PRIDE’S CHILDREN Chapter 2

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PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 2

Daughter of Jairus

 ~ ~ ~

“Are you ready?”  Jake spoke quietly from the covered wagon’s seat.

I will never be ready. Meggie surveyed the wasted, wretched landscape, turning slowly to burn this place into her memory: to the east, interminably flat, ochre grasses hid the wheels, floating the wagons on an endless swell-less sea; southward, a faint band of green marked the borders of the Platte; north and west rose mountains so dark and tall crossing them must be impossible; and behind her, sentinels, the gnarly scrub oak and the great rock shaded the darker rectangle where her heart was buried.

She climbed the schooner’s step.

Jake twitched reins in hand. “Giddyap.”

She would not need to look again.

Prairie Fires, Chapter 18.

~ ~ ~

  …in other ‘news’ Irish actor ANDREW O’CONNELL has joined the ranks of actors who think they can sing, who dump personal money on vanity tours. His voice scarred by smoke, he fronts an Irish pub band, the DEADLY NIGHTSHADES, who should hang on to their day jobs. Not ready for big time…

http://www.musicpetes.com, Nov. 15, 2004

~ ~ ~

“If all the critics say I’m entirely the wrong fellow for it.” Andrew shrugged as he answered Dana’s question, ‘What makes you sign on to a project?’ That was easy enough.

“Afraid of getting typecast?”

“Deathly.”

“You’re filming in America next.” Dana hunkered down, elbows propped on the arms of her chair, hands clasped attentively in her lap. “Incident at Bunker Hill for director Grant Sykes. You’re the villain.

“They told me I’d be playing the hero!” Beat. “A loyal Englishman!”

Laughter and whistling from the upper decks.

“Irish, eh?” He pretended to be surprised. “Ye can burn me in effigy later—may be I’m not very good at it.”

Appreciative chuckles.

“Who else is starring?”

“John Robbins.” He paused for the clapping and hooting. Popular lad, Johnny. “And Peter.” It would be good to be around Peter again. “Lots of horses.”

“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”

“Eh?”

“The beautiful Miss Bianca Doyle?” Dana cocked her head, smirked. “You were seen deep in conversation with her at last year’s Academy Award ceremonies…”

“We were talking about a role.” Not the right time for that one yet. “You’d be thinking they’d let me have me fun first. I’ve met her once.” Vultures. The verbal fencing was trickier than that with a sword—at least you knew then who you were trying to kill. “Even I need more time than that.”

She leaned in closer. “You’ll get a chance for a lot more talking soon.”

Ah. It’s a scoop you’ll be wanting. He’d been a minnow last time. Now she honored him as top prey. All in good fun, of course—Dana would not antagonize guests. Why had he thought women were easier? She was displaying signs of the shark: sharp teeth—embedded in his flesh, quick darting in and out—with a chunk of that flesh as her prize. He let the pause lengthen—dead air was her problem.

A derisive squawk from George’s bass.

Dana cast a glance in the band’s direction, chuckled in concession. “You’ll let us know?”

“The minute there’s a contract to put ink on.” And the bloody thing is public.

“We’ll be waiting for it anxiously.” Dana acknowledged the swell of applause. “Now, tell us about your band, the Deadly Nightshades.”

Hooting from the crowd.

“They’re all very shy fellows.”

Laughter.

“You’ve been playing together a long time.”

“Since we were barely out of nappies.” And never enough time any more.

“You’d just finished your first US tour when Roland hit.”

“Aye.”

“You realize future tickets’ll be bought by women who want to see Roland in the flesh, who’ve never heard you sing and who don’t give a damn if you can?”

Roland changed everything. Not even the band was safe. “If they like what they’re hearing—the big if—they’ll be coming back. We’re getting ready to cut another CD. We managed to move more than fifty of the first one; that encouraged the lads.”

Scattered applause; a few people waved CD cases.

Dana caught a cue from the producer on the sidelines. “And you’ll all have to wait, folks—time for a word from our sponsors. When we come back, novelist K. Beth Winter!”

The camera rolled back, the monitor switched to commercial.

Dana stretched her neck, cracked her vertebrae. “It always gets me, the tension.” The shark smiled at him unapologetically. “Four minutes. Need anything?”

“Nope.” Damn American smoking laws. He deposited his mug on the table, shifted gratefully in a chair that had become a prison. He was the momentary eye in a hurricane of frenetic activity. Privacy—versus the publicity clauses in his contract. It left a metallic taste, as if he’d had a gun in his mouth. Since Roland—offers to be sifted and winnowed. Bianca Doyle directing Dodgson was but a faint possibility. She was one of many in the Hollywood firmament: competent at women’s emotions, sleek, taut-bodied, sexually free, available—interchangeable.

In the wings, the woman from the greenroom sat bowed over a book.

Stage fright? Prayer? What did she have to hide?

~ ~ ~

Andrew scooted himself out of the hot seat to the adjacent chair. He scanned the audience, gave three blondes using their CD cases as mirrors to attract his attention a wave and nod. In a previous life he could’ve talked to them, made a date; now he’d be lucky if they kept their shirts on. It complicated things. A staffer replaced his mug with a steaming one; the countdown reprised. Behind them, Dana’s mobile face in closeup filled the audience’s giant TV monitors. My turn to observe.

“We’re back! Still to come, Andrew O’Connell and his band—the Deadly Nightshades.” Dana said. “But now, my other guest this evening is a woman who’s not used to the limelight, not because she doesn’t deserve it, but because, as I hope she’ll tell us, she can’t take much of it. Four years ago her first book, Prairie Fires, rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists like a bomb out of the blue; when it was followed by Thunder at Creek Station, the world discovered a major new talent—a writing voice of liquid gold. Tonight we’re honored to present her first interview ever.

“So without further introduction,” Dana stood to lead the clapping, angled her head, “here to tell us about her new novel, Yorktown Harbor, is K. Beth Winter!”

He rose, clapped along with the crowd, focused on the author. She came out of the blocks well, with a determined stride, and the grace which bespoke little-girl ballet lessons. A long clean line. Clothes—minimalist, expensive, barely adorned with flat gold earstuds. She seemed surprised by the applause, but smiled and waved her free hand before accepting a cheek brush from Dana.

For a moment he had her full attention. She was unexpectedly tall, only an inch or two shorter in low-heeled gray boots than his six feet–two. Steady gray-green eyes under straight pale eyebrows held his gaze in assessment. She inclined her head, offered her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. O’Connell.”

He took the slim hand in both of his, raised it to his lips: cool, short nails, no polish, no rings. A writer’s hand. “The pleasure is all mine.”

Something felt odd. What?

She broke contact first. Dana gestured at the chairs. The author sat, folded her long legs sideways towards him, politely faced their host. He settled in for a listen.

The monitor image bracketed the two women. Then, as the applause continued unabated, the cameras switched, giving him a chance to examine her in closeup. She had a fine skull—she would still be beautiful when she was ninety. Older than he. Forties? A faint blush colored her winter-pale skin. So, embarrassed by the attention. Why? George had discovered the name was a pseudonym, located not even the customary writer’s vanity photo on a dust jacket.

A puzzle. None of the markers of the sophisticate. He’d bet a lot of money the short hair was neither dyed nor lacquered. Lip gloss, mascara on what were probably, from her coloring, very pale lashes… Why did he always have to be so curious? He’d never see her again. The usual answer was ‘grist for the mill,’ that it all connected somewhere in the recesses of his terminally nosy brain.

A grownup? Someday he might want to be like her—but certainly not now.

Everything perfect in her life.

~ ~ ~

She couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to, but the guest armchair enclosed and supported her like a full-body cast. Her gaze swept over the audience which wouldn’t stop clapping. Many of them stood. That people had liked her stories was evident from Elise’s sales reports, unreal numbers she had swallowed with a grain of salt knowing that returns from bookstores hadn’t yet been factored in. She had let Elise’s staff deal with any fan mail. The advances she discounted: publishers must have needed someone to fill a niche. But these were real people, and the roar was enthusiastic, not polite.

To her right, the actor clapped along with the crowd. She retained an impression of muscled bulk in jeans and hand-knit fisherman’s sweater, sandy lion’s mane, eyes of intense blue. Dana was no help; if anything, she seemed to be encouraging the unmerited response.

You might as well enjoy it: the damage was done the instant a TV camera broadcast your image. She hoped Charles wasn’t watching. She gripped right wrist with left hand over the hardcover in her lap, and awaited the Inquisition.

Dana grinned. “This is a coup for us, Ms. Winter.” She reached for a hardcover edition of Prairie Fires on the end table, held it up. “I took it on vacation with me and stayed up half the night to finish.”

Kary glanced at the TV monitor; the cover filled the screen. “Please. Call me Kary.” Another nail in my coffin? As if it matters. Her throat needed clearing. Stupid nerves. “Sorry for the lost sleep.”

“I don’t even like historical fiction!” Dana shook her head as if amused at herself. “What made you choose to write about the wagon trains—and the women who settled the West?”

“My public library.” This I can do. With an effort, she ignored lights, cameras, audience. She focused on their host: the younger woman would guide her through. “I chanced on a book called Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel. These pioneer women crossing the country in covered wagons put more in their journals than they realized.”

“How so? Didn’t they record what happened?”

“It’s more complicated than that. They’d make entries such as ‘stopped for one day’, ‘caught up with the train later’.”

“But not why?”

Perceptive. “No. From these fragments Lillian deduced the women were birthing babies, dying in childbirth, and losing children and husbands to disease, snake-bite, drowning—the obstacles imposed by the imperative to get across the prairies before winter hit.”

“If I lost a child I’d be damn sure to record it,” Dana said.

“On paper?” As if you could forget. “It was too painful. Lillian’s description of little crosses by the roadside makes you weep.” So many didn’t make it. Her shoulders rose, dropped. “And they couldn’t afford weakness. Not then, not when they got to the new lands.”

“The rest?” Dana’s thumb and forefinger held far apart implied a thick book.

“Journals, letters, government archives—lots of people helped.” Kary shrugged again. Nobody wants to hear about research. “I’ve tried to acknowledge them in the credits.”

“Critics complained you pandered to mass markets by giving these women sex lives.”

“Most were young and healthy.” With her free hand, Kary reached for the mug beside her. She sipped, had a flash of gratitude for whoever had filled it with iced water. Steady now. She met and held Dana’s gaze. “They had sex lives.”

Chuckles from the audience.

“Margaret Mitchell based Scarlett O’Hara on her grandmother. Did you have any real-life models for Meggie and Jake?”

Insightful of Dana. “My father’s sister told me stories of growing up on a farm in the Midwest. I tried to imagine what distinguished the hardy souls who survived from those who didn’t make it—and from the ones who stayed behind. Besides luck, of course.”

“A kind of loving ruthlessness?”

Kary nodded.

“You struck a chord—it became one of the most-read books in America.” Dana exhibited the second hardcover book for the audience. “Then came Thunder at Creek Station. Another bestseller.” Dana angled her head. “An Alabama town during the Civil War—a bit of overlap with Gone with the Wind?”

“From a less romantic perspective on the war.” Nitpicking, maybe, but important. “Some people want to understand what Mammy’s life was like.”

Dana’s eyebrows arched. “Caring for a series of spoiled brats.” Her tone closed the topic.

Appreciative chuckles.

“And this is…?” Dana gestured at the thick tome in Kary’s lap.

Host’s prerogative: keep it moving. Kary presented the product.

Dana held up the new volume like a Lectionary, displayed for her congregation. All that was missing was a prayer. “Yorktown Harbor. It’ll be in stores…?”

“Tomorrow.” She knew it would sound self-serving, being on a talk show immediately before the book’s release. If she’d postponed again it could have been safely out. All accidental. But it would please her publishers no end, and they’d been forced to so much patience.

More thunderous applause.

Dana intoned, from the back cover, “‘A virtual time machine to the last major battle of the Revolutionary War—which might have gone either way.’”

“Professor Elyonnes exaggerates.” But his letter had warmed her heart.

“Would you…?” Dana returned the book reverently.

The neck of Kary’s sweater was too warm. The request gave her an excuse to break eye contact. She managed not to drop the pen tendered, opened the volume, and inscribed it ‘To Dana. Memorare. Kary.’

Dana placed the book next to the others; the TV monitor briefly displayed the three volumes side by side. She leaned forward, clasped her hands in front of her heart. “It takes you a very long time to write these stories, doesn’t it? And there is a very special understanding in their pages of pain, exhaustion, and sacrifice.” Her voice was low, full of sympathy. “Would you tell our viewers why?”

The time has come to do some good—or look like an idiot. Kary took a deep breath, banished extraneous thoughts. “The people I write about have active, impassioned lives. They work hard, push through adversity, achieve great things. I honor their lives by writing about them, since I can no longer be them. My life is exactly the opposite: to get anything done at all, I manage my energy and time like a miser, curtail all other expenditures except for writing.

“I have the mysterious illness known variously as CFS—Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, ME—myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic mono.” She paused. “Or, humorously, Yuppie flu.” There. Might as well be naked. Dana’s ‘Ms. Winter’ was well-meaning but utterly futile. Name, face, profession—and now disease—for fifty million viewers. One of them would connect the dots. It is done.

“But there’s nothing funny about it,” Dana said.

“Nope. Not much.” I chose to come. Nobody forced me. But— ‘We need people to see what it’s really like’—from her support group. And they were right. Why me? Because you’ve found a way to make an impression in spite of… So be it.

“It causes you pain, and exhaustion, and brain fog, and—”

Let’s keep it light, okay? “I particularly mind the ‘dog collar’ effect.” She grabbed her throat, stuck out her tongue, mimed choking.

Dana’s head jerked back. “The what?”

“The neck’s lymph glands—they swell up, make it hard to keep my head level—like a tight dog collar.” Enough gruesome details? “It’s one of my warnings—it means ‘go to bed immediately, you’ve pushed yourself past another damn limit.’”

Titters from the audience, a snort from the actor.

She’d forgotten they were there.

“I’m curious.” Dana leaned in further, dropped her clasped hands to her lap. “Why, given all that it costs you, are you willing to spend your allottment of energy on writing?”

The crux. “Because I can. Because even if I can only work in one-page increments, there is something of me left.” I won’t say, ‘What else can I do?’ She heard ‘victim’ in her earnest tone, lightened it. “And sometimes I have good days!”

“But it’s hard.”

Why is Dana pushing? It’s bad enough having to live it. “Flannery O’Connor didn’t stop writing because of pain. Frieda Kahlo didn’t stop painting.” Wait—that implies I think I’m in their category. “They are my role models; I aspire to what they achieved.” Somehow that’s worse. Try again. “You just can’t let these things take what’s left of you.”

“Or they win?” Dana’s voice was quiet and reasonable.

Kary let the accumulated tension out with a whoosh of stale air laced with adrenaline. Dana understood. “Or they win.” She glanced toward the audience, smiled. “Can’t have that.”

A smattering of applause.

“How do you stay so cheerful?” Dana probed, her needle of a voice looking for the vein and the rush of blood.

“I find little ways.” I can’t volunteer at the soup kitchen. Or build houses for the homeless. Or even promise to be there every Wednesday at the same time to read to the third graders. I can’t deal with people. What you do so effortlessly wipes me out. She shrugged deeply, feeling the stretch. “I can’t afford the energy to get angry about it.” Or the aftereffects of adrenaline. “I cheat. A lot.”

“You cheat?”

The last thing I want is intelligent sympathy. Or pity. “I don’t mow the lawn, or clean house, or anything useful like that. And I don’t do many interviews.”

Laughter.

“And you are getting better.”

“I wish I could say that.”

“But you’ve finished three novels, and you’re here.” Dana spoke with intense conviction. “You’re better.”

Kary was taken aback. What does she want? “Some people have improved, a few seem completely recovered; I’ve regained some control by napping several times a day…” She could not give false hope. “I’m sorry—that’s all most of us manage.” Dana doesn’t understand.

Dana covered her face with her palms; then she shook herself, steepled her fingers under her chin. “I apologize. When I heard of all you’ve done, I wanted…” She gestured with her hands out, fingers spread wide. She faced the audience, spoke directly into the camera. “Those of you who are regulars know I rarely talk about myself. I’m more of a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of gal. But tonight I had to have Kary—Ms. Winter—on, for a very personal reason.” She turned to Kary, eyes bright. “My baby sister’s one of your biggest fans. She’s had CFS for five years.”

Kary let her eyes close for a moment. It all made sense now. I’m so worried about myself, I forgot why I came. Selfish, selfish. “I’m so very sorry to hear that.” The poor child!

“Chrissy watches me every night.” Dana blinked fast, visibly pulled herself together. “We’re all looking for a cure.” Her gaze shifted to the TelePrompTer. “Oops! Time for our break.”

The audience began to clap.

“And when we come back, hold on to your hats, because Andrew O’Connell and his band, the Deadly Nightshades, will be singing their hearts out for you!”

Applause rose, fell.

On the silent monitor a woman in the first commercial mouthed about her deodorant. Kary was drained down to the base of her spine, to the aching muscles in her thighs. She pushed the nascent headache to the edge of her skull.

I used to be a physician. But what can I do for Chrissy? Not one damned thing.

~ ~ ~

From center of attention, Kary transitioned to ‘stage prop.’

The makeup girl scurried in to blot her forehead, administer a benediction in the form of a layer of powder. The actor walked off with the producer, gesticulating as he talked. Dana’s input was required elsewhere…

Kary closed her eyes, sank deeply into the chair. Trying to block external stimuli and her own disorganized thoughts, she drew air into her lungs and imagined pulling it all the way down to her soles.

A crisp, “Two minutes, please!” broke through the background. She opened her eyes to a worried Dana.

“You okay?” Dana asked. “Cristina’ll kill me if you have a relapse.”

“Don’t worry.” Way too late now. The fear–beast purred at her feet. The new world looked exactly like the old one. Of course it does. “Even if I do, thanks for the national exposure.”

“Andrew’ll take the next ten minutes,” Dana said. “After him and the last break, a ten minute wrap—but if you’re not up to it…”

“I’ve come this far.” If I don’t try to move, no one will know that I can’t. She fought the paralysis and the sense of doom. Snap out of it, for heaven’s sake! “Besides, now I’m curious.”

“You and every woman in America.” Dana seemed relieved, turned to answer a crewman’s question.

TV hype? Kary knew nothing about Andrew O’Connell. Why hadn’t she watched Dana interview him? You have to stop being so self-centered.

In the lull, the television monitor displayed an image of Andrew half-perched on a high black stool, holding an acoustic guitar. He was in animated discussion with the producer, who gave a quick nod of assent and hurried off camera.

The monitor went to closeup. He seemed perfectly at home on screen. The shaggy hair was a good cut, overgrown. His gaze roved: band to audience to Dana. Kary’s breath caught: he’d inherited darker brows and ‘smutty–finger’ lashes surrounding the Irish blue, but camera and lighting emphasized them beyond all fairness. What a treasure for an actor.

“Five, four, three…” They were back.

As the cameras went live, the man on the screen faced the camera head-on, his fingers picking the strings in quiet rhythm. His ring flashed red as the stone caught the light. “I like to tell people a wee story about how I came to write my songs.” The tip of his tongue wet his lips. “This one is a little thing I wrote, don’t know who for yet, but she’s out there somewhere, and I’m hoping she’s listening tonight.” He smiled, a lost look came over his face, his eyes gazed far off into the distance. “It’s called ‘The mother of my child’…”

Kary startled. From a rock band?

The crowd cheered; catcalls and whistles had their moment, followed by an expectant hush as the music pickup brought out the haunting melody.

The pit of her stomach went queasy. His voice, backed by the bass, was rough, the band’s music full of unexpected Celtic harmonics.

He throws a ball, she’s always there to catch…”

Did he have any idea what they’d cost him, wife, child? His vision was unattainable illusion.

“…She’ll take my soul, she’ll give it back to me

The mother of my child.”

He kept his gaze lowered, repeated the refrain twice with the band soft behind him.

Kary’s heart syncopated. Why should I care?

It’s just a song.

It’s his job to tug heartstrings. It’s just a song.

———————————————————–

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By Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

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