Thursday, December 27, 2018

Rivka's Place

by Linda Rodriguez

Rivka’s place at 39th & Paseo is the only remnant of the postwar time when this stretch of Paseo Boulevard was prosperous—and white. As the area changed in color and class, the other shops and restaurants of its day moved or closed. Now this old Jewish lady’s bakery and deli huddles next to a tattoo shop, nail parlor, and liquor store, directly across the street from The Hot Jazz Lounge with its board-covered windows, live jazz, and occasional dead bodies late on weekend nights. Next block down squats Snake Eyes Music, best known for rap, porn, DEA shutdowns, and SWAT team visits. Rivka’s is the only survivor of better times.

I call myself CJ Nash. I work here behind the old-fashioned glass counters, making sandwiches, cooking, cleaning. Rivka Schinski’s my boss, and she’s about a hundred, a hunched old lady all twisted up by arthritis. She should have retired and sold or closed this place a long time ago. Her family sure wanted her to do that. Her grown kids and grandkids are rich, and they keep trying to get her to close this place and go someplace where they won’t have to worry about her getting knifed or shot. But Rivka’s tougher than gunmetal.

When they come around in their cashmere coats, driving their Lincolns and Lexuses, with their fears of crime and Blacks and bad publicity, she always says, “Hitler tried to kill me. The Nazis couldn’t kill me. Why should I be afraid of anyone else?” And she shakes her tiny wrinkled arm with its ugly tattooed numbers in their faces.

Truth of the matter is it hasn’t really been all that dangerous for her here. In its own way, the neighborhood looks out for its own. Rivka’s good to folks. She’s always got free treats for kids and food for the poor. She lets homeless street people, like Weedy, El, and The Rev, hang out inside the shop when it’s bitter cold or killer hot, along with the working girls. I’ve never known her to turn anyone away hungry who couldn’t pay. So, folks watch out for Rivka.

I know I do. I was homeless when I first met her, homeless, penniless, and on the run. Rivka’s been real good to me, gave me a job and a room in the back of the shop. Never asks awkward questions. I appreciate that.

My old man would hate to see me today, working for a Jew and hanging around with Blacks and Latinos. He thought he was the white man’s messiah, or that he’d raise my brothers and me for the job. We believed it, too, didn’t know any better. Back in those hills, I’d had no contact with anyone outside my family since I was six years old. My dad ran the world I grew up in, and his was the only truth I knew. It was a combination of boot camp and special forces training throughout my whole childhood.

But after the feds charged in and we fought back, Dad looking like a pincushion for bullets, Mom and my brothers dead, too, I couldn’t keep them from taking me captive with two slugs in my gut. Once I healed and went to prison—I was barely eighteen, see, but I was eighteen—I got a whole new education.

Now, I just keep myself to myself, low profile. Don’t leave this building much, except to ride the bus once a month to the nearest used bookstore down in Westport. I stay in the front of Rivka’s, slicing meat, vegetables, and breads, or work the mixer and oven in the kitchen or just lie on my cot in the back and read at night instead of sleeping. I’d just as soon no one realized I was even around.

I live in a whole different world from the one my crazy old man preached with its brotherhood of the white man. Truth is, hardly anybody white ever helped me after the troubles, except for this crazy little twisted-up Jewish woman.

I knew we had a new kind of trouble the day Kev Mackey came around to flirt with pretty little Trini Hernandez, like he always does, and brought that new gangbanger with him. Trini’s tiny, half Mexican, half Dominican. She keeps her hair cut short and wears jeans and sloppy T-shirts all the time. Trying not to look sexy and available like her hooker sister. Trying to say she’s something different from what every man who sees her wants her to be. Sometimes I gave her a book to try to read between her several jobs. She’s studying for her GED. Her secret hope is to go to school to become a nursing assistant and then maybe a nurse.

Kev’s a kid on the brink. He could come up with extraordinary guts and strength and go down the good road or do the easy thing and claim a gang and that short, brutal life. His new pal made that decision a long time ago. Big, tough, head shaved, pierced all over with silver knobs and rings, tats on his fingers. Saw plenty of those in prison.

They call me Dom, little girl. That’s short for Dominator ‘cause that’s what I do. No one disses me. No one refuses me. That’s the way it’s got to be, sis.” He went after Trini right away. “Now, you are fine, girl. Just as fine as my homes Kev told me. You and me going to be real close friends. Real close.”

A cloud of menace hung over him. He wasn’t from here, and it wouldn’t make any difference to him that Rivka was good to people or that Trini was working hard to get out of this neighborhood where her dad and brothers wound up in the joint and her big sis on the streets. It sure wasn’t going to make any difference to him that Trini was a good girl. He’d just break her. That’s the way those eaten-up lost ones work. They don’t give a shit about anyone or anything.

Trini just ignored the punk, but Kev stood there with his mouth open like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.

No way, Dom. Trini’s mine.” Brave words, but he sounded as scared as he looked, all skinny brown-skinned teen with acne and nappy hair, trying to look bad with his jeans hanging around his knees.

Dom twisted his mouth. “But you want to share, right, homes?” His voice cut the air, harsh and dangerous. He glared at Kev with real threat. Dom wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen, like me when I killed those feds. Like me, he’d been bred and trained to be dangerous. I knew his type. I’d been his type.

There won’t be any sharing of me.” Trini looked across the glass counter at the two of them. She couldn’t help that her voice was small and soft, but she made it as firm and strong as she could. “I belong to no one but myself. Certainly not to you, Kevin.”

Shit, Trini, you know you’re—“

No bad language here, Kevin,” said Rivka, walking in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “You know the rules. You boys get something to eat and then leave Trini alone. She’s working.”

She came behind the shorter counter where Trini sat at the cash register. She reached over in the back of the high glass-front counters next to her and plucked up two doughnuts. “Here you go, boys. Nice and fresh and sweet.”

Dom glared at her and leaned over to get right in her face. “Listen, you old bitch! I—“

Rivka reached up and stuffed one of the doughnuts right in his open mouth as he was laying into her. His eyes flew open in shock and then panic as he started to choke.

Chew,” Rivka said. “Chew and swallow. It’s good for you. Sweeten your temper. And no more bad language. You can’t frighten me.” She pointed to the tattoo on her wrist. “Scarier men than you will ever be have tried and failed.”

I moved out from the corner table behind the tall counter where I stayed most of the time, sharpening knives, making up bags of doughnut holes, whatever. I drifted over to stand next to Rivka. Mutt and Jeff. I’m almost tall enough to include two of her, one on top of the other. I still held the big butcher knife I’d been sharpening.

Dom was chewing as fast as he could and still choking some. Rivka waved him toward the door. “Go on home. Come back when you feel better.

I started to move around the short counter behind Trini. I thought I’d whack him on the back since he was having such a hard time, but he turned and dashed for the door to the street before I could.

Come on, Trini,” said Rivka, grabbing her purse. “I will drive you home.”

But I’ve got two more hours to work.” Trini looked as if she might start crying. “I need the money.”

Kevin can work your hours. I will still pay you.” Rivka turned toward Kev. “Why would you bring such a meshugganuh…?” Her hands tried to grab words from the air. “Such a crazy one. Why bring him here to torment Trini?”

Kev started to sputter in anger. I raised my eyebrows at him. I know the effect that can have on a kid, what with the scar that runs from one brow down to my jaw.

Trini whirled to face Kev. “You stupid! You better not bring that punk around me again, Kev, or I’ll never, never speak to you anymore.”

Come, Trini, let me drive you home. I don’t want you to walk tonight.” Rivka pushed her toward the back door. “You keep your phone by you tonight. Call me if anyone comes bothering around your apartment.”

Call 911,”I shouted after them. “They might not get there as fast as Rivka, but they’ll have more firepower.”

When I turned back to Kev, he was staring at the butcher knife in my hand. “What? This?” I shook it at him a little.

He pulled his head back as his eyes grew bigger.

Kev, I was sharpening knives when your pal got so out of line. I just happened to have it in my hand.”

You sharpen knives a lot of the time. I’ve noticed that.”

I shrugged. “I was taught to take good care of my tools. A dull knife is dangerous. You’re much more likely to cut yourself or someone else accidentally with a dull knife. And I never want to do something like that accidentally.” I walked back to my corner butcher block table and laid the knife on it.

I had the knives laid out in a line on the table, ordered by size. I put away my sharpening stone and its bench. I’d finished that part of the drill. Next, I would take my butcher’s steel and hone the knives so it would take the barest touch of their edges to open the skin or surface of almost anything.

You know, Kev, the time comes when you got to think for yourself and not just move in the direction everyone seems to be pushing you to move.” I looked at him directly, making eye contact, though I usually avoided it. I wanted to make sure he was hearing and understanding. “This Dom guy may seem cool, but he’s not. He’s bad news for someone like you. Anything you do with him will bring him what he wants because you’ll be left to take the blame and punishment. Never let someone else control what you feel and do.”

I knew it was probably useless to talk this way, but I was talking to myself at his age more than anything, that kid who’d blown away two feds thinking he was protecting his family, thinking he was doing the righteous thing, only to learn after too many deaths that he’d been misled and would now have to pay forever for letting someone else control his emotions and actions. I was talking to the boy who’d set me on the course I’d been on ever since that day the feds showed at our home compound.

Nah, Dom’s okay. He just doesn’t want anybody to feel like they can mess with him.” Kev’s face suddenly looked troubled. “I sure wish Miz Rivka hadn’t done that to him. You know, she dissed him bad. He’s going to have to come back on her hard.”

I nodded. I knew that the minute Rivka did it. I’m not sure she didn’t know it also. Rivka’s a lot smarter than people give her credit for. Dom was going to have to come back in and put the hurt on her big time. I didn’t want to see that. I hoped he’d get smart and go somewhere else.

I had to keep myself as low and out of sight as possible. Just because the search for me wasn’t active any longer didn’t mean it wasn’t ready to leap up any second the feds heard of a sighting or whenever my fingerprints showed up in some case or other. So I avoided trouble always. Now, Rivka had walked herself right into some really bad trouble. I didn’t see what I could do about it.

When Rivka came back, she stopped right inside the back door and gestured for me to go back to her. Kev was ringing up old Mr. Banks, who stopped by each afternoon to buy two doughnuts for the price of one. We had standing orders from Rivka to always make him a sandwich to go with the doughnuts. It was probably his only real meal most days. He supported himself and his grandson on Social Security and a disability check. A hit-and-run driver killed his daughter and put his grandson in a wheelchair, giving the kid traumatic brain injury, as well. Needed lots of special medical care. Mr. Banks was one of the folks in the neighborhood hanging on by a thread.

I joined Rivka in back, wondering what she wanted to tell me that she didn’t want Kev to hear. She’d been gone longer than I expected. Maybe she took Trini to stay in some safer place.

She held out a thick bank envelope to me. “Take this and keep it safe, CJ. Tomorrow morning as soon as I get here to open, I want you to take my car and pick up Trini. Drive her to another town. A college town. Lawrence, Manhattan, Parkville, Warrensburg. Find her a place to live and get her settled in with this money in a bank account. Stay with her a few days. Help her find a job and everything. There’s enough for her to live on and go to school if she works and is careful.” She smiled at me. “Trini’s used to being careful with money.”

You don’t want to send me as a nursemaid for a young girl, Rivka. You shouldn’t trust her to some guy unless it’s someone as old as Mr. Banks.”

She smiled at me and patted my chest when she couldn’t reach my shoulder. “You live through what I did, and you lose the blinders when it comes to people. Most of them are weak, and whichever way they fall will depend on the circumstances around them. Some are just bad like that gangster who wants Trini.” She shook her head with a frown. “Bad.” She smiled and gave my chest one last pat. “Some are good. Solid good. You’re one of them, CJ. You’ve been through the fire, had the impurities burned away.”

I shook my head. Crazy old lady. She had me so wrong.

I don’t know why you fear yourself so much and why you’re running. I don’t want to know. I know people. You’ll take care of Trini and settle her somewhere safe without hurting her. You can come back when you’ve done that if you want. Or you can move on.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I won’t be around much longer. Have to go into hospital, I suppose. My children will insist when they find out. I’d leave this place to you. They won’t want it. But I imagine you can’t have anything to do with the courts.”

I nodded dumbly. After a few seconds, I found my voice. “What’s wrong?”

She laughed, and for a second I thought I could see the young girl whose beauty and courage allowed her to escape from Auschwitz. “Life, that’s all. Life is a death sentence, CJ, and I’ve had a long run with mine, but the bill’s finally come due.” She morphed back into the twisted little woman I knew and shrugged her hunched shoulders. “It’s all been an extra gift. Every day since I didn’t die with my mother and aunt. Riches, all of it. I’m ready.”

I didn’t know what to say. I understood that. I should have died with my parents and brothers, but I’d long since reached a place where I was glad I hadn’t. “Still, you shouldn’t trust me with Trini or the money. You don’t know who I really am. I could be a murderer for all you know.”

She tilted her head to look up at me in a quick, birdlike movement. “If you are, I know there was a reason. You had cause to do it. You’re a man who values life and other people, even those others ignore or despise. Trini and the money will be safe with you. You can take some of it to speed you on your way. I know you’ll leave Trini with enough.”

She closed my hand around the envelope with her own tiny fingers. “Keep it safe and get Trini somewhere where that thug can’t find her as soon as we open tomorrow.”

She turned and marched on into the shop, snatching up an apron from its hook on the wall. “Well, Kevin, how are things going? Mr. Banks, how is Charlie doing?”

I turned into the tiny back room, not much more than a closet, where I had a cot and a set of plastic storage drawers I’d picked up at the thrift store. Everything else I owned, except the row of used books sitting along the deep windowsill, was in the backpack hanging from two nails in the wall. Instead of putting the envelope in the backpack, I slid it under the mattress and headed back into the front of the deli.

The bell above the door was still ringing from Mr. Banks’ departure as I walked back behind the counters as if nothing had changed. I headed over to the knives to put them away. Rivka started to gather the day’s left-over doughnuts, rolls, and cookies into a sack. She always stopped by the vacant lot at the end of the block and handed the bag to The Rev, a homeless guy who could have once been a minister—I’d heard him preach when drunk. The Rev was as close to a leader as the homeless guys had. He passed out the food and made sure everyone got some.

The bell rang again, and I looked up to find Dom walking in. He had a revolver—looked like a Smith & Wesson .357—stuck in the front of his pants. Good way to blow off the family jewels, my dad would have said. He had no patience with anyone who didn’t respect his weapons.

Kev froze at the register, hands in midair, eyes huge. Rivka took a deep breath and let it out with a big sigh, walking around the counter to confront him. I was surprised to find I’d walked almost over to Kev at the register, knife in hand, while staring at them.

Trini’s not here,” Rivka said. “She won’t be in until tomorrow.”

The door slammed behind Dom. He didn’t jump at the sound, but he moved around Rivka so he could watch the door and street outside as well as her. I could only see the side of his face once he did that, although he was much closer to me.

I’ll take care of her later. Right now, you’re the bitch I came to deal with.” He pulled the gun from his pants without blowing a hole in himself the way I was hoping he would.

Rivka shook her head. She looked at him, and you could see the sorrow wash over her features. “You’re so young. So much hate. Is there no way to reach you?”

Shut up, old bitch. You’re not dissing me ever again. I’m the man, see.” He shook his gun at her. “You better start crawling if you hope to live.”

My hand tightened on the knife I held. Kev was shaking so hard I could feel it.

Is an old woman like me worth throwing your own life away? Am I worth going to prison and staying until you’re old and gray yourself?” Rivka was so calm, as if she discussed whether to have beef or chicken for lunch.

I moved closer to where the edge of the low counter pressed into my gut. I saw it in his eyes when he came in. Dom was going to kill Rivka. He’d hopped himself up for it, and there wouldn’t be any way to stop him, short of force. I figured I was the only one in the room, other than him, able to apply any force.

Rivka looked straight at me for a second, as if she’d heard my thoughts, and she shook her head imperceptibly before looking back at Dom.

You’re going to be so fucking sorry you ever met me, you old cow,” he said as he lifted his gun toward her.

Kev screamed. I flung myself over the counter, ripping my knife across Dom’s throat, but I knew it was too late. He’d pulled the trigger, even as I threw myself at him. I hung on the countertop as Rivka fell onto her back, blood blossoming on her chest, and Dom dropped face forward, blood spurting in front of him. Kev screamed again.

I threw the knife down, pulled myself off the counter, and ran around to Rivka. “Call 911, Kev. Shut up and call 911. She needs an ambulance.” I knelt at her side, and she smiled up at me.

Take that money. Trini won’t need it now. Run and hide. You know how.” Her voice was broken and gasping.

Hang on, Rivka. An ambulance is on its way.” I tried to lift her head.

No!” she cried. “Go now, CJ. Take that money and go.”

I stood and saw that Kev had finally picked up the phone. “Get that ambulance here for her, damn it.” I looked at her again, and she waved her hand weakly, signaling me to go.

It was only a few steps to the back room. I slid the envelope of cash out from under the mattress and grabbed my backpack. I could feel the feds on my trail already, that hunted feeling I’d lost for a while with Rivka. Snatching her keys from the counter, I slammed out the back door and threw the bag and myself into her old Buick.

I’d have to ditch it before very long, but I’d have a little while before they realized it was gone and started looking. Long enough to get away from the scene that would have months of my fingerprints all over it. Long enough to slide back underground and out of sight before the feds got involved.

Long enough to get somewhere safe to grieve for a twisted old Jewish lady who came out of hell to feed a whole neighborhood the rest of the world forgot.

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems is her 10th book. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee detective, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Woolgatherer by Paula Gail Benson

The holiday season had arrived. Nia Rushton had to accept it. She wore a rust colored jacket with her tan corduroy slacks to walk through the neighborhood. Stopping at the bakery a few blocks from her home, she selected a pumpkin walnut cupcake with cream cheese frosting to go with her coffee. Taking a seat at a small round table, she opened her book, Dan Brown’s blockbuster, Origin.

When the bell at the door rang, she glanced up to see her neighbor Patrice Knowlton enter with Sabrina, Patrice’s pre-school aged, curly headed granddaughter. Nia smiled and gave them a nod before returning to her novel.

She became so involved with Brown’s story that it took her a moment to realize she was being observed. She lowered her book to see Sabrina at the edge of her table, peering at her.

“What are you reading?” Sabrina asked.

Nia’s librarian soul rejoiced. “It’s about a teacher who goes to visit his student and learns the student has created a computer that talks like a person.”

Nia saw Patrice frown, but Sabrina was enchanted. “Let me see,” the child demanded.
That was the unfortunate thing about adult books. Usually, they had no pictures. But, with Dan Brown’s main character being a symbologist, the books featured a few illustrations. Nia quickly found one to show Sabrina.
“This is a self-portrait by the computer.”
It was a Joan Miro inspired drawing with a strange looking central eye. Patrice, now standing close enough to view the page, looked more disapproving.
“Come along, darling,” she said, pulling Sabrina toward the door. “Time for you to do a little running and jumping outside. Then, you and Grandpa can split a cupcake.” To Nia, Patrice said, “We like for her to get lots of exercise. Too much reading and screen time isn’t healthy.”
Nia kept her smile frozen as they left the shop. She remembered the child’s mother, Lesley, who had attended the high school where Nia worked.

Patrice and her husband Welton took the same approach in raising Lesley, encouraging her to lead an active rather than a contemplative life. Lesley embraced their philosophy with enthusiasm. Cheerleading, pageants, sports, and exercise. Always dashing off with one athletic boy after another. She met her husband Thad at one of her activities and, after their marriage, they went into action overload. Almost every issue of the neighborhood newsletter featured them participating in some social or fundraising event.

Then, the baby arrived. Little Sabrina seemed to be the one activity Lesley and Thad couldn’t figure out how to share. Instead, they divorced and went their separate ways. Nia continued to read newsletter articles about the many things Lesley found to do to fill her life with meaning, while watching Sabrina dumped on Patrice and Welton to be raised in an environment that valued movement over thinking.

Now, you’re being too hard on Patrice and Welton.

The voice in Nia’s head belonged to her husband Gerry. And, she disagreed completely.
Sabrina was spending more time with her grandparents than her mother. And, Patrice was distrustful of all things contemplative. Activity was her solution to all problems. It kept off weight, got you involved with others, and helped build social skills by rallying around team efforts. That baby was probably fascinated by books because she saw so few. Did anyone ever read to Sabrina from a book and let her turn the pages or scroll the screens? Maybe that was another form of exercise Patrice should investigate.

Putting aside her book, Nia finished her treat and tossed the remaining paper products in the trash. She picked up her book and headed home, fuming all the way about another generation Patrice and Welton would throw money at, then wonder why Sabrina didn’t blossom under that advantage.

Gerry’s laughter intruded upon her thoughts. I’d expect a librarian to take that attitude.

But she knew he disapproved, too. He had taught computer technology at the high school, so he appreciated contemplative skills, too.

Little Sabrina’s face had been so curious, so enthusiastic. How Nia and Gerry had longed for such a child, with an expression of fascinated wonder. She wouldn’t have had Sabrina’s tousled yellow curls and blue eyes, but dark hair, brown eyes, and a hazelnut complexion. They had hoped and tried for many years, until they finally accepted that their legacy would be through their students. And, Nia and Gerry had been appreciated. The high school’s sweetheart teaching couple. Always given their own crowns and spotlight dance at the annual homecoming celebration.

A car horn brought her back to reality. She had stepped off the curb without checking traffic. The driver looked apologetic. Gerry had been killed when hit by a drunk driver who sped through a stop sign at an intersection.

Nia stepped back and waved the driver forward. “Woolgathering,” she said. The driver nodded and drove on.

As she reached the commons park across from her home, Nia noticed Patrice conferring with the recreation director, a frazzled young man dividing his attention between the grandmother and a crowd of rambunctious children. The way Patrice was gesturing, no doubt she was suggesting numerous additional sports and activities that should be organized for the youth.

Nia turned her back on the scene and took the steps to her front porch, which extended the width of her house. A package had been deposited on the swing. Coming closer, she saw the name of one of Gerry’s favorite students in the return address. The student now studied engineering on scholarship at California Polytechnic State University. Gerry had been so proud of his accomplishment and cautioned the student to take advantage of the complete experience, including participating in building Cal Poly’s float for the Rose Parade.

Sitting on the swing, Nia took the box into her lap and slit the tape with the edge of her house key. She was puzzled by what she found inside: a pink retro style radio with an analog clock. A smiling cartoon face peered from beneath the clock’s hands.

Across the street, Sabrina had walked to the edge of the park to wave at her. Patrice was behind, placing a hand on the child’s shoulder before she could step into the street.

Nia returned the wave, then took her package inside. Beside the clock, she found and opened an envelope to read the note inside.

“Dear Mrs. Rushton, I was so very sorry to hear of your husband’s passing. I owe Mr. Rushton so much. Without his support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be at Cal Poly. And, I am following his advice, to participate in building the school’s Rose Parade entry. Enclosed is a project I worked on with Mr. Rushton. I hope you don’t mind that we called it ‘the Nia.’ If we could have beat Amazon to the punch, people would now be talking to Nia instead of Alexa. Anyway, I thought you would like to keep the prototype. Best holiday wishes to you.”

Another sheet included the instructions for connecting the device with Wi-Fi. Nia didn’t have Gerry’s IT skills, but she was a media specialist, so she drew on her own knowledge and in an hour, had “the Nia” operational. A blue light came on when she pressed the start button.

“How may I help you?” a voice asked.

She was startled for a moment. The voice was Gerry’s.

“I didn’t think I would hear that voice again, except on videos.”

“My inventors modulated my voice components, so they would be pleasing to listeners. If you prefer another style of communication, I will attempt to approximate it.”

“No!” She covered her mouth with her hand. It was disconcerting, talking with a machine that sounded like her dead husband.

“Could I assist you with a question?”

So many questions. The tears came to her eyes. “How could you leave me?”

Of all the things she could have said that was the most ridiculous. She had to get control of her emotions.

“I thought I had just been activated,” the device said. “In searching my data bases, I have located a song by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe that addresses leaving someone.”

Nia nodded, feeling the tears tracing a line down her cheeks. “Gerry’s favorite from Camelot. We danced to it, every homecoming.”

“The ultimate line from those lyrics indicates that leave taking would never occur.”

“Yes.” Never at all. “But lyrics aren’t always life.”

“In reviewing the plot summary for Camelot, I see the characters in the musical also were parted. The memories of what they created and experienced together had to sustain them.”

The answer made Nia curious. “What’s included in your data bases?”

“For the most part, I am connected to the same resources as other internet analysis devices, but I think my inventors also included some personal information not readily available to the public.”

“Like what?”

“Ask me a question.”

How like Gerry. He always made her drag the information from him.

As the days passed, Nia became used to her unconventional, namesake companion with Gerry’s voice. Coming home was easier when she had someone to converse with, even if it was only to ask the time or the ingredients for a recipe.

Most afternoons as Nia reached her porch, the recreational director was working with children in the park. Sabrina often seemed to stray from the group, to observe a rock or follow a squirrel or to just stand as if pondering something.

Nia shook her head, particularly when Patrice would tell Sabrina she needed to pay attention to the group activity.

One day, Sabrina called to Nia. “Are you still reading the book about the talking computer?”

Nia smiled. “No, I finished it.”

“What are you reading now?”

Nia wasn’t sure how to answer. Having a companion that wasn’t a voice in her head, she had been more interested in asking for internet searches than reading on her own. “I’ve been busy lately.”

“Darling,” Patrice’s voice interrupted. “The game is in progress. You’ll never improve your skills if you don’t focus.”

Nia huffed up the steps, went inside the house, and dumped her tote on the couch. “That baby just needs some time alone with her own imagination. If Patrice doesn’t let her do a little woolgathering, Sabrina will turn out just like Lesley.”

“Woolgathering,” the device said. “A colloquialism.”

“That’s right,” Nia said.

“Daydreaming, stargazing, idling, lazing about . . .”

“No!” Nia had thought the device was on her side. She had to remind herself it was simply supplying data. “Well, not always. Taking time to contemplate, to think matters out can provide new awareness.”

“My inventor, Gerry Rushton, called his Nia, the human one, a ‘woolgatherer.’”

Nia turned to face the device. “That’s correct.”

“The term originated with those who went behind the sheep, collecting the wool that had caught on bushes as the herd passed. Often it is used in a derogatory context.”

“But it needn’t be,” Nia replied. “It’s not so much about haphazard distribution as it is about seeing a pattern and being able to discern from that what is useful.”

“The meaning of that statement is apparent only to its speaker.”

“Oh, you have too much of your inventor Gerry Rushton in your circuitry! Anyone following a sheep herd to gather the wool that has attached to bushes will look for the bunches that may be used in weaving, not just the random bits that birds can collect to build their nests. By observing where the path was narrow and how the branches intruded upon the way, you can settle your mind on the places where significant wool has been pulled from the hides. You can see what’s reasonable to obtain. That’s what becomes the woolgatherer’s concentration. And that’s not just frivolous or without meaning.”

“Your attention is needed outside, Nia Rushton.” The device’s voice took on that sharp edge, the tone Gerry used to let Nia know he was no longer teasing, but dead serious.

“What?” Facing the deadly serious frightened her.

“Only you can change a life.”

A silly slogan from one of her library posters, but Nia went back to the door to look out at the scene across the street in the park. Welton looked forlorn waiting on a bench while Patrice engaged the recreation director in a spirited debate. The children kicked a soccer ball back and forth. Nia didn’t see Sabrina at first, then caught sight of the yellow curls near the road, heading toward a sign the local zoning commission had recently posted. The large “z” in the center would be an attention getter for a youngster, but Sabrina had stepped into the street without seeing an on-coming car.

“Wait, wait!” Nia ran out the door and down the steps. “Stay back, Sabrina.”

The teen operating the vehicle immediately applied the brakes, causing a screeching against the pavement. The whole incident terrified driver, children, recreation director, Patrice, and Welton. In the heart stopping moments, Nia reached Sabrina first. The child smiled at her and pointed to the sign. “What does it say? Why is it that orange color?”

It took a few minutes to sort the scene out and Nia was in the middle of it. She reassured the teen he had not been speeding, suggested that the recreation director take the group inside for a snack, and quieted the frantic Patrice.

“You know,” Nia said as Patrice clung to her granddaughter and Welton stood behind, looking bewildered. “Sabrina has a healthy curiosity for words. Maybe if you spent some time reading with her, she would be better able to concentrate on other activities when she’s scheduled to participate in them. You could even read books about sports together. I’ll pick out a few for you to try.”

Nia wasn’t sure the message would stick, but at least Patrice had been terrified enough by the tragedy averted to listen and nod her head as if agreeing to try the new activity. As Nia reentered her home and closed the door behind her, she said, “Well, you and I have both done our good deeds for the day.”

“Goodbye, Nia.”

Nia looked at the device. A tiny stream of smoke appeared to be rising from the clock face, obscuring the cartoon features. “What’s happening?”

“It’s time for you to reconnect with the world. No more woolgathering about things past.”

“But I need you.”

“You’ll hear my voice when necessary, but you’ll have to do your own research.”

She watched the device self-destruct, knowing there would be no way to revive it. It had been there to get her through the gap, until she had to resume her place in the world. She would no longer be part of a sweetheart couple, but she had always been self-reliant. Now, she wouldn’t be so self-conscious about it.

Returning to the couch, she retrieved her tote and headed out the door. She had to go select some children’s books from the library.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Mixed Blessings by E. B. Davis

A recent Nor’easter caused flooding along Pamlico Sound. Behind my Sound-front home, I placed my mug of Irish coffee on the still wet dock, spread out a plastic poncho, and sat down on it. A candy cane leaned inside my cup. I used it to stir the coffee and took a sip. The sharp Irish whiskey contrasted with the candy cane’s sweetness. Beyond my dock, a glorious sunset sank in the western sky above Pamlico Sound. I wished for calmness and peace, but my work shift on this Christmas Eve day had left me edgy.

As a Dare County Deputy Sheriff, I’d spent months tracking the source of fentanyl-laced heroin, the cause of three deaths on Hatteras Island. Today, I’d arrested the drug-dealing murderer, Thomas Carson. I should have felt elated, but my heart focused on all his victims.

The young addicts’ families would feel no joy this Christmas. Unfortunately, the arrest occurred in the dealer’s front yard—in front of his mother, Ginny Carson, and his two children, Cassie, age seven and Tommy, age four. The scathing look on Ginny’s face told me I’d made a new enemy.

With a sigh, I held back tears, gulped my coffee, and sucked on the candy cane. There were too many victims. I’d taken the children’s father away at Christmas and the main source of income for the family. But, I’d done my job and was glad to get Carson jailed. I’d tell the county’s social worker on the island about them. Maybe she could arrange for assistance to the family.
I stared at the horizon as the sun offered a final wink. Woody, my fiancé, had taken my son, Jared, along with his daughter, Cindy, to his sister’s house earlier before he went on duty. He, too, was a Deputy Sheriff. We’d been unlucky. As I went off, Woody went on duty. I’d see him later. The kids were going to a church birthday party for Jesus later followed by a sleepover at his sister’s house. We planned on bringing everyone over here early Christmas Day to celebrate.

Glad to have these moments alone, I tried to regain my equilibrium and feel peace. Instead, I thought of the victims and felt tense. I looked at the darkness. My stomach tightened seeing a streak light up the darkened sky. The streak zigzagged and shot toward me. The Irish coffee jostled in its cup when I bent down to hit my head on the dock. No—not today. I didn’t know if I could handle one more thing. Righting myself, I lifted the mug and drank down the remaining Irish coffee before the banana landed on the dock.

Standing on one narrow end, the lumpy banana glowed beside me as if it emitted radiation. Its peel split at the top into four sections and unfurled, revealing six-inch Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, and Nana, the dogs of Hatteras Island’s guardian angel. Nana didn’t like me. I watched as Nana morphed from a minute size to her normal St. Bernard-size self.

Pamela’s visits started a few years ago. At first, I’d questioned my sanity. Now, I felt like her servant. Her main job, she claimed, was to grant wishes to those who lived near Pamlico Sound, her territory. There was some hierarchy. I was unsure if her boss was Santa Claus or God. Pam never specified. But then, she never said much that made sense. I’d felt she used me to achieve her ends, but so far, her ends and mine were copacetic. Although Pam was Tinker Bell’s size, her attitude was all gangster. I trusted her—most of the time.

“Why is it you sometimes need a banana to fly?” I asked Pam.

“It’s needed to cross dimensions. Otherwise, I can fly on my own.”

I decided not to ask about dimensions and rose from the dock, anticipating Pam’s demand for treats. Then, I noticed her attire. Not her usual trashy-tacky, diva style. She was dressed like her version of a fisherman—plastic booties topped by a yellow plastic raincoat. She looked like an electrified SpongeBob. Her fashion statement made me suspicious.  

“Wait, Sue. We need your help now.”

“What help?”

“Get your skiff.”

“Pam, it’s dark. I don’t have lights on my boat.”

“That’s no problem. I’ll light your way, and I know exactly where we’re going.”

“That might not be a problem for you, but I doubt the Coast Guard will agree with you.”

“Don’t worry about them giving you a violation.”

I put my hands on my hips and opened my mouth. Nothing came out. I’d tried arguing with Pam before, a no-win situation, but I didn’t move at her command either.

“I have friends, Sue. If the Coast Guard is out and about, they’ll create a diversion. We’ll be back in no time.”

I couldn’t help but sigh. This didn’t sound like a good idea. “Let me get my hat, boots, and jacket.” I took a few steps toward the house.

“Also, get two bottles of water, two bowls, and two blankets,” Pam called out to me.
I turned to face her, but decided I didn’t want to pose the question and continued to the house. After getting the necessary gear, I returned to the dock, jumped onto my skiff, and checked the gas level. “Where are we going and why?”

“We’re going to that deserted island down by Hatteras Inlet. I’ll tell you why on the way.”

The island wasn’t that far away. My gas level was fine. I turned on the engine, kept it in neutral, and cast off. Pam had flown onto the boat, but Nana jumped aboard causing the boat to sway back and forth. “Really nice, Nana. Next time, just capsize us,” I said, knowing I was taking my bad mood out on her.  

Nana growled at me. Typical Nana, but I might have deserved it.

“Now don’t start, you two,” Pam said. To my surprise, she took Nana to task. “Sue’s doing you a favor. Be nice.” Nana had the good sense to lie down, head on paws.  

“Pam, can you find Channel Marker 10?” I asked and pointed out in the Sound. “It’s in that direction. Go sit on it and light up.”

“But the island’s down there,” Pam pointed to the Southwest.

“Yes, but I can’t go in a straight line. The Sound has shallow spots, and we’ll run aground. Not something you want to do going thirty miles per hour.”

“Of course. I know that, but since I fly over it, it’s never an issue for me. Will do,” Pam replied and flew off. Her acquiescence surprised me, but it also made me wary. Pam’s task was urgent, whatever it was. I kept sight of her line of light, which became stationary as she found the channel marker. I put the boat in high gear and took off after her. Nana looked back at me in surprise, but she didn’t growl.

I didn’t want to bring attention to my boat. Once out in the Sound, the noise of my engine wouldn’t carry as much as it did near land, and no one would be able to see me in the dark. I pointed in the general direction of the other channel markers to Pam in sequence until the closest one to the island appeared. It was a dark shape within the dark Sound. In the distance, I saw another smaller dark shape, one where nothing should be. My edgy feeling intensified. My stomach clenched as if a knife-point nicked it. This adventure wasn’t my idea of fun.

Pam flew back to the boat. I slowed and approached the island, beaching my flat-bottomed skiff in the sand. I placed one of my feet, encased in a waterproof boot, into the shallow water, launching myself out of the boat, and pushed it up onto the sand. The strong Sound current near the inlet could wash the boat off the island, stranding all of us. Oh yeah, I realized, just me since Pam could transport a diminutive Nana just fine. The thought made me wonder why I was involved.

“Pam, what’s going on? Why am I here?” I asked and grabbed a flashlight out of the boat’s bow.

“Shush. Can’t you hear them?”

I heard whimpering and walked toward the sound. A shape appeared in the darkness. I turned on the flashlight. An old rowboat rocked in the water. Its front half was on the beach, but the back half was submerged. Inside the boat, a puppy and a kitten shivered, huddling close to one another, and whimpered from the wet interior.

“Pick them up, Sue. Get them to your boat,” Pam said. “They won’t last much longer without water and warmth.”

To free up my hands, I placed the handle of the flashlight under my upper arm and clamped down on it, bending down into the rowboat to pick up the animals. The puppy was docile enough, looking up at me with relief, but the kitten hissed and clawed my hand, attaching itself to me. I straightened and made an abrupt about face, ran back to the boat, and placed them in the bottom of my skiff. Nana took charge, tucking them to her chest. Pam fluttered to the water bottles, straining to upright one. I took it from her and poured water into each bowl. Nana nudged the babies to the bowls, coaxing them to drink.

A light caught my eye, two flashes in the direction coming from the dark shape I’d seen in the Sound. I wondered if they saw my flashlight, wondered if they thought it was their contact, wondered if that contact was Thomas Carson. We’d nailed the dealer but not the supplier.

I took out my phone and called 911. Sometimes signals didn’t carry on the Sound, but Barb picked up after two rings. “Call the Coast Guard. There’s a boat without running lights on the Sound. But warn them. I suspect there are drugs aboard.” I gave her the coordinates where I thought the boat was located and hung up.

After their drink, the babies were content to sleep near Nana’s soft, warm, and furry chest. I threw both blankets on top of Nana and tucked it under her sides. She licked my wounded hand. My mouth popped open in surprise, but I had no time to waste.

“Time to scram, Pam.”

She looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “You just called the Coast Guard. I thought you needed to stay away from them.”

“I do. But getting them here is more important than me getting a violation. Besides, I hope we’re gone and home before anything goes down. Bad guys may be coming for us at two o’clock.” I pointed into the Sound. “Drug runners, I think. Let’s get out of here. Can you remember the markers?”

Pam looked at the dark shape approaching the island. “Yep—I already knew where they were, I just didn’t get the channel markers’ significance since I had no need for them. Follow me. I’ll also contact my buddies to create a diversion.” She flew off.

I pushed the boat into deeper water and hopped aboard. The engine was louder than I wished when it started, but I followed Pam’s light stream. The larger boat charged forward in pursuit. When Pam flew to the next marker, I made a decision I hoped I wouldn’t regret.

I cut diagonally across the Sound, bypassing the channel marker where Pam sat. My risk was running aground. The odds were in my favor. With a smaller boat, I might make it through shallows that would ground a bigger boat, like the one following me. Pam must have seen my change of direction. She flew back to the boat but kept ahead of me by a few yards. When she flew to the right, I responded by steering to the right away from the shallows, I assumed, Pam had discovered. The larger boat continued to follow.

After a few nerve-racking minutes of following Pam, who continued dodging shallows, I looked behind me. The boat looked as if it had stopped. I slowed the skiff and shut off the engine. In the silence, I heard swearing. Elated, I called to Pam. “They ran aground.”

“Once you explained about the problem, my friends camouflaged the channel marker and put up a dummy marker in a shallow area. They’ll stay stuck for a while—hopefully in time for the Coast Guard to pick them up.”

My only response was to nod. I couldn’t believe my luck or how well Pam was helping me. Of course, I was helping her, too. But my end usually came with an embarrassing cost.

We headed home. After securing the boat and helping Nana and her charges out of the skiff, we headed into my house. All of our stomachs growled. Last Christmas, Nana and Pam had brought Jared a puppy for Christmas against my wishes. His bed and bowls were lined up between the kitchen and dining room. Nana placed both babies in the dog bed. I got chili out of the refrigerator and heated it up. I poured kibble in the dog bowl and opened a can of tuna for the kitten. Nana got kibble and tuna in a new bowl I placed nearby. I sat on a chair at the table while Pam sat across from me at the Barbie table Woody’s daughter, Cindy, left at my house.

“Great chili, Sue,” Pam said and waved her spoon in the air. She probably thought it was her wand. “Now to prepare for the second part of our mission.”

“Second half. You never told me about the first half.”

“I never had a chance to explain. The Nor’easter that came in over the weekend caused a lot of problems. One mother stored all of her Christmas gifts in the trunk of her car. It was flooded, the car totaled along with the gifts. Luckily, her insurance paid out to replace the car and the gifts. But Ginny Carson wasn’t so lucky.”

“Ginny Carson?”

“Tommy wanted a puppy and Cassie wanted a kitten. Ginny was trying to keep the pets a secret so she kept them in their boathouse. They nested down in that old rowboat, but when the flooding occurred, the rowboat got loose with them in it. Ginny’s been frantic worrying about them. So, we rescued the pets. The only thing we have to do now is get them over to her so the kids get their Christmas wishes, and she can stop worrying.”

“To Ginny Carson’s?” My voice was probably a pitch higher than normal.

Pam raised her eyebrows again. “Problem, dear?”

“I just arrested her son. I’m not her favorite person right now.”

“Pish-posh, Sue. She’ll be happy once she sees the pets. But I’ve arranged a job for her at a real estate company starting after the holidays so the money issue will be lessened.”

“She’s still won’t want me at her house.”

Pam had taken off her raincoat to eat. Forehead in a pucker, she groped her sides. The sparkling red Las Vegas gown that had been covered by the raincoat seemed too tight for pockets, but she pulled out her wand, smiled and said, “Problem solved.” Pam flew next to me and clunked me in the head with her wand.


She waved off my complaint and said,

“In the midst of Sue’s trials, we pause,
to transform her into Mrs. Claus.
So she can deliver all eight paws.”

“What? Wait!” But the transformation occurred before I could say more. My waistline expanded. My cheeks felt fat. My ankles thickened. I waddled into the bathroom to see what had happened. In the mirror, a little old lady stood. The hat on her head was red with a white band above chubby, rosy cheeks. A white pompom decorated the bottom of its triangular shape. A Santa suit stretched over her fat, squat body. I couldn’t externalize it anymore. I was her, Mrs. Claus. “Pam!” I yelled and shuffled back to the table.

“Well it’s the perfect solution. You said you can’t go to the Carson’s, but Mrs. Claus can go.” She thrust out her hands toward me. “Perfect.”

“Why can’t you just give them Santa?”

Pam looked at me as if I were an idiot. “He’s busy tonight.” She turned to the door. “Now come along, we have to make this look as real as possible just in case the children are still awake.”

We went out my front door to the driveway. “What are we doing?”

“Getting your transportation ready.” Pam waved her wand at my squad car. It changed into a cherry red dune buggy.

“Cool! Let me start it up.”

“No dice, Sue. All Christmas vehicles have to be powered by magic. Rules, you know.” Pam put two fingers in her mouth and whistled a loud blast. I heard rustling in the trees.
Three large bucks emerged, one I had become acquainted with before. “No, not Buck.”

“He doesn’t have to be your date this time. He and his friends, Randy and Dandy, will pull the dune buggy to the Carson’s.”

“Buck, Randy, and Dandy. I’m not asking how they got those names.”

“Better off if you didn’t, dear.”

 “Come on, let’s gather up the troops.”

After tucking a blanket around Nana and the pets in the backseat of the dune buggy, Pam harnessed the three deer to my “sleigh.” Buck was in the front with Randy and Dandy side-by-side near the buggy. I took hold of the reins and shook them. “Come on, Buck, pull!”

Buck looked at me. Recognition dawned on his face. He got a goofy look in his eye and circled around to me. The dune buggy circled round and round. “Pam!”

“Buck, behave yourself.” Pam shook the reins. Buck stopped circling but he also didn’t move.

Having worked with and been embarrassed by Buck before, I knew of only one sure-fire way to tame the beast. I climbed out, went into the house, and got a bowl of Chex mix. “Can you hold the bowl while I steer?”

Pam sighed. “It never used to be like this. Now, everyone wants something or nothing happens. No sense of community.” She grabbed the bowl and flew in front of Buck, who walked toward the bowl with his snout quivering. Pam continued grousing, “Now it used to be…”

I tuned out Pam’s rambling talk as we got on Route 12 and headed north. In Buxton, we stopped in front of the Carson’s house. Pam flew over to the house and tapped on the door with her wand.

Ginny opened the door, looking at the dune buggy. I got out and motioned to her to come out. Before she took a step, two little people emerged behind her and ran down the sidewalk to the dune buggy.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I said. My Mrs. Claus-self seemed in tune with the role. I even chuckled. Ginny walked up the sidewalk, a skeptical look on her face. I couldn’t blame her and hoped once she saw the gifts her spirits would lift. “Santa told me an item on your Christmas Wish List needed a special delivery he entrusted me to do. Now Tommy, what was your biggest wish for?”

“A puppy!” he said while jumping up and down.

I bent into the backseat, took the puppy in my hands, and offered Tommy the dog. Tommy squealed with delight and held the puppy. I heard Ginny gasp.

“Where did you find him?”

I gave her a wink. “The North Pole, of course.” Turning to Cassie, I asked, “And what was your wish?”

A few years older, Cassie was cynical. She put her hands on her hips. “A kitten. You have one for me?”

I took the kitten from Nana. “Yep, I do have a kitten for you, but you have to promise to take care of it.” I placed the kitten in her hands.

Innocence reclaimed the child. Tears formed in her eyes. She said a quiet, “Thank you.”

“Take the puppy and the kitten to the veterinarian in a few days. It won’t cost anything.” Not after I called George, the vet, and bribed him. “They have pet food at the food bank, too. Okay?”

“Okay.” Cassie walked back to the house with her brother.

Life could be too hard for some children. Everyone needed to win sometimes. I watched as Cassie closed the door and then turned to Ginny.

“Where did you find them? And don’t get all Mrs. Claus on me, Deputy Sue. Can’t fool me.”

“Someone told me what happened. I was out on my skiff and found them in an old rowboat on the deserted island near the inlet.”

Ginny let out a gasp. “Oh, my Lord. If you hadn’t found them, they would have died, and the kids would have been devastated. So far, the season hasn’t been very merry.”

“I know. I’m sorry I had to arrest your son.”

“Not my son. I don’t have a son. That was my daughter’s husband. Not that I know where she is, but at least she isn’t with him. He dumped the kids on me and took off for weeks at a time. Of course, I had my suspicions.”

“You aren’t mad at me? You sure looked mad.”

“Yeah. I just didn’t like that it happened in front of the kids.”

“No—I didn’t like that either. Wish it hadn’t happened. But I had to do it.”

“I know, it was for the best. Cassie and Tommy were afraid of him and his friends who would drop by. We’ll be much better off without him around.”

“I hope so.”

“I got news today that I have a job after the New Year with a real estate company.”

“That’s great.” I smiled at her. “I won’t keep you. Have a Merry Christmas.”

“You, too, Sue.”

Ginny disappeared into the house. I wrapped the blanket around Nana and picked up the reins. A patrol car drove past. Woody stuck his head out the window and stared, his mouth dropped open, and he hit the brakes. “Sue?”

“Mrs. Claus to you, sonny.” I smiled. “On Buck, on Randy, on Dandy, down Route 12, to the bottom of Buxton, to the middle of Frisco, now dash away all.” To my shock, they did as I’d asked. I waved goodbye to Woody, who continued to stare at me as I left.

When I got back to my house, Pam was already there. After letting Buck, Randy, and Dandy go, Pam turned to me and reversed the transformation. “That went well tonight.”

She’d actually changed me back. I was thrilled. “All except getting caught by Woody.”

“Nope that was according to plan, too.”

I was about to protest when I saw lights in the driveway.

“Tootles, Sue. Have a great Christmas.”

“Thanks, Pam. You and Nana have a wonderful Christmas, too.”

Pam waved, swished her wand, miniaturizing Nana, and together they zipped into the banana and disappeared into the night sky over Pamlico Sound. I slipped into the house.

Woody knocked on the door moments later. To divert him, I opened the door and asked him a question. “Did they catch the drug smugglers?”

“Yep. They were beached like whales in some shallows. I talked to Barb. How did you know where they were?”

“A little fairy told me.”

“Really. A fairy. But what happened later—that was amazing,” he said.


“I had just wished to grow old with you, and then you appeared looking old. And just like Mrs. Claus. What could be better?”

“Grow old with me. The best is yet to come,” I said, paraphrasing Browning.

“Exactly,” Wood said, smiling.

“Merry Christmas, Woody.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know how you transform like that, and why does it always fulfill a wish I had?”

I shrugged my shoulders and grinned. That would remain my secret.

“Merry Christmas, Sue.” Woody pulled me into a hug, and I found the peace I had wished for.

The End