baby feet

Smiling, gurgling, drooling baby.

Mamma’s arms. Giggles and bubbles.

Bouncing toys. Joyous love.

 

Crayons and cracker jacks. What’s the surprise in the box?

Jumpropes and softball. Caps and guns. Cowboys and Indians.

Don’t cry. Don’t be a girl.

 

Sheets wet with shame. Vacant with fear.

Wimp. Geek. Pussy. Faggot. Bitch. Crybaby. Putz.

Never good enough. Never man enough. Hide alone. Never show weakness.

Act like a man.

 

Man up. This is boot camp, ladies. Sweat.

Yes Sergeant No Sergeant Left Left Left Go

I wanna be an Airborne Ranger I wanna live a life of danger

Move shoot communicate

kill kill kill

 

This is my rifle I love my rifle. Plane. Pride.

Sand mud and sweat. Ammonia and gunpowder.

The smell of murder. Crushed bone and broken bodies

road kill

 

People. Win. Win. Crush the enemy. Kill.

Thre is no surprise in the box.

Don’t be a girl. Act like a man. BE a man.

kill

 

Home. Be silent. No one knows.

no one cares?

 

Thanks for your service. Now shut up. Get a real job.

Suck it up. Stoic. Smell of prison. Bars made of ties.

Children jobs wives. They see me but can’t hear.

Silent cry. Silent rage. Isolation. This is manhood. Sterile. Murder.

Act like a man. Be a man.

 

Eyes fail. Age and rot. Sleepless nights.

Who could know? Silence. Bones break, skin ages.

The soul cries out: who could know?

no one

 

Who cares? Don’t speak. Don’t cry.

Act like a man.

Be a man.

Die like a man.

alone

 

 

Copyright 2014 Charles Sheehan-Miles All Rights Reserved

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Thompson-Sisters Box-Set
Charles Sheehan-Miles
cover-smallDrei Bücher in einem: Thompson-Sisters Sammelband

Ein Song für Julia
Jeder sollte etwas haben, gegen das er sich auflehnen kann.
Crank Wilson ist mit sechzehn aus seinem Zuhause in South Boston ausgezogen, um eine Punk Band zu gründen und seine Wut auszuleben.
Sechs Jahre später hat er immer noch kein gutes Verhältnis zu seinem Vater, einem Bostoner Polizist, und mit seiner Mutter spricht er überhaupt nicht. Die einzige Beziehung, die ihm wirklich wichtig ist, ist die zu seinem Bruder Sean, aber sich um ihn zu kümmern, kann einen rund um die Uhr beschäftigen.
Crank will nur eines im Leben, einfach in Ruhe gelassen werden, um seine Musik zu schreiben und seine Band erfolgreich zu machen.
Julia Thompson hat ein Geheimnis in Peking zurückgelassen, das in Washington, DC zu einem Skandal ausartete, die Karriere ihres Vaters gefährdete und nun das Leben ihrer Familie dominiert. Jetzt, in ihrem letzten Jahr in Harvard, wird sie von Stimmen aus ihrer Vergangenheit verfolgt und sie weigert sich, jemals wieder die Kontrolle über ihre Gefühle zu verlieren, vor allem, wenn es um einen Mann geht.
Als sich Julia und Crank bei einer Antikriegsdemonstration in Washington, DC im Herbst 2002 treffen, ist die Verbindung zwischen ihnen so stark, dass sie droht, alles zu zerstören.

Vergiss nicht zu atmen
Alex Thompsons Leben folgt einem Plan. Als Studentin an der Columbia-Universität konzentriert sie sich auf ihre Noten, ihr Leben und ihre Zukunft. Das Letzte, das sie brauchen kann, ist den Mann wieder zu treffen, der ihr das Herz gebrochen hat.
Dylan Paris kommt schwer verwundet aus Afghanistan nach Hause und weiß, dass er Alex auf keinen Fall in das Chaos, das er aus seinem Leben gemacht hat, hineinziehen kann.
Als Dylan und Alex denselben Job als Studentische Hilfskraft zugewiesen bekommen und zusammen arbeiten müssen, müssen sie neue Regeln aufstellen um sich nicht gegenseitig umzubringen.
Das einzige Problem ist, dass sie die Regeln ständig brechen.
Die erste Regel lautet, unter gar keinen Umständen darüber zu sprechen, wie sie sich verliebt haben.

Die letzte Stunde
Die 28-jährige Carrie Thompson-Sherman führt das Leben, das sie sich immer gewünscht hat: Sie hat ihren Doktor gemacht, eine gute Anstellung und einen wunderbaren Ehemann.
Ihr schönes Leben beginnt aus den Fugen zu geraten, als neidische Kollegen durch Intrigen ihre Stellung gefährden und ein scheußliches Geheimnis ans Licht kommt, das Ray aus Afghanistan mit nach Hause gebracht hat. Alles hängt am seidenen Faden nachdem ihr Ehemann und ihre Schwester bei einem schrecklichen Unfall lebensgefährlich verletzt werden. Mit gebrochenem Herzen muss Carrie die schlimmste Entscheidung ihres Lebens treffen.
Eine Entscheidung, die alles verändern wird.
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circus

Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc.  Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.

Strike or not, my alarm goes off at six in the morning.

I fumble for the alarm, hand flailing against the bedside table several times. I almost give up, but then my hand slaps into the alarm clock with a loud crack and I feel a sharp pain in my hand.

Damn it!  I sit up, suddenly wide awake.  I hit that wrong somehow.  I hit the off button on the alarm clock. Light floods through the windows, and I remind myself that there will only be a few more weeks of decent weather. Winters here are ugly. Cold and wet. When I was growing up I spent the winters in Central Florida. Cold has an entirely different definition there.

My morning routine is all over by six forty-five. And then I have no idea what to do with myself. Normally I’d finish my coffee, put it in the sink and walk outside to head to work.

No work today. A small number of teachers will symbolically picket each school, but it’s not really expected. The strike likely won’t last long—teacher’s strikes are illegal in Massachusetts,—but with luck the closing of South Hadley’s four public schools will get the attention of the town’s residents. The union has been distributing flyers and talking with the parent teacher organization for almost two years, and negotiating with the school committee just as long.  No one was really interested.

I bet they will be now. I open my laptop and brows to Masslive.com.  Right at the top of the page is the headline, South Hadley Teachers Stage Walkout. The subtitle said, Parents scramble for childcare as strike begins.

I read through the article. All in all, it’s mostly correct.  Mostly. Dianne Blakely is quoted, of course, noting that the teachers of South Hadley actually sprout horns and eat children at night. Or something like that.  I browse away from there to the entertainment pages. Maybe there’s a decent play or something coming up.

I freeze.

At the top of the page:  Binder and Mills Circus to Perform Six Nights in Pioneer Valley.

Oh, that’s just fantastic. If I’m not back at work by then, I’ll go perform at the circus.  I scan the article.  They’re performing in Boston and then Worcester first, and will be here just before Thanksgiving.

I stand up, out of sorts, as if I were going somewhere. Anywhere.

But … Christ. I grab my phone and dial my brother. The phone rings without answer.  I disconnect, wait thirty seconds, then try again.

He answers on the first ring.

“You gotta be kidding me. Six months I don’t hear from you, and you gotta call me at six in the morning?”

“It’s seven,” I say.

“Not in Madison.”

“Oh, bummer.”

“What do you need, Matty?”

I shrug, then realize he can’t see it. “Just wanted to check in. See how you were.”

“Bullshit,” he replies. “You saw the schedule.”

“What schedule?” I say. He knows I’m lying.

“Whatever, Matty. You should come join us. It would do you a world of good.”

I shudder, thinking of my father laying with his neck broken.  “No, thanks, Tony.”

“Will we get to see you at least? Dinner? Anything? Mom’s all broken up she never sees you any more. You didn’t even come home for Christmas. What’s that about?”

“Tony, I didn’t have the money. Elementary school teachers don’t get paid all that much.”

Tony mutters something under his breath. Then silence. Silence that drags on, because it’s heavy.

I finally break the silence.  “Yeah. We’ll have dinner.”

“That’s real generous, Matty. Real generous. Yeah. We’ll talk later.”

He hangs up the phone, leaving me with silence and guilt. I can deal with one, but not the other.  It’s time to head out.

I lock up the apartment and walk down the wooden stairwell to the parking lot. I live in a one bedroom apartment next to South Hadley Common, just above a restaurant.  It’s a good location, plus the rent is cheap. Hard to beat. My commute is usually less than five minutes.

As I unlock the car I think, once again, about buying a bike. I’ve been going to the Gold’s Gym on memorial drive pretty regularly—okay maybe regularly is an exaggeration—but every once in a while anyway. And I run a lot in the mornings. But I’m nowhere the shape I was once in, when I had to perform five nights a week.

The car is new to me, but not new. I took the insurance money and bought a 6 year old Honda Civic. It had 45,000 miles on it and is paid for. I’m happy.

I drive to Dunkin’ Donuts and go through the drive through, ordering an assorted dozen and two large cups of coffee.  I take a guess and get cream and sugar for both, then head back up College Street until the white colonial is in view. As I drive closer, I see once again that it’s really not in good shape.  Paint, once white, is peeling all over the house. Zoe’s minivan is in the driveway.

I pull in, my tires crunching in the gravel. Is it weird that I just showed up here? Will she think it’s weird? No, she asked me to not disappear, to be here for Jasmine. That’s what I’m doing.

Okay, maybe it’s weird. I don’t know.

Anyway, I open the door and grab the donuts and the two cups in their cardboard carrier. Awkwardly, I carry my load to the front door, thumping up the steps.  I don’t make it to porch before the front door opens.

Zoe is there. She’s wearing a grey Army sweatshirt and blue sweatpants, and her hair is disheveled, not long enough to tie back easily. Loose nearly-white hair hangs in front of her left eye. Her expression is… not exactly hostile. She tilts her head to the left slightly and purses her lips and her eyebrows squish together.

“What are you doing here?”

“You said I can’t just disappear. I’m not. I get it. Here’s some coffee and donuts, if I don’t drop them.”

Her eyes widen slightly. Then she reaches out and takes the coffee tray from my left hand.  “Come on in.”  Her voice is monotone, resigned.

Her enthusiasm certainly is encouraging.

It’s dim in the front room as we enter, shades drawn.  She sets the coffee down and starts opening the shades. “I wasn’t expecting company.  Come on in the kitchen.  I don’t think Jasmine’s awake yet.”

She walks on past the long living room into a doorway capped with a wide, shallow arch.  I follow, through the dining room (dominated by a large scarred farm table) and into the kitchen. A small table sits in here.  An old Apple laptop is open on the table next to a mug of coffee. The mug has characters in Chinese or Japanese or some other Asian language, along with a bright red heart:

私は東京を

It might be an I Love New York mug. Except the silhouette of Godzilla, however, leads me to believe the letters identify Tokyo or another Japanese city.

“Have a seat,” she says.  “I’ve got to admit, the donuts—that was a good move. We’re out of food, I’ve got to go grocery shopping today.”

“How is she doing?”

“Jasmine?”

I nod.  Zoe’s face is pensive and she looks away from me slightly. In a low voice, she says, “I don’t know. Same stuff we talked about yesterday. When I told her there wasn’t any school today, she just went back upstairs without a word.”

“You didn’t make her come down for breakfast?”

Zoe shakes her head. “I don’t want to push her.”

That makes sense.  Zoe takes a cup out of the holder and I grab the other.

“I took a risk you’d prefer cream and sugar.”

“That’s fine,” she says. “Thank you. I wasn’t very gracious when you showed up.”

“You’re not required to be gracious.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Seriously though, shouldn’t you be picketing or something?”

I smile. “There will be some people doing that. I’m actually sitting on my phone waiting to see if the school committee calls. I’m one of the union representatives—if they decide to negotiate, I’ll get the call.”

“You think they will?”

I nod.  “Yeah. Everything else aside, people are seriously inconvenienced when school is closed.”

Poker face in hand, she nods. “It’s true. I’m supposed to start classes on Monday.”

“So you are in college.”

“I got accepted under some pretty dodgy circumstances thanks to family friends and the veterans services department.”

“How do you mean?” I ask.

She shrugs. “My dad was a professor at Mount Holyoke. So—sometimes people stick together.  I didn’t get into UMASS on my own power.”

“I’m sure you would have been accepted if you had gone through the normal process. Right?”

She smiles. “Now, how would you know that?”

“I don’t. But you seem pretty smart. I bet you did well in school.”

She nods. “I did. Top of my class.”

The words slip out of my mouth without thought.  “But you joined the Army.”

She gives a minute shake of her head.  “That’s a bit of stereotyping, don’t you think? There’s plenty of smart people in the Army, even if they aren’t academics.”

“True. Forgive me.”

“Of course,” she replies. “I’ve spent the last five years fighting stereotypes. Outside the Army they think we’re all idiots.  Inside the Army, the idiots think women can’t be soldiers. Outside the Army too. I spent my whole tour in Iraq patrolling near Baghdad, often on foot. My first time coming home, the guy next to me on the plane asks me how I like nursing.”

I don’t know what to say. She spent a year in Iraq? On patrol? On foot? I don’t let my surprise show on my face. A moment later I hear loud steps thumping down the hall above us, then almost a gallop coming down the stairs.

“Jasmine,” Zoe says in a still voice. “Sounds like she’s already dressed to ride.”

Less than a second later, Jasmine clomps in wearing riding boots. She stops in the doorway of the kitchen. “Mister P?”

“Hey, Jasmine.”

Jasmine looks confused. A deep line creases her forehead as her eyebrows draw together.  “What—what—what—why are you here?”

The stammer is a new appearance…she didn’t do that in the second grade. For whatever reason, she has been since her parents died.

“Well, school’s closed, but I wanted to stop in and make sure you were okay. Also, I had these extra donuts, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I brought them to my favorite third grader.”

Jasmine flushes a deep red. “I’m—I’m—your favorite third grader?”

I press my index finger to my lip and blow.  “Shhhhh… don’t tell anyone.  Just come get a donut.”

If you’ve been following my blog lately, it’s no secret that I’ve been writing a story about two sisters who lost their parents, and that their mom owned a horse farm.  Jasmine, the little sister, is emotionally bonded with her horse Mono.

What you may not know is that I don’t know the first thing about horses.

Anyway, last summer my daughter spent a week at camp at the Full of Grace Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts.  Full of Grace is run by two very nice ladies, Joanna and Laura. They do horse therapy, lessons and boarding, and naturally when I thought about this story I thought I should get in touch with them about this. Last week we met at Panera Bread to discuss me hanging out at the farm, watching, asking questions, so I could learn a little bit about horses, horse farms and anything else I might come across.

Let me just say that so far it’s been a fantastic experience. I spent this morning at the farm, following Joanna and later Laura around, asking questions, taking notes and learning learning learning.  I don’t know yet what will make it into the story and what won’t. But either way, it’s been a fantastic experience so far.

I go back 7:30 on Monday morning 🙂

Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc.  Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.

 

Get your parents to watch your kid.

Asshole.

I’m back at my car, without really noticing how I got there.  I don’t know the guy who walked into Matt’s classroom, but his brief appearance made it clear I was dealing with two, not one, assholes. Matt gave the no hint that there might be a strike. Instead, he reassured me he’d do everything he could for Jasmine, that he would help provide some stability she desperately needed.

Stability I can’t provide her because my little sister barely knows me.

I growl with the effort of suppressing tears as I start the minivan and put it into gear. A big part of me wanted to replace the van, because it had been my mother’s, and because it reminded me of her.  Another big part of me whispered that it was paid for and I had no source of income for the foreseeable future.

So I drive. My mind circles back. I can’t remember when I was this angry, except maybe when I was in Iraq.

Intentionally, I turn my mind away from that. I’m halfway across the notch to Amherst before I calm down a little. And when I do, I’m more than a little bit troubled.

I’m angry because Matt—no, Mister Paladono, Jasmine’s teacher—had promised he could do something for Jasmine I couldn’t. And now he can’t, because of the strike, which he’s apparently up to his ears in organizing. But it’s not just him. I’m troubled now that I’d even consider finding myself depending on some guy I don’t even know to help my sister.

It shows just how far out of my element I am. Sergeant Ryan would have laughed. She used to say I was one of the most hard nosed MPs in our unit. That I never depended on anyone. And when Sergeant Ryan said that, she didn’t mean it as a compliment. She meant I wasn’t a team player. My default mode has always been to try everything on my own, to depend on no one, to be self-sufficient.

You can’t do that in a war zone. You have to learn to depend on other people. We depended on our drivers and machine gunners, on the men and women who delivered ammo and foot, on the weather and on the people who delivered the mail.

More importantly, we depended on our squad mates. And when things got bad, they got bad quick. I’ll never forget the terror when we were ambushed on the way back to Iskandiriyah. Half a dozen guys went down in the first couple minutes, and our SAW gunner, an infantryman, panicked and wouldn’t get back on his gun. You couldn’t blame him—it was a dangerous, bloody mess. I was on the ground, but Nicole jumped up into the truck and got on the gun and kept shooting until the barrel got so hot the machine gun jammed.

Later though, it was all bullshit. I loved Tokyo, but I was one of two women in our unit, and every time I turned around one of the assholes wbould be trying to play grabass. I quickly regained my reputation for being a loner.

But what do I do now? Jasmine can depend on me, but it’s just us. And deep inside—I don’t want us to be all alone. I guess I did depend on at least two people.

My Mom and Dad. I depended on them. It never even crossed my mind that they wouldn’t be there, today, tomorrow, next week, next year.

It never occurred to me that when I left last February, it would be the last time I saw them.

And what hurts … I can’t go back. I can’t go back and say to my mother that I’m sorry. That I was a self-absorbed bitch, that I was inconsiderate, that I didn’t consider her feelings. Not it’s too late. It’s too late to go back and repair it, it’s too late to put my arms around her and beg her forgiveness.

What. The. Hell? As I approach the traffic circle near Atkins where I collided with Matt Paladino’s car the other day, I struggle to get a grip on myself. Seriously? This isn’t who I am. This isn’t who I want to be.

I turn on the radio. I was so out of whack when I got in the car that I didn’t even put on music. Now that was weird. An unfamiliar pop song begins to play. Fifteen minutes I’m parking in the lot near the visitors center at UMASS Amherst, across the street from the administration building. Nervously, I lock up the minivan and walk across Massachusetts Avenue. It’s a very unfamiliar environment.  The valley overall gives me this sense of space… spread out, with tree covered hills rolling his above the Connecticut River.  UMASS is the largest concentration of buildings in the area, with the library standing 26 stories, towering over everything in the area. I have an electric sense of purpose as I walk through the building. I’m surrounded by college kids, most of them just a few years younger than I am.

There were times over the last five years when I regretting joining the Army instead of going to college.  I had the grades—I graduated in the top 10 students in my class. My father was a professor at Mount Holyoke College, walking distance from the house, and that fact meant I could go for free.  Some people rebel by drinking, or getting arrested, or picking a different sport than their parents.

I rebelled by joining the Army. I rebelled by going to war.

The Veterans Services Office at UMASS is a chaotic space, crowded with posters and flyers and paper and interns. It’s a storm, a whirlwind of paper and pens and chaos, and at the eye of the storm stands Craig Stills, the director of veterans services.

The thing about Craig is, he operates inside his own perfect no-bullshit bubble. All you have to do is look at his prosthetic legs (both of them) and arm (one) to realize he’s the real deal. The Silver Star citation hanging on his wall was verification. In 2005, somewhere along MSR Tampa just a few miles east of Iskandiriyah, he’d saved a soldier’s life and sacrificed his limbs in the process.

“Zoe!” he calls out in a strong voice. It sounds like broken gravel. “Come in, sit down!”

“Hey,” I say. I walk toward his desk. It’s piled high with files and books. I look at the titles with interest. Achilles in Vietnam. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War. 

Huh.

“You can borrow them if you want. My office is kind of a lending library.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You hanging in there?”

I nod. I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on inside. I just want to get down to business.  “What do you hear?” I ask. I try to hide the trembling in my voice.  I’m starting to realize—I really care about this.

He grins. “It took some doing, since you’re long past the deadline. But you’re in.”

I jump to my feet, accidentally knocking half a dozen books and some papers off his desk as I scream, “I am?”  As the books fall, I shift to horror.  “Christ, I’m so sorry.”  I kneel down to pick them up.

His smile just gets bigger. “Zoe, they really wanted you in. Everyone knows you’ve gone through a brutal time.  You deserve it.”

I carefully don’t answer as I set the books back on his desk.  He senses my reticence.  “Here’s how this will work.  It’s going to take a while for your veterans benefits to come through. Probably a couple months. We can get you a small advance for books and you’ll be able to go ahead and register for classes. You need to do that today, classes start Monday. All right?”

I nod. I’m overwhelmed.   He walks me through the first steps.  I’ve got a long laundry list of things I’ll need to do. Visit the IT office in person, because I can’t wait the days it normally takes to get an account set up. Figure out how to use the online systems. Register for classes. Get my textbooks. Fill out paperwork and more paperwork for the GI Bill.

I don’t care. I’ll do all of it. But most of it I’ll have to do tomorrow, because the elementary school gets out in forty minutes and I need to get home to meet Jasmine.  Let’s hope South Hadley’s teachers don’t go on strike, because if they do, I’ll be dragging her along for all of it.

I manage to get back out to my car and on my way home in plenty of time. As I drive back to South Hadley, I remind myself that I’m going to need to work my class schedule around Jasmine’s school hours.

I’m home in plenty of time, so when she gets off the school bus, I’m standing on the wraparound porch sweeping.  Fall isn’t here yet, but it will be soon.  The wind blows dust across the porch, and as I sweep, a few flakes of paint, already peeling, break loose.  She walks slowly away from the bus and toward the house, her head bowed, eyes on the ground.

I stop sweeping and watch her. I wish I had some clue how to help her. But of course, what she really needs is Mom and Dad. And there’s nothing at all I can do about that.

“Hey. How was your day?”

She walks up the steps and looks at me. The boards creak under her feet. “Okay,” she responds without enthusiasm. She walks right past me, opens the front door, and disappears inside.

Damn. I set the broom against the wall and go inside the house.

Her book bag is on the floor near the stairs, and I can hear her thumping around upstairs.  That was quick.  I stand there, listening. This is a very old house, and here and there loose boards make it easy to tell where people are.  Jasmine is in her room. But that doesn’t last long.  I hear her walking again, but no longer in the soft sound of sneakers.

She thumps down the stairs wearing riding boots.

“Homework?” I ask.

She seems to thud to a stop at the bottom of the stairs.  “I don’t have much,” she says.  “Can I do it after dinner? I want to ride Mono.”

“I don’t know, Jasmine….” My voice is hesitant.  I don’t like that—I rarely hesitate when making decisions. But what’s the right thing to do here.  Her eyes begin to well up with tears.

I sigh. “Yeah. Okay Ride until dinner time if you want.” I need to muck out the stalls anyway. Which raises another issue. How the hell am I going to take care of three horses while I’m in school? It’s nearly four in the afternoon, and the horses haven’t been out of the paddock to graze today, though I’d fed them hay first thing this morning.  Horses take a lot of taking care of.

By the time I get to the stable, Jasmine is already on her way to the paddock with her saddle.

“Make sure you run the other two.”  She nods.  Jasmine is short of words lately.

I sigh when I step inside the stable.  All three stables are soiled, of course. Shoveling out the stalls is a familiar task, of course, though it has been years.  Scrape it down to the bottom, then lay out a new bed of shavings. I dump and scrub the water buckets and refill them. The last few days I’ve been able to let them spend a lot of time either in the paddock or grazing, but soon enough winter would be here and they’d be in their stalls a lot longer during the day and night. And that meant mucking out the stalls twice a day, because muddy or wet conditions meant infections.

Shovel in hand, I begin to muck out the stalls.  The thunder of hooves outside tells me Jasmine is running Mono hard, with the other two horses on tethers. In the meantime, I shovel. I scrub. I sweat. I’ve been in the Army five years, and I’m probably in better physical condition than the vast majority of American women. But by the time I’m finished my shoulders hurt. Shoveling out stalls and scrubbing requires a different set of muscles than I’m used to using.

Maybe I should sell Nettles and Eeyore. I’d hate to see them go, but I don’t know how I’m going to take care of them.

Selling Mono, however, isn’t an option.

Finally finished. I step outside of the stable and look down the hill.

Our land stretches nine acres, running mostly behind the line of houses along College Street. Jasmine is down there at the far end, where our land abuts Paul Armstrong’s.  She’s moving slower now, but Mono is still moving quickly, the other two horses right behind. I turn to talk back to the house, stretching my arms and shoulders.  It’s 5:30 and I haven’t even started dinner.

I look in the fridge with a frown. I’ve never really cooked dinner much—living in the barracks in Tokyo, I didn’t have to. We all ate in the mess hall or on the economy. I have Mom’s old recipe book, though, and sometimes when I was teenager she made me cook with her. And options were limited—the only thing left in the fridge is chicken legs.

Fried chicken it is.  I wash my hands and get the meal going, mentally noting that I’m going to have to go grocery shopping. One more thing I’m not really equipped to do.

I bread the chicken as the oil is heating up, then drop the chicken into the hot oil.  I drop of oil hits my wrist, burning me.

The phone rings.

I walk over to it and pick it off the cradle, then walk back to the stove—the cord reaches far enough.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Nicole. What are you doing?”

“Cooking dinner.”  As I answer I open up a bag of frozen green beans and pour them into a pot of hot water.  No potatoes. Or rice. I’ve got half a loaf of bread. No butter, but… best I can manage right now.

Nicole launches into a story. “Okay, so classes start on Monday, and all the kids are moving in, right? You’re not gonna believe what happens.”

She pauses, and I know she’s waiting for me to ask what happened. I do. “What happened?”

“Huh. Anyway, a bunch of freshman guys get into a fight in the North Residential Area at the dining hall.  It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of—one of the guys wanted sushi, and another one called him a not-so-nice name, and the first one bunched him. It turned into a brawl.”

“A brawl? Seriously?”  The chicken is sizzling now, a satisfying sound. Smells nice too. I see Jasmine through the window… she’s leading the horses back to their stalls for the night.  Third grade or not, she knows how to take care of them. At least I don’t have to worry about that.

“Yeah, seriously. We made fourteen arrests, and classes haven’t even started yet.”

I throw my head back with a full-throated laugh.  I am so glad I didn’t consider applying for a job as a cop.

“So what happens next?” I ask. I walk to the pantry—mostly empty—trailing the phone cord behind me.  Nicole goes on telling her story, elaborating with more and more outlandish facts.

What the hell?

I kneel down.  There’s a hole in the baseboard of the pantry, and it looks like something’s been chewing near there.  Then I see the tiny black dots.

Rat droppings. I shudder.

Then I hear Jasmine scream.

Instantly I jump to my feet, dropping the phone.  The phone’s on the end of a long wound up cord, which retracts suddenly, yanking the handset across the floor until it crashes into a cabinet.

Jasmine is at the kitchen door, eyes wide, staring at the pan of frying chicken, which is now burning with foot high flames.   She screams again, and I launch myself across the kitchen to the sink, searching for the fire extinguisher.  It’s not where it belongs.  I shove cleaning fluids and various unnamed items around until I finally pull the extinguisher out from the very back of the cabinet.  Without hesitating, I pull the pin and aim the extinguisher.

It’s empty. Nothing at all.  Damn it!

I search, my mind first turning to the sink, but water will just make an oil fire worst.  Then my eyes fall on the five pound bag of flour.

I tear it open wide and pour it on the flames. Instantly the flames are smothered and the kitchen is enveloped in silence.

I’m breathing heavily and staring at Zoe, who stares back at me. In the background, I can hear Nicole shouting into the phone. “Zoe? Zoe? Is everything okay?”

I hesitate for just a second, then reach for the phone.  “Everything’s okay,” I rush out.  “Pan caught fire, but it’s out now.”

“Are you shitting me?” Nicole screamed.

“Nicole, I gotta go.”

“Zoe, wait —”

“I gotta go.”  I hang the phone up.

Jasmine is still staring at me. “What?”

She says, “I’ve never seen a fire in here. Mom never did that.”

Mom never caught the kitchen on fire? I don’t know what to say, but my chest tightens and I want to say something unkind. I can’t even imagine what to say that might be appropriate. I just turn back to the pantry and look for something for dinner, because we sure aren’t having fried chicken.

I stand in the pantry.  Pretty slim pickings.  Some staples, like flour, but I’m no baker.  Pasta is all gone (we ate it), so is the spaghetti sauce, the tortillas, the rice.

I need to go grocery shopping.

High at the top of the pantry is a box of Lucky Charms. Every once in a blue moon, Dad would buy a box. He wouldn’t let anyone else have them, which is why it’s way up there.  I step on the bottom shelf to be able to reach to the very top and pull the box down.

It’s half full.  “All right,” I say. “Change of plans. We’re eating Lucky Charms.”

Her response is caustic.  “We’re eating what? Mom never made me eat cereal for dinner.”

“Well you know what, Jasmine? I’m not Mom.”  I drop the box on the table, then walk to the fridge.

Ahh, damn it.  There’s no milk.  I sigh, then say, “Okay. Okay.  That’s not going to work.” I look back at her.  “Pizza?”

She nods. Then she says, in a very low voice, “Sorry, Zoe.”

“Pizza it is. We should both go shower though. You go first.”

She runs out. I sag against the counter. I’ll call Nicole back later and apologize. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the disaster of the kitchen. Flour covering the stove. Oil splattered everywhere.  Black oily soot coating the range hood and the wall above that.

That’ll take some cleaning.

I turn to walk upstairs, but stop in my tracks when the phone rings again. Who the hell is that?

I pick the phone up off its cradle once again. I need to get a shower and change into not-horse-and-fire-smelling clothing, and go to the bank and get some cash, then we’ll head to the pizza place up the street. Hopefully this will be a quick call.

“Hello?”

“Zoe? It’s Matt Paladino.”

My mind stops in place, and my body follows. I breathe a sigh and say, “What … what can I do for you?”

He hesitates. I’m guessing that means it is bad news.  “I wanted to let you know—the teachers union met this afternoon. The vote was near unanimous to strike.”

I close my eyes.  “Do they even care how this is going to disrupt people’s lives?”

I can almost hear his sigh.  “Zoe…”

I exhale.  “I know.  I get that there are reasons. But … you can’t just disappear, Matt. You can’t. She’s lost everyone she depends on. We don’t have any other relatives, and she barely knows me, and you’re the only adult she even really knows.  You can’t just disappear.”

There’s a long silence. Then he says, “I’ll do the best I can, all right?”

I guess that’s the best I can expect.

Photo Credit: Flavio Takemoto

Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc.  Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.

 

Lucas Cervone, a slightly chubby nine-year-old with bright red cheeks, looks up from the table when I speak to him.

“It’s my cat, Mister P.”

“Oh yeah?” I ask.  It’s impossible to tell. The green blob on the paper seems to have three legs—from this angle, it honestly looks like a giant booger. Lucas is either sarcastic or a terrible artist. He hasn’t been in my class long enough to know which.  “What’s his name?”

“Mister Willikins,” Lucas says.

“Well, that’s just great Lucas. Keep going.  I want you to write three things you love about Mister Willikins.”

He grins and goes back to his green blob.  I move on to the next student, keeping an eye on Jasmine Welch as I do so.  Jasmine is sitting at the next table over with a look of deep concentration on her face. She’s sketching a picture in grey and black.

The girl next to Lucas is Beth Grice. She’s drawn a unicorn. Or maybe it’s a rhinoceros. It’s pink and sparkly, so probably a unicorn.  “Beth, that looks great!”

She blushes bright red. Beth is the shyest girl in my third grade class—I don’t think I’ve heard her speak a word yet.  We’re only four days into the school year, of course, so she’s got some time.

I move over to the next table.

Jasmine’s picture is remarkable for a third grader. It depicts a black and grey horse.  She’s drawn the horse’s mane flowing back into the air with little ribbons tied around braids, and a little girl is riding on the horse’s back, her own pigtails trailing behind her.  It’s a third grader’s work, of course, with nothing in the way of perspective. But she’s dramatically captured a feeling of motion.

“Jasmine, that’s wonderful. Tell me about it.”

“That’s my horse,” Jasmine says. “His name is Mono.”

“Mono?”

She nods. “Mom says it’s because he used to be sick. It’s a joke, but not really funny.”

Mono? Maybe not belly laugh funny, but definitely weird funny.

A brief whine from the speaker at the front of the room. The school secretary. They finally have the intercom working again.  “Mister P? You have a visitor coming, a Miss Welch.”

“Thanks,” I say back to the disembodied voice.  I straighten and walk toward my desk. Lunch is in five minutes.

“All right, boys and girls.  Please start packing away your crayons, it’s almost time for lunch. Make sure your name is on your picture, then put it in my box.”

The kids start packing everything away, some of them scrambling to write their names on their pictures.

Jasmine doesn’t move.  She has her mouth scrunched over to one side, and one eye is squeezed almost shut. She’s rubbing a grey crayon on a square in the corner of the picture. I stand to get a better look, just as the door to the classroom opens.

“Zoe,” I say.  She’s wearing a knee length skirt today, brown and red, with a black tank top, and I have to look away from her very blue eyes. “Come in.”

“Mister P,” she says.

“Matt,” I respond. “Please.”   I walk toward Jasmine’s table.  “Jasmine, if you can put your crayons away.”

The bell for block 1 lunch rings. That’s us.

“Almost finished,” Jasmine says. That’s when I see what she’s drawing in the corner of the picture. Zoe seems to see it at the same time. A quick intake of breath and she takes a step forward.

Jasmine is drawing two gravestones in the corner of the picture.  One says, “Mommy” and the other “Daddy.”

Zoe mutters something under her breath, then I meet her eyes. I quickly look away.  “That caught me by surprise,” I say, quietly.

“Hey, Jasmine,” Zoe says conversationally.

“All right, please line up,” I say to the class.  As always, it takes several minutes for the class to get it together, though it is definitely faster than the second grade classes are at the beginning of the year. I guess I’m moving up in the world.

I herd my class down the hall to the cafeteria, noting that Zoe is walking along next to Jasmine.  Unusually, Jasmine is talking, which is a good thing. She used to be a big talker. My Mom’s still alive—but I never did get over Dad’s death. I know exactly how she is feeling.

That breaks my heart. Whatever else happens this year, I want to help that little girl get through this trial.

Everything in the cafeteria is business as usual.  Once my students are in line for lunch, or seated at their tables, I walk over to the lunch line.

Zoe is at the back of the line next to Jasmine, so I end up right next to her.  I can’t help but look at her. She’s crazy beautiful. Narrow waist, generous breasts, fantastic legs. She’s smart and confident. Whoever ends up with her is going to be a very lucky man.

Shut up, Matt. Whoever it is, it’s not going to be me. I’m her sister’s teacher, and … that’s just a bad scene.

Even so, she turns to me and in a wry tone asks, “So is this going to be as bad as Army food?”

I grin. “Maybe. I don’t have anything to compare it to.”  Although food served on the road and on train, night after night, probably does compare, and not favorably.  Of the three dishes available, I point out the most edible one, broiled chicken. Once through the line, we part ways. Zoe goes with Jasmine, and I head to the faculty table, where I sit with Mary Jane Hadley—a transplant from Alabama who sounds like sweet-cream butter spread on toast—and Rhonda Meese, a fifty-year old widower who lost her husband in a snowplow accident two winters ago.

Immediately, both of them ply me with questions about the union meeting tonight, the possible strike, whether or not the school committee is going to budge, and a number of other question I can’t answer.  I make it clear to both of them that they’ll have to wait in suspense just like the rest of us, then focus on my eating.

My eyes fall on Zoe again. Zack, the nine-year-old sitting next to Jasmine, shouts, “You were in the ARMY?” Zoe throws her head back and laughs, her teeth flashing white. It’s nice to see that she is capable of smiling. But then Mary Jane speaks in an unpleasant tone to Rhonda.

“Look at her,” she says. “Her Mamma’s been dead less than a week and she’s over there laughing. What’s wrong with that girl?”

Rhonda mutters, “She was in my fourth grade math class. Years ago. Thought she was better than everyone else because her father taught at Mount Holyoke. Then she runs off to the Army of all things.”

Mary Jane speaks again. “I don’t know why they don’t leave fighting to men. Do you think she’s a lesbian? A lot of those women in the Army are.”

“All right,” I say. I lean close to them. “That’s enough. Her little sister is in my class, and they just lost their parents in a terrible accident.”

Mary Jane’s eyes widen and she covers her mouth with one hand in an almost comical expression.  Rhonda looks indignant, her face turning the shade of a plum. I grumble and take out a paperback without saint anything else. The book hasn’t been keeping my interest, but almost anything is better than listening to those two.

“Well, I never,” Mary Jane mutters.

Finally, it’s time for lunch to end. My class is standing, and Zoe stands with them, stretching her arms high above her after sitting on the too short seat for the last twenty minutes.  The stretch arches her back, pushing her breasts out, and I have to look away.

Christ.

My class goes to music now, and I get the next fifty minutes free for my planning period. I head back to my class alone and needing to get my head clear.

It would be a really bad idea to get involved with a student’s parent—sister—whatever.

It would be a really bad idea to get involved with someone who just lost her parents and is grieving.

She’s shown absolutely no interest in me at all.

I don’t know anything about her.

Cool your heels, Matt. 

Back in my class, I sit down at my desk and begin work on grading yesterday’s math worksheets. Then I hear a knock on the door.

It’s Zoe. I feel a small spasm in my chest. She looks so sad—she hasn’t even had time to grieve yet.

“Miss Welch,” I say.

“Zoe,” she responds, drifting into the room as she talks. “I forgot to tell you earlier, the funeral will be this coming Tuesday. Jasmine won’t be in school.”

“Of course,” I say.

She opens her mouth to speak again.  But she’s interrupted when Tyler walks into the room, already talking. “Hey, buddy, did you hear the latest about the union meeting?” He stops when he sees her, his eyes widening. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s okay,” she says. “I was just leaving.”

“No, you don’t have to go—”

“I need to,” she says with finality.

I nod. “I’ll send you an email later to let you know how the rest of the day went.”

“Thank you,” she says.  She turns to walk out.

Tyler’s eyes follow her backside, then he turns back to me and says, “I’ve been asking around. Everyone’s going to vote to strike.”

“I had the feeling,” I say. “The school committee’s not budging.”

Zoe freezes in the doorway.  She turns back toward me and says, “Forgive me for eavesdropping but… you’re not talking about the teachers going on strike are you?”

Before I can respond, Tyler says, “Yes, ma’am. School committee is screwing over the teachers, and we’ve been trying to negotiate since Spring. The union meets tonight to decide whether or not to strike.”

Her eyes dart to mine.  “What happens if—you mean, the school would close?”

Tyler, wholly unaware of the obvious turmoil on her face, says, “Yep.”

“You have to stop it,” she says to me.

Tyler chuckles.  “Stop it?  Matt here’s been our representative through the negotiations! He’ll be right in front.”

Zoe’s clearly horrified.  “You can’t… Jasmine… your class is the only thing she has left that she looks forward to!”

“Zoe, I don’t have any control over whether or not—”

“You can’t,” she spits out. “Don’t you understand the shape she’s in? And now you’re going to take away everything she has left?”

I’m frozen in place. I don’t have any idea what to say.

Tyler, always deeply sensitive, says, “Look, lady, hire a babysitter or something. Or get your parents to watch your kid. The strike is happening.”

She gasps.

“Tyler,” I say, an edge in my voice.

“What?” His tone is annoyed.

Zoe’s face flushes red and her hands curl into fists. She spins around, then marches out of the classroom.

 

Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc.  Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.

Horse in stable

“I don’t wanna eat my vegetables,” Jasmine says for the four-hundredth time. Just in case I didn’t hear her before.

I wave a fork in her direction. “I’m not arguing with you, Jasmine. But if you want ice cream after dinner, you’ll eat.”

Nicole, still in her uniform after a day on patrol, leans close to me.  “You’re starting to sound like a mother.”

That sets Jasmine off.  She slams her little first into the table, sending her plastic cup full of milk flying across the table. Milk splatters everywhere, including on me.

“You’re not my mother!”  She bursts into tears and runs out of the room. She doesn’t go upstairs—moments after she runs out of the room, I hear the back door slam.

I stare after her. I know I should run after her. I know I should hold her in my arms and comfort her and do all that motherly stuff. But she’s right. I’m not our mother, our mother is dead and we’re all alone.

Nicole squeezes my shoulder. “It’ll get better,” she says.

“I hope so.”  I throw my napkin on the wet table and stand. My chair make a loud scraping sound as it slides away from the table.  “I’ll be right back.”

I don’t hurry. Jasmine probably needs a minute to collect herself anyway.  Instead, I slowly walk to the back door and switch on the outside light, illuminating the space between the house and Dad’s garage.

I still haven’t been in there. It sits in the twilight, closed, a dark and hidden thing. For just a second, I have an urge to call a contractor and have the thing bulldozed and taken away.

Instead, I open the door and step down the cinderblock steps to the gravel pathway behind the house. It’s still warm, and the scent of turned soil, hay and manure drifts my way. South Hadley—the whole valley really—is a weird mix of college town and rural paradise, with working family farms across the street from eclectic bookstores and coffee shops. Mom and Dad only rarely locked the doors.

The light is on in the stable, the building backlit by a sky washed with orange and red.

A thought nags in the back of my mind as I approach. I never expected to be taking care of my little sister. Much less my little sister and a nine acre horse farm and half a dozen horses. This morning I met with veterans services and the admissions department at UMASS Amherst. Veterans’ services is trying to get an exception to the normal admission procedure so I can start college this semester. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but either way I’ll either be working full time or going to school soon. I can’t afford to take care of this place, to take care of my sister and the horses and everything else.  A cold pit of anxiety runs through me as I approach the stable.

Jasmine sits on the top rail of Mono’s stall.  His head is in her lap, his tail swishing about. It’s frightening really. He’s a draft horse, and huge. Next to a tiny girl like her, it makes his size seem even more.

“Hey,” I say.

Jasmine leans closer to the horse. She has a look of intense concentration on her face, and it takes me a second to realize she’s braiding his hair.

“He really loves you,” I say.

She doesn’t respond.  I don’t know what to do. I’m not equipped for this. I stand helplessly, overcome with a surge of grief. Why didn’t Mom and Dad make any provisions for this? I’m not cut out to be somebody’s mother.

“I miss them too, you know.”  The words come out of me, even though I know it’s the wrong thing to say.  “I loved them.”

She looks up at me for the first time. Her face is streaked with tears. “All you did was yell at Mommy.”

I wince. The hell of it is, she’s only saying the truth. My last leave, a two week visit, was punctuated by half-a-dozen screaming matches between me and Mom. It was always the same thing. When was I going to stop playing solder? When was I going to come home and go to college? Didn’t I know the Army was dangerous?

That was a laugh. Didn’t I know it was dangerous? Who had she thought she was talking to? I was there.

I blink, once, twice, then several times, because my vision is blurring. The last thing I’d said face to face to my mother had been … cold. Not hateful, but angry.  I’d just finished loading my duffle bag in the back of Dad’s Austin Healy so we could ride to the airport. I don’t normally take it out in the snow, he’d said. But this time I’ll make an exception.

Mom had hugged me, but I hadn’t responded well. Then she looked at me in the eye and said, “You know I just want you to have a good life, Zoe.”

“I do have a good life,” I said. Then I got in the car.

I didn’t tell my mother I loved her. And now I never could.

Now, I don’t know what to say to Jasmine. How could she understand? I don’t even understand.  I say, “That’s true. Mom and I fought a lot. But I still loved her.”

She turns away, back to her task.

My shoulders sag. I don’t know what to say to her. I need to talk to someone. A professional, or a mother, or somebody. Because I don’t know how to help her through this. I don’t even know how to help me through this.

I blink back tears again and say, “I want you in by full dark, Jasmine. Okay?”

She shrugs.

“I mean it.”

Jasmine lets out a sigh and says, “Okay. I’ll come in when it’s dark.”

I stumble back toward the house.

Inside, Nicole has already cleaned up the table, except for Jasmine’s plate with its cold vegetables, and she’s hand washing the dishes..  “Thanks,” I whisper.

“Is she okay?”

I shake my head. “No. But I don’t know what to do.”

Nicole looks out the window toward the stable.

“She’s braiding Mono’s hair,” I say.

Nicole shrugs.  “Maybe that’s what she needs right now. But… Zoe? Can I suggest something without you getting mad?”

I raise my eyebrows.

“I think you should consider a therapist. Not just for Jasmine. But for you.”

“What… I don’t need—”

The house phone rings, interrupting me. I stand there, mouth open, for just a moment. The phone rings again, a harsh ringing tone. My parents have had the same phone since the 1980s, an old slimline phone mounted on the wall with a rotary dial in the handset, heavy enough you could use it as a weapon.  I walk across the kitchen and snatch the phone off the wall.

“Hello?”

“Miss Welch?”

Without pause I say, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Welch passed away last week. This is her daughter Zoe.” I’ve already had to say those words to the cable company and a credit card company who called wondering why their payments hadn’t arrived on time.  This week I had to sort out Mom and Dad’s personal effects and bank accounts and everything else. And I didn’t have a clue where to start.

Not. One. Clue.

The caller coughed, then said, “I’m sorry… I know. Miss… Zoe… this is Matt Paladino.”

Matt Paladino? Who?

One second later it hits.  “Oh! Mister Paladino! What can I do for you?”

“Well, I wanted to check in with you about Jasmine.”

“Okay. How is she doing in school?”

He stumbles over his words a little. “She’s—well—she—”  He takes a deep breath, almost comical. “She’s not doing well. Really just… listless. She’s not playing much with the other girls, and not as animated in class.”

I breathe out. Then I speak at a near-whisper. “Same as at home. She’s not interested in anything except her horse. I can’t get her to talk or play any games or eat.”

“What is she normally interested in?”

The question makes me want to lash out in frustration.  I don’t know! How am I supposed to say that to a complete stranger? How am I supposed to tell a complete stranger, her teacher for Christ’s sake, that I don’t know much of anything about my little sister?

“Miss Welch? Are you there?”

“Please,” I say, grasping for time. “Don’t call me that. Zoe is fine.”

“Zoe… can you think of anything I can do here that might engage her?”

Nicole’s face tilts in extreme concern. Because of tears. On my face.  “I don’t know,” I whisper.  “You don’t understand… I’ve been away in the Army for five years. Since I graduated high school. I don’t know what she likes, or what she does, or what she’s interested in.  I don’t know her favorite color or ice cream or anything except that damn monster horse.”

On the other end of the line, I hear his intake of breath, his intake of judgement. But he doesn’t say what I might have expected.  “Maybe that’s the best place to start then. With the horses. You know she draws them all the time. Especially a big black one. Or at least she did last year.  We haven’t had many opportunities for art the first couple of days of school.”

I nod, slowly exhaling.  “Yes.  You’re right, of course.”

“Do you ride?”

“Yeah. I’m not as much into it as she is, but our Mom trained horses and gave lessons. You can’t grow up in our house and not know horses.”

He chuckled. “I grew up around animals too. I hear you.”

“Farm?”

He doesn’t answer the question. “I’ll talk to the Principal and the counselor tomorrow. Maybe we can change up our curriculum plans for the next few weeks. I’d really like to see her more engaged. And Miss Welch… Zoe I mean…”

“Yes?”

“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not your fault. You were off wherever you were—that’s what happens. Just take care of her now. She’s a great kid. I hate seeing her so… despondent. Can I suggest… if you aren’t busy, why don’t you stop in at 11:30 tomorrow and have lunch with her? The kids love it when parents—I mean family—” He sighs. “You know what I mean. I think it would help.”

I blink back tears. Again. Damn it. “Okay. I’ll be there.”

 

Jim Turville. Photo courtesy US Army

19 years old. Jim Turville has all the luck. He finished basic training just in time for a massive terrorist attack on Washington, DC and the beginning of the second American civil war. But at the time he didn’t know any of that was coming.  In fact, at the time, he was kind of a screw up.

Turville climbed over the tailgate of the deuce-and-a-half and stood at parade rest. “Private Turville, reporting as ordered, ma’am.”

O’Donnell, a foot shorter than him, her brown hair bunched up under her helmet, looked up at him with a frown. “Do I look like an officer to you, Private?”

“No, Sergeant.”

“Then don’t call me ma’am, you know better than that. What were you thinking going outside the mileage limit, Private Turville? We’ve got a new company commander, and you went and messed it up with him on the very first day.”

“Sergeant, that was not my intention—”

“I don’t care what your intention was, Private.”

Turville shifted on his feet. “Yes, Sergeant.”

“Now. These are the facts. Our brand new company commander gave everyone two days off, with the stipulation that you call in twice a day and that you stay within fifty miles of post, because we are detailed for rapid deployment should such a deployment become necessary. You, with your boneheaded reasoning, decided to blow that off. You, a brand new private in the Army, decided that your judgment was better than that of the senior officer of this company. Even more offensive, you decided your judgment was more important than mine. Do I have it pretty much straight?”

“Well, Sergeant, I—”

“That’s what I thought.

Months later, as the tensions in West Virginia are heating up, the Army is deployed in Charleston to help maintain order following the bombing of the federal building.  Here is a scene during that deployment, in an incident which dramatically changes the nature of the conflict.

Turville flinched when he heard the shout.

“Get down, get down! Gun!

Turville slammed himself against the wall. Across the narrow street, Leo and Gomez, the other members of the fire team, crouched behind a car. In the window above them, Turville saw Halloween decorations.  What the hell were they doing? The four of them—one of the fire teams in third squad—were on a small side street packed with cars.

“He went down the alley!” Leo’s shout was so high pitched his voice almost cracked.

“Chill out, stay cool guys,” Meigs said. He keyed his radio as he crouched against a car just in front of Turville. “White Six, White Six, this is White Three Leader. We have an armed individual, heading down the alley next to our position, over.”

Lieutenant Wingham replied immediately. “White Three, this is White Six. You are to proceed with extreme caution. We will dispatch local police to your position to make the arrest.”

“Leo,” Meigs whispered. “I want you to lob some tear gas down the alley. Go high so it comes down on the other side of the dumpsters, got it?”

The eighteen year old, just across the narrow street, nodded. He trembled as he loaded a grenade into the fat tube of the launcher slung under his rifle. All four of the men put on their gas masks, and then Meigs nodded to Leo.

Turville heard a low thud, and the grenade flew into the alley. His heart beat so hard he could feel it in his ears. Why did they gas the alley? What if someone came out with a gun—came out shooting? What if the killer was in there? Turville slowly pulled back the charging handle on his rifle and chambered a round. The sound was muffled from inside his gas mask and hood, and his vision was constricted. He could hear himself breathing fast. Better this than the damn tear gas.

The smoke puffed out of the alley, and then Turville heard a loud clang. Holy shit, what was that? Another bang, then someone came running out of the alley, straight at them. Short black guy, hard to see, his body silhouetted in the billowing smoke. He had something in his hand—a pistol.

Leo shouted, voice muffled under the mask, “He’s got a gun!”

Turville raised his rifle, flipped the thumb safety forward, and aimed.

By the beginning of Insurgent, Turville is starting to get it together. During an attack in the small town of Whitesville, he saves the lives of two girls.  A few days later this happens:

Turville kept one ear tuned—they’d been briefed on what was expected of them about ten times already, but his eye was fixed on the family coming out of the drug store just across the narrow street.

The father was about forty, balding, and had a bit of a paunch. He wore khakis and a white shirt and was talking with a pretty redheaded woman the same age.

Behind them was Short Girl. Now that it was warming up, she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a light sweater instead of the bulky peacoat she’d worn a week before. Her brown hair hung loose at her shoulders, and the breeze blew wisps of it loose. He hadn’t noticed it the other night—probably because people were trying to kill him at the time—but she had a tiny mole on the left side of her face, just below her left eye.

When she stepped out the door, she let loose a sort of squeal and grabbed her father’s arm. She pointed at the squad, speaking excitedly to her father, who looked over at them.

Then she waved at Turville. Oh, no, he thought. That’s the last thing I need.

Not long after, Jim begins to get to know the girl whose life he saved:

Turville found Rebecca’s Facebook page and friended her. Aside from that, there wasn’t much of her on the internet, though there were a few articles in the Charleston papers that mentioned her in connection with a ballet troupe.

“You’re looking very quiet,” Santiago said.

Turville shrugged.

“Is she eighteen?” Santiago asked.

Turville rolled his eyes and set the phone down. “Yeah, she’s eighteen.”

Santiago grinned. “Cradle-robber.”

“Dickhead,” Turville responded.

Find out more about Jim Turville in the America’s Future Series.

REPUBLICx250 INSURGENT_250

South Hadley Town HallUntitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc.  Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.

It’s early to leave for the teacher work day before  starts, but at one in the afternoon Tyler shows up at my door.

He chuckles as he walks in. “Man, you got screwed with this move. Look at that.”  He’s referring to my window-wall of brick.

Perversely, I want to argue with him. “It’s fine,” I say.

He laughs and coughs out a garbled version of the word bullshit. “You got stuck with this room because you’re representing the union. I guarantee it.”

I shake my head. “It was the only third grade room open.”

He smirks.  “You ready to go?”

“Yeah. Is Peggy meeting us there?”

He nods.  “If she’s still alive.”

I shake my head. Peggy Young has been the head of the English Department at the high school for thirty years. She’s my high school counterpart with the South Hadley Education Association. In truth, the high school teachers have more to lose than we do if the contract negotiations fail. The school committee wants to eliminate extra pay for coaches and phase out department heads in favor of curriculum coordinators who will do the job of a department head but with no extra pay. That, along with increases to the cost of our health insurance and a freeze on pay raises for another year have pitted the teachers union against the school board.

Tyler and I step out of the room and I close and lock the door, then we head for the parking lot. Of course I have to get a ride. My car insurance doesn’t cover rentals, which may be the dumbest decision I’ve made lately.

I get in the passenger seat of Tyler’s Hummer. I don’t know how he affords to drive it, unless it’s fueled by unused testosterone. He drives us out of the parking lot, crushing lesser vehicles under his wheels — not that’s not really true— as he turns out of the school and toward Newton Street. I find myself thinking back to this morning’s meeting with Zoe and Jasmine Welch.  Zoe is nothing like I assumed when we had the accident. My first assessment was irresponsible college student. I couldn’t have been more wrong—she was a military policewoman stepping into the role of mother after her parents were killed. Which makes me … an asshole.

I’m pretty sure it is too late to erase that first impression. But at least we’re on board and in agreement on how best to help Jasmine.

Still… it’s hard to set aside the sad look in her blue eyes. She’s a damned attractive woman… beautiful really. And clearly overwhelmed with grief and the weight of her new responsibilities.

I try to imagine how I would have felt at—what, twenty-three? Twenty-four? She can’t be any older than that. How would I have felt if my parents had been killed and I’d suddenly been sole guardian of an eight year old sibling.

Tyler comes to a stop at the light at Newton Street. It’s the main thoroughfare through South Hadley, running from the bridge to Mount Holyoke College, where the name is changed to College Street.  Tyler turns on his left turn signal and taps the steering wheel. I glance over to my right and my eyes fix on Zoe Welch.

She’s a hundred yards away, on the other side of College Street, getting the mail from an ancient mailbox in front of an old worn-down colonial. The house is desperately in need of a paint job and probably a lot more.  A police car sits in the driveway, along with her minivan, and Jasmine is sitting in a rocker on the porch next to a female cop.

That explains how the Amherst cops knew Zoe—this woman must be a friend.

“Check out that chick’s butt,” Tyler says. “God I’d love to get a piece of that.”

“Don’t be a dick,” I say.

“Why the hell not?” he asks, chuckling.

I shake my head. “She’s the older sister of one of my students. Their parents were killed in a car accident last week.”

Tyler’s eyes widen and he curses. “Professor Welch’s kid?”

“You know him?”

He shrugs. “Well, yeah. He was a professor at Mount Holyoke. Freak accident, it was in the papers last week. Where have you been?”

“Not reading the papers I guess. Light’s green.”

He jerks a little, taking his eyes off Zoe, then steps on the gas and turns left toward South Hadley Falls, the area which passes for a downtown in this sleepy little town.

After a couple of thoughtful minutes, Tyler says, “She’s still smoking hot.”

I ignore him. Five minutes later we’re parking in front of the town hall, a three story structure across from a park and field that butts up against the Connecticut River. This part of town doesn’t have the bucolic feel of the rest of South Hadley.  A number of badly neglected homes compete for space with several condemned buildings. The liquor store, gas station and police department line one side of the street just around the corner, right across from a an old three story house, long since condemned.

The town hall, however, is a nice building, three stories of stone and marble built in 1908 as a combined town hall and high school. The high school moved out in the fifties, but the town hall is still here. I’ve had some of the most stressful moments of the last school year here.

I never wanted to take on the job of union representative. For one thing, I’m pretty new to the district and teaching in general. I’m too young. And for other reasons, I try to keep a low profile whenever possible.

We climb the three flights of stairs to the third floor and the school department.

Peggy Young is standing in the large vestibule outside the school department. She’s a formidable woman. Seventy years old if she’s a day, she has a sharp wit and makes plenty of self-deprecating comments mixed in with acid remarks about the youngsters running the school committee. She’s been teaching at South Hadley High School since before I was born, and every member of the school committee was once one of her students.

It astonishes me she hasn’t handed out detention slips to them.

“There you are,” she says to me. “It’s about time, the meeting begins in less than five minutes. I see you brought along your jock friend. Is he going to keep his mouth shut this time?”

“Well—”  That all I manage to sputter out before Tyler speaks.

“You old battle axe. I’ll keep my mouth shut when you retire to the nursing home where you belong.”

She whips up her cane and taps him, hard, on the shoulder. “You don’t talk back to me, jocko. You might be a teacher now, but I remember when you skated by with nothing but C’s.”

Tyler says, “How are ‘ya, Miss Young?”

“I’ll be better when this contract business is over and I can get back to focusing on my teaching.”

Moments later, the superintendent appears, followed by two members of the school committee. Silently, we follow them into the meeting room. With any luck, we’ll get a settlement before things get much worse.

The superintendent sits down at the head of the conference table. A bad sign—Michael Barrington has been a thorn in the side of the teachers of South Hadley. He took over the job a couple years ago—the third superintendent in four years—and morale in the school system has been at an all-time low. Today his lips are tight, and he says nothing as he takes his seat.

The two school committee members sit at the table across from us.

Dianne Blakely is in her fifties. She had two daughters in South Hadley Schools until last year and has been a vocal critic of the high school faculty, especially since her youngest daughter was expelled from the high school for vicious bullying. The school system still hasn’t gotten its footing after a bullying-prompted suicide made international news a few years ago. Sometimes penalties are too harsh and sometimes things are just swept under the rug.  Blakely’s daughter caught the wrong end of that extreme—a series of twitter posts including some graphic photoshopped images of another girl resulted in her being thrown out of high school for a year. I’m not supposed to know any details about that, but the fact is—everyone knows. There are few secrets in a town this size.

Although I have some secrets of my own.

The other school committee member is Susan Greeley. Susan is younger than her counterpart, probably thirty, and she has two children at the elementary school—one of them was in my class last year. Susan is generally reasonable and well liked, and I suspect she’s here to soften whatever blow is coming.

Blakely leaned forward and said, “Let’s bring this order then. Susan, can you take minutes? I’d like to record everyone who is present.”

Susan nods, her face a little strained.  She begins writing on a pad of paper, as Blakely speaks.

“Mister Paladino, first of all, I hope you are doing okay. Your accident yesterday, was it serious? Any injuries?”

I shrug. “My car may be totaled, but no one injured. So that’s good news.”

“Well, then. Let’s get to business. Has the union accepted our latest proposal?”

I shake my head. “I’m afraid not. The proposal still doesn’t address our primary concerns. First of all is the elimination of department head positions and replacing them with this curriculum coordinator. We’ve addressed this several times—you’re giving teachers the same workload for this position, but taking away the extra pay. That’s not acceptable. It’s especially not acceptable that you did it by fiat after the union’s proposal last Spring.”

Blakely shook her head. “That’s an unfair characterization. The school committee acted out of fiscal needs, not—”

“You eliminated the position immediately after the union demanded a pay increase.”

“The Department head positions are not negotiable—”

I interrupt. “During our last meeting, the union agreed unanimously to file suit for unfair labor practices.”

The room drops into silence. Barrington, who has been silent up until this point, leans forward. “Do you think that’s wise, Matt?”

“Mister Barrington, the decision was unanimous. You changed the terms of employment for all of the department heads without consulting the union or modifying their contracts. The lawsuit was a compromise position. A significant number of the teachers are arguing for a walkout over the health insurance and retirement provisions.”

Barrington looks frustrated. “There will be no walkout while I’m superintendent.”

“Then I would urge you and the school committee to come up with some kind of compromise.”

Peggy leans forward and says in a stern voice, “Superintendent, you won’t intimidate the teachers of this town like you and your football jock friends used to do when you were a kid.”

Barrington flushes  red.  “Mrs. Young, you can’t—”

“I’m seventy years old. I’d been a teacher for decades when you were a pimply boy in my freshman English class. And I’m telling you now, if you don’t concede on something then you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to educate the children of this town without teachers.”

Blakely’s mouth forms a prim line. “It seems we are at an impasse.”

I sigh. “So you don’t have any alternative? No new proposal?”

Blakely shook her head. “No. This is as far as we go.”

I look to my left. Tyler frowns and nods. I look to my right. Peggy looks resigned.  I nod slightly, then say, “Miss Blakely, Mister Barrington. On behalf of the South Hadley Education Association, I’m informing you that you have a one week deadline. If the school committee is unable to consider a compromise by next Thursday at midnight, then we will strike.”

Barrington pointed directly at me. “You’ll regret this, Matt. Don’t think I won’t forget it.”

I swallow. Barrington likely isn’t making empty threats.  I’ve heard rumors of retaliation against teachers he doesn’t like.

Blakely stands. “We’re done here.”

My chair scrapes loudly against the floor as we all come to our feet.  “Mister Barrington… Miss Blakely … Miss Greeley. Thank you for your time.”

I don’t trust myself to say anything appropriate as I lead the others out of the office.