Wednesday, October 1, 2014

IWSG: How NOT Writing Can Make You a Better Writer

Part of our G Adventures Group on a train in China

As writers, we can get too stuck in our own heads.

One of the best cures for this, I've found, is to travel. I always keep a journal when I travel, and I try to update it everyday, but inevitably so much will happen that I fall behind.

I used to fret about this. How could I get so far behind? What if I forget something? And then I realized how ridiculous it would be to pass up living life in order to merely write about it.

You can always catch up on the plane.

Last month I went to China. In a moment of crazy spontaneity, I saw an unprecedented sale on a direct flight to Hong Kong. Before I knew it, I had found a group tour that would hit all the sites I desperately wanted to see, and booked it.

I had never traveled with a tour group before. Only friends and significant others, with varying success. Now I'd be throwing myself at the mercy of a group of strangers that I might not have anything in common with.

What if I was the only solo traveler? What if the group didn't get along? What if I didn't fit in?

Even crazier, I had to find my own way through Hong Kong and to Beijing before I met up with the group. I'd never navigated cities that immense before, and certainly not on my own. I pictured wall-to-wall people pushing past me, people who didn't speak my language.

And even worse, there would be four overnight sleeper train rides that Google assured me would be cramped and miserable. My heart pounded harder at the thought of experiencing severe claustrophobia among a group of people who didn't know me, care about me, and who would undoubtedly think of me as Freak Girl, or at the very least, a troublesome burden.

As writers, we've taught our minds to misbehave, and as the time came to leave for China, I was terrified. Instead of looking forward to this trip of a lifetime, I dreaded it. What if, what if, what if? And besides, I had so much writing to do. How could I possibly take a month off?

I'm sure those of you who have done a lot of traveling are nodding your heads and smiling. Because you know what happened next.

I found my hotel in Hong Kong with little effort, and they upgraded me to a suite. It was fabulous.

I found my flight check-in desk, my trip to Beijing was faultless, and even getting to my hotel in that city was not that difficult.

The group of strangers quickly became like-minded friends, and I met some of the most wonderful people I ever could have imagined--I hope they will be friends for life. I was sorry to say goodbye to them, and now that I'm home, I miss them constantly.

And the trains? Not only was everyone sympathetic to my claustrophobia and willing to help me in any way possible, it ended up not being a problem. The train rides I'd been so afraid of were actually the most fun--all-night slumber parties that gave us a chance to bond and really get to know each other. We laughed the most on the trains.

To write, you have to live. I was an insecure writer and an insecure traveler. Now I hope I'm a lot less insecure about both.

While I was in China I got a great idea for a novel, and one of my fellow travellers inspired a wicked first line. But that was just a bonus.

If you have the opportunity to close your journal and step away from the computer, seize it. Follow the adventure and see where it takes you. I don't think you'll regret it.

I never have.

Has not writing ever made you a better writer?

The Insecure Writer's Support Group's purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It's a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Crazy Thing Happened in China...

I've just returned from the trip of a lifetime--almost a month exploring the culture and history of China.

I'd wanted to visit China since I was a little girl and first saw pictures of the Great Wall. It was on my bucket list long before people called them bucket lists.

And China didn't disappoint. From Beijing and Shanghai to Chengdu and Yangshuo, China was both awe-inspiring and challenging. It's a dizzying mix of old world meets new--monks talking on smart phones, gift shops at the terracotta warrior dig site, splashy skyscrapers nestled among temples that are thousands of years old.

In a country like this, anything can happen, and pretty much everything did. In no particular order, here's the ten craziest things that happened during my month in China.

1) Holli, Defender of Monkeys. To prepare us for a trek up Mount Emei, we were armed with large bamboo poles to fend off the area's notorious food-stealing macaque monkeys. Little did I know I'd end up using my pole against a local woman!

The monkeys were gentle, much more peaceful than the ones I'd encountered in Bali, and really cute to watch. I was stunned when I saw a woman hit a baby monkey in the face with a bottle of hand sanitizer. I was horrified when she followed this up with smearing hand sanitizer in the baby's eyes! Without thinking, I started hitting her in the legs with my pole, yelling "No!" I also pointed her out to the "monkey police." I was upset for the rest of the climb, but at least I could take comfort in the fact that I did something about it. And it makes for a good story.

2) A Monk Stole My Bathing Suit. Well, he was more of a monk's assistant and he didn't actually steal it, but all I know is--out of all the bathing suits he was given to dry, only my bikini never returned. It makes me smile to think of that earnest little man wearing polka dot bikini bottoms...cause what else could have happened to them?

3) I Groped a Panda. It took some doing, and some of our tour guide's best arguing, but I was able to achieve one of my life's dreams--cuddling with a giant panda bear. My chosen cub,  Hexsing, was only a year old but already weighed so much that two people had to carry him in. I'd like to say we had a moment, but he was much more interested in his apple than in me. Oh well. How many people can say they groped a panda?

4) I Met The Chinese Fred Astaire. In China, people love to exercise. In the strangest places, women will participate in a spontaneous exercise routine that is part line-dance, part tai chi and part aerobics. I was sitting in a Yangshuo park with some awesome new friends when I first learned that men also get into the act. An older man drove up on a scooter. Taking off his sparkly pink helmet, he proceeded to unpack a professional-looking sound system. Once he was ready, he burst into song, and before long, several old men began to circle around him and dance.

One in particular caught my eye. He was the Chinese Fred Astaire, slim and graceful in his purple shirt and dress pants. As he moved his body to the music, leaping and spinning, a beautiful smile lit up his face. I could have watched him forever.

5) Attacked By a Blind Man. Not all the elderly men were quite so charming. I was waiting for the light to change in Shanghai when a blind man walked right up to me, screamed something I couldn't understand and started whacking me in the legs with his cane. I still have no idea what he was trying to say....

6) Participating in the Anti-Talent Talent Show. On the last night of our Yangtze River cruise, our guide had the brilliant idea that our group should perform in the ship's talent show. There were several obstacles. One: we'd had no time to rehearse. Two: the ship's limited English music selection limited our "dance" performance to Michael Jackson or Michael Jackson. And three: all we had to aid us was a ridiculous assortment of props that had no relation to each another--maracas, feathered fans, a cowboy hat with beaded dreads attached??, Blues Brothers-type fedoras, and tambourines.

Aside from the crew, the only other group to perform were serious German folk singers who had obviously put some effort into their rehearsals. Then it was time for our group. Between an impromptu staged battle, some bad break dancing, a heartfelt air guitar solo, and a pseudo moonwalk, we pulled it off. Or at least confused our audience enough that they didn't realize we had no clue what we were doing.

7) Stuck in an Elevator. Perhaps fate decided that after such a magnificent trip, our farewell dinner was anti-climactic. Not to worry, because on our way out of the restaurant, half of our group got stuck in an elevator. After some "stuck in an elevator" selfies, some of the women began to panic.We were told the maintenance crew was on their way and would be there in five to ten minutes. Not one to wait around, my South African friend managed to pry the doors open, saving us from a slow death. Adventure over.

8) Failing a Cooking Class. I like to think I'm a good cook, but I was no match for Peter, the Tyrant of Traditional Chinese Cooking. Concerned that my carrot sticks weren't small enough, I proceeded to whittle them down further with my cleaver. "Noooooo!" Peter screamed, pointing at my plate. "Don't do that!" The resulting silence was deafening.

It was not an auspicious beginning to my first (and last) Chinese cooking class, which also included several rounds of humiliation by dumpling and choking on Sichuan pepper fumes. Not recommended.

Me and Mr. Lau.
9) Planes, Trains and Automobiles. If there was a mode of transport in China, our group made use of it. I think the only one we missed was the rickshaw. It was not uncommon for us to spend sixteen hours on a public train and disembark, only to walk five miles to get to a bus, where we spent another few hours. This was usually followed up with several trips on the subway for good measure.

But my all-time favourite was the scooter. If you feel like looking death in the face and laughing, I highly recommend it. Many thanks to Mr. Lau, who took me on a high-speed trip of a lifetime through the heart of Yangshuo. Why cycle when you can fly?

10) Petting a Fish. There's an old tea house in Shanghai where you can pet a koi fish. If you're patient, quick, and really, really want to.

I did.

It was slimy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sacrificing it All for a Dream: The Rachael Stead Story

How many times have you met people who want results without the work?

The reward without the sacrifice?

These are the people who have always wanted to be novelists, but haven't finished a book. The ones who want to see the world, but content themselves with quick jaunts to the Caribbean. The uncle who always dreamed of being a professional musician, but who settles for strumming the guitar at family get-togethers.

If you truly want something, what are you willing to sacrifice? What could you do to make it a priority in your life?

I was really struck by this when I connected with Rachael Stead from Leeds, England. Rachael is one of the women who will be on the China trip with me. After China, I'll be heading home, but for Rachael it's just the kick off--the beginning of 18 months of travel. Her very first backpacking experience.

Now, lots of people say they want to see the world. I'm one of them. But Rachael is putting her money where her mouth is...she sold her house and almost all of her belongings and moved back in with her mom to make it happen. That's commitment! Here's her inspiring story.

Q1) Can you describe your upcoming trip for us? 

A1) This is my itinerary as I have planned it out, but it will probably change. I am usually quite a planner in life--I normally schedule things down to the tiniest details, so I have attempted not to be too detailed in what I plan to do.

  • September: Tour of China, with extra days in Hong Kong
  • End of September: Fly to Bangkok
  • September 29--December 28: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. (In Cambodia I have five days volunteering with elephants at the Elephant Valley Project.)
  • December 28-January 5: Kuala Lumpur
  • January 5-March 1: Volunteering at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Borneo
  •  March 1-March 6: Singapore
  • March 6: Fly to Perth, travel and work in Australia
  • November: New Zealand
  • February: Fiji
  • Middle of February: Las Vegas and San Francisco

I am attempting to travel as ethically as possible, looking at tours and volunteer programmes that give back to local communities.

Q2) What prompted this trip?

A2) I have always wanted to travel. I have always been encouraged by my mum and best friend to do it, but I always put my career and education first. I became a psychiatric nurse and worked up through the ranks to what is called a Senior Clinical Practitioner (also known as a Sister). Then last August I got badly assaulted at work. A few weeks later, a friend who was also my mentor suddenly died.

It put things into perspective. I shouldn't put off the things I really want to do. I didn't feel happy and confidant in my job anymore, which I once loved. I didn't feel that I was providing the optimum care I could for people, and I always said that if I ever got to that point, I would leave.

Q3) What do you hope to get out of the experience?

A3) I hope to get out of my comfort zone, meet new people, learn about different ways of life, see amazing places and just sit back and relax for some time! I also hope to maybe find a new path in life or rediscover a love for nursing.

Q4) Do you have any plans for when you get back?

A4) My job is open for me if I want to go back, but for once I haven't got my career progression worked out.

Q5) What are your traveling essentials?

A5) I have a tendency to believe I need everything on every suggested backpacking list! I am sure I will find out what is essential as my travels go on. So far, I think comfortable footwear, a decent backpack, a camera to capture the amazing places, and a phone to keep in touch with family and friends back home. A Kindle, eye mask, and earplugs for all the long flights! I had four journals bought for me as presents, so it looks like I will need to fill them in. Toilet paper--I am not elaborating on this.

Q6) Do you have any advice for those who'd love to follow in your footsteps?

A6) Don't put it off. Something will always crop up that will make you think you shouldn't do it, but if I've learnt anything from the past year, it's that life is very short and that you have to grab opportunities to make yourself happy when you can.

I'm thrilled that Rachael took time out from packing to do this interview for us! I find her very inspiring, and am looking forward to meeting her in person. I'm hoping she'll check in with us throughout her trip.

Is there anything on Rachael's itinerary that inspires you? What sacrifices have you made in order to follow your dreams? Please share your story in the comments!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Complicated Relationship With Traveling

I'm preparing for the trip of a lifetime.

I should be ecstatic, but I'm not.

My relationship with traveling has always been complicated. Seeing the world ranks right up in the top two things I want to do during my time on Earth. (Getting traditionally published is number one, but I have less control over that.)

I haven't done as much traveling as I would like. After an epic journey to Africa in 2001, I didn't go anywhere of note for nine years.

Lately I've felt this pressure, like I'm running out of time. If the opportunity to go somewhere new arises, I jump at it.

But instead of getting excited, as I hear "normal" people do, I start to wish time would stop. It's too soon! I'm not ready! I need more time.

More time for what? To throw some clothes in a backpack and print some vouchers? I'm not sure.

Sometimes, I will actually cry as it comes time to leave my boyfriend, my babies, and my home. And when I'm on the trip, no matter how much fun I'm having or how busy I am, I will be keenly homesick and counting the days until I can be reunited with them.

Until the last two days of the trip, when I will realize how fast it's gone, and that I'll soon be back in my cold city of never-ending winter, with a pile of assignments due, not to mention house cleaning. Once again, I'll wish I could stop time and have just one more day on the beach, or in this case, on the Great Wall.

It's bizarre, and I don't understand it. I've never comprehended how something I want so badly can make me feel fulfilled and miserable at the same time.

I seem to be an odd combination of adventurer and homebody. It's not an easy compromise.

Just like some people want to get rich and famous without having to lift a finger, I want to see the world without the sadness of missing those I've left behind.

But that will never happen, so I try to be grateful that I have a home worth returning to. Some people dread coming home to their job or a nagging spouse. I'm always thrilled to come home.

Maybe, in a strange way, that's a good thing.

How do you feel before a big trip? Are you ever conflicted, or is it just me?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Epilogue

Hello Dear Readers,

Lost was the very first book I felt was polished enough to submit to agents. I landed my first agent with it, but unfortunately it never got published. Thank you for taking the time to read it now.

I really appreciate all the donations, comments, and encouragement I've received. Everyone who's read this book has my undying gratitude, but I have to acknowledge Lisa Saunders and Lisa Suomu Case for reading and commenting on almost every single chapter. You two kept me going! Thank you so much.

I'd also like to thank Chris Brogden for his copy editing and Jeff Ryzner for years of developmental editing. David Finch, my forensic consultant and friend, ensured the crime scene sequences were accurate. Bruce Glover, a retired patrol sergeant with The Winnipeg Police Service, gave my detective his name and showed me what every cop should be like. Thanks to everyone who was kind enough to read an earlier version of this work and give me their feedback: Lisa Saunders, Rick Caslake, Donald Benham, Lee Saunders, and Frank Krivak. Thanks to my dear friend Christine Brandt for all of her support along the way, and for helping me come up with this book's original title.

If you'd like to read Lost from the beginning, all of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. 

This book is dedicated in memory to my friend, Darbi Krysta Donovan, 1973-1990.

~ Epilogue ~

Mrs. Pauls banged on the door, a cigarette dangling from her withered lips. “Open up in there. Open up, you bitch!”
“What seems to be the trouble here?”
Mrs. Pauls whirled around, relieved to see the police officer.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Officer. This woman is over a month behind in her rent and she won’t open the door.”
“She’s a tenant of yours?”
“Yeah, the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Most surly individual I’ve had the misfortune to meet, but I took a chance on ’er. And does she do me a good turn for my generosity? Not on your life. Here she is, stinking the place up, not paying her rent….”
The man sniffed the air and then crinkled his nose in revulsion. However unbalanced Mrs. Pauls seemed, she had one thing right. The place did stink.
 “Ms. Pembrooke.” He pounded on the door. “Ms. Pembrooke, you’re in violation of the tenancy agreement. I’ve come to remove you from this apartment. Ms. Pembrooke?”
“Rental property is at a premium in this area,” Mrs. Pauls said. “There are thousands of people waiting for this apartment.”
The officer eyed the shabby building doubtfully, but continued to bang on the door.
“Police, Ms. Pembrooke. Open this door.”
When there was no response, he turned to the landlord. “You have the key?”
She pulled the correct one off her key ring. “They said I should wait for you to use it.”
He returned his attention to the door. “Ms. Pembrooke, I’m coming in.”
As the door opened, a horrible stench almost knocked them off their feet. Mrs. Pauls gagged, her jowls quivering in indignation. “What has that bitch done to my beautiful apartment?” she howled, covering her nose and mouth with fabric from her striped housedress. “You get out of there right this minute, bitch!”
Covering his own nose with a gloved hand, Jake gestured at Mrs. Pauls to wait for him in the hallway. Slowly he began to walk through the apartment, flicking on lights as he went.
He found Marilyn Pembrooke in the bedroom.
She was lying naked in a pool of her own blood, which had dried to a brown stain. Her mouth was frozen in a silent scream. Countless stab wounds riddled her body, forming dark, ugly mouths that gaped at him. Through the trails of blood on her face, Marilyn’s eyes stared at Jake in shock.

Around her neck was a gold locket.

 If you've enjoyed this book, please consider making a donation. Any amount, no matter how small, would mean the world to me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Forty-five

Hello Dear Readers,

Sometimes life imitates art, but more often it's the other way around. As strange as it sounds, what happens to Sara in this chapter happened to me when I was visiting my best friend's grave. Darbi died in a car accident when we were only seventeen, and I thought of her often while I was writing this book. Her death hit me really hard, but I believe what happened that day at her gravesite was her way of letting me know she was okay. 

This chapter marks the official end of the book, but there's an epilogue to come next week. Thanks for reading. I really appreciate everyone who has taken this journey with me. All your kind comments and donations have meant so much. 

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Forty-five ~

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Jake asked.
Sara shook her head. “Thanks, but this is something I have to do on my own.”
 “Take your time. I’ll wait for you.”
She leaned over to kiss his cheek before getting out of the truck. “I won’t be long.”
The sun shone on her face as she walked toward the cemetery gates, but the wind was cold. Sara studied the trek ahead of her and groaned. No one had bothered to shovel a trail through the snow, and getting to her sister’s grave would be a formidable challenge.
Tessie was buried in a newer area of the cemetery, far away from any trees or shrubs that could have provided shelter from the wind. Her gravestone had yet to arrive from St. Paul, so a simple wooden cross marked her final resting place. T. Martin was written across it in black letters.
Sara hadn’t visited her sister’s grave since the funeral, but she picked her way through the cemetery from memory. Snow drifts rose high as her hips, frosting her jeans with a thick crust. The wind nipped at her face and throat as she continued her hike uphill. She wished she had thought to wear a scarf.
At the halfway point, she was startled to see deep holes in the snow, left by others foolhardy enough to make the same journey before spring. Tessie’s grave was swept clear of snow. The gifts from her many visitors were evident here and there: a rosary twined around the cross, china figurines of horses and puppies, a blue soccer ball.
Shaking from the cold, Sara reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and withdrew Sam Skunk. She placed the little animal on the grave, right below the cross, snuggling him in between two votive candles. Fishing in her pocket for a lighter, she lit the candles and watched them burn a moment.
The air in the cemetery was heavy, as if a thousand spirits were holding their breath, waiting for her to speak.
“I miss you, kid,” she whispered, tears sliding down her cheeks. “Nothing’s the same without you.”
Gradually, Sara realized that she wasn’t cold any longer. A warm current of air drifted around her, protecting her from the brutal wind and thawing her frozen face. She took a step back from Tessie’s grave. The same hostile wind she’d felt before promptly howled in her ears. Quickly, she stepped forward again and was once more embraced by that inexplicable feeling of warmth.
Suddenly, Sara knew that her little sister was at peace.
And maybe … just maybe … she would be one day, too.

We're coming to the end of the road. If you've enjoyed this book, please consider making a donation. Any amount, no matter how small, would mean the world to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Surprising Lessons I Learned From Being Grateful

This blog was recently called out for being "touchy-feely."

I'm okay with that because I am touchy-feely. I hug my friends hello and goodbye. I will give my last dime to charity. And I tell the people I love that I love them ... on a semi-regular basis. 

So when I saw a bunch of people being tagged in "The Gratitude Project" on Facebook, I secretly wanted to be one of them.

For those not in the know, The Gratitude Project involves posting three things you're grateful for on your Facebook page every day for a week. When your turn is finished, you tag three others. 

Once I was tagged, I dove right in. I fully expected to name the usual gratitude-inducing things: family, friends, partner, meaningful work, pets, etc. And I did do a bit of that.

But what surprised me was how grateful I was for the things I usually complain about. Like growing up in small northern community, for instance.

A conversation about my hometown usually goes something like this:

"You grew up in northern British Columbia? Wow, it must be so beautiful there."

(Shrug) "I guess so, but we never really noticed that in high school. We just wanted to get out."

The last thing I ever expected was to be grateful for the place I was raised, but as soon as I sat down to write my three things, there it was.

Instead of focusing on the lack of opportunities, the isolation, and the pressure to conform, I felt a deep sense of thankfulness that I grew up in a place where it was safe to walk to school. Where the backyard provided plenty of space to play, and where we didn't have to lock our doors. 

I was also grateful that my mother never censored what I read. As a child, I quickly exhausted the appropriate books at my home, my school, and the local library, and soon moved onto hers. I read Rosemary's Baby, some racy Jackie Collins numbers, and discovered a bag of Stephen King books in the basement--THAT was a find. I even read true crime. Sometimes I had nightmares, but I'm so thankful I was never taught that any books were bad. I believe all that reading shaped the writer I am today. 

I've seen some articles urging parents to police their children's reading material, and that makes me so sad. I can understand it, but I think it does more harm than good to put barriers between young people and the books that interest them. I'm sure my mom wished I hadn't read "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," in Grade Three, but she dealt with it--and the dozens of questions that came afterward--gracefully.

What started as a simple Facebook exercise became a real eye-opener for me. Here's what I discovered:

  • Touchy-feely or not, a surprising number of people enjoyed reading these lists. You can learn a lot about someone by seeing what they're grateful for.
  •  Thinking big picture about gratitude puts things in perspective. Instead of simply being grateful for my work or my martial art, I thought about all the women who helped get me and so many others to this place--without them, we wouldn't have the opportunities we do today. This got me thinking about how I could be a trail blazer or at least give another woman a hand up.
  • Thanking people feels really, really good. This I already knew, but acknowledging those who aren't part of my daily life--tireless advocates and volunteers, the inspiring people I've interviewed--made me feel amazing, and it helped the people I mentioned feel appreciated. One woman was moved to tears. You never know who might need a kind word.
  • So often we focus on the negative--even if we're positive people. I'm not sure if it's an effort to appear humble or what, but this project taught me the power of looking on the bright side. 

By the end I was feeling so great that I decided to start keeping a gratitude journal again--something I haven't done in years. But there was something very powerful about expressing my gratitude publicly, and I'm glad I did. Thanks to Kei Ebata for tagging me.

Have you ever kept a gratitude journal or tried the Facebook project? What did you learn? What three things are you grateful for today?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Lost Chapter Forty-four

Hello Dear Readers,

If you miss a chapter of Lost, don't despair. All of the posts can be located by clicking on that lovely turquoise badge to the left of this post. Since the story has been running for a while, you now need to scroll down to the bottom of the file and select Older Posts to start from the beginning. Thanks for reading!

~ Chapter Forty-four ~

Audrey, Sara, and Jake returned home, well fed and well-rested, in time to ring in the New Year along with the rest of Rapture. On the day before Sara returned to school, they walked into Tessie’s room together.
All of Tessie’s things were the way she’d left them: the posters, the books, the stuffed animals, but somehow, they didn’t cause Jake pain anymore. Though he still felt the loss of her deeply, and knew he always would.
Audrey handed out the cardboard boxes. One box would be donated to charity, one would hold the things intended for Tessie’s friends, and one the memories they would keep. She squeezed Sara’s hand as she passed her daughter one of the boxes. Sara smiled back.
They agreed Tessie would never have wanted them to remember her this way, keeping her room as a tragic memorial to all they had lost.
“The Ladies’ Auxiliary donates stuffed animals to needy children,” Audrey said as she began to pack Tessie’s massive collection. “I was thinking….”
“Wait. Not that one,” Sara said as her mother started to put Sam Skunk into the box with the others. “I have another place for that one.”
Audrey handed her the little matted skunk.
They worked all afternoon, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. By the time they called it quits, the treasures of Tessie Eileen Martin were separated into three cardboard compartments.
Jake knew the pain surrounding her death wouldn't be dealt with so easily.
Later that evening, Jake relaxed with Audrey in front of the fireplace. They sat on the rug before the hearth, watching the flames create an ever-changing picture show.
            “I loved to watch fire as a kid,” Jake said. “My parents used to take us on camping trips, and they’d have to drag me away from the fire to make me go to bed. It mesmerized me.”
            “Me too. I thought it was magic.”
            “According to my mother, it is magic. She used to tell me this story about how all the animals on the planet would have frozen to death if some little spider hadn’t brought them the gift of fire.”
            Audrey stretched out, rolling onto her side. She propped up her head on one elbow so she could look up at him. “How did a spider bring them fire?”
            “She wove a bowl from her web and carried the bowl on her back.”
            “You know, you’re lucky to have the background you do.”
            Lucky? Jake had never thought of his Cherokee blood as a blessing. He’d been tormented about it far too many times. “Why do you say that?”
            “Because you have traditions, and rituals, and meaning to things. I really envy that. I’m English, so what rituals do I have?”
            “Tea.” Jake smiled. “Christmas.”
            “It’s not the same. There are no stories.
            “No, I suppose it isn’t,” he agreed, watching as a spark popped and disappeared up the flume, leaving a trail of orange stars in its wake.
            “Your mother’s a fantastic woman.”
            “Yeah,” he nodded. “She is. When I was little, I thought she was invincible, and my opinion hasn’t changed much over the years.”
            Audrey smiled. “It must be nice to feel that way. I can’t stand mine.”
            Jake reached for her hand. “I can’t imagine feeling any other way. She did so much for us, especially when Dad’s drinking started to get out of control. I loved my mother’s stories. I always hoped I’d be able to pass them on to kids of my own one day.”
            “I’m sure Sara would love to hear them.”
            “Tessie would have for sure. It’s too bad….”
            With the mention of Tessie, Jake’s mood shifted. He had felt her with them all day as they cleaned out her room, so strongly that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see her standing there, watching them. “I’m sorry, Audrey,” he said, an ache starting deep in his chest. “I feel like I’ve failed you.”
            “Failed me?” Audrey put a hand on his back. Her touch felt warm and soothing, and he leaned into it slightly. “How could you fail me?”
            He felt his anger return. “Ash is still out there.”
            “Oh, Jake. Why are you torturing yourself like this?”
            “Because that monster doesn’t deserve to be walking around free.”
            Audrey’s hand began to move in small circles down his back, but now his spine had stiffened, and her touch couldn’t heal him. “He had the element of surprise. You were caught off-guard, but next time you won’t be. He can’t hide forever. What does he have, a thousand bucks?”
            “Closer to two.”
            “Still, how far can he run on that? You’ll catch him, Jake. You have to be patient.”
             “I still feel like I’ve failed you. How can I sit here and be happy with you, knowing he’s out there?”
            “That kind of guilt will kill you. No one blames you but you.”
            “Maybe so.”
            I know you’ll find him. You have to have the same faith.”
            He didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d lost his faith long ago. “I promise you I’ll find him, Audrey.”

            She clung to him tightly, burying her face in the crook of his neck. “I know you will, Jake,” she said. “I know.”

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