Tuesday, December 20, 2016

ONLY $1.99


Brooke Winslow heard a child’s laughter and looked across the lobby, spotting the little girl cheerfully playing with a set of building blocks. Her blonde hair hung in one long braid down her back and she wore a pretty yellow dress. She had beautiful bright green eyes. “Look, Mommy. I built a tower.”
Her mother glanced up from the magazine she was flipping through. “Oh sweetheart, what a stable tower it is too.”
Feeling a sudden twinge in her chest, Brooke turned away, barely able to catch her breath. Why was she doing this? She stood up, gained her equilibrium, then started for the glass doors that would take her back out to her car—away from the possibility of having a panic attack in front of the people waiting in the lobby. She’d gotten better at staying in control, but on occasion she found herself coming unglued from the demons that still haunted her.
She gripped the cold handle of the door just as she heard her name being called, “Ms. Winslow. The doctor will see you now.”
Her mind raced. Her heart skipped a beat. She could easily scurry out and skip the appointment. Being here didn’t help anyway. She hated opening up and talking about the tragedy that turned her world upside down. Why couldn’t people just understand that not everyone needed to talk about their feelings? 
Fingers touched her shoulder and she spun around, coming face to face with the receptionist. “Ms. Winslow, Dr. Forester will see you now.”
Several people had turned to watch her. She wondered if they too wanted to break free?
“Ms. Winslow?”
Oh, phooey. Brooke had no other choice but to let go of the handle to freedom and follow the receptionist. Part way down the hall Brooke heard sniffling coming from a room to the right. She caught a glimpse of a woman with her head bowed and her shoulders shaking. Brooke’s breath hitched and she clenched her hands into fists. Crying happened a lot here. But not for her—not anymore. After three years, the tears had dried up. Too bad the memories were as fresh as newly picked blueberries.
“How are you today, Ms. Winslow?” the receptionist asked as she motioned for them to continue on their way.
The question came more as a distraction than civil conversation. “Peachy.”
If the other woman picked up on any sarcasm in the answer, she didn’t let on.
They stopped at the last doorway, Dr. Forester’s office—a forty-something, attractive blonde who always dressed in impeccable pant suits. She had also recently divorced her husband of ten years. They had no children and a mansion with lots of bedrooms and a tennis court. Brooke only knew this because she’d overheard the receptionist and a nurse discussing the details when they thought they were alone. Usually Brooke passed on eavesdropping, but it did break up the monotony of sitting in the lobby and staring at a watercolor.
On the threshold into the room, she hesitated. It wasn’t that she disliked Dr. Forester or her help, but what could be done? The past was over and the pain had embedded itself deep inside of Brooke’s bone marrow. Not even a therapist could rid her of the heartache, the memories, and the knowledge that she couldn’t save Jessie.
Many times in the last year, Brooke had picked up the phone to cancel her appointments, but then she’d hang up. Dr. Forester had become a crutch for Brooke.
“Brooke, come in.” Dr. Forester stood up from behind her desk and smoothed her black jacket. Brooke couldn’t remember ever seeing the elegant woman unruffled or wrinkled. Her clothes were pressed and spotless. Her makeup had been applied with a detailed hand, hiding any physical flaws that she might have. She had to have at least one, but up until now, Brooke hadn’t found it. Even the desk was tidy and clean.
Brooke crossed the room, aware of her own disheveled appearance. Before leaving the house she’d thrown on a T-shirt and jeans and pulled her hair up into a messy bun. If she cared, she would have gone for the right side of her closet where her nicer things were hung, but the problem was, she didn’t.
Sitting in the comfortable flowered chair next to the window that overlooked downtown Atlanta, she had to admit that she liked the view…and the overstuffed chair that gave her a cushiony hug. It was the highlight of her visits to her therapist. She placed her purse on the table.
Dr. Forester took the chair across from Brooke, her handy notepad and pen sitting on the coffee table between them, probably from her last client who she’d needled through their problems for answers. Brooke reminded herself that she needed to stay open to help, but there came a point when Dr. Forester would have to come to the conclusion, just as Brooke had, that some things just couldn’t be fixed. Instead, they had to be buried instead. She had the shovel and the spot for burial, but it just didn’t seem possible to start digging. Not yet.
“Good morning, Brooke.” Dr. Forester smiled and picked up her notebook, clicking the pen exactly three times, as always. Brooke guessed it was a form of energy release, or maybe a habit.
“Good morning.” Brooke smiled in return.
“How are you? Are you sleeping any better?”
Brooke crossed her legs, gearing herself up for reflecting on her issues and her messy emotions. “I’m now sleeping four hours straight so definitely an improvement.”
“Are you still taking the pills I prescribed?” Her blue eyes seemed to drill straight through Brooke.
“Not for a long time. I didn’t like how they made me feel.” Honesty was the best policy, but it probably wouldn’t settle well with Dr. Forester.
Although she was always careful not to show her displeasure in her body language, Dr. Forester actually had several wrinkles appear around her eyes. She leaned forward and met Brooke’s gaze. “I understand you don’t want to take medication, but you have to be willing to try. It’s been three years, Brooke. The accident…you must stop feeling guilty that you lived and they didn’t. Remember, the accident was investigated and the driver of the other vehicle ran a red light. You could have easily died too.”
“Dana,” Brooke whispered.
“Excuse me?”
“Dana was the woman’s name, and her daughter was Jessie.”
Dr. Forester looked down at her finely manicured hands for a second. “I can relate to how you must have felt—”
“No, you can’t. I assure you, no one knows until they’ve experienced it firsthand,” she muttered, clasping her hands together in her lap.
The other woman’s features softened slightly. “You know I’m here to help you. If only you’d let me.”
“Medication won’t help.”
“Time will help heal.”
Brooke laughed, but the sound was cold and grating, even to her own ears. “The screams…they were awful. The little girl was only four. She was crying for her mommy…who-who was already gone. I tried everything to reach the backseat—I tried…then I was pulled away.”
“You were saved.”
Brooke’s gaze automatically fell to her scarred hand, barely remembering the time she spent in the hospital while they worked on her. They’d told her she was lucky to have survived the car fire, but she hadn’t considered herself lucky, not when she’d never forget the face of Jessie, the frightened look in her eyes just seconds before the upside down car caught on fire. “This isn’t saved,” she murmured and tugged her sleeve down her wrist. Sometimes it was the only way to hide.
“I understand you feel that living when the mother and child didn’t is an act of punishment, and not fortune, but when you were struck by the vehicle, you suffered severe injuries. It was a miracle that you made it out of your car at all, not to mention having an opportunity to help Jessie and her mother. It’s difficult to see this now, but in time you will find happiness.”
“Happiness? These aren’t the only scars I carry.” Brooke tapped her wrist through the shirt.
“Have you thought about opening another flower shop? You had a lucrative business before…” She must have rethought mentioning the accident again.
“I lost interest. That’s why I sold the shop.”
 “Have you started painting again? Painting can actually be very therapeutic.”
Brooke gave her head a quick shake. “No.” Before the accident she had lived and breathed her flower shop along with her painting. It was her livelihood—and her life. She had been coming home from a late night at work preparing arrangements for a wedding when her life had changed. She often wondered if things would have been different if she’d left work just a few minutes earlier or later, would the mother and child have lived?
After months of rehab and therapy on her hand and her mind, she tried to get back to her business, but sales had suffered. Deciding to sell had been one of the hardest decisions she’d ever made, but in the long run, the best choice. Once she was home with nothing to occupy her thoughts, she’d picked up a brush again, but her mind refused to cooperate. Dr. Forester had encouraged Brooke many times to start again, but saying it and doing it were two different things.
Dr. Forester eased back into her chair, one corner of her mouth lowering in discontent. “I worry that if you’re not getting enough sleep—”
“That I’ll try to do this again?” Brooke refused to look at the superficial white scar on her wrist. She wished she could take a scouring pad and scrub the reminders away of how lost she had been after the accident. Once the blade had cut her skin, she’d heard a voice, telling her that she must live. “Don’t worry, Dr. Forester. I’m not in the same place.”
The other woman nodded. “I realize you’re not.”
Although Brooke had heard the words, she doubted how truthful the doctor was being. It seemed that no one looked at her the same, especially her next door neighbor, Janet, who’d walked in and found Brooke in the bath tub bleeding. They’d once been best friends, but there was an iron wall between them now. Maybe Janet didn’t want to be friends with someone who’d be willing to give up living, but no one understood the torment of watching a child, crying for her mother, and not being able to save her. Every waking hour, every dream and nightmare, every second was consumed with the screams…
“I know I must frustrate you, doc. That’s not my intention.”
Dr. Forester smiled—a kind smile that she didn’t offer too often. “You need a change, Brooke. Have you thought about taking a vacation? Visiting relatives? Flying to a remote island and dance like no one’s watching.”
“Is this your way of breaking up with me?” Brooke laughed, but it lacked humor.
“This is my way of saying when the old ways of doing things aren’t working, it’s high time to try something else. New surroundings might be a breath of fresh air.”
“Where would I go that memories can’t find me?”
When the session was over, Brooke drove to her apartment and stopped at her post office box. Shuffling through endless junk mail, she finally came to a formal looking envelope. And strangely, it was addressed from an attorney in Kerrville, Texas. The only person she knew in Texas was her grandmother who she hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. She used to visit when she was young until her mom and dad divorced. Her mom had gotten custody of her and Brooke never visited Kerrville again. Her grandmother wasn’t the only absent family though. She hadn’t seen her father in so long that she wasn’t sure what he would look like now. They just seemed to drift apart. As far as she knew, he worked on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean and was gone for months at a time. He never remarried or had any other children. Brooke’s mom, Rita, never spoke his name. In fact, she was so busy with her millionaire husband traveling to exotic locations that Brooke could easily forget that her mother wasn’t gone too. After the accident, Rita had visited for a short time, but she had planned an Italy vacation that couldn’t be canceled. So she’d written Brooke a sizable check, that she’d refused but no one says no to Rita, to help with medical bills and left on a midnight plane.
Inside her apartment, she tossed the junk mail into the trash and threw the letter from the attorney onto the table. Grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, she uncapped it and drank thirstily. Her gaze naturally fell to the envelope again and she started for it when her cell phone rang. She hit ‘talk’.
“Ms. Brooke Winslow?” an unfamiliar male voice asked from the other end of the line.
Now she regretted not checking caller ID first. “Yes.”
“This is Hubert Monroe. You don’t know me. In fact, it took me a while to track you down. I was your grandmother’s attorney here in Kerrville, Texas.”
Her eyes automatically shifted to the unopened letter. His name was printed on the return address. “I just received a letter from you today. I haven’t had an opportunity to read it.”
“It’s best we talk anyway. Let me explain why I’m calling. It is with great sorrow that I have to be the one to tell you that your grandmother passed away several days ago. She’d been ill for some time.”
Brooke squeezed the phone until her fingers ached. She didn’t know her grandmother very well, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t saddened to hear that she’d passed. “I’m sorry to hear this. I-I didn’t know…”
“Yes, Beatrice explained that she hadn’t seen or spoken with you in a while, which I’m sure makes this call even more awkward. She asked that upon her passing I call and inform you of the funeral arrangements. I’ve included the time and date in the letter, and the address to the cemetery.”
“This is all so sudden.”
 “I know it must be, Ms. Winslow. I’m just carrying out my late client’s wishes. There are finer details we need to discuss. Beatrice owned a farm in Kerrville and she had a little savings stashed which she has left to you. If you can attend the funeral services, I’d like to sit down with you before or after. I’ll also need your signature on a few documents, but all in all, she had everything in order when she passed. Beatrice didn’t like loose ends and knew her time was coming fast.”
Brooke had a loss for words. “But she had a son, my father…”
There was a short hesitation. “Yes, unfortunately there was a falling out between your grandmother and Ronald. I’m not aware of the circumstances, but it was clearly written in her will who should inherit her assets, and that’s you, Ms. Winslow.”
Acid washed up her throat. “Forgive me, I’m a little stunned. I wasn’t even sure she remembered who I was.”
His sigh vibrated the line. “She remembered you. Kerrville’s a long way from Atlanta, but I know your grandmother was adamant on having you come here. And we do need to tie up the details. Although your grandmother had been living in a nursing home the last few months, she had hired caretakers for the farmhouse and her hands stayed on taking care of the property, the livestock, and dwellings. The house will be available for you to stay in, so no worries on finding accommodations while you’re here. She also had renters in the guesthouse…but we can discuss all of those things when you get here, after you’ve had some time to absorb the delicate news. I look forward to meeting you, Ms. Winslow. Your grandmother was a lovely woman. The community will miss her greatly.”
Not sure what answer to give him, she took his offering to let things ‘absorb’ and they hung up. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat as sadness crawled through her.
Once upon a time, Brooke had cared that her father had disappeared, not calling, visiting or making any attempt to show that he cared. She’d also wanted to visit her grandmother, remembering how she’d made delicious fluffy pancakes every morning for breakfast and how her long, silver hair hung down her back. She’d spend thirty minutes brushing her locks into a satin sheen. Then she’d braid them. Brooke used to sit and watch, mesmerized by the length and color. She couldn’t remember much more than just those few, simple things.
A soft knock on the door interrupted Brooke’s thoughts.
When she opened the door to find Janet standing in the hall, shock spiraled through her.
“I hope I’m not bothering you at a bad time?” Janet’s hands were clasped tightly at her waist.
For the first time in a long time, Brooke was grateful to see her friend. “Would you like to come in?” She took a step back.
“I would love to.”
“Can I get you anything? Maybe a glass of wine?” Brooke closed the door.
“Sure.” Janet thrummed her fingers on the table as Brooke poured white wine into two glasses. “You must be wondering why I’m here.”
Brooke lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “Yes, I guess I am.”
The other woman seemed uncomfortable. “I’m moving. Dennis and I are getting married. You remember him?”
“The dog groomer?”
“Yes, that’s him. We bought a house in the suburbs. Imagine me living in the suburbs.” She laughed, but it quickly fizzled. “Anyway, I thought saying goodbye in person would be a good idea.”
Brooke rolled the tip of her finger along the rim of her glass. “I’m happy for you. I really am.”
“I…well, I shouldn’t…” Janet blinked.
“Go ahead. If you have something to say, please do.”
Several long seconds passed. “I was packing yesterday and I came across a picture of us taken while we were on that trip to Hawaii.” She sipped her wine. “Those days, the happier times, seem so long ago. I always envied how you could light up a room when you walked in. You were always happy and your smile was contagious.”
“Before the accident,” Brooke whispered.
“You can be that woman again. I know you can be.” Janet patted her hand.
They spoke a while longer, laughing over the fun times, yet dancing around the true issue that ended their friendship.
“I’m glad you came.” Brooke meant it. “And thank you for allowing me to vent about my grandmother passing.”
“Thank you for the wine. I should be going. I’m so behind in getting boxes packed.” Janet stood and started for the door.
“Yes?” Her friend looked over her shoulder.
“Why did you stop speaking to me?” What did she have to lose by asking?
Another moment of silence, then Janet responded, “There’s nothing more hurtful than seeing your best friend in hell, and there’s nothing you can do to save her. You weren’t the only one who suffered, Brooke,” she said quietly. “I lost my friend. I know I have no right to give you advice, but go to Kerrville. Find yourself.” Then she left.
 Alone in her turmoil, Brooke dropped her forehead to the table and wept, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. The tears finally dried and she got up. In her bedroom, she removed her T-shirt and jeans, exchanging them for a comfortable pair of pajama bottoms and tank top. Out of habit, she ended up inside of her studio where unfinished paintings lined one wall. She stared at them blankly, wishing colorful patterns and images would fill her mind like they used to. There was a time when she couldn’t contain all of the ideas and paint fast enough. Now she was lucky to finish one painting.
She ambled back into the kitchen and took out sliced turkey, cheese, and mayo from the fridge and lined them up on the counter with a loaf of bread. She wasn’t hungry, but she hadn’t eaten all day. Starving herself was a thing of the past. She guessed she had come that far.
Sitting down in her favorite chair and munching on the sandwich, she flipped through her planner. She skipped several blank pages and closed the cover. No dates for parties. No socializing evenings ahead. Nothing but emptiness.
Everything was before the accident. Her life was divided into halves. ‘Before the accident’ when she was how her friends remembered her. And then ‘after the accident’, a time that has become a dreary, lonely existence.
A meow sounded. Brooke bent over and met a pair of yellow eyes. “Macy, where have you been hiding?”
The fluffy, black cat jumped onto her lap and purred loudly.
Brooke gave her a scratch behind the ear. “Are you being this friendly just so I’ll share?” She picked off a bit of turkey and laid it down for the cat. Brooke had gotten her five years ago when she was a kitten and she’d been a loyal friend.
“Do you think Dr. Forester is right, Macy? Do I need a change?” Brooke rolled her eyes. “I’m talking to a cat as if she’ll answer me. That has to be a sign.”
As much as she hated to admit it, Dr. Forester had a point. Unless Brooke started helping herself, nothing else would matter. If only she knew how to help herself. Even her friends were moving on.
She automatically shifted her gaze to the letter on the table. It beckoned her like a spotlight.
She stood, which sent the cat jumping to the floor with a meow of complaint. “I don’t want to become the loner ‘cat lady’. I love you, Macy, but you’re not much for conversation.”
 Leaving her plate of the half eaten sandwich on the counter, she opened the letter and read it. 
She dropped the paper to the table.
There was no way she could go to Kerrville. She was just too busy doing nothing.
She didn’t want the property, the house, or anything else. Her grandmother could have made an effort to see Brooke. Why hadn’t she? The road traveled both directions.
Turning on her heel, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror hanging on the wall. Her long, blonde hair was piled high on top of her head and misbehaving strands had found their way around her cheeks. Her skin was dull. Her eyes were lined with dark circles. And her clothes hung off her body. She was a mess—a hot mess. Her left hand seemed to draw her in like a magnet. The burn scars had faded a lot with the help of a specialist, but people always asked questions—questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. Although she’d come a long way, she was still dealing with demons. Internal and external scars had kept her from living life. Beyond what some people thought, she did want to live. If only she could get beyond that little girl’s cries…

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ONLY 99 cents!


Charlie felt a feather-like stroke across her cheek. She fluttered her eyes open and a bright light made her blink. It took her a moment to adjust from the darkness. Lifting herself up on elbow, she focused on the vision before her. “Sunny?”
“It’s Christmas, momma.” The little girl giggled and turned in a circle, her arms held out wide like a bird ready to take flight.
Blinking, Charlie attempted to wrap her brain around what she was seeing.
Slipping from bed, she laughed while watching her daughter happily dance around the room, her feet gracefully gliding over the floor. “Yes, it’s Christmas, my love.”
Sunny suddenly stopped, her green eyes so pale they were almost transparent, and she tiptoed to Charlie. “I brought you something,” she whispered.
“You’ve finally come to take me home with you?”
The child’s harmonious giggle matched that of a magical harp. “Silly, mommy. You know you belong here.”
Charlie took a step backward, her stomach twisting. The backs of her knees struck the edge of the bed and she dropped. “I-I don’t want to stay. I want to be with you.” Tears misted her eyes.
“One day we will play lots.” Sunny cupped Charlie’s cheeks. Her small, delicate hands warmed Charlie unlike anything she’d ever felt. She inhaled deeply, taking in her child’s scent, filling her lungs with innocence. “I have a present for you.”
Reaching out to touch her daughter’s angelic face, her fingers slipped through the vision. “Stay. Don’t go. That’s the present I want.”
“Time to wake up and you’ll see. The drawing, mommy. Remember the drawing…”

Charlie jerked awake, covered in sweat, her hair clinging to her cheeks and her lungs aching. She jumped out of bed, her bare feet hitting the floor with a loud thump. “Sunny? Where are you?” She searched under the bed, in the closet, racing down the hallway frantically to check every room, but found only emptiness as every time before when she’d had a dream about her daughter. It had seemed so real…
Going back into her bedroom, she swiped at the tears falling to her cheeks and she saw the picture laying in the middle of the planked floor—the drawing she kept on her nightstand. She bent and picked it up, staring down at the colorful drawing Sunny had given to her on Christmas five years ago…the last holiday they would share together. The last time she’d see her daughter’s infectious smile, her bright eyes, and watch her dance.
Charlie traced the uneven lines of the crayon stick figures of her and Sunny. They were holding hands with large, colorful flowers in their hair. Yogi, their shaggy-haired dog, had his tongue sticking out and his ears perked. The tall man standing in the background by the house always confused, and bewildered, Charlie. She’d never seen him before and appeared he had black birds surrounding his head. When she’d asked Sunny who he was, she’d answered, “Snowman.”
Placing the picture in the top drawer of her nightstand, Charlie dressed, brushed her hair and downstairs she found her father, Brent, in the kitchen making pancakes. “Hey, what’s the pleasure?”
Brent waved the spatula in the air as a greeting. “It’s Christmas morning.” He flipped a pancake on the griddle.
She poured herself a cup of coffee in her favorite mug, added creamer, and sat down at the table. “Just like any other morning. I should head over to the diner.” Yogi nuzzled up next to her feet and she scratched him behind the ear.
He placed a plate of pancakes covered in syrup in front of her. “No, it’s not like ‘any other morning’. There’s a reason for the season. And don’t bother with opening the diner. It’s Christmas and the weather is calling for snowfall. No one will be around.”
“I wasn’t thinking of opening, just going through the inventory and deep cleaning while we’re closed for the day.” She cut into the fluffy pancake and popped it into her mouth. She wasn’t hungry, but she couldn’t disappoint her dad. Although she was an adult, he still felt it was his responsibility to watch over her like she was a child again.
He sat down across from her. “You’re always cleaning. Today, take a break. You deserve it.”
She shrugged. “I like keeping busy.”
“You work too much. You haven’ been sleeping well. The dark circles are back.”
Laying her fork down, she sipped her coffee, then got up. “I’m heading over. If you need anything, call me.” She kissed him on the forehead and started for the door, calling for Yogi to follow.
“I’m sorry, Charlie. If I said something—”
“No, you didn’t.” She turned and gave him a forced smile. “You know today isn’t easy for me and I’m best alone. I’ll be back later. I promise.”
Being alone had become normal to her.


STORM RICH DECIDED this was a very bad idea.
The window fogged up and he could barely see ten feet ahead of him. It didn’t look like the snow was going to let up any time soon. At least traffic wasn’t congested on the highway. He had that to be grateful for that. It was Christmas. Most people were indoors, enjoying the holiday with family and friends. Eating ham, turkey, and all of the fixins. Opening presents, laughing, and making a mental list of what gifts they’d re-gift. Those were the things normal people did on the holidays. Not him, nope. He was hauling ass across Tennessee, slowly making his way to Ohio for a show.
Turning the defroster on, a puff of cool air burst through the vents, clearing the window some. Visibility still sucked through the blanket of snow. He turned the heat on high and hoped his truck stayed firm to the road.
 “Turn right at the next exit. Stay on Route 772 for fifty-three miles,” the GPS voice said.
Storm grimaced. He’d entered the quickest route into the system, but he wasn’t sure leaving the highway was the best choice. At least on the stretch of road he didn’t have to worry about curves. Hell, he hadn’t even seen another vehicle since fifty miles back. He scrubbed his jaw and tugged at his goatee. If the faster route knocked off some driving time, he was all for taking a different way. He was starting to feel the effects of lack of sleep and weak coffee from the last gas station.
After turning onto the exit, the big tires on the rental truck slushed through the snow, steady on, the engine purring as he slowly stepped on the gas pedal. It had been a long time since he’d been behind the wheel of anything, but the high-end truck with its soft-as-a-baby’s-skin leather seats and modern interior features made Storm want one of his own. When would he have a chance to drive it? Probably never.
When will I have the opportunity to be normal? Probably never.
The customer service rep at the shop guaranteed the four-wheel drive would get through anything and everything. Storm was relying on that promise since he had commitments—ever-present responsibilities.
The snow storm had shut down all flights up and down the Midwest for the evening, which had thrown him for a loop. He would have been in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio by now, enjoying a steak and taters, maybe a beer or two, resting up for the country music gala if Mother Nature hadn’t decided a white Christmas was in order. He guessed he was the only one complaining. When he’d left Stoutsville late that afternoon, kids were out on sleds, families were building snowmen. Everyone was acting as if they had no place to be but smack-dab in the middle of winter fun. Maybe he was the only one who had somewhere to be. If he didn’t make it on time his manager was likely to keel over in anger. Storm didn’t want to deal with Max—especially didn’t want to let the other man know that the flight had been canceled. He’d warned Storm that it was too risky to take off during a busy time of year for a funeral. Pfft!
He turned the radio on and switched through stations until he came to a hit country song. The fresh out of high school star’s angelic voice flowed from the speakers. She sung about college parties and first kisses, reminding Storm that he wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. He could count at least ten new bright and upcoming stars blazing their way onto the country music scene, all as hopeful and na├»ve as he was when he sold his first album. They could handle long tours with no sleep and saw everything in rainbows and sprinkles.
Hell, he wasn’t old, not at thirty-eight, but he could hear the hands of time ticking in the back of his skull. He’d lost something lately though—not in his music, but in his heart. Never been married, no kids, and a track record of short and meaningless relationships, he didn’t have many memories that didn’t include the stage.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he gave his head a quick shake. Things were looking murky—plain and simple. Maybe it was high time he started thinking of the legacy he wanted to leave behind when the good Lord came calling. The death of his Uncle Ned had Storm thinking…pondering.
Last week, Ned was found in his favorite chair in front of the TV. He’d left this world peacefully, just how he’d lived his life. He had attended church every Sunday and believed death was a natural progression until the reward of heaven. He often spoke of how he looked forward to seeing his wife, Judith, again. Fifty years of marriage had only strengthened their love for each other. Storm smiled at the thought. Here lately he’d been wondering if true love was out there for him. He wanted to believe anything was possible—to think someone would want him for something outside of the glitz and the glamour of his guitar.
Three loud beeps interrupted the song. Another weather update.
“Six to seven inches of snow expected in the following counties…”
Storm searched his brain. What county was he in?
“A level three snow alert is in place for these counties. All public roadways are closed to the general public. Only police, medical, and emergency vehicles should be on roadways. Motorists can be fined or arrested if found driving on public roads in a non-emergency situation.”
“Ah, shit!” He pounded his palm against the steering wheel. He could see the headlines in the paper now, “Storm Rich arrested for traveling on unsafe roads.” Better than the headlines three years ago, “Storm Rich arrested for disorderly conduct after finding girlfriend with fellow country star, Reef Weathers.” He loved how the media distorted his life at their pleasure. Sure, he’d been arrested, charges later dropped, but what was written in print couldn’t be unseen. What the media didn’t entertain the public with was how he’d walked into his apartment and found Cecilia, his on-again off-again girlfriend, in his bed with Weathers. Storm had simply helped the other man out of the door and into the hall.
Sure, Storm guessed he’d gone over the line when he followed Weathers into the lobby and punched him in the jaw.  Sometimes a man couldn’t back down.
Now Storm understood why Cecilia always wanted him to call or text first if he was coming home early.
He’d always been a patient man, never one to resort to violence, but that particular day, he’d forgotten his ethics and let loose. Fans had been torn between their love for the two stars, Storm and Weathers. While he had talked to newspaper, magazine, anything in black and white, Storm had taken a different approach. He’d stayed silent. Max had predicted that it would leave fans cold, thinking Storm was the bad guy, but he’d never found a use in trash-talk.
Good riddance to the past.
How did he get himself into these unfortunate predicaments?
As if to prove how stupid it was for him to be out on the roads, the snow came down harder. The road was completely covered and slick. He slowed the truck and wiped the inside of the window, worrying his bottom lip in frustration. He needed a place to pull off until the weather passed, but he couldn’t see anything but white. Damn country road!
“Damn you, GPS!” He punched the power button with his middle finger.
His cell phone vibrated from the holder on the dashboard and the screen lit up. He sighed and shook his head. Max. Now was not the time to talk to him. Hell, would there ever be a good time? The vibration finally stopped, but three seconds later, it started again. Storm realized the man would keep calling until he got an answer.  Pushing talk, Storm prepared himself for an unleashing of curse words.
“Shit! Where the hell are you?” Max’s tone rattled the line.
“Nice to hear your voice, buddy. You sound jubilant this evening.” Storm smiled. Max left himself wide open for egging.
“Tracking your ass. You didn’t think it was important to tell me that your flight was canceled?”
Storm thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “What could you do, Max? Your magical reach doesn’t quite extend to Mother Nature. It wasn’t just my flight, but all flights.”
“I told you not to go! I warned you this would happen, but did you listen? Of course not. No one ever listens to a voice of reason.”
“Relax, man. I’ve got this covered,” Storm said. A loud groan tickled his ear.
“Just tell me you’re at the airport waiting for the airlines to open again.”
“We have a slight problem.” Storm shifted in the leather seat and tugged on the seatbelt that suddenly felt like it constructed his lungs.
There was a long pause. “A problem?”
“I rented a vehicle and I’m driving to Ohio. It’s snowing like a son-of-a-gun.”
“What?” The word was a cross between a growl and a groan. “Where the hell are you?” he said it with more conviction this time.
“No clue. Hang on a sec.” He pushed the button on the GPS and the screen came alive. “Not good. The GPS has no signal.”
“You have media interviews first thing in the morning.”
“Who cares about the media? I don’t feel like pretending that I give a shit what the parasites write about me.”
“These ‘parasites’ help sell your albums. Even more importantly, the gala event is tomorrow, Storm. Freaking tomorrow! You’re up for an award. Imagine what people will think if you’re not there to accept it? Another pounding of rumors is the last thing you need.”
“Relax and have a cigar. I’ve got this covered.” Storm resisted the urge to laugh at his manager’s uptight attitude. Over the years, Storm had gotten used to Max’s bark. His goal was always on target, but his delivery needed work. “I’ve been told this truck will get me through anything.” Why did those words suddenly sound senseless? Nothing was safe on ice. But he had to keep it together for his manager’s sake.
 “You know what’s hilarious? You’re driving yourself. If you’d called me, I could have had a car pick you up and bring you here.”
“Maybe I wanted to drive myself. Why is that so shocking?” Storm didn’t like the doubt in the man’s words.
“You haven’t driven yourself since you hit number one. The perks of being a star, my friend. And with that in mind, you can’t miss the New Year’s Eve show, buddy. Tickets are sold out and we have a star line-up. You cancel your act and your career won’t bounce back.”
Storm clenched his jaw. He wished he had a nickel for every time he heard that threat. “That warning doesn’t work like it used to, Max. At least come up with something better, more creative.”
Max’s humorless chuckle spun through Storm as cold as the winter outside. “Looks like we’re both lacking in creativity these days.”
“Creativity or inspiration?” Storm didn’t need to deny the obvious. “We’re both getting worn down.”
“I warned you not to leave this close to an event.”
Storm scrubbed his jaw. “I guess I should have told my uncle this wasn’t the right time to kick the bucket because it conflicted with my schedule.” He squeezed the steering wheel tighter until his knuckles ached. A sour taste filled his throat.
“You know what I mean, Storm. Once upon a time you understood how these things worked.”
“Ned helped raise me and I wouldn’t have missed it. That’s how families work, Max. Have you forgotten that concept? You have a brother and sister. When was the last time you paid them a visit? Even called to say hello?”
“I’ve called. Back when you did that concert in Texas. The one that sold out in twenty minutes.”
Storm sniffed loudly. “That was five years ago.”
“Has it really been that long? Time flies. Just get here, Storm.”
The line crackled and went dead. He looked at the phone. ‘No signal’. Probably best anyway. He placed it back in the holder, blowing a long breath through his tight lips. He wouldn’t worry over something he couldn’t change—mainly Max’s anger. It was hard to believe that once upon a time, Storm would have agreed with the man. Work always ranked top on the priority list and, because of that, he’d missed out on many holidays with his uncle, the man who raised him after his parents were killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, there was no going back. Hell, Storm barely wanted to go forward, back to a life in the public eye where he was scrutinized for everything and anything.
Everyone knew him, yet no one knew him at all.
The last time he visited the doc for strained vocal chords, he was given a warning that if he didn’t get more rest, he might cause permanent damage. The idea used to scare the shit out of him, but not so much now. At this point, it’d be an excuse to change his life.
The night was unusually dark. The headlights glinted off the huge snowflakes. The truck was moving at a crawl and still the tires were sliding. He tapped on the brake and the back shimmied, but he maintained control of the front, steady and straight.
He was in the middle of nowhere, snow covered roads, but somehow everything seemed at peace. There was a calmness about the darkness, the falling snow, alone. He hoped he would pass a road sign soon, otherwise he might end up driving far from where he was headed.
“How about a song to warm you up on this cold evening?” the female radio host announced in a sultry voice. “A hot number by the hottie himself, Storm Rich. Even with his bad-boy reputation, I’d still go out on a date with him.”
Storm smirked. He wasn’t sure if he should be entertained by the comment or floored. Sure, maybe he’d earned his bad-boy stripes back in his twenties, but for the majority of his thirties, he’d come across women, fans, and dating potentials that made him appear as sweet and innocent as a newborn. What was the use in arguing or defending himself? The media loved portraying him as the womanizer who sifted through women like sand.
Turning the wipers on high, the swish-swashing sound grew louder, rubber blades crunching and scraping against the ice forming on the glass. His latest hit song was interrupted by the beeps of another weather alert. He barely registered the computerized voice. Icy conditions…heavy snowfall…stay inside.
The road vanished completely before him. Nothing but a bed of snow. No tire tracks in sight. Was he even still on pavement? He had no choice but to find a gas station, a pull off, anything for respite from the worsening weather conditions. He wouldn’t be making his scheduled promotions tomorrow morning.
Hitting a bump, his phone popped out of the holder and dropped to the floorboard at his feet. “Shit!”
He managed to reach the cell, but as he lifted his gaze back on the road something flashed in the headlights. He caught a glimpse of shiny, reflective eyes and fluffy tail.
“What the hell?”
The dog stopped and Storm reacted, slamming on the brakes. The tires locked up and slid. This time he didn’t have control as the front veered right, hitting the edge of the road, and the nose of the truck descended down the steep ditch, knocking him about in the seat. The fender struck the embankment with a loud thud.  His head shot forward against the steering wheel and a dull pain shot through his forehead.
He lifted his chin, squinting as a sharp pain undulated down his left shoulder into his arm. Smoke rolled from under the hood of the truck and the loud sizzling sound of the radiator mingled with the radio announcer’s voice. “It’s cold outside folks. Stay inside and cuddle up with egg nog and a loved one.”
“Now you tell me.” He wanted to laugh, but nothing about this situation was funny.
 A spider web crack reached from one corner of the windshield to the other. The truck sat at an odd angle, dipped in the front and the back high in the air. The wheels still spinning.
Assessing the situation, he realized he was still alive and the truck wasn’t going anywhere—over a cliff or onto its top. All good things considered.
Charlie Lindon took the bowl of corn from the microwave and gave it a stir, she then spooned a good amount onto two plates. Taking them to the table, she placed one in front of her father and took her plate to the other side of the table. Sitting, she unfolded her napkin and spread it across her lap, seeing the curious expression on his face. “What? It’s corn and grilled chicken.”
He shrugged a thin shoulder, one wiry brow lifting. “Where’s the mushroom gravy? The extra butter? Rolls?”
“Pops, you know what the doctor said,” she reminded him. “You have to cut back on fat to keep that ticker going strong.” She wouldn’t admit it to him, but the meal looked unappealing.
“I’m not sure why you’re so determined to keep this old man alive. I’m old and getting close to my expiration date. I should at least get to enjoy myself until that day comes.” He scooped a forkful of corn and shoved it into his mouth.
“You’re sixty. That’s hardly old. Just seasoned perfectly.” She stabbed her fork into her chicken and cut into the juicy meat, but didn’t have much of an appetite.
“Maybe if I wasn’t hanging around here you’d finally settle down. Have a kid or two,” he grumbled. “What young, single woman wants her father living under the same roof?”
“Pops, don’t do this. Don’t start the lecture about a man and family. I can’t take it tonight,” she warned with a narrowed gaze. She was tired, emotionally and physically.
“Oh, I see. You can dish it out about my eating habits and lack of exercise, but you can’t take a little bit of helpful hints about your love life?”
Sighing, she pushed back the chair and took her plate to the sink. She dumped the untouched food into the garbage disposal.
“Just like that.” He pointed his fork at her. “You don’t eat enough. How do you plan on working the diner and taking care of me if you never eat?”
“I eat.” She stared out of the window at the falling snow. “Did you let Yogi inside?” She was met with silence. Turning, she saw her father’s puzzled expression. “You didn’t?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
Charlie went to the back door, pushing it open. A gust of cold air swept across her face and goosebumps scattered her skin. “Yogi? Yogi, get in here.” The breeze carried her voice. He didn’t come. She tried again. “Yogi? It’s cold. Come on.” Still nothing.
She slammed the door, marched out of the kitchen and down the hall to the front door. Her father was behind her. “Where are you going?”
“To find Yogi.” She grabbed her snow boots, pulling one on.
“You can’t go out into this, Charlie.”
Looking at her father with a defiant tilt to her chin, she slipped into the other boot. She prepared herself for an argument. “I can’t leave Yogi out there in this weather. The temperature has dropped and we’re supposed to get another four inches before it’s all said and done.”
“He’s a dog. He has fur for a reason.” Brent sighed. “You on the other hand won’t last a half hour out there if you get stuck. What if you fall? What if you lose your way?”
Grabbing her thick coat from the rack, she dragged it on. “Yogi won’t last out in the cold all night.” She jerkily pulled the small buttons through the holes. She’d had other plans outside of venturing into the snow and cold this evening. A bubble bath and a book would have been much nicer.
“He shouldn’t have run away.”
“And we shouldn’t have forgotten that he was outside,” she stated gently.
“Meaning I shouldn’t have forgotten him.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure he’s close. Just being stubborn.”
He blinked. “I can’t let you do this. I’ll go.” He reached for his coat, but she touched his wrist lightly.
“No, Pops, you can’t. Your heart can’t take walking out there in the deep snow. It’s too dangerous.” Her coat was now buttoned, boots on, and she pulled her warm hat lower over her ears, pulling her long hair around on one shoulder. “I promise I won’t go far. I’ll look for his paw tracks and I’ll call for him. If I don’t see anything, I’ll come back. But I have to do this. You know I’ll never rest until I know he’s okay.”
As if he knew arguing with his daughter was a waste of precious time, he nodded and stepped away from the door. “Just be careful, you hear? You’re all I got in this life and I don’t want to lose you over that old dog who’s quickly reaching his expiration date too,” he huffed.
She smiled at his grumpiness and kissed him on his bearded cheek. “I love you. Now don’t sit here worrying. And don’t tap into that bottle you have stashed under the sink. Go sit and work on the puzzle you’ve been hanging your head over for the last month.” She winked, grabbed the flashlight from the table and headed out the door.
The icy wind splashed across her cheeks and the cold air dried up her lungs. She pulled her coat collar further up on her face and her hat lower over her ears. The temperature had dropped drastically in the last hour. Yogi’s paws were at risk for getting frost bite. She wasn’t sure why the dog took off in the first place. It was completely unlike him. Since he was a pup, the yellow lab had been faithful and loyal. His behavior had been unusual this evening, standing by the door, whimpering and whining, until Pops had finally reached his limit and put him outside.
She didn’t want to think that her father was right and Yogi was on the latter part of his life. The dog held a special place in her heart. And she certainly didn’t want to hear anymore nonsense about her father getting ‘old’ and ready to check out. Since his heart attack last year, he’d gone through an emotional whirlwind. The doctor said it was normal for heart patients to suffer depression after a traumatic experience. Her father had to change his diet, his routine, and not indulge in guilty pleasures like a dozen slices of bacon each morning and a shot of whiskey each night. Lately, she’d become his guardian, monitoring his every move and it wasn’t working out for either of them. In the long run, he would have to make the effort to be healthier.
There was also the little problem of him trying to convince her all of the time that she needed to settle down. He talked about her love life more and more these days. Why didn’t he understand that she wasn’t ready? She didn’t need his lecture on love, especially not today. She still couldn’t get through the holidays without having a meltdown. They used to celebrate Christmas, but this year they’d handed out presents to the locals then spent the rest of the holiday pretending they weren’t mourning.
She stepped off the porch, her boots crunched the icy snow as she made her way through the front yard. She couldn’t see very far. The snow came down in a thick blanket. Clicking on the flashlight, she shone the light around the yard, looking for paw tracks. The snow fell so fast she doubted she’d find any evidence of Yogi.
“Yogi? Come here, boy. Enough of this,” she yelled out into the night. Only her echo came back. “I’m taking your comfy blanket away if you don’t come here right away.”
She walked a little further and stopped. “You won’t be getting a treat for a week, dog,” she muttered. “I’ll give them to the neighborhood dogs. I’ll give the German Shepard an extra helping, you know, the one you don’t like.”
Eventually she made it to the trees edging the road. Following the row until she reached the driveway, she looked both ways, seeing no tracks or sign of the misbehaving dog. She wouldn’t think he’d gone to the road, but she thought she’d look to be sure.
Glancing back, the two-story white house seemed to disappear in the distance. The porch light was a beacon calling her back. Yet she couldn’t go yet. She couldn’t until she found Yogi.
Heading toward the road, she faced the wind. The air was so cold that her eyes hurt and her nose burned. Her lungs worked harder to draw air in and puffs of clouds formed upon exhale. She moved toward the main road, hoping Yogi didn’t get hit by a car. There hadn’t been any traffic since a level three alert was placed on their area. People in these parts would have sense to stay inside and not venture out in the weather.
She approached the road and heard a faint bell ringing. She stopped and listened. Was it the bell on Yogi’s collar? Movement drew her attention to a spot about twenty feet away. She caught a flash of a bushy tail. “Yogi, get back here.” The wind carried her voice the opposite direction.
Running, or rather hopping through the snow, she took off after him, hoping she didn’t fall on the slippery ice. Running out of breath and forcing her legs to move, she finally had to slow down from pure exhaustion. Sucking in her breaths, she scanned the area where he’d disappeared, seeing light flashing through the trees in the distance. A car was coming. Who would be crazy enough to be driving in this?
“Yogi! Come here!” she screamed, but her voice came back at her. Her throat ached.
She climbed down into the ditch, clawing at the snow, seeing Yogi in the approaching headlights. As if in a movie, everything slowed, yet her senses heightened. The sound of tires crunching on the snow grew louder. Yogi barked. Rubber scraped on ice. The truck swerved, then a loud thud echoed through the night as it came to rest in the embankment.
“Oh no,” she whispered.
Fear trickled down her spine. Her mind raced as she crawled from the ditch into the road. Her boots slipped and she fell to her knees, but she quickly pushed herself back to standing. Carefully, she moved toward the vehicle, the tail lights stark against the dark night. The wheels were still turning and the front was settled precariously in the ditch.
Dropping to her bottom, she slid on her butt until she came to the driver’s door. Her breathing was heavy in her ears and her heart beat thumped against her chest as she peered through the fogged driver’s side glass. Not seeing anything, she tried tugging the handle, but it was locked.
“Hello?” She pounded the window. Not doing much good through the thick gloves she wore.
She would never forgive herself if someone was seriously hurt. Or worse. She should have kept a better eye on Yogi. A feeling of heat spread over her thigh. She looked down, finding the dog standing beside her, his breaths warming her denim-covered leg.
 “Yogi, what have you done?” He wagged his tail, whimpering, his brown eyes glinting in the light of her flashlight. “Oh? That’s all you have to say for yourself?”