Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Final Death Knell

“Rory? Rory Langely?” Scarlett’s voice rose in her panic.  She pushed through the growing crowd in the lobby, her shrill voice cutting through the other residents’ gossipy whispers. Her light blue bathrobe flapped around her pale ankles as Scarlett’s quick strides lengthened, her target in sight: the flashing ambulance parked outside of the Victorian’s glass front door.
            Shit. Within seconds, Scarlett was outside, face-to-face with a paramedic in a dark blue uniform.
“Who are you treating?” She demanded. “What happened?”
The paramedic flinched, but grasped his courage and stood firm. “Um, I can’t tell you that, ma’am. Patient confidentiality.”
Scarlett flapped her hands at him, disgusted with his lack of forthrightness. “Like hell you can’t. Is it Rory with you? Rory Langely? What happened to her?! She’s my friend!”
Mr. Silent Paramedic took a wary step back from Scarlett’s waving arms, but still kept mum.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Sorry would be giving me some information on how MY FRIEND is doing!” Scarlett stomped her foot, helplessness and fear making themselves known as anger.
            There came a light tap on right shoulder, and Scarlett spun around, ready for a fight. Instead, she looked down in the dim street light at unassuming Baker Shefield, who had worry lines creasing his forehead.
“I found Rory passed out,” Baker told her. “Her dog, Peter, was barking like crazy, so I knew something was wrong. But they –” he nodded towards the paramedics, “checked her out and couldn’t find anything amiss. She was feeling fine after, so she just hoofed off with Peter for a walk.” He was determined. “I’m going after her.”
As he turned away, it was Scarlett’s turn to touch Baker on the shoulder. He locked eyes with her and raised an eyebrow, quizzical.
“Thanks, Baker. For telling me. And for checking on her.”
He shrugged, walking away, and called over his shoulder, “You’re welcome. Rory’s a good person; not many people know or care. I figured if you did, you couldn’t be too bad.”

            Scarlett knew exactly how kind Rory was. She hadn’t been able to get an interview with her for the book – Rory was too shy, too embarrassed, too reticent – up until a couple of months ago, when Rory’s transformation had flipped Scarlett on her red head.  In a good way. 
All the amazing, exotic places she and Peter were traveling to, her newfound outgoingness on her job, her continued struggle with panic attacks…Rory had quietly, hesistatingly told it all to Scarlett, and Scarlett liked to think they’d formed a sort of bond.
            Man, is Rory Langely one fierce, brave powerhouse in one tiny body.
Suddenly there was a loud commotion, knocking Scarlett right out of her reverie.
            Tires squealed and glass shattered. The sounds of an accident rent the night in two.
“What the hell?”
“Where did that come from?”
“What was that?”
“Do you think everybody’s okay?”
Curious hubbub spilled out the Victorian’s doors like oil as the crowd of gossipy spectators followed the sounds in search of a new sensation.
            Scarlett didn’t stop to think. She took off, bathrobe streaming behind her and slippers flip-flapping against the pavement as she raced towards the source of pandemonium. Behind her, she heard the screech of the ambulance’s siren as the paramedics hopped towards their next trauma scene.  But she was going to get there first. 
            Zeroed in on her goal, Scarlett didn’t pay much attention to a blur that sped by her, headed in the opposite direction.  But the blur’s – Baker’s – next words made her stop cold.
No. No no no no no no no!!
Scarlett’s legs and heartbeat accelerated simultaneously, fear for two of her friends rushing ice-cold adrenaline through her system. When she arrived on the scene, it was pure devastation.
            A car had spun out on the side of the road, dark tire marks and shattered glass marking its deadly trajectory.  A lone figure slumped over the driver’s wheel. No one else could be found.
            “JENN!” Scarlet screamed. She wrenched open the car door and gathered her best friend in her arms, sobbing as she felt for a pulse. Blood from Jenn’s head wound soaked her shirt as Scarlett grimly pressed her fingers to Jenn’s neck, nearly collapsing in relief as a faint thud-thud pulsed underneath her fingers.
“Oh, Jenn…” Scarlett cried. Jenn’s eyes weakly fluttered open.
“Scar...lett? ….Hit Rory…help Rory…'ain...bow River…”
            Scarlett didn’t want to leave Jenn, but she was alive, and the paramedics’ siren was getting closer. Rory needed to be found ASAP. If she’s unconscious in the river, it might already be too late.
            Gently letting go of Jenn, Scarlett left the car door open and sprinted down the noxious river’s bank. She frantically scanned its depths. Please, please……there. A flash of dark brown hair had surfaced, quickly moving downstream in the current. Scarlett sprinted down the river bank, gaining ground on what she was now sure was Rory. 
            Scarlett launched herself into the depths of the Rainbow River. And for the first time in years, she prayed.
            Please, don’t let it be too late.
It was. 
            Fifteen minutes later, after Scarlett had given rescued Rory to the paramedics for CPR and defibrillation, Rory Langely was pronounced dead at the scene.
            Scarlett wanted to cry, wanted to mourn her friend like she deserved, but her soul was strangely empty. She turned away from the site of heartbreak and destruction and trudged towards the police station. 
            It was time to focus on the living.
And maybe, when she didn’t feel so empty inside, she could finish the book and publish it in Rory’s honor.  So everyone could know how amazing she was.

            In the meantime, there was work to do. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Deal with the Devil

Scarlett snapped the last branch in two, put it in the lawn bag, and then rubbed her aching back.  Ahh, sweet relief.  There were enough knots back there to tie every rope in the Coast Guard fleet.

            Glancing up from her stretch, Scarlett caught the glint of light off of peroxide blond hair.  There was only one person she knew who had hair that shade. She groaned.  Anica Mathews, Southern Living, Scarlett mocked internally. Usually she was accompanied by at least one obedient, worshipful photographer and journalist each. …Found them!
            Smothering her deep instinct to duck and run, Scarlett marched over the newly-clear, bright green park lawn to Anica.

            “Anica Mathews.” Scarlett stood ramrod straight in front of the SL editor.
            “Yes?” Anica looked around for the source of the voice, curious. When her eyes locked on Scarlett’s, a smirk flitted over her face. “Oh, Scarlett, my dear! It’s been such a long time! You must tell me – how have you been?”
Scarlett ignored her saccharine posturing.  “I have a deal for you.”
Anica’s eyebrows rose, and her pale blue eyes narrowed.  “Oh?” She gestured subtly for the spellbound journalist to start taking notes. “And what might that be?”
            “I give you the Southern Living feature you want, the way you want it. No limits. Provided everything printed is true, of course.” Scarlett couldn’t resist that little jab.
            Anica cocked her head, reminiscent of a falcon pinpointing its kill.  Her hands rose to her hips. “And what do you get out of it?”
Anica rocked back on her heels, caught off-guard. “What?” Slipped out involuntarily.
Scarlett, sensing her weakness, moved in for the clinching blow. “I give you the feature you desperately want. You use your publishing connections to help me publish and promote my book. Easy-peasy. A win-win.”
            “A win-win,” Anica echoed. “But wait. Your book? If it’s crap, it won’t get published.” She eyed Scarlett up and down. “There’s nothing even I can do about that.”
            “It’s not crap,” Scarlett volleyed back confidently. “Do you remember that feature you did on this town as part of your story 6 Southern Towns Making a Comeback? You didn’t get the material you wanted because you focused on the wrong part of our…” she paused, “‘…charming city life.’”
            The photographer and journalist took a step forward, unsure if they were protecting Scarlett or restraining Anica in the imminent explosion that would follow such provocation. Their boss inhaled heavily through her nose, a red flush suffusing her cheeks.  But to their incredulousness, she held it together.
Anica spoke through clenched teeth. “And what is the correct part to focus on, according to you?”
            “Not our horrible restaurant offerings. Or our dead night life.  Or our dilapidated architecture.
Instead: the people. They’re complicated and crazy enough to write a book about. Which is exactly what I did.”
            Anica forgot her indignation in her surprise and sudden interest. “Well, Miss White…you have yourself a deal.” She stuck her hand out and Scarlett shook it firmly, only to be blinded by a sudden flash.

            “Say cheese!” The obnoxious, peppy photographer beamed.
            “Great! We’ll be in touch!” Scarlett followed her instincts this time and hightailed it out of there as fast as she could.
Only when she was on the other side of Howell Park, finally pristine after a day’s worth of whole-town clean-up efforts, did she relax.

So this is what a deal with the devil feels like.  Scarlett shook her head, then jumped as her phone rang.
            “Scarlett White, hello?”
“Hey, Scarlett? Yeah, sorry I was such a pill this morning.  Anyway, you wanna go with me to see the Little Mermaid in the park tonight?”
Now that she said it, Scarlett fuzzily remembered a tetchy Jenn in the pre-dawn hallway this morning.
            “Eh, no problem.  But yeah, I’ve here all day for the clean-up.  Might as well stay for a little Disney to brighten up my night.”
Scarlett began howling off-pitch, “Under the sea, under the sea…”
Jenn yelped. “Hanging up now!”
Scarlett collapsed into laughter.  Jenn should really know by now that I sing like a skinned cat.

She’d tell her about the unofficial book deal when Jenn arrived.  That would garner a happy explosion. If there were such things. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Flash of Inspiration

Lightning flashed, illuminating Scarlett’s living room.  Snick-BOOM – thunder followed it like a best friend.  Her windows rattled, and a few books fell off of the multitudinous shelves, bouncing around.  Scarlett slowly raised her head from her place on the couch at the commotion, eyes bleary.  Tissues were scattered all around her green velvet sofa, on top of the handmade, patchwork quilt in which she’d burrowed herself.  A half-empty bottle of cold medicine tilted on the edge of her chestnut side table, just within reach.  She hadn’t moved from her burrito place on the couch in three days except for bathroom breaks, and she wasn’t planning on changing that anytime soon.  It took too much effort for her overtired, sick body.

            Unfortunately, the universe had other plans. A knock sounded at the door.

“Scarlett? Are you okay in there?” Jenn’s concerned voice floated through the room. 

“Ungh,” Scarlett groaned quietly.

“Scarlett? Scarlett! If you don’t answer in ten seconds I’ll pick your lock!”

But sick as she was, Scarlett couldn’t react that fast – and anyway, she was more concerned with Jenn’s newly revealed skill set.  “She…can pick locks? …Where did she learn that?” Scarlett murmured to herself.

“Alright, I’m coming in!” Jenn announced just as the door popped open. “Oh honey, you look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Scarlett attempted sarcasm.

“Alright. I usually only deal with sick pets, but you can’t be that different…” Jenn pondered.  “Up off the sofa you go – some fresh air and nutritious food will do you good. Let’s go out and eat!”

Scarlett glared and pulled the quilt up farther over her nose. “No.”

“You’re sick. That’s not half as intimidating as you think it is,” Jenn sing-songed.

“Exactly. I’m sick. People with the flu don’t go out in raging thunderstorms.” She tried to roll her eyes, but all it did was make her headache worse. So Scarlett settled for muttering, “Do you kill all the sick animals you work with?”

As if to prove her point, lightning flashed again, far too close for comfort, bouncing eerily off of Jenn’s eyes.  Out Scarlett’s window, a fire started to smolder where the bolt had struck.

“And just for that, you’re coming with me.” Jenn bent down from her position standing next to the sofa, wrapped her arms around burrito Scarlett, and hauled her over her shoulder to the bedroom despite Scarlett’s angry struggles.  Once there, she pelted clothes at Scarlett, playfully harassing her to get dressed.

“Seriously? You have literary quote pajamas? And all of your clothes are either neon sports apparel or have books on them.  You have no fashion sense.  Did you have any friends as a kid?”

Scarlett, who had reluctantly been chuckling along despite her inflamed throat’s protests, sobered instantly at that last question.

“No. Now get out.”

Jenn looked taken aback.  A shadow passed across her face, but she didn’t take offense. To Scarlett, it was almost like she knew better.  Could she know…?

“Fine. But once you’re dressed, holler. You’re not getting out of dinner with me.”

It was only when they were in the foyer of the Steak House Buffet, soaked to the bone – you’d think in this torrential rain they would’ve remembered umbrellas – that Jenn brought it up again. 

“I didn’t, either.”

“You didn’t what?”

“Have many friends.  Grew up on a farm.  Is that why you read?”

Scarlett considered Jenn for a moment, serious. “Yeah.  Learned to love it.  Books never pretended to be something they weren’t; they always told the stories as they were.”

“So that’s why you became an English teacher?”

“Partially.” A neon flash caught Scarlett’s eye through the doorway. “Wha– is that a jukebox?”

Jenn chuckled.  “Yeah. It’s one of the reasons I love coming here. It’s never busy – I don’t know how they stay open – and the music choices are your own.”

They strode through the dark, wooden restaurant to the antique box together and peered over the selections. Jenn dropped a few quarters in and the gestured towards Scarlett.

“Pick your poison.” After a few careful moments of deliberation, the opening strains of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire came on, tinny over the loudspeakers.

Having gotten their steak, salads, and baked potatoes from the buffet, Jenn and Scarlett relaxed in a booth.

“It’s surprisingly good. But I don’t think I can eat all of this,” Scarlett said around a mouthful, chewing slowly. “You know, Jenn, Ring of Fire reminds me of teaching – it’s a love-hate relationship.” She shook her head.

“So you teach…but you don’t like it?” Jenn asked, brow wrinkled.

“Yup.” Scarlett tried to pop the p, tiring quickly – she was still sick.

“So why don’t you do something else? I don’t know you that well yet, but even I can see that you love to read and write. You have a knack for getting people to tell you their stories – and you don’t judge them.  Our town is kooky enough – why don’t you gather people’s tales and write a book of short stories?”

Scarlett’s bleary eyes brightened as she thought about it. “Jenn, you are a genius! I could kiss you!”
“Please don’t. I don’t want the flu.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Precariously balancing wobbling coffee and a blueberry muffin in one pale hand, Scarlett reached for the sliding glass door handle.  She yanked hard, too impatient to deal with the normally-stubborn obstacle it presented to breakfast outside.  But ever the contrarian, her glass door popped free easily, slamming into the frame and knocking Scarlett forward. 

            She looked down at her now-dripping, coffee-soaked shirt and griped aloud.  “Are you freaking kidding me? My favorite one? Jesus. And I was hoping to wear this to the meeting with the editor today, too. Damn.” Scarlett stripped off her “thick thighs x thin patience” t-shirt and stalked back through the now-open sliding glass door, dropping the ruined shirt in her laundry basket while glaring at the inanimate object that’d caused her early-morning grief.

            As she stepped back out to observe the unusually colorful city today – amazingly, there are flowers growing and the Rainbow River is noxiously living up to its name – she trod on an envelope that’d been wedged underneath her devilish door.  “Scarlett” was the only address on the unassuming white paper, now dusty with her footprint. What is this? And how did somebody get it up here? Ooh, a mystery! But despite her best detective efforts – which were admittedly rather dismal – she could see no sign of how the envelope came to be underneath her seventh-floor balcony door.  Momentarily thwarted, Scarlett opened the envelope to find just two sentences inside, cut out from blocky newspaper letters:

            “Meet me at the Eerie St. abandoned observatory at 11:02. Don’t be late or else.”

“Huh. Creepy.” Scarlett pondered aloud to herself.  But her curiosity had been awakened, and it had always been one of her cardinal sins.  (Or at least her mother said so.) “Let’s go!” She charged out the door and got halfway down the hallway, greeting a passing Jenn Sonyac cheerily before Jenn’s raised eyebrow and hesitant hello told her something was wrong. “Wha-?” Scarlett looked down at herself, realizing quickly that she’d forgotten to put another shirt back on. With her blindingly neon yellow sports bra, it was rather hard to miss. “Whoops,” Scarlett grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Jenn!”

            Now properly attired, Scarlett strode down 45th Street towards Eerie Street.  Spotting an interesting-looking speck in the distance and hearing some shouting, she broke into a light jog.        “Oh! Pope Michael! Good morning, sir!” She interrupted his argument with the angry pedestrian he was trying to force into his rickety portable confessional – so that’s what the shouting was.  The old man spun around, surprised, and lost his balance, sitting down hard on the curb. The pedestrian quickly escaped, encouraged by Scarlett’s less-than-subtle hand motions, as Scarlett checked on the Pope.  She crouched down just as he began to stand up and they smacked heads, sending them both stumbling and groaning off in different directions. 

            “Shit! Fu – um, fudge!” Scarlett couldn’t hold it in. That’s the third incident today. The way everything’s going, I’ll probably leave this creepy meeting in a body bag. Darn; I really wanted to finish that book about those Timbuktu smugglers.

            “Young lady,” Pope Michael scolded when he’d regained his equilibrium, “even your tongue has a red-headed temper. Now into the confessional with you.” He held the wooden door open expectantly, staring at Scarlett. Rolling her eyes, Scarlett decided to humor him. She fit her lanky body into the tight space, breathing in the stale air and trying not to cough. 

            “What sins do you wish to confess to our Lord God Almighty?” Came an otherworldly voice from the other side. Wow. He’s actually pretty good at this theatrical stuff, Scarlett mused.

            “I’ve been told I curse too much.  Oh, and I took the Lord’s name in vain earlier today.  And…I’m a pretty judgmental person. Quick to anger, no patience.  It’s partially the redhead in me, partially just my personality. So, yeah. Any forgiveness?” There was a whole laundry list of more sins that she could recount, but Scarlett didn’t really want sweet Pope Michael knowing all of that.

            “Your sins have been washed clean by the Lord.”

Scarlett popped out of the confessional and beamed. “Great! Now I’ve really gotta go, thanks!” She pressed a twenty – her Catholic “indulgences,” to help with Pope Michael’s groceries – into his hand and jogged away, humming.

            Scarlett got to the abandoned observatory early and poked around a bit, peering through the broken-down telescope at the top.  When she swung it around, a hugely magnified eye stared at her through the other end. “Ahh!” Scarlett jumped back.  Wait- she recognized that woman... “Anica Mathews? Southern Living editor? I thought we were meeting at Connie’s Coffee to discuss my letter! What in the world are you doing here?”

Anica waved her hand airily. “Change of plans, darling. This is just such the perfect place to shoot. I’ve already got my minions setting everything up!” Sure enough, dozens of Southern Living employees were scurrying around, preparing the dilapidated building for a photoshoot.

“Now let’s just get you to hair and makeup, Scarlett.”

“What? No! My letter was about NOT wanting to be featured in the magazine, not suggesting it happen more! Ugh!” Scarlett stormed off, throwing her hands up and tossing an emphatic, “I’m LEAVING!” over her shoulder.

Anica Mathews leaned in to her head photographer. “Capture that. It’ll be our next feature.”