Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

Many people obsess over their past, but no one more than I. Perchance it’s because, as a man out of time, I left behind so much of it unlived. If that makes little sense, consider that I’m a time traveler.

Although the backdrop for my story is time travel and alternate realities, the underlying theme is a more human one—of love lost, another love found only to be lost, and of a decision, the result of a single regret brought about by the realization that my self-professed courage to never risk my heart to love was instead cowardice, to rectify a wrong in a life filled with myriad regrets. You may judge me, as it is man’s nature to judge others, or discount my story as the ravings of a lunatic mind or simply the fiction of an overactive imagination—but before you do, I ask that you read the words that follow and then ask yourself if you would have acted any differently.

Excerpt:

I stooped to brush several grass clippings from the simple marble marker:

Lindy Parquette Roberts
Wife, Loving Mother
November 11, 1918-March 10, 1986

Beneath the sunshine of a late spring morning the moment seemed surreal. Only two days ago Lindy had been alive to me—beautiful, young, vibrant; now, beneath this close-cropped sod were her remains, ravaged by a disease that before yesterday I’d never even heard of. Dead at the age of sixty-eight.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what she must’ve looked like at the end, how she aged, after I disappeared. Was it arrogant of me to think she’d have been happier with me than John Roberts? Perhaps it was at that.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the marker, as if what lay beneath could hear me; the marble was cool to my touch despite the late morning sun, and I wondered if its chill might be representative of Lindy’s reaction to my presence, this clumsy attempt at apology. “I’m sorry I abandoned you as I did, but I’m most sorry for never having told you that I loved you.”

Wife, Loving Mother.

I felt the sting of tears, and I wondered what the marker might read, whether the lone adjective might be juxtaposed to a more prominent place had I not been suddenly thrust a century away from her.

“I’d like to think I could’ve made a difference,” I said, for Lindy’s benefit as well as my own. “But through hindsight we see ever so much more clearly.”

I sighed.

“Maybe it means nothing to you now, Lindy, but I promise that I will, somehow, make a difference.”

I touched fingers to my mouth, laid them on the marble, and told her again that I loved her.

A moment later I stood and made my way toward Ecstasy, who sat on the grass near the cemetery path. She offered her hand to me, an invitation to assist her to stand. I took it but instead sat down next to her. I listened a moment to the sounds of the city traffic that, moments ago, I hadn’t heard but now seemed to intrude upon our privacy.

“Thanks,” I said, “for giving me a moment alone.”

She gave my hand a gentle squeeze, perhaps uncertain how to respond.

No, I thought, she knows precisely how to respond; such simple acknowledgement says more than any number of words.

I was grateful for the tenderness of her simple gesture, as well as for the warmth that flowed from her touch. It was so like the warmth I’d gotten from Lindy two days ago—two days that had spanned a century; for me a lost opportunity of a lifetime, for her, perhaps a lifetime lost. Warmth I’d denied until it was too late.

“Strange,” I added, “but it’s difficult for me to reconcile the finality of that marker with the fact that she still lives in her own time.”

Ecstasy smiled, and I looked at her hair, spun gold that shone brilliantly in a variety of shades and textures that would surely drive mad an artist trying to duplicate them with the colors on his palette.

“In time that will be all that remains of all of us,” she said.

I nodded. “A name, three words and two dates.”

Ecstasy was too polite to ask so I told her: “‘Wife, Loving Mother.’” I sighed. “She even had her maiden name chiseled into the stone.”

And then, looking back toward Lindy’s grave: “I wonder where John Roberts lays.”

“Ah, Joe,” she said. “Don’t blame yourself for her un­happiness.”

“How can I not?”

“You can’t hold yourself accountable for the choices she made.”

“Choices she made subsequent to my abandonment of her, no doubt limited by the child with which I’d left her.”

“But your abandonment, as you call it, wasn’t your choice, and you can’t know how it would’ve turned out had you stayed.”

“That doesn’t assuage my guilt and regret.”

I looked at Ecstasy. A part of me despised her for the role she played in our tryst the other night, even as I detested myself for my weakness—and I wondered if I had reviled every woman I’d ever encountered over the years, and whether my hatred of my mother was why I’d treated them so callously.

But there was too much compassion in the blue of Ecstasy’s eyes and so I banished my resentment, sighed, looked away—a feeble attempt to create an illusion of dis­tance—and said:

“I’m not a hundred miles away from her, Ecstasy, or a thousand or ten thousand. Those distances I could surmount. But I’m a hundred years removed from her, helpless to find my way back to her, and now robbed of any chance to even repent.”

“One can always repent.”

“Little good that does her—now, then, and every moment in between.”

“Perhaps not, but you have a chance to live differently from this moment forward.”

“To give meaning to her unhappiness?”

“To do otherwise would be disrespectful to your memory of her.”

“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”

“In time it will.”

I lay on my back, held up my left hand, watched it clench into a fist, let it drop to the ground beside me.

“I can’t even be sure she cares that I cared enough to visit.”

“She cares.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

My fist relented, its fingers now lay splayed flat; the grass felt cool against my palm. I could say nothing to contest Ecstasy’s wisdom. I’d found little comfort in visiting Lindy’s grave. Not that I’d expected to; but I derived much from the notion Ecstasy might be right.

“Come on,” I said, getting to my feet. “It’s warm here, under the sun, and you wanted to get over to Connie’s apartment to pack her things.”

I extended my hand and Ecstasy took it. She stood, and I embraced her and thanked her again. She said nothing as she returned my embrace. I held on to her tightly, as if my life depended on her, as indeed it did. I couldn’t hope to survive in this twenty-first century New York without a job, without money, a place to stay. Without her. I wondered if she was truly aware of my predicament, if she as yet believed that I’d come, literally, from out of the past, whether she could em­pathize, put herself in my place.

A moment later I found the courage to let her go and we slowly made our way toward the cemetery gate.

Leaving the cemetery seemed, somehow, therapeutic for me, as if I were leaving something behind, closing the door on a hundred years of lost living, although I was certain I was in no way finished with my grieving. It would be a long time before I realized I would never be quite done with that.

***

In 1992, a man approached J. Conrad Guest to tell his story. His name was Joe January. A private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “Personal identity—the slipperiness and the malleability of it—makes up the major theme of the story … (readers) will not be able to put it down.” One Hot January and January’s Thaw are companion novels to January’s Paradigm, although they need not be read sequentially. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time.

J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, also available from Second Wind Publishing. For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, please visit www.jconradguest.com.

Click here to read Chapter 1 of: January’s Thaw by J. Conrad Guest

Click here for an interview with: J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

4 Comments

Filed under books, Excerpts, fiction, writing

Excerpt From “One Hot January” by J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, gets more than he bargains for when he uncovers this seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father. Her father, a Professor of Archeology from Columbia College, must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body, which lies in a cryogenic state awaiting a cure for cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, January is thrust one hundred years into the future, where he must survive on a century-old sagacity as he endeavors to find his way back to his own time and the woman he loves but lacked the courage to tell. The tale concludes in January’s Thaw, to be released later this year.

Excerpt:

I stood on the brake pedal. The front brakes bit harder than the rear brakes; a high-pitched squeal sounded as the tires fought against the car’s forward momentum. I heard Melissa’s quick inhalation of air and her single syllable exclamation “Oh! ” underscore Lance’s “Jee-sus, Joe, what are you doing?” as he braced himself against the dashboard.

The rear tires lost traction amid blue smoke and the back end of the Ford started to pass me on the right. I allowed the car to come around ninety degrees before correcting into the skid. A moment later the Ford came to a halt in a position perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

Through the windshield I watched traffic in the southbound lane flow past. In the rearview mirror I saw Melissa’s surprised face. A ragged line of bright red streaked her right cheek; she had been applying lipstick when I’d locked the brakes. Beyond her face, through the rear window, I could see the Mapes Gates of Columbia College, and beyond them, University Hall. Grunting my amusement at the irony, I glanced at Lance, who looked somewhat shaken.

“What’s the matter, Lance?” I asked. “You look like you’re about to lose your breakfast.”

“Huh?”

Ignoring Lance’s question, I looked to my left to find the surprised face of the bespectacled driver of the Packard staring at me over the steering wheel he still clutched. Due to the Packard’s close proximity I was unable to open my door.

“Huh,” I grunted in contempt, suddenly aware of the many different uses of the three-letter interjection Lance had used but a moment ago. Had he intended interrogation, or had his response been simply reflex, an expression of surprise the result of shock?

“Hold this,” I said, handing my hat to Lance.

“Where are you going?” Lance asked dumbly, the color drained from his face.

“To make an acquaintance,” I said, hauling my bulk through the window frame.

I stepped one leg out, then the other, landing lightly on the Packard’s bumper. From there I bounded down onto the brick that was Broadway and made my way around to the driver’s side of the Packard. Flinging open its door, I reached in, grabbed the still startled driver by the lapels of his cheap tweed suit, and shook him violently several times. The last of the repetitions partially dislodged the pince-nez from the bridge of the nose it spanned. The blue eyes, now just inches from my own, swam beneath water that wasn’t tears. One eye, the left, focused its terror on me while the other, due to a weakness of its tendon an optometrist would diagnose as strabismus, seemed to focus furtively on some distant object behind and to my left. I resisted the urge to turn around to see what it was that held that other eye’s interest.

“Now that I have your attention,” I rasped, “maybe you’d like to tell me just what it is you’re doing tailing us.”

The great eyes blinked; yet the pools of water still threatened to spill over their levees.

“I haff no idea vat you are talking a-bout.” The man spoke, his high tenor surprising me, in a carefully metered pace that betrayed an uncertainty of the English language and I felt my stomach sink. We had yet to leave New York and already my worst fears were confirmed.

The man’s a Nazi! I concluded.

“Shit!” I said. An image of the man whose lapels I still firmly held dressed in the black of the German Gestapo flashed before my eyes.

And to think I was concerned over the likelihood that he was an agent of our own government. Dammit!

“You always make a point of enjoying a cup of coffee while reading The Wall Street in front of my office on 59th before following me uptown?”

“I haff no idea—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I broke in, giving him another violent shaking. The action provided a release for my slightly trembling hands, the result of my surging adrenaline. “I’ve already heard that.”

I snorted aloud and a new strategy began to take shape. I released my grip and fussed over the rumpled lapels.

“Obviously you’re a tourist,” I said, righting the glasses that still teetered precariously near the end of his nose.

“Ja, a tourist,” the German answered with a slow nod.

I watched the conspiratorial gaze that had been residing in the right eye make its way none too stealthily to the good eye. In the vacancy left behind, I thought I detected a certain nonchalance that surely was intended to disarm me.

“Ja,” I mimicked. “Well, being a local maybe I can help you find whatever landmark it is you’re looking for, Herr Tourist.”

“Land-mark?” the big German enunciated carefully. Neither eye looked like it comprehended what I was talking about.

“Ja,” I repeated. “You know ¼ sightseeing.” I watched the light come on in the cerulean of the left eye and the thin lips parted in a good-natured smile to reveal a good-sized gap between the two front teeth.

“Ja, sight-seeing,” the stranger acknowledged with a nod, and his smile broadened.

“Ja,” I repeated a third time with a nod of my own. “What would you like to see?” The smile inverted itself. Neither eye met my penetrating gaze. “The Statue of Liberty?”

Silence.

I nodded. “I see. Been there already. Well how about the Empire State Building, then?” Like all native New Yorkers, I slurred into one syllable the second and third words of the proper name that identifies New York’s most famous landmark. The stranger brought one eye to bear on me while the other stared off into the distance. I wondered if any object it might focus on would register an image for the German. “No? Well what about Columbia College? You seen that yet, Herr Pal?”

“Co-lum-bia Col-lege?” The German enunciated each syllable carefully, uncertainly.

“Great!” I said, allowing my own manufactured smile to break out. “I know just where Columbia College is. Why don’t you slide on over and I’ll have you there in no time.”

“Nein. I do not vish to ¼ trouble you. I vill find land-mark.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” I said with finality. “Now scootch.”

I stared hard at the one blue eye and saw it consider several alternatives, discarding each of them in turn. With a nod, the German, resigned to his one and only option, the one that had been forced upon him, relinquished his place behind the wheel of the Packard, and I hauled myself in beside him.

Firing the ignition, I stuck my head out the window and called to Lance, “Go ahead and park the car, Lance. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“But, where are you …?” I heard Lance call back as I brought my head back inside the Packard, just in time to see my unwilling passenger fumbling with the catch on the glove compartment. With catlike quickness I grabbed the German by his wrist.

“I don’t believe you’ll be needing that tour guidebook for this one,” I said.

With that, I dropped the Packard’s automatic transmission into reverse, glanced over my right shoulder, and backed up the few feet I needed to steer clear of the Ford. A moment later, with the Packard in drive, I slowly accelerated past my own car, giving a wave to Lance and Melissa, and on up Broadway.

“You know,” I said as the automatic transmission smoothly shifted from first to second gear, “you rubbernecks would get around our city a whole lot easier if you just kept in mind that the Avenues”—I glanced over at the German’s profile, a mask of contrived sincerity on my face— “you know avenues—Park Avenue, 5th Avenue. Avenues?”

“Ja, avenues.”

“Right, avenues. The Avenues in New York all run north and south, along the length of the island. Now the Streets,” I continued patiently. “The Streets all run east-west. Now if more of you tourists understood that concept—that the Avenues run north-south while the Streets run east-west ¼ well, you’d all have a helluva lot easier time finding landmarks and such and you wouldn’t have to pester us locals. You understand what I’m saying, Herr Rubberneck?”

“Ja.”

“Ja.” I noted our speed had crept up to thirty miles per hour.

“Now take Broadway for instance—the street we’re on now? It’s not a Street, so it doesn’t run east-west. It runs north-south—like an Avenue. But it’s not really an Avenue, I mean like Park Avenue, see? But avenue is another name for a broad roadway. Which is where Broadway derives its name.”

Our speed had risen to thirty-five miles per hour by now, well above the limit for the city. I kept a close lookout for any police cars that might be patrolling.

“So you see, Broadway really is an avenue, which is why it traverses the island in a more or less north-south direction. Just a little something for you to keep in mind while touring the sights here in our fair city, ja?”

“Ja.”

Even from his profile I could tell the German was more than a little edgy.

The speedometer now registered forty miles per hour. The traffic light at West 135th Street was red. I sailed right on through it—as I had the red at 125th Street.

“Oh, what am I thinking?” I said, pressing the palm of my right hand against my forehead. “You know I got so carried away with my advice, I didn’t realize we just passed Columbia College twenty or so blocks back.”

With a glance into the rearview mirror, I slammed the gear selector into reverse. The Packard came to a stop in a hurry and filled up with smoke, as much from the tires as from the transmission. Reverse was stripped out but that was no problem; I had allowed the Packard to do a tight one-hundred-eighty-degree spin in the middle of Broadway so we’d be facing south. Pale as a ghost and staring straight ahead, the German clutched the dashboard as I crossed into the southbound lane and drove back down Broadway.

“Well here we are, Mac, none the worse for wear,” I said once I’d finished parking the Packard in front of Columbia, just a few yards from where we’d started our little jaunt.

Nose-to-tail with the car in front, the German would effectively be dead in the water. With no reverse, he would have no choice but to wait until the car in front was moved before he could continue his pursuit, and by then we’d be miles away.

“Sorry about all the confusion,” I said. “I guess I’m just not used to driving one of these new automatic transmissions. Although,” I added as an afterthought, “I’ve got a buddy who tells me they’re turning them out like hotcakes in Detroit.”

***

J. Conrad Guest’s writing credentials include January’s Paradigm, first published in 1998 by Minerva Press, London, England. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, available from Second Wind Publishing, was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Several of Guest’s short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared on Internet publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal and Redbridge Review. Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine published in November 2005 Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s, a memoir chronicling his mother’s battle against Parkinson’s.

See also:
Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of One Hot January
Interview with Joe January, hero of One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest
Chapter One – One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

Click here to buy: One Hot January

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Excerpts

Creating the Fictional County of Chalcedony

I needed a special setting for my latest novel Light Bringer. It needed to be part of the world but isolated, a place where people were free to be themselves without ridicule, where UFOs sightings could have had a major impact, where a secret government-sanctioned project could be hidden. Luckily, I had to look no further than out my living room window.

At the time, I was living in the shadow of the Grand Mesa, in ranching country, and much of that terrain formed the backdrop of my story. Chalcedony is the name of a fictional county sandwiched between Mesa County and Delta County. It is a beautiful place with mountains and valleys, wide-open spaces, cattle and horses, new buildings and old.

But beneath the mountains in this peaceful world, unpeaceful things are happening.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Light Bringer: Becka Johnson had been abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Chalcedony, Colorado when she was a baby. Now, thirty-seven years later, she has returned to Chalcedony to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? Why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? Who is Philip, and why does her body sing in harmony with his? And what do either of them have to do with a shadow corporation that once operated a secret underground installation in the area?

Click here to read the first chapter of: Light Bringer

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

Leave a comment

Filed under books, fiction, Pat Bertram, writing

Writing the Book Only You Can Write by Pat Bertram

“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” –Diane Arbus, noted American photographer

Out walking the other day, I noticed an incredible shadow of a tree on the sidewalk, and I had to stop and take a picture. I happened to pass at just the right time. In a few minutes, the sun would be in a different position, clouds would filter the sunlight, and the lines of the shadow would blur. But  for just a moment, there it was — stark and beautiful. Since I happened to be carrying my camera, I am not the only one who saw that shadow — you can see it, too.

During my two years as a published writer, I learned that if you wish to be a selling author, you need to pick a specific, recognizable genre, and you need to develop a series character in that genre who is so compelling people will be waiting for your next book. Readers who come late to the series go back to read earlier books, and so sales take on a life of their own, each book helping to sell the others. This was a painful lesson, because I did not do that. Each of my books is a stand-alone novel without a series character, and each straddles a shadowy line between genres.  Instead of a series that helps promote me and my oeuvre, I have to start over each time a new book is published, promoting each book individually.

And yet  . . . I can’t feel too badly about my stand-alone, genreless books. They would never have been written if I didn’t write them. Only I could have presented that particular world view, created those characters, told those stories. Maybe my books will never find a strong readership, maybe I will go down in obsucurity, but in those books are things no one would ever see if I hadn’t written a word photograph. Like my lake of flowers in Light Bringer:

Becka kept running, needing no footpath to lead her to their destination. She could feel the music tugging at her, guiding her, singing her forward.

At first a faint red trumpeting, the music swelled into a full orchestra: orange church bells, yellow bugles, green violins, blue flutes, indigo cellos, violet woodwinds.

Beneath it all, she could hear the grasses murmuring, “Hurry, hurry.”

And then there it was, spread out before her in a shallow thirty-foot bowl. A lake of flowers— chrysanthemums and tulips, daisies and daffodils, lilies and columbines and fuchsia—all blooming brightly, all singing their song of welcome.

***

Light Bringer: Becka Johnson had been abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Chalcedony, Colorado when she was a baby. Now, thirty-seven years later, she has returned to Chalcedony to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? Why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? Who is Philip, and why does her body sing in harmony with his? And what do either of them have to do with a shadow corporation that once operated a secret underground installation in the area? (Light Bringer has been called a speculative fiction thriller, which is as good a genre description as any.)

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

7 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, Pat Bertram, writing

One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, gets more than he bargains for when he uncovers this seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father. Her father, a Professor of Archeology from Columbia College, must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body, which lies in a cryogenic state awaiting a cure for cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, January is thrust one hundred years into the future, where he must survive on a century-old sagacity as he endeavors to find his way back to his own time and the woman he loves but lacked the courage to tell. The tale concludes in January’s Thaw, to be released later this year.

Excerpt:

“Good morning,” Melissa said, her voice sounding bright and cheerful from behind us.

“That it is,” I said, turning.

Let her go on thinking we were standing here admiring the sunrise, I thought wryly.

“Set down your suitcase and help yourself to some coffee, Miss MacIntyre,” I added, moving to my desk.

Lindy left my office for her own unaware, as Melissa stepped aside to let her pass, of the blue eyes that were attempting to gauge just where her responsibilities as my gal Friday might end.

“Thank you, no,” Melissa said. “Coffee’s something I never acquired a taste for. My preference is for tea.”

“What a pity,” I said, although my tone betrayed none. I sat down and, once again inhaling deeply of the aroma from the cup I still held, added, “The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it that the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.”

“Why, Mr. January! I had no idea you were a reader of Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

“I’m not,” I said flatly, unable to recall where I’d heard or read the adage I had just adduced. “I don’t care for tea.”

Melissa laughed, the sound taking me by surprise. Yesteryear’s child was gone, I noted again, replaced by this more cultivated, ripened, much more sophisticated woman, her teeth just as straight and just as white as I remembered from that long ago night at Minton’s. For a moment I softened, and a different image of Melissa played itself across my mind, this one naked and squirming in ecstasy beneath me—

“Mr. January?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, embarrassed by the fictive vision of a moment ago. “You were saying?”

“I asked if it were necessary that we maintain such a formal arrangement.”

No, I told myself, refusing to allow the remnants of that other Melissa to reassert itself. It’s best to keep business separate from pleasure—at least until such time I can be certain for whose side she’s playing.

To Melissa, I said, “I’m in your employ, Miss MacIntyre, and until we sever our business arrangement, I prefer keeping our relationship strictly business.”

“You weren’t working for me last night,” she said, baiting me. When I wouldn’t bite, she added, “Have it your way, Mr. January.”

I ignored her jest and pulled from one of my desk drawers the shoulder holster that housed my Colt Detective Special .38. Melissa’s eyes went wide.

“You don’t think you’re going to need that, do you?” She sounded as if she were having second thoughts about accompanying Lance and me to Indianapolis.

“You never know,” I said, slipping the holster over my head. “I’d hate to get all the way to Indianapolis just to wish I’d brought it along.”

***

J. Conrad Guest’s writing credentials include January’s Paradigm, first published in 1998 by Minerva Press, London, England. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings,  available from Second Wind Publishing, was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Several of Guest’s short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared on Internet publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal and Redbridge Review. Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine published in November 2005 Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s, a memoir chronicling his mother’s battle against Parkinson’s. 

Click here to buy: One Hot January

2 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, writing

“More Deaths Than One” Contest Entries

These are the top entries (listed by word count) to Pat Bertram’s More Deaths Than One contest. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did. You are also welcome to help us pick out the top three. The only thing we are judging is imagination. Which of these entries do you think are the most imaginative?

Entry by Kerri Gallion:

I believe I would write this with the plot line that this person was actually from a parallel time period and had gone through the time slip and entered the present day.  In doing so, they took on the identify of someone else in order to stay and elude the person trying to kill them.  They might not actually have the same number of children and live in the same area, but have taken on that information as a ruse.

Entry by P.L.J.:

Bob looked at or more aptly through the obituary that he had torn from the newspaper at the coffee shop. His own mother’s name, dead “again” eighteen years later. The dull thud of the pain at the nape of his neck added to his trance like stare. Suddenly he found himself on his knees reeling at a searing pain that tore through his calf, had he been shot?

He felt as though he was then floating in a warm dark place and in his ears a reassuring repetitive thud, something? someone? reached out and touched his arm. A wave of nausea and eerie Déjà vu swept over him and that familiar and wrenching sense of loss. Who was torn away from him, a second self?

Entry by Sheila Deeth:

It wasn’t his mother; he’d been talking to her on the phone just yesterday. But the online obituary had her name, was in her local paper, and even included David’s own name and age, correctly stated, as the closest surviving relative.

That was the first one. Soon David Elson finds himself almost afraid to use his computer. Online references to death, murder and mayhem fill his search results. But when he turns to his wife’s machine, the pages are murder-free, and his mother, very much alive, is still writing articles for her local rag.

As reality and computer-reality diverge, David finds himself trapped between two lives, uncertain which is real and which imaginary. And the key to his recovery lies buried in that first, long-lost obituary, and his mother’s cause of death.

Entry by Merrimon Crawford:

I would not develop the story. I am a reader, not a writer. I read and analyze books, not write them. Quite frankly, I am much more interested in seeing how the author Pat Bertram develops the story rather than how I would. How does she make the coincidence believable? How does she maintain the level of suspense throughout the novel? How does the story differ from other books written in the genre? How is the book innovative? How does the story adhere to more traditional conventions of the genre? It is often said that those who can’t write, teach. On the contrary, writing and analysis (and teaching) are completely different skills, each worthwhile in its own right. I am not a writer. Rather, I am a reader who enjoys reading other authors’ books and using my imagination and analytical skills to review and share books with other readers.

Entry by D.B. Pacini:

Dr. Ryan Larson, a young blurry-eyed emergency room intern, is taking a short coffee break. He thumbs through a day old newspaper and is startled by the obituary for Rosemarie Ann Hope, age 72, who died from congestive heart failure. Rosemarie Ann Hope is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Belinda and Lyle Carson, and two grandchildren, Sadie and Brian.

Dr. Larson’s 72-year-old grandmother Roseanne Marie Hope died from a heart attack when he was twenty-two. His parents are Glenda and Kyle Larson and his sister is Katie. What if this Rosemarie Ann Hope and her family were cosmically connected to his  family? What if they were a nearly exact mirror images of each other? Grandma was adopted. What if she wasn’t an only child? What if a person could have more lives than one, more deaths than one? He sets the newspaper down and calls Katie on his cell phone.

Entry by Sally Christie aka K C Morlock: 

Jake snapped the morning paper and Laura turned away to gaze out the kitchen window and wonder how her life had become cliché.  Jake snapped the paper again and made a strange croaking noise.

“What?” Laura feigned interest.

“Look at this.”  He splayed the  newspaper on the table, absently pushing his cup aside and traced the name with his index finger.  “Arizona Hayes.”

“I know that name, I found it on the ancestry program, I can’t remember how far back she was, but she was there.”

Laura jabbed a few keys on the laptop and brought up the program.  “Spell that for me and I’ll pull it up.”

***

Research and family sleuthing turns up information that reveals Jake’s mother has been adopted by an Aunt.  The story takes the reader back in time where single mothers are taboo and choice is a dangerous option.  It chronicles the extent of secret keeping and dysfunction of a middle class American family.

The story unites and vitalizes a stale worn out marriage and changes Laura’s assessment of her run of the mill life.

Entry by Christopher James Heyworth:

My protagonist is a National Gallery curator called Benjamin. A friend alerts him to the “name-alike” in Obituaries, and, fascinated, he traces the Funeral Director listed for further information, Thruxton, Biddle & Relph.

He is ushered in to meet one of the partners who produces a rather worn multi-pocket cardboard file, believing him to be a relative as he was introduced by the receptionist only by name. Deciding to play along, Benjamin begins to rummage in thefile.

In no particular order, he finds large brown envelopes titled: Fernande Oliver; Jacqueline Roque; Dora Maar Francoise Gilot; Eva Gouel; Marie-Therese Walter, and Olga Kohokhlova.

Inside each are papers recording diary-like entries for each of the named women. 

Benjamin finds it difficult to breathe – in his lap he has the lifetime of Muses in the lifetime of Pablo Picasso.

How he manages to work into the forthcoming Picasso Retrospective Show at The National these bundles of gold-dust is developed in the course of the faction – not a detective mystery, but a curator-mystery.

Entry by A.F Stewart (Death in the Mirror Image):

The morning mail arrives with a strange, large manila envelope.Carl notices there is no return address, but opens it out of curiosity. Inside, neatly folded is an obituary page from a newspaper, with an obituary circled in red ink. Carl reads it, and realizes the obit is for his still-living mother. He thinks this odd, a bad joke by one of his friends until he notices the date on the paper. It is for one week in the future.

Fearing a threat, Carl confronts his mother. The very existence of the obituary fills his mother with terror; she breaks down and spills the secret of an old family curse, complete with murder and vengeful spirits. Carl finds out the truth behind his family’s fortune and the legend of the Doppelganger.

This truth plunges him into into a dangerous odyssey to stop the obit from coming true; he must summon his courage to save his mother (and himself) from certain death. Poor Carl comes face to face with his own Doppelganger to settle dark, ancient grievances.

It is a showdown where only one can come out alive.

Entry by Patricia Appelquist:

I awoke to my usual Sunday morning routine, throwing on sweats, t-shirt and faded red uggs, grabbing my apartment keys and twenty dollars from my wallet. I begrudgingly walked toward my breakfast burrito at the mom and pop store, a cup of nicely brewed coffee and Sunday morning paper. I nosh on my steaming hot burrito reading the Sunday funnies. I get to the Living Section and read through where my eyes stopped, fixated on the name in bold typefont. My Name, Patricia Anne Appelquist, 36. The force of my throwing the paper down on the table tips the coffee over the side of the table as coffee flowed I emmitted an unearthly scream of shock. I could only do one thing as I read the details of my life that I thought was mine. Feeling the blood curling in my veins, my breath quickening, and my vision blurry I look up around me to the faces of horror at my reaction.

“April Fool’s Day” friends yelled aloud. I then checked the date on the paper, it was indeed April 1st. So, I asked the newspaper desk clerk “Why is it reported again, today?”

He looked at me then the paper, ran his hand thru his curly brown hair and sighed, “Misprint?”

Entry by Denny Vos:

What if she was my mother? I had already lost mine so many years ago. The story I was told was almost a movie. It had all of the elements needed. And I swallowed it all. I had to. I saw my father get buried but I never did see my mother. I was only told of her demise.

She was a beauty, the rare kind that looks great even when waking up. There were rumors of people killing for her if she would only ask. She was beyond anyone’s love, even my father’s. I was told that in a fit of rage and love, my father and her lover exchanged words and bullets. Gun fire rang out and when it was all over, all three were dead. I always had questions but I only got brief gossip before someone else would give the eye to whoever was telling me anything. I did piece together that the lover was not a man, but a woman. I also found out that there were divorce papers served. Nobody has ever seen them. There was always a piece missing in every story I heard. Now there is a woman who fits my mother’s description and there will be a wake tomorrow at noon. I have to be there.

Entry by kattomic:

A man wakes up and is his custom, reads the paper, including the obituaries.  A familiar name catches his eye. It’s his mother’s death notice. He’s devastated but not surprised that no one called him. He has been estranged from his family for awhile. He goes to the funeral home to pay his respects. In the visitation room there are a few middle-aged mourners sitting quietly in folding chairs, no one he recognizes. He approaches the closed coffin, which has a photographic portrait of his mother on top. Upset, the man pours out his grief and his apology for not being around the last few years. He tells her he loves her

Moments later, one of the “mourners” grabs his arm. He and the other “mourners” are actually detectives who have been tracking him ever since he became a “person of interest” in the murders of his wife and children. The obituary was an elaborate ruse to lure him out of hiding. The cops convinced his family (who were horrified by his crime) to go along.

He’s being escorted from the room when another man enters.  He has the same name as the man just arrested and he expects to see his own mother laid out in the casket. When he sees the portrait on the coffin, he is elated.  It’s just a coincidence that the dead woman had his mother’s name and that his own name was listed among her survivors. Relieved, he turns to a funeral director and embraces him.

“Thank you,” he tells him and leaves.

Entry by George Wright:

Sometimes jack wondered about life after death. What if he would come back as a different person?

He did. Jack died and came back as Fred. The odd thing about Fred was that he could remember being Jack and all of the wrongs he had done to others. He was also a full-grown adult.

Fred was a different person than Jack in that he had a great sense of right and wrong. He determined to correct the wrongs of his former life so he decided to  meet his former wife and court her. The difference between Jack and Fred was that Fred was a lot more attentive and kind. He had drive and ambition whereas Jack was a rather lazy individual that ignored his loved ones as a rule. He would marry his own wife and give her a life of love and contentment.

Jack had children that had never been given the guidance of a loving adult male so Fred decided he would take on the task of teaching them how to be responsible adults with a desire to attend college and make something of their lives. Jack had discouraged education and responsibility in both word and deed.

Fred’s third project would be to get a job at the same place he had worked in his former life.  Instead of being a slacker he would be ambitious and efficient. He would do his best to “climb the corporate ladder” and become successful.

With these three goals in mind he set out to put feet to his desire.

Entry by Linda Moss:

 Trying really hard to find a witty response to the question “What if her son really is you?”, Hancock filtered through the deepest crevices of his brain looking for an answer. With a sharpness in his voice that surprised everyone, he said “When I was young I created an imaginary friend, he grew into an alter-ego, in some ways just like me, but one that I could not control. He (or I ) took on another life, all on its own, a magnificent creation dwelling in another dimension but only just a breath away. Now, dammit, thanks to her dying, all hell is going to break loose. We cannot survive in the same dimension.” Then Hancock dropped his head, almost as if in a reverant attitude, he sighed and then quizzically looked around as a small child would. Showing all the apparent signs of a victim. But of what? Hancock and Pat Bertram had been best friends since the third grade of elementary school. Nothing bad had ever happened to him. He had never been abused, abducted, or neglected. Pat would have known. Looking dead-on at Pat in a no-nonsense gaze, Hancock lifted his chin and said in a cocky tone “Now, Pat Bertram, how do you know that I am not the ‘other’ Hancock? Perhaps I crossed over and YOUR Hancock is sitting at the funeral parlor mourning the passing of our dear Mother”. Harshly and loudly spoken the three words hung heavily in the air, lingering with a sense of urgent despair . . . “our dear Mother”.

Entry by Judi Jorgensen:

Dante picked up the newspaper and as usual went to the obits to see all the people who were older than him that passed on. It was a daily ritual to him.

“Dante, one day you are going to pick up that paper and see your own name in there,” commented Louisa as she was preparing breakfast. She was shaking her head and trying to hold back the laughter thinking that Dante has never missed a day of doing this for 20 years. One day during a snow storm and the paper was not able to be delivered, he walked 9 blocks to the convenience store to get that paper. Louisa had to hold making breakfast until he got back. Their six kids thought this ritual was either funny or morbid, depending on their age.

Dante Michael Collection, born Feb 10, 1967 in Hixson, TN went to be with the Lord on Feb 11,2009. He is survived by his wife, Louisa of 20 years, six girls all at home, Sarah, Isabella, Alivia, Corina, Darien, and Skyler.

“OH MY GOD!  I am in the obituary. I better call my mom.”

The phone rings and Dante’s boss is on the phone asking to talk to Louisa.  Louisa goes to the phone and hears these shocking words, “Louisa I am so sorry to hear about Dante.  He was one of our best workers and I was going to announce his promotion today.  If there is anything I can do . . .”

The phone rang all day like this. How did this nightmare start and how can we make it end???

Entry by Malcolm R. Campbell:

They have aligned the chairs in even rows for the mourners of whom there are none. A white ribbon blocks all but the family from the row closest to the coffin where beneath the shut lid Edythe Monroe Johnson, 98, of Woodville rests in a state unknown, dead now the paper said at 98, survived by her five sons Walter, James, William, George and David, four of whom are not in evidence.

You sit in the second row, not wishing to offend the absent whom you hoped to meet in spite of the circumstances, brothers your foster mother told you about, “the ones they saw fit to keep, David,” she told you when you were old enough to feel the hurt.

“The Lord has called our dear sister home,” the minister is saying, and you are wondering why you were never called, by Walter who would have known you best or by your mother who was said to have cried when they took you away 68 years ago to live with Jim and June Nash in another universe, one behind veils where you died in fits and starts long before Edythe.

You wonder who remembered your name, thought to include it in the obituary, no doubt a formality executed by a survivor who does, not some cruel synchronicity of light and dark brought you to this city, brought you to the obituary column two days ago and places you here and now in this hard chair one row removed from those who were kept close to home. If not for the unusual spelling of your mother’s first name, you would be home now with your dogs and your garden out of sight and out of mind.

Entry by Darlene Warner:

Zachery Cane examined the sand along the rivers bank for any sign that his twin brother, Maxx, had passed this way. He lifted his head and inhaled deeply, detecting a faint scent lingered in the air. Maxx had been here, and quite recently. Maxx enjoyed visiting his old slaughter sites prior to his next victim. Calling them murder scenes or kill sites did not due the carnage justice.

He’d been too late a month ago to save the human female on this particular, extremely isolated, location. Zachery’s thoughts had moved elsewhere that night, with her. Against all odds and at the most inopportune time, he had discovered her.

Samantha Taylor knew something was wrong the moment she stepped out of her tent, this night is not going to go as planned. With a sense of foreboding, a chill ran down her spine. Even the insects’ were quiet tonight, and that’s when she felt him. He was close this time. She just had absolutely no idea who he was. She was alone tonight by the fire. How she longed to share this night with her sister, but Mary was not here any longer. A familiar wave of heartache washed over Samantha. Mary Grace would never share anything with her again.  One month ago her body had been found mauled and mutilated, killed by a rogue lycanthrope.

She remember reading a story once . . . What if death resembled your family? For every friend you knew you were losing what they lost. Coincidence or something bigger? The Devil or destiny . . . you just have to know.

Was this happening to her? Her best friend lost her own sister just weeks before Mary Grace was killed. She was here in this isolated forest because she just had to know.

Entry by Pam Webber:

Oh, “what a day”. . . isn’t that a song or was it “what a night”?  Well, today, I see a near duplicate obituary of my Mother saying that this lady had the same number of children with one of the children having almost the same name as mine, as well as many other similar things.How can this be? It is so strange, almost eerie! It is a near perfect match of my own Mother’s obituary.

There has to be a reason for this . . . perhaps, it is just a coincidence, but I think there is some reason that this happened that is unbeknownst to us “little human beings”. Perhaps, GOD figured it all out. I must do some research to try and find out why this has happened. Should I go to the library, should I search the Internet, just where should I go to solve this mystery?  It may take me awhile to come up with answers to my questions, but there just has to be a reason for this near duplicate obituary. Of course, GOD does many things without a “reason for the season”. AND, we are not to question his workings. Perhaps, as some may see it, we are living in a 2nd life and this duplicate obituary of my Mother is telling me that I have been here before . . . my goodness, has my Mother come back and died again? I am sure that many have felt that they have been in a certain time and place before in their lives. Is this it or am I losingmy last marble?

HA!  Life is surely a mystery and quite interesting at that, but ALWAYS GOD knows BEST.  Friends, DO keep SMILING and DO keep wondering about life, but most of all keep your faith in our Heavenly Father!!!

Entry by Sherri Meyers:

What if one day you were scanning the obituary column just out of curiosity to see if anyone had passed away that you knew and lo and behold, a familiar name jumped off the page?  Not only a casual acquaintance, but your mother’s name.  As your heart begins to pound and your mind begins to race, your eyes quickly scan further down the obit to confirm it really is someone else’s mom and not yours.  As other names, her location, and other details zing their way from the page to your brain, you frantically try to remember the last time you talked to your mom. Was it just yesterday, or no, maybe last week?  Could your mother — the woman who gave you life — really be dead and you didn’t know about it?  How could this have happened? Why didn’t anyone tell you? Is it even possible that somehow you were overlooked when the death notice calls were being made?  It couldn’t be true.  Or is it?

I would start off with a scene similar to what I wrote above with him casually reading the newspaper and then bam, out of nowhere his mom’s name jumps off the page. As he compares the details in the obituary with the facts of his mother’s life and realizes it could very well be his mother’s death notice he is reading, his mind would begin to race with questions. Is it possible his own mother died and no one even told him? Then I would send him off to call his mom to see if she answers the phone, and when she doesn’t, I would send him to her home only to find no one home. Then it would become a frantic search for his mom–and some answers that may not be quick in coming.

Entry by Sy G.:

After reading the obituary, 28 year old Jack Williams calls his mother and tells her about the amazing coincidence. To his surprise she is not amused. At his folks house for dinner the next Sunday, he makes a joke about it, saying, that perhaps that really was his mother who died. His parents do not laugh, and he catches the worried look between them. So does his 26 year old sister Danielle.

This is the start of a three week adventure for Jack and Danielle. First they discover that Jack was adopted. This leads to Danielle’s confession that she has always loved him more than a brother, and a passionate love affair ensues between them, spiced by the hint of forbidden fruit. The ex siblings, now lovers, then embark on a quest to find the truth of Jack’s origins. This leads them to the two sons (one also named Jack) of the woman in the obituary, the woman with the same name as their mother. More and more shocking revelations emerge. The dead woman was in fact his mother, and the two Jacks are identical twins. The other Jack is now an Islamic terrorist, and his parents (both deceased) were once KGB sleeper agents.

The reason that  this couple gave one of their infant twin boys up for adoption to another couple living nearby, was part of an elaborate KGB plot to provide cover for the  deadly sleeper cell. This is also why the  spy couple changed their names to mimic those of the cover family, and named both boys Jack. As our hero and heroine continue to investigate, with the help of a wise cracking NY PI, (who will steal the show in the film), they uncover a crazy ex-KGB manager, a terrorist nuclear bomb plot, several murders, and of course they face many  dangers, miraculous escapes and hidden perils.

Since this premise is so totally absurd, the tone of the work will be lighthearted and somewhat self ironic. There will be lots of action, just barely making sense, but lots of fun, somewhat like the premise itself. And of course there will be a happy ending, with true love triumphant, brothers reunited, and the bad guys duly punished.

Entry by Barbra L.:

“Jeanette Lyons. You know this lady, Andrew? The headlines say she’s a well-known musician, and her last name’s the same as yours,” William Evans, friend of Andrew Lyons, asked as he peered across the table at Andrew wolfing down the last of his breakfast remains.

“Jeanette Lyons! That’s my mother’s name. What’s her name doing in Allentown’s newspaper? She lives in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.” Andrew washed down the last bite of his tasty blueberry waffles with a fresh cup of steaming hot coffee.

William laid the paper down near Andrew’s arm. “Maybe you’d better take a look at it.”

Andrew sensed the seriousness of William’s tone, and picked up the paper. There at the top of page 5B was the obituary of Jeanette Lyons, his mother. He dropped the paper, put his pallid face in his hands and moved his head from side to side.

“Andrew, I’m so sorry.” Noticing Andrew’s facial expression changing from shock to fury, William asked, “Are you all right?”

Andrew looked William in the eye, and responded with caustic suspicion. “My mother never had a musical bone in her body, and if she’s dead, why did I just talk with her this morning before meeting you for breakfast?”

“More coffee?” they heard. Their waitress poured before they could answer . . .

 Andrew and William left the diner, and hurriedly drove to his mother’s home. Mrs. Lyons, horrified by their intrusion, was sitting at her desk. “Mother! You’re alive!” Andrew shouted as he ran to embrace her then quickly handed her the paper. She gasped in horror. “Who would do such a thing, Andrew?” she shouted as she scanned the unsettling read. After pondering a moment, she murmured, “This explains why Elaine called me yesterday before she left for Europe. She knew this would be hitting the papers today.” Elaine was Jeanette’s twin, the musical talent in the family who lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “She’d called a few weeks ago to tell me she had a surprise for me. Told me I’d know about it before the end of the month. Some surprise, huh? I noticed in my email this morning that my account was penniless. I was just getting ready to call the bank when you burst in.”

“You mean you think she’s swindled you?” Andrew asked.

“It wouldn’t be the first time. You know how savvy she is. Remember two years back when she hacked into my computer, and wiped out my bank account.”

“Yeah, I remember, but since she paid you back, you didn’t press charges.” Andrew said.

“I will this time.” Mrs. Lyons said rising from the sofa to call the police.

Entry by Joylene:

John Davies spent Saturday night at home with his wife, Maggy instead of using the hockey tickets his boss had given him Friday. John hiccups won’t stop, even after seven hours. Fifteen minutes to midnight, Maggy swore if they’re weren’t gone by midnight, she was taking him to Emergency. Surprisingly, her suggestion worked. John hates Emergency, he said his goodbyes to his mother, father, and kid brother after a drunk hit them at an intersection when John was thirty-two. He hasn’t been to Emergency since, and if he has anything to say about it, won’t be going again.

At midnight his hiccups cease.

Relieved, they go to bed. John had a restless, sleepless night. The next morning, he read the Saturday paper after a late Sunday breakfast. He’s secretly been checking out the Obituaries since he turned 56. That was the same age his dad was when he died. John doesn’t think too much about the reasons, except he was surprised by how often one of the departed was somebody he knew.

Sure enough, he recognized a name.

Davies, John Murray. Huh?

He laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Maggy said.

He showed her the obituaries. Maggy didn’t find it so funny. Maggy is all about serendipity and nothing-happens-without-reason.

“Did you read the entire article?”she said.

He laughed. “No.”

She decided to fill him in. Turned out that not only did the deceased have the same name, place of birth, and birthdate, (Maggy now had John’s full attention), the mother, brothers and sisters all have exactly the same names as John’s mother, father, brothers, and sister.

“Bullshit,” John said.

“We should go to the funeral,” Maggy said.

“It starts at one.”

“What? No way.” He grabbed the paper out of her hands and threw it aside as if it was laced with anthrax. “That’s just too weird.”

Maggy stared at him.

“What?”

“We have to go.”

He shook his head. But …

Maggy was right. He’ll never rest until he knew what their connection was. That was just the type of guy John was. He couldn’t sleep for a week after they saw Julianna Moore in “The Forgotten.”

He refused to wear his black suit. His black pullover and jeans were good enough. Maggy shrugged and flung her hands in the air. “Okay, fine. It’s not my funeral.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” John said on the way to the car.

They arrived early, took a seat at the back; John wanted a clean getaway after he proved to Maggy this is just one weird coincidence. Mourners arrived. That horrible music funerals are notorious for started playing in the background. John can’t locate the speakers, but he’s pretty sure one is right over his head. Maybe he could talk Maggy into moving.

He was still searching for it when a man walked in. Right behind him was an elderly gentleman. Then a woman about seventy-five. John felt faint. Oh my God . . . !

“John, what’s wrong?” Maggy whispered. She glanced at the arrivals, then back to him. “Honey, what is it? You’re scaring me.”

He stuttered, cleared his throat and said, “That’s my dad. My mum. And my kid brother.”

Maggy turned as white as a ghost. “What do you mean?” She grabbed his hand. She was trembling.

“I mean…” he said slowly, “that’s my dad, my mum, and my brother. The same dad, mum and brother that I buried twenty-four years ago.”

Entry by Janeene Lemieux:

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you made different choices during your life? Pat Bertram’s friend, Jerry Bassett, has had a month of tough choices and feelings of vulnerability after deciding to quit his job, break up with his girl friend of two years and move 30 miles away. Things have not been going as well as he planned. Jerry is questioning his usually self-confident nature.

Yesterday Jerry blew out the candles on his 40th birthday cake and made a wish. What if he had stayed in his supervisory job position at Spectrum Chemicals, Inc. His decision to leave was based on the discovery that the company was disposing of biohazard waste in questionably legal sites. Jerry’s girl friend Hailey, couldn’t understand why Jerry had to give up a perfectly lucrative position in the company just as they were about to begin making marriage plans. Couldn’t he just look the other way? The argument that occurred afterwards continued for a week. Jerry decided to leave everything he knew and move 30 miles away to start over. Yesterday he spent his birthday with family. The day was a little awkward since all felt Hailey’s absence. The long moments of silence during Jerry’s birthday dinner caused his inward doubts about life and logically gave rise to the unusual wish. The day ended an hour later when members of Jerry’s family scattered to their own homes; their own lives. Jerry kissed his mother goodbye and left for his own private existence. The wish was all but forgotten-until this morning.

Jerry spent the first hour of every morning reading the newspaper from first page to last. Although he skimmed over many articles, Jerry had an unusual curiosity with the obituaries. He fantasized about the lives of those unfortunate enough to have died. His imagination was piqued with the information derived from the facts supplied to the newspaper. Today Jerry’s attention was riveted on a name in the column that jumped up from the page and hit him square between the eyes. Angela Bassett, 61, died of pancreatic cancer. She was survived by her two sons Jerry, 40, and Clint, 35; and a daughter, Melanie, 33. Her husband of 40 years passed away a year earlier from the same type of cancer. The memorial service will be held at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Trenton on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m.

The words echoed in Jerry’s head. This had to be wrong. All the information in that article was exactly the information he would give to the newspaper if his mother had died. But she was alive and well. He just saw her yesterday. The names were all the same. The ages of his brother and sister were accurate. Even the Church where the service would be held was the same church his family had attended for the last 25 years. How could this be happening? Was someone playing a cruel joke? “Just my luck lately,” thought Jerry. “That’s what I get for making a wish like that yesterday,” he said jokingly. My wish!! No, it couldn’t be!! The thought played on his mind for two days, until, finally, Jerry decided to go to the memorial. Just to observe quietly in the back pew.

Wednesday came and Jerry awoke to the same thoughts that occupied his mind for the past two days. He started to get ready for the funeral, changed to jeans, changed back to his suit. “This is nuts” he argued with himself. “You’re vacillating with decisions like you don’t have any confidence with yourself” he thought. “Just go and then you’ll see that it can’t be a wish — just a huge coincidence.”

Jerry approached the church at 9:45 but didn’t take his seat for the service until 10:15. It took him 30 minutes to talk himself into going in. What he observed was phenomenal. The date on the memorial holy card was 30 days into the future. His usually stoic brother had long hair and an earring and this version of Jerry looked happy! Truly happy, even though his mother had just died. Maybe this wish thing was somehow true. “I guess my observations will have to continue a little longer.”

What followed changed Jerry’s opinion about his life and his impact on other peoples lives.

Entry by Janice Campbell:

I wouldn’t have known if Aunt Celie hadn’t called Wednesday morning.”Robert? Why didn’t you call us? You knew we would have come.”

I pushed the pillow off the alarm clock and squinted at the time. Six forty-two, no doubt a reasonable time to an old lady. “What’s up, Aunt Celie?” She sounded so distressed, I didn’t have the heart to point out that “coming” meant that someone would have to go and fetch her, as she’d quit driving at 87 when she’d survived driving three blocks on the wrong side of a divided road. “What happened?”

Moist snuffling on the other end of the line– good grief, as she crying? Or had that goofy mutt, Nicholas, gotten hold of the phone? “Aunt Celie, what’s the matter?”

“I would have thought you’d feel your mother’s death a little more than that, Robert. The funeral is tomorrow, and you sound like you don’t even know it. You haven’t been drinking, have you?”

I was beginning to wish I had been drinking– coffee, at least. What was Aunt Celie talking about? I’d talked with mom just yesterday, and either she was home as usual, or the hereafter had mighty good cell phone reception. “Aunt Celie. Listen to me– I just talked with mom yesterday, and she’s fine.”

The silence on the other end wasn’t reassuring. Paper rattled, and Aunt Celie started reading. I could tell from her tone of voice that she was offended, but I forgot that almost immediately as I realized that she was reading an obituary. “McLean, Laura Jane Hewitt, 76, of Mechanicsville entered eternal rest on February 10, 2009. She was predeceased by her husband, George Robert McLean, and is survived by her son Robert James McLean of Tappahannock…” I sat up abruptly at the shock of hearing the familiar names.

Later that morning, after Aunt Celie had been soothed by a quick conference call with mom, my thoughts turned to the oddity of the coincidence. It wasn’t just that the deceased couple bore names that were exactly the same as my parents’ names, or that they lived in Mechanicsville, as my parents had for years, it was the fact that they had a son bearing exactly my name, living in the tiny town where I lived, and I’d never encountered him. Never even heard of him.

I really needed to get to work, but I pulled out the Tappahannock phone book. There was only one McLean, and that was me.

Later, I couldn’t explain why I decided to skip work and drive to Mechanicsville to the visitation. A discreet notice just inside the funeral home door directed me to a small room with an open casket, and a few senior citizens murmuring softly to one another. Nothing prepared me for the shock of seeing my graduation photo, along with other pictures from the family album, posted on a remembrance board just inside the door. Legs shaking, heart pounding, I took a step toward the open casket. A black-suited gentleman was speaking to me, but I hardly heard him. Another step, and I looked into the casket at a face that was strange, yet familiar. It definitely wasn’t the woman I called “mom.”

How I got out of there, I hardly knew. I remember soft old-lady hands patting my sleeve and murmuring condolences, but I don’t know how or if I replied. The woman I’d always known as mom opened the door to let me in, and her face told me she knew where I’d been. “I knew you’d eventually get here,” she said. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“What I would like is to know what’s going on, and who is who. Who are you, and who died? And who am I?”

“Let’s sit down, Robert. There’s no point in getting upset.” I could definitely have argued that point, but I let her go on.

“The Laura Jane that died was my sister and your mother. She was married to your father, but left him when you were small. He was running for Congress at that point, and couldn’t afford a scandal, so I stepped in to be Laura Jane for the duration of the campaign — I’d always admired your father — and after he won, there was never a good time for me to go back to being Linda Michelle. It wasn’t as if I had much to go back to. I was single and just scraping by before I started being Laura Jane, and then I had a husband and son, a home . . . ” Her voice trailed off, and I sat back, staring out the window, trying to absorb it all. 

Entry by Stephen Clark Bradley:

“I never cease to be amazed how one can be mesmerized while driving down an empty interstate, thinking about things having nothing to do with driving, and still find my way, in one piece.” Jean Michael Presque thought. “I know where I’m going, but why I am headed there is a story all its own. Staring out of this clattering window, I am still replaying it all back in my mind. Did it all come to this, an obscure obituary?” But, JM, as he was called by anyone who even slightly knew him, knew this was no dream.  He wished he had not gone to that cursed restaurant and for sure he’d delete having read that strange obituary.  She was gone, dead, just like his mother had remained, for that past twenty-five years. He had seen her there, lying silently, giving him the starkest feeling of being totally alone.  Yet, after having read the thing and thinking about it for the past week, loading up his car and heading down the road, across half the country seemed to be the only recourse he now had.  “The damn thing’s what got me driving down these backwoods highways to this one stoplight town, in Podunk Indiana, remembering all the things I spent years trying to forget. How many Ethel Presques could live in that poor excuse of a town, anyway?”

He’d not be shocked by the change he’d find there, though he had not visited ‘his people’ for years.  He knew there would be almost nothing different, because things never changed in Knox, Indiana, except the accumulating lines spread over the faces he had known as a child, including his own.  “We always choose to know or disbelieve, down the road that we weave, what will ultimately lead to peace or strife, those mental critters that dutifully troll as friends or foes, as guides to death or life.  We shall all give an answer, for we are certainly not silently alone.” He sought to convince himself. While we toil and travail to plant our presence, to give a sign that we were here, though it inevitably gets relegated to nothing more than a temporary dwelling place, not at all our home.

He thought about his mom and dad and that very dysfunctional, extremely tumultuous family that he had not cherished, in his youthful years.  Now, close to seeing where he had grown, where he had lost his innocence, which he was not at all sure he had ever possessed, he remembered a lot and longed for it afresh.  “As we pave the path that ultimately led to either peace and boredom or stress and early retirement from the fields of fodder in which we only leave footprints to show our wandering journey, in no distinct direction.  Yet, we are not alone, I am sure of that…almost.

JM glanced over at the green fields of stalks that seemed to have just simply appeared, year after year, in his youth.  In spite of himself, the damn corn fields actually excited him.  It all took him back to the years that he had hated, but which had moved into the region of his mind that warehoused his cherished memories.  He saw a small green sign just up ahead, ‘Knox, Indiana – population 3500’ only slightly larger than when he had left it in his mid twenties.  JM slowed down and entered the city limits.  It wouldn’t be far before he’d be forced to exit the town again, but he saw the Price-Fields funeral home, and turned right. The place was now under different management, Mr. Price and Mr. Fields having practiced what they preached, long ago.  It was there, in that sterile-smelling last place he had ever seen her, before she was placed in the ground.  The old Yellow River was still there and he wondered why he was surprised to see it, like somehow it wouldn’t be there. He crossed the bridge and turned right and parked in front of the old last stop of the dead.  His mind raced and his heart pounded.  He had utterly refused to remember this place for the past twenty-five years and he knew he had good reason to.  “Who’d want to remember his mother that way?  Who’d want to think about a father who had placed her there?” He rubbed the sides of his head as though in pain as forbidden thoughts reentered his mind’s eyes.

They were always so big, crowding out his rational thoughts. “I reckon that was a world view from the perspective of a child.  It was so awesome to ride my little camouflage jeep across my mom and dad’s linoleum floor.  I remember her face so well.  His face is so blurry but so right there.”  He was consumed with thoughts of his past that were so close he felt as if he could reach out and touch them.  “Man, it was self-propelled, that camouflage jeep, that is to say, by my own two little feet.”  He recalled looking up at the walls all around him.  They were so massive and covered with splattered collages of faces.  “Mom had painted one whole wall with her treasures.  She had placed the family pictures on the wall in staircase formation; family portrait at the top and each and every sundry tableau of time descending downward on each side, like a descending staircase into nothingness.”  Then, he was there, that man he had called dad, the only picture that remained hazy, but JM remembered where it had hung, but he shook himself loose of it all, got out of the car and heard it, just like the day she had died. “Jean Michael…Get outta my way, boy!”…

19 Comments

Filed under fiction, fun, writing