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 special gifts (very special), and more.
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
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!”
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.
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
“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 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?”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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.”
“I get to visit the kittens.”
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.
Amazon has done it again. Come up with a new way to publish stories. It’s Kindle Vella and it’ll be serialized stories.
And I’m going to give it a try.
My first story will be a series of stories I’ve been working on that I’d intended to publish as an anthology. I’m far enough along to start publishing the first ones. The name of the book is THE SPACE BETWEEN STARS and it’s the individual stories of women who volunteered to become colonists on another planet after a multi-generational trip through the stars.
Don’t know when Kindle Vella will go live but when it does, check it out.
A quick glance at the clock on the wall said I had time to grab a cup of coffee before heading to my desk. A quick cup, of course, and I’d take it to my desk instead of hanging around the break room because that clock said it was time to get started.
“Hi,” I said vaguely to the knot of people talking about something. As usual. I’d always wondered how they found the time to talk and still get their work done. But they did. I glanced at the clock again. No time to waste because I was a hard-working employee who didn’t spend much time in the break room. And I wanted my bosses to notice that fact about me.
Then I stopped stock still because everyone was staring at me and waiting for me to say something and I realized that while I’d been thinking about time and work someone had asked a question and I’d been so focused on the clock that I hadn’t heard.
I turned red. “What did you say? I’m sorry, I –“ and then I just kind of stopped as they started laughing because I’d done it again. Become so focused on work that everything else faded away. It was a familiar joke in the office, one I actually didn’t mind even though I blushed every time it happened. Like now.
“We were wondering what you think of the new guy.”
“Do we have a new guy?”
More laughter. “Yes we do and you should see him, Shelley.” The speaker groaned. “He’s a triple threat. Gorgeous. Nice. And single.” She groaned again but with a grin because she was happily married. “And so are you. Single, that is. A fact I mention now just in case you are interested.” They stared at me, all those happily married people, expecting a reaction.
I made an indistinguishable sound and, since everyone else had their coffee by then, I grabbed a cup and poured some for myself, adding a carefully measured dollop of cream and a packet of artificial sweetener because too much sugar isn’t good for anyone. “I haven’t noticed him.” And then I turned to head for my desk.
And stopped because someone was in the way. A somewhat largish male with an easy smile and a suit that probably cost more than I made in a month and truly impressive shoulders, not to mention sandy hair and eyes somewhere between blue and green.
“Hello.” A baritone voice said this had to be the new guy because he had a gorgeous body and his voice was friendly and the lack of a ring on his hand said he was probably single and why had I noticed that fact? I didn’t normally.
Because my co-worker mentioned it, I decided, and not for any other reason because, though Dalrymple didn’t have an actual policy regarding employee relationships, it was well known that such relationships could make life at work complicated so I was determined never to be attracted to anyone in the office. No relationship with another employee for me. So no noticing whether he had a wedding ring or not.
Except I had noticed, along with being knocked breathless and unable to stop staring into those not-quite-blue and not-quite-green eyes while also being unable to say a single word. And I didn’t even know the guy.
So I sucked a lot of air, stared at my coffee and pretended I was making sure it didn’t spill, and then I mumbled something intelligible and steered around him. Avoid complications, I told myself. Forget the new guy. Ignore that he’s a hunk. Get to work.
I tried to steer around him, but it didn’t work. There wasn’t space, mostly because one of my married co-workers who thought everyone should enjoy marital bliss, had positioned herself so I was trapped between the coffee counter and the new man in the office.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I looked up into those intriguing eyes and said brightly, “Hi.” Intending to ask him to move when I was able to say more than a single word. Like a full sentence. Or at least a rational phrase. Anything more than one word.
He replied, “Hi. I’m Dan.” Then, still smiling, he added, “I’m the new guy.” Then, examining my face and realizing I didn’t look happy, he said tentatively, “Am I in your way?” and stepped aside so I could leave.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stand there forever staring into that oh-so-masculine, friendly face. But in the mini-second available before having to either continue the conversation or go to my desk, I reminded myself of my vow about good sense regarding employee relationships, not to mention that at the moment I was still unable to say more than a single word. So best to leave.
“Thanks,” I croaked and managed what I was sure was a pathetic smile and went straight to my desk, being careful not to spill a drop of coffee and feeling his eyes on me the whole time. When I arrived, I slowly pulled out my chair, carefully set my coffee on the trivet I’d bought just for that purpose, and after seating myself and turning on my computer in the most professional manner possible, dared a peek back to the break room. I could see the coffee counter from my desk so I should see the new guy. Dan. His name was Dan.
He was gone. My insides deflated and I wanted to curl into a ball.
So what was wrong with me? Never in my entire life had any guy had such an effect on me in such a short time. Which meant I’d best never encounter him again and if by chance I couldn’t avoid an encounter, I should scurry away as fast as possible. Common sense said that was a good plan.
Except it turned out that he was part of my new group so I couldn’t avoid him. The group I’d not known existed because it hadn’t until then and it wasn’t ‘my group’ as in a group that belonged to me but was, instead, my group because I was a part of it.
My immediate boss came by and, after the usual requisite chit-chat, specifically instructed me to head for one of the smaller meeting rooms to become part of a group to be educated in ‘group dynamics.’ Whatever that was.
When I arrived, I discovered that the new guy – Dan — was in charge of the group and that was why he was there. He’d been brought in from another city because he was good at getting people to work together, a talent I don’t have and neither did anyone else in the newly created group.
Looking around, I realized we were the company loners and that must have been why we were singled out. We were a bunch of individualists. Until that moment, I’d thought of that as a good thing. But, as Dan explained in his comfortable, easy-going way with that smile that was as wide as the Mississippi River, sometimes people need to work together even if they are great as individualists and so it was a skill that Dalrymple thought we should learn. And he was there to teach us.
The first thing he asked of us was to divide ourselves into smaller breakout groups tasked with coming up with a solution to ‘imagination hesitation.’ We looked at each other with blank expressions until I screwed up my courage and timidly asked, “Could you explain the meaning of that phrase, please?” Glad that I was now able to speak more than one word when in his presence.
The smile that had blasted me that morning at the coffee counter got wider. Forget the Mississippi River, this time it was as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. “Nope. I won’t explain.” As our hearts sank and, along with our hearts, our collective hopes for a successful and perhaps short lesson on group dynamics, he added, “That’s part of the process. You must figure it out.”
A while later, while huddled over a table in our breakout room, we agreed that he was absolutely callus behind that beautiful smile. But since we all wanted to keep our jobs and hopefully advance at some unspecified date in the future, we set to work.
We tried. We really did try.
“What’s imagination hesitation?” We all agreed it was a mouthful.
“Don’t know. Don’t have a clue.” We shook our heads mournfully.
“We have to come up with something.” Blank looks met that statement.
“What if our something is the wrong something?” The mere idea caused panic.
Then something happened. A sniff was heard in the room. A very loud sniff and it came from me because I’d decided I’d had enough of this ridiculous exercise in whatever-it-was-called. No more! “Well, if he’s not going to give us any help – not even a hint – not even tell us what we’re supposed to do — then he’ll just have to make do with whatever we come up with and if we’re wrong, then it’ll be his fault and maybe he’ll be more careful in the future.” Because, as we all agreed as we sat around that table and stared at each other and wished we were anyplace except there, he clearly didn’t know how to do his job and Dalrymple should have known better than to bring him in.
Forget that he was gorgeous. He didn’t know how to do his job. So we spent the better part of an hour having fun with that ridiculous phrase he’d given us.
Turned out the whole point of the exercise was for us to work together to come with something and it didn’t matter what we ended up with or what we thought ‘imagination hesitation’ was as long as we worked together to figure it out. Which we had done in the course of having fun and we’d done it very nicely.
He beamed. “You guys are good. Excellent. And it only took one session You’re figuring how to work together and I believe you’ve learned that being part of a team isn’t so bad after all.” We sullenly agreed that it hadn’t been too awful though we all spent a lot of time later trying to come up with criticisms of the whole idea because we were, after all, loners and liked it that way. We failed to come up with a single thing to pick apart about the session even though we tried pretty hard.
After that breakout session came the one-on-one sessions. A meeting with each of us, one at a time. For evaluations. To learn the score we’d each earned, though when Dan and I sat across the table from each other, he didn’t mention scores or winners or losers. Instead he said, “Tell me what happened in there. How you came up with what you did. I’m intrigued.” He looked like he truly was interested but that was probably an act and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. And away from those blue-green eyes that were sucking me in big-time because if I stayed too long, I’d come to believe that he cared. Those eyes were just too much. Too gorgeous. Too friendly.
But even as I wanted to leave, I didn’t want that intimate one-on-one meeting to end because it was the kind of torture I’d gladly repeat on a daily basis for the rest of my life because being close to him did things to my body and mind and imagination that were both horrible and wonderful as I tried my best to take in what he was saying. And failed completely and didn’t know whether to be glad or disappointed when he ushered me out with that blinding smile that turned me to mush so he could have a similar conference with another of us independent thinkers.
I returned to my desk and spent the remainder of the day in a daze trying to figure out just what had happened and I was so deep in thought that I didn’t even notice when it was time to quit. So I was late leaving. I slouched through the door long after quitting time muttering things that weren’t very nice if anyone had heard them clearly because, though I do work hard, I don’t overwork.
“Hey.” I hoped he hadn’t heard as I looked into those maybe-blue and maybe-green eyes and into the same dazzling smile that had lit up the office earlier. “You’re Shelley, right?” I nodded and put up my guard. This man was too good-looking and smiled too broadly to be trusted with anything, especially not with that traitorous part of me that was so attracted to him.
Innocently he said, “You’re leaving late.” I nodded again and raised my guard a bit higher. “Does the fact that you are staying late mean you’re not in a hurry?”
I turned that question over and over in my mind in search of an ulterior motive but couldn’t find one, so I finally answered. “Yep. No hurry.” Which was true. There’s no rush to an empty apartment.
“Then I’m wondering if you can help me out.” How and why could this man who was seemingly perfect in every possible way need my help? If he had a problem, all he’d have to do was stand in the middle of a freeway and let that smile loose and everyone within a mile radius would come running.
But he’d asked and I was raised to be polite so I had to respond. I did so cautiously by asking my own question. “What kind of help?”
“I’m new here and stuck in a hotel room. I don’t even have a car. And I don’t know where to eat and I’m famished.” He kind of shrugged and that gesture made him a little more human. As if he was no longer quite the totally perfect male. Of course he was still close to perfection but close is different. I could talk with someone who was only close to perfection instead of actually being perfect. “Know any place?” He wanted to eat. He was hungry. I could relate to that because my own stomach was rumbling. “Somewhere within walking distance?”
I did know some restaurants because sometimes I went out to lunch or if I was in the mood, grabbed dinner before heading home. “There are several.”
“Where would you recommend?” Then, without smiling at all and with a twist of his lips that said he felt kind of foolish for asking, he added, “I have an idea. A suggestion. What say you come up with a place and I treat you to dinner?”
That slight movement of his body, a hesitation in a man who was the most put-together person I’d ever met was all that happened, but it somehow made him even more human. Not down to my level, of course, but closer than before. Normal enough to have dinner with. Still, I could hardly believe myself when I said my next words. “There’s a nice Chinese place a block away and, yes, I’d like dinner.”
During dinner, I learned something about Dan. That first smile I’d seen, the mega-watt one, was for show. His second smile, the one that came from across the table was his real smile and it was so much better. Smaller, not so flashy, the smile of a friend and intimate enough that my insides turned to mush as I managed to ask, because his demeanor and the lovely meal and conversation that went with it had emboldened me, “Do you intentionally come across like you did today?”
He knew exactly what I was talking about which meant that earlier smile was intentional and most likely practiced! “Yes because I don’t have much time to accomplish what I’ve been brought to do so it helps to go in with everything I’ve got.” He winced. “Why? Do I come across as over the top?”
I almost choked on my egg roll and couldn’t reply but he got the message as tears of laughter rolled down my cheeks. He sighed. “Okay. I’ll try to tame it down a bit but don’t be surprised if I fail because it was part of the training.” His eyes rolled. “And I’ve had a lot of tranining on how to do what I do.”
We stayed late, talking and just generally relaxing after a long day’s work and it was easier than I’d have thought now that I knew he was human after all. I learned about his two sisters who were married and disgusted with him because he was single and he learned that I’m an only child who grew up with a nice mother who worked long, hard hours without making much money.
“So you’re determined to give both you and your mother a comfortable life.” I nodded because even when he wasn’t working with groups there was something about him that invited the same confidence that had got us nerds working together earlier that day, a something that I was sure added to his success.
“I’ve never had to worry about money so it’s never been important to me. I’m fortunate in that way.” A simple statement few people would dare to make and one I suspected he’d never made before and my breath stopped as I realized the extent of trust he’d just given me. Beyond our professional relationship. Beyond Dalrymple. It was a personal thing and I held it in my heart and treasured it.
We looked at each other for a long time without speaking. Adjusting, learning, truly seeing each other for the first time and something happened to me during those moments. I didn’t know what it was except that I knew that the next day at work I’d see Dan differently and the effect he had on me physically would only add to whatever that new and very special something was.
Did he feel it too? Silly of me to think so. Doubly silly of me to hope he did.
But the next day, after another day of work and another session of group whatever-he-called-it that was easier because I now knew him better, when it was time to head home, he appeared as if by magic beside my desk. “Busy this evening?”
“Huh?” I’d been locking my desk drawers and hadn’t noticed him.
“You said there are several restaurants nearby. I’ve only tried one so far. What say we try a different one today?” Then, in a lower voice that wasn’t at all like that of the confident professional ably creating a cohesive group out of a bunch of individualist nerds, his voice was now exactly like anyone who was unsure of themselves as he added, “And while we dine, we can get to know one another better.” He cleared his throat. “If you’re interested.”
He looked positively uncertain and that look sealed the deal for me. I think it also sealed both my future and his. At least my reaction to that scalding look sealed our fate. Because what I said while looking straight into those blue-green eyes was, “Sure.” Followed by, “Let’s go.”
There are a lot of restaurants within walking distance of Dalrymple. We checked out each and every one of them but, before we tested the last one, we realized that we were an item. A couple. A reason for people to gather around the coffeemaker in the break room and gossip.
The employees at Dalrymple love to gossip. Each and every one of them.
“We knew it.” My married co-workers positively gleamed when I showed up for my usual morning cup of coffee around the time Dan and I had gone through most of the near-by restaurants. I looked cautiously at their knowing faces as they continued smugly, “We just knew you two were right for each other.”
Someone waved a coffee cup and spilled coffee and spoke while wiping the table clean. “I deserve the credit. I got them together. It was my hard work that threw them into each other’s arms that first day.”
The speaker was my co-worker who’d made sure I couldn’t avoid Dan that first day by blocking my way and she now tossed the paper towel in the trash and examined the clean table top with satisfaction. She waved her hands, careful this time not to spill anything. “But no thanks are necessary. Just name your first kid after me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I stuck my nose in the air and tried to go around her while pretending I had no intention of engaging with their gossip. I failed. She blocked me just as she’d done once before.
“Won’t work, Shelley. We recognize love when we see it.” Everyone laughed, as usual, and I turned red as a beet. “Just don’t forget to invite every one of us to the wedding.”
“After all, you wouldn’t have met if not for us.” They gave me a bunch of hard looks that said they meant every word they were saying.
At which point Dan showed up for his own morning cup of coffee. Looked at me, then at the others scattered throughout the room. And instantly knew what was going on because he’s that kind of person. It’s why he does what he does and is so good at it. Because he’s intuitive and quick to read a room.
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he simply filled his cup with coffee and came close and hooked his free arm through my free arm and led us from the room slowly enough that we didn’t spill a single drop and fast enough to get us out of there before anyone could say another word.
He had, indeed, heard the conversation. When we were in the main office that was empty because everyone was still in the break room, he steered us around a corner and put his cup down on a nearby desk and said, “That’s a good idea. What say we follow her suggestion?”
“What are you talking about? What suggestion?” I wished I wasn’t blushing but wishing didn’t make it go away.
“A name has been put forth for our first-born child. We should give it some thought. Save us some name games when the day comes.”
“What first-born child?”
“The one that’ll come after we’ve been married for a while.” He smirked. He actually smirked. “That first-born child.”
I put down my own coffee very carefully because I didn’t want to spill anything on Dalrymple’s expensive office furniture and thought for approximately a half-second. “Okay. You’re right. It’ll save time and effort to already have a name available.” I took a deep breath. “When we have that first-born child. After we are married.”
And that was what we did though when the time came we named her after my mother and my co-worker wasn’t insulted after all. Instead, she thought it was a lovely thing to do.
Ross dropped wearily onto the couch. “We’re done.”
“Done enough.” There were still a few boxes here and there, but I could handle them. I was a stay-at-home mom until Teresa had a few years of school, a decision we’d made when she was born.
“I was afraid I’d not get a decent night’s sleep before starting my new job.” He wiggled his body and closed his eyes and breathed contentment. “Now I know I will and I need it. Moving is hard work and I look forward to a summer of catching up and doing absolutely nothing.”
“Don’t get too comfortable.”
He opened one eye. “Why not?”
“Teresa’s birthday is coming fast.” The birthday that meant she could start school. She was excited.
“So she wants a party.”
“Naturally. Five years is a milestone birthday.”
I sighed and repeated my previous statement one word at a time. Slowly. “She. Wants. A. Party.”
“Of course she does and I don’t see the problem.” He lay his head back and opened the other eye and stared at the ceiling.
“We just moved and don’t know anyone.”
“So?” He still didn’t get it.
“So parties normally involve guests and whom will we invite to Teresa’s party if we don’t know anyone?” I didn’t have to add that our little girl was turning into a social butterfly because she’d made that abundantly clear during the few years she’d been on earth. She loved people. Loved parties. Loved parties with wall to wall people.
“Oh dear.” He sat up, groaning at what the effort had cost his body. “A problem we’ll have to solve somehow.” He brightened. “We’ll convince her that a party with only family in attendance is the best kind of celebration.”
“Won’t work. I already tried.”
“Oh.” He slumped back to his former resting position and sighed. “Then you’re right. It’s a problem.” After a moment of thought, he almost smiled. “Which is why I’m glad I must concentrate on my new job in order to do a bang-up job of being the sole support of my family while you deal with the problem of Teresa’s birthday.”
“Won’t work, big guy. We’re in this together.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay. I had to try. But you’re right.” Silence lay long and heavy in the room. “We’ll figure it out. Somehow. We have to because we love Teresa and she loves parties.” That was the end of the discussion, not because we didn’t care but because neither of us could come up with a single solution to the problem of Teresa’s birthday.
But Ross was right in a way because, since I was a full-time homemaker and he did have to concentrate on making good at a brand new job, it was kind of up to me to figure out how to provide a party filled with people for a little girl when we didn’t know a single person in our new city.
I spoke with Teresa about it the next morning after we’d finished planting a row of beans. “Honey, you do know that we are new here.”
“Yep. New house. New yard. New garden.” That we’d been working on until deciding to take a break. “I like gardens.” Almost as much as she liked parties.
“The thing is, your old friends are pretty far away.”
“It’s too long of a drive for them to come for a visit.”
“I know.” She rolled her eyes. “I fell asleep in the car.”
“Too far for them to come to your party.”
“Yep.” Teresa the four-year-old clean freak, washed her hands with the hose, inspected the dirt still beneath her fingernails, and washed them again. “Too far.”
“So it’ll be a small party.”
Her nose wrinkled. “I don’t like little parties. I want a big one.” Her blue eyes turned towards me in complete confidence. “We have to make a big cake because lots of people will come. Because it’s my special birthday.” She dried her hands and led the way back to the new garden-in-progress to get them dirty all over again. “Because I’ll be old enough to go to school.”
This time, she informed me, we’d plant flowers instead of stuff to eat because she loved flowers, especially pink ones, as I sighed and wondered how I’d failed so spectacularly to get across to her that no one would come to her party.
That afternoon, when we were both relatively clean and fed and didn’t want to get dirty all over again working in the garden, she asked if she could take a walk. “It’s safe. You said so.”
We had said that. When we were looking for a house, as soon as the real estate agent learned we had a small child, she said she knew the perfect place and she was right. We were at the end of a cul-de-sac and the only cars that came or went belonged to people who lived there and they drove slowly and carefully, as did we once we’d moved in.
They were our neighbors, the ones we’d not yet met, and though I looked forward to knowing them, the weather hadn’t been good and most of them worked and there just hadn’t been the right occasion to meet anyone. So now I sighed and thought about Teresa walking in a strange place.
“I want to see what the old people are doing,” she said when the silence had gone on too long.
She pointed through the front window to the rather large circle of land at the end of the cul de sac. I’d assumed it would be grass but as we went to the window to see better, we saw a group of people planting things much as we’d been planting a garden in our back yard. Most of them had gray hair and no one seemed in a hurry. Teresa’s ‘old’ people.
We didn’t know them. On the other hand, their presence gave a patina of safety to a small child’s walk. “If you don’t go too far. When you reach the end of the block, instead of crossing the street, you turn around and come back. Then, when you reach our house you come inside and tell me.”
She considered that for a moment. “If I do, then after telling you can I walk around the other side of the circle all the way to the street and then back? Around the old people?”
“Yes, if you do exactly as I said.”
She nodded shortly and grabbed a bottle of water that she strapped to her shoulders because this was a major expedition for an almost-five-year-old girl. She made sure her pink sneakers with lights on them were tied tight and that she had sun-screen on and a hat for shade. All the things major expeditions required. Then she left and I watched her through the window.
She did as she’d been told. She walked in the precise center of the sidewalk past the grassy center of the cul de sac and all the way to the end of the street and stood there for a minute or so watching cars pass by and a dog play across the street. Then she turned smartly, like a soldier, and came back, still in the middle of the sidewalk, until she reached our new house. She came inside and looked a question at me. “Was I good?”
“You were good.”
She took a long drink of water and smoothed her pink jeans that matched her pink sneakers with lights. “So can I go around the old people and go to the street that way?”
She’d circle that grassy center and continue on along the other side. Then, if she repeated what she’d done on her first walk, she’d turn around and come back, once again around the center full of senior citizens planting a garden, and then when she’d fully rounded the circle, she’d be home again.
So I agreed. “You can but stay on the sidewalk.” I stooped to her level so she’d know that what I would say next was important. “But you can’t cross the street to visit with them.”
She was disappointed. “I can’t?”
“There could be cars and you know you can’t cross streets unless you are holding someone’s hand.” Were we too protective? Probably, but we’d decided it was better to be safe than sorry and who wanted a child to grow up too fast anyway? Keep her little as long as possible.
She clearly wanted to visit the gardeners but resignation showed in her face. “Okay.”
She trudged outside again on her second expedition in one day. All the way around the circle and as she walked, the gardeners in the center waved to her and called out.
When she came home, reproach was clear in her face. “I didn’t cross the street. They wanted me to, they called and everything, but I didn’t.” I told her I was proud of her.
We went shopping for her birthday party the next day. I tried to limit the number of purchases to what three people would use but she’d have none of it. Besides which they all came in packages of a dozen or more. And she insisted on several packages of each. Hats. Noise makers. Party favors. And lots and lots of crepe paper.
As we passed the stationary aisle, she tugged at my hand and pointed. “I need invitations too.” My heart sank. One thing she’d not need. But she was so adamant that I bought them because I was afraid that if I didn’t, my normally sensible almost-five-year-old daughter would have a meltdown in the middle of the stationary aisle.
That afternoon, we planned a birthday party complete with how to decorate the living and dining rooms and where to place the cake on the table. And we wrote out invitations. I did the writing and she signed her name because she knew how, along with knowing her colors and numbers and pretty much everything I’d not known at her age. Then I said brightly, “I’ll put them on the top shelf so they won’t get lost.” Where, hopefully, being out of sight, she’d forget they existed.
“Okay,” she said happily. “We don’t need them today.” She skipped to the door. “We can give them to people later.” I breathed a sigh of relief and we had ice cream for dessert that night and watched movies till past her bedtime because I cannily figured that would help her forget the invitations that would never be used.
The day after the party planning day and two days before her actual birthday we made her birthday cake. “Because it’s almost my birthday and we need to be ready.” It was white with pink frosting and we made pink cookies to match and put the cake on a lovely cake stand from my mother to see how it would look during the actual party. “Like you used to have for your birthdays,” she said as I almost cried and didn’t know whether it was from remembering those long ago days or because of the upcoming birthday that was looking more and more like a disaster.
When there was just one day to go Teresa informed me she wanted to take another walk and that she knew the rules so I didn’t have to watch from the door. “Besides,” she said with a sweeping gesture to the senior citizens who were almost done with their garden in the center of the cul de sac. “If anyone tries to take me they’ll stop him.” She finished with the unassailable, “I’m almost five. I’m not a little girl any more.”
So I did a bit of my own gardening in the back yard and managed not to check on her at all though I gave a huge sigh of relief when I heard the front door open and close and soon after the kitchen door open, after which she joined me. But she didn’t help because she’d worn her favorite dress, the one with flowers all over it and puffy sleeves, along with her shiny black Mary Jane shoes. “I don’t want to get them dirty because I’m going to wear them tomorrow at my birthday party.”
I rose with a sigh and we adjourned to the living room from which we could see the senior citizens packing up their gardening things. As they left, they waved our way and Teresa waved back through the picture window. “They are done. They told me so.”
“You talked with them?”
“Of course. They are planting flowers and I like flowers, especially pink ones and they said pink is the prettiest color.”
I sighed again. What else could I do as I also waved while the gardeners walked to their respective houses around the cul de sac and along the street to the main thoroughfare. “Some day we’ll get to know them,” I said. “They are our neighbors.” Teresa nodded and waved to the last senior citizen disappearing into his home two doors down.
Teresa’s birthday dawned bright and clear and I wished I could stick my head beneath my pillow and pretend it had never come. But I couldn’t do that. Teresa was beside our bed and jumping up and down with eagerness to get this milestone day started. Ross and I looked at each other and girded ourselves for the tragedy that was about to happen.
Teresa didn’t notice. She hummed and sang and danced as we decorated the house. The whole house. She danced as she put the cake in its place of honor in the center of the dining room table and managed to not drop it. She looked at the clock and every few minutes asked if it was one o’clock in the afternoon yet because that’s when the party would begin. She knew a lot for her age but she still found time daunting.
“Honey, wouldn’t it be fun to just have a three-person party?” I asked brightly. “Your dad, you and me?”
She stopped moving long enough to stare at me as if I had two heads. “I want people at my party.” She gestured theatrically. “Lots of people.”
There was nothing to say, no way of preparing her for the heartbreak that was about to happen. We watched with dread as the clock ticked inevitably towards one o’clock and doom. I wished we didn’t have a grandfather clock that made all kinds of noise every hour, but we did.
One o’clock rolled around. Teresa was a ball of motion. We were trying desperately to figure out how to deal with the trauma that was on the horizon.
Then the doorbell rang.
Ross and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. “A delivery? From her grandparents, perhaps?” Except they’d already sent presents that were on a small table in the corner of the dining room.
Ross answered. Three elderly people stood in the open doorway, smiling. I recognized them though it took a moment to place where I’d seen them. Then I remembered. They were part of the senior citizen gardening contingent. And they each carried a pink, blooming plant.
“For her birthday.”
“Because she likes pink.”
Teresa zoomed around us and welcomed our guests before we could figure out what was happening. She pointed to the table with her grandparents’ presents. “Put them there.” Good manners surfaced. “But you didn’t have to bring anything. You could have cake anyway.” She thought hard. “Because I invited you.”
My look went to the top shelf where I’d put the invitations. It was empty.
I remembered that walk the previous day. The one I didn’t watch and realized that before leaving the house our almost five year old daughter must have stood on the chair and then the small table that was beside the shelves and got them down all by herself. And delivered them.
The doorbell rang again. Another contingent of senior citizens, this one accompanied by a little boy of about Teresa’s age. “Hi, Teresa.” A package was thrust at her. “This is for you and I figured you wouldn’t mind if I brought my grandson. He lives five houses down and has been dying to meet you.”
Ross and I stood in stunned amazement as two more groups arrived. These weren’t senior citizens but I recognized neighbors from seeing them come and go during the day. And two children were with them who soon were added to the growing group of kids who’d all wanted to meet the new kid on the block.
Soon the house was bursting to the seams with people of all ages and every one of them knew Teresa because, when she took that walk the previous day, she’d gone up to every single house and either given them an invitation in person or left one on their doorstep. And they were all laughing and saying how nice it was to meet us at last. And to have been invited to a birthday party.
I took Ross aside. “We need more cake. And ice cream. And pop.”
“Stall them with some kind of getting-acquainted game while I make a grocery run. I’ll be fast.”
So I did. Or rather so did Teresa, who proved to be an excellent hostess. One of our neighbors, a youngish man with a scraggly beard and expensive jeans said he’d vote for her. She looked puzzled and so did I. “When she runs for President.” He sagely checked out the assembled group. “Which I have no doubt she’ll do some day. Considering what she did here today there’s no limit to what she’ll accomplish as an adult”
Ross returned with enough decadent food for an army and we proceeded with Teresa’s birthday party. We all sang Happy Birthday and the sound sent the birds in the back yard away in terror at all the noise.
We didn’t mind. We were just glad our daughter was having the kind of fifth birthday party she’d so badly wanted. Even though she had to arrange it herself. And, yes, we agreed later as we wearily but happily sank onto the couch and closed our eyes in the ecstasy of relaxation at last and let the anxiety of the past week or so drain away, she just might be President some day.