Tag Archives: First

Leave it to Chance by Sherri Sand

It is time for the FIRST Blog Tour! On the FIRST day of every month we feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and his/her book:

Leave it to Chance

David C. Cook (May 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sherri Sand is a wife and mother of four young children who keep her scrambling to stay ahead of the spilled milk. When she needs stress relief from wearing all the hats required to clothe, feed and ferry her rambunctious brood, you may find her sitting in a quiet corner of a bistro reading a book (surrounded by chocolate), or running on one of the many trails near her home. Sherri is a member of The Writer’s View and American Christian Fiction Writers. She finds the most joy in writing when the characters take on a life of their own and she becomes the recorder of their stories. She holds a degree in psychology from the University of Oregon where she graduated cum laude. Sherri and her family live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

She’s also a blogger! So stop by and say hi to Sherri at Creations in the Sand!

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99

Paperback: 353 pages

Publisher: David C. Cook (May 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1434799883

ISBN-13: 978-1434799883

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

“A horse? Mom, what am I going to do with a horse?” Just what she and the kids did not need. Sierra Montgomery sagged back against her old kitchen counter, where afternoon sunlight dappled the white metal cabinets across from her. She pressed the phone tight against her ear, hoping she’d heard wrong, as her four-year-old son, Trevor, ate grapes at the kitchen table.

“Miss Libby wanted you to have it. I’d think you’d be delighted, what with the kids and all. You remember Sally, Miss Libby’s daughter? Well, she just called and said it was all laid out in the will. None of their family could figure out who Sierra Lassiter Montgomery was until Sally remembered me from her mom’s church. So she called and sure enough, you were my daughter.” Sierra’s mom tsked into the phone. “Well, you know how Sally is.”

Sierra hadn’t the foggiest how Sally was, or even who she was. She barely remembered Miss Libby from her Sunday school class eons ago.

“She acted pleased that her mother gave you the horse, but I could tell she was miffed. Though what Sally Owens would do with a horse, I’d like to know.” Her mom’s voice was tight and controlled as if they were discussing how to deal with black spot on her Old English roses.

“But I don’t want a horse. You, of all people, should know that after what happened when—” How could her mom even suggest she get a horse? Painful pictures of her childhood friend Molly floated through her mind.

“Honey, accidents like that don’t happen more than once in a lifetime. Besides, Miss Libby wouldn’t have owned a crazy horse.”

Sierra stared out the window where the school bus would soon release her most precious treasures. Her mom never had understood the resounding impact that summer day had made in her life.

“You really need to think of the kids and how much fun they’d have. It’s not like you’d ever be able to afford to buy them one.”

Sierra wished she were having this conversation with Elise rather than her mother. Her best friend would understand the danger she feared in horses, and in her humorous way come up with a sensible plan that would include not keeping the animal.

Her mom, on the other hand, lived life as if she were on one of those moving conveyors at the airport that people can step on to rest their feet yet keep moving toward their destination. As long as everyone kept traveling forward, she could ignore the emotional baggage dragging behind.

“I don’t understand why Miss Libby would give the horse to me.”

“You know how my bingo club visited the Somerset rest home every week? Well, Miss Libby’s been there for years and she always did comment on how horse crazy you were when she taught your Sunday school class.”

“Mom, that was a phase I went through when I was ten and found National Velvet and Black Beauty at the library. I haven’t seen Miss Libby since middle school.”

“Obviously you were special to Miss Libby. I’d think you might be a little more grateful.”

Deep breath, Sierra told herself. “I am grateful.” An errant grape rolled next to her toe. Trevor’s blond head was bent, intent on arranging the fruit like green soldiers around the edge of his plate. Sierra tossed the grape into the sink and considered how to respond to her mom. She was a dear, but sometimes the woman was like dry kindling on a hot day, and one little spark…. “I’m just not sure that owning a horse would be a wise move at this point in our lives.”

The front door slammed and Sierra felt the walls shudder with the thud. The 3:00 p.m. stampede through the house meant it was time to get off the phone and determine how to get rid of a horse before the kids found out about it.

Her mom sighed. “It’s too bad Sally won’t keep the horse at her place for you, but she said her husband wants the horse gone. He wants to fill the pasture with sheep.”

Sheep? A kitchen chair scraped over the linoleum as Trevor scooted back from the table and dashed for the living room. “Mommy’s got a horse! Mommy’s got a horse!” Wonderful. Little ears, big mouth.

Braden and Emory shot into the kitchen, bright eyes dancing in tandem. Their words tangled together in fevered excitement despite the fact that she was on the phone.

“Where is it?” Braden’s eleven-year-old grin split his face, and his dark hair was rumpled and sweat streaked, likely from a fevered game of basketball during last recess.

She held a hand up to still the questions as her mom went on about the sheep that Sally’s husband probably did not need.

“We have a horse?” Nine-year-old Emory, her blonde hair still neat in its purple headband, fluttered in front of her mom, delight and hope blooming on her face.

Despite the fear of horses building deep in Sierra’s gut, her children’s excitement was a little contagious. She wished Miss Libby had willed her a cat.

Sierra ran her hand down Emory’s soft cheek and whispered. “I’ll be off the phone in a minute, sweetie.”

“Can we ride it?” Em looked at her with elated eyes.

Braden tossed his backpack on the table. “Where are we going to keep it?”

The kids circled her, jabbering with excited questions. Sierra rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers. “I gotta go, Mom. I’ve got to break some cowboy hearts.”

The kids clamored around her, Braden taking the lead with an arm draped across her shoulder. When had he gotten so big? “Do we have a horse, Mom?” He asked the question with a lopsided grin, a foreshadow of the adolescence that had been peeking through lately. The preteen in him didn’t truly believe they had a horse—he was old enough to realize the odds—but little-boy eagerness clung to his smile.

“That would be yes and a no.”

“What? Mom!” he complained.

“I was given a horse, but we’re not going to keep him.” Braden’s arm slid off her shoulder, a scowl replacing his smile. “Why not?”

“Someone gave you a horse?” Emory ignored her brother’s attitude and flashed her most persuasive grin. “Can we keep him? Please!”

Sierra smoothed her hand over the silky hair and leaned close to her daughter’s face as Emory went on. “I think we should get four horses so we each have one. We could go trail riding. Cameron’s mom has horses, and they go riding all the time as a family.”

“We’re not a family anymore,” Braden cut in. “We stopped being a family when mom divorced dad.”

A shard of pain drove into Sierra’s gut. She hadn’t had time to brace for that one. Braden’s anger at the divorce had been building like an old steam engine lately.

“That’s not fair!” Outrage darkened Emory’s features. “It’s not Mom’s fault!”

Sarcasm colored Braden’s voice. “Oh, so it’s all Dad’s fault?”

Sierra saw the confusion that swept over her daughter’s face. She was fiercely loyal to both parents and didn’t know how to defend them against each other.

Sierra spoke in a firm tone. “Braden, that’s enough!”

He scowled at her again. “Whatever.”

Sierra held his gaze until he glanced away.

“Guys, we’re not going to play the blame game. We have plenty to be thankful for, and that’s what is important.”

Braden’s attitude kept pouring it on. “Boy, and we have so much. Spaghetti for dinner every other night.”

“So what, Braden-Maden!” Emory made a face and stuck her tongue out at him.

“No more fighting or you two can go to your rooms.” Her kids were not perfect, but they used to like each other. Something had changed. Her gut said it was her ex-husband, Michael, but what if she was falling into the whole “blame the dad” thing herself? What if she was really the problem? Two weeks without a job had added stress and worry. Had she stopped hugging them as often in between scouring the want ads and trying to manage a home and bills?

“Mom?” There was a quaver in Trevor’s soft voice.

“Yes, honey?” Sierra gave him a gentle smile.

“Can we keep the horse?”

Emory’s blue gaze darted to meet hers, a plea in them. Braden sat with his arms crossed over his chest, but his ears had pricked up.

Sierra looked at them, wanting them to understand and knowing they wouldn’t. “None of us know how to handle or care for a horse, so it wouldn’t be safe to keep him.”

Emory’s face lit up. “Cameron’s mom could teach us.”

“Honey, it’s not that simple. We can’t afford an animal that big. He probably eats as much in groceries as we do, and it would be very expensive to rent a place for him to live.”

“I could mow yards.” Anger at his sister forgotten, Braden turned a hopeful face to her. “We could help out.”

Emory jumped onto the working bandwagon. “Yeah. I could do laundry or something for the neighbors.”

Braden drilled his sister a look that said idiot idea but didn’t say anything.

Trevor bounced in his chair, eager to be a part of keeping the horse. “I could wash cars.”

“Those are great ideas, but they won’t bring in quite enough, especially since it’s getting too cold to mow lawns or wash cars.”

“You just don’t want to keep the horse, Mom,” Braden said. “I get it. End of story.”

“Honey, I’d love for you to have a horse, but when I was young I had a friend—”

Emory spoke in a helpful tone. “We know. Grandma told us about the accident.”

They knew? Wasn’t the story hers to share? “When did Grandma tell you?”

Braden’s voice took on a breezy air. “I don’t know. A while ago. Come on, Mom. We’re not going to do something dumb like your friend did.”

Defensiveness rose inside. “She didn’t do anything dumb. It was the horse that—”

“So because something bad happened to one person, your kids can never do anything fun for the rest of their lives.”

Sierra gave him a look. “Or you learn from your mistakes and help your kids to do the same.”

Braden rolled his eyes at her.

Worry drew lines across her daughter’s forehead. “Are you going to sell him?”

“Yes, Em. So we’re not going to discuss this anymore. You and Braden have homework to do.” At the chorus of groans she held her hands up. “Okay, I guess I’ll have to eat Grandma’s apple pie all by myself.”

Braden grabbed his backpack and slowly dragged it across the floor toward the stairs, annoyance in his voice. “We’re going.” Emory trotted past him up the stairs.

Trevor remained behind, one arm wrapped around her thigh. “I don’t have any homework.”

She squatted and pulled him in for a hug. “Nope, you sure don’t, bud.”

He leaned back. “Do I get a horse?”

Sierra distracted him by inching her fingers up his ribs. “What, Trev?”

He tried to talk around his giggles. “Do I get—Mom!” Her fingers found the tickle spots under his arms and he laughed, his eyes squinted shut and mouth opened wide. She found all his giggle spots, then turned on Sesame Street as the second distraction. Good old Bert and Ernie.

Now what? She had roughly forty-five minutes to figure out how she was going to get rid of a horse and not be a complete zero in her kids’ eyes.

She eyed the phone and made her next move. Five minutes later a white Mazda whipped into her driveway. Sierra hurried out the front door waving her arms to stop Elise before she could start her ritual honking for the kids.

Wide eyed, her platinum blonde friend stared, one long plum-colored nail hovering above the “ooga” horn on the dash. “What?”

“I don’t want the kids to know you’re here.”

Wicked delight spread across her perfectly made-up face. Light plum shadow matched her nails. Tomorrow, both eye shadow and nails could be green. “Let me guess! Mr. Pellum asked you out!”

“Nooooo!” Mr. Pellum was a teacher Sierra and Elise had had a crush on in seventh grade.

“Ummm … you robbed a bank and need me to watch the kids while you fly to Tahiti?”

Sierra gave her a mock-serious look. “Done?”

Elise tilted her head. “Can I get out of the car?”

Sierra glanced toward the house. All was still silent. “Yes, you may.”

Deadpan, Elise nodded and opened the door. “Then I’m done for now.” Her plump body, swathed in a creamy suit with a purple scarf draped across one shoulder, rose gracefully from the small two-seater.

Sierra closed the door for her, then leaned against it. Elise had a way of removing the extraneous and reducing a problem down to the bare essentials. “Elise, I’m in a predicament.”

“Hon, I’ve been trying to tell you that for years.”

Sierra shook her head. “I don’t think you could have seen this one coming even with your crystal ball.”

Elise gave her the spinster teacher look through narrowed eyes. “I don’t think I like the implications of that.”

Sierra held her hands out. “You are the queen of mind-reading, according to my children.”

Elise chuckled. “It’s a good thing I was just headed out for a latte break when you called. Now what’s the big emergency?” She owned a high-end clothing store for plus-sized women in downtown Eugene.

“A horse.”

Elise glanced around as if one or two might be lurking behind a tree.

“A herd of them or just one?”

“One. Full-sized. Living and breathing.”

“I believe I’m missing some pieces here. Is it moving in with you? Holding one of the children hostage? What?”

Sierra breathed out a slight chuckle and tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “You’re not going to believe this, but I inherited it.”

Her friend’s eyes grew wide, emphasizing the lushly mascaraed lashes. “Like someone died and gave you their horse?”

Sierra nodded, raising her brows. “And the kids want to keep him.”

Furrows emerged across Elise’s forehead. “Who is the idiot that told them about the horse?”

Sierra tilted her head with a look that only best friends could give each other.

Elise’s perfectly painted lips smirked. “Moving along, then. Why don’t you keep it? The kids would love it. Heaven knows they deserve it.” She clapped her hands together. “Oh, oh! They could get into 4-H, and Braden could learn to barrel race. That kid would think he’d won the jackpot. Emory and Trevor could get a pig or some of those show roosters.”

Sierra let the idea machine wind down. “I don’t think so.”

“Angora rabbits?”

“No farm animals.”

Elise’s mouth perked into humorous pout. “Sierra, you’re such a spoilsport. Those kids need a pet.”

“A hamster is a pet. A horse is not.”

Diva Elise took the stage, hands on her ample hips. “Don’t tell me you didn’t want a horse growing up. Remember, I was the one who had to sit and watch National Velvet with you time ad nauseam. You’ve said yourself that Braden needs something to take his mind off the problems he’s having at school and with his dad.”

Guilt, a wheelbarrow load of it, dumped on Sierra. “You are supposed to be helping me, Elise, not making it worse. I want to get rid of this horse and …” her eyes dodged away from her friend, “… you know.”

“Mmm-hmm. And still look like Super Mom in your children’s eyes.”

Sierra nodded, but couldn’t find the nerve to say yes.

“Sierra Montgomery, those children have been to heck and back in the last couple years and you’re willing to deny them the pleasure of owning their own free horse because … because of what?”

Sierra stared at the ground for a moment, feeling a tangle of emotions rise within. She let her eyes rest on Elise’s and said quietly, “Fear? Terror? Hysteria?”

A look of puzzlement, then understanding settled on Elise’s face, smoothing away the annoyance. “Molly.”

Sierra nodded. “I won’t put my children in that kind of danger.”

Elise leaned forward and grabbed Sierra’s hands, holding them tight. “Oh, hon. That was a long time ago. Don’t let your life be ruled by the what-ifs. There’s a lot of living left to do. And your kids need to see you taking life by storm, taking chances, not hiding in the shadows.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You were voted most likely to parachute off the Empire State Building.”

Elise gave her a cheeky grin, both dimples winking at her. “We could do it tandem!”

“If you see me jump off the Empire State Building you’ll know my lobotomy was successful, because there is no way in this lifetime you’ll catch this body leaving good sense behind!” Sierra heard the words come from her own mouth and stared at her friend in wonder. “Oh, my gosh. That was so my mom.”

“It was bound to happen, hon.”

Was she serious? “You think I’m turning into her?” Sierra brought a hand to her throat and quickly dropped it. How many times had she seen her mom use the same gesture?

Elise laughed. “You need to stop fretting and just live. We all turn out like our mothers in some respect.”

“All except you. You’re nothing like Vivian.”

“Other than the drinking, smoking, and carousing, I’m exactly like her.”

Sierra lifted a brow. Her mom had rarely let her go to Elise’s house when they were growing up—and for good reason. Elise struck a pose like a fashion model. “Okay, I’m the anti-Vivian.” She gave Sierra a soft smile. “All funnin’ aside, I really think you should keep the horse.”

“I’m not keeping the horse. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.” Sierra took a settling breath and stared at the tree over Elise’s shoulder.

“Michael still hasn’t paid?”

Elise knew more about her finances than her mom did. “He paid, but the check bounced again. So now he’s two months behind in child support.”

“Have you heard if Pollan’s is rehiring?”

“They’re not.” Jarrett’s, the local grocery store where she worked for the three years since the divorce had been recently bought out by Pollan’s. They had laid off the majority of the checkers with the possibility of rehiring some.

Elise cringed as if she was bracing herself for a blow. “And the unemployment fiasco?”

Sierra shut her eyes. “Mr. Jarrett did not pay into our unemployment insurance, so there is no benefit for us to draw from. Yes, it was illegal, and yes he will pay, but it may take months, if not years, for various lawyers and judges to beat it out of him.” She gave Elise a tired smile. “That’s the version minus all the legalese.”

“So the layoffs are final, no unemployment bennies, and you’re out of a job.”

“Momentarily. The résumé has been dusted off and polished.” She gave a wry grin.

“I wish I could hire you at Deluxe Couture, but I promised Nora fulltime work. And besides, your cute little buns would drive my clientele away.”

Sierra waved a hand over her jeans and sweatshirt. “Your clientele would outshine me any day.”

“You sell yourself far too short.” Elise glanced at the hefty rhinestone encrusted watch on her wrist. “Anything else I can do for you? Help the kids with their homework? Babysit while you sweep some tall, dark, handsome man off his feet?”

Sierra laughed. “And where is this dream man going to come from?”

Elise gave a breezy wave of her hand and opened the car door. “Oh, he’ll turn up. You’re too cute to stay single. I actually have someone in mind. Pavo Marcello. He’s a new sales rep from one of my favorite lines. I’ll see if he’s free Friday night. You aren’t doing anything, are you?”

“Hold on!” Sierra stepped in front of the car door to keep her friend from leaving. “First, I’m not looking. Second, given my history, I’m not the best judge of character. I’ve already struck out once in the man department.” She pointed to her face with both index fingers. “Not anxious to try again. Third, you just told me I’m turning into my mom, which makes me definitely not dating material.”

A twist of Elise’s lips signaled a thought. “You know, now that I think about it, I believe he has a boyfriend.” She shook her head and lowered herself into the car. “We’ll keep looking. I’m sure Sir Knight will turn up.”

Sierra shut the car door and grinned down at her friend. “And what about finding your knight?”

Elise gave her a bright smile. “Mr. Pellum is already taken. You really need to find a way to keep that horse; it’ll be your first noble sacrifice.”

“First?”

The little car backed up, and Elise spoke over the windshield. “The others don’t count.”

Sierra stared at the retreating car. There was no way she was keeping that horse.

After dinner, Sierra crept into Braden’s room. He sat on the bed intent on the Game Boy in his lap, the tinny sound of hard rock bleeding out of his earphones. She waved a hand and he glanced up. She waited and with a look of preteen exasperation he finally pulled the headphones to his shoulders.

“What, Mom?”

“I just wanted to say good night.”

“Good night.” His hands started to readjust the music back into position.

“I looked at your homework.”

“You got into my backpack? Isn’t that like against the law or something? You’re always telling us not to get into your stuff.”

She crossed her arms. Frustration and worry gnawed at her. “You lied to me about doing your assignment. Why, honey?”

He ignored her and started playing his Game Boy.

She took one step and snatched the game from his hands.

“Hey!”

“I want some respect when I talk to you, Braden.”

His chin sank toward his chest, his gaze fixed on his bed, his voice low. “I didn’t want to do it.”

She sat next to him, her voice soft. “Is it too hard?”

He shrugged. “It gives me a headache when I work on it.”

“Braden, if you need help, I’d be happy to work with you after school.”

He stared at his knees and picked at a loose string of cotton on his pajama bottoms.

“I got a phone call from Mrs. Hamison today.”

His body came alert, though he didn’t look at her.

“She said you’re flunking most of your subjects, and she hasn’t seen any homework from you since school started a month ago.”

He glanced up, his jaw belligerent, but with fear in his eyes.

“What’s going on? I know school isn’t easy, but you’ve never given up before.”

“Middle school’s harder.”

She wanted to touch him, to brush the hair off his forehead and snuggle him close the way she used to when he was small. Back when a hug and a treat shared over the kitchen table was enough to bring the sparkle back to her son. “She thinks we should have your vision tested.”

“Why?”

“She’s noticed some things in class and thinks it might be helpful.”

He shrugged again. “Can I have my game back?”

“You lied to me, son. Again.”

“Sor-ry.”

“You break trust every time you choose to be dishonest. Is that what you want?”

His voice was sullen and he stared at his comforter. “No.”

She touched his leg. “What’s bothering you, honey?”

“I dunno. Can I have my game back?”

She stood up. There was a time for talking and this obviously wasn’t it. “You can have it tomorrow.”

But would tomorrow be any different?

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Forsaken

It is time for the FIRST Blog Tour! On the FIRST day of every month we feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and his book:

Forsaken
B&H Fiction (October 1, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

James David Jordan is a business litigation attorney with the prominent Texas law firm of Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, P.C. From 1998 through 2005, he served as the firm’s Chairman and CEO. The Dallas Business Journal has named him one of the most influential leaders in the Dallas/Fort Worth legal community and one of the top fifteen business defense attorneys in Dallas/Fort Worth. His peers have voted him one of the Best Lawyers in America in commercial litigation.

A minister’s son who grew up in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois, Jim has a law degree and MBA from the University of Illinois, and a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. He lives with his wife and two teenage children in the Dallas suburbs.

Jim grew up playing sports and loves athletics of all kinds. But he especially loves baseball, the sport that is a little bit closer to God than all the others.

His first novel was Something that Lasts . Forsaken is his second novel.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: B&H Fiction (October 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0805447490
ISBN-13: 978-0805447491

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Even in high school I didn’t mind sleeping on the ground. When your father is a retired Special Forces officer, you pick up things that most girls don’t learn. As the years passed I slept in lots of places a good girl shouldn’t sleep. It’s a part of my past I don’t brag about, like ugly wallpaper that won’t come unstuck. No matter how hard I scrape, it just hangs on in big, obscene blotches. I’m twenty-nine years old now, and I’ve done my best to paint over it. But it’s still there under the surface, making everything rougher, less presentable than it should be. Though I want more than anything to be smooth and fresh and clean.

Sometimes I wonder what will happen if the paint begins to fade. Will the wallpaper show? I thought so for a long time. But I have hope now that it won’t. Simon Mason helped me find that hope. That’s why it’s important for me to tell our story. There must be others who need hope, too. There must be others who are afraid that their ugly wallpaper might bleed through.

What does sleeping on the ground have to do with a world-famous preacher like Simon Mason? The story begins twelve years ago—eleven years before I met Simon. My dad and I packed our camping gear and went fishing. It was mid-May, and the trip was a present for my seventeenth birthday. Not exactly every high school girl’s dream, but my dad wasn’t like most dads. He taught me to camp and fish and, particularly, to shoot. He had trained me in self-defense since I was nine, the year Mom fell apart and left for good. With my long legs, long arms, and Dad’s athletic genes, I could handle myself even back then. I suppose I wasn’t like most other girls.

After what happened on that fishing trip, I know I wasn’t.

Fishing with my dad didn’t mean renting a cane pole and buying bait pellets out of a dispenser at some catfish tank near an RV park. It generally meant tramping miles across a field to a glassy pond on some war buddy’s ranch, or winding through dense woods, pitching a tent, and fly fishing an icy stream far from the nearest telephone. The trips were rough, but they were the bright times of my life—and his, too. They let him forget the things that haunted him and remember how to be happy.

This particular outing was to a ranch in the Texas Panhandle, owned by a former Defense Department bigwig. The ranch bordered one of the few sizeable lakes in a corner of Texas that is brown and rocky and dry. We loaded Dad’s new Chevy pickup with cheese puffs and soft drinks—healthy eat­ing wouldn’t begin until the first fish hit the skillet—and left Dallas just before noon with the bass boat in tow. The drive was long, but we had leather interior, plenty of tunes, and time to talk. Dad and I could always talk.

The heat rose early that year, and the temperature hung in the nineties. Two hours after we left Dallas, the brand-new air conditioner in the brand-new truck rattled and clicked and dropped dead. We drove the rest of the way with the windows down while the high Texas sun tried to burn a hole through the roof.

Around five-thirty we stopped to use the bathroom at a rundown gas station somewhere southeast of Amarillo. The station was nothing but a twisted gray shack dropped in the middle of a hundred square miles of blistering hard pan. It hadn’t rained for a month in that part of Texas, and the place was so baked that even the brittle weeds rolled over on their bellies, as if preparing a last-ditch effort to drag themselves to shade.

The restroom door was on the outside of the station, iso­lated from the rest of the building. There was no hope of cool­ing off until I finished my business and got around to the little store in the front, where a rusty air conditioner chugged in the window. When I walked into the bathroom, I had to cover my nose and mouth with my hand. A mound of rotting trash leaned like a grimy snow drift against a metal garbage can in the corner. Thick, black flies zipped and bounced from floor to wall and ceiling to floor, occasionally smacking my arms and legs as if I were a bumper in a buzzing pinball machine. It was the filthiest place I’d ever been.

Looking back, it was an apt spot to begin the filthiest night of my life.

I had just leaned over the rust-ringed sink to inspect my teeth in the sole remaining corner of a shattered mirror when someone pounded on the door.

“Just a minute!” I turned on the faucet. A soupy liquid dribbled out, followed by the steamy smell of rotten eggs. I turned off the faucet, pulled my sport bottle from the holster on my hip, and squirted water on my face and in my mouth. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my T-shirt.

My blue-jean cutoffs were short and tight, and I pried free a tube of lotion that was wedged into my front pocket. I raised one foot at a time to the edge of the toilet seat and did my best to brush the dust from my legs. Then I spread the lotion over them. The ride may have turned me into a dust ball, but I was determined at least to be a soft dust ball with a coconut scent. Before leaving I took one last look in my little corner of mir­ror. The hair was auburn, the dust was beige. I gave the hair a shake, sending tiny flecks floating through a slash of light that cut the room diagonally from a hole in the roof. Someone pounded on the door again. I turned away from the mirror.

“Okay, okay, I’m coming!”

When I pulled open the door and stepped into the light, I shaded my eyes and blinked to clear away the spots. All that I could think about was the little air conditioner in the front window and how great it would feel when I got inside. That’s probably why I was completely unprepared when a man’s hand reached from beside the door and clamped hard onto my wrist.

Single Sashimi

It is time for the FIRST Blog Tour! On the FIRST day of every month we feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and her book:

Single Sashimi
Zondervan (September 1, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Camy Tang is a FIRST Family Member! She also is a moderator for FIRST Wild Card Tours. She is a loud Asian chick who writes loud Asian chick-lit. She grew up in Hawaii, but now lives in San Jose, California, with her engineer husband and rambunctious poi-dog. In a previous life she was a biologist researcher, but these days she is surgically attached to her computer, writing full-time. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service.

Sushi for One? (Sushi Series, Book One) was her first novel. Her second, Only Uni (Sushi Series, Book Two) was published in March of this year. The next book in the series, Single Sashimi (Sushi Series, Book Three) came out in September 2008!

Visit her at her website.

List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (September 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310274001
ISBN-13: 978-0310274001

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Single Sashimi
By
Camy Tang

Chapter one

Venus Chau opened the door to her aunt’s house and almost fainted.

“What died?” She exhaled sharply, trying to get the foul air out of her body before it caused cancer or something.

Her cousin Jennifer Lim entered the foyer with the look of an oni goblin about to eat someone. “She’s stinking up my kitchen.”

“Who?” Venus hesitated on the threshold, breathing clean night air before she had to close the door.

“My mother, who else?”

The ire in Jenn’s voice made Venus busy herself with kicking off her heels amongst the other shoes in the tile foyer. Hoo-boy, she’d never seen quiet Jenn this irate before. Then again, since Aunty Yuki had given her daughter the rule of the kitchen when she’d started cooking in high school, Jenn rarely had to make way for another cook.

“What is she cooking? Beef intestines?”

Jenn flung her arms out. “Who knows? Something Trish is supposed to eat.”

“But we don’t have to eat it, right? Right?”

“I’ll never become pregnant if I have to eat stuff like that.” Jenn whirled and stomped toward the kitchen.

Venus turned right into the living room where her very pregnant cousin Trish lounged on the sofa next to her boyfriend, Spenser. “Hey, guys.” Her gaze paused on their twined hands. It continued to amaze her that Spenser would date a woman pregnant with another man’s child. Maybe Venus shouldn’t be so cynical about the men she met. Here was at least one good guy.

Trish’s arms shot into the air like a Raiders’ cheerleader, nearly clocking Spenser in the eye. “I’m officially on maternity leave!”

Venus paused to clap. “So how did you celebrate?”

“I babysat Matthew all day today.” She smiled dreamily at Spenser at the mention of his son.

Venus frowned and landed her hands on her hips. “In your condition?”

Trish waved a hand. “He’s not that bad. He stopped swallowing things weeks ago.”

“I’m finally not wasting money on all those emergency room visits,” Spenser said.

“Besides, I got a book about how to help toddlers expect a new baby.” Trish bounced lightly on the sofa cushion in her excitement.

“And?” It seemed kind of weird to Venus, since Trish and Spenser weren’t engaged or anything. Yet.

Trish chewed her lip. “I don’t know if he totally understands, but at least it’s a start.”

A sense of strangeness washed over Venus as she watched the two of them, the looks they exchanged that weren’t mushy or intimate, just . . . knowing. Like mind reading. It made her feel alienated from her cousin for the first time in her life, and she didn’t really like it.

She immediately damped down the feeling. How could she begrudge Trish such a wonderful relationship? Venus was so selfish. She disgusted herself.

She looked around the living room. “Where is — ”

“Venus!” The childish voice rang down the short hallway. She stepped back into the foyer to see Spenser’s son, Matthew, trotting down the carpet with hands reached out to her. He grabbed her at the knees, wrinkling her silk pants, but she didn’t mind. His shining face looking up at her — way up, since she was the tallest of the cousins — made her feel like she was the only reason he lived and breathed. “Psycho Bunny?” he pleaded.

She pretended to think about it. His hands shook her pants legs to make her decide faster.

“Okay.”

He darted into the living room and plopped in front of the television, grabbing at the game controllers. The kid had it down pat — in less than a minute, the music for the Psycho Bunny video game rolled into the room.

Venus sank to the floor next to him.

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings.

“What brought all this on?” Venus picked up the other controller.

“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today — ”

“Is she doing okay?” She chose the Bunny Foo-Foo character for the game just starting.

“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”

“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s domain?”

Trish rubbed her back and winced. “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”

Jenn huffed into the living room. “She’s going to make me ruin the roast chicken!”

Venus ignored her screeching tone. “Sit down. You’re not going to make her hurry by hovering.” She and Matthew both jumped over the snake pit and landed in the hollow tree.

Jenn flung herself into an overstuffed chair and dumped her feet on the battered oak coffee table.

Venus turned to glance at the foyer. No Nikes. “Where’s Lex?”

“Late. Where else?” Jenn snapped.

“I thought Aiden was helping her be better about that.”

“He’s not a miracle worker.” Spenser massaged Trish’s back.

“I have to leave early.” Venus stretched her silk-clad feet out, wriggling her toes. Her new stilettos looked great but man, they hurt her arches.

“Then you might not eat at all.” Jenn crossed her arms over her chest.

Venus speared her with a glance like a stainless steel skewer. “Chill, okay Cujo?”

Jenn pouted and scrunched further down in the chair.

Venus ignored her and turned back to the game. Her inattention had let Matthew pick up the treasure chest. “I have to work on a project.”

“For work?”

“No, for me.” Only the Spiderweb, the achievement of her lifetime, a new tool that would propel her to the heights of video game development stardom. Which was why she’d kept it separate from her job-related things — she didn’t even use her company computer when she worked on it, only her personal laptop.

A new smell wafted into the room, this one rivaling the other in its stomach-roiling ability. Venus waved her hand in front of her face.

“Pffaugh! What is she cooking?”

Trish’s face had turned the color of green tea. “You’re lucky you don’t have to eat it. Whatever it is, it ain’t gonna stay down for long.”

“Just say you still have morning sickness.”

“In my ninth month?”

Venus shrugged.

The door slammed open. “Hey, guys — blech.”

Venus twisted around to see her cousin Lex doubled over, clenching her washboard stomach (Venus wished she could have one of those) and looking like she’d hurled up all the shoes littering the foyer floor.

Lex’s boyfriend Aiden grabbed her waist to prevent her from nosediving into the tile. “Lex, it’s not that bad.”

“The gym locker room smells better.” Lex used her toes to pull off her cross-trainers without bothering to untie them. “The men’s locker room.”

“It’s not me,” Jenn declared. “It’s Mom, ruining all my best pots.”

“What is she doing? Killing small animals on the stovetop?”

“Something for the baby.” Trish tried to smile, but it looked more like a wince.

“As long as we don’t have to eat it.” Lex dropped her slouchy purse on the floor and walked into the living room.

Aunty Yuki appeared behind her in the doorway, bearing a steaming bowl. “Here, Trish. Drink this.” The brilliant smile on her wide face eclipsed her tiny stature.

Venus smelled something pungent, like when she walked into a Chinese medicine shop with her dad. A bolus of air erupted from her mouth, and she coughed. “What is that?” She dropped the game controller.

“Pig’s brain soup.”

Trish’s smile hardened to plastic. Lex grabbed her mouth. Spenser — who was Chinese and therefore had been raised with the weird concoctions — sighed. Aiden looked at them all like they were funny-farm rejects.

Venus closed her eyes, tightened her mouth, and concentrated on not gagging. Good thing her stomach was empty.

Aunty Yuki’s mouth pursed. “What’s wrong? My mother-in-law made me eat pig’s brain soup when I was a couple weeks from delivering Jennifer.”

That’s what you ruined my pots with?” Jennifer steamed hotter than the bowl of soup.

Her mom caught the yakuza-about-to-hack-your-finger-off expression on Jenn’s face. Aunty Yuki paused, then backtracked to the kitchen. With the soup bowl, thankfully.

“Papa?” Matthew’s voice sounded faint.

Venus turned.

“Don’t feel good.” He clutched his poochy tummy.

“Oh, no.” Spenser grabbed his son and headed out of the living room.

Then the world exploded.

Just as they passed into the foyer, Matthew threw up onto the tiles.

Lex, with her weak stomach when it came to bodily fluids, took one look and turned pasty.

A burning smell and a few cries sounded from the kitchen.

Trish sat up straighter than a Buddha and clenched her rounded abdomen. “Oh!”

Spenser held his crying son as he urped up the rest of his afternoon snack. Lex clapped a hand to her mouth to prevent herself from following Matthew’s example. Jenn started for the kitchen, but then Matthew’s mess blocking the foyer stopped her. Trish groaned and curled in on herself, clutching her tummy.

Venus shot to her feet. She wasn’t acting Game Lead at her company for nothing.

“You.” She pointed to Jenn. “Get to the kitchen and send your mom in here for Trish.” Jenn leaped over Matthew’s puddle and darted away. “And bring paper towels for the mess!”

“You,” she flung at Spenser. “Take Matthew to the bathroom.”

He gestured to the brand new hallway carpet.

Oh no, Aunty Yuki would have a fit. But it couldn’t be helped. “If he makes a mess on the carpet, we’ll just clean it up later.”

He didn’t hesitate. He hustled down the hallway with Matthew in his arms.

Venus kicked the miniscule living room garbage basket closer to Lex. “Hang your head over that.” Not that it would hold more than spittle, but it was better than letting Lex upchuck all over the plush cream carpet. Why did Lex, tomboy and jock, have to go weak every time something gross happened?

“You.” Venus stabbed a manicured finger at Aiden. “Get your car, we’re taking Trish to the hospital.”

He didn’t jump at her command. “After one contraction?”

Trish moaned, and Venus had a vision of the baby flying out of her in the next minute. She pointed to the door again. “Just go!”

Aiden shrugged and slipped out the front door, muttering to himself.

“You.” She stood in front of Trish, who’d started Lamaze breathing through her pursed lips. “Uh . . .”

Trish peered up at her.

“Um . . . stop having contractions.”

Trish rolled her eyes, but didn’t speak through her pursed lips.

Venus ignored her and went to kneel over Matthew’s rather watery puddle, which had spread with amoeba fingers reaching down the lines of grout. Lex’s purse lay nearby, so she rooted in it for a tissue or something to start blotting up the mess.

Footsteps approaching. Before she could raise her head or shout a warning, Aunty Yuki hurried into the foyer. “What’s wron — !”

It was like a Three Stooges episode. Aunty Yuki barreled into Venus’s bent figure. She had leaned over Matthew’s mess to protect anyone from stepping in it, but it also made her an obstacle in the middle of the foyer.

“Ooomph!” The older woman’s feet — shod in cotton house slippers, luckily, and not shoes — jammed into Venus’s ribs. She couldn’t see much except a pair of slippers leaving the floor at the same time, and then a body landing on the living room carpet on the other side of her. Ouch.

“Are you okay?” Venus twisted to kneel in front of her, but she seemed slow to rise.

“Venus, here’re the paper towels — ”

Jenn’s voice in the foyer made Venus whirl on the balls of her feet and fling her hands up. “Watch out!”

Jenn stopped just in time. Her toes were only inches away from Matthew’s mess, her body leaning forward. Her arms whirled, still clutching the towels, like a cheerleader and her pom-poms.

“Jenn.” Spenser’s voice coming down the hallway toward the foyer. “Where are the — ”

“Stop!” Venus and Jenn shouted at the same time.

Spenser froze, his foot hovering above a finger of the puddle that had stretched toward the hallway. “Ah. Okay. Thanks.” He lowered his foot on the clean tile to the side.

Aiden opened the front door. “The car’s out front — ” The sight of them all left him speechless.

Trish had started to hyperventilate, her breath seething through her teeth. “Will somebody do something?!”

Aunty Yuki moaned from her crumpled position on the floor.

Smoke started pouring from the kitchen, along with the awful smell of burned . . . something that wasn’t normal food.

Venus snatched the paper towels from Jenn. “Kitchen!” Jenn fled before she’d finished speaking. “What do you need?” Venus barked at Spenser.

“Extra towels.”

“Guest bedroom closet, top shelf.”

He headed back down the hall. Venus turned to Aiden and swept a hand toward Aunty Yuki on the living room floor. “Take care of her, will you?”

“What about me?” Trish moaned through a clenched jaw.

“Stop having contractions!” Venus swiped up the mess on the tile before something worse happened, like someone stepped in it and slid. That would just be the crowning cherry to her evening. Even when she wasn’t at work, she was still working.

“Are you okay, Aunty?” She stood with the sodden paper towels.

Aiden had helped her to a seat next to Lex, who was ashen-faced and still leaning over the tiny trash can. Aside from a reddish spot on Aunty Yuki’s elbow, she seemed fine.

Jenn entered the living room, her hair wild and a distinctive burned smell sizzling from her clothes. “My imported French saucepan is completely blackened!” But she had enough sense not to glare at her parent as she probably wanted to. Aunty Yuki suddenly found
the wall hangings fascinating.

Venus started to turn toward the kitchen to throw away the paper towels she still held. “Well, we have to take Trish to the hospital — ”

“Actually . . .” Trish’s breathing had slowed. “I think it’s just a false alarm.”

Venus turned to look at her. “False alarm? Pregnant women have those?”

“It happened a couple days ago too.”

“What?” Venus almost slammed her fist into her hip, but remembered the dirty paper towels just in time. Good thing too, because she had on a Chanel suit.

Trish gave a long, slow sigh. “Yup, they’re gone. That was fast.” She smiled cheerfully.

Venus wanted to scream. This was out of her realm. At work, she was used to grabbing a crisis at the throat and wrestling it to submission. This was somewhere Trish was heading without her, and the thought both frightened and unnerved her. She shrugged it off. “Well . . . Aunty — ”

“I’m fine, Venus.” Aunty Yuki inspected her elbow. “Jennifer, get those Japanese Salonpas patches — ”

“Mom, they stink.” Jenn’s stress over her beautiful kitchen made her more belligerent than Venus had ever seen her before. Not that the camphor patches could smell any worse than the burned Chinese-old-wives’-pregnancy-food permeating the house.

At the sound of the word Salonpas, Lex pinched her lips together but didn’t say anything.

Aunty Yuki gave Jenn a limpid look. “The Salonpas gets rid of the pain.”

“I’ll get it.” Aiden headed down the hallway to get the adhesive patches.

“In the hall closet.” Jenn’s words slurred a bit through her tight jaw.

Distraction time. Venus tried to smile. “Aunty, if you’re okay, then let’s eat.”

Jenn’s eyes flared neon red. “Can’t.”

“Huh?”

Somebody turned off the oven.” Jenn frowned at her mother, who tactfully looked away. “Dinner won’t be for another hour.” She stalked back to the kitchen.

Even with the nasty smell, Venus’s stomach protested its empty state. “It’s already eight o’clock.”

“Suck it up!” Jenn yelled from the kitchen.

It was going to be a long night.

***

Venus needed a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

No, a Reese’s was bad. Sugar, fat, preservatives, all kinds of chemicals she couldn’t even pronounce.

Oooh, but it would taste so good . . .

No, she equated Reese’s cups with her fat days. She was no longer fat. She didn’t need a Reese’s.

But she sure wanted one after such a hectic evening with her cousins.

She trudged up the steps to her condo. Home. Too small to invite people over, and that was the way she liked it. Her haven, where she could relax and let go, no one to see her when she was vulnerable —

Her front door was ajar.

Her limbs froze mid-step, but her heart rat-tat-tatted in her chest like a machine gun. Someone. Had. Broken. Into. Her. Home.

Her hand started to shake. She clenched it to her hip, crushing the silk of her pants. What to do? He might still be there. Pepper spray. In her purse. She searched in her bag and finally found the tiny bottle. Her hand trembled so much, she’d be more likely to spritz herself than the intruder.

Were those sounds coming from inside? She reached out a hand, but couldn’t quite bring herself to push the door open further.

Stupid, call the police! She fumbled with the pepper spray so she could extract her cell phone. Dummy, don’t pop yourself in the eye with that stuff! She switched the spray to her other hand while her thumb dialed 9 – 1 – 1. Her handbag’s leather straps dug into her elbow.

Thump! That came from her living room! Footsteps. Get away from the door! She stumbled backwards, but remembering the stairs right behind her, she tried to stop herself from tumbling down. Her ankle tilted on her stilettos, and she fell sideways to lean against the wall. The footsteps approached her open door.

“9 – 1 – 1, what’s your emergency?”

She raised her hand with the bottle of pepper spray. “Someone’s — ”

The door swung open.

“Edgar!” The cell phone dropped with a clatter, but she kept a firm grip on the pepper spray, suddenly tempted to use it.

One of her junior programmers stood in her open doorway.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Camy Tang
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530

The Summer the Wind Whispered My Name by Don Locke

I’m a bit late in posting this month’s feature of FIRST. When life gets hectic, things slide a little. However, I have started reading the book and I know for sure it will be a good one. Check it out and start reading as well. 1st chapter is provided below.

It is time for the FIRST Blog Tour! On the FIRST day of every month we feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and his book:

The Summer the Wind Whispered My Name
NavPress Publishing Group (August 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Don Locke is an illustrator and graphic artist for NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has worked as a freelance writer and illustrator for more than thirty years. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Susan. The Summer the Wind Whispered My Name, prequel to The Reluctant Journey of David Connors, is Don’s second novel.

Product Details:

List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 355 pages
Publisher: NavPress Publishing Group (August 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1600061532
ISBN-13: 978-1600061530

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Preface

Until recently my early childhood memories weren’t readily available for recollection. Call it a defective hard drive. They remained a mystery and a void—a midwestern landscape of never-ending pitch-blackness where I brushed up against people and objects but could never assign them faces or names, much less attach feelings to our brief encounters.

But through a miraculous act of divine grace, I found my way back home to discover the child I’d forgotten, the boy I’d abandoned supposedly for the good of us both. There he sat beneath an oak tree patiently awaiting my return, as if I’d simply taken a day-long fishing trip. This reunion of spirits has transformed me into someone both wiser and more innocent, leaving me to feel both old and young.

And with this new gift of recollection, my memories turn to that boy and to the summer of 1960, when the winds of change blew across our rooftops and through the screen doors, turning the simple, manageable world of my suburban neighborhood into something unfamiliar, something uncomfortable. Those same winds blew my father and me apart.

One

Route 666

With a gentle shake of my shoulders, a kiss on my cheek, and the words It’s time whispered by my mom, I woke at five thirty in the morning to prepare for my newspaper route. Careful not to wake my older brother, Bobby, snoozing across the room, I slipped out of bed and stumbled my way into the hallway and toward the bathroom, led only by the dim glow of the nightlight and a familiarity with the route.

There on the bathroom floor, as usual, my mother had laid my clothes out in the shape of my body, my underwear layered on top. You’re probably wondering why she did this. It could have been that she severely underestimated my intelligence and displayed my clothes in this fashion in case there was any doubt on my part as to which articles of clothing went where on my body. She didn’t want to face the public humiliation brought on by her son walking out of the house wearing his Fruit of the Loom undies over his head. Or maybe her work was simply the result of a sense of humor that I missed completely. Either way, I never asked.

Mine was a full-service mom whose selfless measures of accommodation put the men of Texaco to shame. The fact that she would inconvenience herself by waking me when an alarm clock would suffice, or lay out my clothes when I was capable of doing so myself, might sound a bit odd to you, but believe me, it was only the tip of the indulgent iceberg. This was a woman who would cut the crust off my PB&J sandwich at my request, set my toothbrush out every night with a wad of Colgate laying atop the bristles, and who would often put me to sleep at night with a song, a prayer, and a back scratch. In the wintertime, when the wind chill off Lake Erie made the hundred-yard trek down to the corner to catch the school bus feel like Admiral Perry’s excursion, Mom would actually lay my clothes out on top of the floor heater before I woke up so that my body would be adequately preheated before stepping outside to face the Ohio cold. From my perspective my room was self-cleaning; toys, sports equipment, and clothes discarded onto the floor all found their way back to the toy box, closet, or dresser. I never encountered a dish that I had to clean or trash I had to empty or a piece of clothing I had to wash or iron or fold or put away.

I finished dressing, entered the kitchen, and there on the maroon Formica table, in predictable fashion, sat my glass of milk and chocolate long john patiently waiting for me to consume them. My mother, a chocoholic long before the word was coined, had a sweet tooth that she’d handed down to her children. She believed that a heavy dusting of white processed sugar on oatmeal, cream of wheat, or grapefruit was crucial energy fuel for starting one’s day. Only earlier that year I’d been shocked to learn from my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mercer, that chocolate was not, in fact, a member of any of the four major food groups.

Wearing a milk mustache and buzzing from my sugar rush, I walked outside to where the stack of Tribunes—dropped off in my driveway earlier by the news truck—were waiting for me to fold them.

More often than I ever cared to hear it, my dad would point out, “It’s the early bird that catches the worm.” But for me it was really those early morning summer hours themselves that provided the reward. Sitting there on our cement front step beneath a forty-watt porch light, rolling a stack of Tribunes, I was keenly aware that bodies were still strewn out across beds in every house in the neighborhood, lying lost in their dreamland slumber while I was already experiencing the day. There would be time enough for the sounds of wooden screen doors slamming shut, the hissing of sprinklers on Bermuda lawns, and the songs of robins competing with those of Elvis emanating from transistor radios everywhere. But for now there was a stillness about my neighborhood that seemed to actually slow time down, where even the old willow in our front yard stood like one more giant dozing on his feet, his long arms hanging lifeless at his sides, and where the occasional shooting star streaking across the black sky was a confiding moment belonging only to the morning and me.

From the porch step I could detect the subtle, pale peach glow rise behind the Finnegan’s house across the street. I stretched a rubber band open across the top of my knuckles, spread my fingers apart, and slid it down over the length of the rolled paper to hold it in place. Seventy-six times I’d repeat this act almost unconsciously. There was something about the crisp, cool morning air that seemed to contain a magical element that when breathed in set me to daydreaming. So that’s just what I did . . . I sent my homemade bottle rocket blasting above the trees and watched as the red and white bobber at the end of my fishing pole suddenly got sucked down below the surface of the water at Crystal Lake, and with my Little League team’s game on the line, I could hear the crack of my bat as I smacked a liner over the third baseman’s head to drive in the go-ahead run. Granted, most kids would daydream bigger—their rockets sailed to the moon or Mars, and their fish, blue marlins at least, were hooked off Bermuda in their yachts, and their hits were certainly grand slams in the bottom of the ninth to win the World Series for the Reds—but my dad always suggested that a dream should have its feet planted firmly enough in reality to actually have a chance to come true one day, or there wasn’t much point in conjuring up the dream in the first place. Dreaming too big would only lead to a lifetime scattered with the remnants of disappointments and heartbreak.

And I believed him. Why not? I was young and his shadow fell across me with weight and substance and truth. He was my hero. But in some ways, I suppose, he was too much like my other heroes: Frank Robinson, Ricky Nelson, Maverick. I looked up to them because of their accomplishments or their image, not because of who they really were. I didn’t really know who they were outside of that. Such was the case with my dad. He was a great athlete in his younger years, had a drawer full of medals for track and field, swimming, baseball, basketball, and a bunch from the army to prove it.

It was my dad who had managed to pull the strings that allowed me to have a paper route in the first place. I remember reading the pride in his eyes earlier in the spring when he first told me I got the job. His voice rose and fell within a wider range than usual as he explained how I would now be serving a valuable purpose in society by being directly responsible for informing people of local, national, and even international events. My dad made it sound important—an act of responsibility, being this cog in the wheel of life, the great mandala. And it made me feel important, better defining my place in the universe. In a firm handshake with my dad, I promised I wouldn’t let him down.

Finishing up folding and banding the last paper, I knew I was running a little late because Spencer, the bullmastiff next door, had already begun to bark in anticipation of my arrival. Checking the Bulova wristwatch that my dad had given me as a gift the morning of my first route confirmed it. I proceeded to cram forty newspapers into my greasy white canvas pouch and loop the straps over my bike handles. Riding my self-painted, fluorescent green Country Road–brand bike handed down from my brother, I would deliver these papers mostly to my immediate neighborhood and swing back around to pick up the final thirty-six.

I picked the olive green army hat up off the step. Though most boys my age wore baseball caps, I was seldom seen without the hat my dad wore in World War II. Slapping it down onto my head, I hopped onto my bike, turned on the headlight, and was off down my driveway, turning left on the sidewalk that ran along the front of our corner property on Willowcreek Road.

I rode around to where our street dead-ended, curving into Briarbrook. Our eccentric young neighbors, the Springfields, lived next door in a house they’d painted black. Mr. and Mrs. Springfield chose to raise a devil dog named Spencer rather than experiencing the joy of parenthood. Approaching the corner of their white picket fence on my bike, I could see the strong, determined, shadowy figure of that demon dashing back and forth along the picket fence, snarling and barking at me loudly enough to wake the whole neighborhood. As was my custom, I didn’t dare slow down while I heaved the rolled-up newspaper over his enormous head into their yard. Spencer sprinted over to the paper and pounced on it, immediately tearing it to shreds—a daily reenactment. The couple insisted that I do this every day, as they were attempting to teach Spencer to fetch the morning paper, bring it around to the back of the house where he was supposed to enter by way of the doggy door, and gently place the newspaper in one piece on the kitchen table so it would be there to peruse when they woke for breakfast.

Theirs was one of only two houses in the neighborhood that were fenced in, a practice uncommon in the suburbs because it implied a lack of hospitality. Even a small hedge along a property line could be interpreted as stand-offish. The Springfields’ choice of house color wasn’t helpful in dispelling this notion. And yet it was a good thing that they chose to enclose their property because we were all quite certain that if Spencer ever escaped his yard, he would systematically devour every neighborhood kid, one by one. The strange thing was that the picket fence couldn’t have been more than three feet high, low enough for even a miniature poodle to clear—so why hadn’t Spencer taken the leap? Could it be that he was just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to jump that hurdle? So I was thankful for the Springfields’ ineptitude when it came to dog training because it allowed me to buffer Spencer’s appetite, knowing that whenever he did decide to make his move, I would most likely be the first course on the menu.

The neighborhood houses on my route were primarily ranch style, third-little-pig variety, and always on my left. On my left so that I could grab a paper out of my bag and heave it across my body, allowing for more mustard on my throw and more accuracy than if I had to sling it backhand off to my right side. This technique also helped build up strength in my pitching arm. I always aimed directly toward the middle of the driveway instead of anywhere near the porch, which could, as I’d learned, be treacherous territory. An irate Mrs. Messerschmitt from Sleepy Hollow Road once dropped by my house, screaming, “You’ve murdered my children! You’ve murdered my children!” Apparently I’d made an errant toss that tore the blooming heads right off her precious pansies and injured a few hapless marigolds. From that day on I shot for the middle of the driveway, making sure no neighbors’ flowers ever suffered a similar fate at my hands.

I passed my friend Mouse Miller’s house, crossed the street, and headed down the other side of Briarbrook, past Allison Hoffman’s house—our resident divorcée. All my friends still had their two original parents and family intact, which made Mrs. Hoffman’s status a bit of an oddity. Maybe it was the polio scare that people my parents’ age had had to live through that appeared to make them wary of any abnormality in another human being. It wasn’t just being exposed to the drug addicts or the murderers that concerned them, but contact with any fringe members of society: the divorcées and the widowers, the fifty-year-old bachelors, people with weird hairdos or who wore clothing not found in the Sears catalogue. People with facial hair were especially to be avoided.

You didn’t want to be a nonconformist in 1960. Though nearly a decade had passed, effects of the McCarthy hearings had left some Americans with lingering suspicions that their neighbor might be a Red or something worse. So everyone did their best to just fit in. There was an unspoken fear that whatever social dysfunction people possessed was contagious by mere association with them. I had a feeling my mom believed this to be the case with Allison Hoffman—that all my mother had to do was engage in a five-minute conversation with any divorced woman, and a week or so later, my dad would come home from work and out of the blue announce, “Honey, I want a divorce.”

Likely in her late twenties, Mrs. Hoffman was attractive enough to be a movie star or at least a fashion model—she was that pretty. She taught at a junior high school across town, but for extra cash would tutor kids in her spare time. Despite her discriminating attitude toward Mrs. Hoffman, my mother was forced to hire her as a tutor for my sixteen-year-old brother for two sessions a week, seeing as Bobby could never quite grasp the concept of dangling participles and such. Still, whenever she mentioned Mrs. Hoffman’s name, my mom always found a way to justify setting her Christian beliefs aside, calling her that woman, as in, “just stay away from that woman.” Mom must have skipped over the part in the Bible where Jesus healed the lepers. Anyway, Mrs. Hoffman seemed nice enough to me when I’d see her gardening in her yard or when I’d have to collect newspaper money from her; a wave and smile were guaranteed.

I delivered papers down Briarbrook, passed my friend Sheena’s house on the cul-de-sac, and went back down to Willowcreek, where I rolled past the Jensens’ vacant house. The For Sale sign had been stuck in the lawn out front since the beginning of spring. I’d seen few people even stop by to look at the charming, white frame house I remember as having great curb appeal. Every kid on the block was rooting for a family with at least a dozen kids to move in to provide some fresh blood.

A half a block later, I turned the corner and was about to toss the paper down Mr. Melzer’s drive when I spotted the old man lying under his porch light, sprawled out on the veranda, his blue overall-covered legs awkwardly dangling down the front steps of his farm house. I immediately stood up on my bike, slammed on the brakes, fish-tailed a streak of rubber on the sidewalk, dumped the bike, and rushed up to his motionless body. “Mr. Melzer! Mr. Melzer!” Certain he was dead, I kept shouting at him like he was only asleep or deaf. “Mr. Melzer!” I was afraid to touch him to see if he was alive.

The only dead body I had touched up till then was my great-uncle Frank’s at his wake, and it was not a particularly pleasant experience. I was five years old when my mom led me up to the big shiny casket where I peered over the top to see the man lying inside. Standing on my tiptoes, I stared at Frank’s clay-colored face, which I believed looked too grumpy, too dull. While alive and kicking, my uncle was an animated man with ruddy cheeks who spoke and reacted with passion and humor, but the expression he wore while lying in that box was one that I’d never seen on his face before. I was quite sure that if he’d been able to gaze in the mirror at his dead self with that stupid, frozen pouting mouth looking back at him, he would have been humiliated and embarrassed as all get out. And so, while no one watched, I started poking and prodding at his surprisingly pliable mouth, trying to reshape his smile into something more natural, more familiar, like the expression he’d worn recalling the time he drove up to frigid Green Bay in a blizzard to watch his beloved Browns topple Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers. Or the one he’d displayed while telling us what a thrill it was to meet Betty Grable at a USO function during the war, or the grin that always appeared on his face right after he’d take a swig of a cold beer on a hot summer day. It was a look of satisfaction that I was after, and was pretty sure I could pull it off. Those hours of turning shapeless Play-Doh into little doggies and snowmen had prepared me for this moment.

After a mere twenty seconds of my molding handiwork, I had successfully managed to remove my uncle’s grim, lifeless expression. Unfortunately I had replaced it with a hideous-looking full-on smile, his teeth beaming like the Joker from the Batman comics. Before I could step back for a more objective look, my Aunt Doris let out a little shriek behind me; an older gentleman gasped, which brought my brother over, and he let out a howl of laughter, all followed by a flurry of activity that included some heated discussion among relatives, the casket’s being closed, and my mother’s hauling me out of the room by my earlobe.

But you probably don’t really care much about my Uncle Frank. You’re wondering about Mr. Melzer and if he’s a character who has kicked the bucket before you even got to know him or know if you like him. You will like him. I did. “Mr. Melzer!” I gave him a good poke in the arm. Nothing . . . then another one.

The fact is I was surprised when Mr. Melzer began to move. First his head turned . . . then his arm wiggled . . . then he rose, propping himself up onto an elbow, attempting to regain his bearings.

“Mr. Melzer?”

“What?” He looked around, glassy-eyed, still groggy. “Davy?”

I suddenly felt dizzy and nearly fell down beside him on the porch. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“I must have dozed off. Guess the farmer in me still wants to wake with the dawn, but the old man, well, he knows better.” He looked my way. “You’re white as a sheet—you okay, boy?”

Actually I was feeling pretty nauseated. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just thought . . .”

“What? You thought what?”

“Well, when I saw you lying there . . . I just thought . . .”

“That I was dead?” I nodded. “Well, no, no, I can see where that might be upsetting for you. Come to think of it, it’s a little upsetting to me. Not that I’m not prepared to meet my maker, mind you. Or to see Margaret again.” He leaned heavily on his right arm, got himself upright, and adjusted his suspenders. “The fact is . . . I do miss the old gal. The way she’d know to take my hand when it needed holdin’. Or how she could make a room feel comfortable just by her sitting in it, breathing the same air. Heck, I even miss her lousy coffee. And I hope, after these two years apart, she might have forgotten what a pain in the rear I could be, and she might have the occasion to miss me a bit, too.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t considered the possibility of the dead missing the living. Sometimes when he wasn’t even trying to, Mr. Melzer made me think. And it always surprised me how often he would just say anything that came into his head. He never edited himself like most adults. He was like a kid in that respect, but more interesting.

“You believe in heaven?” I asked Mr. Melzer.

“Rather counting on it. How ’bout you?”

“My mom says that when we go to heaven we’ll be greeted by angels with golden wings.”

“Really? Angels, huh?”

“And she says that they’ll sing a beautiful song written especially for us.”

“Really? Your mother’s an interesting woman, Davy. But I could go for that—I could. Long as they’re not sitting around on clouds playing harps. Don’t care for harp music one bit. Pretty sure it was the Marx Brothers that soured me on that instrument.”

“How so?”

“Well, those Marx Brothers, in every movie they made they’d be running around, being zany as the dickens, and then Harpo—the one who never spoke a lick, the one with the fuzzy blond hair—always honking his horn and chasing some skinny, pretty gal around. Anyway, in the middle of all their high jinks, Harpo would come across some giant harp just conveniently lying around somewhere, and he’d feel obliged to stop all the antics to play some sappy tune that just about put you to sleep. I could never recover. Turned me sour on the harp, he did. I’m more of a horn man, myself. Give me a saxophone or trumpet and I’m happy. And I’m not particularly opposed to a fiddle either. But harps—I say round ’em up and burn ’em all. Melt ’em down and turn them into something practical . . . something that can’t make a sound . . . that’s what I say.”

See, I told you he’d pretty much say anything. I don’t think that Mr. Melzer had many people to listen to him. And just having a bunch of thoughts roaming around in his head wasn’t enough. I think Mr. Melzer chattered a lot so that he wouldn’t lose himself, so he could remember who he was.

“Yeah, well, anyway, I figure I’ll go home when it’s my time,” he continued. “Just hope it can wait for the harvest, seeing as there’s no one else to bring in the corn when it’s time.”

As far back as I could remember, Mr. Melzer used to drag this little red wagon around the neighborhood on August evenings, stacked to the limit with ears of corn. And he’d go door to door and hand out corn to everybody like he was some kind of an agricultural Santa.

“Do you know I used to have fields of corn as far as the eye can see . . . way beyond the rooftops over there?”

I did know this, but I never tired of the enthusiasm with which he told it, so I didn’t stop him. About ten years before, Mr. Melzer had sold off all but a few acres of his farmland to a contractor, resulting in what became my neighborhood.

“I still get a thrill when I shuck that first ear of corn of the harvest, and see that ripe golden row of kernels smiling back at me. Hot, sweet corn, lightly salted with butter dripping down all over it . . . mmm. Nothing better. Don’t nearly have the teeth for it anymore. You eat yours across or up and down?”

“Across.”

“Me too. Only way to eat corn. Tastes better across. When I see somebody munching on an ear like this”—the old man rolled the imaginary ear of corn in front of his imaginary teeth chomping down—“I just want to slap him upside the head.”

I was starting to run very late, and he noticed me fidgeting.

“Oh, yeah, here I am blabbering away, and you got a job to do.”

“I’ll get your paper.” I ran back to my bike lying on the sidewalk.

“So I see nobody’s bought the Jensen place yet,” he yelled out to me.

I grabbed a newspaper that had spilled out of my bag onto the sidewalk, and rushed back to Mr. Melzer. “Not yet. Whoever does, hope they have kids.” I handed the old man the newspaper.

“Listen, I’m sorry I scared you,” he said.

“It’s okay.” I looked over at a pile of unopened newspapers on the porch by the door. “Mind if I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“How come you never read the paper?”

“Oh, don’t know. At some point I guess you grow tired of bad news. Besides, these days all the news I need is right here in the neighborhood.”

“So why do you still order the paper?”

The old man smiled. “Well, the way I see it, if I didn’t order the paper, I’d miss out on these splendid little chats with you, now wouldn’t I?”

I told you you’d like him. I grinned. “I’m glad you’re not dead, Mr. Melzer.”

“Likewise,” he said, shooting a wink my way. When I turned around to walk back to my bike, I heard the rolled up newspaper hit the top of the pile.

Romancing Hollywood Nobody

It is August FIRST, time for the FIRST Blog Tour! (Join our alliance! Click the button!) The FIRST day of every month we will feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

Today’s feature author is:

and her book:

Romancing Hollywood Nobody

NavPress Publishing Group (July 15, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lisa Samson is the author of twenty books, including the Christy Award-winning Songbird. Apples of Gold was her first novel for teens

These days, she’s working on Quaker Summer, volunteering at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, raising children and trying to be supportive of a husband in seminary. (Trying . . . some days she’s downright awful. It’s a good thing he’s such a fabulous cook!) She can tell you one thing, it’s never dull around there.

Other Novels by Lisa:

Hollywood Nobody, Finding Hollywood Nobody, Straight Up, Club Sandwich, Songbird, Tiger Lillie, The Church Ladies, Women’s Intuition: A Novel, Songbird, The Living End

Visit her at her website.

Product Details

List Price: $12.99
Paperback: 195 pages
Publisher: NavPress Publishing Group (July 15, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1600062210
ISBN-13: 978-1600062216

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Monday, April 30, 6:00 a.m.

My eyes open. Yes, yes, yes. The greatest man in the entire world

is brewing coffee right here in the TrailMama.

“Dad.”

“Morning, Scotty. The big day.”

“Yep.”

“And this time, you won’t have to drive.”

I throw back the covers on my loft bed and slip down to the dinette of our RV. My dad sleeps on the dinette bed. He’s usually got it turned back into our kitchen table by 5:00 a.m. What can I say? The guy may be just as much in love with cheese as I am, but honestly? Our body clocks are about as different as Liam Neeson and Seth Green.

You know what I mean?

And we have lots of differences.

For one, he’s totally a nonfiction person and I’m fiction all the way. For two, he has no fashion sense whatsoever. And for three, he has way more hope for people at the outset than I do. Man, do I have a lot to learn on that front.

He hands me a mug and I sip the dark liquid. I was roasting coffee beans for a while there, but Dad took the mantle upon himself and he does a better job.

Starbucks Schmarbucks.

He hands me another mug and I head to the back of the TrailMama to wake up Charley. My grandmother looks so sweet in the morning, her frosted, silver-blonde hair fanned out on the pillow. You know, she could pass for an aging mermaid. A really short one, true.

I wave the mug as close as I can to her nose without fear of her rearing up, knocking the mug and burning her face. “Charley . . .” I singsong. “Time to get a move on. Time to get back on the road.”

And boy is this a switch!

All I can say is, your life can be going one way for years and years and then, snap-snap-snap-in-a-Z, it looks like it had major plastic surgery.

Only in reverse. Imagine life just getting more and more real. I like it.

Charley opens her eyes. “Hey, baby. You brought me coffee. You get groovier every day.”

She’s a hippie. What can I say?

And she started drinking coffee again when I ran away last fall in Texas. I mean, I didn’t really run away. I went somewhere with a perfectly good reason for not telling anyone, and I was planning to return as soon as my mission was done.

She scootches up to a sitting position, hair still in a cloud, takes the mug and, with that dazzling smile still on her face (think Kate Hudson) sips the coffee. She sighs.

“I know,” I say. “How did we make it so long without him?”

“Now that he’s with us, I don’t know. But somehow we did, didn’t we, baby? It may not have always been graceful and smooth, but we made it together.”

I rub her shoulder. “Yeah. I guess you could say we pretty much did.”

The engine hums its movin’-on song. “Dad’s ready to pull out. Let’s hit it.”

“Scotland, here we come.”

Scotland? Well, sort of.

An hour later

This has been a great school year. In addition to the online courses I’m taking through Indiana University High School, Dad’s been teaching me and man, is he smart. I’m sure most sixteen-(almost seventeen)-year-olds think their fathers are the smartest guys in the world, but in my case it happens to be true.

Okay, even I have to admit he probably won’t win the Nobel Prize for physics or anything, but he’s street smart and there’s no replacing that sort of thing. Big plus: he knows high school math. We’re both living under the radar. And he’s taken our faux last name. Dawn. He’s now Ezra Fitzgerald Dawn. After Ezra Pound, one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation friends.

I’m just lovin’ that.

“Your mom would have loved the name change, Scotty.”

He told me about his life as an FBI agent, some of the cases he worked on, and well, I’d like to tell you he had a life like Sydney Bristow’s in Alias, but he probably spent most of his time on com-puter work and sitting around on his butt waiting for someone to make a move. The FBI, apparently, prefers to trick people more than corner them in showdowns and shootouts. The Robertsman case was his first time undercover in the field and we know how terribly that worked out for him. And me. And Charley. And Babette, my mother.

I pull out my math book and sit in the passenger seat of the TrailMama. “Ready for some ‘rithmetic, Dad?”

“You bet.” He turns to me and smiles. His smile still makes my heart warm up like a griddle ready to make smiley-face pan-cakes. I flip on my book light.

It’s still dark and we’re headed to Asheville, North Carolina for Charley’s latest shoot. A film about Bonnie Prince Charlie called Charlie’s Lament. How ironic is that? The director, Bartholomew (don’t dare call him Bart) Evans, is a real jerk. I’m not going to be hanging around the set much even though Liam Neeson is Lord George Murray, the voice of reason Prince Charlie refused to listen to. But hey, that’s my history lesson. We’re still on math.

I finish up the last lesson in geometry . . . finally! Honestly, I still don’t understand it without a mammoth amount of help, but the workbook’s filled and that’s a good thing.

There.

I set down my pen. “Finished!”

Dad gives a nod as he continues to look out the windshield. You might guess, despite the tattoos, piercings, and his gleaming bald head, he’s a very careful driver. And he won’t let me drive like Charley did.

“So . . . driver’s license then, right?”

He’s been holding that over my head so I’d finish the math course.

“You know it. After the film, we’ll request your new birth certificate and go from there.”

“What state are we supposedly from?” The FBI has given us a new identity, official papers and all that.

“Wyoming.”

“Are you kidding me? Wyoming? Why?”

“Think about it, honey. Who’s from Wyoming?”

“Lots of people?”

“Know any of them?”

“Uh. No.”

“See?”

“Okay, Wyoming it is, then.”

“You realize you’ll only have my beat-up old black truck to drive around.” The same truck we’re towing behind the TrailMama.

“I’ll take it.”

So here’s the thing. The rest of the entire world thinks my father was shot in the chest and killed when he was outed by a branch of the mob he was after. This mob was financing James Robertsman’s campaign for governor of Maryland.

The guy’s running for president of the United States now.

I kid you not.

Wish I was kidding.

We thought he was after us for several years because Charley knew too much. But then last fall, we found out the guy chasing me was my father, and Robertsman is most likely cocky enough to think he took care of everything he needed. I say that’s quite all right. Although, I have to admit, the fact that a dirtbag like that guy may end up in the Oval Office sickens me to no end.

Thanks to that guy, we had been running in fear from my own father.

The thing is, I could be really mad about all those wasted years, and a portion of me feels that way. But we’ve been given another chance, and I’ll be darned if I throw away these days being angry. There’s too much to be thankful for.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have my surly days. I don’t want Dad and Charley to think they have it as easy as all that!

Okay, time to blog.

Hollywood Nobody: April 30

Let’s cut to the chase, Nobodies!

Today’s Seth News: It’s official. Seth Haas and Karissa Bonano are officially each other’s exclusive main squeeze. The two were seen coming out of a popular LA tattoo parlor with each other’s names on the inside of their forearms. How cliché. And pass the barf bag.

Today’s Violette Dillinger Report: Violette has broken up with Joe Mason of Sweet Margaret. She wanted you all to know that long-distance romances are hard for any couple, but espe-cially for people as young as she is. “Joe needed to live his life. I’m on the road a lot. It wasn’t fair to either of us.” Sounds like she’s definitely not on the road to Britney. I’m just sayin’.

Today’s Rave: Mandy Moore. The girl can really sing! And her latest album is filled with good songs. The bubble gum days of insipid teen heartbreak are over. She’s finally come into her own. (Wish some others would follow her example, but I won’t hold my breath. And man, are we on the theme of bratty stars today or what? Well, there are just so many of them from which to choose!)

Today’s Rant: Crazy expensive celebrity weddings. What? If they spend more, will they be more likely to stay together? I have no idea. Mariah Carey’s $25,000 dress pales in comparison to Catherine Zeta-Jones’s $100,000 gown. What are those things made of?

Today’s Quote: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.” James Dean

A Mile in my Flip-flops

It is July FIRST, time for the FIRST Blog Tour! (Join our alliance! Click the button!) The FIRST day of every month we will feature an author and her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and her book:

A Mile in My Flip-Flops

WaterBrook Press (June 17, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

In sixth grade, Melody Carlson helped start a school newspaper called The BuccaNews (her school’s mascot was a Buccaneer…arrr!). As editor of this paper, she wrote most of the material herself, creating goofy phony bylines to hide the fact that the school newspaper was mostly a “one man” show.

Visit Melody’s website to see all of her wonderful and various book titles.

Don’t miss her latest teen fiction, Stealing Bradford (Carter House Girls, Book 2).

Product Details:

List Price: $13.99

Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: WaterBrook Press (June 17, 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1400073146

ISBN-13: 978-1400073146

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

I’m not the kind of girl who wants anyone to feel sorry for her.

So after my fiancé jilted me less than four weeks before our wedding date, and since the invitations had already been sent, my only recourse was to lie low and wait for everyone to simply forget.

Consequently, I became a recluse. If I wasn’t at work, teaching a delightful class of five-year-olds, who couldn’t care less about my shattered love life, I could be found holed up in my apartment, escaping all unnecessary interaction with “sympathetic” friends.

And that is how I became addicted to HGTV and ice cream. Okay, that probably calls for some explanation. HGTV stands for Home and Garden TV, a network that runs 24/7 and is what I consider the highest form of comfort TV. It is habit forming, albeit slightly mind numbing. And ice cream obviously needs no explanation.

Other than the fact that my dad, bless his heart, had seven quart-sized cartons of Ben & Jerry’s delivered to my apartment the day after Collin dumped me. Appropriately enough, dear old Dad (who knows me better than anyone on the planet) selected a flavor called Chocolate Therapy, a product worthy of its name and just as addictive as HGTV.

But now, eighteen months and twenty-two pounds later, I seem to be in a rut. And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“Come on, Gretchen,” urges my best friend, Holly, from her end of the phone line. “Just come with us–please!”

“Right…,” I mutter as I lick my spoon and dip it back into a freshly opened carton of Chunky Monkey–also appropriately named, but let’s not go there. Anyway, not only had I moved on to new ice cream flavors, but I also had given up using bowls. “Like I want to tag along with the newlyweds. Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Like I keep telling you, we’re not newlyweds anymore,” she insists. “We’ve been married three months now.”

“Yeah…well…”

“And it’s Cinco de Mayo,” she persists, using that little girl voice that I first heard when we became best friends back in third grade. “We always go together.”

I consider this. I want to point out that Holly and I used to always go to the Cinco de Mayo celebration together–as in past tense. And despite her pity for me, or perhaps it’s just some sort of misplaced guilt because she’s married and I am not, I think the days of hanging with my best friend are pretty much over now. The image of Holly and Justin, both good looking enough to be models, strolling around holding hands with frumpy, dumpy me tagging along behind them like their poor, single, reject friend just doesn’t work for me.

“Thanks anyway,” I tell her. “But I’m kind of busy today.”

“So what are you doing then?” I hear the challenge in her voice, like she thinks I don’t have anything to do on a Saturday.

I slump back into the sofa and look over to the muted TV, which is tuned, of course, to HGTV, where my favorite show, House Flippers, is about to begin, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. “I’m, uh…I’ve got lesson plans to do,” I say quickly. This is actually true, although I don’t usually do them until Sunday evening.

She snickers. “Yeah, that’s a good one, Gretch. I’ll bet you’re vegging out in front of HGTV with a carton of Chocolate Fudge Brownie.”

“Wrong.” Okay, Holly is only partially wrong. Fortunately, I haven’t told her about my latest flavor.

“Come on,” she tries again. “It’ll be fun. You can bring Riley along. He’d probably like to stretch his legs.”

I glance over to where my usually hyper, chocolate Lab mixed breed is snoozing on his LL Bean doggy bed with a chewed-up and slightly soggy Cole Haan loafer tucked under his muzzle. “Riley’s napping,” I say. “He doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Like he wouldn’t want to go out and get some fresh air and sunshine?”

“We already had our walk today.”

Holly laughs. “You mean that little shuffle you do over to the itty bitty park across the street from your apartment complex? What’s that take? Like seven and a half minutes for the whole round trip? That’s not enough exercise for a growing dog like Riley.”

“I threw a ball for him to chase.”

“So there’s nothing I can do or say to change your mind?” House Flippers is just starting. “Nope,” I say, trying to end this conversation. “But thanks for thinking of me.”

“Want me to bring you back an empanada?”

“Sure,” I say quickly. “You guys have fun!” Then I hang up and, taking the TV off mute, I lean back into the soft chenille sofa and lose myself while watching a hapless couple from Florida renovate a seriously run-down split-level into something they hope to sell for a profit. Unfortunately, neither of them is terribly clever when it comes to remodeling basics. And their taste in interior design is sadly lacking too. The woman’s favorite color is rose, which she uses liberally throughout the house, and she actually thinks that buyers will appreciate the dated brown tiles and bathroom fixtures in the powder room. By the time the show ends, not only is the house still on the market despite the reduced price and open house, but the couple’s marriage seems to be in real trouble as well.

“Too bad,” I say out loud as I mute the TV for commercials. Riley’s head jerks up, and he looks at me with expectant eyes.

“You just keep being a good boy,” I tell him in a soothing tone. Hopefully, he’ll stretch out this midday nap a bit longer. Because once Riley starts moving, my tiny apartment seems to shrink, first by inches and then by feet.

My hope for an elongated nap crumbles when his tail begins to beat rhythmically on the floor, almost like a warning–thump, thump, thump–and the next thing I know, he’s up and prowling around the cluttered living room. Riley isn’t even full grown yet, and he’s already way too much dog for my apartment. Holly warned me that his breed needed room to romp and play. She tried to talk me into a little dog, like a Yorkie or Chihuahua, but I had fallen for those liquid amber eyes…and did I mention that he’s part chocolate Lab? Since when have I been able to resist chocolate? Besides, he reminded me of a cuddly brown teddy bear. But I hardly considered the fact that he would get bigger.

After he climbed into my lap that day, licking my face and smelling of puppy breath and other things that I knew could be shampooed away, there was no way I could leave him behind at the Humane Society. I already knew that he’d been rejected as a Christmas present. Some dimwitted father had gotten him for toddler twins without consulting Mommy first. Even so, Holly tried to convince me that a good-looking puppy like that would quickly find another home.

But it was too late. I knew Riley was meant for me, and that was that. And I had grandiose ideas of taking him for long walks on the beach. “He’ll help me get in shape,” I assured Holly. She’d long since given up on me going to the fitness club with her, so I think she bought into the whole exercise theory. She also bought Riley his LL Bean deluxe doggy bed, which I could barely wedge into my already crowded apartment and now takes up most of the dining area, even though it’s partially tucked beneath a gorgeous craftsman-style Ethan Allen dining room set. Although it’s hard to tell that it’s gorgeous since it’s pushed up against a wall and covered with boxes of Pottery Barn kitchen items that won’t fit into my limited cabinet space.

“This place is way too small for us,” I say to Riley as I shove the half-full ice cream carton back into the freezer. As if to confirm this, his wagging tail whacks an oversized dried arrangement in a large bronze vase, sending seedpods, leaves, and twigs flying across the carpet and adding to the general atmosphere of chaos and confusion.

My decorating style? Contemporary clutter with a little eclectic disorder thrown in for special effect. Although, to be fair, that’s not the real me. I’m sure the real me could make a real place look like a million bucks. That is, if I had a real place…or a million bucks.

I let out a long sigh as I stand amid my clutter and survey my crowded apartment. It’s been like this for almost two years now.

Overly filled with all the stuff I purchased shortly after Collin proposed to me more than two years ago. Using my meager teacher’s salary and skimpy savings, I started planning the interior décor for our new home. I couldn’t wait to put it all together after the wedding.

“Have you ever heard of wedding presents?” Holly asked me when she first realized what I was doing.

“Of course,” I assured her. “But I can’t expect the guests to provide everything for our home. I figured I might as well get started myself. Look at this great set of espresso cups that I got at Crate & Barrel last weekend for thirty percent off.”

“Well, at least you have good taste,” she admitted as she stooped to admire a hand-tied wool area rug I’d just gotten on sale. Of course, she gasped when she saw the price tag still on it. “Expensive taste too!”

“It’ll last a lifetime,” I assured her, just like the Karastan salesman had assured me. Of course, as it turned out, my entire relationship with Collin didn’t even last two years. Now I’m stuck with a rug that’s too big to fit in this crummy little one-bedroom apartment–the same apartment I’d given Mr. Yamamoto notice on two months before my wedding. It was so humiliating to have to beg to keep it after the wedding was cancelled, but I didn’t know what else to do.

And now, a year and a half later, I’m still here. Stuck. It’s like everyone else has moved on with their lives except me. It wouldn’t be so bad if I had enough room to make myself at home or enough room for Riley to wag his tail without causing mass destruction…or enough room to simply breathe. Maybe I should rent a storage unit for all this stuff. Or maybe I should move myself into a storage unit since it would probably be bigger than this apartment.

As I pick up Riley’s newest mess, I decide the bottom line is that I need to make a decision. Get rid of some things–whether by storage, a yard sale, or charity–or else get more space. I vote for more space. Not that I can afford more space. I’m already strapped as it is.

Kindergarten teachers don’t make a whole lot. I feel like I’ve created a prison for myself. What used to be a convenient hideout now feels like a trap, and these thin walls seem to be closing in on me daily. Feeling hopeless, I flop back onto the couch and ponder my limited options. Then I consider forgetting the whole thing and escaping back into HGTV, which might call for some more ice cream.

But that’s when I look down and notice my thighs spreading out like two very large slabs of ham. Very pale ham, I might add as I tug at my snug shorts to help cover what I don’t want to see, but it’s not working. I stare at my flabby legs in horror. When did this happen?

I stand up now, trying to erase that frightening image of enormous, white thunder thighs. I pace around my apartment a bit before I finally go and stand in front of an oversized mirror that’s leaning against the wall near the front door. This is a beautiful mirror I got half price at World Market, but it belongs in a large home, possibly over a fireplace or in a lovely foyer. And it will probably be broken by Riley’s antics if it remains against this wall much longer.

But instead of admiring the heavy bronze frame of the mirror like I usually do, I actually look into the mirror and am slightly stunned at what I see. Who is that frumpy girl? And who let her into my apartment? I actually used to think I was sort of good looking. Not a babe, mind you, but okay. Today I see a faded girl with disappointed eyes.

Some people, probably encouraged by Holly, a long-legged dazzling brunette, used to say I resembled Nicole Kidman. Although they probably were thinking of when Nicole was heavier and I was lighter. Now it’s a pretty big stretch to see any similarities. To add insult to injury, Nicole has already hit the big “four o,” whereas I am only thirty-two. Her forties might be yesterday’s twenties, but my thirties look more like someone else’s fifties. And I used to take better care of myself. Okay, I was never thin, but I did eat right and got exercise from jogging and rollerblading. Compared to now, I was in great shape. And my long strawberry blond hair, which I thought was my best asset, was usually wavy and fresh looking, although you wouldn’t know that now. It’s unwashed and pulled tightly into a shabby-looking ponytail, which accentuates my pudgy face and pale skin. Even my freckles have faded. It doesn’t help matters that my worn T-shirt (with a peeling logo that proclaims “My Teacher Gets an A+”) is saggy and baggy, and my Old Navy khaki shorts, as I’ve just observed, are too tight, and my rubber flip-flops look like they belong on a homeless person–although I could easily be mistaken for one if I was pushing a shopping cart down the street.

Then, in the midst of this pathetic personal inventory, my focus shifts to all the junk that’s piled behind me–the boxes, the myriad of stuff lining the short, narrow hallway and even spilling into the open door of my tiny bedroom, which can barely contain the queensize bed and bronze bedframe still in the packing box behind it. If it wasn’t so depressing, it would almost be funny. I just shake my head. And then I notice Riley standing strangely still behind me and looking almost as confused as I feel. With his head slightly cocked to one side, he watches me curiously, as if he, too, is afraid to move. This is nuts. Totally certifiable. A girl, or even a dog, could seriously lose it living like this. Or maybe I already have. They say you’re always the last to know that you’ve lost your marbles.

“It’s time for a change,” I announce to Riley. He wags his tail happily now, as if he wholeheartedly agrees. Or maybe he simply thinks I’m offering to take him on a nice, long walk. “We need a real house,” I continue, gathering steam now. “And we need a real yard for you to run and play in.” Of course, this only excites him more.

And that’s when he begins to run about the apartment like a possessed thing, bumping into boxes and furnishings until I finally open the sliding door and send him out to the tiny deck to calm himself.

After he settles down, I go and join him. It’s pretty hot out here, and I notice that the seedling sunflower plants, ones we’d started in the classroom and I’d brought home to nurture along, are now hanging limp and lifeless, tortured by the hot afternoon sun that bakes this little patio. Just one more thing I hate about this place.

So much for my attempt at terrace gardening. I’d seen a show on HGTV that inspired me to turn this little square of cement deck into a real oasis. But in reality it’s simply a barren desert that will only get worse as the summer gets hotter. I feel like I’m on the verge of tears now. It’s hopeless.

This is all wrong. On so many levels. This is not where I was supposed to be at this stage of the game. This is not the life I had planned. I feel like I’ve been robbed or tricked or like someone ripped the rug out from under me. And sometimes in moments like this, I even resent God and question my faith in him. I wonder why he allows things like this to happen. Why does he let innocent people get hurt by the selfishness of others? It just doesn’t make sense. And it’s not fair.

Oh, I’ve tried to convince myself I’m over the fact that my ex fiancé, Collin Fairfield, was a total jerk. And I try not to blame him for being swept away when his high school sweetheart decided, after fifteen years of being apart, that she was truly in love with him. I heard that the revelation came to Selena at the same time she received our engraved wedding invitation, which I did not send to her. She wasn’t even on my list.

And I actually believe that I’ve mostly forgiven Collin…and that sneaky Selena too. And I wish them well, although I didn’t attend their wedding last fall. A girl has to draw the line somewhere.

But all that aside, this is still so wrong. I do not belong in this stuffy little apartment that’s cluttered with my pretty household goods. I belong in a real house. A house with a white picket fence and a lawn and fruit trees in the backyard. And being single shouldn’t mean that I don’t get to have that. There must be some way I can afford a home.

Of course, I’m fully aware that real estate isn’t cheap in El Ocaso. It’s on the news regularly. Our town’s prices certainly aren’t as outrageous as some of the suburbs around San Diego, but they’re not exactly affordable on a teacher’s salary. I try not to remember how much I had in my savings account back before I got engaged and got carried away with spending on my wedding and my home. That pretty much depleted what might’ve gone toward a small down payment on what probably would’ve been a very small house. But, hey, even a small house would be better than this prison-cell apartment.

And that’s when it hits me. And it’s so totally obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. I will become a house flipper! Just like the people on my favorite HGTV show, I will figure out a way to secure a short-term loan, purchase a fixer-upper house, and do the repairs and decorating myself–with my dad’s expert help, of course!

And then, maybe as early as midsummer, I will sell this beautifully renovated house for enough profit to make a good-sized down payment on another house just for me…and Riley. Even if the secondhouse is a fixer-upper too, I can take my time with it, making it just the way I want it. And it’ll be so much better than where I live now.

I’m surprised I didn’t come up with this idea months ago. It’s so totally simple. Totally perfect. And totally me!

“We are going house hunting,” I announce to Riley as I shove open the sliding door and march back inside the apartment. His whole body is wagging with doggy joy as I quickly exchange my too-tight shorts for jeans and then reach for his leather leash and my Dolce & Gabbana knockoff bag–the one I bought to carry on my honeymoon, the honeymoon that never was. I avoid looking at my image in the big mirror as we make a hasty exit.

“Come on, boy,” I say as I hook the leash to his collar at the top of the stairs. “This is going to be fun!” And since this outing is in the spirit of fun, I even put down the top on my VW Bug, something I haven’t done in ages. Riley looks like he’s died and gone to doggy heaven as he rides joyfully in the backseat, his ears flapping in the breeze. Who knows, maybe we’ll find a house for sale on the beach.

Okay, it’d have to be a run-down, ramshackle sort of place that no one but me can see the hidden value in, but it could happen. And while I renovate my soon-to-be wonder house, Riley can be king of the beach. The possibilities seem limitless. And when I stop at the grocery store to pick up real-estate papers, I am impressed with how many listings there are. But I can’t read and drive, so I decide to focus on driving. And since I know this town like the back of my hand, this should be easy.

But thanks to the Cinco de Mayo celebration, the downtown area is crowded, so I start my search on the south end of town, trying to avoid traffic jams. I’m aware that this area is a little pricey for me, but you never know. First, I pull over into a parking lot and read the fliers. I read about several houses for sale, but the prices are staggering.

Even more than I imagined. Also, based on the descriptions and photos, these houses already seem to be in great shape. No fixer-uppers here. Then I notice some condo units for sale, and I can imagine finding a run-down unit in need of a little TLC, but it’s the same situation. According to the fliers, they’re in tiptop, turnkey shape–recently remodeled with granite counters and cherry hardwood floors and new carpeting and prices so high I can’t imagine doing anything that could push them a penny higher. My profit margin and spirits are steadily sinking. Maybe my idea to flip a house has already flopped. Just like the rest of my life.

Excerpted from A Mile in My Flip-Flops by Melody Carlson Copyright © 2008 by Melody Carlson. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dragonlight

It is June FIRST, time for the FIRST Blog Tour! (Join our alliance! Click the button!) The FIRST day of every month we will feature an author and his/her latest book’s FIRST chapter!

The feature author is:

and her book:

DragonLight
WaterBrook Press (June 17, 2008)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Donita K. Paul is a retired teacher and award-winning author of seven novels, including DragonSpell, DragonQuest, DragonKnight, and DragonFire. When not writing, she is often engaged in mentoring writers of all ages. Donita lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado where she is learning to paint–walls and furniture! Visit her website at http://www.dragonkeeper.us.

The Books of the DragonKeeper Series:

DragonSpell
DragonQuest
DragonKnight
DragonFire
DragonLight

Visit her website.

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Castle Passages

Kale wrinkled her nose at the dank air drifting up from the stone staircase. Below, utter darkness created a formidable barrier.

Toopka stood close to her knee. Sparks skittered across the doneel child’s furry hand where she clasped the flowing, soft material of Kale’s wizard robe. Kale frowned down at her ward. The little doneel spent too much time attached to her skirts to be captivated by the light show. Instead, Toopka glowered into the forbidding corridor. “What’s down
there?”

Kale sighed. “I’m not sure.”

“Is it the dungeon?”

“I don’t think we have a dungeon.”

Toopka furrowed her brow in confusion. “Don’t you know? It’s your castle.”

“A castle built by committee.” Kale’s face grimaced at the memory of weeks of creative chaos. She put her hand on Toopka’s soft head.

The doneel dragged her gaze away from the stairway, tilted her head back, and frowned at her guardian. “What’s ‘by committee’?”

“You remember, don’t you? It was just five years ago.”

“I remember the wizards coming and the pretty tents in the meadow.” Toopka pursed her lips. “And shouting. I remember shouting.” “They were shouting because no one was listening. Twenty-one wizards came for the castle raising. Each had their own idea about what we needed. So they each constructed their fragment of the castle structure according to their whims.”

Toopka giggled.

“I don’t think it’s funny. The chunks of castle were erected, juxtaposed with the others, but not as a whole unit. I thank Wulder that at least my parents had some sense. My mother and father connected the tads, bits, and smidgens together with steps and short halls. When nothing else would work, they formed gateways from one portion to another.”

The little doneel laughed out loud and hid her face in Kale’s silky wizard’s robe. Miniature lightning flashes enveloped Toopka’s head and cascaded down her neck, over her back, and onto the floor like a waterfall of sparks.

Kale cut off the flow of energy and placed a hand on the doneel’s shoulder. “Surely you remember this, Toopka.”

She looked up, her face growing serious. “I was very young then.”

Kale narrowed her eyes and examined the child’s innocent face. “As long as I have known you, you’ve appeared to be the same age. Are you ever going to grow up?”

Toopka shrugged, then the typical smile of a doneel spread across her face. Her thin black lips stretched, almost reaching from ear to ear. “I’m growing up as fast as I can, but I don’t think I’m the one in charge. If I were in charge, I would be big enough to have my own dragon, instead of searching for yours.”

The statement pulled Kale back to her original purpose. No doubt she had been manipulated yet again by the tiny doneel, but dropping the subject of Toopka’s age for the time being seemed prudent.

Kale rubbed the top of Toopka’s head. The shorter fur between her ears felt softer than the hair on the child’s arms. Kale always found it soothing to stroke Toopka’s head, and the doneel liked it as well.

Kale let her hand fall to her side and pursued their mission. “Gally and Mince have been missing for a day and a half. We must find them. Taylaminkadot said she heard an odd noise when she came down to the storeroom.” Kale squared her shoulders and took a step down into the dark, dank stairwell. “Gally and Mince may be down here, and they may be in trouble.”

“How can you know who’s missing?” Toopka tugged on Kale’s robe, letting loose a spray of sparkles. “You have hundreds of minor dragons in the castle and more big dragons in the fields.”

“I know.” Kale put her hand in front of her, and a globe of light appeared, resting on her palm. “I’m a Dragon Keeper. I know when any of my dragons have missed a meal or two.” She stepped through the doorway.

Toopka tugged on Kale’s gown. “May I have a light too?”

“Of course.” She handed the globe to the doneel. The light flickered. Kale tapped it, and the glow steadied. She produced another light to sit in her own hand and proceeded down the steps.

Toopka followed, clutching the sparkling cloth of Kale’s robe in one hand and the light in the other. “I think we should take a dozen guards with us.”

“I don’t think there’s anything scary down here, Toopka. After all, as you reminded me, this is our castle, and we certainly haven’t invited anything nasty to live with us.”

“It’s the things that come uninvited that worry me.”

“All right. Just a moment.” Kale turned to face the archway at the top of the stairs, a few steps up from where they stood.

She reached with her mind to the nearest band of minor dragons. Soon chittering dragon voices, a rainbow vision of soft, flapping, leathery wings, and a ripple of excitement swept through her senses. She heard Artross, the leader of this watch, call for his band to mind their manners, listen to orders, and calm themselves.

Kale smiled her greeting as they entered the stairway and circled above her. She turned to Toopka, pleased with her solution, but Toopka scowled. Obviously, the doneel was not impressed with the arrival of a courageous escort.

Kale opened her mouth to inform Toopka that a watch of dragons provides sentries, scouts, and fighters. And Bardon had seen to their training. But the doneel child knew this.

Each watch formed without a Dragon Keeper’s instigation. Usually eleven to fifteen minor dragons developed camaraderie, and a leader emerged. A social structure developed within each watch. Kale marveled at the process. Even though she didn’t always understand the choices, she did nothing to alter the natural way of establishing the hierarchy and respectfully worked with what was in place.

Artross, a milky white dragon who glowed in the dark, had caught Kale’s affections. She sent a warm greeting to the serious-minded leader and received a curt acknowledgment. The straight-laced young dragon with his tiny, mottled white body tickled her. Although they didn’t look alike in the least, Artross’s behavior reminded Kale of her husband’s personality.

Kale nodded at Toopka and winked. “Now we have defenders.”

“I think,” said the doneel, letting go of Kale’s robe and stepping down a stair, “it would be better if they were bigger and carried swords.”

Kale smiled as one of the younger dragons landed on her shoulder. He pushed his violet head against her chin, rubbing with soft scales circling between small bumps that looked like stunted horns. Toopka skipped ahead with the other minor dragons flying just above her head.

“Hello, Crain,” said Kale, using a fingertip to stroke his pink belly. She’d been at his hatching a week before. The little dragon chirred his contentment. “With your love of learning, I’m surprised you’re not in the library with Librettowit.”

A scene emerged in Kale’s mind from the small dragon’s thoughts. She hid a smile. “I’m sorry you got thrown out, but you must not bring your snacks into Librettowit’s reading rooms. A tumanhofer usually likes a morsel of food to tide him over, but not when the treat threatens to smudge the pages of his precious books.” She felt the small beast shudder at the memory of the librarian’s angry voice. “It’s all right, Crain. He’ll forgive you and let you come back into his bookish sanctum. And he’ll delight in helping you find all sorts of wonderful facts.”

Toopka came scurrying back. She’d deserted her lead position in the company of intrepid dragons. The tiny doneel dodged behind Kale and once more clutched the sparkling robe. Kale shifted her attention to a commotion ahead and sought out the thoughts of the leader Artross. “What’s wrong?” asked Kale, but her answer came as she tuned in to the leader of the dragon watch.

Artross trilled orders to his subordinates. Kale saw the enemy through the eyes of this friend.

An anvilhead snake slid over the stone floor of a room stacked high with large kegs. His long black body stretched out from a nook between two barrels. With the tail of the serpent hidden, she had no way of knowing its size. These reptiles’ heads outweighed their bodies. The muscled section behind the base of the jaws could be as much as six inches wide. But the length of the snake could be from three feet to thirty.

Kale shuddered but took another step down the passage.

Artross looked around the room and spotted another section of ropelike body against the opposite wall. Kegs hid most of the snake.

Kale grimaced. Another snake? Or the end of the one threatening my dragons?

The viper’s heavy head advanced, and the distant portion moved with the same speed.

One snake.

“Toopka, stay here,” she ordered and ran down the remaining steps. She tossed the globe from her right hand to her left and pulled her sword from its hiding place beneath her robe. Nothing appeared to be in her hand, but Kale felt the leather-bound hilt secure in her grip. The old sword had been given to her by her mother, and Kale knew
how to use the invisible blade with deadly precision.

“Don’t let him get away,” she called as she increased her speed through the narrow corridor.

The wizard robe dissolved as she rushed to join her guard. Her long dress of azure and plum reformed itself into leggings and a tunic. The color drained away and returned as a pink that would rival a stunning sunset. When she reached the cold, dark room, she cast her globe into the air. Floating in the middle of the room, it tripled in size and gave off a brighter light.

The dragons circled above the snake, spitting their caustic saliva with great accuracy. Kale’s skin crawled at the sight of the coiling reptile. More and more of the serpentine body emerged from the shadowy protection of the stacked kegs. Obviously, the snake did not fear these intruders.

Even covered with splotches of brightly colored spit, the creature looked like the loathsome killer it was. Kale’s two missing dragons could have been dinner for the serpent. She searched the room with the talent Wulder had bestowed upon her and concluded the little ones still lived.

The reptile hissed at her, raised its massive head, and swayed in a threatening posture. The creature slithered toward her, propelled by the elongated body still on the floor. Just out of reach of Kale’s sword, the beast stopped, pulled its head back for the strike, and let out a slow, menacing hiss. The snake lunged, and Kale swung her invisible weapon. The severed head sailed across the room and slammed against the stone wall.

Kale eyed the writhing body for a moment. “You won’t be eating any more small animals.” She turned her attention to the missing dragons and pointed her sword hand at a barrel at the top of one stack. “There. Gally and Mince are in that keg.”

Several dragons landed on the wooden staves, and a brown dragon examined the cask to determine how best to open it. Toopka ran into the room and over to the barrel. “I’ll help.”

Kale tilted her head. “There is also a nest of snake eggs.” She consulted the dragon most likely to know facts about anvilhead vipers. Crain landed on her shoulder and poured out all he knew in a combination of chittering and thoughts.

The odd reptiles preferred eating young farm animals, grain, and feed. They did nothing to combat the population of rats, insects, and vermin. No farmer allowed the snakes on his property if he could help it. “Find the nest,” Kale ordered. “Destroy them all.”

The watch of dragons took flight again, zooming into lightrockilluminated passages leading off from this central room. Kale waited until a small group raised an alarm. Four minor dragons had found the nest.

She plunged down a dim passage, sending a plume of light ahead and calling for the dispersed dragons to join her. Eleven came from the other corridors, and nine flew in a V formation in front of her. Gally and Mince landed on her shoulders.

“You’re all right. I’m so glad.”

They scooted next to her neck, shivering. From their minds she deciphered the details of their ordeal. A game of hide-and-seek had led them into the depths of the castle. When the snake surprised them, they’d flown under the off-center lid of the barrel. As Mince dove into the narrow opening, he knocked the top just enough for it to rattle down into place. This successfully kept the serpent out, but also trapped them within.

Kale offered sympathy, and they cuddled against her, rubbing their heads on her chin as she whisked through the underground tunnel in pursuit of the other dragons.

Numerous rooms jutted off the main hallway, each stacked with boxes, crates, barrels, and huge burlap bags. Kale had no idea this vast amount of storage lay beneath the castle. Taylaminkadot, their efficient housekeeper and wife to Librettowit, probably had a tally sheet listing each item. Kale and the dragons passed rooms that contained fewer and fewer supplies until the stores dwindled to nothing.

How long does this hallway continue on? She slowed to creep along and tiptoed over the stone floor, noticing the rougher texture under her feet. Approaching a corner, she detected the four minor dragons destroying the snake’s nest in the next room. Her escort of flying dragons veered off into the room, and she followed. The small dragons swooped over the nest, grabbed an egg, then flew to the beamed roof of the storage room. They hurled the eggs to the floor, and most broke open on contact. Some had more rubbery shells, a sign that they would soon hatch. The minor dragons attacked these eggs with tooth and claw. Once each shell gave way, the content was pulled out and examined. No
hatchling snake survived.

The smell alone halted Kale in her tracks and sent her back a pace. She screwed up her face, but no amount of pinching her nose muscles cut off the odor of raw eggs and the bodies of unborn snakes. She produced a square of moonbeam material from her pocket and covered the lower half of her face. The properties of the handkerchief filtered the unpleasant aroma.

Her gaze fell on the scene of annihilation. Usually, Kale found infant animals to be endearing, attractive in a gangly way. But the small snake bodies looked more like huge blackened worms than babies.

Toopka raced up behind her and came to a skidding stop when she reached the doorway. “Ew!” She buried her face in the hem of Kale’s tunic, then peeked out with her nose still covered.

The minor dragons continued to destroy the huge nest. Kale estimated over a hundred snake eggs must have been deposited in the old shallow basket. The woven edges sagged where the weight of the female snake had broken the reeds. Kale shuddered at the thought of all those snakes hatching and occupying the lowest level of the castle, her home. The urge to be above ground, in the light, and with her loved ones compelled her out of the room.

Good work, she commended the dragons as she backed into the passage. Artross, be sure that no egg is left unshattered.

She received his assurance, thanked him, then turned about and ran. She must find Bardon.

“Wait for me!” Toopka called. Her tiny, booted feet pounded the stone floor in a frantic effort to catch up.