Rebecca, Too: Oakhurst


After spending her afternoon with Alyssa and receiving her charge, so to speak, Leah heads out the next morning to visit Steven Asher in Oakhurst. She calls first to introduce herself and to make sure Steven is willing to talk to her. At the house, she notes that the home at 466 East Lake Drive, is not far from a house she owned in Kirkwood several years ago, before she moved to her condo in Midtown. The house is two stories with a full porch, and looks like it was built mid-century. The exterior could use a coat of paint, but otherwise, it’s well-maintained and in excellent shape. Leah estimates its value at well over $300K, no doubt considerably more than what Steven’s parents had paid for it. She steps up onto the porch and rings the bell.

“I appreciate you taking the time to see me, Steven,” she tells him, once she’s inside. “I imagine this is all pretty weird for you.”

“Weird?” he replies. “Anywhere from six to twelve times an hour I get a call from this woman who sounds nothing like my sister but with all her attitude and mannerisms. I had to turn the phone off.”

“I’m hoping, if we put our heads together, we can figure out why the Princess is acting like this,” Leah says.

“Princess?” Steven asks.

“It’s what I call Alyssa,” Leah says.

“Then you don’t think this is about Becky,” Steven says.

“Rebecca figures into it, somehow,” Leah says. “What has me stumped is why Alyssa chose to take on her personality. Obviously, they know one another, but how well is anyone’s guess.”

“I’ll tell you what I can about Becky,” he says, “but before Alyssa left that message for me, I’d never even heard her name.”

Leah wanders around and surveys the living room and surroundings. “I’ve been reading a lot of Rebecca’s work the past couple of days. I find I rarely agree with her opinions, but I like her prose style — very direct and in-your-face.”

“That’s Becky,” Steven says, sitting on the arm of the couch. “A publisher was interested in doing something with her blog, but she died before she’d compiled very much. I’ve thought about shopping her work around to a small publisher, or self-publishing — if I ever have time to work on it, that is.”

“Let’s hope you do,” Leah says. “Her feminist critique of the work of Bette Davis was a little lacking in details, but she definitely brought a fresh perspective.”

“Yeah, she really liked Bette Davis,” Steven says. “What would you like to know about my sister?”

Leah stops pacing near the couch and sits. “I need to know the real Rebecca. Maybe then I can sort out what she represents to the Princess. Everything I know comes from what I’ve read by or about her. How does Alyssa’s version compare?”

“She knows enough to convince me she spent quite a bit of time with Becky,” Steven says. “If I had to guess, though, she probably spent more time with her when Becky was younger. Becky changed a lot after she went away to college.”

“Funny you should mention that.” Leah hands him the photo of Alyssa and Rebecca in Florida. “Ever see this?”

Steven takes the photo, looks it over, and nods. “I remember the trip. Aunt Rachel — our guardian at the time — didn’t think Becky was old enough to go on her own.” He hands the photo back.

“Obviously Rebecca didn’t agree,” she says as she returns the photo to her pocket.

“Becky never got along with Rachel, even before she went to college,” Steven says. “After she left school, things just got worse.”

“Left school?” Leah says. “She didn’t graduate?”

“No, Becky dropped out her junior year,” he says. “She never said why.”

He relates a story to Leah. As he tells it, she visualizes the encounter. Leah imagines a much less idealized version of Rebecca than the one Alyssa has portrayed but still generally keeping with the image a she’s formed from Alyssa’s depiction.

Rebecca backs into the room from the kitchen, very angry, yelling at someone.

“You fucking slut, don’t you dare tell me when I can come and go. You don’t control me, you bitch.”

Steven goes to her. “Becky, calm down.”

Rebecca pivots toward him.

“Stay out of this, Stevie. It’s between me and that fucking bitch in there.”

“She’s just trying to help. You staggered in at three a.m. last night and woke everyone up.”

“I am a fucking adult. I’ll do whatever I goddamn please.”

Rebecca storms out the front door.

“How tall was Rebecca?” Leah says.

“How tall?” he says.

“It helps me picture her,” she says. “In the photo, Alyssa’s leaning beside her, so it’s hard to gauge.”

Steven nods. “Top of her head didn’t quite come up to my shoulder.”

“You’re six feet?”

“Six, two,” he says.

Leah rewinds the scene. Rebecca returns from the front door and assumes her stance just before confronting Steven. She’s now shorter than she was initially.

“Small, medium, or large frame?” Leah says.

“Large,” he says. “Definitely.”

“Stocky?” she says.

He nods.

Leah adds twenty pounds to her image of Rebecca.

“On a scale of one to ten,” Leah says, “one being Meryl Streep and ten being Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch, how annoying was her voice?”

Steven considers it, then nods. “Seven. And, she was always trying to imitate Bette Davis’ inflections.”

Leah nods. “Got it.”

Rebecca pivots toward Steven. In a voice reminiscent of Bette Davis from All About Eve, she says, “Stay out of this, Stevie. It’s between me and that fucking bitch in there.”

“She’s just trying to help. You staggered in at three a.m. last night and woke everyone up.”

“I am a fucking adult. I’ll do whatever I goddamn please.”

Rebecca storms out the front door.

“That’s better,” Leah says. “Please continue.”

“Her feud with Rachel got so bad Rachel locked her out of the house,” he says.

Leah hears Rebecca’s voice coming from outside the door. Rebecca pounds angrily on the door, and rings the bell over and over. She sounds drunk.

“Open this god-damned door, you bitch! Stevie, please, let me in. Don’t let her do this.”

Steven moves toward the door. A woman’s voice is heard. “Steven.” He stops and addresses someone else.

“I’m not letting her in.” To the door, he says, “Sorry, Becky.”

“I know Rebecca became your legal guardian,” Leah says. “Was your aunt doing a bad job?”

“No. Rachel and I get along great,” Steven says. “We always have. That didn’t stop Becky from kicking Rachel out of the house, once she became my guardian.”

“I called your aunt as you suggested,” Leah says. “She gave me her schedule and told me to drop by some evening. I’m thinking of doing so tonight. What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a nurse who specializes in terminal patients,” Steve tells her.

“High stress work,” Leah says. “She ever bring any of that home?”

Steven shakes his head. “I’ve never known her to be anything but patient and tolerant. She needed it with Becky.”

“Whatever Rebecca thought about your aunt,” Leah says, “she’s not on Alyssa’s radar. I haven’t heard Rachel’s name once from the Princess — not even when she talks about being your guardian.” Leah looks around at the house. “This is a nice place. I can see you’ve done some work recently.”

“My parents bought it before I was born,” he says. “Back in the 80s when it was really cheap. I’m trying to convince my girlfriend to move in.”

“Full basement?” she asks, to which he nods.

“Partially finished with a separate entrance,” he replies. “I’d like to rent it out if I can get it in shape and find something to do with the the pool table that’s down there now.”

“Awful lot of room for one or two people,” Leah says, more to herself than Steven. “I bet a young, upwardly mobile family would pay a fortune for a place like this. I’ve been known to flip a few houses in my time, if you’re interested.”

“No thanks,” he says. “I plan to have an upwardly mobile family myself one day.”

“Then let’s talk sisters,” she says, sliding to the edge of the couch. “On the day before her accident, Alyssa spent an extraordinary amount of time reading up on Rebecca. She appears to have read everything Rebecca wrote, and just about everything written about her, warts and all.”

Steven slips from the arm down onto the couch, at the opposite end from Leah. He crosses his legs and leans on one hand. “You found all this on her computer?”

“I’m an Internet security consultant,” she says. This gives her a thought. “Hey. Want to cover your tracks on the Web? I can teach you how to be invisible.” Leah hands Steven her business card. “I teach an extension course at Georgia Perimeter from time to time. I’ll get you a discount if you want to sit in on a session.” He examines the card, nods, and puts in his pocket.

Leah leans forward and focuses ahead of her, like she’s picturing something. “Let’s break this down. Assume Alyssa learned about Rebecca’s death a day or so before her accident. She spends hours reading up on Rebecca, then tries to contact you just minutes before she’s in a car accident herself. And the first thing she does when she wakes up—”

Steven picks up the thought. “Is contact me — just like Becky would have.”

“So, what was life like with Rebecca in charge?” Leah asks.

“More like I was in charge,” he says. “Becky wasn’t very responsible.”

Steven relates some stories. During one, Leah imagines the phone ringing, which Steven answers. She hears Rebecca’s voice.

“Hey, Goonie, where’s the pizza that was in the fridge?” she says.

“You mean the pizza that was in the refrigerator for three weeks?” Steven replies. “I threw it out.”

Rebecca comes out of the kitchen, still talking on the phone as though Steven isn’t there. “Why’d you throw it out? I was going to eat that.”

Steven starts to answer on the phone, then stops himself, hangs up and speaks to Rebecca. She continues to hold the phone to her ear, though she’s addressing Steven directly.

“Becky, there was stuff growing on it,” he tells her.

“So?” she says. “Just zap it in the god-damned microwave. That kills just about anything.”

“I can’t believe you ever lived on your own” he says. “Did your roommates in New York take care of you?”

“What am I supposed to have for dinner now?” she says.

“Why don’t you use one of the numbers on the refrigerator?” he says indicating the kitchen. “There are at least five pizza places.”

“My fucking credit card’s not working again.”

“What’s wrong with your card?” Steven says.

“I don’t know. It just keeps getting declined,” she says.

“You paid them, right?” he says. “You’re supposed to do that every month, you know.”

“Oops!” she says, covering her mouth.

He sighs. “Order something. I’ll pay for it.”

Rebecca gives him thumbs up. “Yes! Yea, Stevie!”

“If Alyssa spent any time with my sister, she’d have seen how obsessive Becky was about staying in touch,” Steven says. “Half the time she was calling me. The other half, it was Claire.”

“Yes. Clarabella,” Leah says. “The only person from Rebecca’s past other than you or your father that Alyssa has mentioned by name.”

Steven lowers his head. “On the day she died, when Becky suddenly went silent, I was sure something bad had happened.”

“Tim said you identified her body,” Leah says.

He nods. “Rachel offered to take care of all that, but I insisted. I just wanted to see, to know for sure.”

Leah pats his shoulder. “It’s tough being the responsible one.” She takes out a slip of paper and hands it to him. “That reminds me. Do you recognize the top number? I know the bottom one is yours.”

“Becky’s cell phone,” he says.

“Interesting,” Leah says. “Alyssa called the cell number and when I looked it up, I found both numbers linked and flagged in my contacts log from 2005.”

“Flagged?” Steven asks. “What do you mean?”

“I have a land line I use for private calls,” Leah says. “I only give out the number to family and close associates, and I screen my calls. Rebecca must have called me from one or both of those numbers, or she made an unsolicited call from one, and I called back on the other.”

“Why would she have called you?” Steven wonders.

Leah shakes her head. “No idea. The call was in mid-2005, and I was on my first big project for NSA back then. All my files are archived, but I rang up the number and reached a guy from Moscow named Sergei.”

“Sergei?”

“Nice guy,” Leah says. “Sells shoes at Lenox. Promised me a sweet deal on some suede boots next time I’m in the area. When he found out I speak Russian, he talked my ear off. Tried to set me up with his brother-in-law. “

Steven finds this amusing. “Okay.”

“Said he used to get calls all the time for Rebecca Asher but only one in the past few weeks,” Leah says.

“Alyssa,” Steven says. “She must have tried to call before she did the research on the Internet. Becky’s information is pretty easy to find.”

“Yes, it is, and the things Alyssa looked up online contained a lot of background about Rebecca,” Leah says. “Stories, reviews, her blog.”

“The sort of information she wouldn’t need if she knew her well,” Steven says.

“Exactly,” Leah says, pointing at Steven. “I have Alyssa’s diary from high school and other than the time they spent in Florida, I can’t find any evidence they interacted at all back then.”

“Whatever means Alyssa came by the information,” Steven says. “she definitely knows a lot about Becky.”

Leah rises. “Yes. Tim told me about your initial meeting.” She goes to the credenza and picks up the photo of Rebecca. “What about Clarabella? From the way the Princess talks about her, it sounds like Rebecca’s relationship with Claire was rather stormy.”

“That’s one thing I’m confused about,” Steven says. “Alyssa seems to believe Claire and Becky were dating.”

“They weren’t?”

“Not at all,” Steven says. “Knowing the types of women my sister typically associated with, I was surprised she and Claire were even as close friends as they were.”

Leah puts down the photo of Rebecca and leans against the credenza. “Really? To hear Alyssa describe her, Claire was the love of Rebecca’s life.”

“Maybe Becky thought so, but Claire certainly didn’t,” Steven says. “Claire doesn’t even identify as a lesbian. She’s always claimed to be celibate. As far as them being friends, I usually got along with Claire about as well as she got along with Becky. Probably better, in fact. It’s why we’ve stayed in touch. They did spend a lot of time together — and Becky had her pet name for her, “Clarabella”, which was unusual — but by the time she died, they were majorly on the outs with one another.”

“Do you know why?”

“Take your pick,” Steven says. “Claire hated most of Becky’s friends. They were always making fun of her when she wasn’t around, which was usually if Becky had others over. I think they were intimidated by her and lashed out behind her back. If Becky and Claire had been involved, Becky would have given her a lot of reasons to feel insecure.”

“Like what?”

“Look, I love my sister,” Steven says, “but emotionally, she was a train wreck. She couldn’t sustain a relationship beyond a few times in bed with someone. She usually got bored with the other person after a few days. She was always making videos of herself with other women.” He raises a finger. “Speaking of which, do your computing skills include data recovery?”

Leah shrugs. “It’s not my specialty but I’ve done it before when I contracted for NSA. Plus, I know people. Why do you ask?”

“Hang on.” Steven goes into another room and returns with a small box which he hands to Leah. “That’s the hard drive from Becky’s laptop. The computer was destroyed in the accident but I managed to salvage the drive. No idea what kind of shape it’s in but if you can access it, there might be something you can use. I’ve wanted to see what was on it, but didn’t want Becky’s private affairs showing up on YouTube.”

“Not to worry,” she says. “I’ll be the soul of discretion.”

Leah recalls something. ‘Did Rebecca have a special talent, other than writing?”

“Like what?”

“During a moment of lucidity, Alyssa said Rebecca has something Alyssa doesn’t — her super power,” Leah says. “Did she have an ability someone like Alyssa might envy?”

“I can’t think of many people who envied Becky,” Steven says. “Most who knew her well just steered clear of her.”

Leah turns back to the photos, and picks up the one of Owen. “This must be Owen the pilot.” She looks at Steven. “I see the resemblance. Are you in contact with him now?”

“Yeah, he showed up at Becky’s funeral,” Steven says. “One of the few times I saw my aunt almost lose it. Since then, we’ve managed to rebuild our relationship. He drops in whenever he’s in town and I visit him on the West Coast when I can.”

Leah stares at the photo. “Who does he fly for?”

“Delta,” Steven says. “He was with Northwest and went to Delta when they merged.”

Leah nods. “My roommate from college works for Delta. I’ve tried, but couldn’t get much out of the Princess about your Dad. When she mentions him, she tends to focus on the loss — a countenance more in sorrow than in anger.”

“Becky was much angrier than sad,” Steven says.

Leah puts the photo back and turns to Steven. “There are a lot of inconsistencies in how Alyssa has chosen to recreate Rebecca, aside from how she depicts Rebecca’s relationship with Claire. She doesn’t recognize your father. She doesn’t talk about your aunt. It’s like she’s hiding behind her image of Rebecca rather than being her — very confusing.”

The doorbell rings. Steven heads to the window that looks out onto the porch.

“That’s not your father, is it?” Leah asks.

“No, he has his own key,” Steven says.

Steven glances out the window. “What’s she doing here?”

“Who is it?” Leah asks.

“Claire.”

“That’s convenient,” Leah says.

Steven opens the door, for Claire. The first thing Leah notes is that Claire is very tall, taller than Steven, though that appears to be due to the platform boots she’s wearing, which over-emphasize her height. Her hair is a buzz cut on the left side but well below her shoulders on the right, and braided into a pigtail. She’s wearing a leather biker’s jacket, despite the temperature outside, and white, shorty jeans with fishnet stockings underneath. Under her jacket is a black sweat shirt with its sleeves and collar ripped off, and a V cut at the neck. She’s wearing aviator shades, but removes them when Steven opens the door and drops them into the inside pocket of her jacket. Leah notes that Claire appears very intimidating and unapproachable, but Leah imagines it’s a front. Claire greets Steven with a pleasant smile. She hasn’t yet noticed Leah.

“Claire. This is a surprise,” Steven says as she gives him a quick hug.

“You surprised me with your call so I thought I’d return the favor,” she says.

Claire enters the living room but pauses when she sees Leah, and puts up a cool front. “I didn’t realize you had company. Hello.”

Steven indicates Leah. “Ah yes. CC Belmonte, this is—”

“LJ Walker,” Leah says as she moves toward Claire, right hand extended.

They shake hands. Claire asks, “How do you know Steven?”

Steven starts to speak, but Leah cuts him off, “Oh, I’m an old friend of the family.”

Steven looks at Leah and shakes his head, but doesn’t contradict her description.

“Really? Did you know Becky?” Claire asks.

“In a manner of speaking,” Leah says, somewhat mysteriously.

“What does that mean?” Claire says, looking between Leah and Steven.

Steven steps between them. “What can I do for you, Claire?”

She gives Leah a quick, second glance, then says, “I wanted to see if you’ve given any thought to next Friday?”

He nods. “Yes. I’m free and can attend your graduation show.”

“Great,” Claire says. “Rachel said she’s free. It should be a lot of fun.”

“Graduation show?” Leah says. “Acting? Singing?”

“I’m talking an improv class at The Comedy Factory,” Claire explains. “I run the sound board for them, so they give me comps all the time.”

“The Comedy Factory,” Leah says, “in Midtown? Dan Barton performs there, doesn’t he?”

Claire relaxes a bit. “Yes. He’s my instructor.”

“He’s excellent,” Leah says. “Haven’t checked in with him for a while. I need to look him up.”

Claire acknowledges this and turns again to Steven. “I also wanted to see if you’ve heard anything more from that crazy lady who called pretending to be Rebecca.”

“Who would do something like that?” Leah says, sounding very shocked.

Steven looks from Leah back to Claire. “It’s kind of complicated.”

“Don’t tell me that,” Claire says, walking away from him. “I hate complications.”

While Claire’s occupied with Steven, Leah takes out her phone and snaps a picture of her. Claire stares angrily at Leah.

“Did you just take my picture?” she says.

“Yeah,” Leah says.

“Well delete it,” Claire says. “I didn’t give you permission for that.”

Leah puts the phone in her pocket. “I don’t need permission to take your picture, just to publish it, which I’m not intending to do.”

“Then why did you take it?” Claire demands.

“For personal reference,” Leah says.

“What does that even mean?” Claire says.

Leah thinks quickly. “It’s just a quirk I have. I like to document the little moments in my life. I meet so many people, it’s hard to keep track of them all. What’s the problem?”

Claire looks away from Leah. “It’s not polite to take someone’s photo without asking, for whatever reason you do it.”

Leah takes out the phone and pulls up the photo. “Sorry, but I think your appearance is very unconventional and it caught my interest. See?” Leah holds up her phone to show Claire the picture but Claire won’t look at it. Leah approaches Claire with the phone. “Take a look. It’s a good shot.”

Claire finally looks at the photo. She’s pleasantly surprised. “Oh. Well that’s not so bad. Are you a photographer?”

Leah puts away her phone. “Occasionally. I mainly take photos and video of properties I’m listing. Free advice, if you’re planning on being on stage, you better get used to having your photo taken. You have a really distinctive look.”

Claire gives her a genuine smile. “Thank you for saying so.”

Steven steps toward Claire, saying, “So, Claire, have you heard from anyone?”

She shakes her head. “I haven’t spoken to anyone, but yesterday, I had nine or ten calls from a number I didn’t recognize. My curiosity got the better of me last night, so I called back and got the voice mail for some security firm.”

“Security firm?” Leah takes out a different phone. Steven takes note of this.

“How many phones do you have?” Steven asks her.

“One for home, one for business,” Leah says. “Oh, and a Blackberry. I still contract for the government sometimes.” Leah calls up a number. “So, that’s why I couldn’t find my phone yesterday.” She chuckles. “I underestimated you Princess.”

“Excuse me?” Claire says.

Leah glances at Claire. “Did you call that number around eleven?”

“Something like that,” Claire said. “Why?”

Leah hits redial and fixes her eyes on Claire, as her phone starts to ring. Claire takes it out, looks at it, then stares at Leah with a slightly panicked look. “Why do you have my number?”

Leah considers it and shakes her head. “You’ve got it posted on Facebook, haven’t you?”

“Well,” Claire says then pauses. “Yes.”

Leah throws up her hands. “You might as well just rent a damn billboard. When are you people going to learn?”

Steven interjects, “Wait a minute. Becky wasn’t on Facebook. It wasn’t even around back then.”

“No,” Leah says. “But Alyssa is.”

Claire looks totally confused. She goes to Steven. “Steven, what is going on here and who is this woman?”

Steven looks between her and Leah. “Like I said, it’s complicated.”

“Well simplify it!” Claire says.

Leah moves toward them. “Oh, what the hell. Let’s flip all the cards and I’ll tell you the crazy lady who called here is my baby sister, Alyssa.”

“Your sister?” Claire says.

“Yep,” Leah replies. “She was in a car crash and woke up thinking she’s Rebecca.”

“Then you lied about being an old family friend,” Claire says, glancing at Steven when she says it.

“I may have stretched the truth a little.” Leah indicates Steven. “We’re friendly.”

“You be quiet,” Claire says to Leah, then, swats Steven’s arm. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“What was I supposed to say?” he says. “It’s not the sort of situation that can be summed up in fifty words or less.”

“Is she telling the truth?” Claire says.

“I’m afraid so,” Steven says. “The crazy lady didn’t just phone. She sort of stopped by as well.”

“Kind of left out that detail, eh, Steven?” Claire says, circling him.

He turns to keep her in his field of vision. “It was after we talked. She was the one who was beating the door down. Remember?”

Leah approaches Claire. “How would you like to meet her, Claire?”

Claire stops and stares at Leah. “Her being—”

“The crazy lady who thinks she’s Rebecca,” Leah says as though it should be obvious.

Claire closes her eyes, takes in a deep breath, then lets it out slowly, then faces Leah. “Let me see if I understand this. I’ve known you for less than five minutes during which time you’ve lied to me about who you are, and, apparently, you’ve been stalking me.”

“That was not me,” Leah says, “that was the Princess.”

“Princess?” Claire yells. “What Princess?”

“It’s what I call my sister,” Leah says. “She’s not really a princess.”

Claire becomes more unnerved. “No, she’s obviously a very disturbed woman who thinks she’s a dead friend of mine — and you’re asking me to meet her?” She turns to Steven. “Are you sure Ashton Kutcher isn’t hiding somewhere in the house with a camera crew, because I feel like I’m being Punk’d right now.”

“I apologize, Claire,” Steven says. “We’re trying to sort this whole thing out and getting the two of you together was mentioned as a possible option. I am not asking you to do it.”

Claire considers this, then focuses on Steven. “She really thinks she’s Becky?”

“It’s what she says,” Steven says.

Claire puts her hand on his chest. “You believed her?”

Steven touches her hand. “She called me Goonie. Yes. She’s very convincing.”

“We thought getting you together might shock her back into reality,” Leah says.

Claire pivots and puts her hands on her hips. “It would certainly shock the hell out of me.” She turns again toward Steven. “How could you possibly think that would be a good idea?”

He throws up his hands to try to calm her. “Like I say, I’m not asking you to do it.”

“Well I’m glad because I don’t need any more complications in my life. The original Becky was complicated enough.” Clare shakes her head, then starts toward the door. “I need to get out of here.”

Leah realizes she’s pushed Claire too far. She tries to think of a carrot she can use as she goes to intercept her. “No, don’t leave, Claire. I admit I can be a little assertive.”

“Assertive?” Claire says, trying to get past Leah. “I guess that’s one word for it.”

Something Claire said comes back to Leah. “You say you’re taking improv classes with Dan, right?

“That’s right,” Claire says, pausing.

“Does he ever talk about his days in Boston?” Leah says.

“Boston?” Claire considers this. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, he has talked about it. What does that have to do with anything?”

“I knew him then. We were a team for a few months on the road,” Leah says quickly. “We called ourselves The Backwoods Impresarios. It was just after I got out of Wellesley in the early 90s.”

Claire puts her index finger up to her lips and thinks this over. She shakes her finger at Leah. “Yeah, he’s talked about that in class.” A thought hits her. “Were you Leander? As in Dander and Leander?”

“Yes!” Leah says. “Those are the names we performed under. My forte was group think. Dan was better at characters.”

Claire laughs slightly. “He speaks very fondly of you, actually.”

“He should,” Leah says. “We were practically joined at the hip before he moved to Chicago to work for Second City. You cannot sleep in a car with someone on the road for six months without establishing a strong bond — or strangling one another.”

“I’d imagine,” Claire says. “Why didn’t you go with him to Chicago?”

“Dan wrangled an invitation for me but I wasn’t who they wanted,” Leah says. “I’d been deferring my admission to MIT and decided I’d have a better future with them. Plus, I once had a nasty run-in with Del Close at a workshop in San Francisco and did not want to risk a repeat of that.”

Claire takes in all that Leah has said. “Wow. Leander. I’d love to pick your brain sometime. Dan says I’ve got the character basics down, but miss a lot of offers.”

“Why don’t I buy you lunch?” Leah offers. “I still remember a few exercises that can help your concentration.” She smiles. “It would also give me the perfect opportunity to tell you all about the Princess.”

Steven comes over to them. “I don’t remember Claire agreeing on that.”

“No, no, Steven, that’s okay,” Claire says. Turning back to Leah, she concludes, “We can talk but I’m not making any promises.”

Leah extends her hand. “Deal.”

They shake on it.

Rebecca, Too: Three Views of the Sorceress


Funeral

Alyssa, age seventeen, is milling about in the vestibule of a Methodist church in Midtown Atlanta, waiting for the funeral of her aunt, Margaret Blaine, who she knows as Peg, to begin. A life-long chain smoker, Margaret succumbed to lung cancer nearly a week earlier. As her oldest and closest brother, it fell to Paxton to make all the arrangements. As children, they called one another “Peg” and “Lee” which was the nickname given Paxton for his despised first name, Leroy. Margaret hated the name Peg almost as much, but tolerated Alyssa’s use of it, since Alyssa got it from her father, who’d been more of a presence in her life than that of her sister, Leah. Leah and Margaret had bonded over their shared kinship of being first-born daughters, though there were fewer years between Margaret and Paxton than between Leah and Alyssa. Whenever either sister needed to know the family’s dirt, they knew they could count on Margaret to dish it. With Margaret’s death, the only person Alyssa knows of who still uses Paxton’s first name is Leah, usually to get under his skin.  

The thought of Leah causes Alyssa to wonder about her sister’s whereabouts. Contact with Leah has been sporadic since she graduated college and started attending MIT, several years ago. Alyssa has not seen her at all, though they do talk on the phone once every month or so. The last time they saw one another was when their mother died the same week Leah was supposed to have her graduation ceremony at Wellesley, seven years ago. Leah disappeared for several months right after that, supposedly touring around the country as an improviser, though Alyssa found it hard to imagine her rather sensible sister doing that. Leah would usually phone whenever she arrived in some town, just to let the family know she was still alive, but after she refocused on her studies and began attending MIT, she did not return home, not even for holidays, and Alyssa wonders if she’ll ever set eyes on her sister again.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the door to the church opening, flooding the vestibule with light. Alyssa looks to see a familiar silhouette in the doorway. She slowly takes a few steps forward, as the door closes, revealing it to be Leah, far different than Alyssa remembers her. The disheveled, awkward, eighteen-year-old, who used to play hide-and-go-seek with Alyssa and tell her stories when she was a small child has been replaced by a poised, confident, and professional woman, dressed in a dark business suit with slacks.

“Leah?” Alyssa says.

“Hey Princess,” Leah says. She gives Alyssa a quick hug. “It’s been a long time. Wow, you’re getting tall.”

“You heard about Aunt Peg,” Alyssa says. “I wasn’t sure.”

“Yeah, from the AJC,” Leah replies, a note of anger in her voice. “I had a few choice words on the phone with Dad last night over not telling me Margaret had died.”

“We didn’t know you were back in town,” Alyssa says.

“My cell number hasn’t changed,” Leah says with more than a hint of annoyance. she brightens and touches Alyssa’s shoulder. “How’ve you been?”

“I’m okay,” Alyssa says. “Are you still in school?”

“No, I graduated,” Leah says. She leans in. “I’m a doctor now. I’ve been back in Atlanta since the first of the month.” Leah looks around at the church. “What was Dad thinking, giving Margaret a church funeral?”

“Believe it or not, it’s what she wanted,” Alyssa says.

“Really?” Leah replies. “I imagined her having some sort of Wiccan ritual at the Botanical Gardens. I should have stayed in touch better than I did.”

“She changed a lot with the cancer,” Alyssa says.

“Exactly why I stopped smoking,” Leah says. “Dad should take the hint.”

“What are you doing now?” Alyssa asks. “Are you working anywhere?”

“Not yet, but I’m looking,” Leah says. “I may go back to school. You’re about to be a senior, right?”

“I will be. Yes,” Alyssa says.

Leah moves a few steps toward the sanctuary. “I suppose Dad looks about the way I remember him.”

“A little older,” Alyssa says. “He grew a beard.”

“You don’t say,” Leah says, facing her.

An usher looks out from the sanctuary. “Miss Walker?”

Alyssa looks at him, nods, and tells Leah, “I guess they’re ready to start.”

“Okay if I sit with you?” Leah says.

“I’m sitting with Daddy,” Alyssa replies

“I think we can tolerate one another for a little while for Margaret’s sake,” Leah says. They head into the sanctuary together.

Company

Walter Blankenship sits at his desk in the downtown offices of Walker Development, Inc., the real estate development firm where he’s been on the board since before Paxton Walker, the company’s founder, stepped down to look after his daughter, Alyssa, following his wife’s death in 1991. Walter is, in fact, the only board member still left from those days, and is looking forward to his own retirement within a year. In front of him are resumes for several positions, since one of his duties includes sitting on the hiring committee. A voice from the doorway catches his attention.

“How’s it going, Walt?” a woman’s voice says.

Walt looks up to see Leah Walker, Paxton’s oldest daughter, standing before him. He rises, and enthusiastically goes to greet her. “Leah! How are you? How long has it been?”

Walt embraces Leah.

“Too long, Walt,” Leah says. “How are the years treating you?”

“Can’t complain,” Walter says. “I’ll be getting out of here middle of next year and I can’t wait. I have a whole bevy of grandchildren I need to start spoiling.”

“I bet you’re looking forward to that,” she says.

Walter leads Leah to a sofa near the window. They sit.

“I haven’t seen you since before you left for college,” Walter says. “I hear you’re Dr. Walker now.”

“Leah’s just fine among friends,” she replies.

“So, to what do I owe this pleasure?” he asks.

“I hear you’re looking for a senior network engineer,” Leah tells him.

“We are,” he replies. “That sound like something you could handle?”

“Definitely.”

“Then the job’s yours,” he says.

Leah shakes her head. “No, Walt, that’s not how I want this to work. That’s not why I came to see you.”

“I don’t understand,” he says.

“I don’t want to get this job based on who I am,” Leah replies. “I want it because of what I know.”

She takes a copy of her resume from her briefcase and hands it to him. “I want you to submit this to the search committee.”

Walt takes it and looks over it. “L. J. Rosales? Rosales was your mother’s name, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” Leah says. “Since my credentials are under my name, you can verify them without involving the others on the committee, and work out any issues with HR.”

“You understand, Leah, you’ll be under the same level of scrutiny as any other applicant,” Walter says. “If you can do the job, why does it matter how you got it?”

“It matters to me, Walt,” Leah says. “I don’t want anyone dismissing me because I’m the founder’s daughter.”

“We’ll do it your way, then,” he says.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Leah says, “and I don’t want you to pull any punches with me either, Walt.”

“Not to worry,” he says. They rise and Walt extends his hand. “Good luck, Dr. Rosales.”

Leah learns she’s one of the finalists for the position. Several days later, she finds herself in a board room with the search committee seated at a table before her. Leah sits in front of the table, her briefcase beside her chair. The interview has gone well, and the committee seems impressed with her knowledge and responses, with the exception of Walter Blankenship. Walt is holding a copy of her resume as he says, “Dr. Rosales, your educational credentials are very impressive, but you don’t have a great deal of hands-on experience. We’re looking for a senior network engineer and quite frankly, your work history is seriously lacking.”

Leah gives a confident smile. “With all due respect, Mr. Blankenship, you’re not going to find a senior network engineer at the price you’re offering. If I were to demean myself by working at Bickering Plummet for a year or so, to pick up some on-the-job experience, you wouldn’t be able to get me for that price. Call it what you want, this is an entry-level position at best.”

“You seem very sure of yourself, Dr. Rosales,” Walter says.

“I’m sure I can do this job,” she replies.

“How do we know you won’t fall flat on your face the first time a crisis comes along?” he says.

Leah leans back, confidently. “Guess there’s only one way to find out — Walt.”

The committee chair looks around at the members and nods.

“Okay. Thank you for your candor, Dr. Rosales,” the committee chair says. “I believe we have enough information to decide. If you’d like to step out for a moment, I’ll poll the committee.”

“I’m a big girl,” she says. “I can take it. Proceed.”

The chair nods. “Very well. Mr. Williams?”

“I vote yes,” the committee member replies.

The chair polls the others, all of whom vote to hire Leah. Finally, he comes to Walter, “Mr. Blankenship?”

Walt replies, staring straight at Leah. “I think we should pass.”

“It seems you’re in the minority, Mr. Blankenship,” the chair says. “Welcome aboard, Dr. Rosales.”

Leah stands and shakes everyone’s hand. When she shakes Walt’s hand, he winks at her, eliciting a half smile.

Once she’s in charge of the network, Leah initiates a total overhaul of the system, catching several serious errors which could have caused a considerable loss of data and revenue. Before long, she makes herself indispensable to coworkers and company officials.

She’s at her terminal one afternoon when someone enters her office and says, “L. J. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Leah stands and turns to find herself face to face with her father, Paxton, standing beside one of the office managers.

“Paxton Walker, L. J. Rosales,” the manager says.

“L. J. Rosales?” Paxton says, giving her a curious expression.

Leah extends her hand. “Mr. Walker. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”

Paxton chuckles and shakes her hand. “Good to meet you, L. J. Nice to put a face with a name.”

“Mr. Walker,” the manager says, “you should know, Dr. Rosales has been nothing short of a miracle worker. To say she’s saved us from millions in potential losses is an understatement.”

“Impressive,” Paxton says. “Keep up the good work — Doctor.”

Paxton and the manager turn to leave. As he’s exiting, Paxton looks over his shoulder at Leah, then shakes his head, with a smile. Leah collapses into her chair and breathes a sigh of relief.

Several months later, at the annual company picnic, Leah is outside talking to a coworker when Alyssa appears, being guided by an employee. Seeing Leah, Alyssa stops.

“Why’s my sister here?” she says.

“Who’s your sister?” the employee asks.

“The woman in the lavender top,” Alyssa says, indicating Leah.

“That’s L. J. Rosales, our network engineer,” the employee tells her.

“Rosales?” Alyssa says. “That was our mother’s name.” Suddenly, Alyssa realizes what’s going on. “Oh, wait. Never mind. My mistake.”

“L. J. Rosales is your sister? Paxton Walker’s daughter?” The employee steps away from her. “Excuse me.” The employee exits, quickly.

Leah sees Alyssa and walks over to meet her. “Alyssa.”

Alyssa shakes her head. “Sorry, Leah. I think I blew your cover.”

Several employees appear with the one who’d been with Alyssa. They point and whisper among themselves.

“Thanks a lot princess,” Leah says, amused.

Wedding

Alyssa looks at herself in the mirror, wearing her long, flowing, wedding gown. In a few minutes, her father will come to get her and she’ll walk down the aisle to marry Tim Caine. Her joy is tempered somewhat by news that several of her father’s relatives have refused to come, and while they offered various excuses, Alyssa knows it’s Tim’s race which is the real issue. Alyssa chooses to ignore all that, instead focusing on the happiness of the day.

One person Alyssa regrets not being there is her sister, Leah, left off the guest list at her father’s insistence. Alyssa had wanted Leah to be in the wedding party, but her father had objected, believing Leah would only be a disruption, and when informed of this, Leah reacted with her usual dry wit, though Alyssa could sense her sister’s bitter disappointment. Alyssa had acquiesced to her father’s wishes, but had not been able to put this behind her as she had the absence of her other family members.

She clears her head, and again examines herself in the mirror. She imagines herself as a fairy princess and begins to hum, then sing the lyrics of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and starts to dance around in her gown. Her steps are curtailed by a knock at the door. The face that greets her causes her heart to leap.

“Leah, what are you doing here?” she says excitedly. “The ceremony is about to start.”

She steps aside to allow Leah to enter. Leah is dressed in dark slacks, an elegant top, with a light jacket over it.

“Hey Princess,” she says. “I know. I just wanted to give you something.”

Leah hands Alyssa a DVD.

“What’s this?” Alyssa asks, a hint of excitement in her voice.

Leah points to the DVD. “I took all our old films and videos, cassettes and pictures, digitized them and put them on a DVD for you. Dad’s there, but it’s mostly Mom.”

Alyssa feels a lump in her throat. “Mama?”

Leah touches Alyssa’s shoulder. “Yeah. I thought it would be nice if Mom could attend your wedding.”

A tear runs down Alyssa’s cheek. “That is so sweet of you, Leah.” She hugs Leah tightly.

“I should let you get back to your preparations,” Leah says, turning toward the door.

Alyssa catches Leah’s arm. “Leah, wait. Please stay for the ceremony. It would mean a lot to me.”

“I don’t think Dad would like that very much,” Leah says. “It’s your special day, Princess. I don’t want to get in the way of that.”

“Forget Daddy,” Alyssa tells her. “I should have never let him talk me into this. With all our family who had other things to do today, I shouldn’t turn away someone who truly wants to celebrate with me. Besides, you’re my sister. You deserve to be here.”

“Your wish is my command, Princess,” Leah says with a bow.

“Will you please stop calling me that!” Alyssa says.

“It kind of suits you today,” Leah says.

Alyssa laughs. “Oh, okay, today’s fine.”

Rebecca, Too: Snapshot McCall


Nurse Lana Turner moves down the hall of the emergency ward at Grady Hospital in Atlanta where she’s worked for more than twelve years. In that time, she’s seen the job move from patient charts on clipboards hung on the foots of beds to sophisticated, hand-held devices that automatically update the central database, showing up in the patient care system where doctors can chart the course of treatment on a given patient and make recommendations on restorative procedures. Despite the technological advances, the one aspect that remains the same is the human element. Patients and their loved ones still want a friendly face and a reassuring voice to help them through a medical emergency, and Lana always strives to be just that.

She pauses outside the room of Alyssa Ruth Caine, a young woman in her late-twenties, brought in late-Wednesday with head trauma following a car accident in Peachtree Corners. The reports say she lost control of her car trying to avoid another accident and crashed into a wall. Her seat belt and airbag saved her life, but the impact shook up her brain, causing swelling. Lana feels for Alyssa, who has recently lost her father per Alyssa’s husband, Tim. Whenever she’s there alone with Alyssa, said to be a schoolteacher with a sweet and loving disposition, Lana always gives her extra words of encouragement.

Earlier, Alyssa’s sister, Leah, was here, a difficult woman, who initially struck Lana as the typical, pushy, well-to-do white woman, thinking everyone’s supposed to stop and take notice when she speaks. Average in height, with a medium build, and reddish-brown hair, she has piercing, steel-blue eyes which she often focuses on someone for a long moment before uttering, “Perfect!” — her favorite phrase, Lana has concluded — often with more than a hint of sarcasm. From the start, she’s insisted everyone on staff call her Doctor Walker, even though she’s not a medical doctor. Lana is certain that’s liable to cause some confusion in the hospital, but honors the request. Most of the staff prefers dealing with Tim, who’s been a sweetheart the entire time. Doctor Walker asks too many questions, though they are relevant to her sister’s treatment.

The night before, while Lana was looking in on Alyssa, Leah, who was sitting with her sister, explained that she’s a facts and figures type of person and needs information to allow her to wrap her head around what’s happening. While not apologetic, Leah did sound a bit friendlier and less insistent than normal. Nurse Turner has concluded Leah does care for Alyssa, albeit in her own way, and Lana admires that. Among the nurses, opinions about Leah are mixed — Angelique, the nurse from the Ivory Coast, who studied in Haiti, enjoys Leah’s company, as Leah always converses with her in French when she’s on duty.

Nurse Turner makes a quick notation on her pad to close out the previous patient, switches to Alyssa’s record, then enters the room. Tim is seated at Alyssa’s side, holding her hand. He’s medium-toned, with a trim, athletic build, and a few days’ growth of beard, in his early-thirties. His facial features put Lana in mind of Nigerians she met on her trip to Africa a few years ago, particularly those of the Yoruba tribe, but, perhaps with some European and Native American mixed in. He’s originally from the West Coast and decided to stay in Atlanta after finishing school at Mercer. From talking to him, Lana has learned that he and Alyssa met through an outdoors group that sponsors hiking and camping trips for busy singles with a love of nature. One thing is for sure, he is totally devoted to his wife and rarely leaves her side. Lana asked him about Leah, but he assured her, “Don’t read too much into her act. That’s how she is with everyone.”

Lana examines Alyssa. While she’s never seen Alyssa on her feet, Lana can see she’s well above average in height and slender in build. Tim has mentioned she’s a distance runner, who also enjoys cycling and swimming. Fortunately, the accident did not necessitate cutting her hair, which is long and very blonde.

Tim stirs. “Morning, Lana. How’s she looking?”

“Morning, Tim,” she replies. “Not much has changed. Dr. Leonard says she could come out of it any time. I take it Alyssa’s sister went home.”

“Yeah, Leah headed home to get some rest,” he says. Tim rises and stretches. “Is the cafeteria open?”

“Yes, open and serving breakfast until 10:30,” Lana says.

“Great. I’m going to get some coffee. Maybe a bite to eat.” He rubs his chin. “I could probably use a shave, too.”

Tim exits.

Nurse Turner concludes her examination of Alyssa, then steps away from the bed and makes notations on her electronic device. Suddenly, Alyssa groans. Lana turns to see Alyssa’s eyelids fluttering, and her head moves back and forth on the pillow. She groans again, then raises her right hand to her head. She opens her eyes.

“Oh — my — god. What happened? Where am I?” Alyssa says.

Lana puts away the electronic device and hurries to the bedside and begins examining Alyssa again.

“Ms. Caine,” she says, “can you hear me? Alyssa?”

“Of course, I can hear you,” Alyssa says in a very agitated voice. She puts her hands up to shoo Lana away. “I’m right here. Who’s Alyssa?”

“You are,” Lana says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like JFK in the Zapruder film,” Alyssa says.

“That’s to be expected — I suppose — after what you’ve been through.”

The first notion to come to Lana is that this does not sound like the Alyssa Tim has described. She almost sounds like her sister who Tim says she’s nothing like.

Nurse Turner raises the bed and as she does, Alyssa glances at Lana’s name badge. She chuckles.

“Lana Turner?” she says. “Is that the name you were born with?”

 “It sure is.”

“Your parents had a sense of humor,” Alyssa says.

Lana finds this amusing. “Actually, I was named after my aunt. Her parents had the sense of humor.

Alyssa looks again at the name tag. She looks confused. “Wait, does that say Grady? Why’d they bring me back to Atlanta?”

“It was the closest available trauma center to where the accident occurred,” Lana says. “You were just a few miles away and in pretty bad shape.”

“I’d hardly call Braselton a few miles away.” Alyssa places her hand to her head again. “Oh, my head! Listen, is my brother Steven here?”

Lana gives Alyssa a curious look. “I don’t know your brother. Your husband Tim is here. He just went to the cafeteria.”

“Husband?” Alyssa says. “Hello! Not married, Lana!”

Nurse Turner steps away from the bed. “I’m going to get the doctor.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s he? Clark Gable?”

Nurse Turner shakes her head, then exits.

Once in the hallway, she sees Tim exit the men’s room and head for the elevator. She hurries toward him and calls out, “Tim? Tim!”

He turns.

“Alyssa’s awake,” she says. “I’m going to get Dr. Leonard.”

“Thank god,” Tim says as he jogs toward the room.

The Guides


This is from an early draft of a work in progress.

Billy Joseph has given up. A year past his high school graduation, he finds himself without a job, with no prospects for further education, and hopelessly addicted to alcohol and pain killers. His parents had tolerated him staying at the house so long as he made an attempt at gaining employment, but once it became obvious he wasn’t really trying, they gave up on him as well. Which is why he now finds himself wandering the streets, occasionally begging, and suffering acute withdrawal symptoms. He has nowhere to turn, no place to sleep and he fears where he may end up if he continues on the streets much longer.

At length, he finds himself at the Parkway bridge, which goes over the river. Every now and then, Billy has seen a news report about some desperate soul who used it as a final answer to his or her problems and now, Billy hopes it will provide him with the peace he needs. He checks to be sure there’s no traffic, no meddling driver who’ll stop to try to convince him not to proceed, then he makes his way to the middle of the bridge and climbs over the railing. He pauses to say a quick prayer, then closes his eyes as he starts to let go.

Suddenly a pair of arms wrap around his waist and he feels himself being violently dragged back over the railing. Whoever has him carries him to a grassy spot just off the bridge and dumps him onto the ground. Before he can process any of this, the person rolls him over and leans into his face. Billy looks to see a bearded, dirty, disheveled, and angry face hovering just above his.

“Now you listen to me, Billy,” the man says, barely containing his emotions. “Normally, I’d just let you fall and end your ridiculous existence, but you have too much to accomplish, so you’re not checking out on my watch.”

Billy sees the man raise his fist and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, apparently the victim of a violent assault. No one knows who brought him in but he’s surprised to see family is there to support him. He knows he has a long recovery ahead of him, but thanks to his mysterious benefactor, he’s finally getting the help he needs. 

***

The guard in the monitoring station glances at the bank of screens in front of him and adjusts a remote camera until his colleague at the event appears on the monitor. He keys a microphone in front of him and says, “All quiet on the grounds, Jasper?”

The event is an exclusive art opening at the top gallery in town catering to only the highest of high rollers, and security is tight.

Jasper looks into the camera so he appears to be facing his distant compatriot and raises a thumb. He replies, “Yep. Nothing but the sound of money being rustled down here, Wally.”

“Looks like the crowd’s thinning out. How many you got down there?”

Jasper takes a quick head count. “I’ve got sixteen.”

Wally surveys his monitors. “You sure about that? I’m only seeing fifteen.”

Jasper counts again. “Nope. Definitely sixteen.”

Wally checks again. “Okay, I’m seeing six at the bar; four at a table and another five scattered around looking at the artwork.”

“Are you counting the guy in the corner?”

“What guy in the corner?” Wally says. 

“Tweed jacket, jeans, long, dark hair with a glass of wine.”

Wally readjusts cameras but can’t bring the man up on any of them. 

“I got nothing here.”

“I thought you had a full 360 degree view from there.”

“Apparently not. Check him out.”

Jasper walks over to the man. “Afternoon, sir. Mind if I ask your name?”

“Not at all,” the man says. “The name’s Nash.”

Jasper gets on his radio. “Wally, do we have a Mr. Nash?”

“Not that I can see,” Wally replies.

“Sir, would you mind coming with me? We just need to verify your credentials.”

“Oh, sure.  I understand. Listen—” the man suddenly looks Jasper in the eye and says with firmness, “I have an invitation.”

Jasper gives him a blank stare.

“You have an invitation.”

The man checks his pockets. 

“Yeah, it’s right— Oh, I guess I must have left it in the car.”

Jasper still displays no reaction.

“You left it in the car.”

“Yeah, maybe I should just go get it.”

“You should just go get it.”

“That’s a great idea,” the man says as he moves toward the exit. “I’ll be right back.”

“You’ll be right back.”

The man exits. Jasper moves away from the place he was standing. Wally watches him on the monitor then radios him. “Jasper, where’s the guy?”

Jasper looks around, confused. “What guy?”

“The one you were supposed to be checking out.”

Jasper looks around the room. 

“It’s weird,” he says. “I remember approaching him and speaking to him, then he was just gone.”

“People don’t just vanish.”

“This guy did.”

“Yeah, I think you’re going to need to fill out a report on this one.”

Killing Babies

As one develops as a writer, one becomes aware of the painful reality that not everything one writes, no matter how well-crafted or heartfelt, will see the light of day. In many cases, favorite phrases or passages must be sacrificed for the overall good of the piece. Improving the quality of the writing doesn’t make excising them any easier though. In some ways, the process is akin to killing a well-loved child.

A writer has just crafted the perfect paragraph, one that beautifully sums up the character and situation, all the while being witty, insightful, and concise and try as one might, it can’t be worked into the context of the story in progress. I once crafted this opening paragraph:

Aaron Slaughter was appropriately named. He was born bad and grew up mean and never did a kind turn for anyone, from the moment the doctor slapped him on the butt to the day they strapped him in the electric chair and put forty thousand volts through him. I was there that day, and while I’m not normally the sort of person to enjoy watching another human being die, I made an exception in Aaron’s case. See, I’m the man who put him there.

As happy as I am with the paragraph, I have never found a use for it in anything I’ve written.

What’s worse than being unable to use good material is having to remove it after fitting it into a work. Editing is actually where the real work of writing begins. Few writers are able to set words onto paper exactly the way they will eventually be finalized. I tend to be an organic writer and once I get into a work, the words flow with no rhyme or reason. Editing is crucial to my process, because when I’m writing, my only concern is getting the thoughts into words. As the work grows, a pattern begins to emerge and I can start rearranging paragraphs, adding and deleting lines until the piece says what I want in the way I want it said. Along the way, lots of favorite lines and phrases get cast aside.

Removing material does not mean the material is bad, just as rejection of a manuscript or play doesn’t mean the writing is lousy. It simply means the material does not work with the piece as a whole. I wrote an entire section for my novel The Long-Timers in which the main character was brought before the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, which did not make it into the finished work. When I reworked the novel into A Tale of Two Sisters, however, I found a place for the material again. Oftentimes, material that doesn’t fit in one work, may be just what’s lacking in another.

As writers, we learn to maintain journals or files of ideas and phrases which may someday make it into a story or play. Carrying around miniature computers in our pockets makes this task easier. I like to retain text files of everything I remove from a story or play, since I may find a use for it somewhere else, and since Acrobat allows for editing marks, I’m now able to preserve drafts of works in progress. In some cases, I’ve taken bits and pieces of excised material to fill out or enhance a different work, or borrowed scenes from one play to use in another.

Still, cutting scenes or paragraphs from a work isn’t easy. “They’re my babies,” a writer might say. “I can’t kill them!” If one is to evolve as a writer, however, it’s a skill one must master. At one time, a publisher would pair an author with an editor who would take on the harsh process of excising passages, but with independent authors publishing their own work, a professional editor is often a luxury one simply cannot afford. It becomes the writer’s responsibility to make the necessary cuts.

Obviously, no one will be seriously harmed if a novel, story, or play is a few hundred words shorter than the author initially conceived it. The goal is always to convey the most ideas with the fewest words. As authors, we must continually strive to improve the craft and say what we mean as succinctly as possible, even if it means killing a few of our babies.

Minds of Their Own

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I saw a film talking about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which contained a quote from Ibsen on why Nora leaves at the end. While I don’t recall the exact quote, he essentially said that once he knew the character, he knew leaving was her only course of action. At the time, I recall disagreeing, believing that since he was the writer, he could make the characters do whatever he wanted. I now have a clearer understanding of what he meant.

When I was working on my novel The Long-Timers, which is the basis for my current series The Long-Timer Chronicles, my intention was for Charles and Renee Fox, a couple who have been married for more than eleven hundred years, and who were once members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, to be the main characters. I also created a secondary character, who was murdered by someone posing as Jack the Ripper, who would come back to life and provide a subplot for the main story about the Foxes. Once I started writing, the character who started out as Vickie Seely and became Victoria Wells, began to grow and develop until she completely took over the whole story. Charles and Renee are still very important characters, and the focus of the second book in my series, called Crazy Like the Foxes, but in the original novel, Victoria Wells was definitely the main character and the main focus of the book. She’s also one of my favorite characters that I’ve created.

Writing is a process of discovery for the writer, and as a work progresses, the characters sometimes take on minds of their own. This was certainly the case with Victoria, who started out as a victim, but grew into a strong and independent woman perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Charles and Renee are, largely, the way I initially envisioned them, but since I started with a blank slate with Victoria, she grew along with the novel and finding new facets of her character was one of the great joys of writing the book. What I ended with was certainly not what I imagined when I began writing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

The same has been true of other characters I’ve created. In my full length play, Rebecca, Too, which started out as a script for a short film that was never produced, the title character of Rebecca didn’t even appear in the earliest draft I wrote. When I sat down to expand the short script into a full-length play, I had a lot of notes I’d written on what Rebecca does, but not who she is. As she developed, her character took on new and sometimes dark aspects, all part of becoming a fully formed individual — on paper at least. As writers, we should not be afraid to let our characters become who they should become. We should abandon our preconceptions and constantly ask ourselves is this action true to who he or she is and are there aspects I’m missing?

I would imagine the process is akin to becoming a parent. When a child is born, parents have ideas about how they’d like the child to develop, or the type of person he or she should grow into. As the child matures, however, new aspects of his or her character may emerge the parent wasn’t expecting. The challenge is knowing when to intervene, to correct potentially damaging behaviors or attitudes, and when to step back and allow the child to discover his or her own path in life. This notion is tied to the general human tendency to categorize and define those with whom we associate, making judgments on how a person thinks and feels, based solely on his or her outward behavior. Scratch the surface and a completely different individual may emerge, which is why someone can have a friend one has known since childhood, without ever realizing that person enjoys ballroom dancing or can speak multiple languages.

As a writer, one should never be afraid to explore aspects of a character that diverge from one’s initial notion of who the character is. As a person, one should never simply assume that those with whom one associates share the same beliefs or have the same attitudes as oneself. Sometimes friendship or courtesy may dictate that another person hides aspects of his or her character, believing them to be uncomfortable or potentially disruptive to the friendship. The challenge for us, as individuals, is to be willing to see those we call friends as they truly are, not simply as we would like them to be. While we may learn truths we find discomforting, we may also be laying the groundwork for an even deeper and more meaningful friendship. We all have minds of our own. We should learn to appreciate the fact that those around us do as well and not be afraid to look beyond the outward facade. Who knows what we might discover?

A Tale of Two Sisters Animated Graphic

A Tale of Two Sisters Animated GraphicThe Long-Timer Chronicles: A Tale of Two Sisters, available at Amazon in print and Kindle format. http://amazon.com/author/gmlupo