sunsets in our part of the country. Red and pink and purple, changing as we watched, bright at first, brilliant at all times, but gradually darkening as the sun dipped lower and lower behind evening clouds, then finally spreading across the entire sky as dark settled in, first in the east and eventually, everywhere.

As the last rays of light slowly faded, Michael gave a contented sigh and said, “I’m glad the horses ran away.” He waved at the scenery that we were a part of as he swatted away a fly.

“Me too.” I examined myself and didn’t know what I felt beyond that it was whatever Michael was feeling. But I knew that whatever it was, it was a new, different feeling for me. Happiness? Contentment? Relaxation so profound I’d forgotten what it was like? Or all of the above and a thousand more things I’d forgotten how to feel?

We just sat there and took it all in. Not that we could do much else given the situation and the four horses who ate contentedly and gave us looks that said it was about time we understood how they felt about the great outdoors.

I wiggled deeper into that blanket and heaved a huge, happy sigh and moved closer to Michael and leaned into him and wondered how he’d react to my wonton action and decided I didn’t care because he was warm and large and comfortable and if I wanted to use him as a pillow, well then I would do so and the memory of how those worn, soft jeans fit him made me smile even more. I have a very good imagination.

Turned out he was okay with me using him that way. In fact, he helped. He put one arm around  me and pulled me closer and gave a slight grunt of satisfaction. “Nice evening. Nice dinner. Nice company.”

“Don’t compliment the horses, Michael. They are uppity enough as it is.”

“Not the horses. The other company. The company who happens to be in my arms at the moment and if any canoodling happens as a result, well don’t say it wasn’t your idea because it was.”

“I’m not complaining.” In fact, I felt so good that the feeling in my gut combined with the feeling of whatever the sunset had wrought brought on a wave of relaxation such as I’d never known along with perfect contentment until the two merged into pure, unadulterated — sleepiness. I yawned. A huge yawn.

Beside me, I heard another satisfied grunt followed by a kind of choked laughter because of that yawn but also because Michael laughs a lot, which I knew because I know him, but thinking about that laughter that went so well with the night and the stars just beginning to peek through as the night clouds dispersed and everything that was so wonderful that it made me yawn also made me realize something.

I didn’t know if I was in love with Michael or not but what I felt at that moment was special. Maybe it was a constellation of feelings brought on by the night and the sunset and the horses and the stars and the cool night air and the warm blanket and the warmer man with an arm wrapped around me. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, except that it was something and it was special, and I wanted to tell him about it. Needed to tell him. Had to tell him.

So I did. As sleep grabbed at me and tried to take me away from the moment and the man, I managed to say, groggily, “This is so special, Michael.”

“What?” He leaned closer. “You’re mumbling. I can’t understand.”

I tried again as the fog of sleep came closer. Real close. “This is special. All of it. The night. The horses. The sunset.” I managed to lift my face close enough to his that he could hear even though I was almost asleep. “And you.” I thought over my words in that groggy, wonderful state that’s between sleep and wakefulness. “Especially you.”

And then it happened. Our faces were mere inches apart so it was easy. All he had to do was come a bit lower, which he did, and then we were kissing, just like that and it felt so easy, so natural, so right, that I returned that kiss with everything in me as I decided that, yes, I probably was in love with him.

Then I fell asleep and stayed that way, wrapped in his arms and that really warm blanket until the sun came up on the opposite side of the world from where it had gone down and told us it was morning and time to get those horses back home where they belonged.

Except I’d fallen asleep before saying everything that needed to be said, especially before saying the most important thing. So when I opened my eyes, which was really hard because it was very comfortable on those soft branches and Michael’s chest, I said, “I think I’m in love with you.”

How did he react? He’s Michael so he reacted exactly as Michael would react. “You think? You just think? You don’t know?” And then he laughed. Of course he did. He threw his head back and laughed and I didn’t feel the least bit insulted because I know Michael and knew he’d laugh and I also knew what he’d say next.

And he did. “I love you too and just in case you’re interested on my part there’s no ‘think’ about it. I’m all in.”

I considered his words and decided on honesty. “Me too. All in.”

He threw the blanket aside and the cool – no it was actually cold – morning air hit us like a fast frost. “Let’s get those horses home so we can discuss this new stage in our relationship in a more comfortable place.”

I looked around and considered where we were. Where we’d been all night. The river. The bushes. The sky. Everything. “I agree that houses with real furniture can provide more creature comfort than where we are at the moment, but in its own way this place is perfect.” I slapped a mosquito. “Almost perfect.”

He grabbed the blanket with one hand and me with the other and pulled us both upright. Then we found the horses that gave us horse looks and a few snorts and happily followed the pickup all the way home with not a single one of them apologizing for going walkabout without permission.

I’m sure they’ll do it again. Go walkabout. It’s what they’ll do whether NutterButter is around or not. But next time I won’t have to wait for Michael to come to my place before we start chasing them down.

Because he’ll already be there because it won’t be just my place anymore.

It’ll be our place.

THE END

A note before you start reading Canoes and Cupcakes.

I’m joining Kindle Vella and hope you’ll read my stories there. Vella is a serialized story-telling app on Amazon that lets readers read stories one episode at a time. The first three episodes will always be free, then it’ll cost a pittance to read the rest of the episodes.

My first foray into Vella is “THE SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS.” It’s science fiction, the first-person stories of women who joined the multi-generational starship Nova One on a one-way voyage to a new home on a planet across the galaxy. The stories will all be different. Different kinds of stories, different characters, all HEA. Some funny, some heart-warming, some sad, some hard science fiction.

Hope you read THE SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS. Kindle Vella is due to go live in mid to late July. Don’t yet know how to access it other than what Amazon says, that it’ll be available on the Amazon Kindle Vella Store. Whatever that means. Hope you find it and hope you like all the stories you find there.

Here’s the June story. A romance because it’s June. Of course!

CANOES AND CUPCAKES

by

Florence Witkop

“Cupcakes are a thing.” John examined the sky. “And you always did enjoy baking.”

It took a moment for me to realize what he’d said, after which all I could manage was, “Where’d that come from?” My brother checked the sky again to make sure it was still there as a way of not looking at me so I knew the comment wasn’t random. He had something on his mind.

“There’s money in cupcakes.” His attention slowly, carefully, moved from the sky to me and pleading was evident in his pitiful expression. He’s good at pitiful expressions. I used to fall for them. I don’t anymore. “A cupcake business would be a chance to make money and, since you like to bake, you’d have fun at the same time.”

“I don’t have time. I have my studies.”

The pitiful pleading increased. “Ancient history? That’s about dead people.” A flick of his hand sent fluff from the nearby milkweeds into the air. There was a patch in our yard that we didn’t cut because Monarch butterflies lived there. I still lived at home, being a student, so I loved watching them. John had an apartment but visited often. Like now. Today. Because  he wanted something. From me. “Don’t you have enough degrees? Do you truly need another one?”

I wanted to tell him that I found dead people fascinating. That jobs in history pretty much require a PhD. That I wasn’t interested in his idea, whatever it was. That I was happy with my life. Instead I foolishly asked, “What’s behind this sudden interest in cupcakes?”

A Monarch butterfly landed on the picnic table and we both went quiet and watched until it flew away. We followed its path through the air until it disappeared around the corner of the house. Then he answered my question. “Canoes.”

“Huh?” He managed not to look away but it was hard and he cleared his throat as I asked a second question. “What do cupcakes and canoes have in common?”

“Evan and I want to go canoeing.” My brother loves the outdoors. Always has, from watching butterflies in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter and everything in between. If it was out of doors, he and Evan, his best friend, knew about it, had tried it, and loved it.

“You don’t have a canoe.”

“That’s the problem. Can’t go canoeing without a canoe.”

“So a cupcake business is to fund the purchase of a canoe?”

“Yep.” He looked away. Then back at me. Then away again but I’d seen his face during that brief moment and found myself wilting. The nearby river was gorgeous and flowed peacefully through graceful twists and curves for miles. Almost every time we crossed the bridge on our way to town we saw at least one canoe floating down the lovely waterway. “We couldn’t think of another way to get enough money.”

They both had jobs but were paying off steep school loans plus rent, and entry jobs don’t pay a lot. The thing is, they are both nice people. And I am a fairly decent baker. “You think cupcakes will do it.” My tone of voice said what I thought of such a ridiculous idea. I said it in that specific tone of voice to make him understand that it was impossible.

He wiggled. Found a comfortable position. Opened his mouth. Wiggled a bit more and sat up straight again which meant this was truly important. “We stopped at a bakery in the mall for some donuts and there were people lined up buying cupcakes.”

“So?”

“So we were the last customers so the owner had time to talk while getting our donuts. We asked about the cupcakes everyone was buying. He said they must be a ‘thing’ now because people are buying them as fast as he can bake them. He said there’s enough demand for a dozen cupcake businesses.” He looked at me sidewise. “And canoes are on sale now. Probably will be for a while. Most rivers are low, not much call for them.” The river near us was, as usual, flowing normally.

“So you’re saying that people liking cupcakes and you two wanting canoes should be the catalyst to start a business?”

“Yep.” He shaded his eyes with one hand as if a canoe wasn’t important. “That was the idea. Did it work?”

I should have said ‘no.’ Should have stopped things right there. But I didn’t. Because I truly do love to bake and cupcakes are one of my favorite things and John is my little brother and I’ve always babied him. Besides, canoes are a positive thing in the world. Quiet. Lovely. Non-polluting. Get people into the great outdoors. And so on.

So instead of telling him to get a second job I said, “I will not do it alone. I’m not going to slave over a hot oven to get you a canoe while you guys drink lemonade. You have to help.” He said he would. He nodded so hard his hair flopped all over his head. But I wasn’t done. “Evan too if he’s part of the canoe caper.”

“He’ll be glad to help. You know Evan.”

Yes I did, and he was the part of the plan that made it impossible for me to say ‘no.’ Both John and Even are nice, Evan being several years older, a couple of years older than me. They’d been tight ever since meeting at a ski slope where they were both neophytes and both ended up with broken legs and spent their recovery time getting to know one another.

Evan is as crazy about the great outdoors as John and has been close to our family ever since. And I like him. Like I said, he’s a nice guy. And good looking. And he makes my insides turn warm every time we are together, something I’d never in a million years admit out loud.

“Okay. You have a deal.”

John hugged me and danced a little jig that scared the butterflies away and I wondered if he somehow knew how I felt about Evan but there was nothing to indicate that he did beyond a quick comment that we three would be seeing a lot of each other. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face was a smirk or a reaction to the brilliant sunshine we’d been enjoying lately.

But I wasn’t about to start a commercial enterprise without doing my homework and I didn’t think John’s enthusiasm counted. So I visited that bakery he’d mentioned, not believing for a second that the baker had actually said what John said he had.

Turned out that he had said what John said he’d said. “You guys got a commercial bakery in mind?”

“A what?”

His look went skyward and he carefully explained that anything he sold had to be made in a commercial bakery. I shook my head and mentally started wording my explanation to a disappointed little brother when he continued. “I’m asking ‘cause I know one that’s not currently being used.” He wiped his hands on a paper towel and sat down and offered me a can of pop. Because this was going to be a long conversation? “It went out of business recently and that’s partly why I’m so busy now.” His head tilted from one side to the other and back as he tried to gauge my interest level. “I’d love to see it go back in business as long as I sell what’s made in both bakeries.” He stared at me. “So what about it? Are you guys going to bake me some cupcakes?”

When I walked out, I had an address and a promise to meet with the owner of the commercial kitchen and before the day was out, we were in business. Except I didn’t know a thing about commercial anything and the boys knew less than me, so I had a feeling life was about to get interesting. Fortunately, the owner of the bakery we were about to rent agreed to stick around and help us get started.

“Where’s John?” I asked the next afternoon when Evan showed up after work, right on time and alone.

“Had to work overtime. Not optional.” He shrugged. “It happens.”

So Evan and I learned about commercial baking without my little brother. The lessons added another dimension to my home baking. Evan learned from the beginning. The former baker only rolled his eyes a couple of times and was endlessly patient, which was good because otherwise we’d never have learned a thing.

One of the first things we learned was that if we were to provide fresh-baked cupcakes we’d probably be working odd hours so as to get the freshly baked cupcakes to the bakery in the mall before it opened in the morning.

That worked for me because my studies were individualized. It worked for Evan for much the same reason. He worked from home. Not so much for John who worked normal hours at a business that was experiencing a spurt of sales and required him to work long hours. Which left Evan and me alone once our helpful landlord/baker decided we knew enough to continue without him.

When he was gone and we’d done our best, Evan stared at a table covered by frosting in all the colors of the rainbow that topped cupcakes of every flavor imaginable in large boxes and there were more baking in the huge oven that came with the place.

He leaned on the table with his elbows and slow-blinked at me. I melted and reminded myself that as far as he was concerned we were just friends. I was John’s big sister, nothing more. No one special. “Who’d have thought there were so many kinds of cupcakes?”

“Lots more to be made. This is nothing.” My voice squeaked and I wished for the hundredth time that I could be normal around Evan.

He looked up. “Are you okay? You sound funny.”

“I’m fine.” I cleared my throat. “Must be catching a cold.”

His brow knitted. “You’d better take it easy.” He insisted I sit. “I can finish this.” He was truly concerned. “I’ll deliver these babies.”

“I’m fine. Really. And I want to help deliver them. Because I helped and because this is an interesting business.” 

He insisted I sit while he worked. I did and couldn’t believe how fast time passed as I watched Evan bake, cool, frost, and package cupcakes. He started awkwardly but by the time a stack of bakery boxes was ready for delivery, he’d figured it out and developed a rhythm. “I hope we earn enough to cover expenses and have something for the canoe fund.”

“The reason we’re doing this.”

We put the boxes in his car as the sun peeked over the trees, crossed the river as it topped them, and made our delivery as the day began and our small city came to life. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

We walked out of the bakery without those boxes but with a check for enough to pay rent on our commercial kitchen, buy supplies for the next batch of cupcakes and start a savings account in the local bank. After which we grabbed coffee and found our way to the bank of that river and watched the day finish waking up. “I love mornings.” Evan stretched his long legs and shook the tiredness from his frame. “I love the smell of them. The look of them. The canoes that are just starting out.” As two canoes floated beneath the nearby bridge. “And soon John and I will be doing that too.”

Something occurred to him. “You too. When we get the canoe. You must come too. You’ll love it.”

The peace and beauty of the river and the greenery along the banks. The silence broken only by the murmuring current. John in one end of the canoe, Evan in the other, and me in between. “I’d like that.”

So we continued. John’s overtime ended and he was able to help but he never was able to put in as many hours as either Evan or I. We didn’t mind, we knew it wasn’t his fault as one day when he had to doff his apron and leave for his day job, he said, “It’s funny. I actually enjoy this stuff.” His eyes looked skyward and he shook his head in disbelief. “Who’d have thought? Me and baking.”

Evan put his hands on hips, flour and all. “Me too, and that’s the last thing I expected when we started this gig.”

They both looked at me. “I always did like baking. Especially cupcakes.” We three inspected the day’s work consisting of cupcakes, but also cakes and sweet rolls and coffee cakes. And we planned to ask the mall bakery if they wanted still more variety. Because we were actually decent bakers and the mall man loved having more to sell.

So John went to work and Even and I finished up and cleaned the kitchen and brought our bakery boxes to the mall and collected a fat check. Evan looked at it. “We have our canoe.” He waved it in the air and texted John that they’d reached their goal.

I looked at him. “So now what?”

“What do you mean?”

“We rented the commercial kitchen for the entire summer. Do we just let it sit idle?”

He sobered. “I never thought about it.” He raked fingers through his hair and my stomach warmed in response. “It shouldn’t sit idle.” He thought a bit. “And we shouldn’t leave the mall baker in the lurch. That would be irresponsible.” And he thought some more. “Besides, I’m getting good at this stuff.” He colored. “I actually enjoy it.”

I colored also. “So do I.” Mostly I enjoyed working beside Evan though I wasn’t about to admit that out loud.

That evening, after purchasing what they informed me was a river canoe that would be perfect for either two or three people, we adjourned to the river bank to watch the sun set and see if John had any ideas about the kitchen. He did. “Why stop now? We have the kitchen for the summer, we have the skills and a lot of flour and sugar and stuff and the mall counts on us. So why not continue and just put the extra money in the bank?” He acknowledged that we’d worked way more than he had. “Besides, I’m really getting into this bakery thing. Hopefully I’ll have more time to bake stuff.”

So we kept baking and the mall baker said he’d love it if we came up with still more items because there definitely was the market for it all.

The next day we took the canoe on its maiden voyage. It was as magical as I’d imagined with green banks on either side and the sounds of the city muffled by the high banks and the murmur of the river. When we passed out of the city, it quieted still more and the banks flattened enough that we could look over the farms and country homes that dotted the area and float between the many tiny islands in that part of the stream close enough to touch them if we wanted.

I hated to see the trip end and I said so. John surprised me by adding, “I hate to see the whole thing end. The canoe trip and the bakery that made it possible.”

Evan agreed. “Who’d have though that a canoe would make me fall in love with baking?”

I spoke without thinking. Too fast, perhaps, but I spoke as soon as the idea came to me. “Then why quit? Why not go into business for real?”

They looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. “What are you talking about? We aren’t bakers.”

“Yes you are, you just don’t know it because you came into the business sidewise.”

As we loaded the canoe onto Evan’s SUV and drove home, they were unusually quiet. Until John said, “If you guys can keep the bakery going so I can keep working until we get a comfortable bank account, maybe we could buy the kitchen and do as Anna Rae suggested. Go into business together.”

Evan pulled into a rest stop and turned off the engine and we sat for a long time before starting to discuss going into business. By the time he pulled back onto the highway and finished our trip home, it was decided. John and Evan were going into business together. But they wouldn’t do so unless I agreed to help out until John could work full time and then I’d drop back to being their baking consultant.

They didn’t need a consultant because they’d learned a lot in the time they’d been baking but Evan did need help and I agreed willingly. The next weeks and then months passed quickly and we became a well-oiled machine that produced all kinds of baked goods to be sold in the mall. And then to also be sold in the tiny store at the front of the kitchen.

Then spring rolled around, the boys checked their bank account, and they bought the kitchen and John quit his job to work full time and I could quit and go back to studying about dead guys. Except I didn’t want to.

The time spent working side by side with Evan had done something to me. Ancient history would always be my third love but my second love had become baking. And my first love would always be Evan, though he’d never know because since he gave no indication of feeling the same about me, I’d decided to keep my distance. I didn’t want to make things awkward. I wanted to keep working with him. So I did, more than was truly needed to keep the bakery going smoothly.

Then one day my brother insisted Evan and I take a canoe trip down the river without him because he wanted to prove that he could handle the kitchen alone because he’d been the last to jump into the business. “You’ll see. When you return, there will be the best baked goods ever made in this place. You’ll be astonished.”

I wanted to laugh at the idea of my baby brother being so competent but Evan and I shoved the canoe into the river just before the bridge after leaving Evan’s SUV at the end of the float trip. Then we stepped in, just the two of us, and set off as the sun peeked through the spring leaves and warmed the cool morning enough to be comfortable.

The day was perfect. The man in the back seat was also perfect as far as I was concerned. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was that we were so far apart but that didn’t last long. As we rounded a lazy curve in the river and left the city behind, one of those islands in the river came into view. Too small to have any trees, but bright yellow marsh marigolds covered most of the island in a riot of color and there was a tiny sand beach where I’d been told canoes often were pulled up to give canoers a break.

“What say we stop?”

I agreed and one hard shove of Evan’s paddle sent the canoe solidly onto the sand. We got out and pulled it up further and found a spot of warm sand and just sat and admired the day. And the silence. And the beauty.

Until Evan cleared his throat and spoke. “You know why John didn’t come today?”

I turned to him. “No I don’t know why but I suspected there was an ulterior reason because it’s not like him to miss out on a canoe trip.”

He cleared his throat again. “I asked him to take over so we could make this trip.”

“Just the two of us?” Something about his voice sent vibrations through my body and I didn’t know why. Just that I couldn’t stop the thrumming.

“Yep.” He dug in the sand with the toe of his shoe. “Just the two of us.”

“Because — ?”

He breathed deeply. Let it out slowly. Breathed again. And cleared his throat for the t hired time. “Because two is the right number.”

“The canoe holds three people.”

“Not today. Two people is right for today. For now.” He had a hard time getting the words out but he managed.

“Why?” I could hardly speak myself because something was happening. I didn’t know what but I knew it was earth-shaking.

“Because when a guy proposes to a girl, there should be just the two of them.” He cleared his throat. Again. “Don’t you think so?”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t say a single word until I made myself ask, “What are you saying, exactly?”

“That I think we should get married.” He was silent a moment, then, “Is that clear enough?”

“Yep.” Without thinking, without rehearsing what to say, without anything, the single word came out. Then I thought about what I’d just said and realized one word wasn’t enough. So I continued. “Yes I will marry you and why did you wait so long to ask when I’ve been in love with you practically forever?”

“Really? You were? I never knew.”

“I never knew about you either.”

“Dumb, huh?” We stared at each other, then Evan rolled his eyes and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop until tears fell down our cheeks.

Then we stopped laughing because it’s hard to laugh and kiss at the same time and we stayed there for what seemed like hours and probably wasn’t long at all before continuing down the river through that gorgeous, warm, sunny and absolutely perfect day.

When we got back to the kitchen, John had made good on his promise. The table was filled with all kinds of beautiful, tempting baked goods. And he had pictures of wedding cakes because he figured we’d need one and he insisted on making it himself.

He did make it when we got married and it was perfect.

THE END

Three Little Kittens

THREE LITTLE KITTENS

by

Florence Witkop

What was that sound? Soft and squeaky and – scared? Angry? What?

I didn’t want to investigate. My back ached. I rubbed where I could reach and promised myself a hot bath once I finished my chores and could finally – finally – go inside. Besides, I told myself, it was clearly an animal. Did I want to confront what could be something disagreeable and dirty and scary? No, I did not.

But then I heard it again. Squeaky, that was it for sure. Now what kind of animal squeaks?

As I asked myself the question, I answered myself. The young kind and what if this was a miniature skunk or something similar that was best avoided?

Another squeak. This time more than one. Did I have a family of skunks in my new-to-me barn? I’d only moved in a week ago and if I’d have known how much work I was letting myself in for I might have reconsidered. But the house was lovely, old and rambling, the kind for families and Ricky and Josie would love it, along with the barn that showed years of neglect but still stood straight and strong. All it needed was paint, a lot of work to clean it out, and a lot of TLC.

An awful lot of TLC.

The squeak came again and this time I faced facts. Ricky and Josie would be here in two days. If whatever was making tiny noises in my barn was there when they arrived, who knew what would happen when they explored their new home? And, yes, the barn would be the first place they went just as it had been the thing that had first hit me when the real estate agent had pulled up to the old farm.

I didn’t want them bitten by whatever was in the barn. So, with a sigh and a promise of a hot bath later, I started for the barn. The door was slightly ajar.

I’d almost reached the door when I saw movement inside. I stopped. Should I proceed?

Then, before I could make a decision, the squeaks came again. And three tiny, cute, differently colored kittens appeared in the door.

Three kittens. My first totally irrational thought was there’d be one kitten for each of my children and one for me. Then I shook my head because animals hadn’t been in my life plan. Yes, the barn was half the reason I bought this particular place but just because it had character, not because it could house animals.

They stood there, three tiny kittens looking at me. Meowing. Crying. Before I knew what was happening I was on my knees and they were crawling all over me. They were clean and seemed well fed but something was wrong. Surely no baby animal would make sounds like that if they weren’t in trouble.

I looked around for the mother. Nothing. I called. Then I whistled. Again, nothing but the kittens now were somehow in my lap, still mewing, still crying, still asking for help. But what kind of help?

I couldn’t leave them to their fate. If I couldn’t find the mother – and I couldn’t – I’d have to do something. But what? I knew nothing about cats or kittens or any animals. Growing up in an apartment with a father allergic to animals had that effect.

One kitten crawled all over me and managed to find its way into the crook of my arm. With a sigh I set them down long enough to find the jacket I’d discarded. I scooped them into the jacket. They settled down and snuggled with each other and the plushy lining. But they still mewed. They still cried. They still needed something.

A voice made me jump. I looked up into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. All the way up six feet something of rugged male in work boots and a baseball cap covering brownish hair with a body encased in a shirt with rolled up sleeves and jeans that fit way too well. “So here they are. I’ve found them at last.”

“Who are you?” I held the kittens closer. “Do you know these kittens?” I covered them with my body. I protected them. He didn’t look like a kitten destroyer, but looks can be deceiving.

“Will Jackson.” He tipped his head in a guy kind of way and I wished I was standing up instead of sitting in the dirt. “And yes, I do know these kittens.” I half covered the kittens with the jacket. “I own the mother.”

“Oh.” Not much I could say. Except one thing. “Then where is she?” And why’d he have to go looking for his own cat’s babies? Didn’t he take care of the mother? Didn’t he care?

He looked at the sky and beyond. His eyes darkened, changing from sky blue to the color of a thunderstorm. “She had an accident.” He shook his head. “They have no mother now.”

I pulled the tiny things close. Now I knew why they were crying. “Oh no!” I cuddled them and somewhere deep inside of me I vowed to care for these orphans.

Will Jackson leaned down. Reached for the kittens. “I’ll take them.”

I pulled away, protecting them with my arms and my jacket. “No you won’t.”

He straightened once more. Scowled. “They belonged to my cat. They are my responsibility.”

He was only doing his duty. He didn’t care about the kittens themselves. They were soft and warm in my arms and I realized I was already in love with them. “You don’t have to do that. I can care for them.” I pointed with my chin to the barn because I wasn’t about to let loose of a single kitten to be able to point with a finger. “They live in my barn. The mother chose this place for her family.” I sat up as straight as possible though I was still on the ground and looking up at him. “You don’t have to do a thing.”

His arms folded in front of him. “I think I do.”

“You don’t have to concern yourself with them.” They were a warm puddle of kittens in my lap. They were quieting down with a safe place to be but they must be hungry. “I’ll feed them.” Surely You Tube had videos about feeding orphan kittens?

“I have some KMR that I can let you have.” He inspected me while hiding a smile. What was he smiling about? Was my hair out of place? Of course it was, I was sitting on the ground with a pile of kittens in my lap after pulling a wheelbarrow full of weeds. “Do you want it?”

“KMR?” I wished I’d not spoken out loud because he now knew that I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. What’s KMR? Do kittens like it? Need it?

He knew what I was thinking. “KRM is Kitten Replacement Milk.”

“Oh.” Questions crowded my mind. “How do you happen to have what they need in your truck?” And more questions. “What happened to the mother, anyway?” The whole thing sounded suspicious to me.

He rocked back on his  heels. “She was run over by a truck.” Oh dear. Poor cat. Poor kittens. “Russ Thorsen. He was panicky because he needed help. He didn’t see her in time to stop.”

“Help?”

“To save the calf that was trying to be born on his place and was dying.”

“So he ran over a cat to save a cow?”

“Not intentionally.” He was doing his best to be patient but I kept hold of the kittens. Maybe he was a nice man. I wasn’t sure yet but there was something about him – a warmth – that got to me. Maybe he liked kittens after all. Maybe.

But I could to this. I could raise three kittens. I could get KMR myself. Surely I could. “Don’t worry about the kittens. Go save his calf.” I wanted to add that he could leave my kittens alone except I wasn’t sure just whose kittens they were. I didn’t know the  legalities of kittens from his cat in my barn.

“I did. We saved it together.” He waited but I said nothing. When he realized I wasn’t handing them over he once more reached for the kittens. “So if you will stop hiding them, I’ll take the kittens.” He held up his hands and I was sure a smile played across his face. Because he was a nice man? I couldn’t take that chance, not with my tiny kittens. “I’m guessing you don’t know how to care for kittens.”

“I’ll learn.” I fought tears because he was right that I didn’t know a thing about kittens. “I want to learn.” I had a brilliant idea. “I’ll find a vet. I’ll ask what to do.”

That possibility of a smile became a real one. “Good. I look forward to seeing you.”

He stepped back, turned on his heel and went to a pickup that I hadn’t noticed until then. “In the meantime, here’s some KMR because those kittens are hungry.” He reached into the back seat of the truck and pulled out a small package. “And the syringes to feed it with.”

“Syringes?”

That smile again. “Yes, syringes. Because they are so small.” He knelt beside me and reached out tentatively to touch one of the kittens. “I knew Casey had had her kittens. I looked everywhere for them. Couldn’t figure out where to look next.” He took a deep breath. “Then when Casey was killed I knew it was super important to find them before they followed their mother.”

Reluctantly I moved enough for him to sit beside me. He took one of the kittens in his lap and that was when I realized he’d brought a syringe and something in a small bottle that looked like infant’s formula. “Is that KMR?”

He nodded and held the kitten in the crook of his arm. He looked at it with pure love. How’d I thought he might do them harm?

“Do it like this.” Soon the kitten was drinking greedily and took everything in the syringe. I watched carefully so I’d know what to do.

“I have more. Just a sec and I’ll get some and you can try it so you’ll know what to do.”

Everything was suddenly different. If he was showing me how to feed the kittens it must mean he wasn’t taking them away. I felt my insides melting and wasn’t sure if it was because I’d get to cuddle the kittens or because Will Jackson truly was a nice person.

“Here,” he said upon returning and handing the full syringe to me after showing me how to fill it. “You can do it.” His voice was warm and encouraging. Because he’d given up and the kittens were mine? Or was he prepping me for a fall?

I took the kitten and after several tries, figured out how to feed it and soon all three kittens had full bellies and were sleeping, two in my lap and one in Will’s. We’d fed them in silence, but now he spoke. “You do know, don’t you, that they must be fed every two hours around the clock?”

Every two hours? Really?!

This Will Jackson was a puzzle. How’d he know about kittens and why’d someone ask his help to save a cow? Calf. Whatever. And why’d he have KMR in his truck along with a syringe to feed the kittens with? I no longer thought he might have bad plans. No one with that gentle touch could mean harm to any animal. But there were unanswered questions.

I decided to ask. “Who are  you, anyway? What are you? How come you know about kittens? And who ever said they must be fed every two hours?”

He smiled a smile that said he’d been waiting for my questions. “You mentioned checking with a vet?”

“Yes.”

“And remember me saying I’d be seeing you?”

“Yes, but — ?” It hit me then. “You’re a vet?”

He nodded slowly, that grin growing. “At your service, Ma’am.” He checked the kittens to make sure they were sleeping soundly, which they were. Then he took them, coat and all, from my lap and rose, holding them so carefully that not one of them woke up. He lay the coat and kittens on a nearby tree stump and returned, reached down, and pulled me up beside him. “Do you have anyone to help with the two-hour feedings?”

My heart sank. Every two hours. I was already tired. Could I do it? “My kids will be  here in two days.”

“You have children?”

“Two of them. They are with their grandparents while I’m getting moved in.”

“What about your husband? Can he help?” His expression said what he thought of men who were too tough to feed a helpless kitten.

“He died three years ago.”

“Oh.” We looked at one another awkwardly, sizing each other up, changing our thoughts about one another. “I can help. I can change my schedule for a couple days. Then, when the kids come, I can teach them how to feed the kittens.” A pause, then. “They’ll love the kittens. Three kittens. One for each of your kids and one for you.”

“That’s just what I thought when I first saw them.”

He tilted his head and something happened inside of me that I’d thought would never happen again. A warmth. “One thing, though.”

“What’s that?”

“I get to visit the kittens.”

“Of course.”

“Often.”

“Of course.”

He called his office and said he’d be busy for a couple days. He had a change of clothes in his truck, something he said most country vets did. Then we took the kittens, now waking and wanting more KMR, into the house.

I’d worked hard on the inside of my new house. It was beginning to look like a home and he glanced approvingly at the furniture, the pictures, the general air of home that I’d worked hard to achieve for the kids. “I’ll visit a lot if it’s okay with you.” And, after a pause, “Not just to visit kittens. To get to know you and your kids.”

I looked around. At my new home, the pictures of my children, the three kittens now telling us that they were hungry again. And I smiled. “Come as often as you like.”

He smiled too, wider than before if that was possible, and we proceeded to feed three very hungry kittens.

                                                                          THE END