Excerpt from The Skeleton Paints a Picture

September 26, 2017

SkeletonPaints

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Flakes had just started falling out of the slate gray sky as I walked to the faculty parking lot Friday afternoon, but since students were within earshot, I waited until I was inside my minivan to express my opinion of the swirling bits of frozen aggravation. The fact that only a couple of inches were expected that evening was no consolation.

It’s not that I have anything against snow. I was born and raised in New England, and while my so-called career as an adjunct English professor has involved moving all too often, I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t require a winter emergency kit that included a fold-up snow shovel, a blanket, and a bag of cat litter for traction on icy roads. But not only was Falstone in the snowiest part of Massachusetts, with an annual average snowfall second only to nearby Ashburnham, this year was turning out to be one for the record books.

I felt as if I were driving through a tunnel as I pulled onto the street that ran past Falstone College of Art and Design—FAD to its friends. There had been five major storms in the past month, and the weather hadn’t warmed up enough for appreciable melting, so the exhausted snowplow drivers were running out of places to push the snow. That meant the piles on the side of the road and in every available median strip were getting higher and wider, and the roads were getting narrower and narrower.

As I drove, I could see brush, rocks, even shopping carts partially buried in the icy piles. My students were starting to make jokes about missing classmates who wouldn’t be found until the next thaw.

I just wish they’d been the only ones to get that idea.

Finally, I made it back to the bungalow I was borrowing from one of my parents’ friends for the semester. Snow was still falling, and it was already half an inch deep on the long driveway I’d cleared just the day before, meaning that another session with the snowblower would be due in my near future. I trudged up the sidewalk—which would also need clearing—and was cheered to see two big packages waiting for me on the front porch. Both had my parents’ house in Pennycross as the return address, but the labels were typed, so I didn’t know if they were from Mom, Phil, or my daughter, Madison. Nobody had warned me they were sending anything, which was unusual, but maybe they’d wanted to surprise me.

I grabbed the box on top and left the other on the porch while I divested myself of the coat, hat, scarf, and gloves that winter in Falstone required. I was about to go back for the second box when there was a ping on my phone. I pulled it from my pocket and saw that my best friend, Sid, was texting me.

 

SID: Hi, Georgia. Did the packages arrive?

GEORGIA: Good timing. They came today.

SID: Open 1 of 2 first!

 

I checked the box I’d lugged in. It was labeled 2 of 2. Of course. I dropped the phone on the table in the hall, opened the door just long enough to drag the package inside, and went to track down a pair of scissors. I was on my way back to the front hall when I heard my phone ping again.

 

SID: Aren’t you going to open the box?

GEORGIA: Give me a minute!

 

There was another ping, indicating that yet another text had arrived. Only, it wasn’t from my phone. It had come from inside Box Number One. I , then sent another text.

 

GEORGIA: I’m trying to find the scissors.

BOX: Ping.

 

I briefly considered shoving both packages back out onto the porch, but I knew that would only be delaying the inevitable. So I slit the tape on the top of the cardboard box and lifted up the flaps. Inside, nestled in a bundle of old T-shirts, was a pile of clean white bones and a cell phone. Plus a skull with a very big smile.

As I watched, the bones snapped together with an uncanny clatter, and within seconds, a human skeleton was standing in front of me with bony arms flung wide.

“Surprise!” Sid said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

It sounds scarier than it was. I admit that it would have been trauma-inducing for most people, but most people hadn’t grown up with an ambulatory skeleton for a best friend. Sid had come to live with—or at least to stay with—my family when I was a child, so I was blasé about Sid walking, talking, and assembling himself at will. Mailing himself to me, however, was new.

“Sid, what are you doing here?”

“I came to keep you company!”

“Sid––”

“Don’t I get a hug?” He gave me puppy dog eyes, an impossible feat for a bare skull that he was really good at. So, of course, I hugged him.

Hugging a skeleton is kind of like hugging a coat rack—only, a coat rack doesn’t hug back.

I helped him step out of the box. “Do Mom and Phil know you’re here?” I couldn’t imagine my parents would authorize this shipment without checking with me.

“Not exactly, but… Hey, we can catch up later. I want a tour of your new digs!” He dashed away, rushing from room to room. I suppose it was pretty exciting for him. Sid only rarely left my family’s home, for obvious reasons, and his opportunities to explore other houses had been limited. So he oohed and aahed over everything as we roamed through the eat-in kitchen and the living room. The bungalow had been intended as a summer cottage, and the decorations were determinedly rustic: exposed wooden beams, braided rag rugs, and vaguely Native American patterns on the upholstery.

“Is there an attic?” he asked.

“There is, but it’s packed full of the owner’s things.”

“That’s all right. I can bunk in the living room. Or the kitchen. I don’t need a bed, right?”

“There’s a spare bedroom, but—”

“Perfect!” He trooped down the hallway, opening doors as he went. “Just one bathroom? Well, it’s not like I ever use it. I can tell this is your room. I recognize your mess. Maybe I can clean while you’re at work. And this is my room! Kind of small—”

“Sid—”

He held up one hand. “No worries. I don’t need much space. And bonus! The curtains are nice and thick, so nobody will see me in here. I’ll just go get my things.”

“Sid, why don’t we sit down and talk first?”

“Just give me a minute to unpack.”

“Sid! Sit.”

He plopped down onto the bed, and I sat next to him.

“Now talk.”

“Okay,” he said, with the tone of voice my daughter, Madison, uses when I catch her doing something she shouldn’t have. “No, your parents don’t know I’m here. I printed out postage and put the boxes in the front hall, then left a note asking Dr. T. to finish taping up the box and leave me on the porch for the mailman to pick up.”

“And he didn’t want to know what it was you were sending me?”

“He may have thought the note was from Mrs. Dr. T.”

“Why would he have thought that?”

“Because I signed it ‘Dab.’”

“But why—No, first things first. I need to let them know you’re here. They must be worried sick.”

“I doubt it,” he said with a sniff. “They probably haven’t even noticed I’m gone.”

That didn’t sound good. I got my phone from the front hall and texted home.

 

GEORGIA: Sid is safe with me. I’ll explain later.

 

Then I went back to the bedroom that Sid had laid claim to. “So what’s going on? Have you guys been fighting?”

“You have to talk to somebody to fight with them.”

“Oh. Then they’ve been working long hours.” My parents had only recently returned from an extra-long sabbatical and had restarted their jobs at McQuaid University after the first of the year.

“No, they’re home plenty, but since they’ve already started collecting grad students, the house is always full of strangers. I think they’re feeding a dozen students breakfast and dinner, and I’m pretty sure a couple of postdocs are spending half their nights on the living room couch.”

My parents had always attracted and ministered to needy grad students, a hobby that had gotten more pronounced once I’d moved out. And of course that meant Sid was stuck up in his room in the attic, or if he got caught downstairs, he was trapped in the armoire in the living room where he could listen in but couldn’t exactly socialize.

“What about Madison? Isn’t she spending any time with you?”

“I’m sure she would, but you know how brutal sophomore year is. Between rehearsals for Drama Fest and choral ensemble, she’s barely home, and when she is, she’s got homework. And the mutt to take care of.”

I suspected it was the time Madison spent with her Akita, Byron, that bothered Sid the most. He was never going to be a dog person.

“Deborah?” I asked.

“The only time I’ve seen her is when she came up to the attic to get one of her storage boxes.”

My sister and Sid had never been as close as he and I were. “I thought you guys were getting along better.”

“It’s not that. It’s because she’s busy, too. Juggling two boyfriends is taking up a lot of her time.”

“So what you’re saying is that you’ve been lonely.” After years of mostly being confined to the attic, circumstances had finally changed enough that Sid could hang around with the rest of the family. Having to go back to isolation must have been harder than ever.

He hung his skull. “I know I should have asked first, Georgia, but I was afraid you’d say not to come. And from your e-mails and all, I thought maybe you were lonely, too.”

“Are you kidding? With texting and e-mail and Skype, it’s practically like I haven’t gone anywhere. And for the first time in years, I get to be on my own! I can set mealtimes by my schedule, go out whenever I want, stay up as late as I choose, pick what to watch on TV, and play my music extra loud. I can even use real cuss words, instead of skeleton-related euphemisms.”

As I spoke, Sid’s bones loosened, which was a sign that he was unhappy. Since he holds himself together by pure force of will, weakened will means weakened connections.

I went on. “And I have never been so miserable in my life.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Really?” he said tentatively.

“Really. Yeah, I’m glad to have a teaching job, and it’s great that Madison didn’t have to switch high schools, and I know my parents love having her to themselves. But I hate this. I know almost nobody in town and there’s not much town anyway. I had no idea how much snow they get around here, and the weather has been so awful that I don’t dare drive home on weekends for fear of not making it back in time for Monday classes and getting fired. Of course, we’re going to have to establish some ground rules while you’re here, but I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you!”

Sid’s bones were tightly connected once again. “I’ll go get my stuff.”

It didn’t take us long to unpack Sid’s belongings because he hadn’t brought much. He didn’t wear clothes and didn’t need toiletries, so all he’d brought was his laptop and accessories, a few books, and his favorite DVDs: The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Toy Story trilogy, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. All of that was packed neatly in a small rolling suitcase that I used to tote Sid around when the need arose.

“Planning a field trip?” I asked, looking at the suitcase.

“I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have it around. Just in case.” He looked at me hopefully.

“We’ll see,” was all I’d commit to.

Just as we got everything put away, my parents called back for an explanation of why Sid had gone AWOL. That got tricky because Sid was at my elbow insisting that I not put the blame on them, but they finally accepted my excuse that he was feeling restless. The fact that there were three grad students at their house during the phone call provided a good explanation of why he’d felt hemmed in.

Once that was addressed, the evening was one of the best I’d had since arriving in Falstone. We made dinner—which only I ate, of course. Then we settled in to watch TV and I caught Sid up on my not-overly-thrilling adventures teaching Expository Writing at a school dedicated to visual arts.

When the snow wound down, we went outside to shovel. This was a new experience for Sid. My parents’ house was in the middle of town, and though it had a good-sized yard, the fence wasn’t high enough to allow him to move around safely out of doors. The bungalow was much more isolated, on a large lot with no neighbors within easy view. The grounds behind the house were filled with trees and stretched out for yards. Not that I had any interest in going back there, since the snow had already been too deep for easy access when I moved in at the beginning of the semester.

Just to be extra careful in case somebody randomly decided to venture down the driveway, I had Sid swaddled in a spare parka, jeans, boots, gloves, and ski mask so he looked semi-normal.

I expected him to fuss about having to wear all that, but he’s always loved costumes. Even if he hadn’t, he was having too much fun playing in the snow to mind. Sid actually enjoyed shoveling snow and liked running the snowblower even more. His snow angel didn’t work out very well, but he loved throwing snowballs and was just as happy when I returned fire.

It was with the greatest of reluctance that I finally dragged him inside so we could thaw out. Or rather, so I could. Bare bones don’t feel the cold.

After a cup of hot chocolate to warm me up, I headed for bed, and since Sid doesn’t sleep, he settled in for an all-night session with the stack of books I’d bought since I’d been in Falstone. I didn’t know about him, but I felt happier than I had in weeks. What with being kept inside so much by the weather, the house had been starting to feel claustrophobic. Now, with Sid in residence, it felt like home.

With one thing and another, we didn’t get around to establishing any ground rules for his stay, which I had cause to regret at three thirty in the morning. That’s when I woke up with Sid’s skull hovering over me.

“Georgia, wake up! You’ve got to come right away!”

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Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg

September 6, 2015


Kelner-CrookedDogsLeg

Back in 1993, I started publishing my Laura Fleming mysteries about a young woman who left home to to go to college, married a Yankee, and moved up North. On her vacations, she came back to Byerly, North Carolina to solve mysteries. (A lot of this was true about me, too, except I lived in Charlotte, NC and I never got into solving mysteries.) The series ran for eight books, all of which are still available as ebooks and Audible downloads. But those eight books don’t tell you everything that happened in Byerly.

As I was writing the series, and for a few years after, I’d go back to Byerly for short stories. There were seven all together, and they were published in magazines and anthologies that are long since out of print. A friend — and she knows who I’m talking about — kept pushing me to produce an electronic collection, but I was hesitant. I’d never done a project quite like this and, of course, I was worried that nobody would want to read the stories except the one friend. But she’s persistent, and after republishing the eight Laura Fleming novels, I decided to take a shot at collecting those Byerly stories.

Getting ready for publication wasn’t as easy as I’d expected. I had the original story files, but it took help from the family tech specialist — my husband Steve — to get them opened because the programs in which they were written are obsolete. After that, I had to compare them with the published versions, since the galleys back then were on actual paper, and re-make all the corrections the anthology and magazine editors made. Then I had to proofread them, along with help from the persistent friend and Femmes Charlaine and Dana. But that was all details. The real tough part was reading them again.

Folks, I was scared to death of rereading stories that were written so long ago. What if I hated them? What if I was embarrassed by them? What if I was just bored? But it turned out not to be so terrible. Okay, there are places I wish either I or previous editors had been more vicious with red pencils, and sections I’d never write like that today. I even found some out-and-out errors that I could now fix. But overall, I’m happy with the result.

“Gift of the Murderer” was my first published short story. My editor of the time, John Scognamiglio of Kensington, called one day and said, “You write short stories, don’t you?” “Yes,” I lied. Honestly, it wasn’t easy to make myself write short instead of novel-length, but I guess he liked it, because he asked for another story for an anthology the next year. “Marley’s Ghost” is an homage to Dickens, and some of the issues raised in it led me to write the novel Mad as the Dickensyears later. Those two stories are the only ones in the collection to actually include Laura Fleming and her Shakespeare-quoting husband Richard.

“The Death of Erik the Redneck” was an Agatha nominee, and features Byerly’s Chief of Police Junior Norton investigating a kind of Viking funeral. “An Unmentionable Crime” is about Sue, one of Laura’s cousins, and was inspired by admiration for women who really understand how to fit customers with bras. “Bible Belt” isn’t actually in Byerly, but is set in the neighboring town of Rocky Shoals, and characters from it show up in Byerly later on. It was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and through oddities of timing and the mail service, I found out about the sale when I met editor Janet Hutchings at the Malice Domestic banquet. That story was nominated for the  Anthony and the Macavity awards.

“Old Dog Days” has Junior Norton’s father. It was originally written for a book that never happened, which just goes to show that writers never throw anything away. With “Lying-in-the-Road Death,” it was back to Junior again. I had that title floating around in my head for years before I finally wrote the story to go with it.
After all was said and done, I rather enjoyed going back to Byerly, and Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg will be published on September 8, 2015. I hope people will want to come back to Byerly, and maybe some newcomers will want to visit, too.