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By ALLEN RUBENS
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Allen Rubens
All rights reserved.
Ewan Paterson was both happy and sad. Today he was about to help the prettiest girl in the world have the time of her life. That was the happy part. The sad part would come when he had to say goodbye.
As Ewan walked down the street he played back some of his favorite moments since coming to the states. He did this a lot, hoping these were the things he'd remember instead of forget. He remembered The Statue Of Liberty and the pizza he had after he went there. He loved the pizza. The Statue of Liberty was ok. He thought of the first time he walked past Yankee stadium and heard everyone inside cheer for what he later learned was a grand slam home run. He didn't get baseball then any more than he does now. People should kick a ball, he thought. Not hit it with a stick.
Coming over from Scotland last year was a life changer for Ewan. He left Edinburgh a student and entered New York a businessman. He loved what he did and he did it with pride. Ewan was a dying breed. He was good, kind, and real. His phrasings did more to intrigue both men and women than his roguish good looks. Each time he said "Top of the mornin' to ya" he opened more doors than a skeleton key. No doubt about it, Ewan had it all. And he gave it to Jenny every chance he got.
This morning he was making his way down to the florist to pick up the single biggest, yellowest sunflower in Manhattan. Jenny loved sunflowers. It always made her day when she saw one. Now she was actually going to get one. Ewan hoped it would make her night, too.
He picked up the sunflower at a shop on the outskirts East Central Park. He knew the owner and the owner called and said it was in. He worked just a few blocks away. This was going to be awesome.
Ewan had to hurry. His break was only fifteen minutes. It took four and a half minutes to get there and four and a half minutes to get back. That made for nine walking minutes which left six ancillary minutes for gabbing, buying, and wrapping Jenny's beautiful sunflower in a see-through piece of something that looked like saran wrap but was thicker and more stylish.
On the way back Ewan nodded at the horse and buggy driver on the corner. The driver straightened his waistcoat and followed Ewan step for step, driving his buggy right up to the front door. Usually he didn't stray too far from Central Park but for this occasion he made an exception. It was for Jenny.
Ewan got in the elevator and pressed fifteen. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and straightened his tie. He then tucked a handful of curly auburn hair behind his ears and under his hat. He perked up the sunflower and smiled because he knew someone was about to smile right back at him.
What an angel Jenny was. Always laughing, always smiling, always making everyone around her happy they were right where they were. Ewan would miss her. He'd miss her a lot.
The elevator got to fifteen and Ewan proudly marched to the wooden door at the end of the hall. He paused for a deep breath and knocked twice. The door opened. Standing there was Jenny. Her smile was like sunshine. Ewan gave her the flower and said, "Miss Jenny, your chariot awaits."
Ewan was a doorman. Jenny was seven years old, soon to be eight. Tomorrow she'd be moving. Today was her going away party. The horse and buggy driver was downstairs waiting to get her to the party on time. When Jenny walked through the door of her apartment building the driver jumped down from the buggy, took her hand, and led her to the backseat, making sure she was every bit as comfortable as she was safe. He looked at her, tipped his hat, and said, "Let's get this party started!"
* * *
The laughter could be heard for miles. It wasn't all from Jenny. Her friends were laughing, too. That was pretty much expected. After all, not many kids were given the luxury of telling Ronald McDonald what they wanted for lunch and actually watch him make it.
Tomorrow morning she'd be heading out to a small town in Oklahoma. It hadn't hit her yet, the separation of friends and comfort zones. She was oblivious to the stress that soon would be playing tug of war with her dreams. As for now she was Queen for a day and loving it. She and her six closest friends were let loose behind the counter at McDonald's. What wasn't to love?
Troy knew the guy who dressed up as Ronald for all the promotional appearances at the McDonald's in his neighborhood. He was a struggling actor who donned the big shoes and red hair for basically nothing. Troy was his accountant who creatively did his taxes for exactly nothing. Suffice it to say he owed Troy and the only thing they ever discussed as possible payment was a private fifteen minutes behind the counter for Jenny and her friends. A lot of strings were pulled and it happened. Crazy, really crazy to think it ever would.
Truth be known, Jenny was more than just Ewan's girlfriend. She had every one she ever met wrapped around her little finger. She never abused her gift, though. She was all Jenny all the time, a petite little helping of sugar and spice and everything nice. Add to that a long red ponytail and enough freckles to make you think the alabaster on her skin was just around for coloring and you had yourself a walking, talking, poster child for everything that's good in America.
As usual Jenny's appetite far exceeded her size and she made it known to everybody she was going to eat a cheeseburger, fries, four McNuggets, and a coke with not too much ice. She also wanted barbeque sauce and ketchup and mustard. She'd never tried mustard but now that she was eight she wanted to. Her friend Dahlia ordered three cheeseburgers, four fries, two vanilla shakes, and a hot fudge sundae. Dahlia wasn't afraid to express herself. When she told Ronald she wanted eighty-three extra pickles he asked her if she was going to eat them before or after she was prom queen. She cut it down to two extra pickles with a chance for a third at a later date. The other five girls wanted everything they could get their hands on and got it. Oddly no one asked for napkins.
People were lined up outside the restaurant watching six little girls running around, having the time of their lives. Troy and Kate were there, too, in the background, monitoring the clock and mitigating on the fly the mess they'd have to clean up once the carnage was over.
Kate had no time to eat. She was busy making sure the girl's had a shot at creating a memory. It wasn't her kind of food anyway. Lunch to her was an afterthought, and if she ever did sit down to eat it was for either a salad or a piece of chicken or salmon.
Kate was Jenny's sister, 16 years old and a sight to behold. She was as thin as she was tall, with short blond hair and a body that was changing as fast as the wind. Her smile, though, that was the home run. And nothing could make her smile more than watching Jenny have fun.
Troy was their dad and he loved them both more than life itself. His thick black hair and the long scar on his chin made him look forever rugged, as if his looks and build weren't rugged enough. He cut his chin during a high school basketball game nineteen years ago. There was a fight. He lost. The seven-foot kid from Katmandu who grunted to express himself won.
Sadly there was someone missing from the party. She died too young. Vanessa was her name. She was Troy's wife, Jenny and Kate's mom. Cervical cancer took her away nine months ago at the young age of 36. Her passing was devastating. No one escaped the pain. Even though Troy was still lost he openly said how lucky he felt having her in his life as long as he did. He'd be the first to tell you feeling lucky only went so far in rehabilitating a broken heart.
Troy knew he had a job to do. He promised Vanessa he'd take care of the children and to the best of his ability lead them around the many detours the roads ahead would have them travel. It wasn't easy and it probably wouldn't be for a long time. Had Vanessa been there with him it would have been a lot easier, if not to say a lot more fun.
Jenny didn't understand why God had to take her mom away. She didn't do anything wrong. As a matter of fact she did everything right. Jenny slowly withdrew and only recently began to come alive. Now back to normal she once again laughed and played the hours away. It was a great sound, an infectious sound, a sound that had been missing for way too long.
Kate, on the other hand, never really did accept Vanessa's death. Not right away, anyhow. She went into a tailspin that saw her immerse herself in countless classes in survival and strength training. She trained hard and learned how to fight to stay alive. She was adamant that no one would ever out think her or enter a battle with more resolve. Kate often went on wild rides of fantasy to get as far away from reality as she could. Her hair became fair game to the colors of the rainbow and her name often danced between Katherine, Katie, and where it was now, Kate. After four months of beating herself up she finally grew out of the self-pity she'd been mired in and took on the responsibilities of caregiver, making both Jenny and Troy the beneficiaries of her dedication. If anyone got in their way they'd have to answer to her. It wouldn't be pleasant.
Jenny never was quite sure what to call her so they agreed on Kate for the every day, Katie when she was sad or scared, and Katherine when she was telling her to grow up and get her act together.
Kate hadn't given up the joys of being a teenager. She never would. She just deprioritized them. Troy and Jenny came first and she was always happy coming in second. Right now the only thing that mattered was the party.
Troy and Kate discussed the idea of leaving New York shortly after Vanessa died. New York definitely had a lot of memories for them but it also held a lot of tears. Based on a number of reasons they both thought a change would be for the better, and starting tomorrow better just happened to be around the corner in Rancho, Oklahoma, a small town that offered economic sensibilities and a definite change of pace, if not change of heart. But that would be tomorrow, not today. Today was the party to end all parties, and this party was alive and well and fantastic.
The girls were in their own world as they giggled and stuffed their faces with McNektar from the gods. They told Jenny she had to stand on her chair and let everyone in the store know the ten funniest things that ever happened to her. Kate intervened and thought it would be better if she shared her precious moments while sitting in her chair rather than standing on it. She also strongly suggested Jenny's thoughts would be best if just told to those at the table rather than everyone who was in hearing distance. After a few pouts and sad faces it was decided sitting down would be just fine.
It took about ten minutes for Jenny to get through her first story, a hilarious escapade that consisted of the time Jenny wore Troy's underpants to school to see if anyone would notice. Everyone did, especially the principal. The girls were howling. Jenny was, too. That was the way things had been recently. Jenny for some reason couldn't stop laughing. Until now.
Jenny hadn't smiled since they landed. Why would she? She couldn't go next door and play with the neighbor's new puppy and all the cable channels were different which meant she had to relearn where and when her favorite TV shows were on. She knew she was moving to a new place but she didn't think it would be this bad. She didn't think anything could be this bad. This was worse than the mumps.
Kate accepted the change with great anticipation. She loved travelling down new roads and taking on their challenges. She missed her boyfriend a lot but she knew their relationship was probably going to be tested a gazillion times. At just sixteen she wouldn't have it any other way. She fell in love with his kindness at an ice cream stand and discovered everything else worth discovering when they got home. It was hard for her to admit she was falling in love with him. Staying noncommittal was the easiest way to take it day by day. And besides, it was the middle of the summer. If he wanted to see her he knew where she'd be. He was seventeen and had a car, end of story.
Now there were new people, new food, and new places to experience. There were so many new firsts she didn't which first to make first and which first to make second, on so on down the line.
Kate parked their rental car on the edge of town and the first thing she saw was a sign that read, "Rancho, Oklahoma, population five hundred and sixty-eight". Jenny was with her. The sign was the second thing she noticed. The first was an empty town with a lot of dust. She didn't like a lot of dust.
As they got out of the car they looked around. They didn't walk around they just looked. Ahead of them was a diner shaped like a caboose. It was red and old and whatever panache it once had was certainly destroyed by time and weather.
The Caboose had been closed for the last twelve hours. It was supposed to be open all day long. The cook was down by the cemetery paying his regrets. He knew the little girl who died. His daughter was her best friend. She died the year before. He just figured anyone who wanted food bad enough would have to hang around 'til he got back. A fat woman wanted food real bad. She waited in line. As a matter of fact, she was the line. He knew she'd be there. She always was. He left the service early.
It was a nice little diner. "Kiss My Caboose" was the name. It was written on the cardboard sign attached to the smoke stack sticking up from above the entrance. It had six seats at the counter, twelve in the three booths, and one worn out stool in the back of the kitchen. The cook ate his piece of pie on the one in the kitchen every night before he locked up.
Everyone loved The Caboose. The prices were cheap, the atmosphere was cozy, and Tex Ritter music played on the old jukebox from sun up to sun down. That was how the fat lady knew she was about to be let in. "I Dreamed Of Hillbilly Heaven" began to fill the air. Tex Ritter never sounded better.
The cook opened the front door and the fat lady innocently made her way past him. She nimbly turned sideways so she wouldn't knock him over. In all the years she'd been eating there she was proud that she never did hit him, not even once. He still had on his ten year old dark suit. It didn't fit right but it served a purpose.
Solemnly he walked into the kitchen and traded his suit for his apron and jeans. They were hanging on a nail next to his pots and pans. The nail was always there, for those times when he wore a suit and couldn't wait to get out of it. This was one of those times.
The fat lady comfortably sat on the two counter stools closest to the kitchen. She always sat there. People wondered if she thought she'd get her food faster if she sat there. No one bothered to ask her.
She read the menu top to bottom like she always did. Cover to cover, side to side, licking her lips every time she cruised over the grilled cheese sandwich and cottage fries. She seemed almost giddy that a side of mashed potatoes would only set her back seventy-nine more cents.
Outside the Caboose Kate leaned her eyes up against the window and watched the fat lady break into a sweat making up her mind what to order. Would it be the grilled cheese or turkey potpie? Only time would tell. Kate loved the drama, hurrying a whisper into Jenny's ear that hysterically said, "Oh my God she's wearing a beehive. Is this a blast or what?"
Jenny put her nose up to the window and the two of them watched the show together. Unlike her sister, though, she was hoping the show was just about over. She really wasn't in the mood to be entertained. Since she got off the airplane she hadn't been in the mood for anything.
They both in their own way were feeling the difference between today and yesterday. The difference was huge. Yesterday was New York. Lights. Camera. Action. Today was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. No billboards. No Taco Bell. No fun. Rancho was nothing more than a once forgotten town that was still forgotten.
"Trust me," Kate continued as she watched the freak show, "beehives went out the day Elvis died. I never saw one but mom used to tell me all about them."
"I trust you, Kate, and who's Elvis?"
"Elvis isn't a who he's a what. And what he was was the reason Grandpa Louie wore sideburns down to his knees and Grandma Lucy wore a ring around her neck."
Excerpted from Stalk by ALLEN RUBENS. Copyright © 2013 Allen Rubens. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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