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. 

Another Mother World Premiere in August

Artwork for Another Mother by G. M. Lupo, by Lauren Pallotta, featuring Rylee Bunton as Genevieve.

My play, Another Mother, will have its world premiere at the 2017 Essential Theatre Festival, which starts July 28. My play premieres August 4, at the West End Performing Arts Center, directed by Peter Hardy. Another Mother tells the story of Genevieve Duchard, a young woman who learns that the circumstances of her birth aren’t as she’s always believed them to be, and sets out to learn the truth. Tickets and Festival passes are available at the Essential Theatre’s website. Another Mother runs in repertory with Lauren Gunderson’s play, Ada and the Memory Engine, which begins July 28.

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.

Mockingbird 


Charlotte Sanger sits on a tree stump in the middle of the forest, leans back, closes her eyes, and breathes in the cool air, listening to the sounds around her. The sun has been up for more than an hour, and Charlotte was here to witness it. She likes the woods, away from everyone and everything, and sometimes sits for hours, thinking, sometimes singing, writing, or interacting with whatever woodland creature happens to cross her path. She’s developed a talent for attracting animals, being very still and non-threatening, in essence, waiting for them to come to her. She’s not very imposing, just a shade under five and a half feet tall, thin but well-fed, with long, strawberry blonde hair that reaches down her back to below her waist and which she often braids to make it more manageable.

In school, Charlotte is known as Echo, because of her disorder which causes her to repeat back words and phrases said to her, accompanied by various facial ticks and contortions. Her brothers and sisters started out calling her that around the house when she was little, but now many of her classmates also derisively refer to her that way. Her friends still call her Charlotte, but they’re few and mostly kids she’s known since nursery school who’ve grown accustomed to her odd behavior.

Her teachers are often annoyed by her disorder at first, but come to realize she’s very intelligent and studious. Ms. Warner, a math teacher, on her first day dealing with Charlotte, quickly became frustrated with her constant repetition.

“Are you mocking me, Charlotte?”

“Mocking, mocking, mock—” Charlotte replied. “N-no ma’am, Ms. Warner.”

Some of the other kids told Ms. Warner, “She can’t help it. It’s what she does.”

“Perhaps you should come to the board and work out these equations.”

Charlotte complied and got them all right, which impressed Ms. Warner. By the following class, she’d read up on echolalia and afterward, gave Charlotte a wide berth in class.

While Charlotte has trouble speaking, she has no trouble singing and sings in the choir at church, where hers is considered one of the most beautiful voices among the members. Her older brother, Brian, who had been the choir director, realized that Charlotte could sing phrases she had trouble speaking and had been working with her to learn how to “sing” responses rather than say them. As a result, she often has a rhythmic cadence to her speech, similar to someone rapping and sometimes she slips into singing words or phrases. Even still, she finds it hard to communicate and often shies away from people. What she likes best about the woods is that she doesn’t have to talk to anyone, and the animals she encounters don’t judge how she communicates with them.

Brian had to leave town the previous year due to an incident most town folk refuse to discuss openly, though Charlotte still hears whispers around her church and school. It had something to do with Tad Williams, the pastor’s son, and while her mother never said what it was, Charlotte knows Brian well enough and pretty much guessed at what had happened. She heard Tad is taking special classes with Pastor Williams, to learn how to be a better husband and father, which pretty much confirms everything Charlotte suspects. Brian is her favorite brother, and has always been her protector, and Charlotte misses him terribly, but he told her before he left that if she wants, she can come live with him in Atlanta when she graduates. That’s now less than a year away.

She leans back on her hands and sings the lyrics to a new song she’s been writing to the tune of a song she learned from the radio. Brian was the one who added music to her lyrics, another reason she misses him. She clears her head of all concerns and allows her mind to wander, allowing thoughts to drift in and out without letting them occupy too much of her consciousness. Nearby, she has her notebook, where she can write down any poems, stories, or new lyrics that come to her. While she’s good at most subjects at school, her favorite is English, and her teacher, Mr. Maynard, encourages her creative abilities. She channels everything she wants to say into her writing, routinely filling notebooks and journals with her words.

Her thoughts are interrupted by the sound of pine straw and twigs crunching. Something big is coming toward her, and Charlotte opens her eyes, expecting to see a deer, or a large dog. Instead a young man trudges into the clearing, looking like he has no idea where he is or how he got there. He’s at least six feet tall and well-built, wearing gym shorts and a varsity T-shirt, and jogging shoes. His dark hair is curly, and he’s clean shaven. Charlotte recognizes him as Ned Branch, the captain of her high school football team, and the most popular guy in her school. He stands in the clearing a moment, as though trying to get his bearings, then turns toward Charlotte, and, seeing her, he smiles. She’s at a loss for words.

“Oh, hey,” he says. “I’m not lost anymore.” He considers this. “Unless you’re lost. Then I guess we both are.”

Charlotte still cannot find words, and struggles to contain the impulse to repeat what he says.

“Was that you singing?” Ned asks.

Charlotte nods with her lips pressed tightly together.

“You sound real good,” he says. Approaching her, he goes on, “Hi, I’m Ned.”

Charlotte opens her mouth to respond, but all that comes out is, “I’m Ned. N-Ned. Ned.” She grimaces. Half-singing, “I’m Charlotte. Pleased to meet you, Ned.”

“Hey, I know who you are. You’re that girl they call Echo, right?”

“Echo, echo —” Charlotte makes an effort to control herself. “S-some people call me that.”

“You don’t like it, do you?”

She shakes her head.

“Then I won’t call you that, okay? Why are you out here in the woods?”

Charlotte looks away from him. In a mixture of speech and song, she says, “I like it here. It’s quiet. No one’s around.”

“Nobody but me, right?”

“W-why are you here?”

Ned shrugs and leans against a tree. “Coach said it might be good to go running in the woods. Said it heightens our awareness or something like that. Of course, I forgot my phone with all my tunes on it.”

“It-it’s better to keep your ears open. Y-you can hear the forest sounds around you. The birds. The animals moving around.”

He nods. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I wouldn’t want something sneaking upon me.” He strolls around the clearing. “What do you do out here all by yourself.”

“S-sing, write, think. S-sometimes I just listen.”

“Yeah, there is a lot of noise out here.”

“It’s the birds, mostly. S-sometimes squirrels. Sometimes other things. I thought you might be a deer at first.”

“That’d be something, wouldn’t it? What was the song you were singing?”

“J-just something I’m working on.”

“You wrote that?”

“The words. I d-don’t write music.”

“Can I hear it? I mean, I kind of already have, but can I hear more?”

Charlotte lowers her head. “If you want.”

“Sure.” Ned crouches down nearby.

Charlotte sings a few verses of her song, using the music from before. When she finishes, Ned claps. “You’re great. Have any others?”

Charlotte sings one she wrote with Brian. Ned seems to like it as well.

“You should get a recording contract. You’ve got a great voice.”

“Th-thanks.”

Ned rises and looks around. “You must know your way around out here.”

Charlotte nods.

“Think you could show me?” he says. “I was running around for nearly an hour before I heard you.”

“S-sure. I can do that.” She gathers her things and puts them in her bag and rises. “W-want to see the lake?”

“There’s a lake? Sure.”

Charlotte takes the lead, guiding Ned along a trail. As they move along, she moves her head left and right slowly, as though she’s looking for something.

“What are you doing?” Ned asks.

“L-listening.”

A short way on, she stops and holds up her hand. She focuses on something to her right, then points. Ned looks, but doesn’t see anything at first. Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, a deer appears, followed by two fawns. They wander around, nibbling on leaves and grass, before disappearing back into the woods.

“That was cool. I guess you do need to pay attention out here.”

They continue on until they arrive at the lake. Several ducks are on the shore, but as Charlotte and Ned approach, they start quacking and get into the water, swimming quickly toward the middle of the lake.

Charlotte and Ned sit on some rocks.

“This is nice,” he says. “I see why you like it out here.”

“Y-you’ve never been out here before?”

“No. I always played in the park downtown when I was a kid. Other than that, I’ve always been busy with practice and stuff. Plus I have to study a lot. I’m not doing all that great. Coach says if I can maintain my grades I could get a scholarship to UGA.”

“Y-you’re really good,” Charlotte says. “I thought we were going to lose that game last week but you threw that pass and brought us back.”

“Oh, I’m good. Coach says I’m the best QB he’s worked with but says football alone isn’t going to get me very far, not even in Georgia.”

“G-Georgia — Georgia,” Charlotte repeats.

“Why do you do that?” Ned asks. “I mean is there some medical explanation?”

“M-maybe. I’ve just always done it. Ever since I was little.”

“People at school tease you, right?”

“S-some do.”

“Tell you what. Next time kids at school start bothering you, let me know. I’ll stop ’em.”

Charlotte laughs. “Okay.”

They talk for more than an hour, then Charlotte leads Ned back to where he parked.

“Look me up on Monday,” he tells her. “Maybe you can help me with my homework.”

“Wh-what will your g-girlfriend say?”

“Cindy? She could use some help, too. Maybe you can teach us both something.”

A grey bird with a long tail lands on a bush nearby and begins singing.

“Mockingbird,” Ned says.

“Th-that’s right.”

“A family of them lives in a bush in our back yard. They repeat sounds from all these other birds and create their own special songs out of them. Kind of like you.”

Charlotte smiles.

“Take care of yourself, Charlotte. See you Monday.”

He gets in his car and drives away.

Charlotte turns her attention to the mockingbird, listening as it sings its song.

Worthy, Part 50 (Final)

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In late-October, Abigail receives an invitation for an interview at Emory Medical School scheduled for January. She once again consults Winn, who gives her an overview of what to expect. 

“Your grades are exceptional, your MCAT was in the top percentile, and you have professional experience in a clinic, not to mention your extracurricular activities. It might not seem like editing a book or playing music would matter for medical school, but it shows you’re a well-rounded individual and that you can multitask.”

“Great. How do I handle the interviews?”

“Be yourself. They want to get to know you. In my experience, they were more like conversations than straight Q&A sessions but it differs from school to school and between interviewers. They have certain things they want to know, but they’re more interested in how you conduct yourself, how you’ll fit in and adapt, how you perform under stress.” He leans forward and rubs her shoulder. “Don’t worry. They’re going to love you.”

Since she’s local, Abigail arranges to stay at Leah’s the two days she’s to be at Emory so she can better utilize public transportation. She hasn’t yet told her mother because Rhiannon is coming to town in early-November, and Abigail wants to tell her in person. Rhiannon has stated she wants to meet all the friends and family Abigail has connected with in the short time she’s been in town. Winn and Roger insist on hosting another party for them. Abigail requests that Rachel and Claire be included on the guest list as well as Gloria. Genevieve requests that Steven be added. 

In the meantime, Abigail, Genevieve, and Gloria continue to gather and edit Rebecca’s blog entries. Genevieve has noted several themes in Rebecca’s writing and proposes grouping them together accordingly which meets with the approval of the others. At length, they weed it down to fifty articles from which to choose, several of which are multi-part posts which they combine into single essays. They meet at Leah’s to hammer out the final selection and the ordering and to finalize a rough draft — Abigail feels they should be grouped by publication date, whereas Genevieve believes they should be grouped by theme. Gloria proposes a compromise, grouping them thematically, but ordering them by date, to which the cousins agree. At length, they settle on twenty-four articles for the first collection. Once the final rough draft is done, Gloria volunteers to work through it, editing for grammar, punctuation, and continuity, with Genevieve backing her up. For a title, they agree to use the name of Rebecca’s blog, The Frantic Feminist. 

Rhiannon arrives November 3 for a week-long stay, and books a room at the Hyatt Regency downtown where her conference will be. Abigail meets her there, and over dinner at the Polaris, the blue domed restaurant at the top of the Hyatt, she tells her mother about her interview with Emory. 

“I am so proud of you, kiddo,” Rhiannon says, putting her arm around Abigail and giving her a squeeze.

“Don’t you think I’m a little too old for you to call me that now?”

“Okay, how about Dr. Kiddo, then?”

“That’s better.”

Abigail spends the night in her mother’s hotel room, catching up on news of her grandmother, and friends from Seattle. The following evening they have dinner with Genevieve and Leah, and the evening is spent trading stories about Rosalind. Leah’s easily rival those of Rhiannon. Genevieve shares a few, but mostly listens. 

Abigail is surprised to learn of the educational resources available through her company. When she mentions to her supervisor that she hopes to attend medical school, she’s pointed to a host of programs Bickering Plummet provides to employees who want to pursue higher degrees. Since Abigail’s focus is on becoming a researcher rather than a practicing physician, that’s viewed as a potential asset to the company, and funds are available to assist. She begins to wonder if she’ll need the money Leah and Alyssa set aside for her. 

“I’ve never had so many people who wanted to just give me money before,” she confides in Rhiannon. “Plus Emory offers scholarships.”

“You’re worth it,” her mother says. “If you don’t think so, it’s time to start.”

At the party, Rhiannon hits it off with Winn, Roger, and the Caines, who bring the baby. Leah Naomi quickly becomes the center of attention for the other guests, everyone wanting to have a turn holding her, or fawning over her. Abigail is happy to see Gloria seems to fit in with everyone, especially her mother. Rhiannon is happy to see Rachal again, and Claire seems to hit it off with Roger and Winn, spending much of her time talking to them. When she’s introduced to Genevieve, and hears how she came into being, Claire takes an extreme interest in the process. Leah and Genevieve give her a brief overview, explaining about the remaining embryos. This sends Claire back to talk to Winn about a confidential matter. Neil and Zoë are there and Neil teases Winn about the circumstances of Leah Naomi’s birth. Winn takes it in stride. “You did good little brother.”

By mid-December, Abigail, Genevieve, and Gloria have settled on a final manuscript of The Frantic Feminist, and print out copies for Steven, Rachel, Claire, Alyssa, and Leah to read over and offer comments. The final version contains twenty-four essays covering several of Rebecca’s favorite topics, including movies, music, relationships, and politics and is around two hundred pages. Steven is extremely happy with the manuscript, and treats the trio to dinner at a nice restaurant. Claire requests that several references to “the girlfriend” be altered, as she feels they too closely identify her, and Genevieve, who has come to know Rebecca’s writing the best, undertakes the assignment. Everyone else responds positively, including Tim, who’s read Alyssa’s copy. Satisfied, Abigail contacts the literary agent who knew Rebecca, who requests a full copy of the manuscript. 

As January rolls around, Abigail becomes more anxious about her interviews, despite reassurances from everyone she knows. Rhiannon tells her during one of their regular phone calls that she wants to know immediately how Abigail feels she did. The night before, Leah takes her and Genevieve out for dinner and a musical event at the Rialto downtown to help get her mind off things. 

The following morning, Abigail heads to Emory’s campus where she spends the next two days in a whirlwind of activity, meeting faculty and students, discussing her goals, interviewing for two concentrations, and hopefully making a good impression. She befriends several other prospective students including a guy from Oklahoma, a woman from Kenya, and a married couple from Columbia, and they all hang out between scheduled events. When it’s all done, she heads back to John’s Creek to assess all that went on and begin the process of worrying again.

Fortunately, she has her music to distract her. She and Gloria have been writing songs and playing at open mic nights as Worthy Savage and have been getting much positive input. She especially likes it when they’re on the bill with Neil’s band, who, with the core of Neil, Zoë, and Genevieve, have undergone a number of personnel and name changes. Recently they’ve been going by Kneel, suggested by Zoë to placate her boyfriend over the fact that she and Genevieve get most of the attention. Neil doesn’t seem fazed, though, as he’s integrated himself into a group of musicians who perform jams around town, playing covers of classic bands like The Stones or Steely Dan, and genres like Prog or Country Rock.

Abigail receives notice in mid-February that she’s been accepted for matriculation at Emory, and is invited back for a revisit in March. At about the same time, she hears from Rebecca’s friend who tells her a publisher is very interested in The Frantic Feminist. She and Steven meet to discuss how they’ll proceed. Since he doesn’t have a background in literary contract negotiations, he arranges a meeting with a colleague who does. After a few meetings with the agent and publisher’s representatives, they agree on terms, and a timeline for publication. Separately, Steven and Abigail agree on the percentage she and the others will receive on any royalties or other profits the book earns, and the terms meet with the approval of Genevieve and Gloria. The remainder will go into a separate account which Steven plans to use for philanthropic endeavors in Rebecca’s name. 

At her revisit with Emory in March, Abigail makes her final decision to attend. She’s happy to see a couple of friends she met during interviews are there as well. When the session is over, she gets a packet containing the form she needs to return once she’s made her decision.

“Can I just fill it out and give it to you now?”

With that, she completes all the requirements for admission. As she heads home on MARTA, she finally sits back and allows herself to relax. She has no idea what the future holds, but for once, she’s confident she’ll be ready. 

Note: This concludes the serialized episodes of Worthy. Please use the link in the blog’s header to catch up on previous sections. I’m hoping to have the editing completed before Summer. Keep an eye out for the finished book.

Worthy, Part 49

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To fill her free time until she hears from Emory, Abigail volunteers to help Steven with a project. His sister, Rebecca, who died in a car crash in 2005, had a blog and published numerous articles in online publications around the region. Steven has wanted to compile them for publication, but has never had the time or know how in tracking down all Rebecca’s posts. A few years earlier, Leah managed to salvage a number of files from the hard drive of Rebecca’s laptop, which was severely damaged in the crash, and supplies Abigail with a CD of the text files she was able to save, and Steven has continued to pay the annual fees on Rebecca’s main blog account, so those posts are still there. For the rest, Abigail will need to mine the Internet. She employs Genevieve, who’s more than eager to assist, and whose research skills rival those of Abigail’s. 

For background, Steven suggests that Abigail meet with Claire, who was dating Rebecca at the time of her death. Claire invites Abigail to meet her at a club where Claire works as a sound engineer one afternoon while she’s setting up and testing some new equipment. Abigail hopes to gain insight into Steven’s sister, but also has some curiosity about Claire and Rachel’s relationship. 

“Steven said you and Rebecca had a rather contentious relationship.”

“That’s an understatement. He should know, though. He saw enough of it close up, poor guy.”

“Why’d you stay together?”

“Rachel’s always saying I’m drawn to lost causes. Becky was certainly that. She was so out of control when I first got to know her, I was afraid she’d harm herself if I left.”

“That sounds serious.”

“I guess the psychologists would say it played on my need to save someone.”

“What finally happened between you?”

“After she settled down, we both started to lose interest, but she got killed before we could resolve anything.”

“Steven told me you didn’t date for a while.”

“I don’t date now. Steven used to attribute the tendency to my relationship with Becky, but the truth is I just don’t like to date. It’s certainly not for lack of offers. Some of the women who hit on me are more aggressive than some of the men. Becky sure was.”

As they talk, Claire lets down her guard and her speech drifts from the indistinct Atlanta accent she’s developed back into more of a slow drawl common to middle Georgia where she’s from.

“Becky liked being with other women. She thought she was hiding it from me but she wasn’t very subtle about it.”

“I’m guessing that was a problem.”

“Sometimes. I kinda understood it though. They gave her something I never would.”

“You’re telling me you and Rebecca never had sex?”

“I only had sex one time in my life and that was forced on me. If it ever happens again it’s going to be my choice.”

Abigail lets the topic drop, not wanting to pry too much into Claire’s private history. Instead, she decides to ask about Rachel.

“Would you mind if I ask you a personal question?” 

“Ask. I’ll let you know if I mind.”

“Are you in love with Rachel?”

“I love her and I’d do anything for her because she’s the kind of woman I’d be if I could.”

“But you’re not together. At least, not a couple.”

“That’s her decision and I understand her reasons but it’s not for me to say what those are. I care enough for her to honor her decision.”

“She cares about you, that’s obvious.”

“Lost causes. It’s enough for me to be near her.”

“You don’t identify as a lesbian.”

“What does that even mean? The man I grew up thinking was my father thought I was just because I had a good friend when I was in school. We weren’t doing anything and I didn’t even think of her that way. He just looked at us with his twisted and perverted mind and decided he had to stop it. I don’t even ask myself that question anymore because he and my mother beat any curiosity I might have had out of me when I was sixteen.”

“You don’t have to—”

“No, that’s all right. Leah and Rachel helped me to see that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. All I can tell you is I don’t like men, but I got a lot of good reasons that don’t have anything to do with that. Maybe if I’d stayed home, didn’t have so much trouble with my family, I might have met some guy, got married and settled down. That’s what was expected of me and I didn’t have reason to question it.”

She turns so she’s facing Abigail.

“When I first came to Atlanta, I got a job as a waitress and when I was old enough I worked in bars. Guys there would hit on me all the time and I hated it. Not just their words but the way they’d look at me. Even when I wasn’t dressed sexy, they’d stare like hungry animals. It’s why I started bartending in gay clubs, because the men there left me alone. With the exception of Steven Asher, almost every decent man I’ve ever known has been gay. I can be any way I want in front of them and they don’t care; they just accept me or ignore me.”

“I can understand that.”

“I am who I am because of the circumstances of my life. Rachel accepts that. Becky never could. You ask me if I’m in love with Rachel. How could I not be?”

They talk for another fifteen or twenty minutes and when they conclude the interview, Abigail gives Claire a long hug. “Take care of yourself, Claire.”

Abigail ends her day back at her room at the Caines’ with Gloria, discussing their favorite topic.

“We can always get married in Seattle,” Gloria says. 

“But your family’s here. Mine is mostly here now, except for Mom, and I don’t think she’d have a problem traveling. Even if we get married there, it won’t be recognized here.”

“Think we’ll ever be able to get married in Georgia?” Gloria says. 

“Maybe. Probably not for a long time, though.” She lies back and leans against Gloria. “Just one thing. If we decide to hyphenate our names, yours should come first.”

“Why do you say that?”

With a laugh, Abigail says, “Otherwise, we’d be Worthy Savages.”

Gloria thinks about it, then they both burst into laughter.

“Hey, that would be a great name for our act, though,” Gloria says. “Worthy Savage.”

Abigail considers it. “You’re right.” She sits up in bed. “I think before we talk about marriage, we should at least have our own place. As accommodating as Alyssa and Tim are, I know they want to raise a family of their own.”

“Agreed. House or condo?”

“Condo. Who wants to cut the grass.”

“I don’t know. I kind of like working outside. Having a garden would be nice.”

“There you go, then. That’s the issue that finally comes between us.”

Gloria swats her with a pillow. “Considering we’re nowhere near affording a studio apartment in Atlanta, we have quite a while before we need to decide on long-term accommodations. I’ll wear you down.”

“Something to look forward to.”

“How’s the project coming along.”

“Steven thinks his sister wrote enough for a book, but honestly, I think there’s too much for one book. She published an original blog post once a day for nearly two years, plus she published weekly in five or six local publications for more than a year. For all her faults, being diligent in her writing wasn’t one of them. On top of that, Steven says she kept a diary for as long as he can remember.”

“Need any help?”

“Yes. Genni’s helping me compile things and she’s a decent writer and editor, but she’s taking classes now so her time’s limited.”

“Put me in, coach. I edited my campus newspaper in college, and I know my way around a computer. You can attest to my literary skills.”

“Welcome aboard, then. What do you know about this Cloud stuff?”

“Quite a bit. They’re using it at the hospital.”

“Wonderful. We can set up some type of collaborative effort with Genni.” She sits up. “I heard from one of Rebecca’s former friends who’s an agent. When she found out I was working on this, she asked me to send her a sample chapter when it was ready. Turns out she was talking to Rebecca about it before she died and knew a publisher who was interested.”

“That’s a good start. Show me what you have so far.”

They move to the computer and start reviewing files.