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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1821287
by Joy
Rated: 13+ · Novel · Family · #1821287
2011 NaNo Novel about a town and a young person
A mix of images-my backyard photo and clip art


ROCKY ROAD

Synopsis

Seventeen year-old Madeleine Paige Underwood (Maddie of Rocky Road) dares to cross the fine line between tabloid writing and serious journalism. Because of her reckless actions, she is fired from the school gazette. What will the catalyst be for Maddie to accept the results of her actions and pursue a serious education in journalism?
It is possible that, while digging into other people's secrets, she may uncover a secret hidden inside her own origins. A secret she wouldn't want revealed to anyone.


Chapter 1.

MADELEINE'S JOURNAL - The Mission


I turned on the ignition.

My mother gasped. I glared at her. It was going to be one of those days, again.

"Keep your eyes on the road, Maddie," Mom said, in an attempt to exert control over me, even though the car hadn't moved out of the driveway, yet.

"Are you going to start again, Mom?" I hated it when she huffed and puffed while I practiced driving. I especially hated to do this with her because she held on to the sides of her seat for dear life and shrieked non-stop.

As soon as I said that, her voice turned shrill. "I have to tell you what to do, don't you think? Since you're so easily distracted..."

"I am NOT!" I felt my ears burn, but I tried to control my anger.

"Yes, you are. Instead of looking ahead, you stare at the people on the road," Mom whined.

"People? What? You want me to run over them?" Sarcasm helps when I try to suppress my rage.

"You want to crash into another car?" Her face took on her usual smug look. "Don't waste gas idling. Let's go."

That did it.

"Okay, Mom." I gritted my teeth. "That does it. I don't have to take another one of your f..."

"Watch your mouth!"

We were still on the driveway, and I was fuming. I turned the ignition off, thinking, If only Grandpa could take me on the road...But his eyes are failing, and he doesn't drive anymore. He can't even walk. The doctor says he'll need a wheelchair. Anyway, Mom would object. She is against everything I do with Grandpa.

Mom threw a puzzled look at me. "What now?" she asked.

"I am not doing this," I said. "I give up." I tossed the keys in her lap and exited the car. "I have good legs, and I can walk. I don't need your stinky car."

Thus the last driving practice with my mother ended for good. Still, at the end of the year, I ventured to take the road test.

If only I hadn't stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake during the test, I wouldn't be walking all over Rocky Road, but then, thank God for little mishaps. Maybe one of His angels stared at me, and she (or he) thought, let me give this girl something better than a car. And she did. So now I have proof foot-power is superior to horsepower, especially in North Florida where the weather is your friend...well...most of the time.

Through walking, I learned so much about the town I grew up in, the town of Rocky Road and the secrets its inhabitants bury inside their bosoms. Bosoms? Where did that word come from? Women have bosoms; men have chests, but then, it is the women who hide more in their bosoms. They hide things like secrets, things they are hesitant or afraid to talk about. But I must stop fixating on words and going off in tangent; yet, that's what we writers do, don't we?

Coming back to Rocky Road, instead of my driving-test follies, I would have loved to be able to start writing about my town just like Sinclair Lewis did in Main Street, where a girl looks around her and meditates on: "Walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears." As an aside, I like Sinclair Lewis's style and most of the novels of once-upon-a-time authors. For one thing, I can read them on the net for free.

Once more, back to Rocky Road.

Rocky Road amazes me. I have lived so long in this town, actually all of my seventeen years, and never quite grasped everything that existed in it. Like ice-cream. You enjoy it but never think about what goes in it.

Isn't Rocky Road an ice cream flavor, too, same as Heavenly Hash, Chunky Monkey, or Mud Pie? The Rocky Road ice-cream contains nuts, chocolate, and marshmallows. The town of Rocky Road is flavored with people, gossip and secrets, and it's amassed around a cross.

Miraculous isn't it? Literally, the main roads, Orchard and Pearl Avenues, intersect to form a cross on the map. Perhaps that's why, here, we all carry that cross.

At the intersection of Orchard and Pearl, a fountain stands in the shape of a mermaid holding a pineapple. From the pineapple, water sprouts out. What this fountain means I have no idea, and after asking around, I don't think anyone does either. Surely, our subtropical town and the heat frying the sculptor's brain might have something to do with it. I once dated a goofy dude who worked in the county government. The only information I could eke out of him was that this mermaid is called the "Lady Abundance," and the town keeps getting complaints from its conservative citizens because this lady's dress clings tightly to her body to show what happens when a woman gets constantly drenched with water. Who would but our Rocky Road residents see impropriety in a bronze fountain-statue?

Pearl is the real main street in Rocky road. The original Main Street, at the south end, is narrower and less active, and it runs parallel to Pearl Avenue. The same is true of Ashley, except it is to the north of Pearl.

My family resides in the nicer part of Rocky Road. Grandpa, my mother, and I live in a house on Magnolia that embraces Rocky Road from the east just like the interstate that folds around it from the west. Carmela, one of our snotty neighbors who owns the pizzeria restaurant next to the firehouse calls our area "the elite section" of the town. Such a snob she is! Boy, do I have stories about Carmela! But I'll get to those later.

I lived in Rocky Road all my life and wouldn't want to go away from here. It is difficult to let go of a proverbial place, the proverb being, "Places are God's; placements are the devil's."

After my grandmother passed away three years ago, Mom acting the devil, wanted the two of us move out of Grandpa's house. As usual, I argued with her, and after Grandpa's urging and my tears, Mom agreed to stay.

She didn't have a choice, either. She doesn't make enough money for rent and everything else, by working for Dr. Rodriguez, the Vet on East Ashley. Mom thought just because Grandpa is not my real grandfather, we couldn't have stayed with him after Grandma died.

So what? Isn't Grandpa like her father? After grandma's husband died in Vietnam, Grandpa married my grandmother when my mother was nine-years old. My grandma was as addled as I was over Mom's dislike for Grandpa. She said Grandpa always treated Mom as if she were his own flesh and blood. Poor Grandma, may she rest in peace. The point is, Mom can't appreciate the good in people.

And Mom can be so crude! I can't believe she said Grandpa was "just a stranger," right in front of him while we three argued. Can't she get it, the man is her stepfather, and he cares for her better than her own father would have. All steamed up, I yelled then, "He is not a stranger to me. He is my grandpa!"

Then, Grandpa said, "You see, Lacey, I'm not asking you to do anything special; just that you two live here with me in my old age. The two of you are my family, my only family. Everything I own is Maddie's."

"Maddie doesn't need anything of yours," Mom said, sending a fierce look his way. I don't know how my mother can be so gross.

"I need him," I cried, "Even if I don't need his things. I'll be here with him. If you want to leave all that much, why don't you shoo away alone?"

"Don't talk like that to your mother, Maddie," Grandpa said. Then he turned to Mom. "Please, don't leave, Lacey. I won't bother you; I won't be in your way."

"I'm not leaving!" I said, sobbing. "You can't make me go, Mom. If you do, I'll leave you, too, as soon as I turn eighteen, and you'll never ever see me again."

Rankled, I fled from the living room in tears. While I was running up the stairs, grandpa said softly to Mom, "Lacey, please forget what's eating you." His voice was very low, perhaps on purpose, but I heard him.

Mom couldn't resist my tears or my threat worked, I don't know which, but we stayed. The next day, to make up for her boo-boo, Mom brought home a puppy, an Irish Red Setter. She is Ginger, my pal, two and a half years old now.

But, "Forget what's eating you?" Now, what was that all about?

I wish Mom could see what's good for us and stop bitching, and I wish Grandpa were my real grandfather; then I wouldn't have to fight so hard to stay with him.

What is the matter with my mother anyway? She is friendly enough with all, except Grandpa. The strange thing is, people like her, too.

How can a person who is so good with animals can be such an ingrate to Grandpa? I asked her that one day. First, she looked at me funny, then shrugged, tongue-tied.

I think, on top of her father's death, my being born, my grandpa's long battle with breast cancer and subsequently her death left her screwed-up, but stuff like that happens to everyone. C'est la vie!

She doesn't realize I have it worse. At least, she knows who her father was. To tell the truth, my mother can be extremely annoying.

Mom can't stand it when Grandpa buys gifts for me. Actually my most favorite thing in the world is from Grandpa. It is an Italian charm bracelet I almost never take off. My bracelet is gold with wish charms of sculpted motifs and Swarovski crystals. It doesn't dangle or anything that could annoy a person.

I so love my bracelet that I have to describe it in detail. Like I said, it is gold with seventeen engraved wish charms of sculpted motifs and Swarovski crystals. The charms are embedded in small squares on a flexible-band with a locking clasp. Each wish is represented by a Swarovski crystal. First square says, "My Daughter", second one has the etching of an angel with crystal wings. Third says "When you're sad" and the fourth, "I wish you Joy." Fifth is a butterfly. Sixth says, "When you're lonely": seventh, "I wish you love"; eighth is a heart with red crystals; ninth, "When you're discouraged"; tenth, "I wish you hope"; eleventh is a dove in flight; twelfth, "When your spirit is low"; thirteenth, I wish you beauty; fourteenth is a flowerwith raised gold leaves and the flower of colorful crystals; fifteenth, "When you're troubled"; sixteenth, I wish you peace"; seventeenth, is a big bright star crystal.

In other words, what the bracelet says is: "My daughter, when you're sad, I wish you joy; when you're lonely, I wish you love; when you're discouraged, I wish you hope; when your spirit is low, I wish you beauty; when you're troubled, I wish you peace." Such beautiful words. Each time I touch it, I hear Grandpa's voice saying those things to me, and the thought comforts me.

Mom couldn't say no to Grandpa's giving me my bracelet because my grandmother was living her last days, and Mom didn't want to upset her with an argument in front of her.

After Grandma passed away, Mom turned nastier. One day, grandpa bought a netbook for me. Mom told him, "Madeleine doesn't need this. Please take it back. There's already a computer in the house." She sounded polite enough and made it look like she didn't want to spoil me, but I can swear, if the gift were from one of her friends or her boyfriend, the stinky Gary, she would let me have the netbook.

Incensed, I drilled her, "Why are you so nasty to Grandpa? Don't tell me you did it for my own good because I know better."

Mom's answer: "It is degrading enough we live in his house, and you don't need that netbook."

"Because the netbook is from Grandpa, isn't it? How can you be so disgusting with him and not with anyone else?"

"You're confusing the issue. We're not discussing your Grandpa. We're discussing his present to you, the netbook, which you don't need."

"But I want it even if I don't need it. Because it's from Grandpa."

"Don't argue with me, Madeleine Paige Underwood. You can't have it."

"Why?"

"Because I am your mother, and I said so."

This is her shortcut to any of my arguments. "I am your mother, you have to. Because I said so. A mother's heart knows." Blah, blah, blah...

A year later, Grandpa surprised me with my own laptop. He didn't ask my mother's permission. A month after that, the computer in the living room died, which gave my mother an excuse to snoop into my room under the pretext of using my laptop.

Grandpa Underwood feels like a real grandfather to me; he even gave my mother and me his last name. "On your grandmother's insistence," Mom says. "If it weren't for her, you'd never become an Underwood." Grandpa adopted my mother when he married my grandmother because he didn't want my mother feeling as if she didn't belong with the family. If grandpa wouldn't have adopted her, Mom would be Lacey Yvette Perkins.

God, I so wish my real father could be like Grandpa, but of course my real father is non-existent, thanks to Mom's teen-age promiscuity.

I promised myself I'll never be like her. I'll never go out with a lot of boys; instead, I'll write all the time. I'm not totally convinced though...about the boys part. But then, promising is one thing, being convinced is another.

Talking about convincing, I'm not good at it. If I could convince people, I would have convinced Mr. Patinelli to take me back on the editorial staff of our school's newspaper, The Rocky Road High Gazette. The Gazette used to carry the customary topics such as student council elections, campus issues, social events, and sports.

Since the town of Rocky Road had no newspaper of its own, Mr. Patinelli, the English Teacher, thought our school's newspaper should serve the community, too, and to me, he assigned a column called Rocky Road Trivia, about things in Rocky Road.

Inside the column, I was inserting tidbits masquerading as jokes in between ads, which made , The Rocky Road High Gazette. become the topic of conversation around town. After I started to write the Rocky Road Trivia, the local stores carried it. Soon enough, everyone was buying the paper, even the tourists who stopped overnight at the Holiday Inn Lodge near the Interstate. Our advertising manager was elated, since publishing needs cash even if the journalists like me work pro bono.

But my stardom didn't last long. One day, Mr. Patinelli called me to the teacher's lounge. The conversation between us went something like this:

Mr. Patinelli: "Maddie, do you know the difference between a tabloid and straight news?"

Me: "Yes. Tabloids are more fun."

Mr. Patinelli: "Well, as vivacious as your writing style is, you should stick to the facts...provable facts. Truth is the most important thing in journalism. You are a journalist now, aren't you?"

Me: "Yes, but I'm always telling the truth, even before the truth becomes a fact."

Mr. Patinelli: "Well, try to write what has already happened. Stick to the facts, okay?"

Our second conversation was harsher. Mr. Patinelli told me to write "the facts" in no uncertain terms and put me on notice, his dramatic nature manifesting itself in a mixed spell of chiding and threatening because he was afraid The Rocky Road High Gazette would be sued for something or other.

I don't blame him, but I can't help thriving on odd relationships and funny quips either. Plus, Mr. Patinelli doesn't know the town like I do because he isn't from here. He came to Rocky Road to teach. He doesn't understand the people in town and the certainty that they would have heard of "the facts" already, even before the paper would come off the press. Mr. Patinelli's facts didn't interest Rocky Road folks; they wanted something more, something spicier, which was what I was giving them. But this wasn't meant to be.

A few more columns after that dressing down, and I was finished. No third conversation took place. People don't talk to you much when they are firing you, but Mr. Patinelli, once he calmed down, gave me some advice, since I was "one of his star students" (his words). He said I should keep writing whatever I liked to write, and if I chose to write about the people I knew, I should make their characters fictional by giving them a different name. "To protect yourself," he said.

I might have done that, but I was superlatively upset for getting kicked out of The Rocky Road High Gazette. and especially for being replaced by that nerd James Monroe who goes around bragging he's the namesake of a president. Big deal! James will forever stay a boring nerd, even if he plays up to Mr. Patinelli's criteria. I have always disliked James, ever since he called me a bastard in fourth grade. James Monroe, my replacement...What a joke!

James writes dull articles about water clarification projects and student council meetings. I know what people want to read, and I dare to write it, but no one else has an inkling of the subjects that interest the readers. Not even Mr. Patinelli.

Is it my fault if Mr. Patinelli doesn't have pop culture savvy? He may have literary savvy or any other kind of savvy, but those didn't help him, did they? He turned out to teach high-school to precocious teens wallowing in thrash metal, rap, and whatever weird sound pops out of their i-pods. I bet Mr. Patinelli's salary isn't anything to rave about either. His problem, not mine, but I want to do better with my life.

All this happened last year when I was a junior. After I mulled over it for a few months, I said to myself, "Why are you upset? Look at it this way. You are freed: freed from convention, freed from being criticized, freed to write what you want to write."

So I knew this spiral, college-ruled notebook would serve me well when I held it in my hands at Zwahlen's All Things Paper and Gift. For one thing, Mom would not snoop into it since its cover looks exactly like the note-books I use in school.

I was so excited after I left Zwahlen's that I hopped all over East Pearl, until I got home, and that night, I could hardly sleep. I kept wondering how my stories would look in print after I finished them. I wondered what the bookcover's picture would be like. I wondered if my name Madelaine Paige Underwood would be at the top or the bottom of my book's cover.

But that was only a dream. Who wants to have a book! In a synaptic flash, it dawned on me. I so want to be a tabloid writer.

So, until I can get some desktop publishing software, I'll tell my stories in this notebook, longhand.

Longhand because keeping my stories in the computer is out until I can print and distribute them, and I must remember to delete the stories or hide them in a flash drive before dear Mom discovers them while using my laptop because I don't want to fight with her over this, again.

When I was writing my column in the gazette last year, Mom kept nagging me in her high and mighty tone, "You're embarrassing me and hurting the people in town with your biting one-liners. You are the cause of them seeing me as a failed parent whose daughter engages in cheap gossip. If you are not ashamed of yourself, at least consider not shaming me."

Shame? As if having me without knowing who my father had been was not a worse shame...

I read once that a tabloid writer/photographer hid among the bushes in Central Park in NewYork and took the photos of a famous couple fighting. With the money she earned from that, she bought a house. Then she went on with other jobs and secured her future. True story!

If I were serious enough to write a book, Mr. Patinelli would help me; I bet he would. With the exception that I use fictional names for real characters. He once advised me to do that, but I'm not giving anyone any fictional names. I want the stories sound real with zest. That's why I like tabloid journalism. People read tabloids because they recognize the real people behind the stories. The idea is to do away with secrets in a fun way.

I want my writing to show that the secrets folks hide so devotedly are not so exceptional, and human beings design the plots of their lives as if they do their burial grounds. Plots, secrets, and the ways people shield them...the way they act out their roles assigned to them by themselves...It will be like digging up uranium, completely unprotected from radiation. Now, that's exciting.

Exciting, yes. And I have a secret, too. A secret thrust upon me by others. A secret tightly sealed, though not by me. A secret concerning who my father is, which made people twitch their noses at me and whisper behind my back while I grew up. Actually, it is more than a secret. It's a puzzle. If I could solve this puzzle, I'd shout it for the whole world to hear.

Even Mom doesn't remember who my father was. She told me it didn't matter, and even if she knew who he was, she wouldn't say because none of the guys she went with were any good.

Still, I'm curious to know who my father is. I heard they have a test for that. If I could dig up my mother's boyfriends' names before I was born...

I brought this up at the knitting circle at Zoe's Creative Yarns and Crafts, where I go every Saturday morning, but nobody gave me a straight answer.

I guess my question shocked them. "Did any of you know about my mother before she had me? Like who her boyfriends were?" This might have been too obvious a question, exhibiting my intention, for no one dared to volunteer any information, but the old ones, Wendy and Yamila, raised their eyebrows.

To cover up for the group, Liliane Robeson, the owner of Zoe's, said she didn't know because she moved to Rocky Road only a few years ago, but I might be interested in knowing that she named her store after her deceased mother.

At Zoe's, I'm learning how to knit a vest for Grandpa by actually doing it. Fact is I started to knit because some of the people in town, mostly the women, assemble in or shop at Zoe's, and they have mouths that spill what I like to gather. During this process, however, I ended up enjoying the craft and admiring Liliane's gentle manner.

But even Liliane does not talk much about the past, her past before she came to Rocky Road. I think each person in this town has a Pandora's box under lock and key. Someday, I'll bring those into open. Folks won't like it at first, but that would make them freer. People wouldn't be such sore-faced clams if they had nothing to hide, and they would think twice before pointing their fingers at the less fortunate ones like me who had nothing to do with the circumstances of their birth.

Lately, I've been mulling over writing my own newsletter with a desktop publishing program. It only costs around $150 and I have $75 saved. I can tell Mom it is a school project. I wonder how I'll handle her as things develop. This time it won't be the one liners I wrote in the school gazette. This time I'll write feature-length stories. If I can erase my tracks, I should be all right for a while. I might do the writing in the notebook, but type it up just before the printing and save my gazette in a flash drive, and Mom won't be onto it, at least until someone blabs about it.

The first issue may not be perfect, but I bet, I could talk Hewitt's into selling or just distributing it. Or else, I could go from door to door and leave it like a flyer. I bet once tabloid publishers find out how successful I am, they'll hire me. Wouldn't that be a hoot? I wouldn't even need to go to college.

About college, Mr. Patinelli says he could help me get into a top journalism school like Boston U. or Florida A&M because my grades are good and I can write, but I'm planning to go to the community college in Palm Breeze, the town to the south of Rocky Road, so I can stay with Grandpa.

Whatever may happen, I'll write my true but not-too-factual stories in my notebook. Then I'll put them on my webpage, although practically no one knows in Rocky Road I have a webpage. Truth is, I want them to know. They must know, but that can wait. Until I get the desktop publishing software...


Chapter 2.
Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
Unsent Letters


Sleep has abandoned Nessa again. Her bed is adjacent to the wall where the window is. So she sits up and watches the night. Her view is less than perfect since the fire escape erects metal bars in front of the glass and the street lights aren't very bright, but she can see quite a bit of Rocky Road's business district from her upper story perch since most buildings have only one floor in this area. Opposite the street from Carmela's are Serpico's Pharmacy next to Wells Fargo. Behind those, on Ashley, is the Publix supermarket, but, like a dark chiseled boulder, only its roof is visible, as are the roofs of the schools: Rocky Road Elementary, and next to it, the middle school and Rocky Road high. Funny, how the schools are lined in a row. This town likes to stash its children away in one place like herds in a corral.

Nessa likes where she lives because it is her place, although Carmela owns it. This room is not what her room in her mother's place used to be. It doesn't have the fancy wallpaper, carved wooden chair, the large closet...But this room is all hers, even the adjoined bathroom with the tiny shower, commode, and sink. She needs no other place, no kitchen, no library...She can only read so much anyway, and she eats downstairs in the restaurant for free. Plus, the Laundromat is only two stores away after All Things Paper.


Whatever freedom Nessa felt when she came to Rocky Road is illusory. She had thought, once, that doing what she liked, serving people, watching them gobble up their food, and sharing a few words with them would make her happy. So wrong! How could she be happy with Carmela always guarding her, always unleashing orders, always trying to alter her style...

What's eating Carmela, anyway?

Still, Nessa feels lucky since she doesn't have to pay rent. Carmela is good that way. Only if she wasn't such a mother hen with Vito. Not that Vito listens to her, if at all. Just a few hours ago, Nessa walked in at a scene where the two of them were arguing, really going at it. Finally, Vito stormed off the door, and Carmela turned around and took it out on Nessa.

"Doesn't anyone tell you to turn away from other people's private matters? Why did you leave the restaurant alone?"

The restaurant was closed at the time, but Nessa didn't bring that fact up. No need to rub the lady the wrong way. She can get pretty mean like a snake when someone steps on her tail. On the other hand, she so wanted to scream, to tell Carmela that whom she called the other people was her boyfriend, but she didn't. She wouldn't. If she did, she'd lose what little she had.

She murmured, "Sorry," and went into the restaurant, acting as if she were checking on the tables for the breakfast crowd, which she had readied much earlier. Carmela came after her, her heels tapping on the solid floor. She started sardonically, "Why are you wasting your time with the tables, Nessie? Didn't you see to them earlier?"

"Yes." Nessa nodded. "I wanted to make sure they were spotless."

With a frown, Carmela straightened a fork that lay in a slant near one of the plates, but her voice was soft when she spoke. "Go upstairs and get some sleep. Come morning, I don't want to see you walking around like a zombie."

***

As tough as she wants to act, Carmela is a softie inside...a softie one must not dare cross. This whole town is like Carmela, Nessa thinks. You hate it, then you love it.

Nessa stares out the window, seeing the entire Rocky Road in her mind's eye. She whispers to herself listing a few Rocky Road names:

Vito Moretti, her boyfriend, if one could call him a boyfriend.
Carmela, Vito's mother and the owner of the Italian restaurant and pizzeria and the owner of her apartment on top of the restaurant
Maddie, the wide-eyed, chatty, and nosey high school senior who acts as if Nessa is her best friend.
Maddie's mother Lacey whom Maddie resents.
Liliane Robeson, the owner of Zoe's Creative Yarns and Crafts, the woman Maddie adores.
Hewitt's General Store where one can find just about everything even if in their most basic forms
Edith and Larry Zwahlen, the owners the All Things Paper and Gifts on East Pearl Avenue
Pamela and Granny Doyle, the owners of the flower store who are into witchcraft and things like that. although Pamela would deny it
Sue Mills in the flower store who whines about her boss Pamela's mistreatment
The mailman Joseph Willis and his wife Della
Amanda from the post office whom Joseph Willis calls Amanda the witch,
Seth Hayden who runs Dexter's Hardware Store even after Dexter's death.
The new Bertha's Corner that has all sorts of amulets, bric-a brac, and occult paraphernalia that Sue Mills and Penny were talking about. "An old weird guy runs the place," they said. Nessa will have to go there one of these days. Maybe an amulet or something will bring her better luck.
Bill and Ada at Lame Bill's Grocery where most everyone shops, but they get more than groceries. All talk of town emanates from the whispers in between those isles.
Mr. Chang and his family of The Silver Pheasant, a Chinese take-out and restaurant. Most people sit there and eat. Those who do take out, don't want to be seen with the food bags since no one wants to be accused of being a cooking ignoramus.
Penny, the owner of the Touchless Hair salon. Sweet, funny Penny.
Jean Marie, the clerk at the police station and town jail. So much she has to put up with.
The elderly residents of the apartment complex at West Pearl, each one a walking history.
The firemen from the next door firehouse who adore Carmela, partly for the good food that is mostly free for them.

Nessa thinks she has found a place where she feels she belongs. This may just be a chapter in her life, but she is happy she's here...for now. For now, she has Vito, although she doesn't love him. Does she think she could ever? No way. Vito is unpredictable, way too internal. He has things inside him even he is not aware of...wild, violent, scary things. She especially resents the way he hides their relationship from his mother. Why the masquerade? Would Carmela be embarrassed to see Nessa as Vito's friend? If so, Nessa could easily tell Carmela that she has no long-term intentions on her boy.

She swings her legs off the side of the bed and flips the switch on the lamp at her bedside, on the wobbly night table near her bed. The card table next to it has a few knick-knacks and a library book. She reaches across and touches the book, which she only skims through for she gets bored reading anything from cover to cover. The Ultimate Happiness Prescription How Vito laughed when he saw the title! "No such thing as happiness," he said. "What we can have is just ecstasy lasting a second or two." That is Vito for you, cheapening everything, cheapening life.

Nessa opens the book to a random page. Celebrate and Move on...Yeah, move on...but how?

How? Find a route, a map, an opening of hope for life. Find something without this place, without Vito. Find something with promise.


She puts the book back on the table and reaches for the folder hidden in between her mattress and box spring and pulls out a letter from it. She wrote it to Carmela just before getting in bed and losing sleep. Even while writing the letter, she knew she'd never send it. Nessa's letters are her own. She writes them to cope with life.

She reads the letter.

Dear Boss-Lady,

I wish I could send you this letter for what I am going to say is the real absolute truth. But I won't. I also wish I could tell your cunt-sniffing kid Vito what I really feel about him, but I can't do that either. Or maybe I can but I won't, since he is just so good in the sack, but you don't know that, do you?

You don't know that Vito comes, sneaking around, to my room at the top of the restaurant, mostly after you close up everything and go home. Once, however, you almost found out.

We slept late one morning and you came to my door, yelling why I wasn't up to mind the business. Vito slid way below the covers while I grabbed his things and threw them under the bed. Then I put my clothes on top of the bed so he wouldn't be caught.

All that for nothing... When I opened the door and asked you in, you took one look into the room and frowned, but stayed outside and told me to get dressed and get my butt downstairs ASAP.

You frowned because my room was a mess, and you abhor disorder, but it wasn't the mess I made. Your drunk son makes all the mess in my room, throwing things around as if confetti. Surely, I couldn't tell you that.

I admit you can be nice in some ways. Rather than pay for someone to watch the store at night, you let me have the room for free. I guess this arrangement works both ways. Maybe more toward my way. Who'd rob any place in this town! Actually, you don't even have to lock up the place.

I know you're mad at me for chatting with the customers, but do you ever realize they come to your restaurant because of our friendliness? Not just mine of course, yours too, as you treat customers well, especially the firemen and overly so. My treatment of them is more reserved because if they sense any leniency on my part, your firemen would pinch my butt.

They wouldn't do that to you because you are the cool one, an indulgent mama figure with patience whereas I do the humdrum work and act the airhead. Maybe that's why you look down upon me.

"Nessie clear this table...Nessie hurry up with the salads...Nessie do this...Nessie do that..." I know why you call me Nessie, too, like I am that Scottish monster of the lake.

Think! How would you ever run this place without me or Bettie, or Gina, or Andy?

Then you turn around all the way and say that I am irreplaceable because you can trust me, because I work hard and I am creative. Honestly speaking, I don't like to work all that much, but I do work for the customers, and I do like to make a difference in the service in little ways, so I get the better tips. Vito helps of course, since he does the books. He gives me the edge when does them, although I didn't ask him to, but it helps. So I take what I can get.

If I didn't, I'd have to go live with my mom in Palm Breeze, which I wouldn't be able to bear. I still...live there technically. Some of my things are in her house, and I go there on my "very few days off." This has nothing to do with you. It is me telling Ma I have little vacation time even though you let me have more days off.

Do you know how I spend my free time? Mostly I'm with Vito. As I said he is good in the sack, and I do love sex. Second is, you let me eat here and I don't have to spend money on food. As soon as I save enough, I'll go back to school. I promised myself to study something like psychology. Once I read a self-help book from beginning to end, thinking maybe it could help me and maybe I could somehow get men not to leave their children, as my father did. My father who is not a father. At least, unlike Maddie, I know who he is. Yet, what good does it do, knowing who your father is if he's on the lam from you?

"So, thanks for the seed, Dad," I should tell him, "The seed you've sown into my mother, then took off."

Do you know why I always fool around men's stores at the mall in Palm Breeze when I go there to visit Mom? You'd never guess.

I leave messages in men's clothes. I don't know if it will help any other child, but I consider it my contribution. Some of those messages are long; some of them are short, but what they basically say is, "If you have a child, please don't desert her," or something like "Take care of your children."

I do this because I read in a magazine that subliminals work; although, my messages are not all that subliminal.

And you say my head is in the clouds, Carmela. No, my head is where it should be, even if I have to climb the fire escape to get some fresh air in this dump or get down from the fire escape when you lock up the entrances downstairs.

Coming to Vito, maybe he wouldn't be such a loser-drunk if you and his father had paid more attention to him. Did you ever think of that? Did you ever pay attention to how creative he is? Did you know he can draw like an artist? Did you know he is the best refinisher at the furniture warehouse?

No, you don't, and then, you are always so know-it-all, so cool! I mean, you are always so calculating about everything...it kills me!

Do you know why Vito is the way he is? Well, that is one thing I know and you don't. Maybe he witnessed something that you avoided in your coolness. Maybe he is feeling guilty about his father's death, another thing that escapes you. And you still tell me, "The world passes you by, Nessie."

In reality, the world passes you by, Carmela, since you can't see what's eating up your son. Neither can you see that the florist Pammy, the woman you think is a fine lady, is not. She, with the bird's-nest-wiry hair, has been running after Vito, although he is so much younger than her.

You know what you need, Carmela? You need to open your eyes. You need to open up. You need to go dancing, but of course you won't, because you don't know how to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. To you, the world is a one big place that needs organizing in a strategic way so no one lets loose. I hate that about you.

I also hate it when you ask so many personal questions? What's it to you if I don't like living with Ma? I like my mother just fine, but I don't want to live with her, okay? And I didn't like it when you scolded me in front of Adam and Matt.

Then, it is not just me. You do that with everyone, asking them questions whether they want to answer you or not. You are worse than Maddie. Your nosiness is exasperating.

The firemen, however, love it. "Thank you for caring, Carmela!" Mike Curt, Matt, Bob, Adam, Oliver, David, Dennis...the whole crew! But especially Mike.

I bet you don't know about Oliver. You might think good old Ollie has a thing for you even though you insist you are his friend. Yeah, your friend. That may be true. But if you think otherwise, you are dreaming.

Oliver is after Liliane. Don't ask me how I found that out. Easy! I saw them having dinner by the beach at Shrimper Joe's in Broadport. Vito saw them, too, and we escaped before they saw us.

Yeah, talking about Lil, you get upset when she talks about the inequality of sexes. But open your eyes. It exists. If it didn't, how come my mom stayed with me and my dad, deep down inside him, never accepted the fact that I existed? Of course, I can't argue that with you, with you being my boss and all, but it kills me that, even though you are a woman, you are not on our side. Even Pammy defends women, our side, being the Medusa that she is.

Another thing. When your grand children come to visit, you always assume I'll automatically babysit when you take off in your Camry "to run errands." I may be living in your dump of a room on top of the restaurant but I, too, have a life. Even if some of it is with your son, which you know nothing about...I hope.

In a weird way, I like Vito. Mind you, I'm not in love; you needn't worry. Just like I said, he is good in the sack. But what I need and what he is after are two different matters. You know, he asked me to elope. He wants me to leave everything and pack up and go with him away from you, away from this town, away from what has been bugging him.

Don't worry, I'm going nowhere with your drunk kid even though he's so handsome and you know...the sack thing. I told Vito we can be together here just as well. One reason is, I have my doubts about you. I don't think, after this boss-waitress thing, a family relationship would work between us. I don't think I could take so much of your perfection 24/7 all through my life either.

Enough for the time being, Carmela. Now I'll have to hide this letter.

Nessa


One thing about Nessa, she doesn't let today become get mixed up with her future. She doesn't care for memories; they belong in garbage bins anyway. As they are, their residues stink. And tomorrow? Who knows about tomorrow? Yet, tomorrow is hope, but she won't let hope mess up her present. Not until she sees its dim light somewhere on the horizon.

She works. She has her own place, This is all she needs. And she has Vito, the damaged boy in a young man's body. Then, writing the letter surely made her feel better. She feels calmer now. So calm, she could even kiss Carmela...Heck, no. She grins. Wouldn't that be a show?

She gets back in bed, but leaves the curtain open. She'll gaze into the dark sky carrying traces of light from the street lamp, then she'll fall asleep, feeling lucky for having a sky to look up to, a sky of hope.

Chapter 3

Maddie's Journal - Nessa


Nessa really wrote that letter to Carmela; I'm not kidding. You see, I made friends with Nessa to snoop into Carmela's since that place is the hub of this town. People assemble there like hogs around a hog feeder.

No, I'm not being disrespectful to humankind, although my mother insists I am. Carmela's dining room looks like a trough with tables on both sides of a tunnel-shaped eating area, except, on days when the place is so crowded that Carmela tells Nessa to fold aside the accordion doors to the two rooms on the left that she reserves for parties. That snob of a woman, Carmela, says, "It's the ambiance and the ethnic authenticity," when she brags about her restaurant, just because of the murals on its walls and its round tables with red-linen tablecloths. In a roundabout way, she may be right. I have to admit that the stained-glass lamps that hang over the tables make me think of thousands things, like lives cut apart and glued together to let the light shine through them. I like anything if light shines through it.

Anyhow, back to Nessa and me. One Tuesday afternoon, when I knew Nessa would be at Vito's because she told me that earlier, I climbed up the fire escape to her room. I wasn't concerned about anyone seeing me because everyone knew Nessa and I were friends, and I sometimes climbed up the fire escape to visit her. I could, I guess, "use the downstairs side door like a normal human being" (Carmela's words), but then, I am not the texting, Jersey-Shore-fan type of a teen-ager who people think is the normal way to be.

Sure enough, when I knocked on the glass, Nessa wasn't there. I lifted up the bottom of the double-hung window that Nessa leaves open, so she can go in and out as she pleases. I hopped in and poked and pried inside her room. Her place was okay, clean but less orderly than mine, and I saw nothing suspicious at first glance.

I searched inside her closet and under her bed...nothing. When I walked past her bed, something pointy like a needle's tip hit the side of my knee. I felt the pillow and the sheets. Everything was smooth on top, but when I lifted the quilt, I noticed a line, an edge of something on the side of the bed. Then I saw it; a manila folder holding a bunch of papers with notes and unsent letters inside. It lay flattened in-between her mattress and boxspring. Come on Nessa, be more creative in hiding things, I thought. With a feeling resembling elation, I glimpsed her papers. Some were bills or memos she wrote to remind herself to do some chores for Carmela, but here and there, she had penned short notes and unsent letters to unburden herself.

Quite a few of those unsent letters were written to her father. I didn't know she hurt that much over him. Still, not as much as I do over my father. At least, she has a father for whom to feel the hurt.

Then, a thought hit me. Why was my mother hiding the truth of my father from me? Was it because he was someone who could hurt me or her? A mobster? No way. I couldn't see her with a mobster. Maybe it was because my father is a movie star? Tom Cruise? Mel Gibson? George Clooney? I know she likes George Clooney. Or another very important person like a senator, a governor, a congressman? Why not, with the way they are? Don't most of the politicians have bastard children, and when found out, aren't their careers ruined? Mom must be protecting such a person. Even so, whoever he is, whoever he was, I'd like to know.

I left things in the proper order that I found them. I didn't want Nessa to catch on to the fact that I was learning things about her as our friendship grew. Plus, I don't want to lose her friendship. I have friends from school, but they are not people I'd care to hang out with.

The thing about Nessa, she doesn't make up stories. She only tells white lies when it fits her purpose. I have waited for her to come up with a far-out tale about this or that in her life, but not Nessa. In contrast, most humans make up such imaginative stories, if they think you know only a little about them.

On my way out, just as soon as I stepped off the fire-escape, I saw Carmela coming in. "Good exercise!" I pointed to the fire-escape and grinned, feeling a bit guilty.

This time, she didn't throw a nasty remark at me about my using the fire-escape. Funny, isn't it! If you are good at it, people will believe the illusions you create about yourself, and they'll accept your quirks.

"Is she in there?" Carmela asked curtly.

"Nessa? No, she must be at her mother's. I forgot today was her day off." Clutching the strap of my backpack, I started to walk away.

"No, she isn't at her mother's." Carmela's voice had such a certainty and strength in it that I turned to her again. Did she find out about Vito and Nessa?

"I asked her to be here for the evening crowd," Carmela continued. "Bettie has the flu. We're short-handed."

"Oh, sorry. She must be shopping then. I remember now; it's probably socks. She had said she needed socks."

"Socks?" Carmela's face projected incredulity.

I nodded, then waved at her instead of saying good-bye.

As soon as I turned the corner, I ran to buy a pair of socks from Hewitt's, the general store of Rocky Road. Then I raced to the Condo complex where Vito lived. Just in time, too. Nessa was coming out of the back door of the building. I handed her the shopping bag with the socks in it, barely catching my breath.

"I forgot you were here. I went to see you and ran into Carmela. She may be suspecting something. I told her I forgot you were going to buy socks. So, here." I handed her the package.

"Oh, Maddie!" Nessa hugged me. "You shouldn't go to so much trouble, but thanks. Big, big thanks!"

Maybe Nessa is a real friend. Maybe I didn't reach to her just to get under her head or to pry into Carmela's business. Maybe Nessa liked writing just like me; only she wasn't aware that she did.

She has those unsent letters, doesn't she? Who else would write unsent letters and reminders to herself, reminders of what one wants out of life and how she gets shortchanged. Maybe I am not as alone as I think I am.

.On the way home, I remembered how, one day, Nessa and I sat and chatted on the landing of the fire escape. Nessa is a few years older than me, but she has no clue how this town works. At that time, she had moved to Rocky road only a couple of months ago.
We said we were friends then, but actually, we were trying each other out. It seems I am always trying people out, but that's beside the point.

Anyway, I told her how I got fired from the school gazette with Mr. Patinelli backstabbing me. Nessa, looked at me curiously, raked her hair with her hand, then said in a hesitant voice as if fearing her own words, ""You know, you might try to look at the situation from a different angle. Maybe he wants you do much better than that."

I shrugged, and offered her a piece of candy from the candy bag in my hand. I watched her as she popped the Jolly Rancher in her mouth, the cinnamon fire kind, and rolled it around her cheeks. She frowned a little, and her right cheek bulged. Such a tiny piece of candy causing such a big bulge! I wondered why she wasn't crunching it. I put the last piece in the bag in my mouth, bit into it, and rolled the pieces around with my tongue. Then, I crushed the empty cellophane bag and sent it down sailing in the air, at the stores in a row like soldiers ready to attack.

So, determined to make my point, I explained. "What is wrong with a little spice in life? Patinelli is mad at me because I told him I wanted to write for tabloids. He gave me a big lecture on journalistic non-fiction. He says that the truth must be based on facts. He told me what I called truth was my projected truth, which wasn't the truth."

Nessa said, "Well, maybe he thought the school would be blamed...and you know,,, he has to answer the school board and all..."

Now I had to tell her. I said, ". "Did he have to fire me from the gazette and give my column to that bully James? The one person I hated the most?"

"Oh, to someone you hated? But why? Why did you hate that boy, Maddie?" She was staring at me with her big blue eyes, but there was no bulge or candy in her mouth. I hadn't even caught her spit it out. Did she swallow the Jolly Rancher?

Anyway, I couldn't bear it if she thought I was afraid of the truth. I am never afraid of the truth. So I answered her with the truth. "He kept calling me names when we were in fourth grade."

"Boys will do that," she said. "Don't be so sensitive. That was how many, seven or eight years ago, wasn't it?"

"He called me a bastard," I blurted out. "It hurt because it is true. Then the whole class started chanting it, 'Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!' until the teacher stopped them." My voice shook and I did, too.

Embarrassed, I turned my head away and looked across the street at Serpico's Pharmacy. A couple, Larry zwahlen and his were going in there. My mind wandered. Did one of them have a fatal illness? Now that would make a great story, at least a great tidbit, but Nessa was speaking.

"My father left my mother and me, too. I grew up without him."

I was relieved to find my regular voice when I answered. "It's not so bad, Nessa. At least you know who he is."

"But that didn't help, did it?" She sounded broken, too.

"Still, there's no mystery in your life that eats at you."

I felt her arm across my shoulder. This tiny gesture made me feel lighter somehow. I thought maybe Nessa could be my friend. A friend I could trust. Unlike all other friendships that stayed on the surface.

"Let's go inside," Nessa said. "I'll find us something to drink. Is Pepsi okay with you?"

I nodded, and we slid through the window into her room.

Chapter 4
Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
THE LONER


His eyes are stones lying in weeds tangled, knotted. Once those eyes were shining pearls; now desolate, they stare at the rim of his beer mug for a missing thing, a thing he cannot remember what. Or so, it seems to Nessa.

He folds his hands apprehensively as he sits on the bar stool without moving as if tied by a tight seatbelt. He must be recalling some residue of words that once hurt but do not mean much anymore. Nessa can tell from the way he hangs his head. His ration of magic must be used up; any crumb left of it is only useful to feed the blackhole inside him. Suddenly, he yawns and yawns, then looks up around him at the other people, at her.

At the table near the window --its glass so dark at night that it could serve as a mirror--, a couple sit. Nessa knows who they are. The woman absentmindedly plays with the strand of hair that keeps falling in front of her eyes. The man watches her, breathing deeply and easily. They've finished eating and their large, square plates, the latest fashion in eateries, display a jumble of scraps like careless artists' overused palettes.

On the face of it, their past is unknown. Probably, once they possessed or dreamt of a child or two, a mutt of a dog adopted from the pound, window boxes full of petunias in spring, and warm, caring nights. On the face of it, it is just the two of them now, stripped of thorns but weary, and they've trekked the last road. On the face of it, they don't know what to do with each other before the lights go off.

Yet, the lights dance on Nessa who hops from table to table, hauling fancy drinks, plates and plates of things, and dirty dishes. She feels the loner's eyes on her head, her hair, her body. She shudders. But she must not let the customers catch on that she is afraid of something, especially the loner.

"My friends," Nessa addresses the couple for she knows them as regulars, "Are you sure you don't want any dessert or coffee?"

"I couldn't eat a thing; I'm too full, but thank you," says the woman, rubbing her protruding stomach.

The man puts up his hand. "If I drink coffee, I lose sleep. May we have the check, please?"

Nessa nods. "In a minute. I'll be right up." She flips her hair coolly and smiles at the loner who is watching them. Now, why did she do that? Wouldn't her smile encourage him more?

The loner must have it in his blood this frozen thing, this feeling bad thing, much more intoxicating than any mug of beer. She wonders if she could be his cure, if she could take him with her to her apartment, but then gives up, thinking, "Probably Jack the Ripper was a loner, too."

And she could be right.


After hours, she goes shopping. She loves shopping. She doesn't buy junk but what she buys is of good value. She wishes she could afford some nice jewelry, a bracelet maybe, like the one her friend Maddie wears, a bracelet given to much-appreciated daughters. Maddie has a grandfather who appreciates her; Nessa has nobody, except her mother who is a tightwad and Vito. Vito is so afraid of his mother that he doesn't even look her way when Carmela is around.

Nessa wouldn't accept it if Vito bought her anything expensive, anyhow. She doesn't want to give him ideas of a forever relationship. She would have loved though, if her father showed up once in a while or if she had an uncle, even a distant one, or a grandfather. Any man would do who would care for her, without wanting something from her in return, without giving a hoot for sexual favors or her beauty.

Nessa is on the street, in front of the restaurant now, but she has a horrible feeling, a feeling of being observed. She remembers the loner. She looks around but spots no one. It must be my nerves, she thinks.

She tries to focus on something else. Something that would take her mind off her jumpiness. Something like the restaurant work and Carmela. Did she set the tables for the next day? Was everything perfect the way Carmela exacts from her? She frowns. There's no such thing as pleasing Carmela.

Carmela's scowl, the way she wrinkled her forehead, when she peeked into her room after Nessa hid Vito in her closet makes Nessa shiver now. The scowl had to be for the way her room was upside down, and to tell the truth, it was even below her own standards. In a way, this helped Nessa. Had her room been tidy, Carmela could have come in and somehow seen Vito there. Then all hell would break loose.

All the same. The room is Carmela's, and it is up to Nessa to keep it at least halfway presentable, Vito or no Vito. She understands that.


Nessa enters the building from the side door, locks up after herself, and carries the few packages she has in her hand, up the stairs.

First thing she does is to make her bed, as her mother always told her in a belittling tone. "Make your bed first, and pick up the large areas. This will make the place look neater and the task will not discourage you. That is, if you can understand human talk."

Nessa shrugs. Her mother's insults don't matter. Nessa doesn't live with her anymore, and she can do for herself what she wouldn't do for her mother.

She goes to the closet, empties the bottom, dusts the floor and straightens a few hangers. Then, she brings the shoes lying on the floor in the middle of the room to the shoe rack hanging at the back door of the closet. Something rattles downstairs. Are the cooks still there?

No way, she didn't see anyone when she came in. She hesitates, then picks the baseball bat Vito gave her when she told him she felt weird being alone. She listens again. Yes, she clearly hears it this time.

Grasping the bat in her right hand, she walks down the stairs. As soon as she steps to the back of the restaurant, she hits the lights. Then she switches on every lamp downstairs. No one.

The restaurant looks as it should. Red cushions glistening on wood chairs, tables set for the breakfast crowd, and lights overhead shining on the polished floor, one Nessa polished after the closing. It isn't in her job description, but she does it anyway since the cleaning crew has run into a snag with a bridal shower and a stag party.

She knows it is for these little extras Carmela keeps her. She peeks into the kitchen and feels foolish. Nobody but her is in the building. Maybe the building is settling. Jeez, I am turning into a weirdo!

She leaves the light up front as Carmela does, switches off the others and trudges up the stairs, wondering why she has been so jittery lately.

Is this the post-trauma of having to hide Vito under the covers and heaps of clothes on her bed with Carmela peeking in through the door? Yes, it must be. Definitely, that is it. She has to stop being so self-conscious. She needs to be careful but not high-strung like this. No one will heap riches on her just because she is pretty. Men enjoy looking at her, but they would probably treat her worse than cattle, should anyone of them hook up with her. She needs to keep her head about her and work even harder.

She's on her own.

She reenters her room and examines it. It does look tidy, not showroom tidy, but tidy enough by her standards, even by Carmela's standards.

She leans the bat on the wall next to her bed. It will be another long day tomorrow. She'll have to work from morning till night, under Carmela's dissecting eyes.

Then, for a few days, Vito won't be here either. Carmela sent him to New York to help someone in her family move someplace else. Why can't people handle their own things, like moving, by themselves?

When Vito is here, Nessa isn't scared. But then, who'd keep a man because she's scared of being alone? She knows she's using Vito, not only for him as a guard but for sex, too. Yet, she doesn't mind this situation because it is only temporary. She needs to feel safe; she needs someone to hold her at nights, at least some nights.

She thinks of the loner's eyes on her. Shivering with fear, she pulls the sheets over her head. Then she throws them off and reaches for the bat, placing it near her on the bed. She holds the bat tightly.

She sleeps until morning with her hand wound tightly around the bat.

Chapter 5
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
Issue 2, Tale: 2
Ghostly Favors


When insomnia entered with old age, Hugh Latimer Matthews made the most of it. He read half the night, focusing his sight on the words that rushed about like ants on each page. He read everything he could find in The Rocky Road Library. Then, what wasn't there he bought or ordered from the small bookstore in town.

He thought he was living the best part of his life, reading when he wanted to, fooling around in his small yard with his plants, or going for walks on the bank of the river in the shadow of tall trees native to North Florida with kudzu hanging from them like Rapunzel's hair. His cabin was close to the river, built by hand by a logger several decades ago. Latimer had acquired it after Bertha, the shrew, abandoned him. A shrew, she was, certainly, but she was such a looker, too. Latimer still sighed when he thought of her shapely face, her long blond hair that curled at the ends, and the way she walked, her slim figure swaying like a tall cedar in the wind. But life with Bertha wasn't meant to be for she thought she was meant for a better life, and not the one with Latimer.

Since Latimer did not need the dead weight of the house he had lived in with Bertha, he didn't put up a fight over it, thinking, Good riddance to both, but Bertha had moved away almost immediately, letting the real estate broker sell it in her absence. On top of her constant nagging, the immediate selling of Latimer's house became the last hand she dealt him, the last thing that had really made her a shrew in Latimer's eyes even if her sylphlike image remained etched in his mind.

He didn't marry again after Bertha. The few women he dated every now and then he couldn't connect with, for making a connection took too much out of a guy.

All Latimer had now was this cabin, his social security checks, and the numbing silence of the open country. Not many people lived around him, on account of the large preserve teeming with alligators, large birds, nasty snakes, and a few pythons some irresponsible northerners brought and dumped, messing up the ecosystem of the place. Within a mile near the preserve, stretched the state park, housing a couple of tiny vacation cottages rarely used by their owners and the state-built dwellings of the groundskeepers.

On the days Latimer drove his pick-up to town, he sometimes ran into Dexter, his old schoolmate and somewhat of a rival, who was, truthfully speaking, a royal pain in the ass. Dexter had leased his one bedroom apartment on top of the hardware store to a single man and had moved to the condo complex. Now he had become just another old grump all alone in the world...

One day, while Latimer was purchasing his weekly provisions, Dexter toddled into Bill's Grocery. Thank God, Latimer was finished with his shopping and was about to pay for his purchases at the register.

Latimer looked directly into the shopping cart to avoid Dexter. Dexter made him recall the unpleasant times in his life. Especially the time before the divorce when Bertha was with him and she yakked and yakked with Dexter in the middle of the fresh fruits section. When Latimer had finally unglued her from Dexter, Dexter had winked and said, "This one, too, is a goner Lati," pointing at Bertha. Latimer had always hated it when Dexter called him Lati, just as much as he hated Bertha's shrill "Hugh!" when she was about to yell at Latimer.

"If you ask me, Dexter's getting a little funny in the head," Jeanie at the register whispered.

"Nothing new," Latimer replied in a loud voice. "He's been like that since he was a kid."

"Come on, Latimer," Jeanie glanced at him sideways as she rang the register with the agility of a piano player. "He operated four stores, down by the Elks Lodge. Are you forgetting?"

Latimer scowled. "Nope, it's the remembering that pains me."


And Latimer remembered. He remembered how Dexter always turned on everybody in a mean way, but especially on Latimer, playing tricks and all. And worse yet, what he came up with, most of the time, were more than tricks. Dexter prowled around Latimer like a red-eyed fox with killing on his mind.

In their grade-school years, Dexter put pebbles in Latimer's lunch, ripped his homework, and tattled on him for every little thing he'd done. While in their teens and later, Dexter lured away any girl Latimer dated, especially Eileen May, wrapped in her crimson coat with the metal buttons, her full rouged mouth sparkling like cherries in season, and her chestnut-brown hair wound up in strong thick braids into a roll on top of her head.

Latimer once ran into Eileen May two years after she married Dexter. She emerged from the butcher's, with her chopped-up-hair sticking from under a baseball cap. Her face looked different, thinner, and without color. She acknowledged Latimer with a pasted grin and a nod, then rushed into the passenger side of a blue Ford. Latimer looked in to see Dexter, but he spotted another woman in the driver's seat, older and chubbier. A month or so after that, Bertha told Latimer Eileen May left Dexter for another woman after three years of marriage.

Latimer disliked Dexter with gusto, for turning Eileen May into a lesbian and for all else Dexter did to him, so much so that he crossed the road to the opposite side when he saw him on the street. He knew Dexter would notice this. Dexter always noticed Latimer giving him the cold shoulder because Dexter always stopped and stared at him blankly, moving his lips in and out, and he shook his head before going his way.

People said Dexter lost it after his parents' demise, after his parents were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning from the gas stove. This tragedy made Dexter take to the streets for a while. During that time, at nights, he invited himself into the houses with their lights on and crashed into church parties, to tell off-color jokes to the ladies.

After a year or so and a short stay in an out-of-town facility, Dexter grasped at life as if he were reformed. Surely, Latimer didn't believe in his recovery.

But using his inheritance, Dexter opened a store, then labored and toiled to establish and operate three more stores successfully. Latimer watched him from afar and thought, I bet he's doing this for Bertha's sake, so she leaves me, since Bertha had taken to lashing at Latimer with cruel words after Dexter's reformation.

Even though Latimer and Bertha did not socialize with Dexter, the woman compared him to Dexter unfavorably. Such an unfair woman Bertha was!

Owning and managing four stores, however, was a big event in a small town, and people soon forgot Dexter's sharky ways, and revered him for providing the community with lucrative jobs, if one could count minimal wage as being lucrative. But Latimer didn't forget...he wouldn't...not after Eileen May and Bertha.

Bertha, the only oddball who called him Hugh, pronouncing it like eeeeww. After Bertha, Latimer hated the name Hugh and cut off ties with anyone who addressed him as Hugh.

At first, Latimer couldn't figure out which hole Bertha had disappeared into, and neither did he care. Only when a deputy served him the divorce papers, he found out Bertha was living with her sister and not Dexter. Delighted at the news, Latimer let Bertha have his hefty bank account and the house in Rocky Road where they had lived all their six years together.


Latimer shook his head at his own reminiscences. Running into Dexter had made him recall all the unpleasant stuff. Such a long time ago! Almost forty years... As he thought that, he felt a few drops on his face. He wasn't crying like a baby, was he? "You're losing it, old geezer," he chided himself under his breath and started putting the grocery bags in the bed of his truck. After he pulled the tarp over them, the rain started to come down in sudden streaks.

He laughed out loud. It wasn't him crying over spilt milk; it was the rain. He sure would have hated himself if he had shed any tears. He looked up, thinking, Thank you, Clouds! Although it had gotten so dark that the clouds were barely visible.

He hopped into the driver's seat and turned on the ignition. When he turned the corner half a mile ahead, he heard a squeal of brakes and the crunch of metal on asphalt. He slowed down and looked out from the side mirrors, but he didn't see anything. "Someone must've skidded," he murmured and continued on his way into the torrent, with the wipers beating hard against the windshield of the truck.


After he drove away from downtown to the outskirts of Rocky Road, he thought he heard a moan. What was that? Had he ran over an animal that had crept on the road from the woods? He checked on the rearview mirror, nothing. Except the rain was coming down hard on the asphalt and splashing up, and he couldn't spot anything that looked like a small carcass. What he could barely see was the tarp covering the bed of his truck. It flapped and heaved up and down. "Must be the damn wind," he mumbled and kept on driving.

When Latimer pulled up into his yard and set the hand brake, the rain was flowing over everything in sheets. He struggled into his raincoat and dashed out of the truck's cab, running toward the back to the truck's bed. The rain roared on him, and he scolded himself internally for telling Jeanie to put his groceries in paper bags. Since the wind had ripped the corner of the tarp on the truck bed, everything had to have soaked in there.

When he lifted his head up to pull down the latch, lightning struck behind him. He turned around to see the bolt entering the ground. The fallen branches on the ground where it struck were steaming up. Uttering a curse, he turned to the truck and lifted the edge of the tarp to reach to his groceries.

What the...The hair on the back of Latimer's neck stood up as if he had seen a pit viper ready to attack. He felt a rapid shuddering in his legs. Dexter lay curled in the truck bed behind the grocery bags, his thick glasses steaming and hiding his eyes. He sat up with a throaty snort when Latimer yanked the plastic to the side.

"Them short beds ain't good for lying in. You shoulda git you'self a long bed truck, Lati." He jumped down almost knocking Latimer to the ground with him.

"Whoa..." Latimer panted, shaking like a stiff wire struck with a stick and his own loud breath and the hiss of his nostrils annoying him just as much as the sight of Dexter..

The lightning cracked again, its sudden bluish flash reflecting on the trees around them and the outside walls of the cabin.

"Ain't no time to get fresh air," Dexter crowed. "Ain't you gonna invite me in?"

Latimer couldn't leave this imbecile in the middle of the storm, could he! On the other hand, letting the storm handle Dexter wouldn't be such a bad idea, but...

"Follow me." Latimer took two bags, one in each arm, and rushed up the steps.

Dexter hobbled after him, carrying the third bag.

With a feeling of unease, Latimer set the bags on the kitchen counter. Dexter followed his example.

"Ain't it odd the bags are not wet or ripped?" Latimer mumbled to himself.

"I kept them dry for you, Lati."

Latimer didn't thank him. Instead he asked, "How'd you manage to get under the tarp? I had it latched on tight."

"It was the wind. Lati. So weird, y'know. I saw you across the street getting in your truck. Next minute a big van zigzags and wham. Can't tell what 'appened. I found myself running after your truck. Then the wind blew open the tarp, and I sneaked in."

"Yeah, sure...the wind..." Latimer said, dumbstruck at the way he, Latimer, was being nice to his lifelong rival than at Dexter's explanation of how he ended up in his truck's bed. But then, there was nothing left for contention now. Sure enough, Dexter was not all there as Jeanie had mentioned. "Let me get the fire going'...so we dry off," Latimer continued.

You're a good host, Lati..."

Latimer didn't answer. He shuffled past Dexter and set to the task of making a fire in the fireplace.

Dexter sniffed the air warily like a hound dog and sat in the rocking chair by the fireplace. "At the end, I expected we'd meet, Lati."

Latimer took a step back from the fireplace. "Yeah? What'd you mean by that?"

"Easy...I meant nothin' much. Except there'd be peace between us at the end."

"Some storm..." Latimer said, changing the subject, but he thought, I'd have turned around and taken you right back if it weren't for the storm, . Then slowly he moved back, watching the flames shoot up around the logs. Dexter, too, was staring at the flames with his head tilted to the left and his lips stretched halfway between a grimace and a grin.

Latimer pulled up a wooden chair behind him. As he sat down, he noticed the water drip out of Dexter's clothes. "Let me give you dry duds. We can hang those up."

"You think? Look'it that...I didn't even notice."

He's really lost it, Latimer thought. He's soaked but doesn't feel it.


A little later, while the storm squealed and the noise outside got muffled and excited alternately, they sat down to have a chili dinner with beer. Latimer saw Dexter dripping his food all over him, but he didn't mind even though it was his best shirt he'd loaned to Dexter.

"Sure is dandy what you got for yourself here, Lati," Dexter said. "You started anew, for real."

"Yup, gives me time for myself, away from town."

"Away from Bertha, the old girl. Huh?"

"Her and whatever else." Latimer shifted on his chair uneasily. Why does Dexter's eyes sparkle so when he mentions that shrew? Time to change the subject. "But everything has been great here, everything. Good or bad."

"You know you can't stay in any place forever."

"Till I croak, I can." Latimer stood up. "Are you done with your plate?"


Although Latimer offered Dexter his own bed, Dexter said he preferred to sleep on the cot and not in the living room, but in the smaller storage room. As Latimer pulled up the cot and together they set the sheets on it, Dexter asked: "Can't believe you got so many books, Lati. What do you do with them? Make fire?"

"I'd never set fire to a book. I read them, every night, and during the day, too, if I fancy it."

"Never knew that about you, Lati." Dexter lifted his eyes from the pillowcase into which he was trying to push the pillow. He stared at Latimer. "Never thought you were the readin' kind."

"Makes time pass, so I don't feel it passing. I don't feel old when I read, especially in the middle of the night."

Dexter kept his gaze on Latimer like something unchangeable. For a minute, Latimer thought Dexter had the expression of a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Had he changed? What had happened to him?

Finally Dexter said, "Sorry for bein' a wiseass t'ya, all these years."

Suddenly, Latimer felt tired, very tired. "To hell with apologies," he murmured. "But thanks, anyway."

"I'll make it up to you. You'll see."

Latimer didn't know what to do with this. Yet, Dexter's words did count for something, even if the thing between them didn't feel settled quite enough. Still, knowing there now was an apology made Latimer feel righteous and important.


When Latimer woke up the next day and looked out the window, he saw Dexter out in the yard, examining the plants, handling a leaf or a branch as if feeling its texture. He's lost it, he thought, but maybe not too much. I can't believe he apologized.

Yes, it was something that Dexter had tried to mend fences. Not knowing what to do with that, Latimer felt incredibly tactless. He berated himself for not having people skills. Maybe he should have answered better to him, to his apologizing. He should have said it didn't matter or something like that, but then, that would be lying, and Latimer did not want to lie about things that had made his insides boil for so long, especially things that had to do with Bertha.

He lifted up the window and yelled. "Hey Dexter, come in and eat some cereal. Got some fresh coffee in the pot."

Dexter didn't have his glasses on. He squinted at Latimer, then waved his hand and shook his head in negation.

Real weirdo! He didn't eat much last night, either. Just splashed the food around, Dexter mumbled to himself.


Having a houseguest was interesting, especially if the guest didn't want to leave at all. When Latimer offered to drive Dexter back to town, Dexter said, pointing to the direction of the town, "I'd rather stick around with you, Lati. I bet you feel just as alone as I did down there."

Surprised, Latimer stood motionless and did not answer. He did not know what to say, or rather, he was afraid of saying something rude that could make the man feel unwelcome. Finally, he shrugged and said, "Suit yourself."

Dexter smiled. Did he think Latimer was a pushover or what! Or was he puzzled by Latimer's inviting him in like that, after so much water had passed under the bridge?.

But, Dexter didn't look puzzled at all. He must have suffered over the years, Latimer imagined. After getting it together and opening up four stores, and then, buying and selling some them suddenly for peanuts, a man could lose more than his mind. Latimer thanked his lucky stars for what he had, which wasn't much, but he saw nothing wrong sharing it with an old friend...well, not exactly a friend, but just the same. Latimer guessed Dexter could stay a week or less and then go back to his place.

Dexter left the bungalow in the afternoons to walk around the preserve adjacent to Latimer's place, but each time he returned, he seemed distracted and somewhat hesitant. At nights, Latimer heard his footsteps pacing around the house. He has insomnia like me, he thought and went back to his reading.

Once, during an afternoon, Dexter ran into the house, panting, his glasses askew. His hands and face were covered with dirt, and his jeans were grass-stained. When Latimer asked him what he was doing, he said, "I wanted to feel the earth." Then, he ducked his head shyly and went to clean himself up. Weird old goat! Latimer thought.

Yet, Dexter was not a burden, not really. A few days and only a couple of misunderstandings later, for which Dexter apologized again, Latimer relaxed and imagined having someone around was better than having no one around, even if that someone was Dexter. Let bygones be bygones Latimer thought. He'll probably leave at the end of the week. Thank heaven, for small favors. Not that Dexter's behavior had ever been...well...ordinary or friendly, but he seemed milder somewhat, quieter, even if a little lost now and then.

Dexter spent most of his time walking around the yard, inspecting every twig, brand and leaf, for what Latimer couldn't tell. In the evenings, Dexter crawled on the couch and stared at the television screen. He showed little interest in food, and when he supposedly ate, he made a mess of it. On the whole, what he ate was almost nothing, and his cot was always made up, so much so that Latimer thought he didn't sleep in it, but rather on it.

When Latimer talked to Dexter, he stared intently before answering, especially when Latimer asked him if he wanted a ride back to town. Sometimes Dexter talked on his own, mostly questioning Latimer about this and that. "You don't want to be alone, do you, Lati?" Or "It sure takes a while for you to get used to having someone else around, doesn't it, Lati?"

One night after dinne,r Latimer locked up the house, thinking Dexter was on the couch watching TV. But when he looked out from the kitchen window, he couldn't believe what he was seeing, and he uttered a sound "Huh?" in bewilderment. His houseguest was walking under the moonlight.

Latimer opened the kitchen door and called out to him. "Dexter, where are you? Why aren't you coming in?"

Dexter answered from behind him. "Here I am, Lati."

"How did you get in? I just saw you go out."

"The other door. You have two doors, right?"

Latimer could have sworn he had locked both doors, but he let it pass. Maybe, he-Latimer- was mixing things up. Old age ain't for wimps, he mused. It was lucky that, through Dexter, he had discovered the unlocked door. Not that he felt threatened by anybody, but his place was far from town and anything could happen. After all a month ago, a news had circulated about vagrants sneaking into uninhabited houses and ransacking them.

As if he read Latimer's mind, Dexter said, "You're sure glad that I am around for once, ain't you, Lati?"

"Yeah!" Latimer nodded.

"Then maybe, I stay around here. What do you say?" Didn't the guy have nerve or what!

"Well, you're welcome, of course," Latimer said. "Don't you want to go to your own place? Saturday, I'll go to town for shopping. I could drop you off."

"Nah, don't bother. What's mine in that rathole ain't much, anyways."

"Okay, then." Latimer shrugged.

Strange that Dexter wanted to stick around him. On the other hand, Latimer had managed to live through the last few days with no problems, or maybe, almost no problems. "Put two old sourheads together, there'll be sparks...especially with bad feelings in our history, Latimer thought. If only for now, he sensed no bad feelings inside his heart. The resentment he felt toward Dexter had evaporated together with his youth.


At 12:30 in that afternoon, Latimer parked his truck in front of Carmela's Pizzeria to get a bite. He was still puzzled about Dexter's refusal to come to town with him. More troubling was the fact that he had asked to stay with Latimer for good, but then, his own answer shocked Latimer more. He had agreed to it. Could cats and dogs stay united forever?

"What'll it be, Sugar?" Bettie, the waitress shook her magenta curls, dyed and permed for sure, even though she was sixty plus. Appearance had always been her currency.

"Where's Carmela?" Latimer asked.

"The boss-lady's at home nursing a cold, thank God!" Bettie whispered.

"Good!" Latimer said. "I never want to run into her anyway." Carmela was another one who called him Hugh, for the old times' sakes, even after Latimer had asked her not to.

"The other waitresses are off, too. And the baby." Bettie rolled her eyes

"The baby?"

"Nessa, the young pretty one with long straight blond hair. Haven't you ever met her? All guys go gaga over her."

"No, I don't eat here too often."

"Well, the baby's at Palm Breeze, at her Mama's. It's her day off. You'll have to do with me, Pal." She winked, faking a seductive pose.

"You'll do just fine, Bets." Latimer pushed away the menu. "I'm feeling like burger, fries, and coffee. Can you manage that?"

"My, you're easy. No pizza, huh? Well, if you say so..."

As Bettie pushed the plate teeming with fries in front of Latimer, she said, "What is the world coming to? Someone just hit my jalopy in the parking lot here and fled. Can you believe it?"

"You're lucky you weren't in your car." Mickey, the fireman at the table across, butted in. "Couple of people met their maker during the last few days. One of them was an old guy, smashed like a pancake by an interstate van."

"That was last Saturday." Bettie yelled over her shoulder, then faced Latimer. "Poor old Dexter... Who'd have thought...They interred him Wednesday...closed casket and all. People say you guys didn't get on well, but I felt for the poor old thing. He was a little soft in the head."

Latimer almost choked on his bite, then he took a sip from his coffee. "You must be mistaken. It can't be him," he gasped.

"Can't believe it either, can you, Sugar? But...that's life!"

Latimer suddenly lost his appetite. He forked the fries around for a while, then left his plate untouched. Surely, Bettie was mistaken. It couldn't be Dexter. Still, it wouldn't hurt to ask around a bit. Timothy, the bartender, would know.

"Wait a sec, Latimer. Here..." Bettie waddled with a box. She emptied the contents of his plate and handed it to him. "You eat like a bird, y'know. Take it home and make it a snack, at least."

After tossing the leftovers box in the truck, Latimer rushed across the street and turned the corner to Timothy's Sand Bar Pub. There, nobody lifted a head to acknowledge him. Bizarre people, the folks of Rocky Road! he thought. He sat at the end stool, as Tim drew a draft beer from the tap and handed it to him.

"Hey, Lat, Good to see you." At least, Tim knew how to be amiable.

Latimer raised his hand in acknowledgement, then took a sip from the beer. "Anything new in town?"

"Good things and bad things. Mark's daughter got hitched." Tim yawned. Then he wiped the bar although it was clean. His wiping the bar whether it needed it or not identified him as the barman in charge. "Did you hear about Dexter?"

"What about him?" Latimer forced out a breath and blinked at Tim.

"He got killed last Saturday by a van. Remember the downpour?"

"I got caught in it, going home." Latimer's voice shook

"Yeah, it happened, then."

"Impossible," Latimer's words came out in a hoarse whisper. "No point to it."

"Well, it happened. Say, you don't look very good Lat. Have some pretzels, will you?" Tim pushed a plate of pretzels in front of Latimer.

A couple of firemen walked in and sat down in a booth. Timothy signaled the barmaid to attend to them. Then, he rinsed out a few glasses.

"You're a good guy, Lat. If the tables were turned, and it had been you instead of him, Dexter wouldn't be so shook up. God forgive me talking after the dead, but he went at you bad...all his life. I should know. Everyone in this town knows it." Tim put another glass of beer in front of Latimer. "On the house."


Latimer's legs buckled as he stepped out of the truck very late in the evening. He paused and took a deep breath to pull himself together. He had nowhere else to go but his bungalow and you-know-who was in it, for good or evil.

He realized he could have stayed in town, but where? Several motels did exist, but Latimer's funds were short, at best. Worse yet, he couldn't tell about this to anyone. They'd think, just because he was aged, he had turned senile. Then, whatever anyone else thought, he'd have to face his situation with Dexter sooner or later, anyhow.

Now, Latimer didn't know how to approach the subject should Dexter materialize anywhere around him.

He trodded up the steps to the front door and turned his key in the lock. As he did that, his chest grew tight and his lungs felt constricted. All this could be in my head. he thought. He staggered in, closed the door, and locked it. He flipped up the switch immediately. Everything had stayed as he left and no sound from Dexter.

He went into his room to change into his pajamas. When he opened his closet door to hang his coat, a shadow suddenly jumped in front of him

"Boo! Trick or treat!" Dexter took form, and cackling loudly, he dropped to the floor, kicking his legs up with laughter. Disconcerted, Latimer tried to stave off his dread with a comment but was defeated by his own breathlessness and shudder of panic.

"You learned it, didn't you, Lati? Well, I didn't know it myself until they stuck me six feet under. Remember the day, I came in messed up with soil...Don't ask how. That was when I found out." As he spoke, he got off the floor and twitched around to face Latimer, formidable and fearless. The bones on his face gaining unnatural angles, Latimer stared at Dexter.

Finally, he could speak. "They say people go to a bright light or a tunnel or something. Why didn't you?"

"I saw no such thing, but I had seen you pass by a minute or so ago. I just hopped in your truck. I didn't know about me croaking then. See, what's good about afterlife is whoever I think of, I find me near him."

Latimer swallowed his next breath. "This explains your popping in out, but..." Then he pulled himself together. "You have to leave," he said. "I don't want to live with a dead person."

"No, no, no. I am not a dead person. I am a person without a body."

"You're a ghost. That's what you are. Leave!" Is there any sense in arguing with a ghost? Latimer thought. But ghost or no ghost, there came a time when every man had to put his foot down. After all, there was such a thing as free will, wasn't there?

"You accepted me once." Dexter whined. Then, he raised his voice. "You can't take it back. Us ghosts stick to places, especially after being accepted."

Latimer shrugged off Dexter's statement."Under false premises. It doesn't count. So, leave!"

"You can't order me." Dexter's eyes turned into two slits.

"Leave or else. I'll get the priest in town." Latimer took two steps forward.

"You're not Catholic." Dexter shook his forefinger, pointing it to Latimer.

"Then I'll turn Catholic. Just leave, will you!"

Dexter clasped his hands over his head like an ancient Tibetan warrior. "I can be real nasty, Lati, you know...."

"Leave! If you don't, I'll sell the place and leave myself." Latimer unbuttoned his cuffs to roll up his sleeves

Dexter smirked, looking at Latimer's arm. "What if I follow you?"

"You won't, because I won't permit it."

Dexter hissed. "I'll show you!"

Latimer felt anger radiating from the ghost like the heat of the sun radiating from the scalding sand on a midsummer day. His own anger, on the other hand, felt even more nightmarish. He wanted to punch Dexter, smash him with all of his strength, and knock him unconscious. These things, however, one would not, could not do to a ghost.

Latimer's rage kept him glued to the cabin for several days. Inside its boundaries, the place now seemed ominous and full of secrets, and all had to do with Dexter. Still, Latimer felt vaguely threatened when the doors opened and shut on their own, the cabin rocked from side to side, and the lights came on and off on their own. Latimer's rival was manifesting his true character.


Latimer, as stubborn and decided as he was, could not stay in the cabin forever. Soon enough he needed to go out and replenish his grocery stocks that had dwindled down to half a box of pretzels and a one-third can of Campbell's soup, inside which he discovered a large palmetto bug. Dexter's handiwork, for sure, since Latimer kept the can in the fridge at all times.

Either starvation or leaving the house to Dexter; take your pick! he thought. So he put on his jacket and shoes and went out. Before he got into the truck, an idea hit him. He would leave a prayer with his cabin for its safety.

He scowled. With all the reading he had been doing, he had omitted the religious stuff, and now he needed it. The only prayer he recalled was parts of the Lord's prayer. No need to whip a dead horse! Any \way...

He turned to the house and recited. "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name..." Now what was the rest of it? Daily bread, yes. "Give me my daily bread." Well, he somehow knew it wasn't like that, but the Lord would understand. Aha! The most important part! "Deliver us from the evil one, that Dexter. Well, Lord, you know the rest better than me. Consider I said it right. Amen!"

With that, he hopped into the driver's seat.

In reality, he had close ties to The Lord. Just that the formalities never agreed with him. So he bypassed them, thinking, The Lord will understand.

As he drove, he noticed the late afternoon sun doing some kind of a dance, moving back and forth across the sky, but he couldn't be sure. After all, Rocky Road was a subtropical town, and the sun did do weird things.

"Nah, it ain't the sun!" Startled, Latimer stepped on the brakes. "Whoa! Watch it, Lati! You'll dunk us into the canal." Dexter was in the passenger seat. "One of us without a body is bad enough, Pal!"

"I don't believe it! Dexter, are you now reading my thoughts?"

Dexter looked awfully smug. "Nope. Only guessing. For your information, Lati, there are thin clouds the eyes can't see from all the way down here. They make the sunlight do weird things. For a grump who reads so much, you shoulda known that."

"What do you want from me, Dexter?"

"Hmm. This looks like it's going to be quite an evening, and I want to share it with you."

Latimer eyed Dexter in disbelief. "Look, this isn't working for either of us. Ask me what you want, then leave me alone."

"Leave you alone, Lati? Never! But..."

"But what?" Latimer hated it when Dexter spoke with sarcasm like right at that moment..

"Well, I could give you something. Something a few souls knew I had. I wanted you to get that. Even when I had a body I wanted you to have it because that something needs a new owner-manager."

"I don't know what you're talking about. Are you trying to confuse me with your Goddamn mystery talk?" Worse than a crazy geezer is a crazy ghost, Latimer thought.


"Shhh. Don't'ya curse! Listen now. A few years ago, after I sold three of the stores, I bought another one on North Orchard way past Michelle Lane."

"Are you putting me on? There are no stores there!"

"There was one. It burned down."

He really had to have lost it, even in afterlife. "You mean that dump behind the land all twisted with brambles?"

"Ahha! You got it!"

"What's it to me?"

"You and I can share it."

Crazy ghost! "I don't need land. I want my peace back."

"C'mon, Lati, let's do it. If you want me to, I'll apologize again."

"Don't. Your apologizing never lasts." What an idiot!

"Look. Just for this time, do as I say. Let's go to my old flat. I's used to own it, y'know. It's yours. I got no other heirs."

"Why don't you just stay there?"

"No way, too much din. Y'know where Carmela's son Vito lives? it's in that complex He's next door. Vito, the noisy kid. Drinks too much, plays music high to heaven, and sneaks in the blonde babe who works at Carmela's."

"Vito? No way!"

"Yup, Vito and Nessa. They got a thing goin'. And Carmela knows nothin', but ssh, don't tattle it around."

Why the creepy twinkle in his eyes? "I don't know who Nessa is and I don't care."

"Oh, you'll care when you see her."

That sarcastic tone again, but it made Latimer grin. "What? At my age? Are you crazy?"

"That girl's a real cutie. Anyways, the key's under the mat, if it's still there. If not, I'll find a way to git you in."

"Why? Why do you want me to go inside your place?" Could ghosts lose their minds? Latimer thought he should do more reading on ghosts.

"I got my will, and the deed's inside. Now the surprise, Lati. It says I'm leavin' everything to you."

"Your will doesn't count. You're dead. You can't have a will after you die."

"That will was made two years ago. You could say I did it to shock you." Dexter giggled.

"You're lying!"

"Nope, God is my witn..."

"Shush! If God were your witness, he wouldn't leave you down here."

"He moves in mysterious ways, don't He, Lati? Tell you what Lati, you do as I say. I won't bug you too much after that. Though I might stay with you only once in a while. To give you some air, you know, since you're so into your privacy thing. Now turn right here into East Ashley, then into Magnolia."

"I know the way to that place, Dexter. I'm used to driving Vito home from the bar."

"Hahaha! Everyone drives Vito home from the bar."

Well, that was true at least. Now why am I obeying a ghost? Latimer thought as he said, "This'd better be quick. I need to get groceries. The store will close."

"It closes at nine. You have enough time."

Was this another of Dexter's tricks? Even so, he seemed friendlier now, which was better than him rattling around the cabin, playing with the lights, and slamming the doors. And didn't he say he'd stay in the cabin only once in a while, to give Latimer some breathing room?

Latimer pulled the truck on a parking spot in front of the book store across from the high school and turned to Dexter. "What if they think I'm breaking into your place?"

"That they won't. I'll be near you. If it comes to that I'll whisper in your ear what to say." He giggled.

Latimer rolled his eyes. "Use the right ear. Left one doesn't work well."

Latimer pulled up his truck in front of the bookstore with a dim brown light shooting through its window and mixing with the rays of the sun. Converted from a sagging clapboard house, the store looked decrepit but stable.

"Now why did you stop, Lati? Getting more books? We're gonna be late."

"Michelle Lane is just around the corner. You wait here. I don't want people think I'm talking to myself." Latimer said, covering his mouth with his hand.


As soon as Latimer came back from the bookstore with a book bag, Dexter snatched it from his hand and peered into the bag. "Awww! Lati! Ain't you the nicest? You went and got a book just for me. Helping Ghosts! You really want to help. don't ya?"

Latimer nodded and as he turned the ignition key. "You're next door to Vito, right?"

"Yup! See if you find the key." Dexter stretched and rested his feet on top of the dash board.

Latimer, hopped out of the truck, to the sound of dry leaves blowing across the partially empty parking lot. on his walk to the building, the chilly wind blew his hair wildly. He looked up through the trees to the left over rays of the dipping sun.

"Lati, Liliane is getting out of her car," Dexter whispered in his ear. "She saw you. Just wave and go in the building. Don't stop and talk."

"Why not? I always talk to her.."

"Y'know, we gotta keep our quiet. Until, things are nice'n legal. Whatever she gathers, she'll blab in the knitting class in her store."

"Liliane is a nice lady. She doesn't talk behind people." Latimer mumbled without conviction.

"She might decide to...if she thinks she is reporting a fraud..."

"Hello, Latimer!" Liliane yelled from the other side of the parking lot.

"Hello, Liliane," Latimer waved back. "Too cold. See you, later."

"Well done, Lati," Dexter whispered. "Now go up the stairs real quick. My door's next to Vito's."

Latimer took the key from under the mat and opened the door. Once inside, he closed the door and leaned on it. Acting like a jerk to Liliane had drained his energy.

"Welcome to my abode, Lati! But it's not home, sweet home, anymore." Since Latimer could see him now, he noted the seriousness on his face. "Now first things first," Dexter continued. "Get the third key hanging under my old jacket here at the entrance. It is the key to the front door. You'll tell people I gave it to you. On our way out, you'll put the extra key under the mattress again. Vito knows I keep it there."

"You said you had three. Where's the third one?"

"How smart you are with all your book reading, Lati! It was on me, Silly. Someone must have thrown it away in the thrash when they put me in the morgue."

"All right, now what?" Latimer reached the hook over which an old frayed jacket with a mousy grey color hung and put the key in his coat pocket.

"In here." Dexter led the way to a door and opened it. "See the night table near the bed? Open the drawer. Yup, you got it. See the red folder? Pick it up. Inside it is my will and the deeds to this place, the hardware store, and the lot I told you about."

By God, Dexter was right! Latimer picked the papers and examined them.

Flawless. Every single thing Dexter had owned was left to Hugh Latimer Matthews.

"I don't know what to do with this? Shall I get a lawyer?" He asked Dexter.

"Just take them to the city hall. They'll know what to do with it."


After Latimer became the owner of the hardware store, a different kind of a store was built on the empty lot on Dexter's prodding. After the building was finished, Latimer wanted to rent it out, but Dexter pressed Latimer that he run it and let his old clerk run the hardware store with all his know-how. Another thing he was adamant about was the name of the new store.

"Why do you insist we sell occult paraphernalia in the new store and all those amulets and things, Dexter?" Latimer objected.

It was a hot day and they were standing inside the finished building with whitewashed walls and built-in shelves behind where the cash register would be placed. The tempered glass for the two front windows had not arrived yet, and the tarp draped on them did not help the air circulation.

"Tourists...Tourists, Lati! Because the town already has every other kind of a business." Dexter said. "Florida is all about tourists. This store will be a tourist attraction. People will come out of curiosity from all over the country. This way we'd be, you'd be, helping this town. Don't you see?" Dexter twirled around like a top, showing off one of his recently acquired ghost-antics.

Latimer closed his eyes to minimize the wobbliness he felt from Dexter's spinning about. "So you know business better than I do, but why do we have to name it Bertha's Corner. We could as well say Enchanted Corner of something like that." He opened his eyes again. "My ex-wife's name gives me the creeps, now that she's kicked the bucket."

"Hmmm. Maybe I know something that you don't, but let's just say for now that it shows the town you are a sensitive man and haven't forgotten your old wife."

"My old wife? But I want to forget and I'm not sensitive. I was glad when she left me. Nothing made her happy. Always complaining, the old greedy b..."

"Stop, you sourpuss. Don't curse the dead. You weren't the catch of the century either, Lati." Dexter snickered. "Selfish and grumbling all the time."

Latimer nodded. "We never got on well. I felt freed when she left me after all her nagging and stuff."

"That's for us to know, Lati. Let'Bertha was a weird old bird, and you may be right, but think of the business angle, Pal."

"Why can't we let someone else run the new place, so I can manage the hardware store? That would be more to my liking."

"Nope. Seth Hayden does the job well and needs it badly. He has a family to support, you know. You'll have to hire a clerk anyhow for Bertha's Corner."

"You know, Dexter," Latimer said, exasperated, "I was much happier before you showed up."

"That was nothin'. That ain't no happiness. You'll be dancing happy in a short time. Trust me, Lati." He twirled like a dust devil again.

How could anyone argue with a ghost! It was useless. Latimer shrugged, cursing his fate.



When Bertha's Corner finally opened to public, Latimer, on Dexter's council, put an ad in the Rocky Road High Gazette; no matter that it was the high school's publication. "It is the correct thing to do. Besides there ain't another paper on this town," he said.

Fittingly, during its first few weeks, the store was visited by hordes of high school students. One day, Pamela Doyle, the owner of the flower shop, came to check out Bertha's Corner. "Interesting," she commented, raising one eyebrow. Then she noticed the shelves with the incense, sachets, and tarot cards, and the section for the ritual garbs such as mantles, cloaks, and tunics.

When her eyes landed on a few things she liked, she chirped like a bird. "I'll tell Granny Doyle. She'll have a ball, here."

"Your granny's still alive?" As soon as the words left Latimer's mouth, he caught on to the gaffe, but it was too late.

"Men!" Pamela sneered. "Do I look that old to you?"

"No, no, I didn't mean it that way...You see my granny passed away before I was born and..."

"When was that? 1814?" Pamela laughed venomously, shaking her crimson-dyed hair from side to side.

"Close!" Latimer said, grinning and admitting defeat to appease her. "You could say I am a Methusaleh."


Just at the time Pamela was leaving, Nessa walked into the store.

"I heard so much about this place," she murmured, looking around.

Latimer uttered a sound and leaned on to the counter top. Could this be possible?

"Are you all right, Sir?" Nessa went toward him.

"Bertha!" Latimer whispered in shock, trying to maneuver himself behind the counter.

"Oh, that! I'm Nessa." Nessa smiled. "You must have known my grandmother, may she rest in peace. They say I look a lot like her. Is she why you named this store Bertha's Corner? You must have liked her. Were you friends? More than friends maybe?"

"Your grandmother?" He shook his head, meaning to make an ambiguous gesture. "I didn't know Bertha had any children."

"She had my mother. Actually, she lived here in Rocky Road with her husband."

"Her husband?" Latimer took a long pointed look at Nessa.

Nessa nodded. "Yes, Hugh Latimer Matthews. My grandfather. Did you know him, too? I only know his name, but my grandmother told me all about him."

Latimer let his gaze roam about her. This new knowledge had just about ambushed him. Should he investigate this before telling the girl who he is? If he did, if what the girl is saying is the truth, into what this relationship might evolve?

"What did she tell you about Hugh what's his name?" He asked trying to hold back the moisture that suddenly clouded his eyes.

"My grandfather? According to my grandmother, Hugh was my grandfather. He was quiet but lacked ambition. He died before my mother was born. Then my grandmother left Rocky Road. Did you really name your store after my grandmother? You must really have liked her, and sorry I shocked you."

"Well, it wasn't my idea, the name of the store, I mean. I can't believe you look so like her, except you're taller. Do you have any photos of your grandfather?" Latimer cleared his throat.

"Just one. On the day when he married grandma. The rest were burned in a fire, my grandma said. Why? Did you know him?" The question in her eyes scared him. He couldn't tell her what he thought was the truth. Heck, he couldn't face it himself. Not yet, anyway.

"I might have," he answered in a hoarse voice. "I lived in town, too, a very long time ago. Then I moved, past I-95 by the preserve. Where's your mother? Is she here with you?"

"No, she lives in Palm Breeze, in my grandma's old house. My mother was born there. She says she won't leave the place, especially after Dad left us. If you ask me, I like Rocky Road better."

The girl was a cutie, sylphlike, and she moved with grace. So like Bertha when he first saw her. Carmela's son didn't deserve Nessa. Why had she tangled with Vito? Was it loneliness? Desperation?

There was a pause, which ended when Latimer asked, "You live here?"

"I live in the room above Carmela's. I work there, too." Latimer felt Nessa looking at him, observing him with interest. Had he asked too many questions? Where was Dexter when he needed him?

"Oh, yes, I remember Bettie mentioning about it, a while back." He cleared his throat.

"Say, I was looking for something for luck." Nessa's mouth went crooked, so like Bertha's when she demanded something of Latimer.

"You just found it," he said, pleasantly. "I know exactly what will change your luck for the better." Then he reached to a shelf and took down a box. He worried the girl would see the tremor in his hands, but never mind. She'd think him an old man. An old man who she doesn't recognize is her grandfather. If she only knew...

Nessa opened her purse.

"No, you don't pay me now." Latimer stretched his arm gesturing her to stop. He couldn't take her money. "This thing should be in three parts, and I don't have the second and third pieces." He handed her the box.

As soon as she opened it, her face lit up. "I love it. Is it a necklace?"

"Yes, you wear it around your neck. This is the onyx wand. You'll need the crystal quartz and amethyst to complete the trio."

She put the box on the counter and rubbed her chin. "It must be expensive. I might not be able to afford it. Do you have something less expensive?"

"Never mind the expense. We'll think of something. I knew your grandmother after all." His voice had emerged in a whisper with the last sentence.

Nessa hesitated. Then she reached for the box.

Latimer insisted. "Take this one with you. There's information in the box. When the other boxes come in, I'll call you. Do you have a phone?"

"Are you sure? I don't make much money." She took a step back. Her eyes, full of suspicion, were on him. What did she think he wanted?

"Look, this one is yours whether you pay for it or not, and if we can't come to an agreement about the other ones, you'll return them. Pure and simple. Now, how can I reach you?"

She wrote her cell phone number on the piece of paper he stuck in front of her. "I wrote my name, too, so the number doesn't get mixed up with somebody else's," she said.

Latimer took the paper. "Just in case I forget to call, you come and check for yourself, too. Bring your mother. Bring your friends. They might like the interesting stuff we carry." He was now acting the merchant drumming up business. He didn't want the girl to think he was a man with a back weighted with years and half-wild ulterior motives.

"No, not my mother, we don't get along too well, but I have a friend who might be interested."

He listened to the click clack of her heels on the store's hardwood floor as Nessa left, then watched her slink her way with grace, down the gentle slope of the street until she turned the corner. In a sudden sensation of dizziness, he pulled the stool behind the counter and perched on it. He rubbed his forehead, thinking. Was Nessa really his grandchild, this young ephemeral thing? Where had Dexter evaporated now when he knew he was the only one to give him the truth?

Abruptly, he yelled into the back of the store. "Dexter! You damn ghost! Come here!"

"Why, Sir?"

He bounced and turned to the door to Liliane Robeson with a semi-open mouth and bugged-out eyeballs. Should he explain this to her? No, he couldn't unless he lied. What if she concluded he was soft in the head? Let her, he thought. So much the better for this kind of a business.

"Hello, Lili." He smiled. "Nice of you to come by. What can I do for you?"

Liliane shuddered but quickly composed herself. "Penny said you had unusual things here. I was wondering if I could find a few unique designs, occult-like, to stir up my knitters' interest."

Latimer reached inside a box behind him and placed a catalog on the counter. "Check it out and copy any design you want. Here are a couple of blank sheets and a pen."

Right after Liliane left, Latimer opened his mouth and took a deep breath, but when he let the air out, a few bizarre gasps emerged. It had just about finished him to deal with Liliane right after Nessa or rather what he had just found out about Nessa.

"You called?"

Latimer jumped startled when Dexter punched his shoulder from behind his back. "Where have you been? I was scared you'd show up when Liliane was here."

"Nah! I wouldn't. But wasn't it funny the way she looked at you?" Dexter giggled as he threw fake punches on the counter.

"Be careful, you'll break the glass." Dexter was being too much.

"It ain't that easy. It won't break unless I wish it." He stopped and stared at Latimer. "You gotta learn these things, Lati. Now that you're running the kinda store you're running."

"That wasn't my choice. Remember who insisted on it? Now, tell me what you know about Nessa."

Giggling again, Dexter shrugged his shoulders. "I thought you were smarter than that, Lati. She's your grandkid, loud and clear."

"Just because you say it? How do I know for real?"

"That's easy. Talk to her mother. They got tests for those things nowadays, don't they?" Dexter raised his eyebrows and nodded.

Latimer looked away from him toward the window. "Before I do that, what do you know about it? I suspect you knew this much earlier."

"Yup. You suspect on the dot. I knew for a long time. Way before I kicked the can or rather the can kicked me." He giggled again at his own joke.

Latimer sat on the stool again. "Tell me," he said curtly.

"Well, remember the time I went out with that witch Doyle, Pammy's mother, what's her name?"

"Gertrude..."

"Yeah, yeah! But it should be Medusa, Hecate, somethin' like that. It wasn't anything special, mind you. Just a broad. Anyway, she and Bertha were kinda close. When Bertha left you, she must have been with child."

Latimer frowned and felt his face flush. "I had no idea, the shrew!"

"Well, she had the baby during that year before she divorced you. I know it because Gertrude, the medusa, made me go to the hospital like I am you."

"What?"

"Don't get all flustered, Lati. I didn't wanna do it. They made me...so the people in the Hospital in Palm Breeze would think the baby had a father."

"Come on, Dexter. Nobody could make you do anything you didn't want. The baby had a father. You could have told me. Why didn't you?"

"To tell the truth, at the time, I thought it'd be a nice trick on you, but later on, I felt bad about it. Real bad! Several times I wanted to jus' walk over and tell it to your face, but you wouldn't give me the time of the day."

"I shoulda put a knife in you and in that shrew Bertha." Latimer erupted, raising his hands awkwardly, like claws, toward where Dexter stood.

Dexter stepped backwards. "Well, well...Lati...Calm down, will you? If anything, she's real sorry now."

"Tell her to go to h..."

"No, no, no...Don't say that word. Don't say that to anyone. And don't forget your blood pressure. Truth is, I'm sorry, too. Why'd you think I left everything all to you?"

"To taunt me more...What else? Like I needed your stuff!" Latimer fought a pain that was suddenly squeezing his throat. He coughed several times.

Dexter averted his eyes from him and said in a low voice,"Don't believe it if you wanna, but you and I had a relationship going all through life, negative though it was." He now talked seriously as if he meant what he was saying, his voice acquiring a meditative quality. "Well, don't look at me like that. Negative is better than nothin'. It's still kinship, ha! We were just thrown together. You're the only bro I had."

"Bro? You're a silly old gho..."

"Bro is for brother, whether you like it or not."

"I know what bro means. You didn't act like one even after you croaked."

Dexter shut his eyes, then opened them. "Old habits die hard, Lati. And if I was nice and all candied up, you wouldn't take me seriously. Admit it, you, too, are a finicky old goat." e pointed his forefinger at him.

"Cut your lecturing. What do I do now?" Latimer's voice was sounding faintly manic, even to himself.

"Next time Nessa comes in, you tell her who you are, and let it happen. I was surprised you didn't say it when she was talkin' to ya."

There was a pause. Latimer shook his head from side to side. He wasn't mad anymore, just upset. Upset? "In grief" is a better phrase, he thought. He had missed on life, on raising a daughter, a granddaughter...just because Bertha had carved him out of her life, after using him the way she did. Just because he wasn't the kind of man she wanted and did not make the kind of living she craved.

"And Nessa's Mama still has your last name." Dexter spoke again. "Now, don't get all feathered up, but the papa left them high and dry. Another reason to take care of them, right Lati?"


A week later, Nessa visited the store, ushering in old Grant Underwood's granddaughter Madeleine. Latimer knew Grant from long time ago, but after Latimer had moved away near the preserve and started coming to town only when it was absolutely necessary, he had lost touch with what few acquaintances he had. To start with, he was never an overly sociable man. His keeping to himself and avoiding people had been one of the many complaints Bertha used to nag him about.

As soon as he saw the girls walk in, Latimer's mind raced. That Bertha! He had suspected she left him for someone else. Maybe Dexter, he had thought. But it wasn't Dexter. Dexter had denied it, and the memory of his ex-wife had put a wrench inside Latimer that twisted and turned anytime he thought of her.

Luckily he had other customers. He nodded at Nessa and Maddie as he placed a green glass bottle in a shopping bag for a tourist, a chatterbox of a woman from Arkansas. He was glad he had to attend to her. This would give him enough time to pull himself together.

"Look around, young ladies," he addressed them his voice wavering. "I'll be with you after I take care of this young lady's purchase."

The customer, swiveling her hips, grabbed the bag as Latimer rang the cash register. "Thank you. You're such a gentleman, but I am not all that young." She tilted her head to meet his eyes.

Latimer smiled dumbstruck as if he had said something awkward. He had been learning a few tricks of the trade under Dexter's tutelage. One of them was to make every woman hear how young she looked. "You could have fooled me. To me you look quite young."

After the customers left, he turned his attention to the girls "Anything you ladies like?"

"We came to ask if the other wands of the talisman arrived," Nessa said. God, she looked so much like Bertha!

Maddie jolted as if she awakened from a reverie. "This place is awesome, Mr. Matthews!"

Nessa looked at Maddie, then turned to stare at Latimer. "Did you know him?"

"My grandpa knew him..." Maddie's answer was lost inside Nessa's whinnying.

"Why...the name of the store and..."

"Come over here, Nessa," Latimer glanced up at her, then put his hand in his backpocket. "Maddie, please turn around the "open" sign on the door to "closed." I have to show Nessa something. I don't want any customers while I do that."

Beckoned by curiosity, Maddie rushed to the door as Nessa walked to the counter, twisting the straps of her purse. "I don't understand...I don't understand a thing..." she murmured.

Latimer opened his wallet, taking out two small cards. "See this?" He handed one of them to Nessa. "This is my driver's license. See my name on it?" Nessa took the license and gasped. Then she took a step back and stared at Latimer with bulging eyes. "Same name? But you were dead...Coincidence?"

At that same instant, Latimer detected Maddie's awe-filled face and the fingers of her hand over her half-open lips. In the frenzy of the moment, he hadn't noticed Maddie approaching near them. The girl was sure quick to grasp the magnitude of the moment.

"No, not a coincidence, and I didn't die," Latimer said. "Except I didn't know Bertha was with child when she left me. I don't know what you were told, but it is the truth." Trying to control his trembling, Latimer handed Nessa the second card, a wallet-size photo. "Isn't this your grandmother? I think so, anyway."

Nessa nodded, her eyes clouding. Her speech was lost as she handed back the photo. "Why did they...why did my grandmother?"

"Because I didn't fit her dream of a husband, I guess. She said I lacked ambition. So she left me."

"My grandmother? I guess, I can believe it, knowing her."

"You can?"

"She dressed to the nines even when we couldn't afford it. My mother certainly didn't appreciate it since she was the only one working. My mother says my grandmother went after a rich lawyer once, but the lawyer was more cunning than her."

A throaty gasping sound of surprise escaped from Maddie who had been listening in to the conversation with her mouth agape. Latimer winced.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I shouldn't have said that..." Nessa covered her mouth with her hand.

"You didn't say anything I didn't know, except for the lawyer," Latimer said. "Someone said she moved to LA or something."

"The lawyer was in LA, but it didn't work out." Nessa was near tears as she talked. "And my mother, she really thinks you died before she was born. She always said she needed her father as she grew up. That's why she put up with my father as long as she did, but he was the one who packed up and fled."

"Poor girl. Your mother, I mean, and you, too. I loved Bertha, you know, but I thought it was best for both of us when she left. I had no idea she was carrying your mother."

"How will you know my mother is...that she is...yours?" Nessa asked with a small voice.

"We'll know. I'm sure your mother will want to know for sure and that can be arranged. It doesn't matter anyhow."

"The DNA thing," Maddie interrupted.

:Latimer continued, keeping his eyes on Nessa. "I sorta feel you're my granddaughter. I would like it very much, if it were so, and I believe it is." He smiled to put her at ease, and at the same time, noticed Dexter giving him the thumbs-up sign. "Now, I would very much like to meet your mother,"he said. "Will you help me do that?"

Nessa reached over the counter to Latimer and stroked his shoulder. "I so wanted to have a grandfather," she said. "All my life."

Chapter 6

Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
Mishaps a Dozen

Just to give Stephen, the baker, a couple of envelopes, mailman Joseph Willis had to wait in line with the customers because, for whatever reason, no one could cut in front of the line. The baker was a man of discipline. Even his wife Della obeyed him, but then, she didn't have a choice, did she?

Discipline or no discipline, Joseph was running late, and he needed a smoke. Problem was, he couldn't smoke in front of everyone, and everyone knew him since Rocky Road was not a big town.

The reason Joe couldn't smoke was because of the local TV station, WPKV. Several years ago, he had quit smoking and was exhibited as a model quitter on WPKV's quit-smoking drive and had received some prize money. The money was gone, most of it spent on cigarettes, but the title and the pride remained, unearned though they may be.

Thanks to Vito, Joseph thought as he limped out of the bakery. If Vito, Carmela's son, did not buy Joseph's cigarettes on the sly, Joe would have to mail-order them and people in the post office would find out, especially Amanda the witch, Joseph's co-worker, who snooped around Joseph and peeked into his stuff. Amanda had her spiteful eyes on Joseph's run to the middle of town where everything was happening. She had right out come and said so, but the supervisor had denied her request, telling her Joseph was the man for that route, and she should take care of her own route that covered the residential areas of the town. The supervisor had a thing against cigarettes, and he appreciated the so-called effort Joseph had made to quit. Oh well, why mess up a good thing? Smokes have to wait, Joe thought/

He crossed the street to West Pearl Avenue, got into his jeep behind the gas station, and drove down a few yards. He shuffled out of the jeep, to the Touchless Hair Salon to hand out the packages to Penny. Penny's head looked like permanently bent. She had her cell phone captured tightly between her right ear and her shoulder.

"What? Right now? Yes, he's here. I'll tell him."

Penny put the phone in her apron's pocket and took the envelopes. Joseph stacked the packages near the register.

"Joe, you dropped an envelope at the bakery. Jenna, the baker's daughter, ran after you, but she tripped and fell. She has a big gash on her forehead. Not too bad though. Still, to be on the safe side, Millie is taking her to the hospital, but your mail is okay. Stephen says he is keeping the envelope in the cash register. You can get it back whenever you wish."

All that in one breath! No wonder. She gets her practice on that crappy cellphone.

"Oh, sorry about Jenna," Joe replied. "She's a sweet kid. I'll stop by to pick the envelope and see how Jenna is faring, after I finish my rounds."

Leaving the hair salon, Joseph hobbled across the street to the Silver Pheasant, the Chinese take-out and diner. His foot was bothering him. Damn that pit bull, he thought, remembering the dog attack that left him limping even after so many years.

Ah Chang greeted him, bowing. Joseph never knew what to do when someone bowed to him. Especially someone so much taller than him. Ah Chang was from the northern part of China, thus the height, but he bragged about offering the food from all provinces.

As if Joe barely noticed Ah Chang's perfectly bent torso, he took a stance that could pass between a yoga position and bowing back. Just to be on the safe side.

"Hello Mr. Ah Chang, here's you mail," he said,

Right at that moment, ear-piercing screams tore through the street. Joseph and Ah Chang ran to the door. Through the twirling grey smoke from the store, people were dashing out. He heard a woman scream, "My hair, my hair!"

Penny darted toward Ah Chang and Joseph. "Oh my God! Something with the electrical wires." She gasped. "Right after you left, Joe, the hair dryers went wild." She suddenly realized she had her cell phone in her hand and clicked. "Hello, This is Penny from the Touchless Salon. Fire! We have a fire. The place's smoked out. Please, come quick."

Joseph took a few steps back, fearing the smoke could harm the mail in his mailbag.

Rocky Road firemen --Carl Duffman, Dennis Williams, Adam Kleinsasser, and David Whiteberry-- arrived in less than two minutes in a fire truck. The fire-chief followed them with Mike, in his small cart. After checking out the place, Mike, the sturdiest and the most knowledgeable of the firemen, said, "Probably a short, Penny. Your walls are cool to the touch. Better get the electrician and have him fix whatever went wrong."

Joseph said goodbye to Penny, Ah Chang, and the firefighters, and walked to his jeep. Before he hopped in, another loud explosion tore into his ears. Ah Chang's Silver Pheasant...of course. Joseph turned around and saw the firemen rush into the Silver Pheasant. Lucky they hadn't left yet, he thought. Then, a sudden thought made him freeze in his tracks.

Three places, three nasty incidents, right after he'd left. A coincidence. Yes, what else? Oh, well. He had deliveries to the apartment mailboxes next, and for at least a little while, he wouldn't have to hitch with that leg of his. Thank God for little favors!

He drove past the unused land to the apartment complex at the end of West Pearl. Here, the job would be a breeze. He went in through the front door to the mailboxes in the foyer and deposited the mail in each box. Most residents in this building were the elderly, living on their social security checks. They received only one or two pieces of mail, if any. Easy as cake! He smiled.

After the apartment complex, he got into his jeep, made a u-turn, and went across to the city jail and police station. "Hello, Joe," said Jean Marie from the desk and held out her hand for the mail.

Joseph handed her a few envelopes, then put the rest of the packages on the counter. "More here, Jeanie," he said, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and dislodging his cap while doing so. As he was exiting the building, two detectives rushed out and crossed the street. Next, Joe heard the siren and saw the emergency vehicle turning the corner from North Orchard into West Pearl. To stay out of the way, he waited on the side of his jeep.

Jean Marie rushed out. "Old Mr. Weatherby fell down the stairs. I hope he'll be all right," she said. "It happened less than five minutes ago."

"That must be right after I left." Joseph shook his head. Another one? He'd better quit. He got into the jeep and drove towards the post office. He'd tell them he didn't feel well on account of being unlucky. No, he couldn't say that, but maybe he just didn't feel right. No, he couldn't do that either. That would be lying. worse yet, that would be giving the go-ahead to Amanda who desperately wanted Joe's route.

Maybe, Joe could just go home and deliver the rest of the mail tomorrow, but what would he do with the mail in the jeep? He couldn't leave it there. The cleaning crew would get suspicious, seeing all that mail there.

So he drove to his home, out on the other side of the interstate. His wife Della would be working in the bank. She'd be home an hour later, and she'd notice nothing because the garage was separate from the house. Della, a highly conscientious person, believed strongly in work ethics, especially if they involved Joseph.

He backed the jeep to his garage door, deposited the three boxes of mail inside the garage, and covered them with a large tarp. Only until tomorrow, he thought.

Feeling better about his undelivered mail, he drove to the post office. He left the jeep in the parking lot, checked in with the supervisor, and took his jalopy home.

On his way out, he took a deep breath. He felt he acted smartly. No one would catch on to the fact that their mail was delivered one day late. Tomorrow would be another day, as that fancy star uttered a in that fancy movie, which Della watched ad nauseum.

Except, on his return home when he turned the corner to his street, he saw the smoke coming from his own garage where he had deposited the mail. He recalled lighting up a cigarette after he pulled the tarp over the bundles.

He rushed in a futile attempt to rescue what he had not delivered.

Chapter 7

Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
Dry Wood Termites


Sweat poured down the man's face in rivulets. He slumped forward and held on to the kitchen wall to keep from falling on the floor. He squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lower lip. He had just come down into the kitchen from inspecting the attic.

"What did you see?" Edith Zwahlen asked him. Larry, her husband, was running his hand along the chrome edging of the sink, just to be doing something as he usually did when he didn't have anything else to do.

"The attic..." The termite inspector gasped, as he wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. "It's only the attic but it clamped my breath."

Attic? My foot! Edith thought. It was only a crawl space, where Larry and Edith never dared to creep in. Sometimes, Edith imagined the bones of an assassin hiding there...an assassin who, after killing a wealthy crime lord, did not dare to come down until his demise.

"Did you see anything?" Edith asked again, wringing her work-worn hands.

"Not much. It seems okay." The man paused, his mouth twitching. He wiped his face and the sweat dribbling down his mustache, with the sleeve of his shirt. "The flashlight's beam could not reach the corners and under the eaves. Chances are you are hosting dry wood termites up there. From the looks of your porch door, they have started homing in your house."

"Dry wood termites?" Edith opened the refrigerator door. "Was that what I have been hearing inside the walls?" She poured some cold water from a jug into a glass and handed it to the man.

"Thank you, Ma'am!" He drank the entire liquid in one gulp and placed the glass on the counter. Then he continued. "They fly and come from the trees or from someone else's place in the neighborhood. Not the kind that dwells under the soil. If they have managed to find their way up there, the beams and the wood frame of your roof will rot and heaven forbid, any strong wind will do it in."

"What do we do?" Larry cut in.

The termite inspector, having recovered his breath, stared at Larry for a second, then talked with conviction. "We'll send our technicians to spray the dry wood in your attic, and your roof will stay strong. That is, if you agree."

"Did you see anything else up there, anything strange?" Edith asked.

"What could he have seen, Woman?" Larry sounded impatient. He probably worried the next few words out of Edith's mouth would make her look like the neighborhood loca.

"Not much." The termite inspector threw an uneasy look at Larry. "There's no light up there. With my flashlight, I could see only a little, but don't worry, folks. I'll leave you some brochures about the treatment with the estimate. Call us the next week or so, if you want it done."

After the inspector left, Larry turned to Edith, ready to fire one of his verbal missiles.

"Don't say anything..." Edith objected before Larry spoke. "You know I didn't invite the bugs up there."

"I wasn't going to say you invited any bugs. I was just going to tell you to remember to keep your trap shut about mysterious ghosts, skeletons, and God knows what in the attic. Such things do not exist."

"Huh! Maybe only the dry wood termites do." She knew she sounded sarcastic, but she couldn't help herself.

Larry tapped his foot on the linoleum. "They are not there, and that man is trying to milk us."

"He said he saw them inside and on the door jamb of the porch door."

"The wood's rotted. I'll just change the beams. That will be that."

Larry was always like that, ready to take risks. Let the man spray the place, Edith thought. The smell may scare off whatever is there. Better to be sure than sorry. Dry wood termites... and all those creatures--seen or unseen--that existed on or in the earth. As soon as she thought that, her dream of two nights ago, the one before the termite inspector's visit, leaped into her consciousness.


She had seen those odd winged creatures, all unique, none the same, and they were made of something gel-like. Their heads were shaped a bit like a human's, except with a much more curved back. Their two large eyes were amber colored globes swirling around. The tips of their noses curved to a bit of a snout, yet more like a needle-like end.

In the dream, they were fighting with each other. Edith surmised they had hollow, aggressive personalities. Not very likable beings really.

Well, if Larry wanted to live with such gross things in the attic and probably inside the walls, too, so be it. Edith would not argue anymore, but she sure would keep wearing her large cross night and day...just in case.

She knew she wasn't alone in her guess that a terrible things lived inside this house. Heyman, too, was uneasy about it for had to have recognized what the noises inside the walls meant.

"Come out, Heyman." Edith opened the door of the den where they had locked the dog when the termite inspector showed up. The dog jumped off the couch, ran to the door, and started licking Edith's hand.

Then, he tilted his head and fixed his large brown eyes on her. Heyman's stare was direct and meaningful, and Edith thought anyone who could read the body language of the dogs would know that Heyman agreed with her on everything.

Heyman, a golden retriever mix, was a strange dog; yet, he was Edith's unfaltering friend. Edith had meant to call him Scotty, but when a newly adopted puppy, Heyman came rushing and jumping at people. One of Larry's friends who was suddenly taken aback by the frisky puppy exclaimed, "Hey, man!" And Heyman answered with a yelp. Thus Scotty became Heyman.

A year after Heyman became Edith's pet, the Zwahlens bought an old house and moved in. After the move, Heyman lost most of his zip. From time to time, he cowered under the table or in a corner inside the house. Edith believed the dog was capable of seeing what nobody saw, for when he was outside on the leash, he rarely acted nervous, and even regained some of his oomph. .

As Edith walked toward the kitchen, Heyman whined, begging and rubbing gently against her legs. She stooped to pet him. "Don't worry," she whispered. "I'll see if I can put a cross on you, too, but you have to hide it, so I don't get yelled at for it."

Heyman's eyes twinkled. Edith could have sworn the dog's stare reflected his relief, so she comforted Heyman, stroking his glossy fur and scratching behind his ears.

Before they entered the kitchen, she said to Heyman, "We'll be okay." Heyman whimpered.

To be on the safe side or at least to have done something about it, Edith opened the latch to the crawlspace and sprayed the inside with a bug killer or rather what she thought was a bug killer. It was the spray Larry used in the yard.

The next day, it rained after midnight with the wind picking up. Edith woke up startled to the thud and din of some indeterminable vermin running in the attic. It surely wasn't the sound of the rain tapping lightly on the roof. The noise resembled the breaking of wood, like empty crates creaking, wobbling, vibrating, breaking apart...Larry's snoring at every breath sliced into that noise, making the sounds even more ominous.

"Larry, wake up. Something's going on." As soon as Edith flicked on the light, the noise stopped.

"Going bonkers again? It's the rain. You'd better turn that light off, and go back to sleep."

Edith reached to Heyman lying on the floor next to her side of the bed. She felt the dog's trembling body under her hand. Heyman reacted to her with a tiny squeal and a short wag of tail.

For an anguished moment, Edith could not decide what to do, but she turned off the light and lay back staring at the ceiling in the dark. About half an hour later, when she was just about to fall asleep, the noise started again.

Without turning on the light, she arose and tiptoed to the living room with Heyman tagging behind her. As soon as she turned on the living room lamp, the noise decreased and stopped again. Edith went to the window and stared out, at the lonely street lamp on the corner of the street.

The rain dripped on the neighboring houses and the pavement, and droplets glistened like sequins on the puddles. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Just their familiar street under the rain in the middle of the night. She shut the blinds and closed the drapes. In the half-dark, the shapes of things seemed to grow bigger, but she didn't make a sound. Instead, she went back to bed, feeling like she was taking a reckless chance.

Larry snored on.


"Are you coming to the store, today?" Larry asked Edith next morning as he shlopped around his cereal in too much milk. "You should be there yesterday, to see old Underwood's granddaughter." He corrected himself. "Step granddaughter. Maddie is the name. She bought a spiral notebook. You'd think she bought the royal crown jewels. I never saw any kid go gaga over a notebook. Live and learn!"

"You're making a mess, " Edith said and she blotted the milk drops with the corner of her napkin.

"I talk about the store and she talks about mess..." Larry shook his head, looking away, as if he were talking to a third person in the room. Then he turned to her. "I told you yesterday that I needed another hand. You might not have caught on, but I meant precisely your help. Cindy is going to the hospital today."

"What hospital?"

"Are you walking in a dream or something? Didn't you talk to her the other day?"

"Oh, her mother. Hospital in Palm Breeze..."

"Finally!" Larry rolled his eyes.

"Okay, okay! Don't raise your dander up." Edith sighed. "I'll come. But not right away. Just a few minutes after you. After I put the wash in."

"Hurry up and don't forget it. I can't do everything alone."

You can't do anything alone," Edith thought, annoyance getting the best of her, but she said nothing. Just because he ordered her instead of asking nicely, she would take her time. For sure, she would take her time. She would not go to the store without doing the laundry. She would even wash those items that didn't need washing.

Edith lingered around the kitchen, then vacuumed the entire house. When she was loading the washer, she heard a gnawing sound behind her. It must be in my mind, she thought, but still, she turned around slowly to nothing but the table behind her with the pile of laundry she was feeding into the washer.

Then, the pile moved.

Edith gasped. She took a step back. Something stirred inside the whites and arose slowly. She opened her mouth to scream but her voice was gone.

Something as big as a loaf of bread, pluglike, wrinkled, and nearly black slowly arose from the pile. But this was only the head, a boxlike head with sharp jointed antennae wiggle-waggling...The almond-shaped eyes, dark black and bulbous, with eerie luminosity, holding their gaze on Edith.

She let out a small scream and took a step back. I am going nuts. Larry is right, I'm nuts!. Now the body was taking shape, with the thorax bobbing up. From the thorax the first pair of legs protruding ...

Edith opened her mouth to scream again but she couldn't find her voice.

The belly of the thing wriggled left and right and shook out its three pairs of legs. Then the thing stretched as if awakening.

Edith clenched her hands into fists and froze in place.

Heyman yelped from behind her and took off toward the kitchen.

"Some dog you have!" The creature rubbed its legs together, then leaped to the floor. "You'd think he'd be protecting you."

A four-feet termite with speech...

"Hello, I'm just a soldier termite." It introduced itself. Its voice sounded whistle-like and wheezing, but it was loud enough to scratch the insides of Edith's eardrums.

"GGGo away..." she stuttered. She tried to move her legs with little success at first, then she backed up a few steps.

"I'm not here to harm you, but to thank you. Did you notice you sprayed us with a fertilizer?" The termite soldier giggled. "Now, we're stronger than ever."

Just then, from the yard, Heyman started barking madly. He had to have escaped through the doggie door in the kitchen. At least, the dog was safe.

Edith was so spooked. She managed to take back a step or two. "I have to go..." Her voice came out so unlike hers, hoarse as if she were choking. She felt like she was choking.

"Be my quest..." The soldier termite pointed to the door. She was too scared to look around her as she walked backwards through the corridor. At each step the floor boards creaked. The door jambs to the adjoining rooms quivered. The ceiling vibrated, and the sound of gnawing amplified as if a hundred carpenters were sawing wood.

In what felt like a thousand years, Edith made it to the front entrance. Yanking her purse and keys from the hall console, she rushed out of the house. As soon as she opened her Honda's door, Heyman ran up to her and jumped inside the car.


"You're late. What's the meaning of this? Why did you bring the dog with you?" Larry whined as he rang the cash register and handed the last customer his purchase. Edith recognized the tall, thin man with broad shoulders and sandy hair-- Mr. Patinelli the English teacher at the high school--and nodded to him in recognition. Then she turned to Larry.

"Heyman jumped in the car on his own. He didn't want to stay alone. He's scared."

"My dog is the same," Patinelli said. "He doesn't understand I have to teach class. Wants to stick to me for dear life."

Now, Larry had diverted his attention from the customer and was staring at her. "What's the matter with you?" he asked. "You're pale as a sheet. Are you sick or something?"

Edith blinked in surprise. Was Larry concerned about her? Now, that was new. But she couldn't tell him what she saw in the house, could she! They'd deal with it after closing the stationery. Maybe then, she could explain...if she could.

"It is just that the house didn't feel safe," she said. "With all the noise from the wood..."

"It is because you have that old house," Patinelli said. "When I moved here, I wanted to get an old wood-framed house, too, but the broker said that wouldn't be wise if I weren't handy."

"Yes, that's what it is," Larry said. "We bought that old junk pile because my wife here wanted its 'rustic old world charm.' It's a hopeless case, a money pit, I tell you."

"I'll take Heyman to the back and give him some water," Edith said. "It's hot out. Bye, Mr. Patinelli. Have a nice day."

Larry had lunch brought in from Carmela's. "Eat some more," he urged Edith. "You look sick. You must be coming down with something."

"It isn't the eating, Larry. It's the house. Those things are eating up the house."She paused to catch her breath. Then she blurted it out. "Just before I came today, I saw one of them. Why it was as big as Heyman."

"Heyman? Are you okay? Are you losing it?" Larry looked addled.

"Maybe a mouse?" Edith retracted. Why push it, Larry wouldn't believe whatever she'd say. "Well, I saw a termite, and it was disgusting."

"Termites again! Your imagination's getting the better of you." Larry rolled his eyes. "Next month, okay? We can't go crazy with the finances. Also, I'd hate it if they tented the place."

"If they have to, they have to. As long as we get rid of them." Edith sighed as she tore up a slice of pizza for Heyman. "I'm afraid we can't wait until the next month."

"Let's talk about it later," Larry stood up. "A customer's up front."

As Larry locked the door to All Things Paper, Edith whimpered. "Can we not go home tonight?"

"What? Where'd we go? What's up now, Edith?"

"Nothing. I thought maybe we could sleep elsewhere for a change."

"She wants to sleep elsewhere..." Larry looked up as if complaining to a third invisible person. "No, Edith, we'll go home. You wanted us to buy that old heap of rotten wood. So it's our place now, comprende?"

Edith drove behind Larry's SUV, with anxiety eating her insides. What if those things sneaked into bed with them? She shuddered. What if, when they slept, they came after them and nibbled on their arms and legs, body...head?

When she turned the corner to their street, she couldn't say if the distant rumbles she was hearing came from the sky or from inside her head, but although the day was ending, the sky was visible and she saw no clouds.

When they were half way up the road she heard a strange creak...followed by a savage groan. Then a sound akin to the firing of artillery roared in her ears.

Now their house was in view. It was moving from its foundation while swaying from side to side. Edith turned off the ignition and got out. In front of her, Larry, too, stopped the SUV and jumped out, staring, his mouth half open.

Several of their neighbors rushed out, but seeing the spectacle, they stopped in their tracks. After some minutes, or was it seconds later, the sound of sirens tore through the sound of rumbles. Someone had to have called the police or the fire department.

The house suddenly twisted as if in pain, then crashed to the ground, its pieces of timber and glass flying around.

Edith inched near Larry and held on to his arm as Heyman whimpered at their side. They watched in horror a black buzzing cloud rise and take to the air from the ruins of what was once the Zwahlen's home.

Chapter 8

Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
Heartbreak


Vito Moretti's room or rather his studio apartment's window faced the hot afternoon sun, which discolored the curtains and his naps. Morning light was no better either. Blinking with discomfort, he had no other choice but to get up, after lunch, and go to work as his mother Carmela nagged him to do.

Nagging her son was one of Carmela's hungers, and hunger made people do amazing things. "Mama's hunger is for control," Vito muttered, turning under the sheets to the other side. "Mine's Nessa, and it is to be left alone."

A good thing he couldn't finish his snooze with all the bright light sneaking inside his room. It was getting late, and he'd awakened with a cloudy head. How could he to get around his mother or convince Nessa to take him back? Nessa, the one woman he had a thing for...how he yearned to snuggle with her in her bed, in that little apartment upstairs of the pizzeria.

Oh no, he suddenly remembered. Nessa had moved out of the apartment. She no more worked for Carmela in the pizzeria. She was living with her grandfather, the man she had thought was dead. Vito had known Latimer and even liked him, but he hadn't connected that him to Nessa. No way! And Nessa now worked in her grandfather's store.

Vito berated himself for forgetting. Then even forgetting could be attributed to many things. His mother's nagging, the thing about his father, which he couldn't bring up with anyone, except Nessa. And then there was his nightly drinking he couldn't do without. The liquor didn't sparkle like it did in the bottle. When it went inside Vito, it turned into an ogre that ate his brain.

Maybe it was for the better. When Vito hung around at the restaurant too long, he had a difficult time not to ogle Nessa, and he was afraid Carmela would catch on to what was happening between the two of them.

Nessa's vision, her blond, pony tail swinging with curls as she glided past him, her blue eyes, full lips, the sway of her hips, all as one single image rolled in front of his eyes, and Vito's insides churned with yearning. To not get caught by his mother, he had trained himself to look down at his shoes or take something from the kitchen to the garbage bin.

That was why he had asked an old friend of his father, Paul Lukeman, to give him a part-time job in the afternoons in his furniture store to do refurbishing and retouching, after Vito stopped working for his mother.

He sat up as if the alarm clock in his head had given him an electric jolt. Surprise, surprise. His crazy drinking spree the night before, as he yearned for Nessa in Sam's Bar, had not made him stay sprawled on the bed until noon. Was it possible he had conquered the hangover problem? Nice job, he thought. I must have exchanged the hangover thing for the memory problem.

He hopped out of the bed and went directly to the bathroom mirror to notice the creases on the left side of his face, and on the same side, his messed up hair. He had to have slept on his left side again. Did the plastering of the left side of his head to the pillow make him wake up alert?

"Arrgh! Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Now, even after the shower, my idiot hair will rebel."

Still eight o'clock in the morning. Who'd wake up at this ungodly hour? Wasn't this waking up early the reason he had moved out of Carmela's comfy home on the cul-de-sac?

He shaved and showered. While he dressed he heard the young couple to the right of his place quarreling. Jim, the guy on the apartment at the other side, had to be picking on his wife Coralie. Jim had had a string of traffic accidents. He always seemed to be in a hurry.

He heard a door slam and a few minutes later, the sound of crashing metal. He ran to the window and looked out. His small truck had acquired a dent at the driver's side.

Was it Jim, one of the neighbors, or had he done it himself the night before?

"You try to help a fella, and look what he does! If it's him who dented the car."

Coralie stayed home to study for her bar exams. Some studying! How could she study while having a thing with one of the volunteer firemen?

Vito had caught on to the affair one morning from his window when he noticed a car that resembled Oliver's car. Oliver Grout was a steady customer at Carmela's since the firehouse was just next door. As soon as Jim left, Oliver dashed into the building. Thinking the restaurant had another fire and Oliver had come to call him, Vito opened his front door to witness Oliver enter Jim and Coralie's apartment.

He puffed with disgust as he bent down to tie his sneakers. Carmela would see the dent for sure. He wouldn't tell her it could be Jim. Jim was a buddy and a drinking buddy at that.

Carmela didn't tell Vito not to drink. And neither would Vito admit to his drinking sprees. Not that Carmela didn't know, but talking about it would be nailing in another bulletin for extra nagging. Only Nessa had understood. But she was history now, wasn't she!

"Nessa, Nessa, Nessa!" He repeated her name out loud. He missed her. He didn't know how to reach her or what to do to make her change her mind. She had become difficult to get in touch with, too, wow that she had moved in with her grandfather, that half-wit old man Matthews. She came and went to work in his truck, and the old man lived far outside of Rocky Road, near the preserve.

Vito had learned about Nessa's leaving Carmela's place from Bettie, the oldest on the serving staff. "Look at her leave, just like that!"

It was then that he had seen Nessa carrying plastic bags. Surely, they weren't the restaurant garbage. Nessa had tossed her things into two large black plastic bags and was carrying them to the truck, to Latimer Matthews' truck, parked in front of the pizzeria.

"What happened? Did she have a fallout with Mom?" He had asked Bettie.

"Nope," Bettie had said. "She found better pastures. She's moving in with her grandpa, if you believe, he's her grandpa. That old wolf Latimer..."

"He's her grandpa," Vito had answered. "She's no golddigger." He couldn't let anyone think badly of Nessa.

"If you say so, Sweetie," Bettie had cooed.

"What are you two doing there watching that idiot?" Carmela had roared from behind them. "Don't you have work to do?"

Just then, Nessa had turned around and seen them watch her from the hallway's window. She had smiled and waved at them. Under Carmela's watchful eye, Vito had waved back but hadn't approached her. Maybe he should have. Maybe then, he could convince her he loved her. But Carmela was behind him, and he felt as if he were nailed to the ground. Carmela had that effect on people.

A couple of days after Nessa's leaving, Vito had paid her a visit at her new workplace, that weird store Bertha's Corner, but couldn't go near her because a tour bus was standing by the curb, and the place was filled with customers.

Vito stopped buckling his belt with a realization. When Nessa had noticed him enter the store that day, she had waved him off with a gesture of her hand. Did she have a new man in her life? If she did, Vito would kill him.

But Nessa had her grandfather, now. A newly discovered grandfather who had recently acquired some riches due to that old demented Dexter who had left him whatever he owned.

Yes, Nessa had a new man in her life all right. It was her grandfather.

A pang of jealousy squeezed Vito's heart. Why would he be jealous of a grandfather? He tried to reason with himself. Nessa had grown up without a father, with two women in the house, not knowing her grandfather existed. Now, she was making the most of it. She was trying to make up for lost time.

Once the novelty wears off, she'll come back to me. I'll marry her immediately, and Mama will have to approve. She'll approve since Nessa is not the Cinderella Mama thought her to be, not anymore. Nessa has a grandfather with means. Yes, having means was everything to Carmela.

What if Nessa didn't come back? What would Vito do if she didn't? How could he exist? What would Gennaro do, if Carmela found out what her husband was about and she left him? Gennaro would probably kill her.

Gennaro, Vito's father, would have done exactly that because of his background. Gennaro would kill not out of his passion but out of the fashion of face-saving among the kind of people with whom he associated in Little Italy in New York, where he had lived several decades ago.

Gennaro...his father. What a heartbreak he had been for Vito...

Many years ago, Vito didn't do more than a beer or two. He took his first hard liquor--what was it several shots of cognac or bourbon, he couldn't remember now—when he uncovered Gennaro's past and how he betrayed Carmela, betrayed her in the worst way possible. Yes, betrayed her. Not with another woman but with another man. Vito had walked in on the two men once. Quite by accident..

The vision came alive in front of his eyes, making him feel dizzy for a split second. How could he have known? How could anyone have known...or guessed?

Big, surly Gennaro, the great he-man...the father Vito looked up to until that very moment when he walked in on them and left as quietly as he came. Gennaro never saw it was his son who opened the door and then closed it, and Vito never told him. Vito never talked about this with his mother, or anyone else.

Except Nessa. He had told her. He did it because she asked him what was eating him so...How did she know something was eating him? She had said she heard him talk in his sleep. Had she made that up to conceal her knack of seeing into him?

Vito didn't think he talked in his sleep. But that was Nessa. His angel who sensed his moods and knew how to soothe him. Only angels sensed the insides of people and didn't own the fact that they did. Yes, Nessa had to have made up his talking in his sleep.

He smiled as he closed his door behind him and jangled the keys playfully. Nessa would come back to him. Let her enjoy her new find for a while, though not for too long.


In the evening, Vito called Nessa on her cell. He had spent the last hour at Lukeman's, sandpapering wood, and considering the possibility that if Nessa heard his voice, she would meet him again. She answered but was distant. She turned down his offer of spending the night together.

"Give me some time," she said. "I'm considering making a few changes. Grandfather thinks I should go back to school, and I like the idea."

School? The crazy old man is messing with her head. What did Nessa need school for? Wasn't she born with enough assets? But he tried to sound smooth and cool "Meet me for dinner then, tonight, so you can tell me all about it."

Her voice was shaky. "Not tonight. Grandfather and I are going to Mom's. So much to catch up on."

"How did your mom take it? I mean, finding out her father wasn't dead?"

"She is mad at Grandma."

"And you?"

"I can't be mad at Grandma. As I told you before, she was good to me. I can't wrap my finger around what she did or why she did it, but I don't care. I'm just so content to have a grandfather. We get along perfectly. You know I like books. Grandfather is a bookworm, too. We're getting acquainted in very many ways, and he seems happy to have me around."

"I bet." Did he sound sarcastic? He worried about that, but he continued. "Coming back to us, when can you meet me?"

She hesitated for a few seconds, then answered. "Sometime during the week. I can meet you for lunch. I'll call."

"Only for lunch?" The playful tone in his voice, he just couldn't help it.

"Yes, to talk." Her voice was icy.

He didn't know what to make of her cooled voice and her hesitation when it came to seeing him, but he was sure if she saw him, she'd melt. He was sure she had enjoyed their time together...earlier. Would the discovery of a kin make so much difference as to change one's mind about everything?

She called three days later.

"Silver Pheasant," she said. "One thirty? Maddie says she has no school that day, and she can come help Grandfather."

"Silver Pheasant? But it's in town. Mama will hear of it."

"If you're that scared of your mama, we don't need to see each other at all."

What had come over her? He squeezed his hands into fists. Still he managed to answer calmly enough. "Okay then. I'll meet you in Silver Pheasant."

I'll tell Mama I'm meeting Nessa before Mama hears it from someone else.

But he couldn't.

That day, Carmela's was busy at lunch, and since one of the waitresses had broken her wrist, only Bettie attended the customers. Poor thing, she ran hither and thither, mixing up the orders and giving out checks haphazardly to the wrong customers. Vito felt for her when he saw her crimson face with the perspiration dripping from her forehead.

Carmela had then taken over in the kitchen and had sent one of the kitchen helpers to wait on the customers, leaving Vito to attend the cash register. When the lunch crowd dwindled to a doable size, Vito could take off. Finally!


Nessa was frowning and ready to leave just when he perched on the wooden slatted chair across from her. "Sorry," he said. "Busy lunch hour at the Pizzeria. I wanted to call you but couldn't get around it."

"It's okay. I was late, too," Nessa said calmly. "Maddie had to walk her dog before coming to take my place. Let's order something." She motioned to the Chinese waiter, Lou Chang--the owner's son, who approached their table and handed them the menus.

Nessa waved back the menu. "I know what I want. Teriyaki chicken and mixed vegetables."

"Szechuan pork for me with fried wontons," Vito said, eyeing the other customers.

"Are you checking who'll see us?"

He couldn't miss the sarcasm. No one could. But she was right. He was checking for that.

"It's just that I was going to tell Mama myself, I mean about meeting you, but the restaurant was too busy. Leila has a broken wrist. Mama sent Janet to the floor and took over the kitchen...you know."

Nessa nodded. For a while, the conversation was about anything but what Vito wanted. Anxiety hovered over him like a cloud of killer bees. He felt he had to change the flow of words.

"So tell me everything." He didn't really want to know everything, but he had to get her to talk, so he could close the chasm between them that was enlarging second by second.

"Nothing to tell. I'm sure you heard it all."

"Word gets around, but I didn't hear your version." He fixed his gaze on her face, her small upturned nose, the blue in her eyes.

She fidgeted somewhat. "Finding out that my grandfather was alive meant a lot to me. It made me to re-evaluate my situation with everything and everyone." Her voice croaked somewhat as if she felt winded momentarily.

Vito's discomfort gave way to fright. He reached across the table for her hand.

"I love you, Nessa," he said simply.

She looked straight at him, her eyes blue as the sky, as the ocean, as ever. "No you don't," she said, no longer fidgeting. "If you did, we wouldn't be sneaking around."

"You know about Mama..."

"Carmela has nothing to do with it." She interrupted him. "Face it, Vito. What we had was like this, eating together. Love is more than that."

At that instant, Lou appeared carrying their coffees.

Vito waited until Lou left, then he raised the coffee cup toward Nessa. He wriggled it and took a sip. "I know what love is," he said.

"No, you don't. Love is wanting to be seen with the other person, not fearing it. Love is respect , and friendship, and passion, and heat."

"We have heat. Dpn't we have heat? You can't say all that is, was, nothing."

"Let's not argue. And it is not just you. It's me, too. I never loved you, Vito, not the way you deserve it. Now I see how wrong I have been, and I just want to say one more thing. What we had was great. It was wonderful as long as it lasted." Nessa averted his eyes and looked down, pushing her empty plate away from her. "It was wearing off toward the end, but you didn't notice it. And I never liked sneaking around either."

Was she dumping him? No, She couldn't. What was it she was saying then? Did she really say what she said? Surely she didn't mean it. "No, you're wrong." He shook his head.

"Let's give it a rest," she said in a soft voice as if consoling a child. "Let's not see each other for a while..."

"No," thundered Vito, making the other customers stare at them. "I can't accept that. It's your grandfather, isn't it!"

"My grandfather? No, Vito. Truth is, I consider you more like a friend, if you know what I mean," Nessa said, trying to be gentle. "What we had was great. You are great, too, but this has nothing to do with you. It's just that I think I shouldn't be tied down. Not yet. There's more out there for me. Please understand."

His voice rose again. "You can't drop me like that. If it's your grandfather filling your head with such ideas, to hell with him." His temper was getting the best of him but there was no holding it back now. What had been a spark now had turned to a fiery blaze.

She grimaced. "Stop cursing and leave my grandfather out of this!"

Her words, the sharp tone in them, infuriated him even more, causing his voice to swell. "No, I know it is him. I knew it all along. You were always so foolish. He brainwashed you. Old crazy bastard!"

Nessa leaped to her feet. "I can't do this. Not anymore. It is not possible to talk to you. That's it, Vito. I'm leaving." More than what she said, her way of saying it hit him like shrapnel.

"I'll kill him. I'll erase that demented fossil off the face of the earth!" Vito felt his face burn.

All eyes were on them. Nessa sprang up and walked out of the restaurant, the sound of her footsteps like bullets raining on Vito.

She was gone, thrashing .his dreams. Gone out of the door of the Silver Pheasant as Mr. Chang and his whole family watched, as the other diners watched. She was gone...gone forever.

No, it can't be forever. Is it forever? No, someone has to pay for this. That old man will pay for this.


Carmela was livid. She held the sides of her head and squeezed it in dismay. "Why did I call you here? Why did I call you here? You're still asking? I called you here because I'm ashamed of you!" She was scolding Vito as she stood upright in the middle of her living room. "I can't believe you caused such a scene, Vito Moretti. The whole town is talking about it."

"Let them, talk, Mamma mia! What difference does it make?" Vito mumbled, leaning on the door jamb, looking down at the carpet.

Carmela groaned. "I was good to that girl. And look what happens! She gets under your skin, and the whole town yaks about how a cheap girl walked all over my son...all over the Moretti's. What a scandal!" She began treading around the room in circles as if stepping over dead bodies in a battlefield.

Vito raised his head. "Mama, don't get mad. I didn't see it coming. I thought she loved me."

Carmela slapped her hands on her head. "She loved you! You thought she loved you!" She stopped in front of Vito and pointed her finger at him. "You idiot! She used you." She resumed her angry trot. "I let her have the apartment rent-free. I paid her, gave her time off. I don't know what else I could have done."

Vito wiped his palms on his jeans. Carmela's fury was making him sweat. "You were good to her Mama. I know it. But we had this going for a long time. We were good together. I thought we were."

"For a long time, ha! He now tells me for a long time. You stupido!" she stomped on the floor. "Don't be a moron. Who needs her! You don't need her; I don't need her. The first break she got, she left. Didn't even give notice. She said she's leaving. She said she found family. The next minute, she's off." She made a gesture, waving her right hand in the air.

"She broke my heart, Mama," Vito said, almost choking on the verge of tears.

"Get over it. It's good she left you. That is one huge gift from God. Yet, so infuriating the way she did it. Right in the middle of the town! That...that meretrice!"

Vito's mouth formed a menacing, toothy grin. "I'll get her. I swear!"

Carmela stopped in front of him. She stared at her son. Abruptly her outburst was over. She tried to smile, then patted Vito's cheek.

"Let her go. Don't do anything stupid. That miserable thing doesn't deserve you."

***

Vito expected to find Latimer alone in Bertha's Corner as he slid his pocket knife inside his vest pocket. He was a bit drunk, actually quite plastered, but he thought he was in his senses. He would now show the old man what Vito Moretti was made of. He parked his car by the corner and walked up the slope.

As he took long strides, he called the store and asked to speak to Nessa. The old man told him Nessa was at her mother's. Hiding her from him? That old geezer might be lying...or not. It didn't matter.

A few steps more and he was opening the door of Bertha's Corner. He hesitated before he entered, thinking he had never done anything like this, but then, he had never lost a girl like Nessa, either. Would this make him his father's son? So what if it did? His boozed-up state was giving him the courage he needed.

The old man had slumped on a stool behind the counter like a frumpy old coat. He was alone. He turned his gaze at Vito as he walked up to him.

"Hello, Vito," he said, regarding him quizzically. "Didn't you just call?"

"You made her leave me." Vito said through gritted teeth..

"It was her decision. Not mine," Latimer Matthews said smugly.

"You'll pay for it." Vito slid his hand in his vest pocket and took out the knife, undoing its safety latch at the same time. Gripping the handle tightly, he looked at the old man's eyes for a long drawn-out moment. Latimer frowned as Vito raised his hand.

"Vito, no!" Nessa and Maddie ran out from the backroom. As soon as Vito raised his hand someone or something powerful bent his arm.

"Dexter, don't break the boy's arm," Latimer said casually.

Dexter? Wasn't he dead? The knife fell to the floor with a thud. Latimer, Nessa, and Maddie were in front of Vito. He could see them; yet, there was someone else, a strong man bending his arm from the back. Vito could hardly move. Nessa jumped forward and took the knife. She moved backward, went behind the counter, and placed the knife somewhere beneath it. The sound of a drawer opening and shutting echoed in the store.

Vito looked behind him. No one was there, but he still couldn't move.

"Let him go, Dexter," Latimer said in a calm voice.

Vito felt the force give way. He loosened up, held his sore arm, and rubbed it.

Nessa and Maddie stood frozen, trying to make sense of the moment.

Maddie was the first one to speak. "How did you do that?" She stared at Latimer Matthews.

The old man grinned, still perched on his stool as if he were watching a circus act.

"He did nothing. You saw what happened," Vito said. "Didn't you hear him give orders?"

"To whom? To Dexter?" Maddie's eyes bulged. "He talked to a ghost?"

"You need to direct your energies better, son," Latimer said. "Hot-headedness can hurt a person."

Nessa took her cell phone out of her pocket. "I'm calling the cops. This idiot wanted to kill you, Grandpa."

"Don't, Nessa." Latimer said reaching out to touch her arm. "Let him be. He won't do it again."

Nessa flipped the phone shut but threw a disgusted look at Vito.

"Get out of here, and mind your own business, Vito." Latimer coughed. "You can't make a woman do what you want her do. I learned about women the hard way myself."

Vito stumbled as he took a step backward. He felt faint for a split second, but he turned around and fled out of there.


Two more weeks passed before Vito saw Nessa again. As he was coming out of his place, Nessa was entering Dexter's apartment.

"Nessa!"

"Go away, Vito." She looked a vision even when she was cross with him.

"I'm sorry, really sorry. I meant to tell you but didn't have the guts to come near you again."

"It shouldn't be me you should apologize to." Nessa stood erect.

"I want to apologize to you and to your grandfather." He didn't know how he did it, how he could utter the word apologize. Apologizing to anyone wasn't his style.

"Never mind." Nessa waved him away. "Don't bother. Don't go near him. I'll tell him. And let's forget about what happened, okay?"

Vito nodded, feeling rescued. He couldn't imagine saying sorry to anyone, let alone that old geezer.

Nessa continued. "By the way, you'd better change that shirt. If your mother sees the stain..."

He held the base of his tee-shirt and looked at the stain smack in the middle of the shirt's front. He had no idea how the stain got there. How did any stain get on anyone? Why would things fall and leave their traces? Wouldn't it be easier on people if no traces were left and no stains?

But that stain was a sign. A sign to show him what he lacked, or more so, what he had overdone. That stain was his bad temper. That stain was his drinking. That stain was loving Nessa too much, yet not enough. That stain showed what he did instead of what he could have done.

"Okay, then." Nessa put the key in the lock and turned it. "Do something with your life, Vito. All this is because you are consumed by the past, by your father." She opened the door and held it ajar before she entered. "We're going to rent Dexter's apartment," she said. "If you know anyone who wants it..."

"Yeah, I'll look around." That's what he said. That's all he said. What else was there to say? What else was there if you lost the love of your life and you knew it was all your own fault? Didn't it feel like you were dead and did not want life anymore?

He recalled a little boy he had seen at the beach who lay in shallow water, waves covering him. Just when Vito had worried he could be drowned, the boy had sprung up and had run to his mother so she could towel-dry his face.

Vito went back inside his apartment. He slipped out of the tee-shirt and shoved it into the laundry basket. He would never wear that shirt again. He would never stain anything again, and he would redo everything.

Vito stood inside the room, transfixed, shirtless, still recalling the sight of Nessa, the venom in her eyes, the woman he loved...

Nessa had gotten to him all right, but her poison revived. Just like the snake in the Garden of Eden. A snake, a special snake, had caused Adam to learn how to live, and afterwards, all life had happened because of that one snake.


Chapter 9
Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
The Face of the Past (Pamela)


The glass door to the case for the cut flowers under a fluorescent light was left ajar. The sign over it said, Designer's Choice, the sign for which Pamela Doyle had obsessively badgered the painter while he painstakingly tried to finish it. The other cut flowers were on the two sides of the case, in containers half-filled with water: Sunflowers, Calla lilies, carnations, red roses, roses of various colors, Gerbera daisies. The store was simple, but it was pristine, and the fragrance was heavenly. Pamela saw to it that it was so.

She eyed the door left ajar. Sue was closing the register as a customer left with a bunch of daisies. That Sue was hopeless, leaving the doors open, knocking over the table with the ikebana arrangements, closing the large catalog on its stand or dumping papers over it. Hired help never turned out what Pamela wanted them to be, but at least, Sue had stayed with her unlike those others most of whom hadn't lasted even a week.

One should always hire the needy ones if one wants to run a decent business, Pamela thought. Charity never crossed her mind, and she was proud of it. The only charity she would succumb to would be the one that would benefit her in some way. She was just like Uncle Sam in that respect. Didn't Uncle Sam let people who gave donations deduct what they wasted on lazy people?

Wiggling at her desk, she turned her attention to Mailman Joe as he entered Petals and Wishes. Why couldn't the post office hire someone who didn't carry a curse about him? But she felt protected enough by the circle she had drawn around her desk. It wasn't only the circle alone. It was also the bunches of herbs in containers on the circle that her mother had given her to shake around the shop.

Joe proceeded slowly, laden with guilt, the guilt the entire town of Rocky Road was talking about. Joe's guilt generated what occurred a few days earlier, from all those mishaps that happened right after he left any one of the several establishments...and the mail that was never delivered.

Was Joe cursed or was this a coincidence? Pamela did not believe in coincidences. Joe had to have stepped in something. What if, after he left her store, another disaster would happen? Worse yet, Joe always started his rounds from Petals and Wishes. Well, hadn't she taken as many precautions as she could muster? She ought not think negative thoughts and attract negativity on herself.

"Good morning, Miss Doyle, hope all's well with you." Joe tilted his hat with his free hand, and on Pamela's desk, placed the mail bundled together with a rubber band.

"Good morning, Joe. I hear some bad luck followed you around yesterday." Pamela snickered.

"If you call it that, Ma'am. Coincidence maybe."

"Come on Joe, there are no coincidences. I don't believe in coincidences. Even Sue doesn't believe them, do you, Sue?"

Sue tipped her wire-rimmed glasses upward and swept her long stringy hair backwards. "No, Miss Doyle. There are no coincidences."

Pamela mocked Joe again. "See, Joe? What do you think happened to you? Did you make someone angry?"

Instead of answering, Joe set his hat straight and plastered a grin on his face.

Pamela continued her questioning. "Did you lose any mail, maybe an envelope that might have been sent to a gypsy?"

Joe swallowed his breath. "Not that I know of."

Pamela thought, I bet he is wishing he were smart enough to get out of answering my questions and blaming his parents who did not have enough money to give him a better education. Or he thinks I am scared of him, silly!

"It can't be me," Joe said. "If there is such a thing...I come here first everyday, then I go through East and West Ashley, then the Magnolia Drive and the outlying area. Nothing happened there."

"Where did it start?" Pamela asked.

"I don't exactly know. It might have started earlier than when I came out of the bakery, but to the best of my knowledge, Millie's daughter Jenna's accident was the first one."

"How did that happen?" Sue Willis looked around in anguish as if the earth was about to open. "Jenna is in my little sister's class. What was she doing?"

Joe passed the sleeve of his jacket over his brow, wiping the perspiration off his forehead and offsetting his hat. "She was running after me."

Pamela sat up straight, in feigned shock. "Oh, come on, Joe. She's a kid and you're too old."

"Not like that, Miss Doyle, for Heaven's Sakes!" Joe blushed. "I dropped an envelope, and her father sent her after me to give me the envelope."

"Just kidding, Joe," Pamela giggled triumphantly. "How possible is it that you dropped an envelope? To whom was it sent? From whom was it sent? It must have something to do with that envelope."

"I can't remember," Joe stared at the flower arrangement on top of Pamela's desk. "It was just a white envelope. It probably fell off the bag when I was taking out the baker's mail."

"And then?" Sue Willis asked nosily.

Curiosity can kill the kitten, Pamela thought. Sue Willis was the most subdued person she knew, and Sue always acted in deference to her. Did Sue's sudden inquisitory powers arise from that deference? If so, Pamela had nothing to worry about.


Joe said, "Then I crossed the street to deliver a piece of mail to the crafts shop. I had passed by there before but found this envelope in my bag that I hadn't delivered."

"Could it be the one that fell down?" Pamela frowned.

"No, I got the one that fell after that. It was Diana who told me about Jenna. So I crossed the street to the Crafts Shop to Liliane's and went back again to ask about the girl and to retrieve the letter."

"Nothing happened at Liliane's?" Sue Willis almost choked when she asked that.

Sue had to feel guilty as she should know how Pamela hated anyone who crossed her, like Liliane. In a nice way, but Liliane did cross Pamela. And wasn't Sue going to Liliane's for that stupid knitting group? Pamela ridiculed Sue over this.

Sue shifted uneasily as Pamela addressed her. "You should know what happens there. You and Lili are thick, aren't you?" Pamela felt victorious because for once, Sue had kept her trap shut. she didn't have the guts to answer her.

"No, nothing happened there." Joe said, watching Sue as she squirmed tongue-tied in her seat.

"For sure, it wouldn't, the bitch that Liliane is." That idiot woman with a holier than thou attitude! Pamela's face turned red with fury or was it jealousy? "Oh never mind, where was the next disaster?"

"At Diana's. Then next door at the Chinese take-out" Joe said.

"Ah Chang's? Poor Mr. Chang!" Sue lamented. Her tongue had loosened again.

"Oh, he's okay, and Diana, too. It was a string of fires. Something to do with the wiring. Those shops are connected."

"Wiring? My foot!" Pamela scoffed. "Are you sure you didn't get someone riled at you, Joe?"

Joe grinned. "No one except my wife, but hers is the permanent one, always there. There's no pleasing her. She could be a witch, I tell you."

"Did it finish there?"

"Then I went into the apartment complex across from the jail, and someone, Old Mr. Weatherby, fell down the stairs."

"While you were there?"

"No, Ma'am. After I left. I saw the emergency vehicles later, and Jean Marie at the police station told me."

"So nothing happened to the police station?" Sue asked.

Pamela saw the worry on Sue's face. Sue had romantic feelings for a policeman she dated. "Don't be silly," Pamela said. "Something always happens there. So that place doesn't count." She looked at Joe. "Was that the end of it?"

"No, Ma'am. My garage blew out."

"How awful!. Sorry, Joe. What did you do?"

"Nothing. Just finished my rounds and went back home."

"Hope you didn't lose any mail, Joe."

"No, Ma'am." Joe blushed, having lied about the mail. "I delivered all the mail in the jeep."

Pamela guessed Joe had to have stacked some of the mail in his stupid garage. She sensed these things, and Joe's reddened face was the proof. She could carp on that, but she gave up. No need to make a mailman your enemy. As long as nobody knew, Joe was safe, and Pamela would have this one over Joe. Surely, the firemen had to have seen the seared envelopes, but they had to be keeping this knowledge to themselves. But if pushed further, they might...What the heck! Maybe this knowledge could come in handy someday. She decided not to push...for now.

"Your wife must be upset over the fire," she said, changing the direction of the conversation.

"Della came home and dealt with the police and firemen. She also filed for the insurance."

"Aren't you lucky you have Della?" Pamela raised her brows.

"Depends how you look at it, Miss Doyle."

"You know my Grandma Doyle across the street. Go over there and let her undo the curse. She has this magic spell..."

"Shouldn't he go to a gypsy to fix it?" Sue asked.

Pamela stiffened. As if that faded flake doesn't know it...I'll get her for that. "Grandma Doyle is a gyspy," she said indignantly.

Just as soon as Joe left, Pamela turned to Sue. "Sue, Dear," she cooed. "Starting this week, I need you here at the store on Saturdays. Please do rearrange your schedule."

"But Miss Doyle..."

"No buts, Sue. Take it or leave it."

You, too, take that, Liliane! This is what Sue gets for worshipping you. If people rub me the wrong way, I know how to rub them back. I certainly do.

But she had more to handle than the pettiness of this town.


A curse was certainly going around in the town. In an hour or so, as Pamela dealt with the customers, a visitor appeared. An unwanted person like death at her door. The tall agile man moved about as if he were thirty years younger.

Pamela shivered as soon as she glimpsed him through the front windows, while he stood outside the door of the store, talking to a girl, a girl none other than Madeleine Underwood who was walking her dog, Ginger. When the man bent and petted the dog, Pamela could see him better, although she had already recognized him from the way he moved. How could she miss when she had known him so well?

She squinted to see him better. At that instant the man turned to look inside the window into the shop. Having met his gaze, Pamela gasped. His dirty yellow hair had whitened and the two parallel lines in between his bushy brows had deepened.

At that instant, Madeleine frisked away with her dog.

Pamela didn't wait. She charged out the door.

"What're you doing here, Norman?" Her voice hammered at him.

Norman placed his hand on his heart, his eyes wide. "I see milady is all-a-jitter."

"You must have escaped." Pamela stared at him icily.

He steepled his hands. "Paroled for good behavior. Now I need to settle an old account or two."

"Get out of here!" She sounded harsh like a sudden electrical storm.

"You own the street, too?" He smirked.

Where had the red marks on his face come from? Scars? Jail life? She had been sure he was put away for good. Too bad he had found her. Too bad!

She pushed her thoughts away. "I'll call the police. I'll tell them you're stalking."

"That I am!" He scoffed at her.

She heard the door behind her.

"Hello, young lady!" Norman nodded to Sue who had appeared behind Pamela.

Pamela turned and gestured with a wave of her hand for Sue to go back in. Sue hesitated, then stayed put.

"I'll pay you another visit, soon. Nice establishment, Pammy!" Norman trudged away.

A splash of relief rose from Pamela's chest, although she sensed his leaving was only temporary. She swerved on her toes and went back into the store, pushing Sue forward in front of her and at the same time admonishing her for standing on the sidewalk instead of obeying her signal.

Was it smart to threaten him with the police? It surely was. Earlier experience had to have taught him. He had to have recalled how she had used the police. And yes, she would use the police again. She would do whatever it would take. She would start right now, at this very moment. That is, as soon as she could hold the phone and control her voice. No one should report a stalking to the cops with a shaky voice.

But, she gave up. The police wouldn't take it as seriously if she said a guy, who used to be her ex, came in front of her shop. It could help that Sue and Maddie had seen him there, but it was still a public road and Norman hadn't even stepped inside her store.

***

The yard was dark. The ground covered with crabgrass looked bluish black like a bruise in the glow of a distant street light. Pamela wanted to peer into the darkness that she so loved. The darkness had a face with deep-set eyes, and nothing emerged out of it.

She walked to the front door, extremely aware of her heels making an unnatural sound... Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. She always did things like clockwork, without missing a beat, diligently, automatically. She grinned at the thought, the way the echo of her shoes sounded. Like a kiddie rhyme...tick tock, tick tock, like a clock.

No use playing mind games with sounds now. With her mother away, at WFW playing bingo and Norman on the loose, she shouldn't give in to reverie. Norman had succeeded to leave a residue of fear in her. She should use caution.

Two crickets chirruped somewhere.

According to the Mexican codex of Chapultepec, the sibilant, sharp sounds of the crickets meant, two human heads floating, traveling as astral bodies, while four beams of light came out of their lips, two for each head, to produce the cricket sounds. The cricket's resonance was the keynote of the Logos...the Logos resonance alerting Pamela, alerting her of peril.

She stepped inside the house.

Feeling the tremors of death, she groped for the entrance light and flicked it open. Her instinct made her pulse beat faster, warning her. She welcomed it. This had to be a psychic sign in the wake of Norman's appearance in front of the store.

The bright light paralyzed her for a moment, although that passed quickly. Why were all her senses on alert? Everything seemed to be in its proper place. Something's up, she thought. Something has to be the matter. Her vibes never joked around with her.

The echo of strides padded with careful stepping...She turned to her right abruptly, to his shadow elongating on the floor in front of her. Her every sense electrified.

"Hello again, Pamela." Savoring each word like a mouthful of some rare delicacy, he approached with his jacket hanging open at front. So bold in getting a jump on things, and yet, so predictable.

No, he wouldn't be able to harvest her. Pamela wouldn't let it. She took a step back and cleared her throat with a small cough. "How did you get in?" Then she scanned the hardened face for something yielding, something like a glimmer of affection or even a joke. Nothing. She had to find a line of attack. Another means.

"I have my ways," Norman answered, his face like granite.

She immediately recognized the tense, cruel look in his eyes. What was he up to? Would he rape her? Worse yet, would he kill her? He took a step toward her. She backed up. She could never defend herself against Norman. Years of boxing practice had made a monster out of an already athletic, strong man, and jail had to have taught him a few extra moves.

"We have nothing to talk about, Norman." She felt the tug inside her and looked around for something to use as a weapon against him, should it come to that. There was nothing, not even a stick or a vase within her reach.

"Who says I want to talk to you? Or maybe I do." Norman was taking his time uttering his words and enjoying the fear she fought to hide. "Maybe I came for justice. Remember how you testified against me, Dearie? You said I forced you to come with me when it was your idea to rob the old man's safe?"

She boldened. "They found YOU guilty."

"Only because the old fart pointed the finger at me. He said he knew you, the idiot. But he didn't. Not like I know you. This time there's no getting away for you, you hear?" Spit sprayed out of his mouth as he talked and his eyes shot darts of hatred at her.

"You shot the clerk." She navigated the words with conviction, considering the absence of any defense in sight.

He shook his head. "Nope you did. You shot him and gave the gun to me. Remember?"

Pamela's eyes slid to Norman's hands when his leather gloves made a creaking sound together with his knuckles. "Get out," she said trying to keep her voice constant.

"Not yet. Not unless I take what I came to take...from you..."

She dug her fingers into her palms. "Get out! Get the hell out of my house!"

"Pamela!" her grandmother barked from behind her as she pushed Pamela to the side.



Gertrude Doyle faced Norman, waving her glock at his face. "You heard her. Get out!" she roared.

Norman eyed Gertrude as if she were a ghost. Then he raised his hands in the air, stepping slowly backward to the door.

"I'll be back!" he bellowed and fled out of the house.

"Thank God, you're home early, Granma." Pamela jiggled her keys. "Except for these, I had nothing for defense."

"I sensed it. Something told me to leave early. He'll be back, you know."

It helped to have a granny who was afraid of nothing and sensed things better than her. Pamela didn't become easily frightened either, but she was caught unawares...this time.

The next day, she filled a report at the Rocky Road police department about Norman's threats and his stalking of her, and purchased a handgun. Now I am ready, she thought.


Two nights later, Pamela wriggled at her desk, looking at a flyer, a flyer that silly Madeleine had printed out from her computer. She snickered as she enjoyed the tidbits of Rocky Road gossip, a so-called fictional story about Latimer talking to Dexter's ghost, and Nessa finding out who her grandfather was.

The girl has talent. She really bites, Pamela thought. She'd go places, had she been my daughter. Not with that Lacey, the uptight mother of hers, though. Oh, well, to each her own. The step-grandfather had to be backing Lacey, too, when it came to raising Madeleine. Poor Madeleine!

"Don't move. Don't make a sound." Norman's hand was on her mouth, as he dangled a cleaver in front of her eye. "Your face will be first to go if you do."

Pamela froze. Her sixth sense had failed her again. She hadn't heard him come in or move around.

Had Norman hurt Gertrude first? Her grandmother had gone to bed early. Why hadn't she heard him? Was she on her bed now, bleeding to death? The possibility made Pamela furious, , but at the same time, anger calmed her. She nodded to indicate her consent. He had to have felt her gesture because he eased the hand over her mother.

"What do you want, Norman?" she whispered through his fingers.

"Many things. First, open the drawer gently and take out your checkbook."

"Why?" She felt the edge of the cold metal on her neck.

"Don't argue. Do it."

She obeyed.

"Now write a check for everything in your account. Make it to 'cash.'"

She obeyed again. He took the check and put it in his pocket, still holding the knife at her neck. Then he held her with one arm as he dragged his other hand holding the knife down to her back.

"Stand up slowly," he ordered. "Walk in front of me. No funny moves or the knife goes directly inside you. Don't forget; for me, chopping you up will be a pleasure. But another pleasure first."

She stood slowly and walked sideways, one step at a time, as he directed her to her bedroom. He stood on her side with the cleaver in his hand. She tried to guess what he was thinking. He probably thought, fearing the cleaver, she would succumb to him on her own. Should she play along? She should for now. Only if she could get near her nightstand...

"Get in bed!"

"How can I get in bed with the knife at my back?"

He held the knife at a distance to let her turn around, while his free hand unbuckled his belt.

"Okay, Norman," she said through her teeth, "If that's what you want..." She started to unbutton her blouse.

Norman lowered his hand holding the cleaver as he slid his jeans down.

Pamela suddenly stuck her hand into the open shelf at the night table and pulled out her pistol. The motion and the firing of the gun were so quick that Norman barely had time to move aside. As he moved, he dropped the cleaver.

Alas, the bullet didn't hit him. She grasped the gun with both hands trying to keep it steady. No time to play chicken now.

He held out his hand in a placating. "Wait. Just a sec. I wasn't going to hurt you. I just wanted a little something for old times' sake."

"Stay back!" Pamela ordered.

"You won't shoot me, will you?" His voice wavered now that the roles were switched.

"Yes, I certainly will." Pamela said through gritted teeth.

"I'm going to walk out of here and leave you. Honest!"

"Like hell you are!"

He reached down for the knife, then lunged at her, She fired. One shot after another, and then another, and another.

Finally, she stared at the man on the floor, twisted in an unnatural angle, his pants in a heap around his ankles.

Another one down, she thought.

Gertrude rushed in. "Girl, what did you do?" She looked at the body on the floor. "To hell with him! I hope he doesn't bleed too much. That rug's new."

"Granma, where were you? I was worried."

"On the toilet. Diarrhea, bad chicken at the fair. I sensed him in the house. I peeked through the bathroom door and saw him. I hid behind the shower curtain. Lucky, I wasn't in bed."

"Quick, hide your glock, Granma. You don't have a license. I'm calling the police."

***

The policeman's left shoe had toilet tissue stuck to its bottom which was poking out from one side. He nodded and took notes as he listened to Pamela's account. Two other men were searching for evidence through the house. Pamela shifted her eyes toward Gertrude. Had she hidden the glock well enough? Sensing her question, Gertrude nodded slightly.

"Yes, Norman used to be my boyfriend," Pamela continued. "Twenty-five years ago. He never forgave me for testifying against him...but I had to tell the truth."

"You have a complaint against him. Him breaking and entering your house and stalking you."

"Correct. I was afraid for my life. He came at me with a cleaver. Then forced me to the bedroom. I almost failed to reach the gun."

"Ahha, self-defense from the looks of it. We'll see what the evidence will show, of course."

"Of course."

"What were you doing, when he appeared?" The policeman looked up at her, pausing his note taking momentarily.

"I was reading at the desk, in the other room." Pamela gestured with her hand to the wall that separated the bedroom from the small room that she kept as her study. "I didn't see or hear him. I was absorbed reading."

"What were you reading?"

"A flyer. Something humorous. A young girl, Madeleine Underwood, wrote it. She calls them her gazette. She writes them often. Just scatters them all over town," Pamela explained.

"Oh, yeah. I saw that crazy gazette." The policeman grinned.

Pamela grinned back. So far so good. The evidence would clear her. She had nothing to worry about now.


Chapter 10
A Teacher's Quest


"Just these, please, Larry." In All Things Paper, Anthony Patinelli handed the folded Sun Sentinel and a box of red ball-point pens to Larry Zwahlen.

"Papers to correct, ha Tony?" Larry rang the register and slipped Patinelli's purchases into a plastic bag.

He probably had lots of red marks on his papers when he was in school, Larry thought, but he nodded good-naturedly. "There is no getting around those," he said.

Larry Zwahlen leaned on the counter as if he wished to move closer to his customer and said, in a serious tone, "Then, you should correct something or rather someone among your students."

Patinelli frowned as he gently placed a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. "What do you mean, Larry?"

Larry opened the register and took out a few singles and some change and placed them in front of Patinelli. Then he bent down a little and pulled out a couple of sheets of paper and smacked the counter-top with it. "This," he said. "Madeleine Underwood's gazette. She has been distributing it all over town. At first, I thought it was the school gazette, but no."

"She used to write in the school gazette, but she doesn't anymore."

"Yeah, I used to read her column then. It was just a quip or two, like a joke. But this...this is annoying. Now she writes stories, full stories about folks."

Patinelli didn't answer Larry immediately for he was skimming through the papers in front of him.

Larry continued. "She has now written entire stories about people, far-out stories. I didn't appreciate it when she wrote the story about our house. She has me belittling my wife. People take it for real, you know?"

Patinelli looked up. "I see what you mean, Larry. Do you mind if I take these with me?"

"Be my guest." Larry shook his head as he shut the register with a bang. "The thing is, she's a good kid. She's a good customer, too. Always buying notebooks and pens. When she buys a notebook she's like a little kid who found a candy bar. I wonder if her mother knows about what she's doing."

"I doubt it. The mother, as far as I can tell, has a good head. She'd stop her if she knew. And yes, Maddie's a good kid...great student. Impulsive though. I'll see what I can do for her tomorrow in school. Thanks for the eye-opener, Larry."

Anthony Patinelli folded the papers and stuck them in the shopping bag from All Things Paper. He could, of course, punish the girl on his own although he couldn't think of a suitable punishment offhand, a punishment that wouldn't break her spirit, or he could go to the principal and the school board before they did something about it on their own. It was certain they'd do something about it if somebody filed a formal complaint. Even without a complaint, they'd for sure hear of Maddie's out-of-school activity sooner or later. They might or might not do anything about it at first. It was possible they could act as if they had no inkling of it or as if it was none of their business. After all, Maddie was a star student who earned the highest SAT scores.

Patinelli didn't feel like punishing her. Neither did he want to look the other way. And he had to stop her from hurting herself.

If only he could present her with a better alternative!

Thinking about how to get to Maddie, Patinelli drove round the corner on South Orchard and parked in front of Petals and Wishes. A potted plant would be nice as a gift for Mrs. Weatheby who was taking care of her husband with a broken leg after he had fallen down the stairs during the day when Joe the mailman...Patinelli grinned. Rocky Road was a weird town where people believed in all sorts of things, and he had to give it to Maddie. She had captured that.

When he entered the flower shop, he saw Pamela Doyle sprinkling the plants by dipping her hand in a small bucket of water and shaking it over them.

"Good afternoon, Miss Doyle. Why don't you use a sprinkler?"

"Good afternoon, Mr. Patinelli. My flowers are getting extra energy from my hands this way. You see, there's a scientific explanation for that. It has to do with a live person's electrons invigorating other life forms."

"Ahha! Well...live and learn, Miss Doyle." He smiled amicably to conceal his sarcasm.

He picked a pot of Rosemary and handed it to Pamela.

Pamela said, "Doesn't that smell divine, Mr. Patinelli, although it has spikes?" Then she wrapped the pot with something shiny and brushed glitter on the package. "Sometimes heavenly things have spikes, don't you think?"

"Yes, definitely, Miss Doyle. And thank you for wrapping it so nicely. It's a present and this nice wrapping will do nicely."

"Oh, let me add a ribbon around it, then. No charge, of course. I just love to wrap presents." She pulled out a box of ribbons and, during the process, spilled several sheets of paper on the floor. "Oh, clumsy me!"

Patinelli bent to pick a couple of sheets to help her. One of them had the heading he had seen just a few minutes earlier. Maddie's Gazette

"Oh, I love that girl," Pamela said. "I'm keeping every single one of those stories. She writes so well. Don't you think?"

"Yes, but I feel she's crossed her bounds," Patinelli said.

"Don't you worry, she's just telling the truth with a sprinkle of magic. I mean, look, there were people who thought I did away with that stalker, my ex, out of vengeance, but no. She saw the truth in the whole thing. Of course, my mother's having a glock is a bit over the top, but it could be true. Even if it isn't, it sure will make other nasties think twice before breaking and entering into our home. I have no qualms whatsoever."

"I'm glad you take it so well, Miss Doyle. Many people wouldn't stand for it."

What Pamela Doyle said didn't ease Patinelli's concern; however, her words, Sometimes heavenly things have spikes, don't you think? kept circling around in his mind. Didn't Maddie have her spikes but wrote some delightful material, too, like the last essay she wrote in class? He smiled as he knocked on old Weatherby's door. A thought had just occurred to him. He had to find something to veer Maddie's attention to other directions.


A few hours later, Patinelli sat at his desk, in his L-shaped room, musing on how life was drifting in odd directions. He pulled a drawer open and took out his journal to add a few quick to-do notes for the next day. Just as he was putting the journal back, a piece of note-paper fell out of its pages. A quote he had copied from somewhere. It said: "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. -- William A. Ward"

He remained motionless for a minute or so, gazing at the quote. This had to be a synchronicity of some kind. A synchronicity to his advantage? But how?

How could he inspire Maddie? All this time, what he was doing had been to tell her to stop feeding at the lure of instant fame. He had tried to explain the pitfalls of tabloid writing, of harmful gossip. He had warned, then punished her by firing her from The Rocky Road High Gazette. What good had it done? It had added fire to fire. He should change his approach, but how?

He recalled Maddie's face when he had told her he didn't need her to write for the school newspaper. He recalled the pain in her eyes. He recalled how she tried to hold back her tears and how well she succeeded. Then she had answered him in a hushed voice, telling him that she understood.

But she hadn't. Obviously she hadn't.

Knowing her talent and observing the pain he had caused her, he had tried to tell her that she was special, that she was his star student, and that she should write fictional stories and change the people's names to protect them.

To no avail. He had lacked as a teacher. He had failed inspiring her. He knew this as he watched her stand in front of him submissively, hearing to his explanation, and not listening.

He now had to come up with something strong, something urgent, before she really hurt herself and enraged everyone around her.


A few days later Antonio Patinelli sat in the teacher's lounge, staring at the printed-out sheet he had just picked up from his shelf.

"The Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English jointly sponsor this year's Norman Mailer High School and College Writing Awards. Entries accepted if endorsed by a teacher and released by a parent or guardian. The brochure is..."

He took a deep breath and looked up. Only two other teachers were there, at another table, hunched over test papers to be graded. At that moment, possibly for the first time, he noticed the lounge as it was.

The light oak tables and matching chairs with their blue-upholstered seats resembled a dining room of a truck-stop place. The water fountain and the small white fridge with a white microwave oven stood against a red brick wall together with the units of shelves that stored teachers' papers. Under each shelf a teacher's name was printed. The floor was purple tile. The place was made for utmost utility but without warmth. Visually all colors clashed. No wonder inspiration lacked.

He recalled the note on the piece of paper in his desk's drawer at home.

"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. -- William A. Ward"

He had promised himself to make that saying his mantra when he was taking pedagogy classes in school. Then life had blocked his good intentions, and the mantra had become imprisoned on a piece of note-paper instead of perching on its rightful throne on the memory center of his brain. "Hippocampus, to be exact," he muttered to himself, grinning.

He reached for his cell phone, looked up a number in the telephone book, and dialed .

"Mrs. Underwood," he said.

Lacey corrected him. "Miss. I'm Miss Underwood."

Patinelli raised his eyebrows in a small surprise born out of Lacey's revelation. Trying to keep a natural tone in his voice, he said, "I have a favor to ask you...A surprise really... it's for Maddie, but I need your approval for it."

"Sure, you have it, Mr. Patinelli."

"But let's keep it between us, for only a short time. Can we meet without her catching on to it?"


Chapter 11
Maddie's Gazette
MADDIE'S TALES of ROCKY ROAD
FALSE IMPRESSION (Liliane)



The small TV in Liliane's living room resounded with the Dateline reporter's excited words. "The people you're about to meet were face-to-face with death with just seconds to escape."

Liliane angled the small watering can at her miniature rose called the Baby Boomer. Its blooms raised their heads on long stems in a lovely pink color among the dark green foliage. The petals were fragile, but the rose bloomed incessantly. Liliane bent her head toward the blooms and inhaled their mild fragrance. Lovely!

At that instance, the doorbell rang, cutting into her momentary bliss. Liliane put the can near the vase and walked to the front door, casting a sideways glance at the screen where a man was getting rescued, as his torso was stuck in between two boulders.

The doorbell rang again. Liliane opened the door.

Mike, still wearing his fireman's hat and yellow overalls, blocked the doorway with his huge bulk. And he had some stance, a stance of a teaser. A slightly hunched way of standing.

"Nothing to be concerned about, Lil," he said. "Just a little smoke. It was only the heat that started it in Carmela's thrash, in the alley between your store and hers."

Liliane's heart jumped. She was no coward, but she had enough sense to know that something important had brought Mike to her door in his work getup. Her store was God's gift to her, and any harm that came to it would devastate Liliane.

"At Carmela's? I had no idea. It must have happened after the dinner crowd."

"Possibly. I just came to tell you so you wouldn't worry."

"Thank you, Mike," Liliane said, wondering what really made him come to her door. Couldn't he have called? Did he have a hidden message? Liliane's heart jumped again. She felt a cauldron of emotions. It had been a long time since someone had appealed to her. It had been such a long time since she had been with a man, if she didn't count Oliver, and she didn't. Not because Oliver was homely but because she had found nothing meaningful to connect her to him.

The program on TV had to have switched to ads because the sound suddenly rose higher.

"Wishing for a baby? Clear blue Easy Fertility Monitor maximizes your chances of conception..."

A baby? Liliane felt her insides collapse. She had tried so hard for one; yet, it was someone else to give it to Alex, her ex-husband, the baby they both wanted once...more than ten years ago.

"The craft store's safe. Not a scratch!" Mike was saying. "Not a scratch to Carmela's either. Just a little scorching on her back wall. Nothing that a good hosing wouldn't take down."

"That's good to know, Mike. Thank you for letting me know. Would you like to come in?" She felt she had to ask him in because he was dawdling at the door, as if wanting to tell her something.

"Naah, Thanks. I'm a mess. I'll go home and change." But he didn't leave. After a moment's hesitation, he said, "You know, Lil, I've been thinking. Maybe we, you and I, could do something like dinner one of these evenings. That is, if you're free...I...I...need to ask something of you."

His last words came out low and a bit shaky. Timid maybe, Liliane thought.

"Why not? Sure," she said, smiling after a long still moment, and unsure why the blood had risen to her head, she turned around to the TV again.

On the screen there was the picture of a box with a photo of a baby and a contraption on it. Only a knickknack for showing off baby photos..."See how easy it is to use..." The speaker inside the box echoed. The baby she couldn't have...the man she couldn't keep...

She faced Mike again.

"Thank you again for letting me know about the fire, Mike," she said. "If I had heard it on the news, I'd be worried."

"I'll call you, Lil! I mean...about dinner. Looking forward to it!"

"Me too, thanks Mike."

Liliane did not close the door right away after Mike left. She was in utter disbelief at herself, feeling more than a little embarrassed to have accepted Mike's offer so easily on the spot.

But then, she had only gone out a few times in what could be barely considered as dates in the last three years. Earlier, while she lived in New York, she had a boyfriend who was a taxicab driver, but that had been it. Truth was, she wasn't the dating kind; she was the marrying kind. But marriage, too, had gone sour for her. Still, she felt herself to be lucky for being the kind of woman who made the best of an opportunity when it was thrown her way. Especially if the opportunity meant a guy like Mike.

Zoe, her mother, used to say, "When life throws a lemon at you, make a lemonade." Wasn't this what Liliane was doing...again?

Remembering Zoe filled Liliane's eyes with tears, and she couldn't believe she accepted Mike's offer because she wanted from him something more than dinner. With this thought, a sudden headache struck her, starting from behind her eyes, making her wail in pain.

She sat down and rubbed her temples to make the pain go away. As she massaged her forehead, the image of Manhattan came to her with all its throngs, its towering buildings exerting special conditions on the inhabitants, and its sewer gratings spewing steam in icy days. "It wasn't really so bad," she said out loud. "And I'm still forty-two."

Her headache grew worse, possibly because she experienced a certain kind of unease for accepting so readily that dinner date with Mike and guessing at her real reason beneath it.

But this was more than unease at accepting an offer for a date. It was something like panic; the same kind of panic she had felt after she had found a bag full of money. Coming into money shouldn't be such a terrible thing. But then, there was a time when Liliane feared for her life because of her find.

***

New York City, Queens...Seven years earlier

Her pride has the best of her. She cannot get over the fact, while she was trying so hard to conceive, Alex has fathered a son with another woman.

His offense discovered by Liliane, he now offers her the house in return for a divorce. Liliane agrees to the divorce but she will not, cannot, accept alimony from him, against her mother Zoe's advice. How can she when anything Alex has touched fills her with disgust? She lets him keep the house, too.

Zoe lives way uptown, in Spanish Harlem off 111th Stret, in a studio apartment, which she shares with a roommate, Herminia. Herminia regards Liliane with disdain, since they are now three people in one small room with a partitioned kitchenette. "The landlord will kick us out because of you," Herminia hisses at Liliane one day when Zoe is away at work. Liliane knows she is not wanted, and she is sick of hiding from the other people in the building, too. More than anything, she is afraid her presence will hurt her mother. So she leaves.

After leasing a mailbox in the city, she finds herself squatting in a decrepit warehouse with two other women, Maricela and Natalie. Maricela is good-hearted, but she is usually stoned, and there is nothing she won't do just to get her fix. Natalie has her ups and downs, mostly downs, and especially when she is drunk, she can become dangerous.

Unlike her mates, Liliane doesn't drink, get stoned, or beg. She tries to live on the money Zoe scrapes away for her. The existence of this warehouse is unknown territory to the other homeless or ruthless ones, so it serves as a free and relatively safe dwelling. In too cold days, however, Liliane still crashes at her mother's place despite the nasty Herminia.


Liliane keeps looking for work in the help-wanted section of the newspapers and on the bustling streets of Manhattan. She has little to no money and nowhere to go. During an unsuccessful job of being a housekeeper and unpaid nanny to a wealthy family, an idea flickers in her mind when, one day, she watches mobs of people fight each other to hail a rare yellow cab on Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

One freezing December day, her day off, she walks downtown in search of a taxicab company. Since she knows the city well for having lived there all her life and she has a perfect driving record, all she has to do is to take a drug test and attend a mandatory training course. With the money she has saved from her housekeeping job, she is able to pay the necessary fees, as there are so many of them. She passes the taxi operators' exam and manages to rent a room on the fifth floor in downtown, with no elevator or shower or bath but just a toilet. Still the place is her home, and she appreciates it.

She is a taxicab driver now, and just in time, too, because after a few months she gets the job, Zoe is knifed in her apartment in the middle of the day by a burglar, a man who lived across the street. Zoe stays alive for a few days. On the day she dies, she repeats to her daughter her life mantra. "When life throws a lemon at you, make a lemonade."

She is all alone now, but she has a job in a city she is hardened in, and so much happens in the city.

Mostly, it is all bright lights and hurried people. Happy people too. She loves people, especially the fancy people flagging her cab down with their forefingers in the air, fancy people like the musicians at the Lincoln center, fancy people who talk on their cell phones with no heed to her hearing what they say, fancy people who complain they are late for a job appointment or for a beauty treatment. There is crime too, lots of it, but she is wary and evaluates the hailers with a discerning eye before she stops to pick them up.

One day, as soon as she arrives at the company to leave her cab, a policeman questions her if she noticed any unusual activity. Recently a string of robberies are occurring in the area, and during the evening, a robber has hit a store right across the street from the cab company.

This takes place on the same afternoon a passenger has left a large black carryall on the back seat. She recalls the passenger perfectly, since she picked him up from the Waldorf and dropped him off at the Plaza. The man has made small talk, telling her that he was made to attend a black-tie event, business of course, even though he hates those son'ovabitches.

After the policeman finishes questioning her, Liliane goes back to the taxi to retrieve her umbrella from under the driver's seat. That is when she spots the carryall. She looks toward the office, enclosed with glass. The policeman is talking to the boss, and everyone on the floor is watching them from the outside. So she grabs the carryall and the umbrella and strolls away to her home.

She has taken the carryall partly because she is curious about the man and the things he told her concerning his business. Plus, she wants to see what is in the bag before she turns it over to lost and found. The carryall has a zipper. She recalls watching the passenger from the mirror, as he opened and closed it after checking the insides. She watched him because she was wondering why anyone would open and close anything on a bumpy ride.

When she lifts the clothing covering the top of the bag, she gasps. The carryall is full of stacks of banknotes, each stack consisting of fifty one-hundred dollar bills. She has never seen so much actual cash in her entire life.

"Bring everything customers leave in the cabs to lost-and-found here. Never turn anything to the police. It gets really lost." The boss told them once, as one of the more senior drivers remarked to her under his breath, "It gets lost here, too."

Liliane decides to hide the case and look for the man herself, since there is a card with a name in the side pocket of the case. She checks the phone book, but the name isn't there. 'Unlisted number maybe,' she thinks. Then, she rents a locker at a place on 35th Street and puts the case there.

After a few days, she cannot find the man, and now she is afraid of returning the money, too. What if she loses her job because of it?

Another person leaves her gloves and scarf in her cab. She turns them in at the lost-and-found at the office, and as she does so, she asks if anyone ever asks for their forgotten items in the cabs. The secretary tells her lately no one came or called, although many people leave things behind. "They might as well think what is left behind is lost. No one trusts anyone in this city," she says.

Not a week passes until she hears other taxi cab drivers talking about the news in NewYork Post that someone with mob connections is shot and killed on the square in front of the Plaza. She glimpses the paper they are looking at. The photo of the victim resembles the owner of the carryall left in her cab. She picks up the paper and reads. It is the name on the card she now has in her purse.

A sudden notion hits her. What if someone was trailing the man and found out he was in her cab? At first, she tries to wave off the suspicion, but during the following week, her room is burglarized. Out of the dread that has her in its grip, she assumes the burglary is connected to the carryall. Now, all kinds of theories invade her mind, and she fears for her life.

A phone call from her sister Lucie in Florida suggests a way out. "Ma is gone; you're all alone there. Move here. Life is cheaper in Florida, and we can see each other often."

It is time she put into action her mother's maxim: ""When life throws a lemon at you, make a lemonade."

She purchases a used taxicab, a Ford, which her company was selling at a ridiculously low price, and she has it painted over. She drives the car all the way down to Broadport, Florida, where her sister lives. She's tight-lipped about the money she found, 250, 000 in all. She doesn't tell anyone about it, even her sister. She makes small deposits in several banks in the area, one of them in Rocky Road, just fifteen miles to the west from Broadport.

Rocky Road appeals to her. It is a small town that has everything. What it lacks is a crafts store. Due to a recent bestseller by Debbie Macomber, a knitting craze is sweeping the country, and Liliane is quite an expert when it comes to knitting and crochet work.. She decides to open her own store, a combination of crafts and yarn.

While she peruses the local paper, she sees an ad for a condo sale by the heir of a recently deceased widow, right there in Rocky Road. The price is right, and she buys the condo. During her move to the condo, she stops to get pizza at Carmela's. Since it is neither lunch time nor dinner, the place is practically empty. Carmela herself takes her order. They make small talk. Liliane asks her about the empty store, right next to Carmela's. Carmela says it used to be a fabric store, now closed, and is up for sale or lease as the owner has relocated to the West Coast.

Carmela helps Liliane to make the needed connections to the owner and the bank. Liliane, not wanting to show she has money, obtains a mortgage from the bank showing her condo and a couple of savings accounts as collateral. The whole setup, including her move to Rocky Road takes about a month. After the following two months, she opens her store for business.

***

Early next morning, Liliane, still musing over her date with Mike, turned the key on the lock to enter Zoe's Creative Yarns and Crafts. As usual, there was activity at Carmela's with the breakfast crowd, but Larry at All Things Paper next door wasn't there yet. Before she entered, she stepped back to examine her store window.

The sign with the picture of red balls of yarn saying, "Knit a hat for a rooster," and under it, strategically placed craft tools had been such a big hit that, a year ago, it was mentioned in the Rocky Road Gazette by a young writer in high school. That same writer, Maddie Underwood, would enter Zoe's in an hour or so, together with the older members of Liliane's Saturday morning knitting circle, scheduled to meet around an oak table inside the partition in the back.

The store, now in its third year of opening, was doing well enough to meet the expenses. The previous owners had done quite a bit of renovations, including putting a parking space in the back, even if only a long narrow alleyway lead to it.

In that parking lot in the back, Liliane kept her china-black Ford, the once-upon-a-time NewYork city taxicab painted over. Although she could easily afford a new car, Liliane couldn't part with that Ford, regarding it like a travel mate of sorts. To quit anything is bad form, she thought. Yet, she was forced to quit so many things.

Looking around, she noticed tiny white agate beads in an isle that had scattered all over the floor from one a torn package. She took a broom and swept them in the same frantic fashion she had swept her room in downtown Manhattan just before she abandoned it.

Now she recalled again her tears that had started as soon as she entered the Holland Tunnel. She had just exited from the only place she had ever known; the only buzzing, overpriced, cruel shithole of a city in which she had put her blood, sweat, and tears into the only life she had. Had she been afraid of complacency? No, she had loved everything about Manhattan, even the pretentious assholes that she transported up and down the avenues and across the streets. Although she had been so willing to settle at least in one tiny corner of it, there was nothing to settle for, with the exception of looking over her shoulder and fearing for her life.

She had stopped for coffee and a hot dog at a rest stop. Joyce Kilmer Memorial the sign said. It was early spring, but the ground still held patches of ice. Before getting out of the car, she had broken down and sobbed on the steering wheel. Was that why she could never bring herself to exchange the Ford?


"Liliane, what's the matter?" She was so caught up in the past that she hadn't noticed Maddie enter the store. The girl's bewildered expression made her come to her senses.

"Nothing," she said, just then feeling the tears on her cheeks. "I just remembered something of old."

"Tell me," Maddie said staring at her, as Liliane wiped her face.

Such a nosy kid! But she answered anyway. "I remembered the day I left New York to move here. Silly me!"

"You must have loved it there."

"Yes and no. It was a struggle. Things were very difficult there, difficult for me anyway, but I loved the city life. Always something was happening there. The crowds, all kinds of people, instant preachers, the trumpet player near the subway station who couldn't play high notes, taxis, buses, people crossing the streets at red lights, you name it..."

"I wouldn't know," Maddie said thoughtfully, unzipping her backpack. "I lived in Rocky Road all my life, except the time when Grandpa took us to Disneyworld and a few other places."

"Oh, never mind me yammering about NewYork. I do like Rocky Road a lot. It is a charming place, and my sister lives nearby. Who wouldn't like green lawns year round, air to breathe, reasonable prices, huh?"

She waved to the two women, Ada and Yamila, who entered. Wendy, Bella, and Jen followed them. Just in time too, before Liliane let anything more slip out of her mouth unnecessarily.

"Look, the group's here. Let's all go to the backroom and start. Did you find time to practice with the cable needle, Maddie?"

As Yamila crouched on the seat by the long table, she said, "Old age isn't for sissies."

Wendy Hayden, the mother of the manager at Dexter's Hardware, perched next to her."You're lucky you have your daughter with you,"

"At least she drives me and holds me, so I don't wobble," Yamila laughed.

Ada rolled her eyes, as she put Yamila's knitting bag in front of her on the table. "Is that all I do for you, Mother?"

Yamila's voice softened. "You do everything for me, Dear. It was just talk what I said."

"Let's just start," Liliane said, eyeing Maddie pulling her skein out of her backpack. "Do you want me to hold your skein so you can make a ball, Maddie?"

"Can you show me how to make a center-pull one?" Maddie requested. "I saw Jen use hers last week. It was so cool."

"Okay, then. You hold the skein and I'll do it. Now watch..." It was automatic for Liliane, working with yarn.

Out of the necessity of living in cold climate before she came to Rocky Road, she had learned everything about working with yarn. Wouldn't it be a great idea if she knitted a fisherman's sweater for Mike, now that he had shown interest in her? She smiled to herself, thinking of his offer. Could this offer lead to another offer? Was it preposterous to dream once in a while and imagine living in a house with Mike? She felt she was too old to have kids, but they could adopt, couldn't they?

"Lil, Hellooo! You didn't see me come in. You're a thousand miles away..." Danielle grinned as she sat down opposite her. "Sue isn't coming this week. That witch Pamela is making her work."

"Shhh, Girl!" Wendy said. "Walls have ears, and witches can hear even from afar."

"Hello, Danielle," Liliane said. "Yarn always takes me away!"

"Why is she making Sue work on her day off?" Maddie asked.

"She told her she had shopping to do herself. And she didn't want to leave the store to part-timers. If you ask me she wants to pull Sue out of our little group. It's the green-eyed monster, what else?"

"Poor Sue," Ada said. "All that she has to put up with!"

The front door squeaked.

"You got a customer, Lil," Wendy said as Liliane rose gently and put down the ball of yarn on the table.

"Take care of the customer. I can manage on my own," Maddie said.

"Yoohoo! Liliane..." A high-pitched, whiny woman's voice followed the sound of her footsteps...


"Coming..." Liliane hurried toward the curtain that separated the back room from the front of the store.

"Oh...oh! I know that voice," Wendy raised her eyebrows.

"Talking of the devil..." Danielle said.

"Shh!" Maddie said. "She'll hear."

Liliane pulled the curtain behind her and walked to the front of the store.

"Hi, Pammy! How are you?"

"Like always...Wrestling with the help. I asked Sue to work today, and she said she had a morning class or something here, but I insisted, so she is working. Was she telling me the truth?"

"Yes, we were just talking about Sue, in there, in our Saturday morning knitting circle. And yes, she was telling you the truth, Pamela. Why would she lie?"

"Don't be gullible, Lili, Dear. All help in stores lie to get away with their little tricks," Pamela pontificated. Then she added uneasily,"Anyway, I came to ask your opinion on something. Do you have anything I can use to jazz up the bouquets. Not the flowers, but the packaging and all that?"

"How about ribbons and glitter? Some wonderful gold and silver colored ribbons you can wrap around the cellophane, maybe? Right here in this aisle."

"Yes, that's what I mean. You're an angel, thank you, Lili." She sashayed up and down the aisle, picking up small packets and then hanging them back on hooks, in a hit or miss fashion. "Have you her about that old Matthews? He found out he is that blonde waitress's grandfather in Carmela's."

"Yes, good that they found each other." Liliane answered evasively.

"They say he's a bit soft in the head...talking to Dexter's ghost and all that."

"Oh, really?" Liliane recalled her own shock a couple of months ago, when she witnessed Latimer yelling to the back when she was entering his new store."Dexter! You damn ghost! Come here!" But she didn't volunteer that information to Pamela. She wouldn't. Not in a million years.

"The girl is such a...you know what...She has been running around with Vito, behind Carmela's back. As soon as she found out she'd probably come into money, she left her job and Vito. Did you hear the ruckus she created at Chang's? Poor Vito, so handsome a kid, too..." Pamela sighed.

"Nessa is a nice girl, Pammy. I know her. She was so alone. Maybe finding family changed her outlook." Liliane added thoughtfully.

"Oh well, talking about Carmela...she's surrounded by all those gorgeous firemen. Maybe you and I could get ourselves a find. What do you say?" She winked mischievously.

Relieved by the change in the course of conversation, Liliane played along with her. "I bet they are all taken."

"That Mike is a stud, wouldn't you say? A bit of a belly, but nothing a good woman couldn't take care of it. I bet, Carmela keeps that one all for herself."

Pamela's mentioning Mike startled Liliane. She felt something jump in her chest and felt her face flush. She passed her hand over the right side of her head. Her ear was burning. To hide her face, she turned around and searched for some items from a back shelf. After what seemed a considerable amount of time, she turned to Pamela with a few small packages in her hand.

"Look Pammy, I have something you could use." She put the items on the counter. "A glittering tray with brush. Here's a jar of glitter to go with it. You can gild the wraps here and there, for effect."

Pamela put on the counter several packets of wide ribbon, in gold and red, then examined jar of glitter and the tray. "The nice thing is, you guys, Carmela and you, are next to each other. I mean your stores. And I'm all alone, way yonder."

"Only several blocks away at South Orchard, Pamela. Why, you could even walk here, when you feel like it." Liliane said in a pleasant voice.

When Liliane rejoined the knitting circle, "Such a yakkety-yak!" Wendy said. "Did she, at least, buy anything?"

"She did, actually, a lot of things," Liliane said. "I was surprised myself. At first, I thought she came to check if Sue lied to her. But she was legit."

"At least that," Danielle said. "Maddie here got up and peeked at you guys, through the curtain. We were laughing our heads off at her."

"Pamela made a mess in that aisle," Maddie said. "Before I leave today, I can organize it the way you like it, Liliane. If you'll let me."

"Yes, thank you, Maddie. That would be wonderful. Actually, I was thinking to ask you if you would help me up front, after school sometimes. If it's okay with your mother. But minimum wage...That's all I can afford, unfortunately."

"Yes, thank you, and no problem, Liliane. I'd love, love, love working for you. ." Excited, Maddie jumped and wiggled in her seat. "I don't get too many babysitting jobs. School is finishing in a couple of months, and I'll need money for college."

"Which college? Out of state?" Danielle asked.

"No, maybe a local one within traveling distance. I'll have to drive, though. That is if I can finally get my driving license...Oooops! My needle slipped. Liliane, help!"


When Mike phoned that evening, Liliane didn't pick up the receiver for she guessed instinctively it would be him. For fear of the excitement her voice could expose, she let the message machine pick up the call and remained standing in front of the window as she stared outside, into the darkness, listening to Mike's voice: low, intense, and expressive.

"Lil, could we go out tomorrow evening? I know it's short notice, but I have a favor to ask you, and I just couldn't wait."

A favor? Or was it something else he was going to ask under the guise of favor? What was he talking about? Surely she'd do him a favor anytime.

A flash vision from long ago...Way back when, before everything had gone haywire, when she was first going with Alex...Alex had asked her for a favor, too. Then he had asked her to marry him.

A favor? Now Mike was asking her to do him a favor. She felt a sense of power sweep over her. Maybe this time it would be different. She would lose the grief of failure and the feeling of loneliness in an empty apartment each night. This time, she aimed at loyalty and affection, and why not. This time she would exact it out of the man who'd marry her. Maybe she wouldn't even need to do that, for Mike had a powerful tenderness about him, which was bound to increase as their relationship would heat up with years.

In this town, even if everything in her life was quieter, calmer compared to the days of driving a rickety cab in a feral city, even if she was grateful for what she had at the moment, time was signaling to her to move on.

Still, she still waited a few minutes before she called him back.


"Here we are! I hope you like Italian food," Mike said, as he pulled the car into a parking space. Liliane looked at the large, gilded sign with the painted image of a fountain.

"Who doesn't! Fontana di Trevi...I never heard of this place," she said. They were in Gatortown, just a few minutes to the west of Rocky Road.

She walked in front of him, his hand guiding her from behind. He is touching me with the tip of his finger Liliane thought, from the gentle feel of it. He let go and held the door open, waiting for her to pass through.

"Thank you, Mike,"

"Thank YOU!" he said. "Believe me, you're heaven-sent."

His words created a mystifying sensation inside her, as if she were setting off on some celestial adventure, one she was being led to, closer and closer.

She sat on the chair he held for her noticing the flickering candle, a votive, and one silk rose in a bud vase.

"They have wonderful brick-oven entrées here," Mike said as he lowered himself to his seat. "I hope you'll like them. My favorite is baked tortellini with chicken."

After a waiter in black served them their order, Liliane viewed the dish with admiration as she took a sip from her Sauvignon Blanc. The white fluted baking dish sat over a larger blue plate with an imitation Wedgewood design. Inside the dish, tortellini was covered with melted cheese, its edges slightly toasted.

"This looks wonderful, so appetizing. Carmela's has the same dish," she commented. "Because I'm biased, I think hers is the best, but I'm sure this is great, too."

"Yes, Car...Car...Carmela's..." Mike stuttered, blushing slightly. "That where I first tasted it. Actually...well...let's first start eating."

In the corner, a guitarist started to play Malagueña, the song's lyrics resurfacing in Liliane's mind...You're the lover that I sigh for... The meaning in these words renewed themselves as the strumming of the guitar increased with great speed. If she could sharpen her sense of hearing further, she could hear Mike's heartbeat. She wondered what the sound would be like if she put her ear to his heart while he held her.

She forked the pasta with gusto. Funny, he wasn't talking. He wasn't talking at all.

"Mike, what was it you wanted to tell me?" She asked suddenly.

"This is a bit difficult." He took a sip of water. "You and Carmela are friends, right?"

"Yes, we are very good friends. She was the first person to lend me hand when I came to Rocky Road." Why were they talking about Carmela?

"See, I've known her even before Gennaro died...and...and..."

"Go on, Mike."

"See, I got a thing for her, if you know what I mean."

Was she hearing him right or was her brain draining right into the pasta, into the votive, into the silk rose? But she's too old for you!

"Oh!" She looked down at her plate to hide her eyes from his gaze.

"She refuses me. She says she's done with men, and I thought maybe you could help me, like a pal. I don't know...maybe I shouldn't ask you, but Lili you're her friend. Mine, too."

She felt shaky and light-headed. "Mike you could have told me this the other night when you came to let me know about the fire."

"I meant to. But this isn't something so easily said. And I had my stinky wet garb on. I couldn't tell you that at the doorstep, and I didn't want to mess up your place."

She stared at him numbly, then sank down, forcing herself to open her mouth, to say something...anything.

Suddenly the words came out. "You really didn't have to go to all this trouble." She sounded harsh. She berated herself internally for lack of pride, for showing her annoyance so openly; therefore, she tried to soften her voice. "What do you want me to tell her?"

"I don't know. Just let her know I'm serious. Like women know these things better..."

He thinks I know better... She still couldn't say much. Her throat was dry and her mind numb with shock.

So she just nodded.


Chapter 12

Friends Are Upset


"Maddie, I can't believe you. You turned Grandpa into a bumbling idiot who talks to ghosts and me into a sexpot who walked all over Vito." Nessa's voice was muffled, her tone cold. Maddie searched for the friendly smile in her shapely face, but the smile wasn't there. Nessa continued. "You should at least change the names. I'm hurt, really. This isn't friendship if you ask me." Her words slapped Maddie in the face, in the heart.

Averting her eyes from Nessa who was standing at the right side of her, Maddie viewed the glass shelves mounted from floor to ceiling. On top of each shelf, jars and jars of incense, some wax figurines, tall bottles of unknown content, Ouija boards, and star charts were arranged with taste. Nessa's touch for sure. Maddie recalled the day when the shelves were arranged in a haphazard fashion, the day she and Nessa had found out that Nessa was Hugh Latimer Matthews's granddaughter. What had happened to all that they had shared?

"I am your friend. What are you talking about?" she answered Nessa, with a timid voice.

Nessa lifted her right eyebrow and jackknifed in front of her, possibly to command her attention. "This is what I'm talking about. You used our real names, where we lived, what we did. Except, maybe you added an idiotic thing or two out of your...your head, forgetting or rather not caring for me. Not caring that I told what I told you because we were friends. Then you handed it out to the whole world, plus adding what you churned up. I'm so disappointed in you."

Maddie rolled her eyes and stared through the window at the stratus clouds, as if she were seeing them for the first time. She really wanted to explain that the recognition of meanings was her intention, and not the sources or names in the stories. But she didn't. It would be of no use. "Drop it, Ness. No harm intended. It's only writing," she said softly.

"Come again? Did you hear of the word libel? People can get sued for it." Miffed, Nessa stuffed her hands into her armpits and looked away. "I didn't let Grandpa see them," she continued. "I don't want him hurt."

"I'm sorry you feel this way," Maddie said, curving her lips upward. How overly sensitive Nessa had become, but all the same, Maddie didn't want to lose her friendship. Then bingo. An idea hit her immediately. "Tell you what. I'll write a retraction in the next issue."

"Like that would help... Don't bother," Nessa said. "Don't you have anything better to do? And all the while you have been complaining about how much you have to study..."

"I apologize. Really. I didn't think you'd take it so badly. Even though I told you beforehand I was writing about you."

"I thought you were writing fiction. I thought you wouldn't use our real names. I thought you wouldn't distribute what you concocted all over Rocky Road and on the internet..."

For a tiny second, Maddie held up Nessa's icy stare. Then she looked down at her shoes. "I said I am sorry. I'll see what I can do, Ness. But I have to go now, or I'll be late to Liliane's." She was about to tear up, so she turned around and gave a short wave with her hand as she hopped down the steps in front of Bertha's Corner.

As she walked, her eyes blurred with the notion that her writing had to be ghastly. Why else would it be so misunderstood? Why did her words give the impression of being so off and flippant? Was it her writing or her actions?

Either way, her writing or her way of action just needed an adjustment. A minute adjustment. She still could do it on her own. She still didn't need excess schooling. Schooling she could do anytime. Losing time, she couldn't afford. Maybe she should adjust her way of doing things with some thought as if playing a game of charades.

She could adjust her game, but could she win Nessa back? She recalled the moment when she had first felt the two of them had become friends.

***
A year earlier:

Maddie watches Nessa pop the candy in her mouth and roll it around her cheeks. Nessa's right cheek bulges. Such a tiny piece of candy causing such a big bulge! Why is Nessa holding the candy there instead of crunching? Maddie pops the last piece in her mouth, bites into it, and rolls the pieces around with her tongue. She is sitting next to Nessa on the platform of the fire escape in front of Nessa's window, the one place where they can take a breather from Nessa's small room.

Is Nessa going to be a friend who hangs around for a while and then the contact tapers down to a wave from across the street? Maddie has never had a true friend, but she doesn't care. What about Nessa? Will she stay by me?

"Well, that is the last of the candy," Maddie says crushing the foil wrapper in her hand. "You have no idea how a teacher backstabs a person, Nessa." She frowns and gazes toward the street where the stores are situated in a row like soldiers ready to attack.

Nessa shrugs. "But Maddie, I think you must have upset him. Maybe he wants to help you. I giggled when I read your column, but you wrote half-truths about people in the school gazette that made the whole town think are true."

"So what? What is wrong with a little spice in life? Patinelli is mad at me because I told him I wanted to write for tabloids. He gave me a big lecture on journalistic non-fiction." Maddie imitates the teacher's voice. "The truth must be based on facts. Your projected truth, the thing you call truth, is not truth." She throws the crushed wrapper on the street below, then slaps her hand on her knee. "What an idiot! Who knows what truth is?" She gives a big crunch at the candy inside her mouth, then looks at Nessa. The bulge on her cheek is gone. Did she swallow the candy?

Nessa rakes her hair with her hand, then talks in a hesitant voice as if fearing her own words "You know, you might try to look at the situation from a different angle. Maybe he wants you do much better than that."

"Much better? How can anything be much better when I was already having so much fun?"

"Well, maybe he thought the school would be blamed...and you know...he has to answer the school board and all..."

Nessa is few years older than her, but she has no clue how this town works. Small wonder, for she just moved here a couple of months ago because of the free room that was offered with the only job she could find. Maddie, on the other hand, has lived in Rocky Road all her life.

She turns to Nessa. "Did he have to fire me from the gazette and give my column to that bully James? The one person I hate the most?"

"Oh, to someone you hate? But why? Why do you hate that boy, Maddie?"

Maddie is hesitant to answer Nessa's question, but Nessa is staring at Maddie with her big blue eyes. She mustn't think Maddie is afraid of the truth. Maddie is never afraid of the truth. So she answers after a few silent seconds. "He kept calling me names when we were in fourth grade."

"Boys will do that. Don't be so sensitive. That was how many, seven or eight years ago, wasn't it?"

"He called me a bastard. It hurt because it is true. Then the whole class started chanting it, 'Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!' until the teacher stopped them."

Why did her voice tremble? What a dummy! She chides herself.

She turns her head away and looks across the street at Serpico's Pharmacy. She watches a couple going in. Larry Zwahlen and his wife. Now what are they up to? Does one of them have a fatal illness? Now that would make a great story, but Nessa is speaking. She mustn't think Maddie is upset with the turn their conversation took.

Nessa says, "My father left my mother and me, too. I grew up without him."

Maddie is relieved to find her regular voice when she answers. "It's not so bad, Nessa. At least you know who he is."

"But that didn't help, did it?"

"Still, there's no mystery in your life that eats at you."

Maddie feels Nessa's arm on her shoulder. She feels lighter somehow. She thinks maybe Nessa can be a friend. A friend she may be able to trust. Unlike all other friendships that stayed on the surface.

"Come inside," Nessa says. "I'll find us something to drink. I think I have Pepsi in there somewhere."

They slide through the window into Nessa's room.


***
Maddie stifled a sob. All that she and Nessa had was lost now. But was it her fault? Just a little bit maybe, for being shit-faced, for getting completely caught up in the idea of fiction. Truth is fiction or fiction is truth? Which came first? Who could tell, anyway?

The pavement shone under the light drizzle like a rare pearl. Pearl on Pearl Maddie thought, as she turned the corner to Pearl avenue, and raced toward Zoe's Creative Yarns and Crafts. She had left her umbrella leaning against the counter at Bertha's Corner, next to where Nessa was standing, but she wouldn't go back for it. She couldn't.

Maddie glimpsed Liliane sitting at her desk watching the rain, watching her carry the rain inside Zoe's, but something was missing. In a flash, she spotted it. It was the smile. Liliane's smile was missing. Just like Nessa's. Without the smile, Liliane's face was like a gray, cold smudge. So unusual. Maddie wondered if something had gone wrong with Liliane's sister.

"Come, sit down, Maddie." Liliane's voice enveloped her like a skin growth around a foreign body. And still no smile. "I want to tell you something." The way she uttered, "something" was ominous, like a danger sign with skull and crossbones.

Maddie wiped her shoes on the mat at the door, sensing nothing benign in this implied but not yet visible situation.

She hung her raincoat on the coat-tree by the door, then took a few hesitant steps to the front of Liliane's desk and perched on the wooden stool Liliane was pointing at. "What's it?" she asked.

"This is not easy to say, but I will...Maddie, I don't want you coming around here anymore. Here's your pay with a little bit extra for your work." She handed Maddie an envelope.

Maddie took the envelope and smiled. "You don't want me to work for you? That's okay. Don't worry about it. I understand." Sure enough, the down economy had taken its toll on Liliane's business, too.

"No, you don't." Liliane stared down at her hands, then straightened a few objects on the top of her desk. "Not just the work. I don't want you to come to the Saturday morning knitting circle, either. I've had a few calls from the group. A few of them don't want to come, if you do."

"Why?" Maddie sprung up as if her seat had clinkers on it. "I didn't do anything..."

"Yes, you did. You wrote about people in town, about your friends, about me. You exposed meticulously kept secrets and sometimes plain conjectures from what little information you managed to get. It hurts, you know."

Liliane words reached within her, slicing her insides. "But I didn't write about them, not all of them." Even as she uttered those words, she knew they weren't exactly true.

Liliane looked directly into her eyes, then shifted her gaze. "Not yet is a better way of putting it. Those you didn't write about worry that you will, as I am sure you will."

"I am sorry, I didn't mean..." She bowed her head, tucking back stray bits of hair that she had shaken loose.

"Sorry doesn't cut it, Maddie. It doesn't help people's uneasiness around you." Liliane voice rose higher. "Not to mention the fact that I'm deeply hurt that you made public what happened between Mike and me. If I told you a thing or two right next day, it was because I was flustered and mistakenly felt you showed empathy enough to listen. But that didn't mean you had to go spread it all over the place, let alone write and distribute it. You didn't let me save face, and you made it impossible for Mike or Carmela to feel comfortable around me. Just what kind of a person are you, Maddie?"

Maddie opened her mouth but no sound could come out of it. Liliane was her friend, and an admired friend. So many times she had wished her mother could be like Liliane. Now, Liliane didn't want to have anything to do with her. Just like Nessa and those other people in Rocky Road, and especially parents who had stopped asking her to babysit for them. And all Maddie had wanted was a short-cut to a lifelong career.

What was so special about secrets, anyhow! Everyone knew everyone else's stories in Rocky Road anyway. What was wrong in embellishing them a bit? She had expected laurels for her work. Instead, she had gained no mileage and had even made her trek more ridiculous and unworkable.

On her way home, as her wet socks squished inside her shoes, she felt she was not walking on a level road but was climbing up a craggy mountain.


CHAPTER 13

Maddie's Tales: The Town of Rocky Road
A Piece of History according to Madeleine Paige Underwood –Or Maddie, The Misunderstood Journalist of Rocky Road


* Note: This town and its history and inhabitants are only semi- fictional.

You'd think Rocky Road is a person with the first name Rocky and last name Road, rather than a small town in north-central Florida. You might be right since Rocky Road has a special personality of its own. Small town, big personality, isn't it? Yes, but only at times. As a rule, small goes with small.

Small because, with the frivolity of a Hollywood diva, the town works at its beauty. An example to this is seen at an intersection of two main roads: the fountain statue in the shape of a mermaid holding a pineapple. From the pineapple, water sprouts out, dripping on the mermaid whose wet bronze dress clings tightly to her bronze body, making the conservative citizens of Rocky Road complain of impropriety.

Yet the town flaunts its true beauty at its northwest end with woods and a preserve that house an unspoiled river, canals, eerie sounds, and the minty smell of slash pines. Not just the several species of pines, but also other trees such as mangroves, swamp cypresses, Laurel, Myrtle and Turkey Oaks, wild apples and cherries that cannot survive in the south and the keys of Florida, do very well here. The preserve provides home and board to varied species of wildlife. Bats, coyotes, many species of subtropical birds, raccoons, skunks, snakes, alligators, and a few spectacled caimans provide an orchestra of cries and coos to the few daring birdwatcher groups and hikers traipsing around with rough boots and backpacks.

In short, Rocky Road never thinks of itself as small in terms of beauty.

It thinks, aside from beauty, it has everything any resident would want, and thus, its importance. Although very few of its residents would argue the point, most would say yes, their town is an important one because of its origins, additions, and variants.

Rocky Road's origins required that the residents respect each other's privacy. After a few decades, however, the newcomers who loved eavesdropping on their neighbors relaxed the rules a bit. As time went by, this relaxation became like the elastic on overused underwear, which defies its function through frequent washings and wear and tear. Even so, the town held on to its conservative self-image and imagined that a good quality of eavesdropping does not in any way constitute malicious gossip.

Rocky Road was born on an early morning in mid-August during the Civil War under a clear sky and blazing hot sun, as a land hosting swamps, trees, shrubs, marshes and numerous water-plants that boasted their jade and emerald foliage. At this time, a group of escapees from a Georgia prison dug deep into the swamp and managed to eke out a somewhat tolerable living, in spite of the gators, caimans, and poisonous snakes. Close to extinct nowadays, black bears, coyotes, and Florida panthers abounded then.

Some of the men who decided to settle in this area had become prisoners of war while fighting for the North, and others had been jailed for either petty crimes or they were blacks accused of petty crimes. They were twenty in number. They would have been thirty-one, but three of them had been taken down into the swamp waters by the gators. One was attacked by a black bear and didn't survive his wounds. Others left to go back and surrender to the authorities since they couldn't see how anyone could make it in such a savage land.

Thinking they should come to a decision about their future, the twenty men took a break from their hunting and whittling branches and gathered together to view their options. Leaning on a cypress tree, one tall man said, "This place is well worth coming to from a thousand miles." Then he gazed skyward to watch a group of snowy herons take off from the murky marsh like white wispy clouds against the blue sky. "So wild and strange here. I'd never dream of seeing such things."

Another man with long tangled hair and bushy eye-brows talked while he chewed the sap of a wild plant. As a native of Georgia, he knew about the flora and fauna of these lands. "Ponce de Leon and De Soto were here before us. They thought this was a land of mysteries with treasures and gold hidden somewhere in the swamps."

"Yeah, but they couldn't make it here, did they?" another said. "Just look around. It's all muck, plants, animals, and misery."

"And rocks," the man with the long tangled hair said. "Remember the trail we came from out there yonder? Remember how rocky it was?"

"Yup, it was a rocky road all right." The man who spoke had strong and deep lines on his face, short white curly hair, and a snowy beard.

"Let's get back to it before the nightfall." Another man said. "I say we stay at the clearing right by that road. No one will come after us into these savage lands."

"They wouldn't dare!" They chortled and guffawed, leaning against the sticks they carried for support and protection, while a foreboding of primeval fear hid behind their laughs.

They returned to the trail that led to a clearing nestled among the small curvy hills. Although the vegetation was lush, rocks of all sizes gathered here and there. At the clearing, they camped around a fire for the night. Not being bothered by anyone, they stayed in that very place for a long time, until two groups of Indian natives, Choctaw and Seminole, joined them, as these people had escaped into the swamps earlier from the march to the north in 1831.

Thus, the core of Rocky Road was established. Although Indian attacks were frequent in the environs of it, Rocky Road remained untouched probably because of its partly Indian population.

A couple of decades later an Italian count arrived and put a claim to several acres of land, building a fancy house with a cupola. Only then, the escapees learned that the South had lost the war and they were not prisoners anymore. Most of them stayed; a few took off for where they had come from.

During the next century, people from Italy, Spain, and other lands slowly settled in and around Rocky Road, founding numerous small towns in what is North Central Florida today. Luckily, its karma let Rocky Road keep a good part of its personality and still exist as another tiny town.

By this time, however, an undocumented rule had been established among the populace of Rocky Road. No one pried into anyone else's past. Although the town's residents remained tight-lipped through decades and decades, people eventually became a tad curious and nosy about each other's businesses like folks everywhere. They were, nevertheless, playful and civil about it, and they still prided themselves with sticking to the original unwritten understanding of clamming up where people's bygones were concerned, until someone, a girl of seventeen born among their midst, decided to poke a stick into their bees' nest.

She is Madeleine Paige Underwood, and Rocky Road has decided to take up arms against her, only because they could not follow her line of sight. So, like snipers, they peer through the scopes of their guns and watch her move until at an opportune moment when she can be a perfect target.

Yet. Maddie understands that she should not have gotten her hopes up in the first place, and she should not have felt bad when her best friends turned their backs on her after pulling the trigger. But she is shot, and she can't help feeling the pain. How do I know this?

I know because I am Maddie Underwood, the misunderstood journalist of Rocky Road.


CHAPTER 14
Accomplishment


"Maddie, stay back a moment, please."

Mr. Patinelli called out to Madeleine Underwood while the students were exiting the classroom. It was the last period of the school day and Maddie was eager to leave, but she stood in front of Mr. Patinelli's desk waiting. The teacher took his time answering a pointless question from another student who had made it a habit of asking teachers anything just to get in their good graces.

Maddie didn't want to appear impatient, especially nowadays. Unlike everyone else, Mr. Patinelli was showing good humor when he addressed her lately.

Was he going to ask her to come back to write for the school gazette again? Her heart beat fast at the thought. Only a month or so of school was left, but she would take any job on the paper, as her signature in the last issue of The Rocky Road High Gazette would be such an asset for her career.

Finally, Patinelli turned to her. "First, congratulations are in order for a few things."

Why was she getting congratulated? A few things? The man was weird, but she hadn't done anything extraordinary lately. Oh, she so hoped one of those few things would be about the The Rocky Road High Gazette

"Thank you. But why?"

"To start with, I heard you passed your road test."

"Oh, that. Thank you, but I still like walking." She said, twisting the charm bracelet on her arm. The bracelet had passed the road test, her lucky bracelet, the gift of her grandpa. The female officer who was testing her had commented on it, admiring the shine of its gold and crystals.

"Well, that is an accomplishment, too," Patinelli said, "Walking is good for the mind. And another thing, you'll be giving a speech at the graduation. Have you thought of what you'd say? Not easy to be the salutatorian. Is it?"

"I know I have to thank everybody and look back on our 'fond' memories. But I think the speech should be more than that."

Mr. Patinelli nodded. "Yes, it should have a catchy idea. Well, think about it. Write it down and let me see it. Will you?"

"Yes, Mr. Patinelli. Is that all?"

"No, don't go just yet. There's more. Maddie. Do you remember the essay you wrote on Global Weather Change? Well, I obtained your mother's permission and entered it into a contest."

"You did? I had no idea! My mother didn't say a word. Whoa!" The nerve! Entering her work without telling her...She probably did lose anyway. Who'd want to read a dull subject like that!

"I would have liked to ask your permission first, since you are the author, but I wanted it to be a surprise."

Obviously, Patinelli meant well. Maddie tried to put him at ease. "You also didn't want to disappoint me if my essay didn't win."

"I was quite sure it would, and it did. You got the first place. Congratulations!" Patinelli shook her hand, then he reached into a folder and taking out an envelope, he handed it to her.

No wonder, Mr. Patinelli was being so cordial lately. Her eyes grew big as she stared at the check after she pulled it out of the envelope. "There was a prize? This much?"

"It is a very respectable contest. And your writing can be just as respectable when you want it to be."

"Thank you so much, Mr. Patinelli. I wonder how Mom didn't tell me anything. She can't stop telling me what to do...usually." Then she smiled. Having her work appreciated was beyond belief, especially after what had happened when she tried to do it all on her own.

"We wanted it to be a surprise. This will help you greatly to get into a good writing program or a school of journalism if you wish. In Boston, there is..."

"But I can't go to Boston. It is too far away from here."

Patinelli combed the side of his hair with one hand. His thinking gesture. "I could look into schools that are less of a distance...although most of them are probably filled up by now."

"I don't want to go away at all, Mr. Patinelli."

"What do you mean you won't go?" Patinelli was looking at her as if she had uttered the most obnoxious thing. Patinelli was definitely addled because his voice was rising to a new high. "I thought this would be the very thing you'd want. The very thing you have been aiming for, he said. "You were so...so determined."

"I was and still am, but...but, sometimes things don't work out."

"You mean with what you were distributing on your own?" Patinelli coughed to clear his throat. "What you called your gazette?"

"Yes, but I still have hope."

"No, Maddie. You don't do things that way. You don't seem to understand what you are getting yourself into by attacking other people's weak spots with your so-called gazette."

So this was all a ploy to get me to stop. I wonder if I really won that contest. "Not everybody hates it..." Maddie murmured.

"But they do, and if you continue, this won't get you anywhere. You have a talent you don't know how to value. Anyone else would have jumped at a chance to go to Boston and study what is important to them. Now, why won't you leave this town?"

She mumbled. "My Grandpa. He'll be all alone. Mom won't stay with Grandpa if I leave. I can't leave Grandpa."

Patinelli's voice sounded gritty. "You can't throw away your future like that, Maddie. Your Grandpa, I'm sure, will want the best for you, too. He would be very upset if he knew what you are rejecting just for him."

He stared at her for a few seconds, then raised his hand to his forehead as if reminding himself about something. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer. "Well, think about it. We may still have some time. By the way, did I tell you a few full scholarships are available? Not only that, some may be given to a few deserving students who have shined in some way, and your essay, its winning such an important contest, is not any crumb to sweep away. Think seriously about this. Okay?"

She nodded in agreement if only to hush him. "Thank you, Mr. Patinelli," she said.

No, she couldn't go away. Without her around, her mother would move in with Gary and leave her grandfather alone. Hadn't Lacey announced Gary had asked her that!

She wrinkled her nose at the idea of living with Gary. Gary who has been courting her mother. Gary with the insipid hair cut and beady eyes that shone like cheap green glass shards she would step around in order not to get her shoes slashed. Gary who took measured languid steps in an attempt to look serious as if he were making his way up the steps to the church choir's platform.

Gary had stared at Maddie long and hard, after she had told him she'd never leave her grandpa. His question still resonated in her ears: We could be a family, you know. How would you like to live in the same house with me and your mother? Maddie had dubbed him "Gary the grasshopper" because he had a way of showing up when or where he was least expected. Not that Maddie ever expected or wanted to see him.

Yet, winning a writing contest was like sitting on top of everything. Especially after everything nasty that had happened like her best friends turning their backs on her.

She exited the classroom, trying to hold this bit of joy inside her. In the corridor, she checked the envelope again. There was a phone number and an address, which she could verify on the internet. The whole thing did seem real. Maybe Patinelli was, in fact, looking out for her.

Chapter 15
In a Double Bind


She rehearsed it inside her mind as she walked up the driveway. She'd say, "Mom! Look, what happened?" And she'd hand her the envelope. She patted her backpack right on the pocket where she had stuck the envelope. Then, acting cross and hurt, she'd say, "You gave Mr. Patinelli permission, behind my back." Although she wasn't cross or hurt. Quite the contrary.

But nothing ever happened the way she planned it. Lacey grabbed her arm as soon as she entered the house. "I'm so ashamed of you!"

"Mom?" Her shrill voice again tearing into her eardrums. Was her mother out of her mind?

From the back of the house, Ginger ran to Maddie, emitting her regular happy sounds of welcome. Maddie knelt down and hugged the dog.

"Ginger, go to your bed," Lacey ordered. Ginger hesitated. "Ginger, now!" Ginger obeyed.

"Mom why did you do that to her? What did she do?"

Lacey's turned her face away from her, but she pushed Maddie into the living room. "Ginger isn't the issue. You are!"

Now what was the matter? Lacey's head bobbed with anger. Maddie checked in her mind if she had left the front door unlocked when she left for school? No. Had she left her bed unmade? No. Had she put fresh water in Ginger's bowl? Yes. Then, why?

"Sit down!" Lacey ordered showing Maddie the recamier sofa right by the door.

As she sat, Maddie caught a glimpse of the dark magenta fabric on the sofa, its bright color poking into her eyes. She flopped her backpack on the plush beige carpet with the curlique violet design matching the design on the sofa. She glanced at the corner where her Grandpa, Grant Joshua Underwood, sat in his wheelchair right across from the TV set. "Hi, Grandpa," she said in a meek voice.

Grant looked away, not acknowledging her greeting. What could be so serious? Was it her driving? Had she gotten a ticket without being stopped? She didn't even drive all that much, actually not at all within the last week.

She lifted her head up and looked at her mother. Lacey's face was aflame. She gained that fiery look when someone crossed her. Even Gary had said he loved Lacey because she looked gorgeous even when she was bitchy.

"What's the matter?" Maddie's voice trembled.

"Guess?" Lacey crossed her arms and tapped her left foot as she towered over her in front of the sofa. Wordless, Maddie shook her head.

"Tell her without scaring her, Lacey," Grant said.

Lacey hissed. "Please, don't interfere!" Grant looked away. "Maddie, Carmela talked to me today about you."

"I had nothing to do with Carmela. Not now, not ever." That uppity, affected woman who was so hard on Nessa! Now what? "Is it the thing with Nessa?"

"Shut up and listen. It's YOU! She came here this afternoon to complain about you. She handed me these."

Lacey lifted the large blue book of travel photos off the cocktail table in the middle of the room and grabbed several sheets of paper from under it. Then she took a few steps and stood in front of Maddie. "These...Recognize these?"

Maddie swallowed her next breath. "Yes," she said. "I wrote them."

"Not only you wrote them but you distributed them. Plus, you published them on your webpage for the whole world to see."

Does Carmela even know what a webpage is? "What's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong with that? What's wrong with that? I can't believe you're asking me that, Madeleine Paige Underwood. Carmela is threatening to sue for libel. That's what's wrong with that. Once she starts, the others will, too."

"Why would they? They won't."

"Whether they do or not is not the problem. What you're doing is. It is not right. This is got to stop."

"But, Mom!"

"Don't mom me! Stop writing this kind of garbage, understood?"

"No, I won't stop writing. Let them sue."

"You're driving me up the wall, Madeleine. How would you like if someone did this to you? What if someone wrote something about you that you don't want anyone to know?"

"So what? I'm an open book. I've got nothing to hide, nothing they don't know already."

"Maddie, listen to your mother. This could turn ugly, Child." Grant said.

"See, even he's with me on this." Lacey said, plopping down on the ottoman in front of the fireplace as if she lost her last bit of energy.

Maddie stared at them both. Then she said, "You guys don't understand. This is what I want to do with my life."

"If it were your private business, you wouldn't want it spread all over the town, would you?" Lacey tried again.

"Like a boyfriend, maybe?" Grant said.

Maddie answered curtly. "I'm not like my mother. My boyfriends are just friends."

"Don't say that about your mother. It isn't nice. What if you had something to hide?" Grant asked.

Maddie insisted. "I have nothing to hide. Whatever was private was made public the day I was born, even before that. People in this town weren't nice about it either."

"This kind of thinking is not right, Maddie," Grant said. "You're only hurting yourself."

"She's hurting others which is worse," Lacey said. She knitted her brows together as if she were trying to decide something of importance.

"What about the time they were hurting me? The time they were calling you and me names. Did I threaten to sue anybody?"

Lacey covered her face with her hands and shook her head. Then she brought her hands in front of her and folded them on her lap. "You are leaving me no choice. Anyhow, I think it is time you should understand a thing or two about...you...yourself. I am going to tell you the very thing you always wanted to know. The very thing you badgered me about, for years."

"Lacey!" Grant Underwood rolled the wheels of her chairs toward her. "Don't! You'll hurt her for life."

Lacey grimaced at him. "You may not like it, and I definitely don't like it, but it's for her own good," she said harshly. "Better she's hurt and stops what she's doing now than continue hurting everyone else. The way she's going, she'll be friendless in no time."

"I'm already friendless," Maddie yelled. "What is it that you are rolling around in your mouth, Mom? Out with it. I can handle it."

Grant pleaded. "Lacey, be careful! Don't, please."

Maddie was curious. "I'm waiting, Mom. You started something; now, finish it."

Lacey sighed. "You leave me no choice. Your father...you wanted to know..."

Grant Underwood moaned. "No, Lacey!"

Lacey said, "Now, will you dare write this? Your father is sitting right here in this room." The words just flowed out of her mouth. "Over there, in that wheelchair." She pointed to Grant with her forefinger.

Maddie stared at Grant. Grant's eyes were cast down, and he was breathing heavily.

"You're lying! You're lying, so stop. Stop right now. This is disgusting. You're telling a lie to make me change my mind. This is a lie. A lie..."

"It's the truth. Ask him." Lacey pointed to Grant again.

"What? You've got to be making this up. I'm not going to believe your lies." How could her mother sink so low to tell such a lie? Maddie was shaking now. Was it disgust or fear, it was hard to tell.

"No, Maddie. She isn't lying." Grant's voice was hoarse and he started coughing.

"Grandpa! Surely you...Why are you backing her up?" Maddie's eyes grew wide as Grant coughed. She shook her head in some sort of desperate plea. "Is this true? It can't be...It is true. Isn't it? It is all true." She wanted to cry, but she had no tears. She clamped her hand down over her mouth in a poor attempt to stifle her horror.

Finally, Grant stopped coughing, and Maddie turned to Lacey. "You were such a slut! With your stepfather? You make me sick."

Grant's gaze scanned Lacey, then Maddie. "You're wrong. You're very wrong about your mother. She did nothing. It wasn't her fault. Your grandmother was very ill. When it happened, I was mourning her ill health. I thought she was dying. Your mother did, too. Even the doctors..."

Maddie screamed in terror at Lacey. "You did this to your own mother while she was battling cancer?" She squinted, every muscle on her face wrinkling. "Now I'm really going to throw up..."

Grant cut her short. "Stop accusing Lacey. Your mother didn't do anything wrong."

Maddie said. "She must have. She's always..."

"Stop it!" Lacey stared directly into Maddie's face and sobbed. Her tears came in waves and torrents, but she remained in place, although Maddie expected her to run out of the room.

"Listen, Maddie," Grant said. "For this once, keep your mouth shut. I'll tell you. This is what happened..."

Chapter 16
Grant Joshua Underwood


"If you want to hate someone, hate me," Grant said, rolling the wheels of his wheelchair until it moved closer to where Lacey was sitting. "Lucinda's first treatments didn't work, but they still kept her at the hospital to make her feel more comfortable. The presence of metastases was discovered even at the initial stages of the disease. I was devastated and so was your mother. She was only fifteen then, and in my eyes, she was...is my daughter. You both must believe that...Please.

"It was late April. A day when it rained hard. That evening, after watching Lucinda go through another terrible bout of pain at the hospital, I went to a bar. I remember leaving her, her eyes half open, breathing heavily to let the sedation take effect. I remember leaving her there because the hospital staff made me. I went to a bar after that because I was distraught, broken, wrecked. Also, I didn't want to upset your mother who was at home studying for her finals. I started drinking. I wasn't used to it.

"Someone sat next to me. At first, I didn't recognize him, then realized he was a man with whom I had done business a few years ago. I opened up to him and told him how stressed I was with that heavy burden...that of my wife's sickness...that the prognosis was not good at all. He took pity on me and slipped me a couple of pills. I took them. Then he left. You think bars are places where there are people, where there is a barman, where there is somebody who can save you. But they can't. No one can. They only wipe out your ruins totally.

"It was very late when I came home; I think someone else from the bar brought me, but that is not the point. The point is I didn't know who was who and what I was doing. I was so out of it...I climbed the stairs on all fours like a dog. In the bedroom, I didn't turn on the light. Stripped off my clothes and got in bed. Lucinda was still in my mind. My mind didn't...couldn't accept the possibility of her leaving us. But then, I found Lucinda sleeping in the bed, next to me. She couldn't be at the hospital. It was unreal. I thought maybe the whole cancer thing was unreal. Maybe I had a nightmare."

Lacey's sobs were uncontrollable now. Grant eyed her, then stared at the floor at the curlicue design on the rug. He paused a few seconds and continued.

"What was real was that she was there. I went to her and did what I did to your mother. She awakened. She screamed. She pleaded, but my mind didn't take it in. Your mother says she hit me with the alarm clock. In the morning, I saw the cut and the bruise on my forehead. I still didn't believe her, couldn't believe what I did to her. I couldn't remember it. To find out the truth, I went to a doctor, a hypnotist. Then I learned what happened. That was the only time, and it is my fault."

"What was Mom doing in Grandma's bed?" Maddie questioned them without even blinking.

Lacey answered. "There was a major storm that night. It rained on my bed. It rained right through the roof, soaking into the mattress. I guess I could have gone downstairs and slept on the sofa. I didn't because I thought, stupidly, that he would stay near my mother that night. He didn't call. The phone lines weren't working anyway. I had found that out when I tried to call the hospital. I didn't think he'd come home at all."

"What about Grandma?" Maddie asked. "Did you tell her?"

Lacey shook her head.

Grant coughed, holding on to the arms of the wheelchair. Then he said, "I wanted to. Your mother stopped me. Truth is, neither of us wanted to upset Lucinda in her condition. Later, even when she finally went into her first remission, Lacey still didn't want her to know."

"What did you tell her?" Maddie's face was frozen, stone-like.

"Lacey said it was one of her boyfriends who got her pregnant. I am ashamed to tell you this, but I will since we came this far. When I found out Lacey was with child, I said she should get an abortion, but Lucinda wouldn't hear of it. She said no one in her family will ever have an abortion. She said, this child is a gift. This child will bring luck to us."

"Sure enough, she felt better even before you were born," Lacey said, her sobs now subsiding. "She went into her first remission. With that terrible prognosis, she lived nine more years."

Maddie bit her lip, then muttered. "You could have told her the truth. You could have told her when she could take it." Her voice grew louder. "Grandma had a right to know. She wasn't sick all the time. Like you said, I was nine when she passed away."

"I didn't want her to know, Maddie. How could I do that to my sick mother? What good would it do?" Lacey said. "She lived that long because she believed in this distorted image of us as a happy family. She didn't want to leave us. This would tear her apart and make her sick again, even if she was well at that moment. Don't forget that she has been going in and out of the hospital all these years. She had four remissions altogether, if you can call them that. Don't you remember how it was? You were old enough to remember. And in between remissions, all those terrible days of sickness, diets, hospitals, chemo...it was horrific."

"You must never blame your mother, Maddie," Grant said. "I was the idiot, the demon, if you wish to call me that. Even so, even if you despise me the rest of your life, as your mother does, I am glad you were born. I am glad you are here. I am glad your grandmother defended your right to live. You are her gift to us."

Maddie rose to her feet and walked toward the door. Before she exited, she let out a howling laugh. Then she turned to them and said in a dry voice, "You're right in one thing. I can't write this. I don't want to write this. I don't even want to think it. And all my life, I wondered about..." She didn't finish her sentence. She shrugged at her own lack of words and walked out of the room.

Lacey rose, her silent tears still flowing. Maddie's footsteps, as she trudged up the stairs, echoed inside the room

Grant stared at the place where Maddie was sitting a few seconds ago. Then he wheeled back to where he was, where he always was.

"Go after her, Lacey," he said softly.

Grant gazed after Lacey at the doorway from which she exited. One mistake. His one mistake. He made a noise quite like a snort. Why did life give the wrong people too many chances and not enough to the right person to correct his one mistake?

Why couldn't Lacey forgive him? It had been a mistake. A mistake as the result of grief. Then more grief as the result of a pill mixed with alcohol. He could never hold his alcohol with competence, not quite like the way he had conducted the rest of his life.

He had been a soldier, a businessman, a provider of jobs for many people, and a provider for Lucinda and Lacey. He had loved Lucinda deeply. Then, like his first wife, Lucinda, too, had decided to get sick and leave him.

He looked around the room again, not altogether sure why he was here, in this very spot, in this helpless situation. He had tried to explain himself to Lacey, vainly hoping she'd call him "Daddy" again, but all his efforts had been for nothing. She never even heard him. She had decided what kind of a man he was on that very night.

Then, after Maddie's birth, instead of forgiving him, she had gone on a mission of who-can-be-bad-more. So many boyfriends, so many nights of staying out...It was as if she was trying to show off her way of doing things, her way of proving to Lucinda that the big lie was the truth and she was the bad girl. Lacey was traumatized for sure, and Grant was responsible for that.

Surprisingly, after Lucinda, Lacey had settled down, probably not feeling the need to prove the lie.

"Oh," he murmured. "I didn't mean it, Lacey. I really didn't mean it...Sorry...So, so sorry!" But there was no one in the room to hear him.


Chapter 17
Lacey



Memory was an evil god, a shape shifter. It slithered like a rattler and bit Lacey once more again today. It snaked, a wide, deep river impossible to step in. Each time she had turned back from it, it came at her with the pressure of millions of megatons. Walking up the steps after Maddie, Lacey wondered about the new course the memory just adopted. A new course with shatter and clatter, as it finally cast its darkest shadow on her daughter.

That night had weighed on her once more just a few minutes ago. Grant's voice dangling from the edge, once more his voice calling her, "Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda." His weight against her heaving body. Her trying to bring him to his senses..."I'm not her, Daddy. I'm not Lucinda." But he neither heard nor understood. Or didn't want to. Her arms pinned to her sides, Maddie's had kicked and screamed, but had not stopped him. She recalled his breath, its rancid smell of alcohol, his mouth covering her screams...Then, when she could free her hand and reach for the alarm clock to hit him with, it had been too late, way too late.

By the time Lacey reached the stairs, she felt jet-lagged. This whole thing was the work of a careless universe, but not the work of a loving God. Why would God do something like this even if meant to have Maddie? What kind of a God would do a thing like that?

Still, it had to be Maddie. The work of the loving God was the existence of Maddie. And Maddie needed her now. She needed her mother more than ever.

Lacey paused a bit while she was merely halfway up the staircase. Had she done the right thing? She recalled Grant pleading her not to tell, just a while ago. "Lacey, be careful! Don't, please." "Lacey, don't!" But she had.

Would Maddie's knowing the truth help her in some way? Long ago, she had decided to tell her nothing, but the events had forced her to this. She had to tell her.

Lacey had tried to reason with her daughter for months now, to no avail. So she was left with the only thing that could shake Maddie up and make her stop and think.

She cringed with a sudden thought. Had she blurted out the truth to help Maddie or did she tell it to get back at Grant? Maybe even at Maddie? To get back at Maddie for scorning her, for defying her, for loving Grant more than her. Maybe, but no. Not really. If she had wanted to do that, she would have done it a very long time ago. Today, Carmela's complaints triggered the whole thing. Carmela unnerved Lacey. Carmela always unnerved everyone.

Maybe Lacey had acted without thinking, but Maddie needed a shakeup. And she had provided it for her. What good was mothering for if one didn't give what her child needed?

Her daughter had shown no compassion to spare when it came to other people's feelings or private matters. Stepping on others made her feel she is rising higher. Why did Maddie feel this broken despite my efforts to protect her? Why, after Lacey had given her so much, and rather, given up so much for her? Why? Why, in vain?

She recalled other instances. Her many love affairs after that horrific night with Grant. After her mother recovered and got sick again and again and then again. Each time, Lacey found herself flailing and depressed. Each time her mother's sickness repeated, she had found a different boy. She had become the "easy one." The "Easy One," who had a baby at home. The "Easy One, The Party Girl." Her mother's scolding. She covered her ears as she took the last step up.

How could Lucinda had known? How could she have known that Lacey's behavior was meant to cover up her stepfather's sin? Could the reason she couldn't forgive Grant be that she couldn't forgive her own actions after that dreadful incident?

And Maddie. She bit her lower lip thinking of her daughter. Dear Maddie. How her life had shattered! But did Lacey have a choice? Wasn't she going to have to tell her sometime anyway? Poor Maddie.

The image of a father lacking...Hadn't Grant been there for Maddie all her life? Grant had been Grandpa up to now. What would he be after today? Was she still going to accept him? If so, in which role? Father? Grandfather? Enemy?

Lacey recalled Maddie's yelling at her when she was ten and the same scene repeating itself over and over through the years. "I only want to know who he is, but you're not telling me."

Well she had told her now. For better or for worse. She recalled the horror in Maddie's eyes after she took in what Lacey had said. Maddie had tilted her head away from her and stared at Grant in shock, as Grant spoke.

Did Lacey have the right to break the girl's heart this way? She stood at the landing, feeling sharp stabs deep inside her.

No, she shouldn't feel guilty. Not again. Guilt only made things worse. She wouldn't do this guilt thing again. She wasn't a teenager anymore. Far from it. She was a mother and she had done what she had to do.

Suddenly she heard a cling, and then a thud from Maddie's room, something getting trampled on. Maddie trampling on something? Such unusual sounds...She was howling now. Maddie was howling.

Lacey rushed to her.

Chapter 18

Maddie

Everything was in place; yet, all felt so empty. The emptiness of the room under the tall ceiling was tangible, almost.

But then, everything was in place: her desk across from her bed, her bookshelves surrounding the desk, the mirror in front of the dresser, the dark blue armchair by the floor lamp. The chair Grandpa had reupholstered for her a few years ago, as he did the chair in front of the dresser when he still could do things around the house.

Her bed was in its regular place, its tall, white headboard resting against the phosphorous green wall, her blue-green floral duvet cover that matched the pillow shams, and resting against the larger pillows, the two small red pillows that Nessa had given her on her birthday.

She looked around the room again, as if searching for the missing, as if nothing existed, as if her feeling of ownership was gone.

Strange, she thought. All I feel is emptiness. But this emptiness did not affect her. Wasn't she, shouldn't she be falling apart? But she wasn't.

No, she wasn't falling apart. Everything she thought she had, it meant nothing now. Worse yet, this didn't matter at all, either.

She had just learned the one thing she had yearned to find out all her life: who her father was.

Now, that didn't matter either. Or did it? Was this knowledge worth this emptiness in this room, in this house? Was it that important for her to find out at the cost of losing the one person she really cared for?

What's the matter with me? She pinched her arm to feel the pain, to feel something.

Her touch froze when her hand brushed at the bracelet around her wrist. She shuddered as if bitten by a rattlesnake that had coiled around her arm, around her heart. She yanked the bracelet off and flung it across the room. The bracelet hit the wall, taking down part of the paint and spackling, then fell on her desk.

She rushed to it, swiped it off the desk, and watched it drop to the floor. Then she stomped on it. She stomped on it again and again, until every charm was broken apart, defaced, and its metal twisted.

She held the mangled pieces inside her palm and sobbed uncontrollably. She wasn't feeling empty anymore. The realization made her shriek out loud, then howl like a banshee before a funeral.

She suddenly felt her mother's arms around her. When had Lacey come into her room?

"It's okay, Maddie. It will be okay, you'll see."

She leaned against her mother, feeling the warmth of her body. "Mom, I'm sorry."

Lacey led her to the bed and made her sit at the foot of it. She then took the pieces of the bracelet from Maddie's hand. "Don't worry about it," she said, "We'll get it fixed."

"I don't want it fixed. I don't want it, period. I said 'I'm sorry' to you. Not for that...that thing."

Her mother laid the broken metal pieces on the floor at the side of the bed. Then she sat next to her. "I'm sorry, too, Baby. I never wanted to tell you, although I was afraid I would have to, someday. I wasn't going to, I didn't mean to, not at this time, but I didn't know how to stop you. You were so pigheaded."

Maddie laid her hand on her mother's and squeezed it gently. "I'm sorry because I thought you really didn't know...who he was. Who my father was. Because I saw you later, going around with others. So many others. I despised you for it. When I was a child...All my life actually...I..." She felt clumsy mouthing the words.

Lacey put her arm across her shoulder. "It's all right. It is past. It's over."

"Is it? Is it really? How can it be over? I trusted him...so much..."

"And you still may. He was telling the truth."

Lacey was stroking her hair now, and it felt good. She suddenly recalled how she would have shuddered at an earlier time if her mother touched her. Looking to the side, she traced the red embossed center of a green flower on the duvet with her fingertip.

"How can I not feel this terrible? I acted so badly...to you." Her voice shook as she spoke

"It wasn't your fault. I kept it from you. Grandpa kept it from you, and we both kept it from your grandmother, too." Maddie looked at Lacey. Her mother pulled her hand from Maddie's hair and paused to scan her face. When their eyes met, Lacey continued. "But I'm happy you are my daughter; I'm happy you were born. Everything will turn out for the better. Give it time."

"I did bad things. I did bad things to you. To other people, too. I hurt Nessa, and Liliane, and...Mom, why did I?" She looked up at Lacey's face "Of all people, why Nessa and Liliane?"

"I can't say I know exactly why or to whom you did it, but sometimes people hurt others the most when they feel hurt themselves. Just like caged animals." As Lacey talked, she put her hands together, shook them a couple of times like a hammer, then rested them on her lap.

"I was so wrong. All this time, I thought Grandpa had my back. He took my side. He supported me. How could I know? How could I know he could be such a monster, even if...?"

"Don't! Don't do that, Maddie." Lacey sounded exasperated. "He is not a monster. He was a monster only to me, for that once, not to you or anyone else. I felt so hurt I refused to see it wasn't him, but the pills and the liquor. I refused to see that he could have succumbed to a weakness during a trying time when we all thought your grandmother was dying. Then, even after she went into remission, we kept it from her. I kept it from her. I insisted on it. I didn't want her to get sick again. I didn't think she could take it. She could take a teenager being bad but she couldn't take her husband...Anyway, the family would be broken, the family of only people she cared about."

"It was a trying time for you too, Mom, and you were a child under his care." Maddie's face contorted with fury. "He could go to jail for that. He should go to jail for that."

"Yes, but that wouldn't help anything, would it? And it will make matters worse for us if this is known. Think about it."

"All this secrecy..."

Lacey sighed. "Discretion, Dear. It was...is necessary for all of us, for everyone."

"And you took the blame. Imagine what would happen if somebody like me had learned this?" She kicked the bed with the heel of her shoe.

"Any one person is enough to set this whole town reeling. If they learn it now, they'll think I stayed here after my mother because...because..." Lacey said, unable to finish her words.

"Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Yes, they'd think the worst of you. And I made you stay here with him...Sorry again." She reached out to touch Lacey's hand in apology, then she withdrew her hand.

Lacy murmured. "How would you know? How could you know?"

"No, I didn't know. I didn't even sense it. How could I?"

They both leaned back on their elbows, then turn to look at each other. Lacey grinned. "See, we did the same thing at the same time. We are tuned in to each other after all."

Maddie stared at Lacey, then said, "Mom, I think you should move in with Gary."

"But what about you? I can't possibly leave you here." Lacey sighed.

"Mr. Patinelli said I could board in a school, in Boston, possibly. A good school. I want to get away from here now, from everything. I can visit you on breaks when...if it's okay."

"Yes, of course you will. We'll arrange all that."

"Yes, this may work better for us. But what about...him? He's...he's so old... and can't see well, and..." Maddie couldn't believe herself. She still felt for him. She didn't want him alone. She didn't want him suffer.

"We'll hire someone to take care of him. After all, he's your..."

"Please, don't say the word."

"I was going to say, he's your grandpa."

"Yes, Mom. Yes. It's better that way."

They stood up at the same time. Lacey clutched Maddie's hand and pulled her up. They took a couple of steps to the window. Maddie pulled the curtain aside.

The sun was brushing its gold and crimson rays over I-95 in the distance and leaving a gray haze on the intersections of Rocky Road.

The End

Epilogue –Maddie's Journal

Today in Ethics in Journalism class, Professor Sanders said, "Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on. Same as people."

So much to learn, so much to think about, but I am delighted to be here, with my assignments, classes, and with the way things are turning out. I owe my being here in this school to Mr. Patinelli. He really went to bat for me. I applied a bit too late, but at Mr. Patinelli's insistence, they accepted me.

I told Mr. Patinelli that I wanted to be the best I could be. He said that was the most important thing in whatever we do. He's right. Now, I understand one can do exciting things while sticking to her principles, without stepping on innocent people's toes.

Now I want to do things right, in an ethical way, to write in an ethical style, the way Mr. Patinelli tried so hard to teach me. Short cuts do not always work, and they may hurt sometimes. Tabloids especially. I don't want to hurt people again. Not anymore.

It is so darn cold in Boston, but I love the flaky white-washed scenery when I look outside from my dorm window. My roommate says if I don't go home for Christmas, we can go caroling on Christmas. I haven't decided on that yet.

Last Saturday, I walked through the Public Garden past the swan boats on the lake. The trees in the park were coated with ice, and on every glittering branch, icicles hung like chimes. After a tumble or two, I learned to walk through the compact snow like a penguin, taking short, flat-footed steps in my Bugaboots. The sun was out, casting strikingly beautiful shadows.

Nothing like Rocky Road, though. Nothing like the palm trees that edged the roads and greeted you as they waved their fronds in the breeze.

I miss Rocky Road. I'll always have a soft spot inside me for that town. After all, I grew up there.

Much has happened in Rocky Road after I left. Mom moved in with Gary. A wedding in spring is in their plans. Mom says they visit Grandpa on Sundays. I guess Mom is learning forgiveness, too.

Ginger lives with Grandpa. Mom took him with her to Gary's, but he kept running away and going back to Grandpa's. Mom says he's looking for me, and possibly, waiting for me there. I miss Ginger, and Mom, and Grandpa, but I don't know when I'll dare to go back. I'm not afraid of anyone. I'm afraid of myself; I'm afraid mean memories will rush back to darken my steady outlook. It took a lot of work to come to where I am now. A lot of work. And a lot of acceptance.

Grandpa has a live-in housekeeper and a visiting nurse who comes to check up on him. Sometimes, we talk on the phone. He gets excited when he hears my voice.

I started talking to Grandpa before I left Rocky Road. I realized he made a mistake, a doozie of a mistake, but whatever. I made mistakes, too, big ones.

Grandpa's mistake was accepting those pills and drinking so much when he knew he could barely handle a couple of beers. I guess, when people make an error in judgment, worse mistakes follow. Two days after I learned how he is really related to me, I talked to him and called him Grandpa. He broke down and wept. I still love him, quite the same as before, but what I learned shook me. I still feel shaken up. Still, I think Mom was right in telling me. I try not to be the same old stupid girl anymore.

Another person I talk to is Nessa, my only friend in Rocky Road. She has forgiven me, I think. She called me just before I left Rocky Road, and we met for lunch at a seaside café in Broadport. She, too, attends college in Palm Breeze and still works and lives with Mr. Matthews, her grandfather, when she doesn't have classes. She says everything is the same as before, except Vito has left for New York to work in his uncle's business. She says she dates now and then but doesn't have a steady boyfriend.

She is not the only one. I don't have a boyfriend either because writing for me is like a possessive, high-maintenance lover. When I don't study, I write. I amassed files and files of writing that need revisions. So much to learn, too. I have books in all subjects stacked against the wall and in the bookshelf, although the homework here is highly demanding.

Every now and then, I watch the photos in my laptop. Rocky Road is so beautiful especially in the preserve. Yet, it's good I'm away from it all because I can look at people and things from a wider angle. I can see how people can make mistakes, as I did, as Grandpa did, as Mom did, as everyone does. I try to forgive them and myself, too. My reflection of me was flawed then, and the force of my anger threw me in a bind.

Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I look in the mirror. Something's different. I think. I am somebody else or maybe I was somebody else then. It's not that I look different or anything. I have the same old face, but I don't recognize myself. What is unfamiliar is the way I think, different yet freer. The thoughts I try to ditch are the ones that slide around my conscience and scrape like gravel on knees, especially when I think of my old self in Rocky road.

"What was it like in Florida, in Rocky Road," My roommate asked me once.

I said, "Rocky Road is like any other small town, but if the sun blinds you, you won't know where you are going."






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