A limerick for a mythical visitor

Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children's worship room last weekend.

Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children’s worship room last weekend.

There once was a unicorn mouse,

That refused to stay in its house.

It left rainbow poop

(Enough to scoop)

That’s so cute, I can’t even grouse.

Close-up of rainbow poop.

Close-up of rainbow poop.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

She was a survivor: A devotional

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (John 4:5, NLT)

Jesus is sitting at a well in Samaria (modern-day northern West Bank) when a woman comes to draw her water. It is noon. The heat of the day. No clouds anywhere. Usually, people filled their water jugs first thing in the morning, before it got hot.

So why is this woman getting to the well so late?

Jesus gives us a hint during their conversation:

you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now (v.18).

Now it makes sense. Why invite the judgment of other people, with their nasty looks or their refusal to look at her at all, if she didn’t have to? Perhaps she was also ashamed. Perhaps she was afraid people might stone her for her sins.

So when Jesus brings up living water, water that could take away her thirst, she jumps at it. No need for water would mean no need to see any of those people: problem solved.

Of course, Jesus is talking about the kind of thirst that she has been trying to satisfy with all those husbands — thirst for love, for acceptance, for security.

But let’s not slut-shame her like her fellow villagers did. Perhaps she was raped and her rapist paid her father rather than marry her, and then people treated her like she was a prostitute. Perhaps she was widowed young and then married a couple of her dead husband’s brothers, and then his family rejected her when she didn’t have children and her own family wouldn’t take her back. Women then had few options.

Whatever else she was, she was a survivor.

What was her reaction to Jesus’s frankness?

The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (v.27-28)

She ran towards the very people she’d been working so hard to avoid. Towards. And didn’t shy away from her reputation.

Jesus didn’t add to her shame — he gave her the living water of perfect love and acceptance.

What are you avoiding? What are you ashamed of? What are you thirsty for?

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Buh-bye high school locker notes

Here’s something I assume has gone the way of the rotary-dial phone and the dashboard cassette player: notes written to a friend during class and shoved through the vents of her locker. (I’m saying “her” here because my brief and unscientific survey determined that guys didn’t do this.)

piles of notes from one friend in high school

piles of notes from one friend in high school

Last January, when I went through every single piece of paper I’d saved for sentimental purposes, I set this pile aside. I didn’t want to keep it, but I wanted to go through it. These were all from Shelley (who I’ve written about before), who lied to me and everyone for much of a year.

She was dying of cancer. This might be the last note I ever get from her. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were Satanists who kept trying to rope Shelley into their rites. They wrote “Satan” on her arm in permanent marker. Her mother’s boyfriend hit Shelley. Shelley had anemia. And a kidney infection. And nosebleeds at skating practice. And her mother was kicking her out in favor of the boyfriend. And she met her real father who wanted her to live with him. She had to go to a funeral for four family members in one day. She was moving to the country with her mother and the boyfriend. She was a Christian. She wasn’t a Christian. She was a Christian. She wasn’t. Someone was leaving nasty notes to her and writing my name on them — did she believe me when I said I didn’t leave them? Her friend thinks I’m nice. Her other friend thinks I’m using her. Am I mad at her? Is Carol mad at her? I’m head of a clique in a school club we both belonged to. The club is lame under my leadership. Why do I sometimes act like I don’t want her around? She can always talk to me. I’m such a good listener. She doesn’t mean to always unload on me. She’s sorry she made me upset. How did I manage to forgive her for lying? Do I still think of her as a liar? Am I really still her friend? I needed to choose now.

I’m exhausted just typing that.

Not really. More like bemused and grateful. Bemused, because she gets all wrapped up in telling me everything her other friends say about me, and references big blow-ups, none of which I remember; I don’t even remember these other girls. At all. And grateful because I do not have people like that in my life anymore, people who constantly manipulate their friends and try to keep them off-balance and entranced by the constant drama and conflict. At the time, I forgave her and remained her friend (as much as anyone could be her friend) because I figured the lying came from deep insecurity and neediness, and she was still insecure and needy, so I couldn’t abandon her. Which makes me wonder:

Are all teenage girls emotional adrenaline junkies?

Probably, to some degree. Which is making me dread the coming few years. I’d thought my daughter might be inoculated from that after two little girl bullies “fought over” her in second grade, but I see entrancement with drama coming back. Sigh. I’m sure there are good developmental purposes to it, maybe practicing in preparation for real difficulties in later life. I don’t have to like it, though.

There are so many more venues for drama and conflict now: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, texting, and whatever new platforms develop between now and May, when we are finally nice enough to get the dear daughter her own phone. Now that makes me nostalgic for notes shoved in my locker.

But not nostalgic enough to keep them. I’m not even keeping them in the name of writing research.

I will choose to be free. Both of these notes and of people who seek to manipulate through emotional drama. There is enough real pain and suffering in my world — I need all my energy for that.

So what will you choose to be free of this year? This month? Any little papers you’ve been holding on to that you really should let go of?



Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Sometimes you’ve got to thank God in front of the great assembly

Here is the prayer I’ve written into my prayer journal more times than I care to count (this particular one is from 2/13/14):

“Please, Lord, may we get out of credit card debt this year. Help us. Keep after us. Let us not give up tithing, Lord. Let us not give up recognizing that our good things come from you. Help us dig out of this hole we’ve gotten ourselves into. Forgive me for the stupid way I’ve often handled our resources.”

Here is something else I wrote in this space (What Is and Is Not a Tool) a little more than a year ago:

Money is not a tool for happiness, but it is a tool for food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment, doing good (aka, giving), but also for facilitating creative expression, even mine; I need to stop feeling guilty when I spend money on my creative expression and stop finding excuses not to spend on my creative expression….

I want to dance on stage again, in a group, doing choreography that is not my own. I want to be in class again. Which costs money, and means that I will have a schedule that other family members will have to work around. I’ve been making every excuse for why it wouldn’t work for years. But I can’t do that much longer. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of flexibility and strength, so I think now might be the time. This might be the year it will not be denied. That I will not deny myself.

I wrote that post on July 3, 2013. In August, I got one writing and one editing freelance gig. I found out about a new dance studio that was run by a friend and offered free — yes, free! — dance classes. And I got a temporary job digitizing sermons for a retired minister whose career was being archived by Grand Valley State University. This year, other freelance gigs have come my way. I have attended three writer’s conferences. The dance studio continues to be free and I continue to love dancing and performing again. I confess that we haven’t been quite as regular with tithing as we’ve been in the past, but we added a couple of organizations to our giving.

Best of all, as of this morning, we are free of credit card debt.

1195767_36244650Psalm 9:1-2

I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
    I will tell of all the marvelous things you have done.
I will be filled with joy because of you.
    I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.

Psalm 35:18

Then I will thank you in front of the great assembly.
    I will praise you before all the people.

This blog is the only great assembly I’ve got, so I’m thanking God here.

Faith is a thousand little decisions, like the decision to believe good things in my life come from God.

I haven’t gone out and looked for work: work has found me. Once work has found me, I work hard, I do the very best job I can, I learn new things, I take risks. And, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I work hard.

You might think that I finally prayed “hard enough” or was “obedient enough” so that God granted my request — people do love to speculate why your prayer was granted, mostly so they can get a guarantor for how their prayer might “work.”

You might credit the power of positive thinking. You might say it was one of those Oprah/Iyanla moments of me attracting the good things the universe is waiting to send my way; you might call it coincidence.

As for me, it’s enough to say that God has been working in my life and I have, as of this moment, no credit card debt. Can I get an “Alleluiah!”

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Acts of Creation: A Devotional

formless mass cloaked in darkness

image courtesy of duchessa, freeimages.com

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way. (Genesis 1:31)

The beginning of a new year is a good time to look at the beginning of everything.

Whatever length of time you think creation took, most of us can agree that in the beginning there was “a formless mass cloaked in darkness” (Gen. 1:2) and out of that, God created our world and made men and women in His image. However it happened, God had His creative hand in everything from massive hulking mountains to delicate designs etched inside seedpods to the complex system that is a human being.

God said the same thing about each thing: It is good. Until the moment when He looked back on it all and He said it was excellent in every way.

Excellent here doesn’t mean perfect, flawless, or the best of its kind. It doesn’t mean that each thing met a high artistic standard. It doesn’t mean each thing was a model of efficiency. It doesn’t mean someone else with more authority or knowledge looked at each thing and approved of it. Those are things we mean by excellent.

I think it’s something more basic: both the work of creation and the things He created gave God a deep sense of satisfaction, of rightness. Of joy. And because we are made in the image of a Creator God, satisfaction, rightness, and joy are available to us when we create.

Creative acts don’t only belong to what we call “the arts.” Even if we don’t ever do anything someone else would call “artistic,” we create our lives.

Thinking differently than the culture you grew up in or that you live in now is a creative act. Making an unexpected connection between things that seem unrelated is a creative act. Trying something new to you is a creative act. Finding a solution to a problem is a creative act. Working out how to be a follower of God is a creative act.

They’re creative acts because they require imagination. Any time you can imagine yourself and your life as different than they are at this moment, that’s profoundly creative – an image-of-God act.

So create a life that’s satisfying, right, and joyful. It may not look like the lives your family members or childhood friends build. It may not be approved of by everyone you know. At times, it may feel like a formless mass cloaked in darkness. But follow God’s creative spark and it can be excellent in every way.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Obligatory end-of-year musings

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

My theme word for 2014 was soft-hearted, which came on the heels of the not-on-purpose 2013 theme of compassion. A soft heart is a spiritual condition, which means that my heart should be softer/more open towards God, and because of God, which should come out in how I am with others. And you know what, I think my heart is softer.

I know I’ve been listening more than talking; my sporadic presence here on the blog reflects that. I’ve been more alive to the fears that lie behind so much human behavior, which has made me less judgmental. I’ve been slower to anger. My starting an anti-depressant this spring has something to do with that, but I’ve also been using my imagination in a disciplined manner, creating backstories for people who annoy me, until I reach the point at which I’m no longer annoyed. Mostly I’m not perfect at it, but I’m sure better than I was a year ago. I’ve been less irritable and more gentle with my family. I no longer try to compete in my mind with my husband on who has more stress, on who has it tougher.

There has been a related sub-theme that emerged throughout the year: acceptance.

In January, I went through all the family boxes of papers, including every letter and card ever sent to me, including notes left in my locker in high school. As I sorted and categorized (and tossed some stuff), I read what people have written me over the years. It was a revelation. Normally, I think of myself as kind of a bad friend. I rarely reach out and make contact. I’m too much of a hermit. I so frequently fail to follow through on things I’d like to do for my friends (most of which they don’t know about because I didn’t do them). I’ve let people I loved just fall through the cracks until I’ve entirely lost contact. All of those things are true, but the letters and cards let me round out that picture: I am an accepting friend. Over and over in these letters, friends from across my life said some version of the words, “I can always talk to you about things and know you won’t judge me, that you’ll still accept me.”

That was huge. It took awhile, but I let those words wash over me and seep into my heart. Because they’re true. I may not be a great friend, but I am an accepting one. So I took that on as an important part of my self image, and my life became crazy rich with variety of people to love this year. I am now friends with a woman who survived years of drug addiction and sex trafficking. I have more non-religious friends than I’ve had, possibly, ever. I stood on a sidewalk and talked with strangers about praying for girls and women who’ve survived abuse and trauma. And I’ve been more real, more courageous, more risk-taking than ever before. Which has only brought about more connection with people. It’s been a glorious cycle. And one I intend to keep going.

So what is this year’s word?


It was going to be show up. But as I was writing my prayer this morning as I prayed it (for only the second time this month, tsk, tsk, tsk) it morphed into practice. Both in the sense of the things I want to work on: prayer practice, writing practice, dance practice. And in the sense that “we call it practice because we’re not that good at it yet” (something a dear friend who is a spiritual director said once, a couple of years ago, and I can’t get out of my head). So I will both go harder after my various practices, and be accepting of myself when I’m not that good at it. I will practice both patience and impatience, simultaneously (something one of the presenters at my November writing conference said).

Because this is going to be a big year.

  • I am independently publishing my David and Saul novel series this year — all three of them!
  • I am going to work on two series for my blog that I’ve been wanting to do but have avoided: my diaries project (which I abandoned right before I got to the long-form diaries of high school), and an interview project. Through a few writing jobs I had this year, I discovered that I love doing interviews. I want to interview people about times of unsticking, times of pivoting in their lives. So be warned, I do not plan to talk to famous people. I plan to talk to my friends and ask all the deep questions we don’t normally ask of each other in our brief interactions. So be warned: I may contact you (you can always say “no” and know that I’ll accept you ;-)
  • Within a month, my husband and I will be credit card debt-free. I cannot fully express how much I’m looking forward to having that burden lifted.

So how about you? Any musings, either looking back or looking forward, that you want to share? Do you do the word of the year thing? If so, what’s your word?

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Drilling down to the 3rd thing

Last week I complained that I couldn’t go to a writer’s conference I really wanted to go to. And then my husband insisted that I go. So I went. This is my attempt to articulate how monumental a gift the Writer Unboxed UnConference was.

The Don, Donald Maass, would not let us take the easy way. He insisted, over and over, that we not use the first metaphor, the first emotion. He would say, “Write down the dominant emotion your character is feeling in a particular moment. Now write down another feeling. And now another. Use this third thing.”

So I’m going to apply this technique to what was, without exaggerating, one of the best weeks of my life.

Yes, it was like summer camp, with its intense emotional connections, its sessions, its bonfires (aka Bedtime Stories). But without the mean girls, the peer pressure (although I *did* have my once-in-a-decade after-dinner cigarette), or the inflexibility of scheduling (nobody got in trouble for skipping a session).

Was it a mountain top experience? That gets at the transcendent feel of the week, but we spent time in the valley, too, grieving for writer friends who’d died and getting real about the struggles of being a writer.

It was a quest.

A heroic one, even.

It was not a quest to be published, or to find the right agent, or meet the right editor, or to practice our elevator pitch, or to learn about marketing and social media (although those were active concerns for many).

There was one overarching purpose: to learn how to become the best damn storytellers we can be. So even the well-published authors leaned towards the same goal as the unpublished. For this week, we were all learners and supporters of other learners. We focused on our path as writers. The presenters came to Bedtime Stories (when anyone could read from their work). They went to sessions. They didn’t stick to their own vaulted company, but sat at the bar with anyone, played poker with anyone who wanted to sit at the table. The published went to lunch with the unpublished and were genuinely interested in what the unpublished were writing — I know this because they asked follow-up questions and made comments that showed that they had listened to the answers. I’ve been to enough writer’s conferences to know that this was truly an UnConference.

There were trials, of course.

There were 5 sessions slots every day from Tuesday through Thursday (from 9 a.m. – 10ish p.m.), with 30 possible sessions (oh, the choices we were forced to make!) with one long workshop all day Friday. I took 51 pages of notes. And I have teeny writing.

21st Century Fiction epiphanies

Every day, I learned at least a dozen things to apply to my works in progress or to my life. I pretended to be one of my characters while I chatted with other writers who were pretending to be one of their characters, and I had to order garlicky hummus because that’s the only menu item my character would be comfortable with (and then I had garlic breath all day). This method acting/eating/writing session gave me some insights into my character that I would never have gotten otherwise. I thought about beginnings and middles and character arcs and secondary characters and emotional impact and throughness and metaphor and woundedness and voice and a thousand other things, getting all wound up. And then a session reminded me to set appropriate goals, to reframe, to tell myself useful fictions, to not externalize my validation, and to practice patience and impatience simultaneously. And to “write fucking more.” I needed all of it.

Right before lunch on Friday, I was on the verge of tears, just because I was so exhausted. But then The Don asked a question about me and what I learned at the conference that launched something in my brain and one of my works in progress became clear to me in a way that would never otherwise had happened. It will be a deeper and tighter book because of that one moment of almost losing it.

 And then there’s the making of a symbol.

Since entering the chaos of parenting, I’ve become a very neat person (clean is another story). After being perfectly happy to live in a tornado of books and clothes spread so thickly on my teenage bedroom floor that mice would take up residence every autumn, I now need a peaceful environment — my home must combat the tumult of my life. Even my kitchen cabinets are visions of order. Like is always with like, lined up or stacked in the same positions. Heck, I even arrange the plastic kid snack plates into rainbow color order. As a result, I do not like one-offs in the kitchen. They mess up the organization and the visual calm. I do not like dishes with logos and words. If I receive one as a gift, it goes to Goodwill pretty quickly.

But the first morning I was in my own home since the conference, I cradled in my palms the generous curves of my one-off mug with the conference logo, and cried.

Cried, not because I was happy, or missing people, or tired (although I was all those things), but because I was full. Am full.

Because I loved the people, because I liked how I was while I was with them, because my brain was a puddle on the floor from all the work it was doing, because we listened to each other’s stories (both the fictional and the personal), because we grieved and we laughed, because we quested together — because of all these things, this one-off logo mug is now a symbol of all the deep and silly things that happened. I will use it every day and it will be full of glorious meaning.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Sometimes being an adult stinks



I’m being all grown-up about something. And it stinks.

My husband and I are less than $1,000 away from being at credit card 0 for the first time in several years. We’ve both worked really hard to make this happen and we’re grateful and proud … and not quite there yet. I’m bound and determined to not let it creep up again.

So I can’t do this thing that I want to do more than anything else. For several years, I’ve been part of an online writing community centered around the amazing blog, Writer Unboxed. I’ve commented on blog posts, joined the Facebook community, and become Facebook friends with writers from all over the world. This community has made me a better, more courageous, and more generous writer. They’ve introduced me to novels that I’ve devoured and to writing craft advice that I’ve taken to heart. It’s not exaggerating to say that I love these people.

And they’re throwing a conference.

I can’t go.***

There are only two days left to sign up, so unless someone steps forward with $1,500 (conference + airfare + lodging + food), saying, “Natalie, I want to invest in your dream of being a novelist. Use this for however you need it,” we can’t afford it.

So many of my favorite people from this community are going to be there, including writing craft instructors who command even bigger bucks than that will be leading sessions. But I’ve lived under the burden of bad, stupid debt for too long. I can’t put myself back there, even for something I want to do so badly. I’m trying to be mature about it, and mostly succeeding, except for this little nubbin in my soul that is consumed with jealousy.

So there’s my whine.

How about you? Is there something you want to do, but you’ve decided to be a grown up about it and are saying no? If so, please share. I’d love to commiserate.

***Edited to add: My husband scolded me and told me it was worth it, so I’m driving not flying, and I’m staying at an airbnb place instead of a hotel, but I’m going to the conference. For my husband to believe in my dream even more than I do … is a priceless gift. Thank you, Michael.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

May I have the courage to…

ribbons with prayers

This fall, I participated in an Art Prize installation by writing prayers on red ribbons for girls and women, both in general, and for those who have survived sexual abuse and exploitation (more about that later in this post). I wrote names of girls and women I knew were survivors. I wrote prayers that a girl would be rescued that day. I wrote prayers that assured the reader that she was worthy of being rescued.  Several times, I wrote, “May you have the courage to tell your story.”

And then: “May I have the courage to tell my story.”

I paused.

That was not what I’d intended to write. This was supposed to be about them. But in this area, there is no them. There is us.

I added my name to the next ribbon, because I am a survivor of sexual abuse.

When I was in grade 1,when I’d go to a neighborhood friend’s house to play, her father would take me in another room and touch me. It happened multiple times, although I don’t remember how many. I didn’t remember telling my mother, but credited our moving to Australia with stopping the abuse. It wasn’t until I was a parent, myself, and grieving that I never gave my parents the opportunity to protect me, that I found out that I had. I’d come home upset after a party at this friend’s house. My mother couldn’t get out of me what had happened, but she’d assured me that I never had to go back to that house. Ever. Later that year, when we were safely in Australia, she got it out of me, and she’d written to warn other families in the neighborhood with daughters who would go to this girl’s house to play.

Compared to the abuse suffered by other people I know, and how adults in their lives compounded the abuse by being angry at and blaming the victim, mine is a mild story. But it is mine.

It has been fuel to the fire of my anger against men. I used it to justify my poor treatment of men in my late teens/early 20s. But God did a mighty work in my life by convincing me that men are His children, too, and worthy of being treated as such — this paradigm shift made healthy relationships (both sexual and otherwise) with men possible.

The organization that used those ribbons is the Red Cord Community, helmed by my good friend Lorilyn Wiering. Here’s a photo of the Art Prize exhibit.

Photo by Red Cord Community of its Art Prize exhibit

Handling so many prayers while I helped tie the ribbons to the wires was moving. Seeing all those prayers fluttering in the breeze, bathing the heads of tall people who walked through the installation, was beautiful and powerful. Telling the story of the organization and the purpose of the ribbons, and watching people — children and adults — add their prayers and their stories was profound and lovely, and sometimes sad. But always a privilege.

Lorilyn’s tagline on her email, and her vision for the Red Cord Community is this: “Together we will become a community where all are givers and all are receivers.”


As part of a community like that, sometimes I will be the receiver of stories and the giver of love and understanding, and other times I will give my story and receive love and understanding — thereby enabling me to give deeper and richer (and even holier) love and understanding.

I pray for you to have courage to do whatever it is that you feel God (or the universe) nudging you to do. And, frankly, I pray that I do not get a massive vulnerability hangover for writing this.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

Ghost Breath

 [This is a flash fiction piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I was given the assignment of writing a ghost story that took place at a university cafeteria that included oven mitts.]

 ice fog photo

It was a good thing the roads were empty. Henry’s mind was not on his driving.

I won’t go into the dining hall until the sub buns are in the oven.

That’s too late.

I’ll go when I’m through #5 on the checklist.

That’s too soon.

He’d gone in too soon yesterday and it was the only day … it … didn’t happen.

The university glowed white in the valley, shrouded in ice fog. He blasted the defogger and crawled along by memory. Soon he stood in the kitchen threshold, watching the path he’d opened through the ice droplets drift shut. Within seconds he was as closed-in as the door would make him in a moment. He sighed.

I’ll go in at 3:30.

He walked in and flipped the light switches. The fluorescents above his worktable were still broken. He could climb up and loosen the bulbs, himself, but the flickering couldn’t make him feel any more unsettled than he was. Besides, the funeral director told him not to take any physical risks for a while.

Instead, he worked the list, wheeling the sheet pan racks of sub buns out of the freezer and parking them near the ovens to thaw and proof, dumping the foccacia ingredients into the 40 quart mixer and putting the dough hook to work, and getting the 20 quart mixer going on the muffins.

Which left his mind free to circle back to the same issue.

His nose could tell when bread was done and when chocolate chip cookies were the perfect amount of un-doneness. But it couldn’t tell what that floral scent in the dining hall was.

Was it lily of valley?

Right after Emma was born, and then every birthday since, he’d gathered her a fist-thick bouquet of them.

Or was it rose? From her hand lotion?

What had made him step away from the ovens and into the gloom of the dining hall on Monday? It was pure pain to imagine what should have been: Emma, laughing and eating his good food, baked with extra love because his daughter was a freshman.

He’d explained the scent away at first. The cleaning crew was probably using a new product. Tuesday, he couldn’t stay away and he smelled it again, but it didn’t have that sharp disinfectant edge and it wasn’t spread throughout the room. He asked around, but there’d been no change in the cleaners’ routines.

Could a student have spilled perfume?

When he caught a gentle wisp of … something in the air on Wednesday, he dropped and almost buried his nose in the industrial carpet. It smelled like rubber. He scrambled up, closed his eyes, and chased the scent around the room until the 4 a.m. crew arrived.

Could it be?

His sister had seen their mother after she died.

Two of his nieces had seen his father after he died.

One of his nephews had seen and heard his own mother after she died.

There was family precedent.

That was why he’d rushed it on Thursday and why he was going to be smarter today.

When the mixers were quiet, the tchick of the minute hand echoed in his head. No matter how many times he checked, the digital clock on the microwave agreed with the analog clock on the wall. Three-thirty wasn’t coming fast enough.

Until there it was. Too soon.

Henry’s heart felt like it was both stopped and racing, although that was impossible. Instead of filling the remaining muffin papers, he wheeled the batter and the waiting trays into the fridge. He put on his long oven mitts and took the first batch out, sliding each sheet pan as methodically as he could manage into the slots of the waiting cart. Only eight muffins hit the floor. And then he pushed through the doors to the dining hall.

Normally at this time, the world outside the windows was thick black, with campus security lights illuminating the paths and highlighting a few trees. But now the ice fog diffused that light, making the unlit room oddly bright. There was no world beyond that white glow, nothing to see, no shapes to make out. Nothing.

Ghost breath.

His breath stuttered in his throat.

That was what Emma used to call ice fog. Regular fog was God’s breath, but ice fog was ghost’s breath.

Was it a sign?

He breathed in for several long counts and out as briefly as he could and not pass out. He scanned the room through his peripheral vision. He was making himself light headed.

“Are you there?”

The desperation and hope in his voice made him cringe.

“I love you. I miss you so much.” His voice cracked like a teenager’s, but he kept talking. “I don’t know what to do now. I’ve been asking all those ‘why’ questions I was too strong to ask when you were still with me. Not getting anywhere with them. Which you warned me about.”

And then the floral aroma coiled around him. This time it came with a chill.

“Is that my lily of the valley?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shimmer.

It thickened into a woman in an ugly hair net and the kind of uniform the cafeteria workers wore fifty years ago.

It started out as a whimper, but ended in a rough scream. “How dare you get my hopes up!”

He shucked his oven mitts and tried to grab the ghost. His hands swept over the nearest table, but it was empty, so he picked up the gloves and threw them at her.

“How could you be so cruel?”

He hoisted three chairs over his head and hurled them in her direction.

But she was gone.

She was gone. His Emma. Gone.

He crumpled to the floor and howled, insensible, inconsolable.

Share this!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone