Yet again an opener . . . the newest way

Under the cut, yet another attempt at the opening of the latest mystery. You’ll notice that I took houseboatonstyx at her word. *grin* I also explained about Zoe’s salsa and added/deleted a couple of other details. But for those who aren’t really following the revision process and the thinking behind it, this is eminently skippable.

Critiquers and potential critters: I’ve included, inside [[brackets]], a couple of optional paragraphs that would explain more about why she’s reacting as she does. Some early readers told me that they automatically hated anyone who had been turned in to a collection agency, for example, so I thought I’d better include a clue that it’s not for the usual reasons. I also inclued that they hadn’t broken up at all, not officially, with the other bracketed text, because two readers mentioned they didn’t know why (later in the book) people would assume she cared when they’d “broken up so long ago.”

If you think the bracketed text should go, that’s useful for me to know. That’s really the only non-final aspect of this particular draft, as far as I know.

WARNING: **Long-A*s** Excerpt. I went all the way into the beginning of chapter two in case anyone wanted to see what this Gil looks like. I always feel that my stuff gets less flawed as it flows on into later chapters–there’s less of a problem if you have to set something up, for one thing, and for another you get to relax into a feeling that the reader has at least some sympathy for the character by this time. But that’s not a conscious thing–it just seems to settle down a bit. It won’t for those who don’t like my voice/style, of course, but it will for the ones who basically click with me.

Chapter One

My sister was arguing with me about the “right” way to roll paint onto her dining room walls when the phone rang.

“That’s for me.” I started backing down the stepladder.

Zoë always let her machine pick up, so she didn’t object. She stepped back for a better view and pushed back her dark hair, leaving a skunk-streak of vanilla paint through her bangs. “You’re not supposed to paint W’s. I don’t care what they did on ‘Trading Spaces.’ Just go straight up and down, overlapping the edges a bit.” She demonstrated with her fuzzy roller; she’d gotten the longer stick and was taller besides, so she had her feet firmly on the floor. “Who would be calling you here?”

“I forwarded my desk phone because it’s my night to cover help desk calls.” I’d also sneaked out a little early so I could spend the weekend doing this marathon redecorating session at my sister’s.

“You and those stupid fish tanks.” She glared. “Be careful! You almost knocked over the paint can.”

We’d thrown dropcloths over the refinished hardwood floors, so it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Sorry.” I rushed down the bedroom hall of her 1920s cottage into the guest room and picked up the phone. “Aqualife Tech Support, The Fishes’ Lifeline. This is Ari. How may I help you?”

A tentative-sounding male voice said, “Um. I’m looking for Arialle French?”

Pretty good–he hadn’t entirely mangled my first name, the way most people did the first time. My name is Ariadne, pronounced “R. E. Oddney,” as if I were an initial-author, like C. S. Lewis or J. K. Rowling.

I didn’t recognize the voice. It was a warm, resonant, and infinitely sensual bass that threatened to vibrate my love muscles along with my eardrum. I shook off its effects as best I could and assumed a professional tone. “This is Ariadne French. How can I help you?”

“Oh. Sorry, Ariadne.” He nailed the pronunciation. “I’m looking at some bad handwriting here. You see, it’s handwritten.” He cleared his throat.

“What’s handwritten?” My old paranoia danced in the background: if this was a customer who’d spoken to me in the past and had asked for me again, I could only hope I hadn’t given unclear or misguided advice that had resulted in a tankful of floaters and a houseful of howling, broken-hearted children who’d named every one of the fish and had trained several of them to do tricks and answer to their names. “If you’ve misplaced the manual for your aquarium, we have digital versions downloadable from our Web site. Do you have a specific aquarium problem I can help you solve?”

“Er . . . no.” He sounded mystified. “I’m calling about a personal matter.”

My chest tightened. Surely he wasn’t another bill collector. The last thing I wanted was for Zoë to know they were still calling me at work.

[[I had signed my nephew Ricky’s admission paperwork over a year ago without a second thought. We had been desperate for him to begin the experimental treatments for his leukemia. My sister had been incapable of rational thought, and probably couldn’t have spelled her name, let alone sign. I hadn’t been worried about money at the time; I’d certainly never imagined that so much of the costs would go unpaid.]]

“I guess I should’ve introduced myself. My name is Gil Rousseau, and I’m Aaron’s neighbor and pastor.”

I felt my heart thud against my breastbone. “Aaron Beecroft?”

“Yes. Of course. Sorry; I’m not making myself clear. The purpose of my call is . . . well, I’m afraid I have sad news.”

That never meant anything good. In fact, it meant only one thing. “No,” I said involuntarily.

Gil cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you, but Aaron has passed away.”

Aaron? Dead?

For a moment I couldn’t find my voice. “Is this a crank call–some kind of juvenile humor–because if you think that’s funny. . . .” Oh, dear God. Please, please, Lord, let it be a prank. Please.

“I’m sorry. I wish I were joking, but it’s true. Aaron was found dead in his cabin night before last by his closest neighbor, who became worried when his lights didn’t go on two nights in a row. The neighbor decided he could’ve fallen, because his car was still in the driveway, and used the key they’d exchanged to go check.”

“I apologize,” I said stiffly. “I didn’t mean to impugn your intentions.” Impugn? Some officious part of my brain that handled matters when reality folded over itself and became impossibility had taken over, and apparently it was a major pedant. Sister Mary Theodosia’s voice had followed me into later life, just as she’d predicted. “It’s just that . . . my God, what can I say? I can’t believe it.”

“I hope I haven’t reached you at a bad time,” he said apologetically. As though there could be a good or an appropriate time to hear that the great love of your life who’d dumped you but whom you had always hoped you could get back together with has now crossed over to the other side, where you don’t know when or if you’ll meet up with him again or not. “But I found this number on his caller ID, and I realized, you’re probably the same Ariadne French.” The same Ariadne as what? “I thought talking to you in person would be better than sending a registered letter.”

Why would he need to send me a registered letter? I was afraid to ask. Instead, what popped out was the thought uppermost in my mind. “So Aaron made it out to Montana.”

“Montana?” He paused. “No, we’re in West Texas. Big Bend country.”

Aaron had told me he was headed for Big Sky country. Well, close enough.

“At any rate. The reason I’m calling is that Aaron named me executor of his will. And you’re his sole beneficiary.”

Aaron had a will? More to the point, Aaron had anything that was worth writing up a will for? He’d lived with very few possessions as long as I’d known him. Except for what he’d charged on my credit cards and put into my name, such as the conversion van and the camping stuff and other odds and ends in preparation for our escape from society. And then a year ago, when I couldn’t leave on Aaron’s schedule–because my nephew was dying–he had left without me.

“Additionally, I’ve been unable to contact any next of kin or find anything that could lead me to them, and so I’m counting on you to help make the arrangements.”

Arrangements. Oh, no. I knew all too well what that meant. The very word brought back memories of my nephew’s funeral and the chaos surrounding it. Without thinking, I let my gaze wander to Ricky’s school photo collage, still hanging on the wall of what used to be his bedroom. Whenever I looked at it, I could still see, in my mind’s eye, Ricky’s last portrait enlarged and set on an easel next to his coffin, his wide-eyed freckled face staring optimistically out at me from eternity. My late nephew would’ve started third grade in the fall.

When I tried to talk, I found my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “That might be difficult. Because of my job and all.” It was a lame excuse, and it sounded like one.

“Oh. Then, I suppose . . . these things can be somewhat taken care of from a distance. But that’s not usually the best way.” He paused. “Do you happen to know who would be his next of kin?”

“His parents. But they’re . . . they haven’t been in contact with him for a while. I’m not sure I can help much in finding them. They’re full-time snowbirds–I mean, RV’ers. They live in their motorhome and go from resort camp to resort camp. It’s a really popular lifestyle.” I was babbling. This was pushing all my buttons.

“Ari? Are you okay?” My sister’s words echoed down the hall.

I lowered my voice. “Aaron’s an only child. His parents are Myra and Doyle Beecroft. You could try Tempe, Arizona, where I think they landed, the last I heard. Doyle used to work for the military as a contractor. And there’s an Aunt Fannie Belle who lives in Ardmore, Oklahoma, but I don’t know what her last name is. That’s about all I know. We hadn’t been in touch for several months.”

I heard Gil’s pencil scratching. “I’ll give those leads a shot. But if I don’t find them, something needs to be done fairly soon.” He coughed. “It would still be helpful if you could come out in person at least for a day or two and help me clear up things, take what you may want out of the cabin, and so forth.”

His cabin in the woods. OUR cabin. The one he was going to build for me, for US. I’d often wondered just how he liked true cowboy life after leaving faux cowboy country, here in the land where the Dallas Cowboys were nothing but a football franchise and not a group of Marlboro Men herding dogies and wearing flannel shirts, ten-gallon hats, and Wranglers–the only jeans that a working cowboy or rodeo circuit rider actually wears. West Texas, of course, had cowboys just as authentic as any in Montana or Wyoming.

“I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly get away. Pressing issues at work.” I didn’t think I wanted to go into Aaron’s house . . . the house he’d built for me out in the woods . . . when he wasn’t there waiting for me. When he’d never be there again.

Stomach acid bubbled up into the back of my throat, and I nearly gagged. It had been a while since I’d had reflux this intense.

I thought I heard a click on the line.

“I understand,” said Gil. “Perhaps you’d prefer that I use some of the estate’s cash to arrange a sale of the furnishings. Of course I’d need your signature to authorize it. Assuming we don’t find family, I could have someone box up his personal effects, such as his wallet, glasses, and so forth. Unless you’re not interested at all in his, ah, private papers and possessions and such?”

My breath caught in my chest. I still had every note Aaron had ever scribbled to me (collected in a white ceramic box he’d once given me, its top embossed with a serene unicorn), and had a collection of pressed flowers from various occasions secreted in various books. I’m very sentimental that way. A little obsessive. Aaron and I had that in common.

He continued. “I could get some bids on packing and sending the more valuable items. Unless you’re saying you’d like to have an estate sale, sell it all, and have me wire you the funds.”

Aaron would have HATED that. He was VERY sentimental about his things and pieces of paper, had saved all my love letters and still had them as far as I knew. Like a girl. He said it was his historian-archivist training. He’d finished up a Master’s in Archive Science before he became fascinated with personal computers and with the potential to make money trading stocks online (another of his schemes that hadn’t quite worked out) and quit his job in Fort Worth at a branch of the National Archives to become a software weenie.

An auction would be the last thing Aaron would want. Strangers handling and bidding on his personal objects, seeing–and judging him by–the few special things he’d kept. That would be so cold.

I realized that wasn’t at all what I wanted to do.

I wanted to go out there. Touch Aaron’s clothes. Come home with keepsakes. See that cabin standing in the woods. Imagine him there, living his days in the peace and serenity, maybe longing for me but reluctant to contact me, thinking I was still angry at him. Sitting there at his dinner table doing his crossword puzzles in ink, like my sister Zoë. I could sit on the edge of the bed where he’d slept. Breathe in his musky smell from the sheets, one last time.

I’m a glutton for punishment.

“One more detail.” Gil paused. “You’ve also been named as his literary executor. He was writing a book, as I understand it.”

Aaron writing a book! He’d never read a book since he got out of school, that I could remember. Was this the same Aaron Beecroft I knew?

Belatedly, it struck me that he’d said he found my phone number on Aaron’s caller ID. But I hadn’t called Aaron, hadn’t even known where to find him. Gil must’ve meant my number was programmed into Aaron’s phone, or that it was the last number stored in redial. Maybe Aaron had finally called to tell me he was ready for me to come out there. To be with him. Why hadn’t he left voice mail? Why hadn’t I answered that so-important call?

This room was blazing hot. I jerked the paint-splattered bandana off my head, wiped the sweat off my forehead with it, and lifted my hair off the back of my neck. With my free hand, I scrabbled in the drawer of the nightstand for a ponytail holder or rubber band, but came up empty.

“Hello?” Gil said tentatively.

“I’m here.” I let out a long breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Forget what I was saying. Of course I’ll come out there. It’ll take some doing. But this is Friday night, Monday is the Labor Day holiday, and I have two weeks’ vacation coming, so. . . .”

The knowledge that one of your life’s great loves has died too young and too suddenly is pretty heavy. But it had filled me with an uncharacteristic determination to get there and have a look at where it all happened.

“Oh, good.” He sounded too perky. “I’m glad you changed your mind. He was very adamant, when I witnessed this will for him last year, that you be the one to take care of things. Not that he’d expected to pass so soon, of course. He just realized that with the amount of money and goods that he’d amassed, it was his responsibility to see that they didn’t just go to the state.”

How could Aaron have a lot of stuff, only a little over a year after he’d driven away in a second-hand conversion van pulling that near-empty third-wheel trailer that we’d just charged to me? What kind of work had he found out there in the middle of the West Texas desert? Had one of his grand schemes worked out?

“I’ve taken the liberty of looking up some of the available flights.”

I hated airplanes. But flying would be the quickest way to get there. And my old Ford Escort would never live to make the trip.

“One way, of course. You’ll probably want to drive his Explorer home and pull the trailer with whatever goods you want.”

An Explorer, no less. I could’ve slapped my forehead at the irony. “That sounds reasonable. Also, I might be bringing someone with me, and that would leave our departure date open-ended.” My sister Zoë liked nothing better than to go through other people’s things.

I thought I heard a faint gargling sound from the kitchen extension.

“Do you need me to wire you the funds? Or I could just make the reservations for you, and you can pick up the tickets at the counter at DFW, if that’d be more convenient.”

“You’re a mind reader.” I’d been wondering how I could find a fare that I could afford.

“I have the flight information on my computer screen”–naturally, because the entire world sits in front of a glowing monitor all day long–“for the flights out over the next couple of days. Let me read them off to you.”

# # #

Before I even hung up the phone, Zoë was standing in the doorway. “Who in the hell was that?”

“You were listening in from the kitchen,” I accused, folding my arms. “You heard it all.”

“No, I didn’t. That damn speakerphone kept cutting out because the MUTE button keeps shorting. Besides, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” Her hands landed on her hips. “Some guy invited you out to his cabin to pick up something or another from an estate? That’s bullshit. Who died?”

This was going to blow her mind, as it had mine. “That was one of Aaron’s neighbors out in Big Bend country. He says I’ve inherited all Aaron’s stuff. I’m the only one they can find, and I’m going out there to . . . you know, make arrangements.”

“For Aaron,” she repeated dumbly. “Your Aaron?”

“Duh. He’s been living in a cabin at the feet of the Davis Mountains.”

“You said he went to Montana.”

“I thought he had.” I shrugged. “He didn’t get quite that far.” My vision blurred, but I blinked back the tears.

[[All our friends eventually assumed that Aaron and I had broken up, but it had been more of an “I’ll call when I get settled” abandonment. I’d been waiting all this time, expecting somewhere in the back of my mind that he’d eventually call, but the dream had started to fade; I’d been trying not to think about it, let alone cling to it. Now it had slipped out of my grasp entirely.]]

“God, Ariadne. Some guy called and told you Aaron’s dead?” The reality of it began to register on her face.

I squeezed my eyes closed for a moment. That word still bugged me. I couldn’t put the two words, “Aaron” and that “D” thing, together comfortably.

“What in the hell happened, pardon my French?” I winced at Zoë’s favorite pun, a family joke, but she ignored me. “I mean, Aaron was the health nut of the century. I never saw him eat red meat. He used to ride that bike everywhere and do all that yoga, even after people started razzing him about yoga being girly. He seemed like the perfect specimen.” My libido had agreed. “I’m assuming, since you didn’t say, that it wasn’t some kind of disease, not as far as they know, anyway, and also that it wasn’t a burglary or whatever. Was it his heart, or an accident, or what?”

“I don’t know.” I realized I hadn’t quizzed Gil about that aspect of it. I didn’t really want to know. The reality of this hadn’t sunk in yet; I was still in denial, thinking of Aaron as being perfectly safe, ensconced in his retreat, looking out his window at the birds–and typing into his computer log just which ones he saw feeding and which were bathing and which were flittering around, while he was at it. “I didn’t find out all the details. I couldn’t think. There I was expecting to answer a question about aquarium pH, and instead the Universe slaps this on me.” My hands flew around, helping me talk. “Aaron’s left me everything, and I need to go out there right away.”

“Wait a minute.” She held up her hands and windshield-wipered them back and forth to clear the slate. “How do you know this guy is legit? Maybe he’s some kind of psycho Aaron met once on the road, or in one of those crazy pubs he likes to go to, and they got bombed together, and while Aaron was schwacked he told this guy all about you and even gave him your phone numbers. For all you know, the guy is a perv, waiting out there to take you into the boonies and . . . God knows what.”

Leave it to Zoë to think of all sorts of horrid, bizarre things that wouldn’t happen. “Spare me the wild imaginings.” But I bit my lip.

“I’m serious, Airhead. You are definitely not using that ticket, if he actually sends one. That’s a typical scheme used by Internet predators, for corn sakes. They lure women to remote love nests, and the women are found months later in pieces in somebody’s chest freezer.” Her eyes bulged out of her round face. “Scheisse. I can’t believe you’re so naive.”

“You can come with me,” I said in an innocent voice. “He said he could book a second seat on the flight. All I have to do is call.”

“I heard that part.” She tried to wither me with her glare, but I’m fairly resistant to that after thirty-odd years as her younger sister. “You know I do not travel.”

Not any more, anyway. My sister had become somewhat of a recluse after her son–Ricky–died.

Sounding as if I knew what I was getting into might help. “Okay, listen, I already thought of all the possibilities. I’ll call out there in the morning to make sure this guy is legit.”

“Call where?” She lifted one eyebrow a notch. “What did he claim to be?”

“He’s Aaron’s pastor.” I grinned as her chin hit her chest. “The associate pastor at the Church After God’s Heart. Aaron’s a member. He’s been attending since he got out there. Apparently, he became quite the charity worker and community servant. What, did the speakerphone cut out entirely while the preacher man was making my reservations online as well as making conversation? Aaron did a Houses for Humans build last summer, and he built his own log cabin from a kit.”

My sister goggled at me. “This is the same Aaron Beecroft who couldn’t change a light bulb without getting a splinter? Who thought Sunday mornings were made for playing online computer games?”

I just grinned. “People change.”

“Not that much. Not in just over a year.” She shook her head. “Are you sure this guy wasn’t putting you on? This sounds exactly like one of Aaron’s crazy schemes to get you to come out there. Bringing more money.” She turned and headed for her kitchen. “I need a drink.”

Neither of us drank alcohol any more, but I could understand the impulse; my own mouth was pretty dry. “The idea that Aaron was going to church really gigged me, too. I suppose he got religion after, well, you know, what happened to us.”

She put distance between us, because as usual she did not talk about her son, and his name was never to be mentioned in her presence. But that wasn’t where I was going with this. I followed her. “Anyway, so Gil is going to pick me up at the airport.”

“Already you’re on a first-name basis?”

I ignored the jibe. “Then I can drive back pulling the trailer.”

“He still have that trailer you’ve been paying for?”

“I guess.” I’d had to keep up the payments, because otherwise it’d have put my credit even further into the slagheap. “The man acts as if Aaron’s got money. A lot of it, apparently.”

“Will wonders never cease.” Zoë held a glass under the ice maker as it ground cubes to a pulp. “I wonder what kind of scam Aaron had going. I’m sure it was a racket.” She handed me the glass of crushed ice.

I found a Diet Splurge in her fridge, cracked the top, and poured it over the ice. The bubbles were my favorite part.

“Have you eaten today?”

My stomach growled in response. I had missed lunch. But I wasn’t very hungry after what I’d just learned. I scavenged in her pantry and found low-salt tortilla chips. I dumped some in her cobalt blue serving bowl and dug her homemade salsa out of the fridge. She made the most brilliant tomatillo-roasted red pepper salsa, along with all sorts of other gourmet delicacies, which kept her a little stocky, not that she cared. Whereas I hadn’t gotten fat YET, but I dreaded the onset of the scale-creep; it happened to my sister and Mother soon after age thirty. Thank goodness I still had a couple of years to go.

Zoë kept shaking her head. “I can’t believe it. How did Aaron get all that money? And, furthermore, why didn’t he think about paying you back for what he took that’d been charged on your credit cards that you’ve been struggling to pay, if he had so much? Where did this come from? Did he work? What?”

“I’m sure he did odd jobs. Maybe webpage design.” I shrugged. “There’s always work in construction.”

Momentarily her eyes closed in exaggerated disbelief. “Think, Airhead. That wouldn’t bring in the kind of money he’d need to buy land, let alone build. Out there, he only had half as much as you two would’ve had together, and I didn’t think he could do it on double that. He had no marketable skills of the woodsman-redneck stripe, like whittling or selling blood. Maybe he turned to selling his body.” She filled her glass with Sun Tea from a huge amber container on the countertop. “I always figured he’d end up in one of those trailer parks or in a shelter, until he consented to go back to working for The Man.” She nodded knowingly. “I bet that’s what you’re going to find, when you get there. A double-wide in a trailer park with artificial logs glued on like siding.”

“Cynic.” I crunched down on a chip. It didn’t have any flavor without the salsa.

“You can’t take all that time off from work.”

“I can arrange for a temp. The customer service help screens are pretty self-explanatory, and she can send the tough questions up to a supervisor.” I opened my arms. “It’s only for a week or so.”

Zoë’s eyelids crept to half-mast. “I still say it’s too dangerous to go. Call this dude right now and say, ‘I can’t come after all. Please have everything packed up and sent to me, where I can sort it out at my convenience.” Including the cabin, no doubt. “And I’ll appreciate it if you’ll wire me the funds out of the estate to rent a large storage building right away. Just let me know what your fee will be. Sorry for the inconvenience, and, God, I can’t believe you assumed I’d go along with this.'”

“I am not about to address that man as ‘God,'” I said, just to confuse her. “Even if he is a man of the cloth.”

“Don’t try to irritate me, Ari, because it’s working.” She popped a loaded chip into her mouth. “You know it’s crazy to go out there alone, when Aaron has had who-knows-what happen to him. Anyone else would’ve given you time to think this over and let you call them back. Something’s fishy.” She eyed me disapprovingly. “But you’re a grown-up, so I guess you can make your own decisions about your personal safety.”

My sister is terribly overprotective of me. It’s kind of nice sometimes.

“Don’t count on me going with you, by the way.” She plopped into a dinette chair and made room on the table for the chips by moving her stack of mystery novels, half-completed crossword puzzle books, mail-order catalogs, and general what-have-you to the floor. “My head knows my pillow.”

That was supposedly an old Chinese proverb she’d picked up somewhere. But the truth was, Zoë hadn’t spent a night away from home or gone farther than the grocery store for over a year, as far as I knew. I thought a good excuse to get away was just what she might need. “You could bring your pillow.”

She shot me a look. “I can’t afford to go gallivanting around. Neither can you.”

“Aaron is paying my way out there. I mean, his estate is.”

Rubbing her palms down the sides of her face, Zoë sighed. “You’d better get out some sweaters. Up in the mountains like that, it’s going to be a sight cooler than it is here in Dallas.”

It was still Indian summer and rather warm in north Texas. We usually spend October and November in the upper seventies. I didn’t think I’d need sweaters over Labor Day weekend.

I handed her the cylinder of food for Rudy, my red Betta. “Don’t forget to feed my fish. Not too much, and only once a day.”

“I suppose this means I’m doing this home makeover on my own.”

“I’ll keep painting until right before my flight leaves.”

“Don’t cut it too close. When did he set you up for?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’d better get packed tonight.”

Chapter Two

The flight was what frequent flyers call “uneventful,” but that was because I had kept a steady upward pressure on both armrests. I’d brought along my MP3 player and two books to distract me, but I ended up gazing out the window at the colorless plains.

The closest airport (since there was none at Fort Davis) was Midland-Odessa–George W. “Dubya” Bush 43’s teenhood playground, oilman territory–so that’s where we’d be touching down. But the little town closest to Aaron’s hillside cabin would be a short drive from there. I hadn’t ever been to far West Texas and had a picture in my mind of cowboys among tepees, but this was actually a plateau on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert that extends down into Mexico, according to the pilot’s informative landing announcement. Good thing I’d downed a couple of bottles of water before boarding.

The runway looked too short for an airliner, but we made it.

When I got off the plane, a good-looking guy came forward, holding out his hand for me to shake. I knew it was him because he was the only one not wearing cowboy boots or carrying a toddler on his shoulders. I can’t explain why the Alice Cooper line came to mind, “I’m not evil, I’m just good-lookin’.”

He wore a tweedy sport coat over dark Dockers and a white button-down shirt, but no tie, at least. His shoes squeaked out their leather-sole newness as he stepped toward me.

“I’m Gil Rousseau.” His palm was soft, warm, and dry. Not the strong hand of a carpenter like Our Lord, but the soft fingers of someone who does desk work. Momentarily I thought of Aaron’s long-fingered hands, recently roughened by all that building with logs.

“Ariadne French.” I shook as firmly as I could with my knees still shaking from the flight and my ears roaring from the change in pressure (chewing gum does nothing; I knew from experience I’d be partly deaf until morning.)

“I knew you immediately. You look just like your picture.”

Aaron had photos of me displayed around the house? I smiled weakly.

Since I had no idea whether to call him Reverend or Brother or what, I decided to go casual. “Let’s agree to avoid the awkwardness of figuring out what to call each other and forget the formality. If you’ll call me Ari, I’ll call you Gilbert.”

“Gil, please, and it’s a deal. But it’s short for Gilgamesh, not Gilbert. An affectation stemming from Mother’s English major at Vassar.” Ah, he understood unusual names.

“You win,” was all I said.

He grinned, revealing charmingly imperfect–natural, uncapped–teeth. I appreciated his longish blond hair and swimming pool-blue eyes. Blue as in a chlorinated, kidney-shaped 1950s pool. Fringed with dark lashes and topped by thin blond brows. He was a mesomorph, medium tall, nice complexion. And a preacher to boot. What’s not to like?

He retrieved my larger suitcase from the carousel as I clutched my carry-on bag, my tote, and my oversized purse. I’ve always tended to overpack. “Why’d your parents choose that particular name and not Persephone, say, or Minerva? Or, rather, to stay with the Greek version, Athena.”

I decided against countering with the usual snide remark about not having burst fully formed from the head of Zeus like the goddess of wisdom. “I was born on September seventeenth. It’s Saint Ariadne’s feast day.”

“There’s a saint?”

“Didn’t they go over that in preacher school?” I smiled to let him know I could tease right back.

He grinned. “Not at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.”

“I do declare. What are they teaching them in the schools nowadays?” I breathed in the dusty air. “So about how far is it to the hotel?”

“About two hundred miles. It’s roughly a three-hour drive.”

“Oh, my G–” I caught myself. “My stars. I had no idea it was such a long way. It only looked this far on the map.” I showed him by measuring on my fingernail with my thumbnail, and wished I had put on nail polish instead of biting them to the quick.

“Roseanne Barr says that men read maps better than women because only men can understand the concept of an inch equaling a hundred miles.” He was still smiling.

I managed to raise the corners of my lips, albeit weakly. “It’s just that guys won’t admit they’re lost. Besides, I do fine when I drive by landmarks instead of reading maps. Women are better at reading facial expressions. Like right now, I’m reading your expression, and you’re thinking you should’ve researched me better before asking me out here.” I shook my head. “I would never have put you out like this. I should’ve rented a car.”

“No need. You’ve got Aaron’s Explorer.” He dangled keys near my ear. “Hope I’m not overstepping my bounds, but I wasn’t figuring on your going all the way alone down an unfamiliar road, especially since it’s kind of off the beaten path. When I said I’d meet you, I meant I planned to drive you back.” His eyes twinkled unnaturally, like a TV evangelist’s. “I’m sure you’re tired. But if that bothers you, would you rather drive while I give directions?”

* * * * * * * *
“Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”–George Orwell (Eric Blair)

Lesson of the rooster: many hens (chicks), crack of dawn: ratty tailfeathers


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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