When I started posting my short stories on Fridays, I thought I had enough for a couple of months. Now, nearly six months later, I’ve finally run out. But I’ve enjoyed revisiting these stories and have decided to continue with Fiction Fridays.
I’m going to serialize my first completed novel. I view it as my “practice” novel. I proved I can finish one. I learned a lot while writing it. It will be never be publishable. But I love the characters and several of them have evolved and turned up in new stories. So here goes. I hope you enjoy it!
A sharp crack echoed over Camille Henderson's head and she pressed herself flat against the cabinets behind her. "What was that?" she whispered. A robbery at the bank next door? Or just a car backfiring outside? And her pepper spray was across the room in her supply caddy, she could see it peeking above the paints. She pulled out the earphones from her MP3 player as the noise came again.
Then she made out a voice over the panic thundering in her ears. "Camille, are you in there?"
Bank robbers wouldn't know her name. Reason lifted its head although Cami kept hers down. She peeked around the corner of the coffee bar and saw Janis Shaw, the cafe' owner, shaking the locked doors and knocking on the glass with her keys. The piercing sound was clearer but more annoying without the earphones.
Cami sat on the floor of the under-construction shop where she had been painting a faux finish on the walls. As soon as her heart started pumping normally, the strength returned to her legs. That radio report she heard about a serial rapist in Orange County combined with the prank phone calls at home had rattled her. Just when she thought she was getting better at not freaking out at every little thing. She forced a couple of deep breaths as she scrambled to her feet and grabbed a rag to wipe her paint-stained hands.
Petey, her Labrador Retriever-mix, gave a half-growl-half-whimper in the back of his throat and looked at her for approval.
“Good boy. Thanks for trying.” She patted him on the head. “Please don’t shed on her Prada handbag, okay? I need a quick payment if we’re going to eat next month.”
Another shake of the doors echoed around the empty shop as she hurried to admit the woman tapping her foot. “I’m coming.” Cami twisted the deadbolt and swung the heavy door open.
“I should make some duplicate keys. I gave mine to the afternoon manager to meet a delivery later.” Janis entered and surveyed the painting in progress on the walls of her new business, an Italian-style bakery and coffee bar, a panetteria.
Cami smoothed the wrinkles out of her pant legs. Jeans and an old denim shirt were practical for work, but she felt frumpy next to Janis’s color-coordinated navy blue suit, spectator pumps, and purse. Cami had pulled her thick hair back into a ponytail to keep it out of her face as she worked. Janis’s hair was sprayed into precise place.
Cami tucked a wayward wisp behind her ear and fought an urge to run to the nearest salon for a cut and style. Living in a beach town like Agua Vida, she had given up hope of ever having smooth or straight hair. But the humidity did keep her curls full.
Janis motioned to the wall behind the counter. “I don’t think the plaster is thick enough, Camille. I want a real ‘old world’ feel with heavy swirls in the wall and the leaves and vines raised in relief.”
“It’s a process. I’m not done yet.” Cami fought to keep her irritation out of her voice. At least Janis seemed oblivious to it. And her. As usual.
“I hope you’ll make sure I’m happy before you bill me.” Janis moved behind the counter and set her leather briefcase on top.
Cami never knew if Janis was joking or serious and decided to take it as a joke. “I’ll make sure you’re happy if you’ll give me free coffee for life.” She forced a lighter tone as she joined Janis across the room. And she earned an art history degree for this- dealing with demanding southern California home and business owners. She had planned to be working in a gallery somewhere by now, not painting fake marble on walls.
Cami pasted on a smile and bent to examine the lower half of the wall she’d been working on when Janis’s door knocking had sent her diving for cover. She ran a hand over the plaster, feeling the pattern of vines that would spring into life when the topcoat was dry-brushed on. Her hand itched to unwrap her new badger brush and ease on the color. Well, maybe she wouldn’t be happy in a gallery after all.
Janis cleared her throat. “How much longer?” She had a reputation as being picky and difficult. This one-week job had stretched into two and now it looked like Cami would have to come back a few more days after the weekend. Not something to look forward to on the first sunny Friday in April.
“I should be finished Tuesday or Wednesday, at the latest,” she said. If God is merciful.
The thick plaster layers Janis wanted took a long time to dry between coats. If Cami ever finished, the beautiful walls would be a great addition to her portfolio. Hopefully, it would be worth it.
“Has Kyle been by?” Janis adjusted her Tiffany charm bracelet, turning it so the heart rested on the back of her hand. “He’s supposed to let me know the minute the SAT scores arrive. They were mailed out earlier this week.”
“I haven’t seen him.”
Screeching brakes drew their eyes to the front parking lot where a rust-colored Jeep Wrangler careened in.
Grant Andrews thought about the afternoon ahead as he started his late breakfast. It was already noon, but he felt like having eggs. He’d call it brunch if he had to. He turned on the commercial range, listened to the clicking until the gas caught and he had an even flame, then placed a skillet on the burner.
Later, he would drive down the coast to Agua Vida. The Orange County Coyote’s baseball team had gotten a request from Woodrow Wilson High for a baseball clinic. The school asked for him specifically because he was a graduate.
Once the pat of butter melted and sizzled, he broke two eggs into the pan, added three more whites and began to whisk. As the eggs crisped at the edges, he dropped a couple slices of sourdough into the toaster. Adding veggies and grated Swiss cheese to the pan, he waited until the eggs set, and the cheese melted before scooping the lazy man’s omelet onto his plate.
He juggled the hot toast as he buttered it and moved to the counter behind the splash sink in the island.
He glanced at his watch as he settled on a stool with his plate. He’d have to eat in a hurry so he wouldn’t be late. He forked through the eggs, then scooped them to his mouth, savoring the crunch of the bell pepper. Even if he had to rush, he wanted to at least take a minute to enjoy the omelet.
It would be weird going back and he wondered if any of his friends were still in town. He hadn’t been back in… four or five years at least. Not since Dad transferred to the Alameda naval base.
Standing up, he sopped a bit of melted cheese with the last bite of toast and took his plate to the sink. He rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher as he took a mental detour. Agua Vida and Woody High were special to him since that was where he’d realized he was good at baseball. Seriously good, maybe even with a shot at the pros. He filled the skillet with hot water and set it aside to soak.
The WWHS baseball team had been Orange County Champions his senior year. They hadn’t had a winning season since, according to the AV Tribune he still received. During spring training, when Coach ragged on him about his batting average, that bit of trivia had comforted him.
He grabbed his ball cap as the phone rang. Not again. Talking to Mom earlier had made him rush his lunch. Should he answer or let the machine get it? The second ring was insistent, demanding he pick up.
“Hi, Grant. It’s Delia.”
He didn’t have time for her antics today. “Hey, Delia. I’m headed out the door.” At least he didn’t need to lie. “We’ll have to talk later.” Say, in a year. Or ten. He edged toward the laundry room and the door into the garage.
“I’d let you go if I thought you’d call me back. Instead, I’ll talk fast. Cinda and Bill are having a team party Sunday afternoon and you’re invited. I’ll be there and I’m looking forward to catching up with you. It’s been months since we talked.” Her voice slowed and caressed the last sentence. He stifled a shudder.
“I really am walking out the door. Thanks for the invite. I’ll phone Bill later.” He hung up on a squawk of protest, grabbed his keys and was in the garage before the phone could ring again. As he slid behind the wheel of his Corvette, he made a mental note to call his regrets in to Delia’s sister and brother-in-law when he got home.
Cami watched from the counter as three teenagers tumbled from the Wrangler. They pushed and shoved their way inside through the still open doors. Seeing the women, they lowered their voices. But the jousting continued.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Cam- um, I mean Miss Henderson.” The young man glanced at his mother before nodding to Cami.
“Hey, Kyle.” She turned back to the wall and picked up her brush. “How’s your fast ball coming?”
“Pretty good,” he answered.
“Pretty good, nothing.” Anthony Collins looked at Cami. “He’s drilling it, Miss Henderson. I mean, this guy’s smokin’.”
Cami heard more than a bit of pride coming from the boy who’d been Kyle’s best friend since the fourth grade. She’d been a helper in their Sunday School class. She smiled, remembering them eight years ago: short and pudgy. Now they were both tall and slim. Kyle all muscle and grace while Anthony was more gangly, a cavorting puppy of a kid next to Kyle’s sturdy thoroughbred.
“And what do you think?” Cami asked the last of the Woodrow Wilson High Three Musketeers.
“He’s hot.” Tara Mendosa laughed. “I mean… his fast ball is.”
Cami glanced at Kyle who seemed to hold his shoulders a little straighter under her gaze.
“Hey.” Anthony grabbed Tara’s hand. “I don’t want my girlfriend referring to other guys as ‘hot.’”
Cami laughed. “I know what she meant.”
Janis cleared her throat and the kids immediately quieted. “Well?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“Got ‘em.” Kyle rattled a piece of paper triumphantly.
“And?” Janis waited with her hands on her hips.
“I got a 580 in the verbal and a 680 in math.”
Janis’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not good enough. Our top schools require at least a 620 verbal.”
“I’m sure if you keep working on your vocabulary, and pay special attention to the Greek and Latin roots, you’ll be fine.” Cami patted Kyle’s arm as she moved around him to gather her rags and the plastic lid she used as a palette. Petey followed close behind, making sure Cami stayed between him and the visitors. “I’ve got to clean up here and get to class. Are you coming?”
The last few weeks of Pencil Drawing, the youth enrichment course she taught at the city recreation center, had been sparsely attended. Spring fever and cramming for finals claimed victory.
“We have to get to the baseball field. We’re getting a major leaguer to help us,” Kyle answered. He slammed a fist into his opened hand. “Grant Andrews is giving a clinic today.”
“Shortstop for the OC Coyotes?” Cami’s mind flashed to a tall, good-looking athlete. “We went to Woody together.”
“You should come by and say hi.” Anthony spoke up.
“He wouldn’t remember me.” Cami smiled at the memory of Grant sitting behind her in World History & Geography. He had whispered answers in her ear when the teacher called on her. “We only had one class together.” She picked up her paints and brushes and moved to the sink at the rear of the shop, behind the new counter with the swirled black and taupe granite top. She glanced down. She had really nailed that shade of paint for the wall that would frame shelves of bread.
“He’d remember you.” Kyle’s voice grew louder, drawing her attention back. “You should come and watch.”
“If I have time after class,” she said, avoiding an outright no.
“I hope so.” Kyle picked up his SAT score sheet and tucked it into his back pocket.
“We’ll talk later, Kyle.” Janis interrupted, giving her son a tight-lipped smile as the three kids left. She watched as the teenagers piled into Anthony’s Jeep and pulled out of the parking lot. “I don’t know what to do with him. He acts as if he doesn’t care about going to college. He can’t make a career as a baseball player.”
“I hear he’s very good.” Cami raised her voice over the water running through the brushes. “And that Grant Andrews the boys were just talking about, he made it from Woodrow Wilson High to the big leagues.”
“Perhaps.” Janis shrugged. “The odds are against Kyle.”
“But isn’t it better to let him discover that himself?”
“How many children have you raised, Camille? Oh, that’s right. None.”
Ouch. Janis must be having a really bad day. Cami shut off the water and kept her back turned so Janis couldn’t see Cami’s tight jaw and flushed cheeks. “You’re right, of course. None of my business.”
She pinched the bristle tips into points, set the brushes to dry, and gathered her gear. She plucked the pepper spray from between paint cans in the supply caddy and dropped it into her backpack. “I’ll be in on Monday.” She clipped Petey’s leash to his collar and led him out the door.
A rubber-banded bunch of index cards on the ground caught her eye as she stepped off the curb into the parking lot. She picked them up. Vocabulary cards, with a word on one side, its definition and sample usage on the other. The label declared them the Property of Anthony Collins. Anthony had to be the most precise teenager in Woodrow Wilson High. She shook her head and slipped the cards into her backpack. She’d return them when she saw him at church Sunday.
Cami opened the door of her Tahoe and glanced inside to make sure it was empty. “In you go,” she said to Petey who climbed into the back seat and she followed into the front. She locked the doors but opened her window as she left the corner parking lot and entered the stream of cars on Beach Boulevard. Humming Little Surfer Girl along with the radio, she took deep breaths of the salt air. The Pacific Ocean winked in the sun on her right for all of three minutes before she turned left and headed into town on Ladera Avenue.
A few minutes later, a beat-up red station wagon pulled in behind her. It stood out in the sparse traffic. And it looked like the one she’d seen this morning on her way to the shop. Her heart pounded a cadence in her chest. It’s just a coincidence. Quit imagining trouble behind every door and evil in every car. She held a deep breath while watching the rear view mirror. With the glare off the wagon’s windshield, she couldn’t make out the driver. Breathing again, she made a turn without signaling.
The vehicle followed her onto Seaview. She stayed in the middle lane. So did the wagon. She changed lanes and prepared to turn left onto Catalina. The other vehicle sped past and she loosened her grip on the steering wheel.
A serial rapist loose in Orange County didn’t mean every car on the road was wickedness afoot. Okay, wickedness on wheels. She forced a smile in tribute to Mrs. Kuchenmeister and Sophomore English for teaching her about mixed metaphors.
Her morning started with a hang-up phone call, then that radio news report. Now after Janis’s door-banging she’d become paranoid. It’s been two years, sister. Time to stop looking over my shoulder. Patrick is gone.
On the other hand, it might be a good idea to get the pepper spray out of her backpack and tuck it in the seat next to her. She had promised herself she would never again be caught off guard and defenseless. As she reached for the bag, it fell off the passenger seat, strewing half its contents across the floorboard. Cami grumbled as she stretched for it, but everything rolled frustratingly out of reach.
After a couple of blocks, the traffic lights turned against her and she stopped for a red. She shifted into park, undid her seat belt and leaned all the way over to gather the bag and her scattered belongings. She found a lipstick, her checkbook, two pens, a tube of acrylic paint, a sticky lemon drop, and Anthony’s vocabulary cards. But no pepper spray.
She sat up again and set backpack on the passenger seat. Petey poked his head over the seat and whined softly. “Thanks, buddy, but there’s nothing you can do for me without opposable thumbs.”
The light changed. Cami drove with one eye on the road, her left hand on the wheel, her right still searching through the bag. Fighting the panic rising in her throat, she pulled to the curb and turned the bag out on the seat beside her. That little can with its mixture of capsicum and oleoresin was her grown-up security blanket. But still no sign of it.
She half-climbed out of the driver’s seat so she could explore all over the floorboard and in a desperate last attempt stuck her arm under the passenger seat, as far as it would go.
“There’s something.” She stretched her fingers and finally nudged it close enough to grasp. “Yes!” She held up her shiny black comfort. Okay, that’s it. She was going to buy three more cans of the stuff and keep them all over. This was the second time today she didn’t have it when she wanted it.
She merged back into traffic and a few minutes later turned into the parking lot of Agua Vida Recreation Center and pulled into a spot.
“Wait a second.” She had parked here every day this week. It was time to shake things up a little. She backed out and made a circuit before choosing a slot in the next row.
She tucked the pepper spray into the pocket of the driver’s side door so she wouldn’t have to fumble around for it later. Unfortunately, in her view, weapons of any kind weren’t allowed in the center. She shook her head at the incongruity of life in the 21st century. A generation ago, a woman could ask a gentleman to escort her to her car. Now, she had to rely on herself. And a canister of pepper spray that waited in the vehicle.