Leah and Dottie

Ballet Olympia, SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker enters her dorm room at Wellesley College and sets her backpack onto a chair. It’s her freshman year, and her roommate, Heather, is visiting family for several days, so Leah’s looking forward to having the room to herself for a long weekend. Leah’s average height, with shoulder-length auburn hair, and steel-blue eyes. She’s wearing her usual attire of baggie warmup shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an oversized MIT sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She drops her keys onto the nightstand and takes a package of red Solo cups from the top drawer, removes one cup, and replaces the rest. From behind the nightstand, she takes out a bottle of Merlot she bought at a package store in Boston which never checks ID, unscrews the top, and pours half a cup. 

Leah’s from Atlanta, and Wellesley is her first time living away from her family. She continued to live in her family’s home in Buckhead after the family moved to Lawrenceville just before the start of her senior year at Pace Academy, but Leah doesn’t count that, since her father, Paxton, was there off and on throughout the week. Leah had objected to the long commute, and both her parents deemed her responsible enough to go it alone for the remaining time before graduation. Since Paxton still had business in town during the week, he would stay at the house evenings when he needed to be at the office early. Leah viewed it as an opportunity to get closer to her father, with whom she’d always had a tense and distant relationship. Unfortunately, the best they managed was a sort of détente, where they’d exchange a few words going or coming, or, a bit of conversation if Paxton happened to be around in the living room while Leah was working on a school assignment. 

She sits on her bed, takes a sip of wine, and picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gift from Marla Prentice, an instructor in one of Leah’s core Humanities classes, and with whom Leah’s been spending a lot of time lately. Starting her second week at school, Leah found herself involved in a rather passionate relationship with Marla, which started nearly the moment she entered class, and fell under Marla’s scrutiny. After class, Marla made a point of striking up a conversation with Leah. Marla’s a few inches taller than Leah, and several years older, with a trim, athletic build, and jet black hair, that’s very long, and which she wears in dreads. She always wears short, dark dresses, over tights in various colors, with clogs. Her complexion gives Leah the impression that Marla’s of mixed race, though Leah can’t tell which races went into the mix. Marla’s very economical in the facts she shares about herself. She speaks and moves with a frenetic energy, which Leah finds infectious. They ran into one another a short while later, on a smoke break before lunch, and Marla invited Leah to join her for a bite. They ended up back at Marla’s apartment, just off campus, where things got very heated very quickly. Over the next week, their afternoon dalliances progressed into an intense physical relationship, which surprised Leah, as she’s never before entertained ideas of being involved with another woman. 

The situation excites and troubles Leah, who finds the intimacy thrilling, but wonders what it all means. Throughout high school, she had the usual teen relationships, occasional dates with guys she knew from math class or science club, who’d take her out after school, or sometimes evenings, often with other computer geeks like her, and she had a number of girls she spent time with in school and out, or with whom she played on the lacrosse or softball teams, but she’d never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with any of them, male or female, nor could she recall ever having crushes on any of her female teachers, regardless of how attractive they’d been. It worries her that she could be so unaware of such an important aspect of her personality, and wonders what else she might have missed. A few days into the relationship, Leah decided she needed advice from someone more worldly.

She has a great relationship with her mother, Melinda, but she’s not sure how her mother will react to Leah potentially being a lesbian, so, for advice, she decided to sound out her aunt Margaret on the matter. Since childhood, Margaret has been an important influence on Leah, second only to Melinda, with whom Margaret’s been friends since college. Like Leah, Margaret is a first-born daughter, who’s two years older than Paxton, and it was Margaret who introduced Paxton to Melinda when Leah’s mother was still in college. Melinda had traveled to Atlanta from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Agnes Scott, with the intention of being a teacher, but instead met and married Paxton Walker. As she was getting started back at school, she discovered she was pregnant with Leah, and put her dreams of teaching on hold. Leah has always harbored a bit of guilt, knowing that she prevented her mother from finishing school, but Melinda’s always maintained a cheerful and upbeat attitude about it, telling Leah she’ll head back to school once Alyssa, Leah’s baby sister, who’s twelve years younger, is out of the house. 

Leah phoned Margaret and wasted little time in getting to the point. 

“Margaret, have you ever been with another woman?” Leah asked. 

“In what sense do you mean that?” Margaret said, a bit of discomfort evident in her voice. 

“Seriously?” Leah said. “What sense do you think?”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Well, if that’s what you mean, then no.”

“Have you thought about it?” Leah said.

“Hmm, let me guess,” Margaret said, “you’re asking because you’ve either thought about it, or—”

“No, I’m way beyond thinking about it, at this point,” Leah said.

“I see. Well. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” Leah said.

“Then what’s the problem?” Margaret asked. “If you had a good time, where’s the harm?”

“But what does it mean?” Leah said.

“Why does it have to mean something?” Margaret said.

“I guess it doesn’t have to,” Leah said. “It just usually does.”

“Look, you didn’t go blind and you weren’t struck by lightning were you?” Margaret asked

“Not yet.”

“Then, we can assume the universe is okay with it,” Margaret said.

“I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” Leah said, “I mean, I like her, but I don’t think either of us is interested in a real relationship.”

“Is it ongoing?” Margaret asked.

“As of right now, it is,” Leah said.

“Then go with it,” Margaret said. “See where it leads. I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I don’t know how I’d respond. You went away to college to learn, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, part of that is learning about yourself,” Margaret said. “You have an excellent opportunity to explore who you are without the glare of your family judging your every move. Take advantage of that.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Margaret.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” Margaret said. “Let me know how things turn out.”

Leah leans back on her bed and resumes reading the book. She manages about five pages when her reading is interrupted by the sound of someone pounding insistently on the door. An unfamiliar voice follows the first round of pounding. “Open this door, you bitch!”

The pounding resumes.

Leah puts down the book and cautiously approaches the door.

“Who is it?” she says.

“I said open this door,” the voice says, “I’m going to kick your ass, you slut.”

Whoever’s outside sounds drunk. 

Leah looks at Heather’s bed, then says, “Are you here to kick the ass of a brunette or a redhead? Cause the brunette isn’t here.”

There’s a long pause, before, “Kind of reddish brown. Not a brunette.”

“Perfect,” Leah says to herself.

She considers calling campus security, but decides against it. As the next round of pounding begins, she quickly pulls open the door. A young woman, about Leah’s age and height, with curly, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a short, polka dotted dress and slip-on sneakers, comes tumbling into the room. She falls to her hands and knees and seems somewhat confused. Leah takes the opportunity to grab her roommate’s umbrella, which she brandishes as a weapon.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Leah says to the woman. “Apart from what you’ve already stated.”

“I said I’m going to kick your ass, you bitch,” the woman says as she struggles to get her footing and rise. She looks up at Leah, then says, “Yeah. You.” She looks around for something to hold onto. At last, she pulls herself up on a table and stands up straight, but swaying, as she confronts Leah. She’s wearing a slight amount of makeup, but it’s gotten splotchy from crying. Leah holds the umbrella in front of her as she speaks. 

“Okay, I gather that you’re pissed about something,” Leah says. “Why don’t we start with your name. Who are you?”

“I’m Dottie,” the woman says. “Dorothy, actually, but most people call me Dottie.”

“Okay — ah — Dottie,” Leah says, still brandishing the umbrella. “I’m Leah — or do you already know that?”

“How the hell should I know what your name is?” Dottie says.

“You showed up at my door wanting to beat me up,” Leah says, “I assume you’d know my name. What’s this about?”

“It’s about Marla,” Dottie says. 

“Marla Prentice? What about her?”

Dottie begins to reply, but suddenly throws her hand over her mouth and starts to heave. Leah hurriedly points to the bathroom. Dottie quickly stumbles in and kicks the door closed. Leah can hear her vomiting. She puts down the umbrella and sits on her bed until she hears the sounds subside. At last, the toilet flushes, followed by the sound of water running in the sink. This goes on for several minutes before Dottie returns to the room, far more subdued than when she left. Leah motions to Heather’s bed and Dottie sits.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” Leah says. “You want to kick my ass and it has something to do with Marla.”

“You stole her from me,” Dottie says. “She won’t return my calls. Then I saw you with her at our coffee shop.”

“Coffee shop?” Leah says. “You mean Sandusky’s? I took her there.”

“You did?” Dottie says. “She said it was our special place.”

“Yeah, she sort of told me the same thing after our first visit,” Leah says. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Right after classes started,” Dottie says. “About a month after I got here.”

“So did I,” Leah says. An idea occurs to her. “Did she take you to The Jewel of the Nile?”

Dottie nods. “The night we first—”

Leah holds up her hand. “Same here.”

“Why aren’t you upset?” Dottie says. “I just confirmed I’ve been sleeping with Marla. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really,” Leah says. “I haven’t figured out exactly what our relationship is yet. I take it you feel a bit more committed?”

“I haven’t felt this way before,” Dottie says. “I was all ready to tell my family I’m gay and she ditches me. Told me I’m getting too serious. I figured there was someone else, so I followed her. That’s where I saw you.”

“Meaning you must have followed me here,” Leah says. 

“Yesterday,” Dottie says. “It took me all afternoon to get up the courage to come over.”

“Speaking of which,” Leah says. “How much did you drink?”

“Bottle, bottle and a half,” Dottie says. She notices the book and points to it. “I suppose she gave you that.”

“She did.”

“I gave it to her,” Dottie says. 

Leah picks it up and looks at the spine. “You’re DG? She said it was on the book when she bought it.”

Dottie nods. “Dorothy Gage.”

“Isn’t that the person in The Wizard of Oz?” Leah says. 

“Oh, that’s original,” Dottie says. “Her name is Dorothy Gale. Don’t change the subject.”

“What makes you think I stole Marla from you?” Leah says. “Sounds to me like she’s been leading us both on.”

“Yeah, it’s starting to look that way,” Dottie says. “There’s this girl in my English Lit class who said she had an affair with Marla last year. I didn’t want to believe her, but then I saw the two of you together.”

“Why didn’t you confront Marla?” Leah says. 

“I tried, but she’s not at her apartment,” Dottie says. 

Leah shakes her head. “She’s never there on the weekend. Hmm. This makes me wonder where she goes.”

Dottie looks down. “Would you mind if I just lie down for a minute or two?” 

“You’re not going to throw up again are you? I doubt Heather would like that, and I don’t feel like cleaning up after you.”

“God, I hope not,” Dottie replies. She lies on her side, and pulls her knees up, crossing her arms in front of her.

“I suppose you can kick my ass when you wake up,” Leah says.

“Maybe,” Dottie says as she drifts off.

Leah continues reading while Dottie sleeps. She’s still asleep when Leah goes to bed. The following morning, Dottie is awake and very embarrassed by her behavior. Leah treats Dottie to breakfast at the nearest cafe, and they have a long talk, where they discover a lot of common interests. Leah is fluent in most of the European languages, owing to her family’s many visits to the continent as she was growing up, and she’s pleased to learn Dottie is as well. They switch to speaking German to keep people from eavesdropping on them as they decide what to do about Marla. By the time they part ways, they’ve developed a plan of action. 

A few days later, Leah is sitting with Marla at the coffee shop. They’re discussing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

“Take that lesson to heart,” Marla tells her. “Men are not to be trusted.”

“They certainly didn’t come off very well in the book,” Leah says. 

“Have you read any of Dworkin’s work?” Marla says.

“Andrea Dworkin? I’ve heard of her.”

Marla suddenly focuses on something over Leah’s shoulder and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this.”

“What is it?” Leah says. She looks to see Dottie seated at the lunch counter, wearing dark glasses, situated where she has a good view of Leah and Marla. 

“Nothing,” Marla says. “Just this student who’s been giving me a hard time over a grade.” Marla rises. “Excuse me just a minute.”

She goes over and confronts Dottie in low tones. While she’s gone, Leah slides over and picks up Marla’s bag. She checks to be sure Marla isn’t looking, then she pulls out Marla’s wallet and checks her driver’s license and credit cards. Finished, she replaces the wallet, and puts the bag back where it was. She moves back to her chair, and makes an okay sign to Dottie, who abruptly breaks off her argument with Marla, gathers her things, and storms out. 

“I’m really sorry about that,” Marla says when she returns to the table. “I failed her on a test and she’s been stalking me ever since.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. “Say, where do you disappear to on the weekends?”

“Where did this come from all of a sudden?” Marla says.

“I’m just curious,” Leah says. “I figured you must be sneaking off to some cozy little bed and breakfast to write and might want some company.”

Marla laughs. “Trust me, if I was, you’d be the first one I’d call.” She reaches over and places her hand on Leah’s. “I’m free for the next hour. Want to swing by my place?”

“I’d love to,” Leah says, “but I have a midterm in chemistry coming up. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

“You’re on,” Marla says. They talk for a few minutes before Leah insists she needs to go. Marla walks her to the door and they part with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then head off in different directions. Leah walks about half a block, then checks to be sure Marla is far enough away, then ducks down a side street and circles back to the rear of the coffee shop, where she finds Dottie seated on the back deck. Leah sits with her.

“Anything?” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “Her license has her campus address. But it did have a different name, Marla Rogan.”

“Rogan?” Dottie says. “That kind of takes some of the luster off.”

Leah leans forward and says confidentially, “Know anyone who works for the university? If I can get on the computer network, I can probably hack into payroll and find out where they’re mailing her checks.”

“Actually, I do,” Dottie says, “and she spends a lot of time away from her desk.” She rises. “Come on.”

Several hours later, they’re back at Leah’s dorm room with new information.

“Shrewsbury,” Dottie says. “Figures she’d live someplace called Shrewsbury.”

“She’s also listed as Mrs. Marla Rogan in payroll,” Leah says. 

“I can’t believe you got in so easily,” Dottie says. “How’d you know Barb’s password?”

“I didn’t,” Leah says. “I took the chance she used ‘password’ and it worked.”

“So, what next?”

Leah grins. “Marla has classes all morning. How about a trip to Shrewsbury?”

Dottie laughs. “So, I wonder what the husband of the ultimate feminist looks like?”

“Only one way to find out,” Leah says. 

The following morning they hop into Leah’s Karmann Ghia, which Margaret loaned her as she headed off to college, and drove to the address in Shrewsbury, where Marla’s paychecks are being sent. Parked out in front of the brownstone, Dottie says, “You think this is a good idea?”

“Probably not, but I don’t see a lot of options,” Leah replies. “If we just ignore her, she’ll keep doing this.”

“I mean, rather than the dumping part, I did have a good time,” Dottie says.

“Same here,” Leah says. “But she’s taking advantage of impressionable girls when they’re least equipped to handle it.”

“Right,” Dottie says. “We’re just taking a stand. That’s all.”

“Right,” Leah says. She holds up her hand and Dottie grips it and nods.

“Let’s do this,” Dottie says.

They get out and walk up to the door. Dottie rings the bell. A few moments later, a child can be heard yelling, followed by the locks being unlocked. A thin man, probably just under six feet tall, with short blonde hair and tanned, leathery skin, opens the door.

“Yes?” he says. “How may I help you?”

He speaks with the precise phrasing that’s reminisent of someone who’s first language isn’t English, but Leah cannot detect any recognizable accent.

“Hi,” she says, “are you Mr. Rogan?”

“I’m Lance Rogan, yes,” the man says. 

“I’m Dorothy,” Dottie says, “this is Leah. We’re — ah — friends of Marla’s.”

“Ah, yes,” Lance says. “Marla’s not here currently. I believe she’s teaching today.”

“We know,” Leah says. We’re not here to speak with her.”

“More to speak about her,” Dottie adds.

“I don’t understand,” Lance says. He opens the outer security door. “Please come in.”

As they enter, Leah notes a black woman, wearing a uniform and holding the hand of a small boy.

“Nina, would you take Alexander to the play room?” Lance says to her. 

“Of course, Mr. Rogan,” Nina says in what sounds, to Leah, like a Jamaican accent. 

“Please have a seat in here,” Lance says, directing the women to the living room. “Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Water would be great,” Dottie says, to which Leah nods.

Leah and Dottie sit on the couch. A moment later, Lance returns with a pitcher and two glasses on a tray which he sets on the coffee table in front of them. He takes a seat in a leather chair facing them. 

“Now, how may I help you ladies?” he says. “You say this is about Marla?”

Leah and Dottie look at one another and Leah says, “Mr. Rogan, there’s probably no easy way to say this, but Dorothy and I have been — involved with Marla.”

Lance continues to look at them displaying no emotion. “I see. Why have you brought this information to me? Are you here for money?”

“Oh, no. No. Nothing like that,” Dottie says.

Leah slides to the edge of the couch. “She’s right. We’re here because we feel we’ve been taken advantage of and we wanted to let you know.”

“Please, tell me your stories,” Lance says.

First Dottie, then Leah tells Lance about their relationships with Marla. Throughout both stories, his expression does not change, nor does he display any reaction, other than to occasionally nod. When Leah finishes her story, they sit for a long moment in silence.

Finally, Lance says, “What is it you wish me to do about this? That is, if you are certain you’re not here for money.”

“We don’t exactly know,” Leah says. “To be honest, we didn’t really think this part through very well before coming here.”

“I see,” Lance says with the hint of a smile. “Well, I do not wish to share intimate details of my marriage, since I know nothing about either of you. However I will say that I am aware Marla has certain needs that I’m not able to address. If you have been harmed in any way I apologize.” He rises. “I’ll have a talk with her when she gets in this evening, and we’ll decide together how best to handle this situation.”

He motions toward the door. Leah and Dottie rise and follow him back to the front door.

“I trust you will be making no further trips to visit us?” he says.

Leah and Dottie look at one another.

“Definitely not,” Dottie says. Leah concurs.

“Very good,” Lance says. “I will appreciate your continued discretion on this matter, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Leah says.

“You ladies have an nice afternoon,” Lance says as he lets them out.

Back in the car, Dottie says, “What just happened in there?”

“I have no idea,” Leah says. “Let’s get lunch somewhere.”

“You’re on.”

The following day, when Leah shows up for her Humanities class, Marla isn’t there. The instructor filling in for her explains that Marla has taken a leave of absence for “family reasons”. Neither Leah, nor Dottie, see or hear from her again.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dottie says as she and Leah are lying on the bed in her dorm room. “You think she’s okay?”

“Hard to tell,” Leah says. “That’s an odd family.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Dottie says. “I have this feeling you and I are going to get into lots of trouble together.”

“I think you’re right,” Leah says. “Still planning on telling your famly you’re gay?”

“Nah, I’ve gone back to questioning,” Dottie says. “Why limit myself? My family can figure it out on their own.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leah says.

“Hey,” Dottie says, sitting up. “What do you think about getting an apartment?”

“Now?”

“No,” Dottie says, “over the summer. You know, just stick around Boston instead of going home.”

“Summer’s a long way off,” Leah says.

“I know. But it doesn’t hurt to plan,” Dottie says. “If we strike at the right time, we could get a great deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know real estate,” Leah says. “My father’s the man who gave Atlanta its suburban sprawl.”

“Good to know,” Dottie says.

From that point on, not a day goes by that they don’t spend time together. As summer comes along, they move off campus into a nice apartment. 

Atlanta Stories Available August 1


Coming soon! Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South. Eight stories about people coming to Atlanta to reinvent themselves. Stories include:

  1. Mockingbird 
  2. Journey From Night
  3. A Debt to Pay
  4. Dead Man’s Hat
  5. Remains 
  6. Bare-Assed Messiah 
  7. Atomic Punk
  8. Phoenix 

Release date: August 1.

Available at online bookstores and direct from the author. 

Inferno, Christine


Zachariah made it clear to Selma that caring for the baby did not take priority over her responsibilities as a wife, so often, Christine was neglected as Selma saw to the needs of her husband. Despite this, Christine thrived, always large for her age. Doctors who examined her thought she was several months older than she actually was and sometimes insisted on seeing her birth certificate to confirm. As she grew, she spent much time with her uncle Alvin’s family in another county whenever her father would declare he was tired of looking at her and as Christine gained awareness of her situation, she was thankful for the warm and loving environment her uncle provided, versus the cold and cruel confines of her father’s house. On numerous occasions, Alvin insinuated that he and his family would be happy to let Christine stay with them on a permanent basis, but Zachariah always said no.

“The girl’s my responsibility,” he’d say. He never called Christine by name, always calling her “the girl” or just “girl” when addressing her directly.

One person who took a lot of interest in Christine was Deacon Frederick, who was his usual warm and accepting self. In Christine’s case, he was especially so, and always had a piece of peppermint candy for her, and took a genuine delight in whatever story she would tell. Christine came to wish that Deacon Frederick was her father and that she could go live in his fine house in town, rather than the modest and unadorned household her mother maintained at Zachariah’s insistence. For his part, Deacon Frederick always felt a closeness to Christine that was different than what he felt for all the other children in the congregation. He frequently scolded Messner for not showing more affection toward his daughter.

“You got you a fine little girl there, Zachariah,” Frederick said once. “It’s just not right to treat her like you do.”

“The Lord has given me this burden to endure and I shall endure it as I see fit,” was Messner’s reply.

Whenever Frederick would raise the issue with Selma, she would get quiet and change the subject quickly.

“He’s my husband,” she’d say of Zachariah. “I must yield to his judgment.”

At age thirteen, Christine was considered awkward and pudgy, with full, rosy cheeks, very long feet and short, dark hair. Zachariah rarely spent any money on her, other than for food and what he paid for upkeep on their house. He especially didn’t want to waste funds on things she’d only outgrow in a year or so, so her clothing was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs from kindly neighbors with older kids, or tidbits Selma picked up at the local thrift shop for less than a dollar. The kids at school often teased her about her clothes, but despite this, Christine remained outwardly cheerful and friendly, often laughing along with the other kids, though sometimes when she was alone, she’d cry because of their taunting. Her best friend was Jodie Newcombe, and Christine often spent the afternoon at Jodie’s home, studying and doing their homework, since Zachariah forbade her from reading anything other than the Bible under his roof.

In school, Christine was mostly studious and polite, but in one class, English, she earned a reputation for being disruptive, prompting her teacher, Mr. Standridge, to keep her after school a lot. Mr. Standridge noticed, however, that when Christine was in detention, she never acted out, but was always polite and courteous.

“Is it okay if I read, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked the first time she showed up after school.

“You may work on your assignments, Christine,” he replied. “That’s fine.”

“No. I was hoping I can read some of them books on that shelf,” she said, pointing to the literary works he assigned to the older students.

“If you’d like,” he said.

For the next few days, Christine would report for detention, and sit, quietly reading books from the shelf. The rate at which she finished them astonished Mr. Standridge, who began to recognize a pattern.

“Christine, can I ask you a question?” he asked her one afternoon.

“Yes sir, Mr. Standridge.”

“Why are you always acting up in my class?” he says. “I’ve spoken to the other teachers and they say you’re a model student in their classes. Why not mine?”

Christine lowered her head. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Standridge. I just wanted to read some of your books and figured if you kept me after class, I could.”

“If you like to read, I can loan you the books.”

“No sir. My father don’t want me reading at the house.”

“You can’t read at home?”

“No sir. My father only lets me read the Bible at home. I have to leave my book bag at my friend Jodie’s at night. He won’t even let me bring my school books in.”

“I’ll tell you what, Christine,” Standridge said, “I’ll let you come here in the afternoon and read all you want. You can tell your parents whatever you need to as to why you stayed after school. I won’t count it against you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Standridge,” Christine said, very excited.

From then on, Christine was a regular presence in Mr. Standridge’s classroom after school. While she normally would greet him when she entered, read for a while, then say goodbye as she exited, sometimes they’d have brief conversations. He came to enjoy having her there, and admired her studiousness.

“Is that your family?” Christine asked about a photo on his desk.

“It is. My mom and dad, brother Rex, and sister Claire.”

“You still close with your sister?”

“I was. She died when we were children,” he said.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Christine said. “Was she in an accident or something?”

“No, she had a rare heart condition. Now they have a surgery that might have saved her, but they hadn’t developed it back then. Such a shame.”

“Bet you miss her.”

“I do, Christine. Very much.”

“Why ain’t you married, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked.

“Aren’t, Christine. The proper way to say that is, ‘Why aren’t you married’.”

Christine laughed. “Okay, Mr. Standridge. Why aren’t you married? I mean, you’re a good-looking guy. Lot of the older girls got crushes on you.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”

“Not every man is marriage material Christine. I’m still young, though, so, who knows?”

Inferno, The Birth of Christine 


Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy. 

When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come. 

She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home. 

In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust. 

See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy. 

Inferno 


Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.

In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.

In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.

The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.

At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.

“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”

“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s right.”

Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.

Mockingbird, Brian

Mockingbird Title Image
Brian Sanger sits in the Starbucks at 1776 Peachtree Street, halfway through a venti, black, dark-roast, Ethiopian coffee, and an almond scone, and looks over a piece of music he’s composing. He typically prefers Caribou to Starbucks, but has no car, since his was totaled in an accident early the previous year, and doesn’t live close enough to the Caribou at Ansley to pop in whenever he feels like it, plus, he’s hooked on the Blue Note blend his friend, Claire Belmonte, convinced him to try a week or so before. He can easily walk from his apartment to the Starbucks on Peachtree, near Coach and Six where he works as a maitre’d, so he stops in every few days to stock up on coffee, try out whatever dark roast they’ve brewed up that day, and work on his music. Certain days, Claire joins him if she’s worked a club nearby.

When Brian arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were in the middle of their “worst to first” season and the city had won the privilege of hosting the Olympics the previous year. While he never considered himself much of a sports fan, aside from high school football games he had to attend with the band, he found himself getting caught up in the fervor surrounding the team, but usually couldn’t afford to attend games, instead watching them when they were on the television at bars he inhabited. He was glad the Major League strike ended the previous season and is happy to be supporting the team again.

In addition to becoming a baseball fan, Brian has spent much of his first first few years in town familiarizing himself with the gay scene in Atlanta and it was here he met Claire, who had gone to work as a bartender at his favorite hangout as soon as she turned twenty-one in ’94. She explained that she’d been working as a waitress in restaurants and bars while attending junior college and had grown tired of the men hitting on her. In gay clubs, they either left her alone, or chatted her up on the topics of the day while she mixed their drinks. Plus, she found, the older men left better tips.

Almost as if on cue, Claire enters and looks around. Spotting Brian, she gives a quick nod, then stops at his table. Brian regards her as a rather formidable woman, very close to his own height of six foot three inches, and well-proportioned, with long dark hair she usually pulls back, especially if she’s working. Today, she’s letting it flow freely. She doesn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty, but Brian still considers her extremely attractive, with expressive brown eyes and a charming smile she only displays to those she knows well. To everyone else, she’s an ice princess.

“What are you having?” Claire asks.

“Today’s dark roast.”

She seems less than enthused and dumps her bag onto the seat beside Brian and goes to check out the pastry counter.

Claire has a non-distinct “Atlanta” accent, which she’s worked hard to cultivate since she arrived there as a teen, but when she and Brian are together, she ditches it in favor of her original middle Georgia vernacular. She grew up less than fifty miles west of where Brian had been raised, far enough away for it to take coming to Atlanta for them to meet. Claire has quite a complicated past, which she’s been gradually revealing to Brian as he gains her trust. He knows she came from a deeply religious family and can easily imagine what that meant for a young woman coming of age in rural Georgia. Her difficulty in trusting people tells him much of the story. Learning more about what Claire has experienced deepens his conviction to bring his sister Charlotte to Atlanta when she finishes high school, hoping to spare her from the fate of their two sisters, already married and starting families.

Brian is the oldest and only son in his family, raised mostly by their mother after his father died in an accident at the agricultural plant where he’d worked most of his adult life. Brian sang in the choir at his church and was the drum major in his high school marching band, as well as playing in the brass section. He’s also accomplished on the piano and organ. When she was a toddler, Charlotte would sit nearby while he was practicing, enrapt by the music. When she got older, and began exhibiting signs of echolalia, Brian worked with her to help her try to communicate and would intercede when one of their siblings or a kid from school made fun of her. When she started writing lyrics as a teenager, Brian set them to music. His background in music and his involvement in their church made it almost inevitable that he’d be approached about taking over the choir when Gladys Phelps, the previous director, retired at age ninety. It was here where Brian gained the attention of Todd, the son of their pastor, Kenneth Williams.

Growing up, Brian had been in several relationships with much older men, usually under the guise of taking private music lessons or performing odd jobs inside the house, always with the utmost discretion, given that these men had far more to lose than him. Todd was the first person close to Brian’s age who had shown any interest in him, and Brian didn’t know how to interpret that, given that Todd was married and had two little girls at home. Todd had been relentless in his pursuit, however, and finally coaxed Brian into a clandestine relationship, which was mostly carried out at Todd’s house on days when his wife was out running errands or attending church functions. Brian suggested that it might not be the best idea to have their encounters at Todd’s home, but Todd insisted they’d have complete privacy. This proved to be wrong when Todd’s wife, Myra Lynn, showed up unexpectedly, after her women’s devotional group ended early, having found the book of Revelation too cryptic to be digested in a two-hour lunchtime conversation. After most of the screaming and yelling had devolved into tears and apologies, during which time Brian hastily pulled on his clothes, he bowed politely to the couple and excused himself with, “I’ll just be on my way now.”

Two hours later, when the call came from Pastor Williams, Brian had already written his letter resigning as choir director, and packed his bags, and loaded up his car, since he knew it was probably best not to stick around. He gave his mother a somewhat expanded explanation about what had happened after she’d already heard an abbreviated version from the pastor, and left a letter for Charlotte, letting her know he’d stay in touch, and renewing his promise to bring her to Atlanta when she graduated. Once his meeting with the pastor was concluded, he hit I-16 west toward Macon, and from there, took I-75 north to Atlanta.

Secrets, Lies, and Home Invasions 

 Non-descript row of houses

Travis Maudlin is a man of many quirks and peculiarities, much of which he keeps to himself, though some of his oddities can’t be so easily contained. On more than one occasion, his coworkers have noted his habit of muttering to himself under his breath; his almost pathological refusal to use anyone’s name in conversation; his notable discomfort whenever anyone gets closer than three or four feet from him, and his curious tendency to wear the same clothes over and over throughout the month, usually without washing them in between wearings. His colleagues in the technical support unit of the enterprise software division of Bickering Plummet Incorporated in Atlanta universally regard him as the quintessential loner, a “quiet man” who may one day snap and arrive at work in fatigues with something concealed under his jacket. They often express amazement at the fact that he is, in fact, married to a lovely, vivacious woman named Heidi, who, in all respects, is the total antithesis of her husband.

Those who refuse to scratch the surface of Travis’ demeanor have no idea of the dark and troubled man underneath. He, too, is surprised at his good fortune at winning a woman like Heidi, though he often regards their marriage as the proverbial double edged sword. Though she has always acted toward him with nothing but the utmost grace and charm, almost every aspect of her character seems designed to play upon his natural insecurities and paranoia. Again, he’s mostly able to keep the more undesirable of his tendencies to himself, but he cannot help but be totally unnerved by her superficial cheerfulness, her unflagging optimism, and her obsessive extroversion. There are no strangers around Heidi.

Perhaps his greatest fear is that he’ll return home one weekend and find that Heidi has invited one of those home improvement shows in to redesign a room for him. Nothing could be more galling to him than the thought of having a camera crew tramping around in his private life, cajoling Heidi to recount some lovable quirk or colorful tendency of his to win lovely prizes, while they systematically destroy some favorite refuge inside his castle, transforming it with a lousy paint job and cheap furnishings. He’ll hate the results but have to pretend he loves it because the cameras are rolling thus denying him expression of his true feelings about the indignity. This is not an irrational fear on his part, because Heidi is obsessed with the home improvement shows she sees on her favorite cable network, and spends far too much of her time watching them while Travis is at work.

This, my friends, is the painful reality of Travis Maudlin, and his life in the midst of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Careful readers will have already deduced that he is, in fact, who they believe him to be; he did do exactly what everyone remembers him as doing in much the manner that it has been recounted. What most don’t know is the sad tale underneath and that is the subject of this discourse, the forces that drove him to that tragic afternoon of September, 2005, to the pleasant neighborhood in Dunwoody where he shared a modest, but exceptionally comfortable home with Heidi, a dwelling which would forever after be inextricably linked with the While You Were Away Massacre.