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My freshman year of college, I was assigned to read Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, in an English class. We had a brief lecture on it – the professor obviously didn’t like the book, and as I had not gotten my hands on a copy yet and there were not going to be any assignments, I didn’t read it. I gathered there was a scene about a ‘red room’ that was supposed to be scary. That was all I knew.
Fast forward a few years, when I was well out of college and no longer cramming down long reading lists of material, had seen a mediocre film version, and had learned to love Pride and Prejudice, I actually read the book.
It was a transformative experience.
(Spell check is telling me transformative is not a word, but I already looked it up, and Oxford Dictionary says it is, and means what I mean. Spell check loses this round.)
Oh, how I relished that book. I read it over, and over, and over again. I was carrying my first child, (and after that, nursing him), and camped out on the couch a lot. I thought I was done reading it; I could read something else. But the bookcase was next to the couch, and the book was conveniently stored right there – and picking it up again was always so inviting.
The language! The dialogue! The emotion! It just kept working for me.
I moved on to other 19th century British classics – things like Middlemarch and Dr. Thorne and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I love so many of them – they are like old friends now. I can’t imagine my life without these books.
But to be honest, I used to feel a little silly about this obsession with 19th century England. Why spend so much time on these books? There’s real life happening out there, and I’m just reading this old, wordy tome that I’ve read dozens of times before. I recall looking up a graduate studies program in 19th century British literature – because I felt obscurely that I ought to do something with this passionate love for Bronte and her contemporaries. But does one really need another critical essay on Bronte? I think there are probably enough of them already.
It wasn’t until I actually started writing a real novel that I began to understand what I had been doing. I had been soaking – in language, in plot, in style, in detail. I wrote a contemporary novel. Sometimes my characters started talking like they were in Austenland, and I had to get them back out again. But I had to start with a familiar world, and reading and re-reading some of the most enduring plots in English literature gave me the tools to actually shape a story.
I wrote two more novels, (Two of these are self-published – the third is still hanging out on Google Docs, in need of some love to get it out into the world.) I had also been reading Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey and some of Alexander McCall Smith’s books. And then I read P. D. James book, Death Comes to Pemberley, a mystery based on Pride and Prejudice.
Then I had an idea.
I knew Jane Eyre. I loved Jane Eyre. I had been drinking in the diction and style of the time period for years, for the pure joy of it all. I had loved mysteries ever since I devoured a watered down Reader’s Digest version of Sherlock Holmes in high school. (One must start somewhere.) I needed a change in my writing life, so I tried my hand at a first chapter and shared it with my husband. He said it was good. (And he never really likes my stuff. He’d rather be reading about wizards or frigates. Bless him.) I wrote about four chapters – and fizzled. I was tired; I have a lot of kids; it was hard to concentrate. But I felt I had something, so I posted what I had on fanfiction.net. https://www.fanfiction.net/s/12303773/1/Mrs-Rochester-Mystery-Hour-of-Fatality I got a handful of positive comments! I was getting page views! It was enough to keep me writing.
It’s been a busy couple of years. I’m finding it tricky to keep track of the sequence of events at this point, but I’m fairly certain our family has grown by two more children since I started this book. Finding the mental space to develop 1) a novel, 2) a historical novel, and 3) a mystery novel, (really, what was I thinking?) has been a challenge. But this week, I finished writing the last chapter. (If you are looking for it on fanfiction, I haven’t posted it yet. It’s not quite typed up. But it’s on paper, which is kind of the big thing on my end.)
I was so excited to be finally, FINALLY, done with the rough draft of this book! There were so many times when I thought I would never get here!
And now I’m kind of sad about it.
But if nothing else, I am glad, that the many, many hours I have spent living and re-living Jane’s fictional life, actually led me to something. And it was something that I could share with other people, and they could enjoy it too. I hope to publish this book someday, somehow. I hope lots and lots of people read it. But I was thinking the other day – suppose I do publish it, and a handful of sweet, kind-hearted readers leave some middling reviews, and nothing much else happens. Am I still glad I wrote it? That I made the vision for this book into a reality?
Yes, yes I am. As Charlotte Bronte herself wrote,
“I have a rosy sky and a green flower Eden in my brain; but without, I am perfectly aware, lies at my feet a rough track to travel.”
I’m grateful to have both her flowery Eden, and my own. It makes the rough track a little easier.
There was a time, over a decade ago now, when I disliked love stories, and regarded romantic scenes and in particular, kisses, with cynical scorn. To be honest I still feel a little funny about them, even if I do sometimes like them. But since it is Valentine’s day, that routine bathos of giddy romance, here are what I think are the very best kiss scenes from Charlotte Bronte’s novels.
From Shirley, Robert Moore To Caroline Helstone:
She mutely offered a kiss—an offer taken unfair advantage of, to the extortion of about a hundred kisses.
From The Professor, William Crimsworth and Frances Henri:
“You speak God’s truth,” said I at last, “and you shall have your own way, for it is the best way. Now, as a reward for such ready consent, give me a voluntary kiss.”
After some hesitation, natural to a novice in the art of kissing, she brought her lips into very shy and gentle contact with my forehead; I took the small gift as a loan, and repaid it promptly, and with generous interest.
I don’t think Villette actually contains any kissing, so I went with the closest equivalent, when Lucy Snowe learns that Paul Emmanuel does, in fact, like the way she looks.
“Ah! I am not pleasant to look at——?”
I could not help saying this; the words came unbidden: I never remember the time when I had not a haunting dread of what might be the degree of my outward deficiency; this dread pressed me at the moment with special force.
He stopped, and gave me a short, strong answer; an answer which silenced, subdued, yet profoundly satisfied. Ever after that I knew what I was for him; and what I might be for the rest of the world, I ceased painfully to care.
And, of course, from Jane Eyre
It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
“As we are!” repeated Mr. Rochester—“so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms. Gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!”
Happy Valentine’s Day.
“At dead of night!” I muttered. Yes, that was ever the hour of fatality at Thornfield.
– Jane Eyre
I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. I followed the road on foot as it wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The noble building loomed high above me at the end of the road. The battlements on the roof looked black against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.
I had run from this house once, with misery and fear as my companions, nay, my pursuers. With swift steps, I sought Mr. Rochester here once more; the man who had offered marriage to such a one as I. Poor and plain as I was, he had begged me to marry him. I had worked as a hireling in his house, as the governess; a mere shadow in a great man’s household! And I had been chosen by him, whose company and conversation I held more precious than life. Had I ever known a day’s true happiness until that moment? When Edward Fairfax Rochester deigned to call me his future bride? My joys had been little more than the hard crusts and stray crumbs of happiness; dull, cold morsels to solace a drear and lonely dependence. Behind these blind walls, beneath these mute window panes, I had been loved, wholly and completely, by one I had adored.
And he had deceived me.
I reached the pavement near the door. It, too was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that enshrined the dark hall. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?
(Is it not singular, Reader, that I would search for one who had trespassed on confidence? who had violated trust? Mr. Rochester had wrought such an impression on my life, had so captivated my senses, enlightened my mind, filled me with with such assurance of his love that I could feel myself so deeply bound to no one else. I loved him, entirely, and could have no rest in this life without some assurance of his well-being.)
I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from the room. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.
A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room door like a mist creeping along the ceiling. I felt an urgency to be within the room, yet trembling arrested my step. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and crept to the door – a wreath of flames embroiled the room and heated my face. The brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in fire.
A shadowy form seemed to inhabit the chair, senseless and still.
“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!” But a different form approached me from the fiery furnace, hauntingly familiar in its ghastly shape.
The flame did not touch her, yet her dark hair moved and lifted in the heat. Bertha Mason, black and menacing against the crimson light, barred the way. Her eyes burned, too, with a blue flame in their depths. It was her, Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he had hid from my knowledge. In her madness, she raved and flung herself upon me, keeping me from my master…
“I am here, Jane, I am here.”
His voice dispelled the flames; his hand cooled my burning forehead. It was dark in the room, with the bright face of a full moon a-glow in the window. The smell of camphor and burnt vinegar pervaded the air; so familiar to me, but I could not determine why it should be so. I struggled against the sheets; they confined me.
“Mr. Rochester,” I called, but feebly. I felt such a weakness in my limbs that I could scarcely move. Someone brought water to my feverish lips, and bathed my brow in cool water. Mr. Rochester chafed my hand in his. I longed to speak and reassure him. But the effort of speech proved elusive; it was beyond my ability.
“Sir, shan’t you go to bed?” asked a voice. It was the servant, Mary, I thought. I had not seen Mary since I left Thornfield, a disappointed bride. No, that was not right. She had met me at the door; at Ferndean Manor, where I had found my master again.
“No,” Mr. Rochester replied. “Not this night.”
I tried to piece together recent events, but my mind refused to form an orderly sequence. Unaccountable images flashed before my mind’s eye. Past and present were equally shrouded in darkness, while the strange fever dreams hovered close.
Mr. Rochester lay down beside me on the bed; his hand gripped mine.
“Dear God in heaven, spare her. Be merciful – I have only just found her again – my darling Jane…”
The moonlit room vanished from my sight. Perhaps, it, too, had been a dream. I would fain have retained it, but I had no control of my restless, roving mind. I arrived at yet another present, yet another Thornfield. The cold moonlight left stark shadows beneath the leaves; the primroses opened wan faces to the growing starlight. I was in the garden, walking the well-remembered path to the orchard, but this garden was not as I had left it. The once neat hedges of box were overgrown into fantastical shapes. The roses sprawled haphazardly from their beds, and rank weeds towered among the fragile blooms. Dark vines of ivy overreached everything in sight, gathering wild and domestic alike in their gnarled creepers.
I knew the sweet fragrance of this garden, but when I breathed deep, I was reminded instead of Lowood, the school that had been my childhood home for eight long years. With sudden clarity, I remembered that scent; it was the dank, heavy air of the dell, dismal and disease-ridden. I remembered again the camphor in my nostrils, and the fever ward lined with blighted, childish faces. All around me, the pale flower blooms along the path melted into the pallid faces of children, wasted by their suffering. They lifted from their beds and slipped away; lanterns burning in their hands.
A heavy mist came creeping over the ground, obscuring sky and earth alike. It even drowned the moon. I no longer followed the path; I was rooted in place as the fog engulfed me. All directions were equally bewildering. I watched in helpless immobility as the first light appeared. It moved in the dark fog like a beacon, but it gave me no comfort. The lights waxed and waned around me. They brought no warmth to me; rather, an icy fear stole over me, inhabiting my very bones. Alone in that dark, formless and desolate world, I could not take my eyes from their luminescent gleam.
A light shone near me. With trepidation in every step, I began to follow it; it was farther off than I thought. I followed one, then another, down winding, unfamiliar ways. Some of them began to fade; I would not be left alone in this gloomy, sightless world; I followed as well as I could.
The ignis-fatuus led me on; I knew not where. My hands were chilled, my skin too; the cold seemed to penetrate my heart, yet my temples throbbed. I too, was ill; perhaps I was also dying. I dared not guess what shadowy paths the strange lights would lead me to, but I could only stumble on into the gloom, left to the fate that lay ahead of me –
“Wake up. Wake up, Jane.”
A woman’s voice, it’s accent gentle, familiar, but firm, assailed my ear. It was soothing to hear. I tried to listen.
“It is morning. Come, dear, wake up.”
I opened my eyes. It was a summer morning; sunshine fell on the sash of the window, and on the coverlet stretched over me. A smiling face bent toward me.
My cousin, Diana Rivers, sat in the chair by my bed. “How are you feeling?”
I considered before answering. “I am glad to be awake. I feel so weak.”
“You have been very ill, but the crisis is passed I think.”
I closed my eyes.
“Does the light distress you? Shall I draw the curtain?”
“No.” I opened them to look at her and at the glow of morning light, that I might impress them on my mind. “No, I like to see the sun. But I have had such strange dreams.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
She took my hand where it lay on the coverlet. In my sojourn from Thornfield, by the mysterious hand of providence, I had found Diana, Mary and their brother St. John, and had learned that they were my family, the children of my mother’s brother. I had no knowledge of my relations as a child, and had been united with them only months ago.
Diana’s presence was truly comforting. Her ardent, cheerful nature was a real support to me. I leaned my throbbing head on her shoulder. It was still an effort to draw breath or to speak, but my questions must have shown on my face.
“I promised to make you a visit after your marriage, and thought I would give you a pleasant surprise. But it seems the power of suspense was in your hands instead of mine. I arrived to find you bed-ridden with typhus. It is not an illness I have been acquainted with before, and I admit I would not like to become more familiar with it.”
She squeezed my fingers, and with a faint smile touching her features, she added, “As soon as I could persuade him, I convinced your Mr. Rochester to go to bed.”
My Mr. Rochester; my heart thrilled at the words. I had come to Ferndean Manor at dusk, I knew not how many weeks ago, and found my master again. He was bereft of his stately mansion, he had lost both his left hand, and the power of vision. His first wife had ended her own life in the final flames of Thornfield Hall. But he was my beloved master still. No obstacles remaining to our union, we had wed at once.
“He was up late last night, waiting for the doctor. They gave you a sleeping draught at midnight. You were so very restless.” Diana held her hand to my forehead. “This house is a dreadful place for a lamb like you. The doctor agrees with me.”
“Edward spoke of it once as an insalubrious spot.”
“It is an absolute breeding ground for fever. But there is strength in you yet, Jane. Will you have anything to eat? Mary has made a lovely broth for you.”
I could not sit up for long, but I was nourished by the broth, and lay back on my pillow feeling content. “You will not leave, Diana, will you?”
“I will be here. And as soon as Mr. Rochester is awake, he will be here as well. He will be angry that I didn’t wake him to see you, but he is worn to a shadow from trying to look after you himself. He is truly devoted to you, Jane.”
I smiled; it took effort, but I could hardly help it.
“Rest now. I can see you are tired.”
I turned my face to the window, my eye feasting on soft spring greenery and summer sunshine. I could not move or speak for long, but I found I could think. I could force my mind to make an inventory of days passed. I wondered how long I had lain ill.
How many days had passed since I sat by my Edward’s chair in the parlor? I had hardly regarded the presentiment of illness then. The sun had been shining there, too, but little of the morning light penetrated my husband’s blinded eyes.
“Jane, where are you?”
I look away from the parlor window, and the elderberry bush that flourishes there. My husband leans his head against the massive, wing-backed chair, a faint look of melancholy on his dark and chiseled features. I dare to drop a kiss on his ebon brow. As one long exiled from her homeland rejoices at each well-remembered view, I watch my master’s face, so longed for in my absence.
A smile effaces the grim lines of sadness. “Your voice is a banquet to a famished soul, Jane. Come, sit with me a while.” I take my preferred place, on a little stool at my husband’s feet. He keeps his mutilated hand tucked in his coat, but the other covers my own. “I need you to be my eyes, as you shall ever be in our married life. Prompted by your generous pity and magnanimous heart, you have pledged your life to a blind man, helpless and dependent on you even for such sordid and sundry tasks as letters of business. John has brought the mail this morning. Are you prepared to enter on your new duties?”
“Here is the first then.”
He passed me a letter sealed with plain wax. I read aloud:
“Dear Mr. Rochester,
For many years I have had the management of your estate, and I have always done my best to look after your interests while you were away. But now, sir, I must beg leave to give you notice of my departure. You have been a just and liberal master, and I am sorry to take leave of you when your fortunes have turned against you. I’ve done my best to take over every concern since your mishap, to spare you any trouble over the estate.
But I can no longer put off my departure. My brother’s farm in the south has prospered, and he asks me to assist him. I can no longer put off this obligation. The truth be told, I am not sorry to leave Thornfield Hall. There is not much of the hall left, of course, but there is something uncanny about the old place. I go to my brother on the fifth. Signed Malcolm Hinkley.”
I looked at Mr. Rochester, to see how he would take the news of the sudden departure of his land agent. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said at last,
“Peculiar letter, isn’t it?”
“What could he mean? What could be uncanny about Thornfield?”
“Pre-cise-ly. That’s what I would like to know. But we won’t get it out of him. Gone on the fifth, eh? That was yesterday. He didn’t want to be interrogated, and made good his retreat beforehand. Peculiar. Well, here is another. Do you recognize the seal?”
I studied the elaborate imprint in the red wax, but it was unfamiliar to me.
“It has a very distinct pattern to it. I could feel it with my thumb. You may recognize the sender, for you met him once. Read on.”
“My Dear Rochester,
I have just heard the news of your marriage from Reverend Davenport himself. My best congratulations to you and Mrs. Rochester. I have long had it in mind to invite you to stay with us at Ingram Park, only I feared to obtrude any importunate invitation.
But should you be disposed, you and your bride are welcome to come stay with us. Indeed, the west wing might be practically your own. My mother and my eldest sister are in London, to prepare for Blanche’s wedding, so it will only be myself and my younger sister Mary to keep you company. Of course, the whole party will join us in a few weeks’ time, including Mr. Harrison, Blanche’s fiance. Feel free to choose the day of your arrival. Signed, Lord Ingram.”
“Well, how about it, Jane?”
My husband’s face was a curious blend of sarcasm and severity. I knew him in this mood, but I didn’t know just what was in his mind.
“It seems a well-intentioned letter. He shows more delicacy than I would have expected of him.”
“Oh yes, Ingram is the very type of gentleman. I’ve gotten several of these sorts of invitations. The whole county has felt sorry for me at one time or other. I refused them all. I have been in no mood to be plagued and coddled by the pity of my neighbors. And now that I have you, my fairy, what need do we have for anyone else? ”
The only time I had been in company with the Ingrams was when they had made a protracted stay at Thornfield. At that time, Mr. Rochester and the elegant Blanche Ingram had pursued a course of flirtation with one another that had left me little peace of mind. Miss Ingram, it seemed, had courted him only for his wealth. Mr. Rochester’s motives, while even less admirable, were nonetheless admitted on the plea that he sought to engage my affection by inspiring my jealousy. He might have saved his efforts, for he had won me over long before. The circumstances, such as they were, did not make Ingram Park a place that I would wish to pass my time. I had no taste for the scornful disdain of Miss Ingram, which I was sure would not be absolved by my position as her former suitor’s wife.
I would have said as much, but an uncomfortable ache made itself felt within me. I waited in silence for it to pass. When my attention returned to my husband, I could see that he had once more become absorbed in his own curious train of thought.
“But perhaps you are weary of our isolation? Besides, you might like to be a guest in a noble’s house. How would you like to be a fine lady waited on by a host of servants, surfeited with elaborate dinners, honored as the new bride by those who once dismissed you as a nonentity? It is no less than you deserve.” He gripped my hand tightly, as if I were going to hurry away to pack my trunk. “Would you be pleased by the look on Blanche Ingram’s face when you are announced on the arm of the man she sought to marry?” He chuckled to himself. A sardonic smile flashed across his face.
“You are sneering, sir. It is not her fault that you flattered her so.”
“The mortification of her pride would certainly change her hauteur, would it not? She might meditate on her own deficiencies when she is presented with what a woman ought to be; when she sees what a good, guileless, clever, wise and noble woman actually is. When she acknowledges your superiority – ”
“Now you are flattering me. It is foolish to speak so. There is no call for comparison between Blanche Ingram and myself.”
“No, thank God. Now I have secured you, I care for no other woman’s opinion. But what might you feel, Janet?” He sank back into his chair. All the levity was gone from his visage, leaving only a deep furrow across his forehead. “To enter the home of such fine beings on the arm of a blind and crippled man, ruined and blighted, who cannot walk but where you lead him? Would it be mortifying to enter company on such terms?”
“Of course not. I am always glad to be by your side; to lead you anywhere I can. Fine company can whisper whatever it pleases. I care for no one’s good opinion but yours.”
I looked with concern at the grim melancholy settled once more on his face.
“They would shake their heads in sorrow when they saw me. I would be ‘poor Rochester’, a miserable worm among them. How they would grieve for my misfortunes in my presence, and rejoice in spite when my back was turned!”
He was fretting himself into unhappiness. Desperate measures were called for.
“It is a kind invitation,” I said, rising to my feet.
“Yes, yes, a bit of salve for a pricked conscience. Now he has done his duty and can think no more of me. Where are you going, Jane? Why do you leave my side?”
“I am going to call John, to ready the horses and carriage.”
“What the deuce for?”
“We are going to pay a visit to Thornfield Hall. If there is anything uncanny among the ruins, I, for one, would like to know what it is.”
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I’m sharing the first chapter from my next Christian Romance Novel, Saving the One You Love. This novel draws on a variety of different influences, many of them real women I’ve met over the years. When I began writing it, the story took on a life of its own.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King describes the themes of his stories arising out of the ideas and questions he’s likely to mull over while tucked into bed and waiting to fall asleep. (Or something to that effect.) When I was first getting this story down in my notebook, I didn’t really know what I was driving at. It took a lot of thought, as a Christian and as an author, to bring this story to a close. But looking back now, I can see that this story taps into ideas that have been on my mind for a long time, and it’s shaped by difficulties that touch all of us. It’s a story about the mistakes we make about one another, the terrible consequences our choices can entail on us, and ultimately, the redeeming power of God’s love.
At least, that’s what was in the background of my mind when I was scribbling in my notebook. So, without further ado, here’s chapter one. Comments are welcome. I’d love to know your opinion.
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Saving the One You Love
Anna Graham stood at the edge of the pier and knew that she was standing at the edge of her life. She had a chance to start again. Every day, she reminded herself, I still have chance. But this was the only place she felt like that was true.
The waves were deep blue and striped with tangled white lines of surf, but under the pier beneath her feet, the water was a muddy brown. On the Texas gulf coast you didn’t get crystal clear waters. You got mud. It was beautiful anyway.
A cold wind tossed her hair around her head and over her face, so that she looked out at the empty sky and crashing water through a veil that whipped her cheek. The wind stung her skin and hurt her ears. Seagulls called to one another as they flew in slow motion, suspended in mid air as they struggled to glide into the wind.
She crossed the pier and looked once again at the enormous sign behind the restaurant: Where the Land Ends, the Magic Begins. Underneath the words was a mural of happy people riding through the sky, their painted smiles suspended above a baby blue ocean.
Where the land ends, the magic begins. She knew it was just advertising, something jingly to put on a billboard, but sometimes she wanted it to be true. She needed it to be true. Camille had warned her before she came here, to remember that a place is just a place.
“Everywhere you go, you’ll find the same disappointments, the same struggles. Don’t put your hope in a new place.” But Camille had found the apartment, coached her for the job interview, bought her a bed. If it wasn’t for Camille, she would have no bed of her own. If life seemed a little dull, a little cold, if it was so much less than she longed for – well, at least she had her own pillow. She silently thanked God for Camille, even though she wasn’t sure if there was really a God there to listen. Camille would like it that she was praying. That was reason enough for now.
She had to pull hard against the wind to get the side door of the restaurant closed. She passed through a narrow doorway, habitually stepping sideways to avoid the yellow mop bucket stored there. Once in the break room, she took off her sweater and washed her hands.
“Hey, where’d you go?” Chuck was standing close to the back door with a clipboard, tallying how many boxes of plastic straws were still in stock. He was taller than Anna, which was not hard to be, and looked down at her over a pointed nose set in a round face. He still had a white apron tied round his ample middle. “I thought you would be in the break room.”
“I was outside looking at the ocean.”
“I was like that too, when I first moved down here. I couldn’t get enough of the beach. It’s funny but I hardly ever go now. Anyway, place is pretty quiet this afternoon. Go ahead and sanitize the coffee machines. Unless we get a busload of tourists, you can leave early.”
Anna tied her apron around her waist and went through the swinging kitchen door to the dining room. Chuck treated her the same as the other wait staff; maybe he even spoke to her less. He would talk with Monique for twenty minutes at a time during the slow after lunch hours, gossiping about their families, their kids, their plans for their off days.
If he had asked her about herself, she would have nothing to gossip about: no kids, no family. She had no life here, except the existence she was trying to maintain. Preserving the outward appearance of an ordinary young woman already felt like wearing a mask that didn’t fit her face. The whole cumbersome thing could slip and fall away, her carefully constructed life disintegrate and leave her in the hell hole she had come from.
And sometimes that was the only thing she wanted.
She took a quick look around the empty dining room and went behind the marble-topped bar. She had started waitressing at Powell’s on the Pier last August. It was full of tourists then, people who flocked to the ocean for a respite from the Texas heat. The restaurant itself was suspended over the ocean, held up by three-foot thick pilings. If you stood close to the tinted windows, you could look straight down at the water rushing up the beach. Children loved it. Their fingerprints routinely decorated the glass.
The summer months brought a steady stream of tourists eager to spend their cash and show off their new beach clothes, but the winter brought a less colorful crowd. Retirees who lived here year round would become regulars, enjoying the view and the quiet atmosphere denied them in the summertime. Business people stopped in for meetings over Caesar salad and shrimp scampi. She preferred the winter.
She had never been a waitress before this. Just having a regular job, like everybody else in the world, still felt like a novelty sometimes. She was surprised to find how much she liked to be useful to somebody. It gave her a satisfying sense of purpose she had never known before. The best wait staff, Chuck said, were the ones that were always there when the customer needed them, and never noticed the rest of the time. It was easy, once she got the hang of it, to drift quietly by, only catching a customer’s eye if they were looking for her.
She learned to be a waitress before she ever came to Galveston. It was Jeff who taught her, at the Halfway House in Houston. Jeff was in charge of the kitchen. He was a big man with thick arms and a blunt nose, dark black skin and white teeth that glowed in his face. He had a smile for everyone, and at first, she disliked him for it. She preferred to be left alone. She was still too raw, then, too unsure of what her life was turning into. But one afternoon, when she was sitting alone at the plastic table, pushing her bland green beans around her plate, he invited her into the kitchen.
“Come on in, Anna. Come see the other side.”
Since the only alternative was to sit in the lounge doing nothing, she joined him in the kitchen. “You just gotta’ go with the beat, Anna girl. You see?”
Jeff was always playing music in the kitchen of the Halfway House, on a little radio with a tinny sound: R and B, old school hip-hop, blues. This was how he taught her to help in the kitchen. “You take the food, put on a fake smile, walk through the door, serve ’em up. If they give you grief, you keep that smile until you git back into the kitchen. You give the next plate your dirty look, and head back out the door.”
She missed him sometimes, when she was working at Powell’s on the Pier. She liked the people she worked with well enough, but there was no one here like Jeff.
She waited on the older couple who came in for tuna sandwiches and coffee, and when she was done with the coffee pots, she went around the room to wipe the spots from the tablecloths. She always enjoyed this time of day, when the dining room was quiet. The sunlight washed all the brass trimmings in the room, and the white tablecloths glowed. It was a soothing place to be at the end of a long lunch rush.
She crossed to the far side of the dining room. She had thought it was empty, but as she pushed in the chairs by the half wall dividing the restaurant, she heard a man’s voice behind her.
“Your family has sure produced some un-photogenic men over the years, but I think you’re the worst.”
She looked into the hidden corner of the dining room at a very short man with messy gray hair and a camera pressed to his face. She moved to the next table to wipe up the crumbs that had been missed earlier. Now she was able to see the subject of the photograph. A tall man in an oxford shirt and blue coat sat solitary at the table. Just past thirty maybe, and not noticeably attractive at first glance, especially with his forehead wrinkled and a bored expression his face. He was looking down at his spotless plate and she peeked at him again. He had honey brown eyes, and a gentle mouth.
The place was set before him but his plate was empty. She watched as he smiled at the camera. Oh. Shorty was right. It wasn’t a smile. It was a goofy smirk.
“No good,” Shorty said. “Try again.”
All he got was a sulky expression that made the man’s face look sullen and dark. “I don’t like having my picture taken.”
“It’s not like the pictures were my idea.”
“Yes, I know.” He picked up his fork and pricking his flawlessly folded napkin with it. “I’ve been living in the jungle for the last three years. Nobody needs to pretend to smile there.”
“You had to get your passport picture, didn’t you?”
“Nobody needs to smile for that either.”
“Well, you’re back in civilization now, Mark. This is the price you have to pay.”
Her work brought her around the corner and into the same part of the room as Mark and his photographer. She was just about finished, except for the crumpled napkin under the table by the window. She was trying to decide the best moment to duck behind them and snatch it away, when the photographer addressed her.
“Excuse me, Ma’am, you don’t mind if I take your picture, do you?”
He was smiling at her in a professional way. He was weighing her up, but he didn’t look interested. The moment passed and she quickly gained her internal equilibrium. She was getting used to this. But she hadn’t answered his question yet.
“You want to help us out here for a minute? My name’s Pete Fellows – hotographer. Just pretend to take his order, give him someone to talk to. I gotta’ get this guy to act natural for a photograph.”
“Oh. Um – ” This is what normal people do; they get their picture taken. She looked at the man seated at the table. He was still stabbing his napkin. She waited until he looked up. She would know her answer from the way he looked at her.
His eyebrows were crowded together in tense embarrassment, but he smiled at her and shrugged his shoulders at the same time. She instantly felt comfortable, which surprised her.
“You wanna’ help?” he said. “I’m really no good at this. But it’s worth a try.”
“I’m not much of an actor.”
“Stand right here.” The photographer stepped aside and waved his hand towards spot by the table. “Just be yourself. Pretend to take his order.”
She took her notepad from her apron pocket and poised her pen. “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like the wine list today?”
“No, thank you.” Mark frowned.
“Smile, sweetheart,” Shorty said.
Wait staff have to smile. Happy waitresses get happy little tip dollars in their pockets at the end of the night, so she put on her automatic smile. When Mark looked up at her, there was no more stupid, put-on smirk. It was a real smile.
Click. Flash. “Bee-yoo-ti-ful. Do it again.”
“Ah, would you like to try the imaginary fettuccine? Or would you prefer the non-existent shrimp platter?”
“I think I’ll take the fictitious steak,” Mark said, and he laughed. “Hey, I made a joke. You’re good, you know that? I never make jokes.”
“You’re a winner, sweetheart,” Pete said. He had been taking pictures the whole time. “Come on outside with us. I need to get some shots on the pier.”
“Oh – ” She looked uneasily over her shoulder at the door to the kitchen.
“Well, she can’t come if she still has work to do.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “You’re her boss. Of course she can come.”
It occurred to her for the first time that this young man bore a strong resemblance to the portrait by the entrance. He looked just like Jacob Powell, the restaurant’s owner, minus the white eyebrows and deep-set wrinkles. He had a pleasant face, old Powell’s dark features softened by gentle brown eyes. He seemed ill at ease in his blazer, but his broad shoulders filled out the coat without difficulty.
“Not exactly her boss. But I don’t suppose Chuck will complain.” He turned his eyes her way. “Well, if you don’t mind. This is a lot easier with someone else.”
“It shouldn’t take more than half an hour,” Pete said, in a conciliating voice.
Anna thought about saying no. She was used to playing the part of waitress, but she wasn’t sure what kind of role she would play elsewhere. Mark stood up. He towered over her.
He made a funny grimace, scrunching up his face, but then he smiled. “Only if you want to. I’m Mark Powell by the way.”
She searched her mind for a convincing excuse, but she didn’t really have one. Maybe this was a safe time to say yes to somebody. That’s what normal people did, wasn’t it? She was supposed to be living a normal life. She had never really had one, and she wasn’t always sure how it was supposed to work, but it probably wasn’t normal to refuse the business owner’s polite and not too inconvenient request. Besides, her shift was technically over.
“I’m Anna. Anna Graham. Sure. I’ll come.”
“You got a coat or something, Anna?” Pete said. “The wind’s pretty strong out there.”
“I’ll get my sweater.”
She untied her apron as she went through the kitchen doors. “Hey Chuck? I finished cleaning the dining room, and ah – Mark Powell asked me to be in a photograph. Outside. They want someone to pose with him to make it more natural.”
Chuck laughed. “He gets stuck having his picture taken every year. At least when he’s home. His mother always makes the whole family get a picture at the restaurant. How did they rope you into it?”
“I was cleaning the table behind him and they asked me to pose in the shot.”
“Well, have fun.”
Anna pulled her black sweater over her white-collar shirt and went out the side door. Pete and Mark were standing behind the building, looking out at the ocean. A cold wind was still whipping across the water, tearing up white caps and sending them flying under the cement pier. The ocean was bluer than the sky. Mark’s nose was turning pink, but he looked warm enough in his heavy coat.
Pete waved them towards the bench. “Have a seat. Mark, why don’t you put your arm around her?”
“No!” she said, a little too fast.
“Suit yourself.” Pete leaned forward, his camera pressed to his eye. “Look happy, kids.”
She looked up at Mark, who was staring at the camera with a sullen expression. This was a bad idea. Inside the restaurant, she had been playing a familiar part. This was totally different. What were they pretending to be?
“So,” Mark said in a halting voice, smirking uncomfortably at the camera. “So I suck at this, obviously. Kinda’ funny though. That we’re total strangers pretending we know each other.” They smiled at each other and the camera flashed.
“It is,” she said, trying to look more comfortable than she felt. “It’s funny.”
“I knew this monkey once,” he leaned back with a fixed smile on his face, resting one ankle over his knee. “In Brazil. He liked to throw nuts at me when I tried to take his picture. I don’t think animals really smile. Not like we do. But I swear, before he really beaned me, he would get this big grin on his face – ” Anna laughed out loud, and Mark snorted. “Crazy, huh? I miss a lot of things about the jungle, but I don’t miss him at all.”
“Very good, very good,” Pete said. “Now the Ferris wheel.”
Joe emerged from the little booth to run the controls as they approached, and Mark courteously stepped back and held out his arm, waiting for Anna to go first.
Click, flash. Click, flash. Anna sat down in the cart and Mark took his place beside her. The cart rocked with a loud groan and Anna’s hand flew to the side of the cart, gripping it nervously. She didn’t think she was afraid of heights, but it felt strange to be suspended like this, without the firm ground underneath.
Joe lowered the bar and locked it into place. Pete came up the ramp to take another photograph. Smile, wave, look interested. She seemed to remember doing this sort of thing once. It felt so long ago, as if it were a part of another life. As the cart jerked into motion, her stomach lurched with it, but she grabbed hold of the cold metal bar in front of her and adjusted herself to the rocking motion.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. I – just haven’t been on anything like this for a long time.”
He was looking at her with a concerned expression. She leaned back and forced herself to relax. “This is nice, actually,” and it was. The wind had calmed a little, and she began to feel comfortable as the pier dropped away beneath them.
“So, the jungle?” Anna asked, to change the subject away from herself.
“The Amazon rain forest. I’m a biologist. Our team was recording the number of Capuchin monkeys.”
“How many are there?”
“Never found out,” he said darkly, as they passed the apex of the wheel and began the downward descent. “The basin was sold to a local developer. A kind of warlord really. The politics down there are more like a mob in some places. Anyway, it’s being clear cut now. No more monkeys.”
The wheel brought them to the bottom. “Hey, you two, smile!” Pete said. Mark smirked and Shorty shook his head.
“Hey, look!” Mark pointed straight ahead at a white bird dipping over the beach. “It’s a skimmer.”
“That sea bird. You can tell by the shape of the wings, and the unique beak. He’s got that big lower mandible. They skim across the surface of the water with their mouth open. That’s how they eat.”
“Yeah. They have an unusual bill that allows them to feed that way.” He leaned back, dropping his arm in a hurry. “Sorry, I’m being the boring biologist.”
“It’s alright. I’d like to know more about the birds here. I see so many and I don’t know anything about them.”
“You’ve come to the right shop if you want to know about birds. I can’t get enough of them.”
They were smiling now, but it wasn’t enough for Pete. He scolded them as they passed by. “Last time. Make it count!”
As they rose up into the air again, Anna said, “This must be a gorgeous view in the evening.”
“You’ve never been?”
“Me neither. I suppose I could ride for free, huh? Might be more fun if we weren’t being threatened into smiling.”
Anna laughed, Mark did the same, and the wheel came to a gentle stop with their cart at the bottom.
“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Pete said, frowning at his camera as they came down the ramp. “Thank you very much, young lady,” he said to Anna. “I’d like to have you sign a release form, just in case. I think that waitress shot might come in handy someday. My briefcase is inside, if you don’t mind coming in with me.”
“I need to get my things anyway.”
“Mark,” Pete said. “You’re free to go.”
“I suppose I am. Thanks for getting this over with.”
“All in the line of duty.”
Mark turned to Anna. “I appreciate your help. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” He smiled then, a good smile that made his eyes crinkle. And then he turned and walked off. As she followed Pete towards the restaurant, she could see Mark turn onto Seawall Boulevard and then take the cement stairs down to the beach. She could see him striding over the brown sand, swinging his arms comfortably as he went.
“What a day to walk on the beach.” Pete shook his head. She wondered where Mark was going to. Would he count the sea birds? She liked the idea, in a way.
They went around to the front door, and while Anna signed the paperwork, Pete said, “You’ve got a good quality in a picture.”
“You’ve got a good way with Mark Powell, too,” he said with a wink. “Most I’ve seen him crack a smile since he got home. I’ve known him since he was a real young man, and he isn’t what he used to be. Used to be full of enthusiasm. But I suppose all that’s bound to wear off with age. I was enthusiastic once myself.” He was packing up his camera, carefully taking it apart and placing the components in its black case. “Artistic pretensions and so on.”
Anna stood in the waiting area, looking up at the portrait of old Jacob Powell, his sunken eyes and firm smile. He looked like a cross between a kindly grandfather and a plotting mafia boss.
“You have any aspirations, Miss Anna?”
“What?” she said, taken aback. “Aspirations?”
“Plans? Dreams? Lofty goals?”
Building an ordinary life out of the shredded scraps of her existence had seemed like an impossible goal for so long that nothing else had occurred to her for a long time.
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“You should. Think about it while you’re young. It just gets harder when you get old.”
“I’m already old,” Anna said solemnly. She looked down. She didn’t want him to see anything she couldn’t hide.
Her soul was a weary place, too old for the skin she was in. Too old for dreams and aspirations. But not too late for life, she thought, as she left the restaurant and crossed the road to the parking lot on the other side. She got into the driver’s seat of her little Kia. At least I hope not. She turned the key in the ignition.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading! If you have thoughts on the story, please share them in the comments. If you’d like to read my other Christian Romance Novels, you can check out my books for sale at Amazon.
Recently I carved out some time for a project I’ve wanted to finish for quite a while. My novel Love Divine is now available as a paperback. It’s print-on-demand, and the price is currently $6, which basically covers the cost of printing. I’m not really looking to earn anything much fro m the project; I just wanted the paperback to be available for my friends who expressed an interest in a hard copy of the book. So it’s here! Via Createspace and Draft2digital and my own attempts at cover design, Love Divine is in paperback.
Just this morning, I came to a decision.
I have been stuck – completely immobilized – on part three of Hope Unbroken. Stuck. Most of it is written. But not all of it. And I can hardly bring myself to open the document. My imagination refuses to have anything to do with it.
I have been holding out hope that eventually I would get a fresh surge to help me make those final touches. The book got stalled out due to a nasty prolonged tooth ache, and then several weeks of morning sickness. Although I am swimming comfortably along in the second trimester now, I have not really made any progress. My first novel, Unromantic, was largely written during the second trimester of a previous pregnancy, but this time around, the crew I already have is at a more needy stage. Life is full, and the time and space for imaginary worlds is just not happening. I’m sad about it, but also relieved. I thought I needed a little break. Apparently I need a long one.
I decided this morning to remove the first two installments of Hope Unbroken from Amazon and Nook. I have found mistakes in both of the free samples available online. Who knows what other problems are lurking in there. In the next day or so, they will no longer be available.
I feel convinced this morning that I am not in a place where I can really produce my best work. Even if I force myself to finish off Hope Unbroken, it will not be what it should be. My heart is not in it. My self-publishing journey thus far has been a totally one shop deal. I have done everything myself, including cover design and editing. It was fun, and the price was right:), but it’s lot of work, and not really something I can do without energy and enthusiasm for the task.
For those of you who purchased the first two installments: thank you. I love you. I hope you enjoyed something in the story. The ending of part two isn’t so bad, really. But if you are dying to know more, I can pass on the rough draft of part three. Send me your email or a message on Facebook, if you would like to have it.
To those of you who have offered support for this story – I can’t thank you enough. I hope that some day, when the fog clears, the story will finally be finished and available, and your encouragement will see its fruition.
I was reading my son’s Life of Fred math book the other day. There was a reference to the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and included a reminder that it’s okay to slow down and do things right the first time, because it was the tortoise who actually won. So for now, I will be tortoising along.
A day or two ago I got an inspiration for a story I started years ago. I let it slide because it seemed too difficult, but I come back to it every so often and this morning it took hold in an opening scene. Thought I would share it. It’s pretty rough and uncut, but any thoughts are welcome.
Chapter One – The Race
The man to the right was reciting a yoga chant while he flexed the muscles in his arms. The woman to the left already had ear buds in and was singing something about the eye of a tiger in a tuneless voice. The starting line was packed so full of people that Kevin folded his limbs over his body to avoid embracing Headphones Woman, which meant he was at constant risk of toppling onto Yoga Man.
He closed his eyes. Lord, have mercy on me. Please don’t let it hurt too much.
The gun fired. Kevin’s contorted limbs leaped into the air while everyone else sprinted forward. He was compelled ahead for a split second by some unseen runner behind him, and then he was bolting into the fray, his footsteps hampered on every side. Now it was a matter of adjusting his stride until the crowd of runners thinned out. He could no longer see Yoga man, but Earphones Woman was several strides ahead.
The runners turned onto Fulsom Street – half a dozen roads had been blocked from traffic for the 5K race – and Kevin turned with them, settling into a stride that was just a little too fast for comfort. His next task was to find something to think about; something that would take his mind off the complaints of his thigh muscles and the gasp in his lungs. It didn’t always work to think about the same thing. Some ideas grew threadbare in time and no longer distracted him. Today he cast his mind on Jennifer. And it worked.
They were going uphill now and his legs churned steadily beneath him. But in his mind, he was saying goodbye to Jennifer again. She had worn a white dress, and her was hair down, and he realized now how intimidating she was, when she was wasn’t in her t-shirt and sweatpants anymore. They had worked out together for two years, and for two years Kevin had loved her. She was his cheerleader, his encourager, his confidante. They talked about everything, didn’t they? At least he did. She always listened so patiently. She sang in the choir and ran like a cheetah and never doubted him or said a single unkind thing to him.
“Even though I’m moving away, I thought maybe we could still talk, you know?”
“Sure,” she said. “Call me anytime.”
“Maybe you could come out and visit. Or I could come visit you.”
“I would always be glad to see you.” She grew busy with something then. Something in her hands? Was she writing? Yes, he thought so. They were on the downhill stretch now. He always fell behind on the downhill. Runners flew by him in reckless haste. He screwed himself up for the long flat that stretched ahead of him. His calves were singing with quiet pain.
He pictured her face, passive and calm, with her neatly turned nose – he loved her nose – and her white blond hair against her pale cheek. A dull sorrow cut through him, and he forced his legs to move faster.
The road was beginning to clear. Runners had found their pace, and he had a stretch of road to himself. A man in lemon-colored shorts was up ahead of him. He could hear tramping feet somewhere behind, but he wouldn’t waste effort looking back. They were entering a narrow street he couldn’t remember the name of. A knot of people with signs stood cheering at the corner. He didn’t know any of them, but they gave him a loud yell just the same, and he waved in gratitude. No one else was watching this race for his sake.
“I don’t really have to go,” he had said to her. “Sometimes I think I should stay.”
“Why?” She looked at him then, her blue eyes puzzled. He had hoped that she would look intrigued,or relieved, or maybe even happy! But she wasn’t. “It’s a good move for your career. Why wouldn’t you go?”
Lemon-colored shorts turned round a corner. Kevin did the same, but his mind was anywhere but the road. He was only pumping feet, swinging stride, and an ache that ran deeper than the pain his chest.
“I thought there might be something – between us. I was thinking about marriage, and – ”
She didn’t say I’m sorry. She didn’t even look sad. She went back to writing. “You’re just so weird, sometimes, Kevin.”
Three more strides, his eyes blinded by memory. He didn’t see her until it was too late. He caught a glimpse of her brown eyes looking frightened, just before he brought her down. Something wet and terrifically cold sprayed him. She yelled in his ear and he scrambled away from her. A dark stain of ice water covered her red shirt. He fumbled to his feet – and then he recognized her face.
“Missy! What are you doing in the middle of a race course!”
“Race course? Are you racing?”
“Well, yeah…” He looked around him. No orange cones. No pink tape lining the road. No runners anywhere. “Ah…I must have…left the course.”
She wrinkled her eyebrows at him. She had dark eyebrows that stood out in her face. They struck him as expressive. She was communicating frustration, confusion and condescension just through those eyebrows. “I can’t believe you ran straight into me.” She tugged on the drenched fabric of her shirt. “And you were looking right at me.”
“I’m so sorry. I was thinking about something else.” Great way to leave a good impression on the college staff. Tackle a fellow professor. An awkward silence fell.
“If you’re racing, you should probably go,” she said.
“Right. Ah, sorry about that.”
“I think I’ll live.”
“I owe you one.”
She didn’t answer. She smirked. Why did women have to be so shallow? He turned without another word and jogged back to the way he came. He saw the gap in the line where he had left the race course. He started running again, but his pace was half of what it was before. He looked dully at the road ahead and fixed his mind on it. Ashamed of his memories of Jennifer, ashamed of his encounter with Missy – what little heart he had for the race was already gone.
He crossed the finish line with a last, halfhearted sprint, wiped the sweat from his face with the collar of his shirt, and went silently to the car. Well, he had run his 5K for the year. Check that off the list. He thought about driving to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries. To make it worse, he imagined a large shake. Ice cold strawberry. He could already feel the cup in his hand, the cool moisture dripping on his hand.
Instead, he took his bag from the passenger seat and started eating his cold turkey and mustard sandwich. He gulped down a bottle of water, leaned back against the seat, and for ten minutes, drifted into a lovely oblivion of sleep. Somewhere in that oblivion, he met Missy Hannigan again, her arms thrown round him, but she wasn’t frowning this time. He woke up smiling.
Think only on what is pure. He reminded himself, and put Missy’s full figure out of his mind.
“Glad that’s over,” he thought, and drove home with a rising feeling of contentment. He had another whole year before he would make himself do that again. Maybe next time he ran a race, he would have something better to think about.
When children start coming down with various illnesses, and a house full of kids turns into a sick ward. Our crew has survived the first round of childhood illness this year, which made Thanksgiving vacation a little long. But it also meant that we were stuck at home a lot, which enabled me to write a short Christmas story that has been in my head for a long time (years at least). It is now available on Amazon.
Here’s the description:
Doctor John Thompson is charged with finding an empty farmhouse on the day before Christmas Eve. He’s hoping for an idyllic Vermont Christmas. Instead, he finds an +eccentric neighbor wielding a shotgun and the unsolved mystery of a past suicide, while he tries to persuade his teenage daughter and wife to leave New York City behind.
John sets out on an impulsive quest for the perfect Christmas tree, and finds out that healing the past will require more of the Doctor than he ever dreamed of.
This is a short work, approximately 13,000 words, or 45 pages long.
And if you are waiting for the next installment of Hope Unbroken, it is coming very soon!