Celebrating HAWKINS LANE

Hawkins Lane Cover 

 

HAWKINS LANE, my fourth novel, has arrived—at least for those of you who read e-books—and will appear on Amazon any day now. Those of you who prefer your books in paper will have to wait for a couple of months, but here is a taste.

 

When we are young, many of us, like Erica Hawkins, believe we are springing free of home, leaving our past behind. Only later, in the midst of our most treasured relationship, do we realize we have carried it with us. Others, like Ned Hawkins, believe they are forever chained by their past, only freed by love of another. Their love of each other and the Cascades frees both.

Snow lane

 

The rhythm of their stroking carried them to a stream-carved gorge, and [Ned] led [Erica] along its edge … until he came to a tree-roofed lane. It was silent as a church. Together they stroked its length, then stood in the quiet, looking out across the untrammeled expanse of snow, then down the mountain at the glitter of sun off distant ponds. She laughed and gave a push that sent her out into the untouched blanket then turned down the slope.

 “If we must.” She made no move to go. “Do you know what I think? I think you need to live up here—up above everything that has happened to you—where you can look out over the top of it.”

 

The new reality they forge in the clearing beyond that tunneled lane is deeply rewarding. As mountain rangers, they thrive in a world looking out over the town, and they are blessed with a daughter, Bonnie. It is years before the past bursts forth:

 “Your father is out of prison.”

Ned Hawkins held the phone to his ear listening to his mother tell him the inevitable news he’d somehow managed to forget. The years fell away; he was again a murderer’s son. Across the room in a pool of lamplight, Erica sat helping Bonnie with her homework. The scene took on the aura of fantasy. From beyond the window came muted thuds as clumps of snow slid from the roof, and the creek ran loud as the mountains gave up their winter load.

 

This radical shift in their lives casts Ned back into his former withdrawn and fatalistic self, triggering a response arising from Erica’s earlier life. But that is Erica’s story, which I’ll hold until next time.

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Enduring Bonds: Another Fine Read

 

My last blog on Renee Simpson’s I Can’t Swim, talked about the mastery of creating characters who are flawed, lovable and deeply authentic. Wallace Stegner, renowned author of the West explores the mysteries of love and endurance in this, the last novel of his award winning career.

Stegner: Crossing to Safety

 

“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.”

 

Thus opens the novel as Larry Morgan wakes in the Vermont retreat where he and his wife, Sally, have come to reunite Charity and Sid Lang, a couple they met in graduate school. The novel traces the endurance of the love between man and wife and the bond between the couples from the day the poverty stricken couple from the West meet the Harvard elite Charity and her poet husband, Sid, in the Midwest university cocktail party.

 

The union between the ambitious Charity who knows the key to success in academia and the gloomy pessimist, Sid, looks the most unlikely to endure, but it does, largely because failure isn’t in Charity’s lexicon. Though it would be easy to cast the over-bearing Charity as antagonist, she is not. Her generosity is as unstinting as her drive, and she is, at several key points, key to the survival and success of Larry and Sally.

 

Through the years, while Larry becomes a successful author, Sally is crippled by polio, and Charity props up Sid’s failing academic career. Much of the story plumbs the depth of the characters to understand how love and friendship can survive situations so rife with potential conflict. It is, at the same time, a story of Eastern ambition and money meets dirt poor but free ranging West, a theme Stegner has explored before.

 

Stegner is in no hurry. As the opening line suggests, he takes time to probe and consider, and at a time (1987) readers settled back to share the journey. It is due to Stegner’s mastery that we arrive back at the Vermont retreat—and Charity’s death bed—still puzzled and amazed at the power and endurance of love. Readers today should find this a refreshing change to the hectic pace demanded of today’s novels.

Another Great Read

I Can't Swim 

If you are a reader of either fiction or memoir or an author who struggles with the boundaries between the two, Renee Simpson’s fictional memoir, I Can’t Swim, is a read youRenee Simpson shouldn’t miss. It combines the best of both genres. The voice of Rebee combines the innocence of childhood with the dry Queens humor, and her tales have the authenticity of memoir and the deeper character exploration and cohesion of fiction.

It is an intensely alive compelling read, largely due to Simpson’s gift for coloring pain with humor. Simpson has chosen to tell her story in a series of vignettes, rather than chronological sequence. We first meet the narrator’s mother, Victoria, as volatile woman perpetually thrown by her children’s pets, her impulsive, disastrous solutions, and the mysterious disappearance of said animals. We then move to the pair’s relationship to the Church, and little Rebee’s accounting of that relationship to the priest—a telling you won’t want to miss.

In the title tale, Renee, sharing the impulsive survival instinct of her mother, seeks to convince her wealthy day-camp compatriots that she is one of them. Her mother aids in the deception as it grows and grows, until Renee claims she can swim. Victoria’s reaction and solution, I’ll leave to the reader—suffice it to say it highlights the daughter growing in the image of the mother. There is much pain in these tails. In “Two Fathers” Renee deals with the mysteries and confusions of multiple fathers (hers and her younger sister’s) and the absence of her own. In yet another Victoria gathers with her siblings gather for Christmas at Rebee’s grandmother’s, where everyone exchanges bottles with the inevitable results. This is among the most painful and poignant of the stories, one where the author’s gift for carrying us through with humor shines bright. One of the most moving moments in the book is the child’s ability to draw peace from this stormy tale; the child’s love feels like the miracle of the day.

At times the tales become truly harrowing and our overall impression of a child clinging to the back of an out-of-control steed becomes stark. But Victoria is a fighter and a survivor, and we come to love her, and her love for Rebee, even as we move between laughter and horror at her cockeyed actions. Simpson brings her tale to a close with a vignette of herself as an adult, a story that merges both the determination to escape the chaos of her past and traces of her mother in herself. Overall, Simpson brings the gift of the fiction writer to her own story—a very successful blend in.

This is an author to follow.

HAWKINS LANE: What Sort of Read?

HL cover 5

I’ve always envied authors who have no trouble answering that question. I’ve yet to find an answer that satisfies me on any of the books I’ve written, and HAWKINS LANE is no exception. But I’ll give it a try.

 It’s fiction. General, contemporary, realistic, mainstream fiction. Not very helpful, so let me give you a taste and you can name the flavor.

 HAWKING LANE is a story of love gone wrong. So it has romance. It is set in the Cascades of Washington State, so it is regional. It also has a mystery and the struggle to overcome disability. All of those are true, but at its core, it is about the effect of the past on our relationships. None of those captivates;  only opening a book can do that.

 So here are some snippets from the opening chapter:gavel

 Their father rose. The tall, narrow man who should have been in a checked wool shirt and boots looked naked in blue prison garb. His neck too long. …

“We find the defendant, Amos Hawkins, guilty of murder in the first degree.”

Ned reached for Billy as he lunged, and together he and his mother held him fast as a murmur of satisfaction rose from the surrounding crowd.

“Time we saw the end of the likes of you!” a man behind them yelled.

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Cascades Ned Hawkins … stepped into McKenzie Crossing’s main street. A pair of teenage girls jumped away and made a wide circle around him. … He headed for the old logging trails above town, his daily escape the chronic mid-week feeling of being trapped in his life. … He’d just cut off the trail toward the creek when he heard the whistle of a fishing line cutting the air. He stopped, then approached the water ahead carefully, expecting to find his brother, who he didn’t particularly want to see.

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 “The Hawkins live down there.” [Ned] pointed to the lowland roofs. “…. My father worked in the mill, when he was sober.” He stopped, then decided to let her think the man was dead. She’d find out differently soon enough, but it would give him a few more moments to fill his chest with air.

 

That’s a taste of the opening love story, but there are more elements in the story. For me, and for many of my readers, place is a central character so a bit about the Cascade setting next time.

Cascades 2

 

Upcoming Book! Hawkins Lane

 love books

I apologize for my absence from this blog for the last month, but hope you all have been too busy with holidays to notice. My excuse?  I’ve been hard at work revising my fourth novel, HAWKINS LANE, and revising takes the kind of concentration that leaves other things untended. I sent it off to New Libri Press this morning, so now I can relax and tell you about it. As with my other novels, place is a powerful shaper of character and destiny, and my friends in the Pacific Northwest have been waiting for a story set in the country where I have now lived for ten years. Here it is.

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Snow lane

 HAWKINS LANE, set in the Cascades, is about the power of the past to destroy the best of relationships—the story of love gone wrong.

  Ned Hawkins is the son of a murderer and member of a family shunned by the people of McKenzie Crossing. Ned fears he shares his father’s violence and the doom of the Hawkins clan. Erica, spirited daughter of the town’s new doctor, is fighting but trapped in her family’s expectations. They meet on a mountain stream where their love of the mountains overcomes their dissonant background, and they fall in love. For Ned, Erica opens a future he had given up on. For Erica, Ned anchors her restless spirit and opens an alternative path.

They become forest rangers, and their marriage and life as rangers in the North Cascades gives them a daughter and the mountain life they love, but when Ned’s father is released from prison, his foreboding returns full-blown, certain that he has drawn Erica and Bonnie into the fate of the Hawkins.                                                                                                                                                                    HL cover 5 Erica rebels against his gloom and over-protectiveness, and the increasing conflict sets off a chain of disasters that begins with a near fatal accident and ends with the disappearance of Bonnie, their daughter and finding the body of Ned’s brother in the stream below their house.

 The search for their child and the investigation into the death brings both face-to-face with the destructive power of their pasts. They returns to their mountain home much changed.

 “In a month, the alders and evergreens would take up everything that had happened and fold it into their branches. Could it do the same for them?”

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Creating HOME FIRES

Where did HOME FIRES come from? That’s probably the most frequent question asked of authors, and my answer is almost always, “Who knows?” For me, that’s the fascination of writing fiction—that surprise, astonishment even, and what emerges from places I recognize but have no conscious access to. But I also know that answer only makes sense to other authors, so I’ll try to do better. Understand, however, that this is hindsight.

My first creative writing coach said, “You write from place. Place creates your characters.” Add time to that, and I think you have the most consistent source of my stories. NOWHERE ELSE TO GO—years spent raising children in a college town in the Sixties.  THE INHERITORS—growing up in Chicago among the racial and cultural groups that make up that city. In the same vein, HOME FIRES was born of the years I spent in Goleta California, just north of the UC Santa Barbara campus, on the edge of Ellwood Mesa.

Ellwood Mesa 04

 

For more pictures, take a look here: Ellwood Mesa.

When I arrived in California and first walked out across that 137 acre meadow to the sea, I vowed I would walk it daily, reminding myself of the unbelievable beauty of the place I lived. And, usually with my best friend and later housemate, Joyce, I did. DaylightWillie, Rocky, Bella on beach permitting, we woke early, leashed the dogs, walked across the mesa and turned them loose to run out to the beach. Bordered on the south by the University of California bird refuge and by Sandpiper Golf Course on the north, this was the longest strip of wild beach in Santa Barbara County and a rarity enjoyed by random walkers and bikers like us. Two other mesa-lovers–my daughter and niece–provided the cover.

Except for the grove of eucalyptus where the Monarchs wintered, hanging in great skeins from the branches, the mesa remained obscure and undiscovered–inhabited by the coyotes, skunks, birds, sea lions and porpoises that populate Home Fires. It’s also the source of other blogs, such as Chasing Bears.

But unlike the mesa of Home Fires, Ellwood, during the years we lived there, was under constant threat of development. We joined other mesa-lovers in the fight to save it—a story with a happy ending you can read about at http://www.westerncity.com/Western-City/March-2006/Goleta-Resolves-Decades-Old-Conflict/. The land is now a public trust.

So it is little wonder I wrote a short story called “Sea Breezes” about a woman looking out to sea from her tower. I suppose fairytales and princesses were somehow fused with the unreality of the place. “But it’s not a short story,” my critique group told me, “It’s the beginning of a novel.” I put it away. I wanted to be a short story writer, not a novelist. Years later, after I’d finally conceded I wasn’t much of a short story writer, I pulled it out again.

Except for her love of the mesa and her incredulity that she’d ended there, Myra’s story bears no resemblance to my own. By hindsight again, I think it sprang from years of media filled with accusations of sexual conduct and misconduct, the rushes to judgment, and the forever unanswered question of what really happened. That last, the unanswered question is grist for a novelist—a breed addicted to the question of why people do what they do.

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Race in America: Stuck in a Rut

 

 Ferguson

 

 I watch the Ferguson protests and feel very old, very frustrated, and very discouraged. I watched the same explosions and protests in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The same explosion of despair and rage, the same fear and panic, the same, the same, the same. A lot has changed. Huge numbers of blacks have become accepted members of mainstream America and mainstream America has become multiracial. Everything has changed; nothing has changed. How can that be?

 For me, the answer lies in polarization. My maxim: people who interact only with those like themselves become increasingly ignorant of and hostile to those who are different. Over the same period, I’ve watched economic, racial, political, and religious groups become sealed off cells, banging against each other, reciting the same slogans over and over, gaining nothing. Ugly and uglier until it explodes once again.

 I’m tired of liberals consumed with their entitlements debunking economics as schemes of corporate giants, damning dissenters as sellouts.

 I’m sick of Tea Partiers insisting everyone can make it if they work hard enough, then refusing to hire minorities because only whites work hard enough.

 I’m weary of Blacks who believe whites and the system they’ve made are hopelessly racist, thereby reinforcing despair and accusing those who make it of being traitors.

 I’ve had it with the corporate leaders extolling competition while striving to eliminate it, rejecting all ethics in the name of profit, stripping workers of the rewards of their labor, casting middle class workers into poverty and the nation into crisis.

 Anyone caught listening to anyone of a different group is liable to expulsion. Those who repeat the same stale, time-worn slogans are “sticking to their guns,” “know their own minds.” stalwart heroes of the battle.” The celebration of closed minds. Everyone is frustrated that they never get anywhere; no one sees that they’ve locked themselves into their own stale fortresses.

 And everyone blames government, which behaves very much as they do. The problem with democracy is that we get what we deserve.

 We need James Madison, who believed mankind is primarily selfish but can be made better by better systems. His maxim: power corrupts; division of power is essential, and it is his view that finally won out at the Constitutional Convention. He believed that when groups realize that it is in their own interest to listen to each other (really consider the merits of the other’s position), productive compromise can result. When liberals acknowledge the importance of economics, capitalists the need for ethics, the problems of distribution, and the rights of workers, when blacks let whites help change white attitudes and discover their own power within the system, and conservatives of all stripes acknowledge that success depends as much on justice as on work—then we can emerge from the rut of racial conflict to which all of the sealed off groups contribute. Until then expect more of the same, leaving us all to weep at the mess we’ve created.

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Another Great Book Reviewed

 

I’ve been asking myself why I’m drawn to novels whose characters are caught up in the crises of our times. By “our” times, you understand, I mean in my lifetime, which may be “historic” to many of you. In any case, the book I’m reviewing today, Carey Harrison’s Justice, shed light on that question. It is because, in Harrison’s hands, such times reach deep into the human soul, its capacity for both evil and redemption.

 

 Justice Carey Harrison

 

Set in a small Italian coastal village whose hills, paths, beaches, and townspeople are so real they become home to us, Miri Gottleib, daughter of socialist London Jews, marries communist Count Piero. They settle into Casa Rosa, the Count’s family home, and give birth to Vittorio just as fascism begins to rumble across Europe and El Duce was rising to power.

So beautifully is the story of their marriage told, that Casa Rosa seems inoculated from both the village and the world beyond until the forces burst upon them, bringing tragedy and loss “that blackens the calendar.” This is not the end of the story, but the middle. Miri’s road back, driven by revenge, the words that restrain her, the rubble of villagers’ lives, to redemption is the heart of the book. It is truly a story of return from the depths.

It is my hope that as women begin to feel more at home in the world-at-large and therefore see lives as pushed and pulled by cultural, political, and historical forces, we will see more books like this from female authors. We are talented at creating characters, and at relationships, but we haven’t seen ourselves as movers in the world beyond the personal. This restrictive view shows in women’s fiction, and it’s time to move beyond.

Election Day: a New Story?

 election day

 

This week we voted. Not really. Washington State now has mail in- ballots, so the sense of community action is lost—among other things. I found the picture above, labeled, “Presidential Election, 2016,” in the midst of hundreds exploding in the red, white, and blue celebration of the day. Grim and gray, it expressed my feelings about the state of politics today–what we’ve come to.  Now the election is over. Can we hope for something different?

Once upon a time, I went to a college that believed exposure to contrary opinions was a necessary step to adulthood and citizenship. Starting with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we read the debates that shaped the nation. Nothing was more basic to American citizenship than debate. After Obama’s election in 2004, at a Democrat meeting, I suggested talking with local Republicans, but the idea bombed. They confessed they didn’t know how to talk to them about politics. Last week, a column in our local paper asks readers how long it had been since they exposed themselves to any opinion that did not agree with theirs. Where did it go? When did we start treating each other as enemies instead of opponents?

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For me, it began when President Truman proposed National Health Care (no, not Obamacare) and my classmates called me a “commie” because my father, a physician, was on salary, not in private practice. I was twelve. I was seventeen when Senator Joe McCarthy sent his investigators to campus because the University of Chicago refused to make its faculty sign loyalty oaths and because we studied the Communist Manifesto. Reading it made us traitors.

It’s all in the language and language shapes the way we think. If “opponent” becomes “enemy,” disagreement becomes a “threat to our way of life,” agreeing with the opponent about anything becomes “selling out,” Closing your mind to all ideas other than those of your group becomes “loyalty,” “sticking to your guns,” “standing up for principals.”

When the Sixties came along, the Left picked up the war lingo they’d inherited. They talked of “revolution,” declared “war” on the establishment, and anyone liberal whose ideas differed in any way became “patsies of the establishment,” or “sellouts.”

Those were tumultuous times, filled with violence and multiple assassinations. Again language was inflamed—the glory of battle on the one hand, the fear of disintegration on the other. We survived changed. Split by fear and anger created in large part by our own inflammatory rhetoric. In the universities where I taught, there was no debate between theories of politics or anything else. One school supported one theory and another another. Those crossing the line were stigmatized and isolated. On both left and right solidifying of opinion became “unifying,” silencing the middle—“wishy-washy patsies” who don’t know their own mind.

To me, as a Democrat, this change in university life was bitter. I’d been active in politics before the Sixties, working for candidates, even running campaigns, but found myself silenced because I held view other liberals deemed “incorrect.” My heritage—both family and schooling—has taught me to doubt anyone who claimed their views were Truth. But the Sixties had left liberals in closed ranks and for me closed ranks make closed minds.

We blame Washington for it all, but let’s face it, the language of war is exciting, the glory of battle exhilarating, unifying, powerful. Our politicians tell us what we want to hear, and we’ve used the rhetoric of war rather than the language of debate for so long we’ve forgotten what talking with an opponent, much less, opening our minds to another way of thinking is like. Almost seventy years have passed since that schoolmate called me a “commie,” and every year exchanges debate disintegrate further into name-calling. Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve. Closed-minded rants that cycle over and over in their own little world until the rest of us clap our hands over our ears and stick our heads in the sand.

We need James Madison—the man who brought bitter factions together sufficiently to give us a Constitution. He wasn’t on the ballot, but the talk on the media was all about “working together,” and everything I’ve read about the mood of the nation tells me we are all sick of the battle that goes nowhere. Let us hope his brains, talent, and perspective will appear in the new group that leads the nation. And let’s hope the people will rediscover their citizenship.

A Rich and Satisfying Read

The Prodigal 

 

If you’re a fan of sea legends, like the Flying Dutchman, or puzzles from the past, like Dan Brown’s Da Vince Code, I invite you to read Michael Hurley’s The Prodigal, a novel that mixes the aura of such mysteries with parables and romantic suspense for a lively and absorbing read. Kirkus reviews calls it “Stirring, romantic, and evocative of the sea’s magic,” BookTrib writes that it is “a glorious, satisfying read the overnight lept onto this constant reader’s ‘Top 5 of 2013’ list,” and it is the winner of Chanticleer Review’s Grand Prize for fiction of 2013. It is a must read.

 The novel opens on Ocracoke Island, 2010: “And so Aiden, the proud one, a man who refused above all else to learn from his own mistakes much less the errors of history, came at last to this island.” After a drunken weekend on the island followed by a disaster in the courtroom, star lawyer, Aiden Sharpe, finds himself exiled to Ocracoke to recreate his life among fellow prodigals: Father Marcus O’Reilly, exiled by a bishop exasperated by Marcus’s habit of speaking his mind; Sarah, a naked blond beauty, half real, half illusion, who is either a seer or insane; Bobbi Baker, a recovering alcoholic who runs the general store; Molly McGregor, red headed tow-boat captain who broke her wealthy father’s heart by choosing a solitary life on the island; Ibrahim, a Bahaman escaping wrongful conviction for murder. And finally, an ancient sloop whose history goes back to Biblical times. All are caught in the mystery of the boat and the possibility of racing it against Rowdy Ponteau, drunken son of wealth, who arrives regularly to bully the inhabitant of the isle.

 Hurley tells this tale from the omniscient point-of-view, giving each character’s story full weight, and, with the elegant prose of the line above, weaves current time (2010) with past ages. It is, as his reviewers say, masterfully done. If I had any problem with the book, it is with the ending, which I found unnecessarily pat, but others will no doubt find it satisfying, and it doesn’t affect my very high opinion of the book.

Take a Break: Read a Short Story

 

 Reading
 

I’ve been writing novels (for forty years or so) and blogging about them for quite a while. High time for a break. I love short stories and have always long to master them. For writers, they are a wonderful antidote to wordiness, an astringent for the mind. They remind us of the power of the single phrase. For readers, they are refreshing and bring home the power of the moment. Currently, in response to our readers’ fragmented multitasked lives, authors seek to tell a story in fewer and fewer words. Here’s one of mine in under 500.

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Night Winds

Storm clouds

 

      The wind throws handfuls of ice at the windows, and the room goes black. Just like that, I’m sitting in a vacuum with no defenses against the howl of the storm. Without the television to blot out the voices in my head—my sister’s voice, forever warning me …

     “No, no Agatha you don’t know what you are doing!”

     A door slams upstairs, coming out of nowhere, like Roland’s rages.

     “You’re gone,” I yell. “Gone forever.”

     A shutter slaps at the back of the house.

     “‘It’s nothing but the raven, pecking at my windowsill.’” I assure myself.

     “No one wants that old place,” my sister’s voice comes again, “it’s nothing but a heap of rotting wood, way out there away from any living soul except the coyotes—you’re a fool, Agatha—a fool!”

     I jerk to my feet in defiance, ignoring the beating of branches at the window. “I’m not letting you in, not listening,” I say aloud, heading for the kitchen and candles. “Big sisters are a pain in the ass.”

     My fingers grasp a candle, fumble with matches as the coyotes howl from the hill. “Cut it out. You always did love to scare me, but you’ll never scare me like he did, laughing one minute, throwing things the next.”

     More bursts of ice hit the windows. “You’re gone!” I yell at him, “You can’t get in.” The bursts quit, but the smatter of sleet on ice-covered snow is unstoppable. The wind moans through the slats in the fence. “So what?” I yell.

     “So you’re alone—way out there with nobody,” my sister’s voice answers.

     “That’s right,” I say, setting the candle on the table next to my chair. “I am. I want to be. I’m not like you, putting up with anything just to stay married, just to have someone.”

     I plop down and open my book, determined to drive her away. The words flicker in the candlelight, teasing. The fire in the cavernous fireplace hisses, a cold draft brushes my legs, like the ominous moments before one of Roland’s mood changes.

     A bang on the front door brings me to my feet, but Roland doesn’t appear. The bang comes again. It’s the storm door, blowing open as it always does in a storm.

     “No one,” my sister moans. “No one to close it but you.”

     “That’s right,” I retort, striding to the door. The ice slaps my face, tears at my hair, but in a flash I grab the swinging door and pull it to.

     “There.” I close the heavy oaken inner door and lean against it, gazing into the blackness. Silence. All has fallen quiet. I laugh. “You see, sister,” I say, “I can beat you now. Alone.” I walk back into the living room and gaze out. The moon emerges from behind the black swollen clouds, lighting up a crystal world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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