Wednesday, August 19, 2020

MAGNOLIA by James S. Kelly

Author: James S. Kelly
Publisher: Outskirts Press
Pages: 432
Genre: Historical Fiction/Civil War Love Story


Two young men grow up in the south, become great friends and love the same woman. One moves north as the civil war nears and becomes Administrative Asst to Abraham Lincoln The one who remained in the south vacates his office of US Senator to become the south’s chief spy. Both men are pitted against each other during the war. As the war ends, they try to renew their friendship but will the presence of the one they both love be an impediment.


            The Bureau of Indian Affairs under the US Department of Interior had its main office in the nation’s capitol.  Cameron Harris worked as an agent for them over the past ten years. Prior to obtaining this position, he served as an Army Scout for ten years in the far west, leaving the service with a military rank of Lt. Colonel. There were twelve agents in the entire directorate that were responsible for all the Indian Reservations in the United States, including about two hundred and fifty million acres of land. Cameron’s territory was the mid Atlantic States to include the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey; he was responsible for twenty five reservations.
This week he was in South Carolina to witness the treaty signing between that state and the Catawba Nation or what was left of it. The Catawba had lived in the South Carolina Region for over five thousand years and at one time were a great Indian Nation. But the incursion of immigrants continually squeezed the nation into smaller and confined areas. There were continuous claims made by the Catawba with very little resolution. Eventually, the federal government awarded the Catawba about fifteen square miles of land in York and Lancaster Districts to resolve their claims. As late as the American Revolutionary war, there were between four and five thousand Catawba; in 1820 their number had dwindled to less than one hundred.
There were many reasons for their decline, including the numerous viruses brought by the Europeans. But the primary one was that they fought on the side of the colonists during the war for independence and the English retaliated. For siding with the Americans, the British destroyed their major villages, which had a huge economic impact on their future. It was the British vindictiveness that devastated their nation. It forced them to turn to the plantation owners for their livelihood. They were now dependent on cotton and tobacco for work and subsistence.
But the signing of this treaty wasn’t the only reason that Cameron Harris left his office in the nation’s capital to be in South Caroline today. He was going home to Charleston to be with his wife, who was expecting their first child. They already had the name picked out. He was to be named after his great grandfather, James Stephen Harris, that is, if it was a boy.
The old chief of the Catawba Nation, Running Deer, had known Cameron for ten years and wanted to celebrate the treaty signing with his friend on this auspicious day. Members of the tribe had dressed in their finest and several state officials remained behind after the ceremony to give support to the Catawba. There wasn’t supposed to be any spirits at the ceremony, but it didn’t take long for a bottle to be passed around. “I’ve got to go, chief. My wife is going to have a baby.”
“Women have baby all the time. Don’t need help. We drink to treaty.”
“You’re not supposed to drink in the court house.” Cameron pleaded.
“No one care; you have drink.”
Cameron smiled. “I’ll come back next week and we can have a party. I’ll bring a deer, but I’m leaving now. I can be home in three hours.”
“You our friend. You have one drink and dance with my people, then you go.”
He shook hands with several state officials, staggered to his horse and made his way home after he had four drinks and did a five minute dance with Running Deer and five other members of the tribe. His wife was living in Charleston with her parents until the baby came. He had a three hour ride to be with her; it started to rain.
He’d come to Charleston two years ago to meet with South Carolina officials to discuss how to supply food to the reservation in their area when there was an emergency, which happened far too frequently. After the meeting, his contact within the State’s Indian Section, Charles Morgan, asked him to join him and another state official at the Beef and Rye Restaurant, downtown. Since he was by himself, he readily accepted. By eighteen hundred standards, the restaurant was average but the food and service were excellent. Cameron had a busy day and was tired; besides he needed to return to Washington the next morning; he wanted to turn in early. But Morgan insisted he meet a friend of his, who was an expert on Indian Affairs.  Rather than be difficult, he allowed Morgan to walk him over to another table in the restaurant and be introduced to Frederick Hendricks, a Professor of American History at the University of South Carolina.
It seems that Hendricks wasn’t the only one at the table. Cameron met Hendricks’ wife Hilda and his daughter Amy, an attractive and perky daughter of twenty one. After the introductions, Cameron went back to his table with Morgan but kept looking back at the Hendricks’ table. His two companions so became engaged in a spirited argument dealing with slavery, but he didn’t hear a word they were saying. He had his eyes glued on Amy Hendricks. When their eyes met, she smiled. As soon as he got up enough courage, he went back to the Hendricks’s table and apologized for the interruption. “Sir, I wonder if I could have a word with your daughter?”
The father nodded and Cameron turned to the young woman. “I hope that I’m not too presumptuous, but would you care to have lunch with me tomorrow at the inn in the town center?”
Amy answered immediately. “I’ll expect that you’ll call at my home tomorrow at noon. If that’s acceptable, here’s my address.” She handed him a small piece of paper with her address printed on it.
He stammered a yes and went back to join Morgan; Hendricks and his wife smiled at each other.
There’s was a white two story, two bedroom home with blue trim around the windows sitting in the middle of the block on First Street. He arrived thirty minutes early and talked to her father while Amy was getting ready. The two men found that they had a lot in common and were engrossed in a discussion when Amy came down the stairs. Cameron got up and complimented her on her light green dress she wore with a matching shawl.
He shook hands with her father and promised that they wouldn’t be gone long.  As they walked to the inn, he was astonished at how small she was. Barely five feet tall with a slender frame; yet she walked with the grace of a dancer. Cameron was no giant. He stood five feet ten inches tall on a one hundred sixty five pound frame. His black hair and brown eyes were in stark contrast to her red hair and blue eyes. This was the start of a one year courtship from Washington to Charleston.  Initially his visits were once a month but gradually increased to twice a month. His main transportation from the nation’s capitol was by a boat that resupplied Forts Sumter and Moultrie, lying on an island in the Charleston harbor. He made this commute for a year before he asked her father for Amy’s hand in marriage.
When her father gave his permission, he stammered a proposal. The only thing she said before he kissed her was, “what took you so long? A girl could get tired of waiting.”
The ride to see Amy took longer than the three hours he estimated, primarily because of the heavy down pour that drenched him to the skin. His father-in-law met him at the door with a glass of wine and a wide smile on his face. “It won’t be long now. She’s in labor and the mid wife and my wife are with her. I think you can go up, but they’ll throw you out when it’s time. I suggest you change into something dry first. Use the kitchen; no one’s there. I’ll put your horse in the paddock out back and give it some oats.”
Cameron only had time to kiss his Amy before her mother said he’d have to leave. Ten minutes later he and Hendricks heard the cry of a new born. Soon, her mother yelled down the stairs, “It’s a boy.”
Within the same time frame, on a plantation ten miles outside the city’s limits, Francois Beauregard, a West Point Graduate, was waiting with his father, Ambrose for the birth of his first child. Similar to Cameron, he hoped and prayed for a boy to carry on his tradition. He wasn’t to be disappointed.
The Beauregard family had lived in the Charleston area since the late seventeen hundreds. They left Haiti in midst of a revolution and arrived at Charleston Harbor with forty of their slaves. Ambrose bought six hundred acres and planted cotton; they named their plantation, Rosebud. Subsequently, they grew so large that they had to employ three white overseers to manage seventy five slaves, who planted and picked cotton; tobacco was a secondary product. Ambrose was a firm but tolerant master and his overseers took his lead in dealing with the blacks. What made his operation work so smoothly was the fact that he worked in the fields alongside the slaves.  He personally operated the cotton gin and baled the product. To date there’d been no runaways that plaqued other plantations in the area. He felt grateful for his good fortune in coming to this country and tried to make life on the plantation as tolerable as possible for everyone, including the slaves.
Cameron owned a modest three bedroom home on the Potomac a few miles from the Capitol; he planned to move his young family there as soon as his wife was able to travel. But he hadn’t counted on his wife’s depression that persisted after the baby was born. His mother in law told him that it was normal for a woman to feel tired and emotional after giving birth. “You must have patience. It may take a little longer than normal, but she’ll come around She’s a tiny woman and it may be weeks before she can build up her strength. I’m going to have Doctor Watson keep an eye on her. Maybe he can recommend a tonic that’ll help.”
“I’ve stayed longer than I anticipated. I must get back to my office or I won’t have a job. Do you think I can leave Amy and the child here for a couple of more weeks and then I’ll come back and take them with me?”
“Cameron, my husband and I want to do as much as we can to help you and our daughter. The boy will be fine with Frederick and me until you come back.”
With a heavy heart he took the ship back to Washington. His boss, the Under Secretary for Indian Affairs wasn’t happy with all the time he’d been taking to handle his personal business. “Look Harris, you either get your personal life squared away or get yourself another job. I’m sorry to be so tough on you but that’s the way it is.” With that he dismissed Cameron.
When he returned to Charleston two weeks later, Amy’s symptoms were the same and the prognosis unsure, but this time there was a different doctor attending to her. When Cameron went into her bedroom, he kissed her on the forehead but she barely acknowledged his presence. He stayed by her bed for over thirty minutes holding her hand and finally stepped out of the room. He walked down the stairs and joined Doctor Allen, who’d recently taken over Amy’s care and was talking to both parents at the kitchen table. “She doesn’t look any better than when I was here the last time.” Cameron interrupted.
Allen turned around to talk to Cameron. “I gave her a sedative to relax. She hasn’t been attending to the baby and she’s not sleeping. I think I’ve done all I can at this time. Perhaps a psychiatrist might be better suited to treat her symptoms.”
“You mean she’s crazy?” Cameron blurted out as he sat down.
“No. I didn’t say that, but she’s troubled. I’ve tried everything I know, but it’s not working.”
“Doctor, I don’t know what to do. My supervisor has threatened to fire me if I don’t spend more time in my office. I’m just a simple man, what can I do? She seemed to be so full of life during her pregnancy. Tell me that this will go away.”
“I’m not sure. This is the worst case of post pregnancy depression that I’ve ever seen. I’m out of my element. There is nothing physically wrong with Amy, but she’s depressed. I’ll contact a colleague of mine, who’s a psychologist; he may have better results with her than I. Since you were coming down this weekend, I took the liberty of asking him to come by and meet with you. His name is Doctor Herman Rosen.”
When Doctor Allen left, Cameron and Amy’s parents sat without saying anything for a few moments. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t take Amy and the child with me. I’m gone three out of five weeks to Indian reservations and some military installations. She seems to need constant care. I don’t know what the cost will be for that.”
“She can stay with us as long as it’s needed. We’re her parents and we love her very much. We also think you’re a fine man and we’re glad that you’re our son-in-law.” Mrs. Hendricks said.
“But the child needs attention. You heard the doctor say that she’s not taking care of young Jimmy. This seems like too much of a burden for you, since your husband is in Columbia during the week.”
“If it gets too much for me, I’ll let you know.”
Cameron stayed long enough to meet Doctor Rosen. “It will take me at least two to three weeks to evaluate your wife and then a week to determine if there is a cure for her depression. Your in-laws told me of your predicament. How often can you visit?”
“I can be back in three weeks.”
“Make it four and I’ll be able to give you a professional analysis.”
Although sad at the turn of events, he went about his duties as before. But all the joy he had in his marriage and the birth of his son was lost; he was lonely and he didn’t know what to do. He travelled extensively before returning four weeks later. He was anxious to hear what Doctor Rosen’s evaluation. They talked for over an hour and although Dr. Rosen was encouraging, Amy didn’t respond to any of his methods or medicine.
”To be honest with you Mr. Harris, I’ve exhausted everything I know. I don’t seem to be able to help her and I don’t know who can. It may be just a matter of time and then again she may never recover.. I’m sorry.” Rosen said.
During the same period of time, her father retired from teaching at University of South Carolina and devoted himself full time to the care of Amy and young Jimmy. With the Hendricks in one of the bedrooms and Amy and Jimmy in the second, .Cameron would sleep on the couch in the living room when he visited. In spite of the trauma with his wife, he and her father became close friends and discussed the mood of secession that was griping the south, and especially in South Carolina.
“How can the south survive? They seemed to be so dependent on cotton and tobacco. What if they have a poor crop one or two years after they secede? Where will the money come from to allow them to survive?” Cameron asked his father in law.
“They’re optimistic that France and England will buy their produce, because those European Countries are heavily dependent upon cotton. In addition, there are many who think both nations will interfere on the southern side if there is an armed conflict. Great Britain has cities that are so dependent upon cotton, that there may be massive unemployment, if the flow is stopped.””
“I don’t know what the southern states will do, but if they do secede, then a naval blockade would seem to be one strategy that could be used to bring then back into the union.” What do you think about the slavery question?” Cameron asked.
“I believe it’s morally wrong, but those who own the plantations are also the drivers behind the secession movement. They don’t think they can survive without the slaves; therefore, they’re not going to give them up. The power of the plantation owners is immense. Although they represent only four percent of the population, they control the majority of the wealth and therefore the legislature. You may not realize this, but the majority of the people in the Charleston area are black. With the law prohibiting the importation of slaves since 1808, they become an even more valuable commodity; those that control them become richer and therefore they increase their power.”
Weeks turned into months and then years. He’d visit every two weeks for the first year, but with no change in Amy’s conditions, his trips were becoming further apart. All during this time, Amy would sit in her room and stare into space; she hardly recognized Cameron when he visited. The Hendricks, were acting as Jimmy’s parents, though at no time did they intentionally ignore Cameron’s rights to his child. He couldn’t have asked for a more cooperative and sensitive in- laws.
After five years, he and her parents came to an accommodation. The boy and his mother would live with his in-laws in Charleston and Cameron would reside at his home in the nation’s capitol. He’d be able to visit his son anytime during the school year and would take Jim with him when school was out.
In the summer, Jimmy would live in Washington with his father or accompany him on his many trips to the Indian Reservations and military installations. Even though the grandparents said it wasn’t necessary, Cameron sent money each month to help defray Amy’s doctor bills. When he returned Jimmy at the start the school year, he’d hold Amy in his arms, kiss her on the cheek, but she didn’t appear to know who he was.
Young Jimmy Harris’ first exposure to any Indian was at The Catawba Reservation, lying along the Catawba River in the Western Carolinas. The Indians had cleared space for over two hundred tents but only seventy were visible. James could see about thirty people in the village doing various chores as they rode up. It was Chief Running Bear, who greeted them and took young Jim under his wing almost immediately. The young man idolized the chief and followed him around as though he was a lost puppy dog. Jim delighted in dressing as an Indian Brave and wearing the old man’s headdress. It was large, filled with yellow and red feathers and dragged on the ground as he walked behind the chief.  One of the braves taught Jimmy how to use a bow and arrow and throw a spear. Each summer he’d stay at the village for at least a month: this was the highlight of the young man’s year. On one of his first trips with Cameron, they visited the Creek and Cherokee villages in South Carolina. Jimmy was exposed for the first time to the plight of the Reservation Indian. He didn’t understand it yet, but he knew what he didn’t like and asked his father why the people in the village didn’t have any energy.
“They’ve been squeezed into smaller and smaller plots of land that can barely sustain life. They’re suffering from malnutrition and now lack hope; they seem to accept their station in life.”
. Most of Cameron duties were to ensure that food supplies were being delivered on a timely basis and occasionally mediate a dispute between tribal nations. On most trips to his list of reservations, he had to find out why the food supplies seemed to be late or not delivered at all; this wasn’t lost on a six year old. He couldn’t put his feelings into words; he just knew something was wrong.
Before the first summer was over, Cameron and his son went fishing on the Pee Dee River making their way through the cotton plantations which were so important to the south until after the civil war, when the dependency on slaves was lost. It was a three day trip to introduce his son to outdoor camping. They stopped at one of the landings along the river and fished from the bank. They didn’t save the young man’s first catch, because Cameron cooked it over a fire and they ate it. Jimmy would have plenty to tell his maternal grandparents when they returned to Charleston.
It was September when Cameron brought Jim back to Charleston. His wife Amy, was sitting in the parlor and welcomed her son; she seemed to have regained some color in her cheeks. The meeting between husband and wife was cordial and even friendly, but not warm.  Cameron had resolved that his wife would never be the same and he started seeing other women in the DC area. He spent most of his time with Abigail Stanton, the widow of Miles Stanton, a British Diplomat, assigned to the consulate in Washington. Left with a small fortune, Abigail felt more comfortable in Washington Society where she lived for the past eight years prior to her husband’s death, rather than return to her home in England. Cameron didn’t feel guilty about his affair; he felt it was the way it was.
As the years passed, the visits to Charleston during the school years were becoming less frequent. When he came to pick up the boy in the summertime in the seventh year of their marriage, Amy seemed to have improved but not enough for Cameron to spend any time with her. He didn’t blame her for the affliction; he just lost interest. The love they had when she was twenty one wasn’t what they had now. The parents were getting older and her father confessed to Cameron one day, that he wasn’t sure what would happen to his daughter after he was gone. Her mother was becoming impatient with her and devoted very little time to her well being. Sooner than later, a decision had to be made about Amy.  Cameron didn’t know what to do.
Eleven years had passed when he received a telegram from Frederick Hendricks to come home immediately. It took him two days but he was too late; his wife had passed away. He tried to remember how it was during their first year of marriage, but too much had happened; all he could remember was how she seemed so distant for the remainder of her life. James Stephen was a fine young man and although he spent some time helping his mother, it was his grandparents who he related to. They filled the role as parents. The question now was what was best for the boy. With the grandparents, he had a home and love; with his father he had love and adventure.
The grandmother seemed to be her old happy self again. The burden of the daughter had been lifted from her shoulders; she wanted Jimmy to live with them. “I know this is your decision, Cameron, but I believe my husband and I can handle his raising; he’s such a wonderful child and he keeps us young.  Frederick thinks the world of the boy. He doesn’t want to replace you as a father; he just wants to be part of James’ life.”
“Why don’t we leave it the way it’s been and see how that goes. I want your word that when the time comes for him to be entirely with me, you won’t stand in my way. You’ll work with me and do what’s best for my son. It’s a couple of months until the end of the school term.  I’ll take him with me for the summer and then bring him back for the school year.” Both grandparents agreed.


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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Slow Down by Lee Matthew Goldberg

Author: Lee Matthew Goldberg
Publisher: All Due Respect
Pages: 270
Genre: Thriller/Noir

How far would you go to make your dreams come true? For budding writer and filmmaker Noah Spaeth, being a Production Assistant in director Dominick's Bambach's new avant-garde film isn't enough. Neither is watching Dominick have an affair with the lead actress, the gorgeous but troubled Nevie Wyeth. For Noah's dream is to get both the film and Nevie in the end, whatever the cost. And this obsession may soon become a reality once Dominick's spurned wife Isadora reveals her femme fatale nature with a seductive plot to get rid of her husband for good. 
Slow Down, a cross between the noir styling of James M. Cain and the dark satire of Bret Easton Ellis, is a thrilling page-turner that holds a mirror up to a media-saturated society that is constantly searching for the fastest way to get ahead, regardless of consequences.


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Here’s what readers are saying about Slow Down!

"Slow Down is a frenetic first novel...full of unedifying characters scrambling for the elusive, perhaps imaginary, brass ring."
--Publishers Weekly

"Lee Matthew Goldberg writes like a young Bret Easton Ellis doing a line of uncut Denis Johnson off the back of a public urinal. Memorable in the best possible way, also mostly illegal, Goldberg's Slow Down is a mad man's tour of
Manhattan's vices, follies, and ultimate betrayals."
--Urban Waite, author of The Terror of Living and Sometimes the Wolf

"What would happen if one of Raymond Chandler's 1940's femme fatales were to join forces with one of Jay McInerney's enfant terribles? Lee Matthew Goldberg wrings every delectable trope imaginable out of this mashup while still managing a fresh spin. A writer to watch out for."
--David Kukoff, author of Children of the Canyon

"Slow Down starts fast and gets faster quick, gunning through yellow streetlights on its way to a full collision with your shattered soul. Lee Matthew Goldberg takes on the American Zeitgeist in this stunning debut."
--Stephen Jay Schwartz, LA Times bestselling author of Boulevard and Beat

"Slow Down is a brilliant rush of a work charting the rise and fall of Noah and other pretentious losers. Savor this book."
--Foreword Reviews

"Dark and hard-boiled writing that grabs you by the throat. Slow Down is one of those rare novels that's so good you want it to go on forever!"
--Nick Pengelley, author of Ryder: An Ayesha Ryder Novel

"The plot takes off...there's no denying it's fun to watch rich snots destroy themselves."

"Goldberg's portrayal of the New York demimonde is one of the book's strengths and brings to mind Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. He also succeeds in marshalling a complicated plot."


THE STEPS THAT LEAD ME TO MY CATACLYSMIC ENCOUNTER WITH DOMINICK BAMBACH WERE PUT IN MOTION TWO DAYS EARLIER WHEN I GOT THE NEWS ABOUT BEING DOUBLE-FIRED FROM MY SOULSUCKING JOB. Ah, Classic Screw-Up Noah. I’d come home a little buzzed from a Yankees game to hear my parents’ cook, Consuela, shouting from room to room trying to find me. Since my parents’ place was big enough to get legitimately lost in, I had no clue where she was, but I did run into my brother Dex ripping bong hits on our wraparound terrace.

“That mad Guatemalan woman has been huffing and puffing around the apartment for over half an hour,” Dex said.

“Is she okay?”

“Importante!” Dex mimicked, rather poorly, sounding more stereotypically Asian than stereotypically Spanish. “Más importante, señor Noah. Su jefe llamando! Your boss called!”

I caught up with Consuela in what my parents dubbed their “Conservatory,” named with pretension like we all lived inside the game of Clue. Actually, it was a shoebox of a room that had wedged in a piano, a piano bench, and a rather spectacular view of Central Park. I found Consuela perched on the window seat, hands folded in her apron like she was praying, breaths heavy and sad. She was a whale and I had made her sweat.

“Señor Noah. Oh, señor Noah,” Consuela heaved, the life drained out of her, ready for her deathbed. “Message for you.”

She had written the message in Spanglish on a post-it stuck Slow Down

to her large left breast. She displayed it to me like it was a medal of honor. It also had a blob of her famous Diablo sauce and basically said that my jefe sounded muy angry and would call my cell at nine tomorrow morning.

My father had adopted Consuela fifteen years ago, a rotund woman who fancied spiced rum and sour looks. My parents had met her during one of their “slumming vacations”—meaning a stay anywhere in the Third World, even if they shelled out for five-star hotels. This time it had been in Guatemala, where she was an overworked cook who made delectable tamales at the breakfast buffet. After one bite of her tasty creations, they whisked her back to the States as their latest charity case. But my father, all red nosed and with a jarring demeanor, had stated the real reason one night at a dinner party:

“You should see some of these people, just ghastly…” my father, a swirling glass of port in his hand, spouted to an audience of wondering blinks. I couldn’t stop looking at his blinding white teeth, which made him look demented. “That is where Consuela would still be if Janet and I hadn’t opened up our home to her. But my God, can that good woman make a tamale!”

I had passed out from a couple of late-night bong hits and woke up the next morning thinking about the note Consuela had given me. The sheets had been pulled up to my neck, the open window letting in cool hums of early spring air. I ran one cold big toe over the other as some morbid indie band played from my iPod alarm, soft and sweet as if they were singing me back to sleep. I had to download some new songs soon.

It was odd that my boss Irene had called, since the company only had few days left before it shut down completely. So calling me on a Sunday night, a time better spent basking in her wonderful glow, meant that something huge had gone down.

I’d been recently fired. No big deal, most of the company had been “downsized” or “let go,” or any other nice way of describing permanent termination. An economy in the toilet meant a whole lot of trouble for an independent media production company with only one client. Recently, all my co-workers had been summoned one-by-one into her office situated away from the rest of the peons.

The day I got the ax, I’d been ignoring the red light blinking on my office phone, which always meant that the Queen wanted something. E-mail this, call so-and-so, walk my dog while I get my hair done for an upcoming interview on CNN (that would probably never air). I finally picked up the receiver.

“Noah, come into my office.”


I wanted to be “let go.” Really I was aching to do nothing but come up with an idea for a novel and then adapt it into a film, my guaranteed tickets to fame. Back in college, a story I wrote for a fellowship won me five-hundred bucks and a trip to a Writer’s Colony in Wyoming, so I knew I had chops, but since then I’d written zilch. I had only one year left before I turned twenty-three and became older than F. Scott Fitzgerald when he wrote his timeless classic, This Side of Paradise. And, if I wanted to direct an adaptation of this yet-to-be-written novel, I had to hurry up before I turned twenty-five and became older than Orson Wells when he directed Citizen Kane. I longed to give an interview that would bring up both these bits of trivia and anoint me into the history books, but time was running out fast.

So this bullshit job where I booked authors for an interview series that aired on a Big Bookselling Chain’s website was really just holding me back. I pitched the project to the author’s publicists, set it all up, and sent them an embarrassing questionnaire that my boss created with questions like:

If someone described you as an animal, what animal would you resemble on the outside, and what animal would you identify with on the inside?

Unfortunately, this whole venture was happening right around the time that Big Bookselling Chain was going bankrupt. Anyone who didn’t anticipate a downsizing was in serious denial or too stupid to breathe.

When I stepped inside the Queen’s office that afternoon, it felt like walking smack into Calcutta. She had cranked up the heat on a day that didn’t require it. Her panting dog greeted me by doing an interpretive dance on the rug. The thing was about a hundred and sixty-five in dog years and begging to be put down.

“Have a seat, Noah.”

She gave me a smile that was completely devoid of any emotion. I could tell that it had taken so much out of her to produce, and it still managed to only be the smile of a stroke victim, one end being pulled up by a puppeteer’s string and the other end long forgotten.

“How are things?” she said, grimacing.

“Super.” I nodded.

Her half-smile had already vanished.

“I’m sure you know that the Big Bookselling Chain is in dire straits right now.”

Yes, I did already know this. I had figured it out one month ago when all of the authors the company filmed were mysteriously pulled from the B.B.C’s website without any explanation, and then The New York Times reported that one third of the B.B.C’s staff had been terminated.

“So, Noah, along with that, I don’t think that we can keep you on any longer as a Talent Booker,” she said, with a sigh to show how traumatized she was by having to fire me, a sigh to convey her plight. Forget the fact that she had just closed on a two-million dollar property in the Village a couple of weeks ago.

“As of today?”

“No, I am giving you two weeks notice. Any interviews you want to go on are fine by me, but this is the way it has to be.”

Her little rhyme made her sound like an Alice and Wonderland character, the caterpillar atop the mushroom blowing plumes of smoke in my face. I choked on a fake cough to keep from laughing since I’d been waiting for a day like this for the last few months. At least now I wouldn’t have to quit and go through the process of telling her off, something I honestly did to people in power too often and was a trait I needed to rectify.

My cell rang at exactly 9:00 am. The moody music had lulled me back to sleep for the past hour, but the phone was relentless. I found it under a pair of balled-up khakis and a Fight Club poster that had floated down from my wall.

“Hello,” I said, out of breath.

“Can I speak with Noah Spaeth?”

The voice was curt and cold. This couldn’t be good.

I am Noah’s complete lack of surprise, I thought, as I pictured Edward Norton’s sad-sack character from Fight Club.

“This is Irene, your boss. I don’t want you coming in today or any of your last days.”

“Uh, why…?”

“Well, Noah, over the weekend I decided to go through some of the e-mails that you wrote on your office account…”

She said it as if it was the most normal thing to do, as if he should be proud of her shadiness.

“Since I was allowing you to use me as a reference, I needed to make sure you had been spending your days here productively, but I realized with some of the things you wrote about me and the company itself that you never took this job seriously and that you’re just some immature twenty-two-year-old child. This means that you’re fired.”

“I was already fired.”

“No, you were let go; now you are fired.”

“I’m not understanding the difference.”

“Meaning you will not be able to use me as a reference anymore, so good luck finding other employment.”

I blew a raspberry into the receiver.

“Excuse me? Is that all you have to say?” I blew another raspberry.

“You little shit.”


I stayed on the line, the dial tone pulsating in my ear. I had trashed her as a person and a boss, e-mailing to friends that she was a trust fund baby who got the company as a type of hush money from parents who just wanted to get rid of her, but worst of all (well maybe not worst of all because, at least, it was making me laugh at the time), I had e-mailed to a friend about her big ass, how it was über long and flat in the white mini skirts she’d always wedge herself into and made her look like a pulled tooth when she bent over due to that sizable rear and bowling pin legs. All of this had now been read and dissected by her; she probably fled to the bathroom afterwards and planted herself in front of a long mirror that only proved those accusations right. Her frequent mentions of a personal trainer weren’t fooling anyone.

My cell rang again to the sound of breathing at the other end.

“Hello,” I said, ready for her. Her breathing sounded winded, as if she was trying to blow up a balloon from across the room.

“I…” she began, but I was too fast.

“Have a big ass. I know.”

I threw my cell to the floor without hanging up and could hear her muffled shouts, but I was laughing so hard that I could care less. I held my stomach and rocked in a fit, wanting her to hear.

My laughter echoed down the hallway as my teenage sister Cassie passed by, yakking on the phone. She was dressed in the skimpiest amount of clothing that the Baron School for Girls allowed. Just a few years ago she was wearing leotards and tumbling through the house with her hair in pigtails.

“No, Maddy, we’re totally gonna make her cry at school tomorrow…I know, I’m so psyched. All the Untouchables deserve to cry.”

I stepped out of my room in front of her so she couldn’t get past. She twisted a finger around her bra strap and let it snap against her skin. Her expression looked as if someone was using her face to juice a lemon.

“Move out of my way, Noah.”

“Why does everything you say need to have its own lingo?” I made a grab for her cell. “What the hell is an Untouchable?”

I could hear cackling coming from her cell. Cassie rolled her eyes as if I wasn’t worthy of sharing her air.

“It’s someone at Baron that’s poor. Just like you’ll be one day.”

She snapped her gum and continued past me with her middle finger in the air. The finger had become yellow from her new smoking habit; the nail caked with white powder. As if her bloodshot eyes weren’t enough evidence that she’d snorted her breakfast.

When she was born, I thought she’d been stolen from another family in the hospital because her hair was so blonde. My parents had let me hold her, and I whispered “my baby” into the tiniest ear I’d ever seen.

That seemed like many lifetimes ago.

Heading to Consuela’s kitchen for breakfast was always the best part of my day. I could already smell her Hollandaise sauce, which meant that I’d be eating Eggs Benedict soon. A perfect cure for my newly fired self. Good ol’ Consuela, with a work ethic like an Alaskan race dog in the Yukon, knew what I needed. The fact that it was Monday and her “Noie” (as she sometimes called me) wasn’t already at work had indicated that something was up. A wise shaman had once told her during a trip to the jungles of El Petén that “food cured all,” so she lived with that mantra and preached it unabashedly.

But as my nose followed the Hollandaise aroma through the hallways, I began to feel unsettled. Five minutes ago the whole boss-reading-my-e-mails thing had been ridiculously funny, but now reality was starting to sink in. My girlfriend at the time, Margaret, was bound to dump me because she had a firm plan of a career path and life for us both. Being attached to an unemployed artiste and wasting her glory twenties, as she called it (which always made it sound perverse) was not part of The Plan. So if I wanted to keep her around, I knew I’d have to scour the job sites, go on interviews, and pretend to be interested in whatever lame experience some company offered.

I entered the kitchen to find Dex and Consuela whispering to one another.

“Why aren’t you at work already?” Dex asked, studying me through his thick glasses without any lenses. His hair was a brown ball of chaos, and he wore a lopsided sweater over pajama bottoms that he’d probably live in for the rest of the day.

“Why aren’t you in school?” I shot back, knowing Dex had dropped out of Franklin & Marshall College last spring because he couldn’t take the Amish people in the town anymore, obviously an excuse that sounded better than his likely suspension.

“Touché, brother. Consuela, chop-chop with the Eggs Bene. I’m about as hungry as an Ethiopian at a Smorgasbord, or a newly-fired boy desperate for another job.”

He gave me a condescending squint while pushing the bangs out of his eyes only to have them fall into place again. I knew that he kept those bangs to give his fingers something to do: at parties, talking to girls, it was his thing. He could hide behind his hair if he wasn’t interested, or flip it away, show you his eyes, and pretend to care.

“Maybe you wouldn’t be so hungry, Dex, if you didn’t have two joints for breakfast already.”

“Haha, double touché, brother Noah.”

For the past year, Cassie, Dex and I lived in our childhood apartment parent-free with Consuela as the only authoritative figure; primarily there to make sure we ate. Our parents occasionally traipsed back home with stories of the South of France, or the wonders of Vanuatu before clearing out the gin and Scotch and slipping under the cracks in the door to board any type of transportation away from us all. Our grandfather, Hubert, my mother’s father, had finally choked on his own vomit in his sleep from an overdose of morphine medication that a hired specialist insisted was necessary for his emphysema. Hubert had paid for our pre-war, Classic Eight masterpiece on 79 th and Central Park West, but mostly kept his “little princess Janet on a tight leash” (his phlegmy words) with a monthly allowance that included weekly spa indulges and daily lunches at Le Cirque and the like. He let my dad foster his career as an art dealer and insisted on private schooling and a maid for his three grandchildren whose names he always mixed up.

Since I could remember, my parents had been planning their ultimate kids-free journey once the old geezer stopped breathing, complaining about a “youth idolized” New York. So when Hubert upchucked his last breath, they packed up their suitcases and vowed to live out of them. After air-kissing us, they left some vague numbers in case they needed to be reached (but only for an emergency!), along with some martini-soaked advice about the real world before slamming the front door and returning mostly through postcards.

I always imagined what I’d say to them and the rest of my family if I ever made it big:

“Mom and Dad, I’m a famous author-slash-filmmaker and you two did nothing for that. Cassie, you’ve become a hideous lost cause, but Dex, you can stick around. You may not be a good friend, but you’ll always be my brother. I know you’ll keep circling back into my life each time your antics stop being amusing to everyone else, and I will be all you have left.”

An overpowering smell of weed pummeled my nostrils as I opened Dex’s door to find him inhaling a massive hit and drumming on his knees in a lotus position. Dex held out a smoking bong as an offering.

“So what happened with your job, bitch?”

I shook my head and gazed around Dex’s room, a study in dementia. Retro Playboy magazines created a non-existent carpet, a mob of tits and eyes scrutinizing me. Chynna, the mannish wrestler from back in the day, seemed to be the most inquisitive, spreading her legs and giving me a “yeah, why’d you get canned?” glare.

“My boss read some nasty e-mails I wrote about her.”

“Haha, you fucked up big time.”

“I was already let go, it just means I can’t use her as a reference. It doesn’t really matter–”

“Tell that to the judge, or rather, tell it to Margaret and see if she’ll ever let your irresponsible ass touch her coot again.”

I’d been dating Margaret for almost a year. We met as seniors at Connecticut College, a tiny enough school where we knew everything about each other before ever really having a conversation. The first time we actually spoke, I was bombed out of my mind and found myself in some ethical debate with her, which sounded life changing at the time. We left some party, the Connecticut sky pure and smelling of the surrounding woods, dizzy with one another. Throughout the rest of the year, she became more of a convenience than anything. The type of girl who joined every amnesty-animal-feminist rights organization to compensate for her bland personality and championed her pre-law studies as being more important than whatever anyone else was doing. I kept her around because a few months before I met her I had tried to kiss Nevie, who then cut me out of her life for good.

“You should come to a party tonight,” Dex said.

“I should write tonight.”

I thought of Nina, the only character I’d created so far. I pictured her at a bar, twisting away on a stool, smiling wide from all the drugs she’d consumed. People would be naturally crowding around her because she had that magnetic effect. She longed to be in movies, using her skinny, but still rocking body, to work her way into chic clubs and get close to anyone with connections, but she wound up vomiting a cocktail of pills by dawn. She had peaked too early and knew her biggest accomplishment was bound to be a tragic headline. She’d need the hero of the novel, a guy just like me, to remind her of the Nina that she used to be, someone who’d stop her from rushing toward an early death and let her find solace in his arms. I could be that hero.

“Dude, come to the party. You can even bring…Margaret.”

“No, I should stay home and get serious about my writing.”

“You are such a pretentious loser. You’ll lock yourself in your room and write some dumb story with me as this screw-up who’s going nowhere and you’ll be the protagonist who gets him to go back to school or some shit like that. Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely?”

“Are you done?”

“I heard your whacko girlfriend going off on me the other day. Evidently, I gave her some look that she misinterpreted when she was here with her nose on the ceiling.”

“Yeah, she can’t stand you, what’s your point?”

“My point is that you can still bring her to this party because I can see you need a night of fucking fun after getting canned. You can always write tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after. In case you didn’t realize it, we’re basically living a charmed life here without any expenses and can do whatever the hell we want to do.”

“You’re right, man,” I said, shoving Dex and making sure, as always, to play the role of Older Brother. “You are so right. Why should I agonize over getting another job and dealing with another possible Queen? And Margaret can kiss my ass if she has anything to say. I’m about to create something that’ll blow people away and no one can stop me.”

I imagined my character Nina again, home from college at her country house in South Hampton, deliriously stoned after a round of golf at her parents’ club. I envisioned myself beside her as we danced around a bonfire on her private beach.

But I knew she wasn’t actually a creation, just a substitution. That night on the beach in South Hampton was based on one of the last times I saw Nevie. I can remember she was leaning in too close to the fire while high on something, and that I caught her before she burned herself.

“Are you okay?” I had asked.

“My hero,” I longed for her to say, but she only wriggled out of my arms, staring at the fire as if she wanted to fall in.

“I’m never okay,” she said, and stumbled up toward her house where she locked her bedroom door and didn’t even come out to wish me good-bye in the morning before I had to board my train.

That weekend had also been one of the last times I was able to write anything.

I told myself not to stress about that now. Tonight I’d be Nevie free. And maybe if I’d be able to keep forgetting about her, a bevy of dazzling ideas would flow once again.

“The Spaeth boys will be out for blood tonight,” Dex cheered, taking a final bong hit. “Brother Noah, I think I know how to get you started on the fast track to living.”

A cloud of smoke obscured Dex’s face as he continued preaching.

“Zoom. Zoom. Zooooooooom!”

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

An Excerpt from 'Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation,' by Marilea C. Rabasa

Marilea C. Rabasa is a retired high school teacher who moved west from Virginia eleven years ago. Before that, she traveled around the world with her former husband in the Foreign Service. She has been published in a variety of publications. Writing as Maggie C. Romero, Rabasa won the International Book Award, was named a finalist in both the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards and the USA Best Book Awards, and earned an honorable mention in The Great Southwest Book Festival, for her 2014 release, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.  She lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a number of years and now resides in Camano Island, Washington. Visit her online at: 

                                                   About the Book

Addiction is a stealth predator. Unrecognized, it will grow and flourish. Unchecked, it destroys.

Marilea grew up in post-WWII Massachusetts in a family that lived comfortably and offered her every advantage. But there were closely guarded family secrets. Alcoholism reached back through several generations, and it was not openly discussed. Shame and stigma perpetuated the silence. Marilea became part of this ongoing tragedy.

Her story opens with the death of her mother. Though not an alcoholic, it is her inability to cope with the dysfunction in her life that sets her daughter up for a multitude of problems.

We follow Marilea from an unhappy childhood, to her life overseas in the diplomatic service, to now, living on an island in Puget Sound. What happens in the intervening years is a compelling tale of travel, motherhood, addiction, and heartbreaking loss. The constant thread throughout this story is the many faces and forms of addiction, stalking her like an obsessed lover, and with similar rewards. What, if anything, will free her of the masks she has worn all her life?

Read Marilea’s inspiring recovery story and learn how she wrestles with the demons that have plagued her.



The Woods  

            Whether it was thirty degrees with two feet of snow on the ground or ninety degrees and humid, I learned to fashion a life for myself outdoors, usually in the woods.

Areas hollowed out by the wind became the rooms in my make-believe home fashioned on tree stumps and big granite boulders. Draping an old, tattered sheet over a low horizontal branch, I cut squares in it to make windows. Bits and pieces in the garage that had been left for the dump found new purpose in my imaginary home. Rusty tin cans, smashed under my feet, became ashtrays. An oversized bottle was turned into a lamp. A couple of old crates were repurposed as chairs. A broken old radio left near the brook added a nice touch to the kitchen table, itself a small scrap of plywood. Playing out my fantasies was a favorite pastime.

            Inside the house, there was no escape. My family had moved into a converted schoolhouse in Massachusetts when I was six months old. There were four bedrooms upstairs, and since I was just a baby, my parents gave me the littlest one, the size of a large walk-in closet. As I grew, I felt terrible resentment toward my sister, Lucy, not only because she had been awarded the room with a window facing the lake and was a graceful dancing student but also because she was so much closer than I to our father. Still, I tried tagging along with her, though I felt she didn’t want me around.

One day I snuck into her room while Daddy was working in the basement and Mom was napping across the hall. I could do anything! I started by smashing one of her ballerina statues on the floor.

I looked at all her ballet costumes and pretty pink tutus. My sister was such a star, but I wanted attention too. I gazed at the perfumes and talcum powder on her dressing table. Just for a little while, I can be a princess too.

She had a growing collection of Joyce shoes, all carefully lined up in her closet. I just wanted to wear them in her room for a few minutes. I hoped that by putting on her shoes her magic would rub off on me. Maybe my parents would love me as much as they loved her.

I shuffled around, but the shoes were swimming on me as I struggled to keep them on my feet. So I gave up and put them back in her closet. Lucy would be home soon, and my princess time was running out. As I heard her approaching the stairs, I returned to my place in the corners of the house. Lucy went right into her closet.

I hadn’t been careful to put the shoes back where they’d been neatly placed.

Why had I been so careless?

Exploding out of her room, Lucy confronted not me but our mother, who was awake by then, about my latest theft. Tears streaming down her face, she implored:

          “Mother, Mary has been in my closet. She took my favorite shoes again. And she
smashed my favorite ballerina on the floor. You always let her get away with this. Please do something this time!”

          “Lucy, you’re the older of the two of you. You do something.”

          What could my sister do? There was no justice to be found in our house.

Hiding in my little room with the door closed, I listened to my mother and sister. Eventually I left and went outside to my home in the woods. There I performed a mock trial:

Using one of my father’s hammers, I banged my pretend gavel on a large granite boulder.

“You know why you were bad, Mary,” bellowed the judge. “You went into Lucy’s room

without permission. You wore her shoes. And you broke her statue. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I just wanted to feel special. I thought if I put on her shoes, I’d feel special

like she is. And I’m sorry I broke the ballet statue, but I’m so angry. Daddy loves her more than me!”

“That’s not an excuse, Mary. There is no excuse for what you did.”

“But I just wanted to get her attention!” I cried, breaking out in sobs.

The judge thundered back at me, unmoved, “You are guilty of jealousy and theft.” Guilty, guilty, guilty . . .

Unable to convince the judge of my innocence, I went back inside the house, ran to my room, and slammed the door.

But I wasn’t punished.

Guilty, guilty, guilty . . . those words buried themselves in a pocket next to my heart. And there they remained, like a ship’s anchor, weighing me down for the rest of my life.

Mother busied herself making dinner, and my sister remained in her room. Invisible walls, unaddressed resentments, perpetual isolation.

I learned from a very early age a terrible lesson: I could get away with things. If I were sneaky enough, or had enough enablers around me, my behaviors might yield no consequences. With no one slapping my wrist, the naughtiness continued. And my frustration and anger continued to chip away at my self-confidence and cloak itself in chronic depression.

I wasn’t always a brat, though. Mother wrote in a diary entry dated 2/26/56: 

“L and M quarreled, and I smacked them both. L stayed in her room and sulked. After a while M went into the kitchen, got out a plate of cookies, and poured a glass of milk. She carried up the cookies and on the way said to me, ‘I’m going to take these cookies up to Lucy and make her feel better.’”

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Summoned Ones by Darryl A. Woods

Title: The Summoned Ones, Book 1 of Flight to Bericea
Author: Darryl A. Woods
Publisher: Brelsford Ridge Publishing
Pages: 336
Genre: Adult Epic Fantasy


Can a group of college-aged friends from a small Kentucky town actually be the Summoned Ones of prophecy, called to a strange world filled with magic and devastated by war? Can they save the lives of the desperate inhabitants and help them defeat a wicked tyrant? Their epic journey will push them to the limits of their endurance. This unlikely group will discover truths about themselves and experience another world beyond their imagination.

During their journey, they will explore this new world, discover new talents and previously hidden abilities, develop friendships with people they couldn’t have dreamed possible, and will be forced to take actions they would have never considered in any less dire circumstances.


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First Chapter

Chapter 1 Invitation

The night air was brisk as Pattie and Mike stood by the sidelines of their old high school’s football field. The weather had turned cold a few weeks ago. The days had been clear, filled with blue skies, sunshine, and trees showing off their brightest autumn hues.
Tonight, the stars and crescent moon in the clear sky hung unseen above the glare of the bright lights. Pattie, a pretty young woman of 20, was dressed in her typical garb: old blue jeans, a loosely tucked and rumpled button-down shirt, and a denim jacket. Her straight, black hair fell below her shoulders, her large brown eyes taking in the action on the field. She had a natural attractiveness that required no makeup.
Pattie O’Keenan and Mike Wilson had been friends since they were kids. They’d grown up a few miles from one another, in the countryside surrounding the small town of Irvine. From the age of 12, they’d biked to one another’s houses for visits over the long summer breaks. Pattie’s family owned a small horse farm, and she spent a lot of her spare time alone, working with the horses or doing chores. Pattie had grown up a bit of a tomboy. She insisted on doing the same chores around the farm as her two older brothers and didn’t take advantage of being the youngest or the “little sister.” Because of this, her brothers respected her and they all got along well together. Unfortunately, they rarely included Pattie in their inner circle, leaving her too often to her own devices. Luckily, whatever loneliness she felt was eased by her friendship with the boy down the road.
In stark contrast to Pattie’s casual attire, Mike Wilson was well-dressed in a sports jacket and khakis. Although of average build and height, he carried himself with the air of someone who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His dad, a former Marine Corps boxer, had taught him to fight at an early age, and Mike knew how to take care of himself. His air of confidence could also be attributed to his days spent leading teams on the paintball field. He had been playing since the age of 13, when his uncle took him to a local paintball venue. Already an avid reader of military history (tactics, logistics, maneuvering, and overall strategy, in particular), the boy had a keen desire to see whether the techniques he studied in books could be applied first-hand on the playing field.
Since the age of seven, Mike had been interested in all things military. One late night, awakened by a loud noise coming from the living room, he crawled out of bed to investigate. Mike found his dad asleep in front of the TV. George C. Scott was leading the troops through battle in Patton, and the little boy became riveted. He was still in front of the set the next morning where his parents found him sound asleep.
A shrill whistle broke through the crisp night air, immediately followed by the deafening roar of the Mighty Engineers fans. The football team was good this season and had already won five of its first six games. Tonight, however, the game itself was being overshadowed by the return of a former football hero.
“Brandon doesn’t have to enjoy all this so much,” Pattie told Mike wryly.
“He knows he’s the biggest thing that ever happened to this wide spot in the road. No doubt, the biggest that ever will happen,” Mike replied. “As much as he hates the attention, he’d never deprive the folks of this moment.”
Just the week before, Brandon Rollins had made the cover of Sports Illustrated, even though he’d shared it with three other Heisman Trophy hopefuls. Most of the article was devoted to Rollins, however, and his decision to announce early he would play out his senior year at The Ohio State University instead of entering the NFL draft.
“Do you think he had us meet him here for sympathy, moral support, or some far-flung hope we might be able to get him out of this,” Pattie asked.
Mike grinned. “All of the above.”
Now in his junior year, Brandon was already on track to break Ohio State’s all-time rushing record before the season came to an end. The 6-foot, 1-inch 230-pound running back had already surpassed OSU's total yard record with his catches out of the back field. In his high school days, he had shattered every Mighty Engineers record on the books, not to mention most of the high school records in the state.
Ruggedly handsome, with a defined physique, Brandon often caught the attention of admiring females, though his shyness around women was obvious. His graceful way of moving despite his size was also attractive to the girls that always seemed to surround him. Brandon had more going for him than sheer athleticism, however. He was maintaining a 3.8 GPA in business at Ohio State, his devotion to his studies almost as rigorous as his workouts. He knew if he made it to the professional leagues, with his background in business, he’d be able to manage his own career and finances.
Brandon had learned about responsibility and the importance of making good decisions at a young age. His parents divorced when he was only eight, and Brandon helped raise his younger sister after his dad moved out of their house in the northern section of Irvine. He still called her two or three times a week from college. Despite their divorce, Brandon remained close to both his parents and often sought out his dad’s advice. Brandon’s mom remarried when he was 14. His dad remained unmarried and lived close by his children. Brandon and his sister stayed with him every other weekend, and Brandon spent his summers with him.
“Does he still practice his martial arts?” Pattie asked.
“What? Oh, yeah, some,” Mike replied, distracted by the game and the large crowd surrounding Brandon. “Well, he did cut out the sparring, but you know him, disciplined as ever. No matter how much school work or how long practices run, he gets up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and does that ritual workout of his, walking through all those forms. Not during the season, but off-season, he still works with all those weird martial arts weapons.”
Brandon had been working aggressively in the martial arts since the age of 12, having advanced to a black belt by the age of 14. He had a room full of trophies from martial arts tournaments but had decided to stop competing at 16. Major colleges had started noticing him when he was only a sophomore. Taking his dad’s advice, Brandon decided that risking injury and a full athletic scholarship was not worth it. Even so, despite dropping out of competition, he had not abandoned his martial arts training.
“I drag myself up at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. every once in a while and hightail it across campus to watch his “famous” workouts. Besides, letting all the girls that hang around the gym know I’m his friend doesn’t hurt,” Mike laughed.
“I still can’t believe you ran off to that huge campus with Brandon and left me here to go to community college.”
Pattie was kidding, of course, knowing full well that Brandon’s chance to play on scholarship at a major university and Mike’s academic scholarship were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. “Who’d have thought all that reading about war and fighting would have landed you such a sweet deal?”
As Pattie chatted with Mike, she looked around expectantly, waiting for the arrival of another old friend. Earlier in the day, Pattie and Mike had met Steve Oliver at Rise and Shine, the local coffee shop. Steve brought his new girlfriend, Gloria, whom he’d been seeing for the last two months. He’d met her at a party he’d organized for his fraternity at Brown University and their sister sorority. Pattie had taken an instant dislike to the girl and was not pleased to see her hanging on Steve's arm as he pushed through the coffee-shop door that morning. No doubt, he’d have her in tow again this evening, she thought with disgust.
Of all the members of the group meeting tonight, Stephen William Oliver III was the most out of place. While the others had gone to public schools, Steve attended Lexington Prep. His parents sent their only child off to the top-tier boarding school when he was eight years old. Before that, he’d spent much of his childhood alone in the family’s Colonial Revival mansion on a 300-acre estate. His father’s political career was beginning to take off, and his parents traveled extensively, leaving their young son at home in the care of their head housekeeper, Carmela. The Mexican woman practically raised the slender blond-haired, blue-eyed boy as her own and soon had her charge speaking Spanish like a native. Because of Carmela, Steve developed an early appreciation for language and a love of linguistics.
When Steve came home from boarding school during holidays and summers, he began to take advantage of the estate’s riding facilities to fill his time. The estate had been in the Oliver family for over 120 years. Backing up to the Daniel Boone National Forest, it was now a working farm producing grain and thoroughbreds. Steve learned he had an aptitude for horsemanship and soon became an accomplished rider. He began competing in stadium jumping and other English equestrian events, honing his skills on the family’s private course.
When he was old enough, he began to travel. Other than Mike, who had taken two fishing trips to Canada with his uncle, Steve was the only one of the group who had been outside the United States. He’d made several trips to Europe and visited nearly every country, even spending some time in Russia. He’d also been to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and most recently spent a month touring China and Tibet. For last few years now during his travels, Steve had shied away from the more touristy locales, preferring to hang out with the locals and hone his language skills. He even went so far as to take odd jobs, hanging out in the pubs in the evenings and sleeping on the floors of farmhouses or barns where he had worked that day. Such exposure to the local color, the languages, the sounds, phrases, cultural influences, and mental processes associated with the spoken word and its regional variations, all fueled Steve's obsession with language. Because of Carmela’s early influence and his subsequent travels, he chose linguistics as his major at Brown.
Although Pattie had figured that Steve would arrive on time, the Reinard brothers would be another story. With Jeremy just in from the University of Kentucky, his brother Will would be monopolizing him, describing all the new projects and inventions he had dreamt up during Jeremy’s absence. Will had decided long ago that college was not for him. Though of above-average intelligence, Will was content to work in their father’s metal fabrication shop, and his after-hours use of the shop equipment allowed him to pursue his real passion: inventing. Jeremy had the same inventive drive, but he loved mechanical engineering and (though he would never admit it) the routine and discipline of acquiring a formal education. If Pattie didn’t miss her guess, the brothers wouldn't make the game. However, she knew they wouldn't ignore Mrs. Stayton’s request to stop by her house this evening.
Mrs. Stayton was Joshua’s mom. Josh was one of the old gang, the one who made sure everyone kept in touch after graduation. He had died this past Tuesday after a six-month battle with cancer, and his passing was the reason they were back in town after 2½ years. The last time they'd all been together was the summer after graduation, when they gathered for their annual week at camp. It seemed like only yesterday that Josh had called each of them, begging them not to visit but rather to remember him in better times.
Mrs. Stayton’s request came as a bit of a surprise to the group. Only Will had remained particularly close to her. He had spent a lot of time with Josh after high school. The two had discovered caving, a common hobby in the local area, where caves were abundant. Will also helped the Staytons by taking on household and automotive repairs. Josh’s father had passed away several years earlier, and to say that Josh was not mechanically inclined was an understatement.
Pattie scowled, “There's Steve now, with that woman trailing him like a hound.”
“Hey Pattie, keep it civil for Steve’s sake,” Mike said in a placating voice.
Pattie could hide her jealousy well enough around Steve, but with Mike, her lifelong friend, she knew better than to try. She (and everyone else) was convinced, and with good cause, that Gloria Stenner was out for two things: money and power. Pattie had never treated Steve as the son of a wealthy state senator, but she always knew he would follow in his father's footsteps despite his disdain for politics. Forced to attend more and more of the senator’s functions over the years, Steve began to resent his father and the perfect image he cultivated for the press and his contributors. Senator Oliver still harbored hopes that his son would enter politics, but despite his natural talent for leadership and organization, Steve had so far resisted his father’s attempts to steer him toward a political career. Pattie wondered briefly if Steve’s aversion to the limelight would dampen Gloria’s affections.
Before Steve spotted her and Mike by the sidelines, Pattie allowed herself a few moments to look over her old friend. She saw he was parting his fair hair on the side now, and his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, though still on the thin side, was more athletic now that he was on the college fencing team. Catching sight of her, Steve raised a hand in greeting, flashing a quick smile. He wasn’t handsome in the conventional sense, but Pattie thought that smile could light the entire football field.
Over the years, she had taken great care to hide her true feelings for the senator’s son, believing that a tomboy from a very average family could only hold him back. One thing was certain, though—a person like Gloria was definitely not what Steve needed.
Mike spoke up just as Pattie was about to address the couple, aware that any remark she might make to Gloria could get the evening off on the wrong foot.
“Hey, glad to see you two. I know you just arrived, but we need to get Brandon out of here before the end of the game, or he’ll never get away.”
Mike continued as everyone glanced toward Brandon, “Halftime was an absolute madhouse. Kids wanted autographs, long-lost friends wanted their pictures taken with him, you know how it goes.”
The foursome was finally able to get Brandon’s attention by waving and shouting his name, giving him the excuse he needed to break away from the large group surrounding him. The four turned and started toward the exit gate where Brandon was finally able to catch up. They were a somber group as they headed for their cars to make their way to Mrs. Stayton's house. Pattie was already on her cell phone to remind the Reinard brothers of the unusual invitation.
The brothers were just pulling up in the driveway as the others rounded the corner and eased in to park behind them. The house was a bi-level, part of a 30-year-old subdivision just off the main drag. Mrs. Stayton was proud of how she had kept the place up after her husband died. Even among all the other well-maintained properties, the Stayton home stood out. Mrs. Stayton had always worked extra jobs and, with Josh’s help, had kept the yard manicured and the flowerbeds perfect; the exterior of the house always looked freshly painted. Will was a great help on the overall maintenance of the place, but it was Mrs. Stayton’s perfectionism that made the property a showplace. Josh had lived his entire life in this home.
Silently the group gathered on the porch, the chill of the night more penetrating now. Pattie knocked on the door.
Mrs. Stayton answered almost immediately, smiling at their familiar faces.
“I'm so glad to see you all. Please come in.”
She was trying to project a strong, upbeat mood but they could tell she had been crying. The loss of her husband, then her only child, had devastated her. She directed them to the always-spotless living room and invited them to sit. After meeting Gloria and exchanging pleasantries with Josh’s old friends, an awkward silence settled on the group.
Then Mrs. Stayton began to speak.
“I don't know how to ask this without being blunt. And I don’t want to offend any of you. I hope you understand that is not my intent.”
She paused, choosing her words carefully.
“It's just that I feel I need to know what drew all of you together. Why my son felt so close to you right up until the end.”
The group, with the exception of Gloria, looked at one another with a mixture of surprise, concern, and relief. Gloria’s interest was piqued, as she had been wondering the same thing. This particular group of friends seemed to have nothing in common.
“Go ahead, Mike. I think you should be the one to tell her,” said Brandon. The others nodded in agreement.
“Well,” began Mike, “as you know, we all met for the first time when we were 12, at the South Fork Summer Camp.”
Mike fidgeted in his chair as he glanced at the others, then continued.
“That first year at camp was awful. The counselors were young and more than eager to abuse their authority.” Mike paused and looked at the others for encouragement before continuing.
“We were spread out across several cabins and met one day quite by accident, when we went to investigate a big ruckus.”
Mike focused his attention back on Mrs. Stayton and started anew.
“That ruckus was Brandon saving Pattie from the camp bully.”
Mike turned to Jeremy.
“You remember, you and I came down the same path just as Steve and Josh were coming down another, and we saw Brandon facing a bully twice his size. Pattie was on the ground nearby with a bloody nose.”
Brandon and Pattie nodded in agreement and Mike proceeded.
“All of us newcomers to camp, even though we were barely acquainted, looked at each other without a word and decided to a person that we were going to help. Just as we started forward, Brandon flipped the bully onto the ground and had his arm twisted in what would best be described as a pretzel. With a few not-so-idle threats from Brandon, the bully left in short order.”
“I didn’t miss the fact that you all were coming to help me,” Brandon chimed in.
Mike was becoming more comfortable telling the story now, as the others hadn’t interrupted with any criticism. He continued his narrative, relating that only two days of camp were left at this point. After helping Pattie up and making sure she was OK, the newly-formed group decided to meet after lights-out.
That night, they began sharing their negative experiences at the camp and quickly fell into an easy camaraderie. They began relating their life stories and soon realized their backgrounds were very dissimilar—in another setting unlike the close confines of the camp, they would never have started hanging around each other. And before the night was over, the eclectic group had formed an almost-instant bond.
They met the following night as well. Because this was their last night together, the group was under pressure to form an alliance against next year’s enforced campout. They knew two things: one, their parents would almost certainly send them to this terrible place again, and two, they wanted to hold on to their newly formed friendships.
Josh and Steve came up with a plan.
“We all love the outdoors, we all love camping. So, why don’t we just make up our own camp?”
After the others stopped laughing, they realized the two boys were completely serious. Josh came up with the idea of form letters written on fictional camp stationery. Steve added that he was sure he could get a post-office box set up using his dad’s campaign as a cover. With the P.O. box, they could get their parents to send checks to the imaginary camp, and Steve was sure he could get them cashed.
“And that's when Camp Wyanet was born,” Mike finished proudly.
The group was concerned over Mrs. Stayton’s reaction, but she smiled in genuine amusement. For those who had been around her for the last few months, it was the first time they’d seen her happy.
“So, you never went to camp all those years,” she said, almost chuckling.
“Well, not exactly,” replied Mike. “We did go to camp, just not where you thought.”
Mrs. Stayon’s smile was contagious. Mike couldn’t help grinning as he offered more details of their deception.
“We picked Camp Wyanet because it was near the state park. There was a side trail near the entrance that cut straight over to the campgrounds in the state park.”
“I remember several times calling and getting a camp recording. I left a message, and later that day, Josh returned my call from the same number. How did you manage that?”
 “That was easy, Mrs. Stayton,” answered Steve. “We bought one of those cell phones with prepaid minutes and used the number on the flyers we sent out. I had my older cousin record the message so it sounded like an adult.”
“So, you kids used up all that money we parents sent along with you to go to camp. You must have had a grand old time,” Mrs. Stayton commented, as amused as ever.
 “I sure wish I could have thought of something like that when I was that age. I see now why Josh was so close to all of you, even though later he didn’t see all of you that often.”
Mrs. Stayton seemed to grow more reflective. “You must have grown very close spending entire weeks together over six summers.”
She stood up. “Please wait here a moment. I have something for you,” and she walked slowly out of the room.
Mrs. Stayton returned a short time later with an envelope in her right hand. Her eyes were glistening as the sadness fell over her again. The all-too brief-respite Mike’s camp story had offered her was over.
“I have a letter that Josh wrote a few months ago,” Mrs. Stayton offered as she fought to control her emotions.
“He made me promise to bring you all together and give this to you the night before his funeral,” she added so softly, the friends had to strain to hear her words.
With a little more strength in her voice, she continued, “I don’t think I can stay to hear its contents, even if Josh would have wanted me to. I’ll just go on to bed now. Please make yourselves at home.”
Without replying to their good nights and thank yous, she handed the letter to Will and hurried off up the stairs.
Without any ado, Will opened the envelope and began reading the letter, printed in Josh’s distinctive handwriting.
If the Camp Wyanet Gang is reading this, I've already been cremated. I have a final request of you. I've been thinking of all the places people scatter ashes, or how they set urns on a hearth. Nothing like this seems quite right for me. As you all know, Will and I have done some serious caving. We’ve explored most of the caves in the park and several on private land. Other than my music, this has been my greatest passion. So, the spot I've chosen for my final resting place is in the far reaches of a cave in the very park we all used to meet in.
I've put a lot of thought into how and where I would like this to come about. I would like all of us to have one last adventure together as a group. I want you to take my ashes to a cave that Will and I found just before I got sick. You have to remember, Will, it was that place we called Spur Cave.
Will nodded to the others as he lifted his eyes from the page. He remembered the cave well; they had both commented at the time how much the entrance looked like a western cowboy spur. He also recalled that the entrance to the cave was deep in the park, and it had taken them a long day’s hike just to reach it. Josh had become unusually tired that day, and they hadn’t taken much time to explore the cave itself. It wasn’t until later that they learned how ill he was. Afterwards, Will never had the desire to return to the cave to explore it without his friend.
Will suddenly realized that his thoughts had drifted and the others were waiting for him to continue. He returned his attention to the letter and continued reading.
I've been planning this for a while, really not too long after my diagnosis. While I still had my strength, I took camping supplies to the Three Forks campsite. You remember, Will, we’ve used it several times. I carried all the equipment each of you will need to the entrance of the cave.
I asked my mom to have my funeral early in the morning. She must have thought that was odd. Ever since high school, with playing in the bands and all, I seldom got up until the afternoon. But by having the funeral so early, all of you should be able to make the first camp well before dark. Then you can leave early and make it to the cave before noon. I'd like you to place my urn in the cave on a secluded ledge, as far in as you can get in three hours. That way, you can get back out and to the camp before nightfall.
I know this is a lot to ask, but I feel this strange pull that we all need one last adventure together.
Love, Josh