How To Find What You Came Here For

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The short stories you find here are the product
of a vastly overactive imagination
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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reluctant Betrothal - Chapter Two

Gabriel waited until the last of the dinner dishes had been cleared and desert had been served to bring up the day’s surprise to his mother.  She’d wanted to discuss opening the country manor, and although he had no intention of doing so he was willing to listen to her arguments.  And, he admitted, he wasn’t ready to bring up a time that he knew she didn’t like to remember.
When his mother mentioned a good friend of hers, he took the opportunity to talk to her about Lady Cameron.  “Mother, what was the name of the girl you betrothed me to, all those years ago?”
His mother looked at him without speaking for a moment, her eyes wide, before she regained her composure.  “Gabriel, I can’t think what brought this up.  Why would it matter now?”
“I was reminded of it today, and realized that no one ever told me her name, and I don’t remember seeing it anywhere.”
She sighed and looked at her half-finished tart.  “Faith Cameron, Lady Cameron…if she hasn’t married by now.”
“You were friends with her mother, is that right?” he persisted.
“Gabriel, I can’t think what has brought on this sudden curiosity!  What does it matter, after all this time!”  She rose from her chair and dropped her napkin on the abandoned tart.
“She came to see me today, Mother.” 
Gideon’s quiet statement had an alarming effect on his mother.  She paled and sat heavily on her chair, her hand at her throat, then struggled for an air of nonchalance, “Oh really?  Well, she must be visiting London with her husband.”
Gideon watched his mother with interest – this was not the reaction he’d expected.  “She’s not married, Mother.”
His eyebrow quirked as she actually lost more color, and her hands wrung the napkin she’d picked up again.  “A…a widow at that young age?  How sad…”  she trailed to a stop as Gideon shook his head.
“She’s never been married, Mother.”  He watched her knot the fabric of the napkin.  “She’d like to be though.”
“I don’t suppose…is she engaged then?”
“Yes,” his mother’s relief was visible.  “To me, actually.”  His mother sprang from her seat as if she’d been pinched.
“No!  You realize you have no legal obligation…that after all this time with no indication that she intended to pursue the betrothal, she simply can’t expect that you are going to marry her!”
Gideon watched his mother, “Actually, I was thinking that it is past time for me to marry.  As she pointed out, we are already betrothed so it’s convenient if nothing else.”
The duchess paced the room, reminding him strongly of Lady Cameron in her office.  After a few moments she stopped pacing and faced him.  “I simply won’t have it Gideon.  If you can’t put her off then I will!  The idea of her simply appearing out of nowhere and insisting that you marry her is completely ridiculous,” she stated emphatically, and fisted her hands on her hips to glare at him.
Gideon circled the table and took her by the elbow to guide her into the sitting room.  Lady Marlborough sank onto the couch and barely resisted the urge to drop her head into her hands and cry. 
“Mother, perhaps now would be the time to discuss my ‘betrothal.’”  He poured himself a brandy he didn’t actually want and sat in a chair opposite the fire.
His mother sighed, and nodded.  “I had hoped that we would never have to discuss this.  Especially once Elizabeth – Lady Cameron’s mother – was killed with her husband.  I thought it would be forgotten.  I knew Elizabeth had no intention of pressing the betrothal, she’d merely agreed to it to save my pride.”  Her hands knotted in her lap.  “My pride!  That’s what’s landed you in this mess!  If I’d agreed to accept the loan she and her husband offered, you wouldn’t be facing marriage to some homely girl you’ve never met!”
Gideon’s laughter startled her.  “I’d like to point out that you haven’t met the girl either, and yet you have already decided that she’s homely.”
Lady Marlborough sighed and relaxed back against the cushions.  “You’re right, of course.  It’s just that this is such a shock.  Is…is she homely?” she asked.
“No, she’s not.  She’s not beautiful, but…well, she’s not homely.”  He shrugged and arrowed in on what he wanted his mother to tell him.  “Explain the betrothal, Mother.”
She stared into the fire for a moment and wondered how to explain her husband’s weakness to her son.  “How much do you already know?”
“Some, but not all.  I know there were gambling debts, and that Father was around the manor more than usual.  Everyone was a bit grim, and the servants walked on eggshells.  After the betrothal, Father went back to London…and you didn’t.”  He watched his mother carefully, and it seemed that for a moment her age sat heavily on her.
“Liam told you.”  She didn’t need to see his nod to know she was right.  They’d been inseparable as boys and Liam had always been talented at finding out things he wasn’t supposed to know.  He was just as nosy now that he was Gideon’s valet.
“Your father…your father loved us very much.  I want you to know that, to remember that.” She spoke with a peculiar fervency that struck at Gideon’s heart.  “But, as much as he loved us, he was not a strong man.  He was easily influenced and often didn’t think ahead to the consequences of his actions.  When he was a young man, his rakish habits were exciting to me.  After we’d married, and particularly after you were born, I began to realize he had no intention of changing those ways.  He spent more and more time in London, gambling, and less time at home.”
She rose and walked to the dark windows to look out at the rain falling on London.  “I begged him to spend more time at home, more time with us, and he would…for a time.  Then he’d get bored or one of his friends would stop by and he’d be off again.  I was frustrated, I suppose, so I wasn’t as loving toward him when he did come home.  That didn’t help entice him to stay.  Then suddenly, that summer you were twelve, he came home and didn’t leave.  I kept expecting him to, but after several months he was still there, and I started to hope that he’d finally changed.  Maybe that’s why it hurt so badly when I realized he hadn’t. 
“Elizabeth had come home from Scotland to visit family and had gone to the jeweler to buy a gift for her aunt.  She saw a broach she’d given me for my birthday - the year you were born, in fact - at the shop, and although the jeweler wouldn’t tell her who he’d received it from, she knew it was mine.  She bought it and brought it to me, wanting to know why I hadn’t told her our financial situation was so dire.  I stared at the jewels glittering on that broach, and my heart broke.”  She sighed deeply and returned to the sofa to sit.
“I confronted your father when he returned that night.  I wasn’t kind, or understanding, or gentle.  You know my temper.”  Gabriel smiled slightly and nodded.  “When I was finished screaming at him he told me the truth.  Not only had he lost every penny we’d had gambling, he’d signed away our home.  If he couldn’t raise the funds to pay back the loans he’d gotten to cover the losses, we were going to lose everything.  I was so angry, and so sad, I couldn’t think.  I rode to Elizabeth’s home, just as I’d done when we were children and something had upset me.  When I’d told her everything she offered a loan, but I knew we’d never be able to pay it back.  I had some money I’d hidden from your father, my own money, but it wasn’t enough.  I refused, and her solution was to suggest the betrothal to your father.  I never expected him to agree, Gideon, but he did!  And now your life is ruined because of his weakness!”  Now she did give in to the urge to bury her face in her hands.  Hot tears flowed as she felt Gideon’s weight on the couch next to her and his arm around her shoulders.
“Is that why you never returned to London with him?  You couldn’t forgive him for agreeing to the betrothal?”  He sighed as she nodded and turned to lean her head against his shoulder.   “Mother, I’ve known about Father’s …weaknesses, for a long time.”
His mother jerked away and stared at him as her hands dropped to her lap.  “What did you say?”
He nodded and took her hands in his.  “He used to hide his gambling notes in my bedroom.  He knew you wouldn’t look there.”  He tightened his grip on her hands as she shook her head in horrified denial.  “Three days after he died, one of his…associates…paid me a visit at my office.  Father had been in business with him, of a sort, and he naturally assumed I would be interested in continuing that association.”
Lady Marlborough closed her eyes.  “Oh, Gideon.  And I thought I’d done such a good job of protecting you.”
“Mother,” he cut in sharply, “this is not your doing.  And as far as Lady Cameron is concerned . . . well, I certainly know how to put a marriage-minded woman off if I’ve a mind to.  But this situation is more complicated than a forgotten betrothal,”  and he quickly explained Lady Cameron’s predicament.
“Well,” she said after a moment’s thought, “I must admit I’m having some difficulty imagining all of this.”
“I did some discreet checking after she left.  Her uncle did indeed go to the authorities when no one was able to find her, and then dropped the matter the next day with no explanation.  It was assumed that there was some sort of misunderstanding and that his age and infirmity led him to overreact.  I also discovered that her unwelcome suitor is the Viscount Melville.”
The Duchess frowned, “I know that name.  I’ve heard it somewhere.”
“The way your friends gossip, I would expect you’ve heard everyone’s name somewhere!” Gideon interjected wryly.
His mother slapped his arm, “We do not gossip, Gideon!  We simply discuss current events.  Events!  That’s where I’ve heard of the Viscount Melville – his father sponsored a horse race and the Viscount was caught trying to poison a competitor’s horse.”
“From what I was told, his father has threatened to cut him off completely unless he marries and settles down,” Gideon said.  “Apparently it occurred to him that marrying a woman with money would soften that blow.”
“The man is a lunatic!” his mother declared.  “I don’t see how your marriage to a complete stranger is going to convince him to leave Elizabeth’s daughter alone.  It seems to me that he’s already shown that he intends to have her at any cost!”
“Actually marrying Lady Cameron may not be necessary.  If her reputation weren’t at stake I’d simply bring in the authorities, but if word gets out that she traveled with him to a roadside inn…”
His mother nodded, her face grim.  “The fact that he kidnapped her won’t matter - she’ll be ruined in society.  Even if she intends to bury herself in the countryside with her uncle, it would be a disaster.  Her friends may stand by her, but the community?  No doubt Melville is counting on that to keep her quiet.”
“That was my thought as well.  The question at hand is what to do about it.  Melville is sure to find her again, and next time he’ll have the confidence of knowing she doesn’t dare object.”  Gideon rose and walked to the fireplace. 
“What is she like, Elizabeth’s daughter?” his mother asked.  “I saw her briefly at the betrothal, but she was just a baby at the time.  I believe I remember pale hair, and unusual eyes?”
Gideon shrugged, “I don’t remember meeting her then.  Her hair is darker now, but her eyes are still unusual...a sort of light green color.  She’s animated – she talks with her hands just as you do.  My impression of her was that she was intelligent…and more composed than I would have expected from a girl her age who’d never spent time at court.”
Lady Marlborough watched her son for a moment, then decided to take a gamble.  “Well, I suppose ff we worked quickly, I believe we can have a wedding in two or three weeks,” his mother remarked thoughtfully, injecting a note of reluctance.
Gideon turned slowly to frown at his mother.  “There are plenty of other options for handling Melville that do not include tying myself to a girl I’ve known less than a day.  There’s no point in even discussing marriage until all other avenues have been exhausted.”
“Absolutely!  I’m glad to see you’ve given this some thought.”
“Besides – the girl deserves better than to be married to a complete stranger simply because of one man’s insanity.  She may not think she wants to marry now, but no doubt she’ll meet someone who will change her mind about that.”
“Very true, particularly after she’s spent some time in London society.  You know how charming the young men can be!”  Lady Marlborough stole a glance at her son’s face and hid a smile at the frown she saw.
“I doubt she’ll find a match in the young men here in London!  She’s far too intelligent to put up with their inane chatter and meaningless lives.”  He put his full brandy glass on the mantel, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants.
“You may be right, but even if she’s as plain as you described, I’m sure her money will motivate at least a few offers.”
Gideon’s hands fisted in his pockets as he turned back to his mother.  “And how will that be an improvement?  She’ll be in the same position with them as she was with Melville.  And she’s not plain,” he muttered as an afterthought.
“She’s not?  Well, after the way you described her I suppose I just assumed she was.”  Lady Marlborough pressed her lips together to keep from smiling in delight at his defence.
“No, I mean she’s not beautiful – not in the typical way – but there’s something about her.”  Gideon shook his head and continued, “She lights up somehow.”
His mother thought a moment longer and nodded as she reached her decision.  She stood and crossed to the fireplace to lay her hand on his arm.  Smiling up at him she said gently, “Gideon, I believe I’ve changed my mind.  I think you should marry her…for her sake of course.”
He looked down at his mother’s face and remembered another face, pale and composed and brave.   “Are you seriously suggesting I sacrifice my bachelorhood to marry a girl I don’t know, without even trying to resolve it any other way?”
“I am suggesting,” she replied, thinking quickly, “that a marriage of convenience…in name only…would protect her reputation as well as give you the authority, as her husband, to deal with Melville.  Once Melville is taken care of, she can return to her uncle’s home and you can remain here with your business pursuits . . . without the added distraction of women who can’t resist trying for a prime catch such as yourself.”
Gideon stared down at his mother, and slowly nodded in agreement, “A marriage of convenience – a suitable response to a betrothal of convenience, I suppose.”  Tension knotted his shoulders as he considered what his mother was suggesting.  Reluctantly, he asked, “If I have her sent for tomorrow, how quickly do you think you can plan a wedding?”
She hid her smile, and considered.  “Two weeks, minimum, for a proper wedding.  You know…the country manor would be ideal for this, with all that space and the beautiful gardens.”
Gideon just shook his head and started for the door.  “If I didn’t know better I’d swear this was all an elaborate plan just for you to have your way about the manor!”  As he reached the doorway a thought had him turning back, “You realize, don’t you, that if I follow your plan the line will die with me.  I won’t be providing you any grandchildren.”
Lady Marlborough shrugged but said nothing, and he turned back to cross the hallway and climb the stairs, calling for Liam as he went.  He may be the image of his father, she thought, but her son was not weak.  “Yes, you will.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Countdown

I looked out of our living room window at a beautiful blue sky and tried not to be depressed.  A sunny Saturday morning in springtime should be spent outdoors having a picnic - maybe doing a little fishing if you feel like it.  Instead, we were going to be replacing the skirting around our mobile home.  I was trying to look on the bright side and remind myself that at least we'd be outside, but I was having some trouble maintaining that sense of optimism.

Optimism had become an endangered species in our home.  My husband and I were closing in on our third anniversary, and we were both hoping our fourth year as a family would see some improvements…in a lot of areas.  We'd been struggling financially, and it seemed like every crisis that passed brought another one in on its coattails.  Compounding our stress was the premature birth of our second son in January followed by months of wondering if he would live. 

The stress and anxiety had pushed me close to the edge, and my strained relationship with my mother-in-law wasn’t helping.  From the moment we'd been married, it was clear that my husband's mother didn't like me and it wasn't long before she wasn't even trying to be subtle about it.  Still, I'd been holding out hope that things would change, and for that reason I resisted my natural inclinations toward sarcasm and tried to "turn the other cheek" when a nasty or hurtful comment came my way.  After turning the other cheek so often during one Sunday dinner that I considered offering an entirely different cheek just for variety, I started avoiding family events. 

I was so far from my own family - I craved a relationship with my mother-in-law the way some women crave chocolate, but things had gotten so bad that I was actually having nightmares about her.  I would wake up in the night, unable to draw a good breath, my voice stuck somewhere in my chest. 

As stressed as I was at that moment, I could really only be thankful that she never came to our home so I wouldn't have to deal with her while we worked on the house.

I walked into the bathroom, and stopped dead in the doorway.  Standing in the middle of the small room was Aaron, my oldest son - every inch covered in white powder except for his hair…which was covered in white paste.  The room itself had also been dusted in white powder, so the only color was my son's bright blue eyes gazing at me in surprised shock.  I could see the bottle of baby powder in his pudgy, three-year-old hands.  Baby powder someone had given us ages ago, but which I never used since it wasn't supposed to be good for a baby to breathe it into his lungs.

"Hi Momma!  I squozed," my angel (in appearance, at least), explained.  I tried to focus on how well his speech therapy was coming along, but my mind kept veering back to the very white child standing in a very white room, and the fact that my husband's father would be coming to help with the skirting soon and I still needed to start breakfast.

"Hon?" I called to my husband.

"Yeah?" he called back from the next room.

"C'mere a minute, would ya?" I called.  I heard him mutter a little through the thin wall separating our bedroom from the bathroom, and then his footsteps were in the hallway.

"Yeah?  What's…oh my God!"  He stopped next to me and stared at Aaron and our white bathroom. 

"I squozed," our son chimed again.

"Squeezed," my husband corrected absently.

"Yep, that," Aaron confirmed.

My husband looked at me.  Before he could speak I jumped in, "I'll clean up the PowderPuff boy…you get the bathroom.  And work fast, your dad's supposed to be here in an hour."

I reached for my toddler and caught him just before he made his escape down the hall.  "Into the tub, squeezer!"  I stripped his powdery clothes off…an outfit I'd put him in less than thirty minutes before…and turned on the water to fill the bathtub.  Just as I finished scrubbing the last of the white paste out of his hair - apparently he'd tried to wash it out himself - I heard our youngest chattering in the next room.  I passed our wet son over to his father for dressing and hurried into the baby's room.

Mikey lay in his crib, bouncing the bells on his feet with quick, jerky movements and giggling.  I knew before I looked into the crib that he'd wet through the cloth diaper I'd just changed him into.  The only thing double padding the diaper seemed to do was make him look like a bow-legged cowboy with too much time on a horse.

"Munchkin, I'm gonna have to wrap you in plastic!"  He grinned at me as I reached for him, halfway to tipping myself into the crib with him.  (Cribs with high sides weren't designed for short mommies.)  I sighed as I watched the plastic pants over his diaper experience containment failure and leak all over the bedding.  Once the drips had stopped I carried him over to the desk that functioned as our changing table and stripped him, dumping his wet outfit into the plastic hamper with the other two outfits he'd wet through earlier in the morning.  I pulled a couple of homemade wipes out of the plastic tub and wiped him down from shoulders to toes, and then reached for the folded cloth of a fresh diaper.

As my eyes moved away from Mikey, I felt liquid hit my shoulder and dribble past my shirt collar to pool in my bra.  My eyes snapped back to the baby and he grinned at me again, clearly pleased with the quality of his aim.

"Thanks Mikey, that's exactly what I needed this morning."  I sucked it up and wiped him down again, this time leaving a folded diaper over the pertinent bits to avoid a repeat performance that I knew full well he was capable of.  Freshly dry and dressed I handed him off to my husband and headed for the bedroom to change.

"Got you again, didn't he?" Dan called as I walked away.

"Bite me."  No doubt, the stress and lack of sleep (stupid nightmares), was starting to affect my witty repartee, and that was the best I could do.

I dug halfheartedly through my closet and pulled out a ratty pair of sweats and a t-shirt permanently stained with God-only-knows what…the wardrobe of a stay-at-home mom on laundry day.  I glanced at the clock and hustled into the bathroom for my own wipe down and change into dry clothes.  My father-in-law was due to be there any minute and I still hadn't started breakfast!

The sound of my father-in-law’s truck pulling up in our driveway propelled me into the kitchen where Mikey was happily relaxing in a baby swing and Aaron was sitting in his high chair with a biscuit.  I decided scrambled eggs was my best and fastest bet, so I pulled out the copper-bottomed skillet that was part of a set we’d gotten as a wedding gift.  That was when I heard her voice.  

There was a moment of disorientation - at that point in our marriage, my mother-in-law had been in my home once before, and only once.  We had always been the ones to go to their home for dinners, family occasions, and holidays.  I had a second to paste a smile I didn't feel on my face before she was standing next to me in my kitchen.

"How do you expect to ever get anywhere if you can't be bothered to pay any of your bills?!" I was only barely able to focus on a collection of envelopes she was waving in my face as I turned away from the stove, skillet still in hand.

"What?"  I looked past her to my husband who looked equally confused, and Aaron, who looked fascinated.

"This!!  Look at these, they were due months ago!"  She waved the batch of envelopes in front of my face again, and I struggled to focus on them.  I couldn't figure out how she'd gotten our mail out of the locked mail box at the entrance to the park, and I could feel my face heating as her shrill voice scraped on nerves that were already raw from the stress of the last several months.

My patience was ebbing away, but she finally held the envelopes still long enough for me to see them.  They were bills, yes.  In fact, they were bills that had been populating the floorboard of my Bug as it sat in their driveway for the last several months.  My sense of relief was brief - they had been opened.

I opened my mouth, and then closed it again when I realized how close to sarcasm I was tipping.  I took a breath and counted down from ten, picturing a little clock in my mind as I struggled for control.

"Those bills are months old, and they've long since been paid," I replied in my calmest, humor-the-crazy-lady voice.  "Look...this one's for our electric..."

"Don't bother lying to me!" and the envelopes were back in motion, fanning my face but not cooling the heat there.  My eyes shot to my husband, who had been shocked out of his frozen state by this last exclamation from his mother and was moving forward in slow motion.

Red clouded my vision - I was back in my nightmare, with my voice stuck somewhere in my chest.  My fury was strangling me.  I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think.  Fury, more than I'd ever felt before or since, filled me entirely.  It was a crescendo of heat that started in my chest where my voice was trapped and spread with liquid fire to every inch of my body, only to race back and leave my hands and face ice-cold.  I heard the control I'd leashed my anger with for three years snap, audibly.

I don't care to be called a liar, particularly in front of my children.

My hands tightened into fists, and I realized I was still holding my bright, copper-bottomed skillet.  A vision flashed into my mind, red and hazy and violent.

I turned slowly and set the skillet down with a crack on the heavy metal trivet that covered the gas burner I hadn't turned on yet.  My hand let go of the handle reluctantly and I turned back to see Dan  was now between me and his mother.  I took a breath.  I counted down.  The red fog didn't recede.

"Get...her...out."

Before the last hoarse consonant cleared my burning throat, Dan had guided his mother - her mouth and eyes matching circles of shock - to the door of our home and out.  Aaron, typically in non-stop motion and chattering constantly, was sitting silently in his highchair with a biscuit halfway to his lips.  Mikey had stopped bouncing in his swing and was apparently deciding if crying was an option.

When Dan returned ten minutes later I was calmly scrambling eggs in my shiny, copper-bottomed skillet, newly customized with three dents identical to the corners of the trivet I'd slammed it down on.  Aaron was happily scooping squishy bits of egg from his plate onto his spoon with his fingers, and then carefully guiding the spoon to his waiting mouth.  Mikey was gnawing on a biscuit and his fist at the same time and dribbling most of the biscuit down his chin.

I turned to my husband and smiled, "Do you want some toast with your eggs, hon?"
The Happy Family!


This post is a response to a prompt by The Red Dress Club.  Please feel free to leave comments and criticism - while I still have my beloved copper-bottomed skillet complete with dents, I promise not to brain anyone with it!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Waiting...

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Yesterday was Good Friday, tomorrow is Easter Sunday, today is...waiting.  For the friends, followers, and family of Jesus, who watched him die an excruciating death yesterday, today would have been the deep breath we take when something horrible has happened and we don't know yet if we will emerge from it whole.

How many times did Jesus tell his friends and followers that his death was coming?  Yet when it all happened exactly as he said it would - exactly as Isaiah and David said it would, even - they were shocked.  Because bad things don't happen.  They aren't supposed to happen...not to us. We follow Christ.  We live our lives to a higher standard.  We follow the rules and that means really bad things don't happen.

Then they do.


A four-year-old boy collapses dies on a soccer field in Houston, a seventeen-year-old girl pulls in front of a dump truck and dies one day after getting her license, a family deals with the loss of two sons.  These are the things that, as a parent, my nightmares are made of.  


We know that bad things happen to good people - there are books about it - but most of us live in a state of optimism that those things won't happen to us.  Prosperity preaching encourages that belief.  If we pray the right way, if we are "right with God" then we will be protected from those really bad things that happen to other people.


I think the Apostles would have some not-too complimentary opinions about that.  They watched Jesus be arrested, beaten, tortured, hung from the cross, and die a slow and unbelievably painful death.  Later, as they built the early church, they were imprisoned, abused, and killed.  I suspect that they weren't particularly surprised to find that bad things could and did happen to good people.


So on the Saturday after Good Friday the friends, followers, and family of Jesus are waiting to see if they will come out of this whole.  The really bad thing has happened.  Who will they be now that Jesus is gone?  They are waiting, taking that deep breath.


What are they waiting for?  They've forgotten the hope that Jesus gave them of his return, they are grief-stricken and afraid, but they are still waiting.  The joy of Easter hasn't happened yet...no promises have been fulfilled...and their hope died with Jesus.  And yet they wait, taking that deep breath.


When our lives fall apart, when the really bad thing doesn't happen to someone else, when our nightmare is real and not something to wake up from, we take that deep breath and wait to see if we'll come out whole on the other side.  Who will we be now that the life we knew, the life we expected to have, is gone?  Nothing but questions...but we wait, taking that deep breath.


I learned to breathe when I was pregnant with my first son.  That special breathing women (and their panic-stricken husbands) learn to help them through labor and delivery.  I made fun of it at the time.  I had flashbacks to watching Bill Cosby's routine on it and got a fit of giggles that had our instructor glaring at me - which, of course, only made it worse.


But, when the time came the breathing worked.  Then I discovered that breathing - intentional breathing, not the brain-stem kind - worked on all sorts of pain and anxiety.  It was a revelation.  On my last (and I do mean last, as in ever) plane trip, I used what's called a breath prayer through the entire ordeal.  The poor businessman next to me was not amused...but that's because he didn't know that the deep breathing and muttering was the only reason the crazy lady next to him hadn't clawed her way over his lap and through the side of the plane at thirty-six thousand feet.


Jeremiah provides the perfect breath prayer in Lamentations, and some of the people waiting on that Saturday after Jesus died might have used it,  the breathing and the prayer easing the pain and calming the anxiety.


Breathing in:       The Lord is my portion;
Breathing out:     ...I will wait for Him.


The entire scripture is: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.  Lamentations 3:22-24 


The patience to wait, and breathe, is hard to come by.  We want to do, act, react.  Waiting doesn't feel like doing; waiting doesn't feel useful.  Why wait to see what will happen when you can make something happen?  Be proactive?  Take charge of the situation!  We aren't good at waiting. 


The Apostles waited, and on Easter morning the tomb was empty.  They knew that following Christ wouldn't protect them from pain and sorrow, but on Easter morning they also knew that God's promise would bring them back to joy and light.


I'm taking today, the Saturday after Good Friday and before Easter Sunday, to wait.  I'm going to breathe, and pray, and wait.  I'm waiting to see God's hand in the things that are worrying me - because I know that His love means I will not be consumed by my worries, that every morning is a new day for Him to show me His faithfulness.  I am His, and He is my portion.  I will wait.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Letter Of Complaint

To:
Jenner Alanxiety
Chief Anxiety Officer
My Anxiety Closet


RE:  Overzealous pursuit of duties

Dear Mr. Alanxiety, 

In the last thirty-five years that you have held your post as Chief Anxiety Officer of my Anxiety Closet, I have found your performance to be, on the whole, acceptable and occasionally inspired.  However, as you are aware, there have been periods during which your subordinates' pursuit of their duties have been somewhat overzealous and strong corrective actions were needed to avoid a complete shut-down of day-to-day activities.

Immediately following the last of these incidents, it was agreed by yourself and the various anxieties under your direction, that while a certain amount of discomfort is to be expected, overall anxiety levels should never reach the point that my overall ability to function would be compromised.  Certain safeguards were put in place at that time to prevent this eventuality, and all concerned agreed to operate within those guidelines.

Unfortunately, I have become aware that two of your subordinates, Planetary Destruction and Catastrophic Illness, have taken it upon themselves to bypass those safeguards and embark on a campaign that has resulted in several nocturnal anxiety attacks that far exceed the agreed-upon levels.  In addition, mandated reduction responses such as prayer and breathing exercises have not resulted in any quantifiable change.

Both Catastrophic Illness and Planetary Destruction have taken what I feel is a perverse delight in magnifying recent news articles and inserting them into my subconscious so that even the most innocuous event triggers a rise in heart rate and blood pressure.  Planetary Destruction has gone so far as to create nightmares incorporating the destruction of Krypton (borrowed without the appropriate licenses from "Superman - The Movie," I might add), the recent earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, and the destabilization of Japan's nuclear reactors.  The resulting loss of sleep has had a direct, negative impact on my ability to concentrate and maintain the focus required to perform my duties as wife, mother, and employee.

As Chief Anxiety Officer of my Anxiety Closet, you are expected to maintain a certain level of oversight to ensure that this sort of overzealous behavior does not occur.  If you are unable to fulfill this most basic of your responsibilities, I will have no other choice but to re-assign you to a lesser position and seek a candidate from outside the Closet.  It is my understanding that Sarah Palin is seeking a position that will allow her to use her specific talents in a less traditional setting.

Sincerely,                                           
NC Narrator                                      

Berkeley Breathed - Bloom County

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reluctant Betrothal - Chapter One

Jennings pulled at his collar, which had fit fine up until a few moments ago but now seemed intent on strangling him.  A slightly built, middle-aged man with thinning hair, Jennings personified the stereotypical fussy secretary.  The Duke of Marlborough valued him for his attention to detail, scrupulous honesty, and unflappable approach to every situation.  Now, however, he was betraying his nervousness by pausing and running his hands through his sparse patch of hair before finally knocking on the closed door of the duke's office.
"Yes, what is it?" The voice was distracted and clearly irritated, and Jennings' collar seemed to tighten even more, until he was afraid his voice might squeak when he spoke and he was forced to clear his throat.
"Sir, I apologize for the interruption, but…"
"Jennings, I'm not half finished with the books and I've got three cargo manifests to check before the tide goes out and our ships are delayed another day.  If this has anything to do with my mother's request, please let her know I will discuss it with her this evening and not before." 
Gideon knew his voice was brusque, but the headache brought on by his monthly fight with his ledgers was hammering gleefully on the inside of his skull.  Adding to the pressure was his mother's sudden desire to re-open their country home and host a large garden party fully two months before he'd planned to do so.
"Yes, sir, I will.  But…you have a visitor, sir."  Jennings cleared his throat again.
Gideon frowned at his secretary as the man's nervousness broke through.  Jennings was never nervous, not even when an overexcited captain who'd been let go had appeared in the office with a rather large knife and a vague plan to regain his employment.
"A visitor?  Fine, show him in then," he replied, closing the hated ledgers and sitting back from his desk.
"Yes sir, absolutely," the secretary nearly babbled as he backed out of the doorway.  Turning, he ran his hand over the top of his head and forced down a vague sense of guilt about the fact that he hadn't warned his employer about who his visitor was.
A few moments later, Gideon found himself rising as a young woman entered his office.  With the exception of his mother's occasional visits, the office of Gideon's shipping company had never been graced with the presence of any woman, much less a young and clearly unattached lady of rank.
"My lord, Lady Cameron to see you," Jennings announced, then retreated quickly.
Faith paused in the doorway, faltering for a moment before determination stiffened her spine and she entered the office without waiting for an invitation.  The Duke of Marlborough was somewhat bigger than she'd anticipated.  She'd known he was handsome - gossip assured her he was rarely without female companionship - but she'd been prepared to attribute his popularity to his title, at least in part.  Seeing him for the first time, she realized that his title was likely a secondary consideration to the women he attracted.  His hair was the color of roasted chestnuts and worn long enough that it could be tied back at his nape.  When he turned his head slightly to acknowledge his secretary, she saw he'd apparently used a bit of string for this purpose.  Rugged was the word that came to mind.  And dangerous, although she admitted to herself that her current predicament may be influencing that impression.
"My lord, thank you for seeing me," she reached forward as she spoke, relying on a lifetime of training to steady her nerves.  The small hand she held out was steady and betrayed nothing.
Automatically, Gideon took her hand in his across the desk and brought it to his lips briefly.  "It is my pleasure, I assure you.  However, I was not aware that I had any appointments this afternoon."  He paused, suddenly wondering if his mother was behind this unexpected visit.  The girl was attractive, if not beautiful.  Her auburn hair was just a bit too red for current fashion, and she lacked the tall, willowy stature currently in favor. 
"We didn't have an appointment, but I did need to speak with you rather urgently, and the nature of my situation made contacting you through traditional channels…well, ill-advised, I suppose you could say."  Faith smiled and brought her hands together loosely in front of her.  It was a battle to keep from gripping them tightly together, but long practice at hiding her true feelings served her well.
"I see," Gideon replied, motioning toward the tall chair opposite his desk as he sat back in his.  He wondered what meaningless court intrigue she was playing a part in.  Gideon had learned long ago that even the most innocent face could hide a viper, and while he enjoyed the company of women he held them at arm's length and refused to be drawn into their petty games.  He waited silently for her to explain herself, watching her without expression.
Faith sat on the edge of the chair he offered and smoothed her skirt.  She'd worn her favorite pale green gown in the hopes of appearing at least somewhat more attractive, but she was beginning to suspect she could have worn rags and it wouldn't have mattered.  Worse, now that the moment had come to give him the reason for her intrusion, her stomach was knotting and she could feel her heart beating faster.
"I don't mean to sound melodramatic - I'm not, usually.  In fact, my uncle often told me that my sense of drama was as stunted as I…"  Color washed over her as Gideon lifted one eyebrow, and somehow that simply made her feel even more idiotic.  She took a deep breath and tried again.
"What I mean to say is, I find myself in the position of needing you to make good on an agreement you signed quite some time ago.  I had hoped to find another solution, but unfortunately recent events have convinced me that I have no other options."
At the mention of an agreement, Gideon sat up and looked more closely at the young woman sitting across from him.  This was starting to feel less like court intrigue and more like an attempt to lure him into some kind of shady business deal.  Since his father's death seven years ago, Gideon had been approached several times by associates who automatically assumed that he shared his father's predilection for gambling and questionable deals.  The idea that this young girl was part of that world was somehow disappointing, though.
"As I've no memory of any agreement I have not honored, you'll have to enlighten me."
Faith fought the urge to squirm in her chair.  Brown eyes shouldn't glow, but that's what his were doing and they made her feel as if she were a bug pinned to a collection board.
"I refer to your agreement to marry me, specifically to the betrothal you agreed to almost seventeen years ago," Faith said calmly, holding her breath as she waited for his reaction.
When he did nothing but raise his eyebrow again, she hurried on, "I realize that my arriving here unannounced is, well, a bit forward…but I felt that handling this situation in person and somewhat privately would be for the best."
Gideon said nothing as his mind raced back to that fall day when he was twelve.  The day when he realized that his father was not the man he had childishly believed him to be.  The betrothal had been nothing more than a way out of a sticky situation.  A way for his father to clear his gambling debts before he lost everything.  Gideon had not been made aware of the details but Liam, the son of his father's valet, had overheard his father discussing the situation with his wife and had told him what he knew.  No mention had been made of the betrothal since, and Gideon now realized that no one had bothered to tell him his future bride's name - and he hadn't cared to ask.
"I apologize Lady…" he paused as he realized he'd now forgotten the name his secretary had mention only a few minutes ago.
"Cameron.  Faith Cameron," she supplied.
"You don't sound Scottish," he remarked, and Faith lifted her eyebrow in an unconscious imitation of him.
"That would most likely be because I was raised in England."  Her reply had just the slightest bite to it.  It was subtle, but Gideon suspected her calm and demure attitude was a fa├žade.  What was hidden behind was the question.
Gideon sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.  "So, let me see if I understand the situation so far.  You are my long lost betrothed…"
"Hardly lost!"  Faith bit her lip subsided as his eyebrow quirked up again.  She found herself imagining reaching out and pressing it back into place with her finger, and forced herself to focus.
"Well, if not lost then…somewhat misplaced betrothed, and you have sought me out after seventeen years because you have suddenly discovered a desire to marry?"  The sarcasm in his voice was thick and deliberately insulting and Faith let out a derisive snort before she could stop herself.
"Hmmm, you disagree with my assessment?" he asked, amused.
"My lord," and not by my choice, she thought mutinously, "our betrothal was agreed upon by our parents.  Although I would have been perfectly content to live with and care for my uncle, recent events have…changed the situation.  I'm afraid I must marry, and as quickly as possible.  As we are already betrothed, you are my most logical candidate." 
All amusement fled.  His sense of disappointment was acute - Lady Cameron was not an innocent girl at all, but a cunning woman looking to hide the consequence of indiscretion.
"While I may sympathize with your…situation, I am not in the market for a wife or a ready-made family.  And I would suggest that very few men are likely to be willing to accept the role of father to another man's…"
"Sir!" Faith nearly flew from her chair, offended horror painted on her face.  "You misunderstand!  I am not…I have not…ever!  To suggest such a thing - why would you even…" In her anger and distress Faith began pacing around her chair, waving her hands to punctuate each statement, and apparently requiring no response as each thought was cut off by the one following.  "He tried to warn me what you were like…I don't know why I thought…"
"Lady Cameron!"  Gideon raised his voice to be heard over hers. 
She spun around and glared at him.  "Don't you ever raise your voice to me, sir!"
"I apologize - both for raising my voice and for assuming something that was apparently completely inappropriate.  Please, sit down."
Faith closed her eyes and took a breath to bring her temper back under control.  Her uncle had warned her repeatedly about her temper.  She sat, but Gideon noticed that she once again was perched on the edge of the chair.
"Let's try this again.  Until I can check with my mother, I will assume that you are indeed the person I was betrothed to.  Why don't you explain the situation that has suddenly necessitated our marriage?"
"I apologize as well.  I have a filthy temper, and I've not had enough practice controlling it.  I shouldn't have flown off like that."
"Accepted.  Now that we've both apologized for our apparently miserable upbringing, please explain your situation."
Faith's lips quirked at his unexpected humor, and felt some of her tension ease.  "You may not be aware, but I was only two years old when we were betrothed."  Gideon shook his head - no one had thought to mention her age, either.  "Both of my parents were killed in a boating accident when I was seven, and I was sent to live with my Uncle Douglas and Aunt Charlotte, here in England.  I was aware of our betrothal, but quite honestly it was assumed that you would not pursue it once your father passed away."
A sudden thought had Gabriel sitting forward.  "Were you aware of the circumstances of the betrothal?"
"No, only that my mother and yours had been friends since they were girls, and that the betrothal was a favor of some kind."  Gideon relaxed again, surprised to find that it mattered to him whether or not she knew what kind of man his father had been.
"At any rate, as time passed and you remained in London and began to build your shipping company, I was happy to stay with my uncle and care for him.  My aunt passed away several years ago, and my uncle's health has never been good.  I suppose I assumed I'd never marry, but I hadn't really given it much thought."
"I thought all young ladies dreamt of marriage," Gabriel commented.
"Well, ladies in court likely do, but I've never been and at any rate I've hardly the beauty to attract that sort of attention from the young men I have met." 
Her statement was matter-of-fact, but for some reason Gabriel found himself offended on her behalf and he sought to reassure her.  "Come now, you're quite…attractive."  He winced at the tepid description, even as she laughed.
"Thank you for that…heartfelt compliment!  But actually, several months ago a young man did express an interest.  He was quite dedicated.  He pursued me during outings with my uncle and at lunches and dinners with friends and neighbors."  Something in her voice, and the way she phrased her description of the man's interest had Gabriel sitting forward and frowning.
"I…well I decided rather quickly that I was not particularly interested in him.  I'm afraid I used our betrothal as an excuse, but he assured me that betrothals were broken all the time.  Having already mentioned the betrothal, and being too cowardly to tell him that I simply didn't like him, I assured him that you would never agree to dissolve the betrothal."
"Did that persuade him to direct his attentions elsewhere?"  Gideon wasn't surprised when Faith shook her head.
"No.  In fact, I'm afraid it actually made things worse.  If I'd only told him the truth!"  Faith popped up from the chair again to pace.  "I'm not usually that timid, but I simply couldn't bring myself to tell him I didn't want to see him - socially or otherwise!  Especially otherwise!"  Gideon saw her shudder.    She might not have realized it, but her instincts had been warning her to avoid angering this unwanted suitor.
"What did he do?"  Gideon asked the question quietly, but she jerked to a stop behind the chair as if he'd yelled it.  Her face paled, but she didn't wonder how he knew to ask.
"He…he kidnapped me, actually."  She took a deep breath as the memory of fear and helplessness threatened her composure.  "He came to my room in the night and forced me to leave with him.  I tried to reason with him, I reminded him that my uncle would be expecting me at breakfast and when I wasn't able to be found he'd certainly alert the authorities, but I suppose he didn't see that as a particular concern.  After we'd ridden for several hours, I convinced him that I was starving and we stopped at a roadside inn."  She began walking around the office, wandering to different items in the room to touch and examine them as she spoke, her voice and attitude suggesting this was simply an interesting story that had happened to someone else.  Gideon was certain she didn't realize her hands were shaking.
 "During lunch I pointed out that no clergy would marry us, but he assured me that there would be no problem.  I realized he meant to…that he intended to…" Faith blushed hotly, "put me a position in which marriage was required." 
"And he actually expected you to agree to this plan?" Gabriel asked, skeptically.
"No, I think…well I think my agreement wasn't any more of a concern to him than the authorities were.  He asked me several questions about my family, and eventually my inheritance.  I'd heard rumors when he'd first arrived in the neighborhood.  Rumors that he was penniless and living on money his father gave him, but that his father was threatening to cut him off.  I realized what he was after."
"Money."
Faith nodded, "Exactly.  I decided he wasn't entirely…stable.  I told him I needed a moment of privacy, and he let me leave through the back door of the common room.  I don't think it occurred to him that I might not come back.  I found the innkeeper's wife doing laundry and explained my predicament.  I was worried she might not believe me but the bruises convinced her."
"What bruises?" Gabriel frowned.
"On my wrists and arms.  He'd yanked my wrists several times when I didn't move fast enough to suit him, and he had quite a hard grip on my arms as well.  At any rate, it was lucky they were visible because I didn't have to waste time convincing her that my tale was true.  Her daughter hid me in their wagon and drove me back to my uncle's home.  I realized that I couldn't stay there, and that was when I realized that the only real solution was to make my cowardly lie true."  Her wanderings had brought her back to her chair, and she stopped behind it.  Gabriel wondered if she realized she was using it as a shield.
"I see.  You think that by announcing our intention to marry, your overzealous suitor will move on to greener, more available pastures."  He watched her bite her lip and frown.
"No.  I think if that were going to work he never would have taken me in the first place."
Gabriel agreed, but he'd wondered if she'd thought her situation through that far.  "Then what are you suggesting, exactly?'
            She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye, "Marry me."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reluctant Betrothal

"George Gideon Spencer-Churchill, you will present yourself immediately!"  The roar echoed through the east wing of the stately country manor.
The gangly boy hiding behind a conveniently heavy tapestry closed his eyes and covered his mouth - his mother had distressingly acute hearing and he was quite certain she would hear him breathing if he was too loud about it.  He could hear the anger in her voice and although she was a proper lady any other time, he knew that if she had resorted to yelling she had also lost her considerable temper.  Even his father, the Duke of Marlborough, walked softly when that happened.
Still, he couldn't see why he should have to attend a party he wasn't interested in - even if it was to celebrate his betrothal.  Actually, now that he thought about it, especially if it was to celebrate his betrothal.  He was fully aware of his future responsibilities as the heir to his father's title, position, and lands, but he was still young enough at twelve to daydream about traveling across the ocean to strange and distant lands.  It seemed to him that a wife would almost certainly have opinions about that plan.
Without warning he was jerked firmly from behind the tapestry.  A pair of angry brown eyes scowled into his as the hand around his arm tightened to keep him from escaping again.
"Oh…hello Mother."
"Just what do you think you're doing?"  Without waiting for him to respond she turned and began walking quickly toward his rooms, dragging him along behind.  "We have a house full of friends and neighbors and you decide to disappear?  I swear I could just put you over my knee for making me come and look for you!"
"You don't believe in striking children, Mother."
"That can change, young man, that can change!"  With that dire-sounding promise she swung into his room and gave him a push toward the bed where his evening attire had already been laid out.  "If you are not present and presentable in fifteen minutes time, I will have you across my lap in the front hall so all of our guests can see your first thrashing."  She swung her full skirt around and started for the door.
He knew she meant it…his mother would never say something she didn't mean.  It was something he greatly admired about her.  "I am sorry, Mother.  I just don't understand why I have to do this.  Why can't I just find my own wife when I'm old enough?"
Lady Marlborough stopped at the doorway and turned to her son.  As angry as she was about the merry chase he'd led her on, she couldn't help but feel a flash of pride in the child she and her husband had created.  Their only child, as it had turned out, despite the desire for many more.
"Gideon, this is very important.  I can't explain why - you must simply trust that as your parents, we have your best interests at heart."
Her son, so much like her and yet the very image of his father, frowned but nodded obediently.  She knew he still had questions, just as she knew he had a right to ask them, but answering them would mean asking him to understand a situation that she herself was still struggling with.  He was still a child…at least for a little while longer…and she held out hope that her husband's current difficulties would be resolved without the drastic measures they were resorting to.  Betrothals after all, could and often were broken as those betrothed reached the age of majority. 
Gideon watched his mother as she pulled his door shut.  So Liam was right, he thought calmly.  He was being sold into matrimony to pay off his father's  gambling debts.


*****


This piece is set in the Regency era in England, or thereabouts.  It's a (very) short story I noodled out on my lunch break, and while I'd like to say it's just the prologue in a book I'll write someday, I know it's not.  Mostly because nailing down the details...like what year exactly it's supposed to be happening in, and whether or not there really was a Duke So-and-so would work my very last nerve and I would get so tied up in those details I'd never actually write the book.  So...this becomes an idea knocking on the door of my brain and looking for a way out.  Which I've given it.  So hush in there.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sunburned

I shifted in my seat, trying to find a position that didn’t make my sunburn sing out in cascading notes of pain and, oddly, itching. Formal dinners weren’t my style in the first place, and the added discomfort of what my husband had taken to calling “the nuclear sunburn” didn’t help. Looking down, I could see the fiery color of my skin through the white silk pants and I realized I could actually feel heat radiating through the fabric.

The bay had been worth it, though. Floating in water so close to the temperature of my own skin – before the sunburn anyway – and feeling comfortable in my body for the first time in memory. Breath filled my lungs easily through the snorkel as I glided over the reef, trying to remember to blink once in a while behind my mask. There was so much to see and no way to see it all.

My size didn’t matter here; I was easily buoyed by the salt water and my self-consciously clumsy movements became graceful and easy. Diving deeper without effort, holding my breath as I arrowed toward an outcropping literally swimming in color, I fisted my hands to keep from reaching out to touch the vivid coral that had caught my eye.

“Honey, this tilapia is amazing! Have you tried it?”

The conversations around me rushed in like a cresting wave. I looked at my husband blankly for a moment and blinked. “Um, no. I’m not really in the mood for fish tonight.”

“Really? But fish is on your diet, isn’t it?”

I felt the color rise to my face, exacerbating the sunburn and making my forehead itch. “So is chicken, Dan. The chicken is really good tonight.” At least, I assumed it was. I’d eaten half of it but couldn’t remember what it tasted like.

Eating fish for dinner just didn’t seem right after the day on the reef. Watching the way the fish seemed to play one moment and be all business the next. I wondered if they were ever curious about the world outside the reef, or the humans who ventured near to stare and take pictures with their plastic-wrapped cameras.

Rising slowly to the surface, carefully exhaling to clear the snorkel on the way, I leveled out and continued along to sunken remains of a tank, its turret removed, lying on its side as it had landed. An artificial reef program, I remembered from somewhere. The sharp edges of the tank had already been blurred by the steady and inexorable encroachment of the reef, but the treads were still visible as they extended above the coral condos.

I paused over a brilliantly colored coral formation. Hanging in the water, rocked gently by the waves as they passed over and around me, the heat of the sun seemed to press me into the water. The longer I was still the more active the reef became. Fish, made bold by my lack of movement, came out of hiding and darted around. I smiled around my snorkel as a pair of scarlet fish chased each other around and through the arms of the coral.

Unable to resist, I reached out…and gasped as pain ran over my skin like a thousand knives.

“I’m so sorry!” the server gasped with me and backed away, holding the tray she’d bumped my sunburned shoulder with.

“It’s fine. I’m fine,” I assured her, and smiled self-consciously at the rest of the table, uncomfortably aware that I was now the center of attention. “So…did anyone else snorkel today?”