Dander and Leander

Dan Barton sits in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in Boston, which is sparsely furnished with a second-hand couch, mismatched chairs, plywood and cinder block shelves, and cluttered with tennis shoes, articles of clothing, open and empty boxes of varying sizes, including a black and white cow print Gateway computer box. He’s been a guest of the residents, Dottie and Leah, sleeping on the couch for several months, since his last roommate moved back to Toronto suddenly, leaving him with a place he couldn’t afford on his own and unable to float the cost while he found someone new. In return for letting him crash there, he picks up the utilities. The trio met a little over a year ago at an improv club in Boston, near Wellesley’s campus, and sometimes, varying configurations of Leah, Dottie, and Dan perform together, though mainly Leah and Dan. He’s seated at the computer, near the center of the room, typing.

“Wow, it’s a speed demon,” he says in an elevated voice, as though speaking to someone in another room. “Whatever you did, Leah, it definitely helped.” Receiving no response, he goes on. “I am so stoked for the show tonight. There’s supposed to be a group from Second City performing.”

“Do you have the graduation guide in there?” Leah calls out.

“Why would I have it?” Dan says. “You forget, my application to Wellesley got lost in the mail.”

“Think it’s in Dottie’s room?” she says.

“That would be a safe bet. What do you need?” he says.

“Which way does the tassel go?” she says.

Dan thinks about it. “I think it goes to the left before the ceremony. That’s how we did it in high school.”

Leah enters wearing a cap and gown in Wellesley’s colors. She models it for Dan.

“What do you think?” she says.

“Look at you, Miss Wellesley graduate,” he says. “Did you hear from MIT?”

“I did,” she says. “You are looking at the latest candidate for an accelerated Ph.D.”

“At least you’re staying in the area, so we won’t have to break up the act,” Dan says.

“Oh yeah, the act,” Leah says. “Wouldn’t want to deprive the world of Dander and Leander.”

Dan shakes his head. “You’re a better improviser than you think.”

Leah puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head to the side. “Which explains why I’m always known as ‘that chick who does improv with Dan’. You’re the one who gets all the invitations to play with other groups.”

“I take you along,” he says.

“At least I get to see a lot of free improv by people who really know what they’re doing,” Leah says.

“Are your folks coming up for graduation?” Dan asks.

“The whole family,” Leah replies. “Mom’s supposed to call me tonight to finalize details.”

“As opposed to every other night when she just calls to chat,” he says with a chuckle.

“So, I’m close to my mother, big deal,” she says.

“No, I think it’s great. I wish I got along with my parents that well,” he says.

“It was really just me and Mom before Alyssa was born,” Leah says. “Well, Dad was there on weekends between tee times.”

“He’s some sort of high roller in Atlanta isn’t he?”

“Real estate,” she says. She looks up as though reading a billboard. “Paxton Walker, the man who gave Atlanta its urban sprawl.”

“Doesn’t that make you a Southern heiress?” Dan says.

Leah rolls her eyes. “Yeah, right.”

The phone rings and Leah answers.

“This is Leah. That you, Mom?” She seems surprised. “Dad? Why are you calling? Where’s Mom?” She puts her hand to her head. “Wait. What did you just say?”

Leah exits into her room. Dan looks after her. “Leah?”

Dottie enters and dumps her bag onto a chair. “Hey, Dan. What’s up?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Leah just got a call from her father and went in her room.”

“From her father?” Dottie says, concerned. “Leah doesn’t get calls from her father.”

Just then, Leah returns, holding the phone, her face wet with tears. Dan rises and Dottie goes to Leah and puts her arm around her.

Dan touches Leah’s shoulder and says, “Leah? Is everything okay?”

Leah shakes her head. “No. Nothing’s okay. Nothing will ever be okay again.” She stares at Dottie. “Dottie?” Leah wraps her arms around Dottie and starts sobbing. Dottie comforts her. After a moment, Leah lifts her head. “That was my father. He said my mother—“ She breaks off. “My mom’s dead.”

“Oh my god,” Dan says.

“What happened?” Dottie says. “When Dan said you were talking to him, something didn’t feel right.”

Leah puts her hand to her head. “He didn’t go into a lot of details. He came home and—“ She wanders aimlessly away from them. “I’ve got to get to Atlanta. Tonight.”

Dan looks at Dottie, who nods. He says, “What can we do to help?”

“I need to—“ Leah starts, then says, “What about graduation?”

Dottie takes her hands. “Don’t worry about that now. You need to get home to be with your family.”

Leah stares at her a moment and nods. “I’ll need a flight out.” She looks in the direction of her room. “I need to pack.”

Dan takes the phone from Leah and says to Dottie, “Okay, listen. You help get her stuff together.” He starts to dial. “My cousin works for American Airlines at Logan. I’ll call her and make the arrangements. If there’s a direct flight out tonight, she’ll get you on it.”

Leah nods.

Dottie puts her arm around Leah and guides her into her room. “Let’s get you home.”


Each year, close to her birthday on May 11, Claire Belmonte takes a trip to a little church yard in Houston County, just outside Perry to visit the grave of Christine Messner, whose life dates are 11 May 1973 to 4 September 1989. Christine “died” on the same day she was declared an emancipated minor in juvenile court in Houston County, and the headstone was placed there by her parents Zachariah and Selma Messner in late October of that year. No death certificate has ever been filed on her, owing to the fact that she is, still, very much alive in Atlanta, and has taken a new name, Claire Christine Belmonte.

Claire learned of the headstone from her friend, Jodie Newcombe, about two years after it had been placed there. Jodie found it while visiting the graves of her grandparents, and noticed a new stone several yards away. There had not been any funeral services at her church since Deacon James Frederick had been laid to rest at a sparsely attended service just after Christine left Perry in 1989, and his grave is on the opposite side of the cemetery. When she went to investigate, the name on the stone caused Jodie’s knees to nearly buckle, and she hurried home and called Claire in Atlanta to be sure her friend was all right. A few days later, Claire, accompanied by her former teacher, Lawrence Standridge, visited Jodie, and she, Lawrence, Jodie and her parents visited the cemetery. From that point on, Claire has come down every year to pay her respects.

She arrives around ten-twenty in the morning, alone, places two white roses, crossed, at the grave of James Frederick, then goes to Christine’s grave, where she places a bouquet of red carnations in the vase on the headstone. Claire bows her head and mouths a silent prayer. Finished, she crouches down and runs her finger over the letters of Christine’s name. She hears a car pull in and rises, then looks to see a familiar black, Buick Regal parking. She shakes her head. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Zachariah Messner exits his car and approaches Claire. He is much thinner than the last time she saw him, and leaning heavily on a cane. He doesn’t look to be in good health. “Well now, look who we have here. It’s been a while, Miss Belmonte.”

“What are you doing here?” Claire says. “Can’t imagine it’s to tend the grave.”

“It has been noted that around this time each May, someone places flowers here,” he says.

“Noted, yeah,” Claire says. “How is Selma these days, by the way?”

“She is as she always has been,” Zachariah says. “More or less.”

“I knew she was exaggerating about what you’d do to her,” Claire says. “You’ve always been more smoke than fire. She carried out all your violence.”

“Selma can be a troublesome individual,” he says. “But she’s there.”

“Since I’m certain you didn’t just stop by to chat, I have to assume something’s on your mind,” Claire says. “Perhaps we should just skip to that, or should I be on my way?”

“We are only allotted so much time on this Earth,” he says. “Sometimes a man takes stock of the time he has, and wonders if, perhaps, his efforts could have been better utilized.”

“Oh, give me a break,” she says. “Soul searching doesn’t suit you.”

“There comes a time when that’s all one has left,” he says. “Since turning my business over to an associate, I’ve had much time for reflection.”

“Don’t come out here pretending you’ve ever cared for anyone other than yourself,” she says. “Least of all me. If you’re trying to apologize, save it. It’s meaningless at this point.”

“I have no feelings for you one way or another, Miss Belmonte,” Messner says. “You served your purpose.”

“My purpose was not to lead a good man astray,” she replies.

Messner chuckles. “There are those within the congregation who might take issue with that particular characterization.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Claire says.

Messner doesn’t respond right away. He looks toward the sky, contemplating something. At last, he says, “I believe you were in school with Davis Franklin’s boy, Ernest, were you not?”

“He was a year or two ahead of me, but I remember him,” she says.

“He’s a rather tall young man, as I recall,” Messner says. “Doesn’t look much like either of his folks.”

Claire considers this. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“One hears rumors,” Messner says. “There were always whispers about those who had received the Deacon’s private counseling. Selma didn’t just come up with the idea on her own.”

“How many were there?” Claire says.

“Hard to say,” Messner says. “More than a few, if memory serves.”

Claire shakes her head. “Deacon Frederick should have been held accountable under the law for what he did. His victims had the right to confront him. You took that away from us — away from me.”

“It was not my will that was served,” Messner replies.

“You don’t really believe that and you know it,” Claire says. “It was a vendetta, plain and simple.”

“Water under the bridge,” Messner says.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” she says. “Why are you here?”

“There is no answer,” he says. “I’m here because I chose to be here. That’s all.” He puts his weight onto the cane and begins to slowly move toward his car. “You take care of yourself, Miss Belmonte.”

She turns and watches him walk away, aware that it will be the last time she’ll ever see him. This thought neither fills her with relief nor regret. In fact, she finds that she feels nothing at all for him. Claire watches as he shambles back to his car, gets in, and drives away, then she resumes erasing all trace of him from her memory.

Ned Branch

Edward Abraham Branch, III, called “Ned” by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, “Big Ed” and his father, still called “Eddie, Jr.” despite the elder Edward being dead for ten years, carried on the fine tradition of Branch men playing football at UGA. A quarterback, Ned was a natural player, and, as such, had not been much in the habit of working very hard in high school, despite his winning record on the field. When he arrived at the University, he found he could no longer get by on talent alone, and spent his first year on the bench, developing a work habit that would, eventually, earn him a starting spot on the team. His coaches recognized him as a solid, if not stellar player, who could be depended upon to go the distance, and elicit enough occasional brilliance to pull out the wins. About the same time he gained his starting spot, Ned married his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Maddox, who was also taking classes at UGA in financial planning. They decided to forego starting a family until their studies were behind them.

Ned’s attendance at UGA had been cast in doubt, when a local girl, Charlotte Sanger, identified him as the father of a child she was carrying. Charlotte was considered a mousy little thing, who was mostly known for singing in her church choir, and for being the sister of that guy who’d been caught fooling around with the son of the pastor at their Baptist congregation. She also had some weird disorder that caused her to repeat things people said to her, which earned her the nickname Echo at school. She’d befriended Ned and Lindsay their senior year, which led to her unexpectedly being named Homecoming Queen. Not wanting to involve the family in any messy controversy, Eddie, Jr. called Ned’s coach, Harold Ricketts, into his office at the car dealership, and impressed upon the coach a need for him to handle things. Coach Ricketts came up with a sweet plan to shift responsibility away from Ned and onto a teammate, but Charlotte made the issue moot by sneaking off in the middle of the night one evening, leaving behind no trace of where she’d gone.

In the Fall of 2000, Ned and Lindsay, expecting their first child together, move to Suwannee, in the Metro Atlanta area, where Ned, a fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, is beginning his tenure as the backup quarterback. It’s here the couple learns what became of their friend, Charlotte, as they discover that the singers who’ve been invited to perform the National Anthem at the season opener are Charlotte and her brother, Brian, who call themselves Echo. The team does not interact with the opening duo, but Lindsay finds herself in the Skybox with them, and after a few awkward moments, during which she meets the boy Charlotte introduces as her son, they reconcile, and Lindsay promises to have the family over to their home in Suwannee. When Lindsay tells Ned of the encounter, he’s secretly somewhat relieved to learn Charlotte did not name the boy fully after him, as he has no intention of being the father of Edward Abraham, IV.

Ned finally meets the boy, Edward Ishmael, who his family calls Izzy, when Charlotte, her brother, Brian, and Izzy visit a few weeks later. In their discussions leading up to the visit, it was decided that they weren’t going to hide the fact that Ned is Izzy’s father from the boy, but when they introduce Ned as such to Izzy, he seems to take it in stride, being far too young to realize the implications of it all. Izzy turns out to be an energetic child, with a natural curiosity about the world around him, and no shyness toward new people. He and Ned hit it off immediately, and Brian and Ned spend nearly an hour chasing him around the yard and playing catch with him, while Lindsay and Charlotte chat in the kitchen.

After the meeting with Izzy goes well, Ned discusses with Lindsay the possibility of Ned formally acknowledging Izzy as his son. Lindsay voices no objections, though she is concerned the timing might overshadow the arrival of their child, who, they’ve learned from the ultrasound, is also a boy. Ned agrees to discuss it with the team’s legal counsel, and to bring Charlotte into the discussions before they go very far. They both agree, however, to leave his family back home out of the conversation, until after decisions have been reached, since they would almost certainly object and cause difficulties.

Lawyers for the team outline the process of acknowledging paternity, but caution Ned that he should confirm with a paternity test that he is Ishmael’s father. Ned doesn’t believe Charlotte will appreciate this step, since he believes she’s telling the truth about Ned being the only man who could be the father, but agrees to broach the subject with her. Officials with the team express concerns over the publicity such a move might bring, but Ned argues that his position on the team will only become more visible as time goes on, and Charlotte can be counted upon to be discrete, especially if she’s respected throughout the process. Acknowledging this, the team gives him leave to quietly pursue the matter.

Ned leaves it up to Lindsay to approach Charlotte with the idea, since the two of them get along a bit better than he and Charlotte do. As it turns out, Deanna Savage, the mother of the family Charlotte’s living with is a social worker in Gwinnett County, and is well-acquainted with the process. Charlotte arranges a meeting with Deanna where she and the Branches discuss the matter in more detail. During the meeting, Ned mentions the idea of a paternity test, and Deanna agrees it would help establish Ned’s role as the father. While she doesn’t totally feel it’s necessary, Charlotte agrees to it, as well as amending Ishmael’s birth certificate to add Ned and to change Ishmael’s name to Branch. Deanna recommends several attorneys who specialize in such cases. After some discussion, everyone agrees Izzy’s name will become Edward Ishmael Sanger Branch.

Before any of this can take place, Lindsay goes into labor, and delivers a healthy baby boy, who she and Ned name John Isaac, though, from the start, they nickname him “Ike”. Izzy is thrilled to have a baby brother. Ned’s family is disappointed the child isn’t named after his father, but otherwise welcomes his arrival. Shortly after Ike’s birth, Charlotte receives the results of the test, which yield no surprises, and Ned completes the Paternity Acknowledgment form, has it notarized, and sends it off to Vital Records. Over the next several years, Ned and Lindsay have two daughters, Ansley Mae, and Emily Kaitlyn.

A year and a half into his contract, Ned, who’s being considered for a trade to Buffalo, gets his first and only start, in an away game against the Dolphins in Miami. He leads the team to a respectable 24-20 score, but in the final drive of the game, he gets tackled hard by a defensive end, just as he’s completed a long pass for a touchdown. The momentum of the opposing player, along with the angle Ned hits the ground, combine to give him a serious head and neck injury, which proves to be career-ending. Fortunately, Lindsay had the foresight to insure Ned has good personal injury coverage, over and above what the league provides, plus she’s been very prudent in investing his guaranteed earnings, which are considerable. As his rehabilitation begins, wheels start turning behind the scenes to capitalize on his popularity in the community. Officials with both political parties send out feelers to gauge his interest in running for local or county office. At no point is mention made of Ishmael’s existence.

Worthy 51, The Phone Call

Rhiannon Worthy enters her home in Seattle, Washington, and slips out of her Crocs, then pads across the living room, sorting through her mail. She’s been on a 48-hour rotation at the hospital, where she’s a nursing supervisor, and she’s looking forward to some down time. It’s been a week since her daughter, Abigail and niece, Genevieve left for Atlanta, and Rhiannon is hoping for a phone call updating her on their progress later this evening. While Genevieve has gone there to possibly start school at Georgia Tech, Abigail tagged along for moral support, and will most likely be back in a week or so.

She hears a delivery truck pulling up near her home, but thinks little of it, until her doorbell rings. She answers to find a Fedex driver outside with a medium-sized parcel. “Rhiannon Worthy?” She signs for it, and thanks the driver, then takes the package to the dining room table. She does not recognize the shipping address, which appears to be a realty office in Massachusetts.

Rhiannon gets a utility knife, and opens the box. Inside, she finds an off-brand cell phone with its charger, sitting on top of an envelope addressed to her, and two individually-wrapped packages. There’s a post-it on the phone that reads, “Start here”. The phone is dead, so she plugs it in. Once it comes on, she checks the directory and finds a single phone number programmed in. She hesitates a moment, then clicks to dial. After six or seven rings, a man answers, “Ms. Worthy. So glad you called.”

“Who is this?” Rhiannon says.

“My apologies,” he says. “This is Marcel Duchard. Paul’s brother. We met, once, years ago, at Rosalind and Paul’s wedding.”

“I remember,” she says. “You’re not in the US are you?”

“No, I’m in Mozambique these days,” he says. “My Portuguese is still a bit rusty, but I like the climate. I won’t elaborate further on my whereabouts, for obvious reasons.”

“Why have you contacted me?” she says.

“I realized I had some unfinished business with regards to Rosalind’s estate, so I had the package sent to you with a means of contacting me,” Marcel tells her. “Once I’ve explained everything, you’ll never hear from me again.”

“Okay, why all the cloak and dagger?” Rhiannon says.

“I apologize for the intrigue,” he says, “but, as you might imagine, I need to be somewhat discrete in my dealings within the US. It’s for your protection as much as mine. The cell phone you’re using is a burner, and I strongly recommend that you discard it once our call is done.”

“Fine,” Rhiannon says. “What’s this all about? What do you mean by unfinished business?”

“You’re Rosalind’s executor,” he says, “and have probably noted, her estate was fairly straight forward. Everything goes to Genevieve.”

“Right,” she says.

“Well, there’s one piece of property she left out of the copy of her will that you have,” he says. “That, she left to you. In the package, the very next item will be an envelope with your name on it. That contains an updated copy of her will, with details on the property. I suggest you file that as soon as possible.”

“What property?” Rhiannon says.

“It’s an old waterfront warehouse Rosalind paid five thousand for around 1972,” he replies. “Rather astute move on her part, actually. The building’s part of a riverfront development now. Worth millions.”

“Rosalind owned that?” Rhiannon says.

“Yes. She’s been leasing it out to an art academy since she’s had it,” Marcel says.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Rhiannon says. “Why wasn’t this in her original will?”

“She didn’t want you to know about it until she was gone, for reasons known only to her,” he says. “Again, I apologize, as I should have gotten this to you sooner, but news is sometimes hard to come by when one is running from authorities. I only learned of Rosalind’s death when I tried to contact my neice a month ago. By the way, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she says.

“The other packages contain information which should tell you everything you need to know,” he says. “They’re Rosalind and Regan’s diaries.”

“Regan?” Rhiannon says to herself.

“Rosalind left them with me for safekeeping,” Marcel goes on. “When I had to leave, I gave them to an attorney friend of mine. She saw to it they were delivered to you, along with a method for contacting me. She can also put you in touch with the witnesses to the will.”

“Why didn’t Rosie just give them to me?” Rhiannon says.

“I’m afraid I’ve told you everything I can.” he says. “As you know, Rosalind could be rather mysterious in her dealings for no good reason. She set this up with me about a year after Paul died, and as her attorney, I couldn’t disclose anything about it until the time was right.”

“Okay, thanks,” Rhiannon says.

“Now, if there are no more questions, I’ll conclude our business,” Marcel says. “If you should speak to Genevieve, send her my regards. I’d contact her myself, but the last time we spoke, she told me she’d turn me in if she knew my whereabouts. I was a bit disappointed, but I understand.”

“What if I have other questions?” she says.

“I’m afraid you’re on your own,” he says. “I plan to lose this number as soon as I conclude this call, which I’m doing now.”

With that, the line disconnects.

Rebecca, Too: Oakhurst

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

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

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

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

“Princess?” Steven asks.

“It’s what I call Alyssa,” Leah says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca pivots toward him.

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

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

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

Rebecca storms out the front door.

“How tall was Rebecca?” Leah says.

“How tall?” he says.

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

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

“You’re six feet?”

“Six, two,” he says.

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

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

“Large,” he says. “Definitely.”

“Stocky?” she says.

He nods.

Leah adds twenty pounds to her image of Rebecca.

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

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

Leah nods. “Got it.”

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

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

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

Rebecca storms out the front door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oops!” she says, covering her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Becky’s cell phone,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Steven finds this amusing. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They weren’t?”

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

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

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

“Do you know why?”

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is it?” Leah asks.


“That’s convenient,” Leah says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Leah says.

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

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

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

“For personal reference,” Leah says.

“What does that even mean?” Claire says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Claire says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Leah says. “But Alyssa is.”

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

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

“Well simplify it!” Claire says.

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

“Your sister?” Claire says.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she telling the truth?” Claire says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s what she says,” Steven says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” Claire says, pausing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leah extends her hand. “Deal.”

They shake on it.

Rebecca, Too: Snapshot McCall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim exits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “It sure is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? Who’s he? Clark Gable?”

Nurse Turner shakes her head, then exits.

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

He turns.

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

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

Killing Babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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