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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Excerpt From Daddy's Girl

While part 2 of the psychology of character development is percolating in my head, I thought I'd post the first few pages of my short story Daddy's Girl. It was just released by Misanthrope Press in their Title Goes Here quarterly anthology, Issue 7. If you like it, you can find the rest at http://www.titlegoeshereonline.com/pages/blog-article?r=M7WZSYAF67

Daddy’s Girl
By
Ann Gimpel

“Marni, get yourself down here.  Your supper’s nigh onto stone cold.”  Mom’s voice drifted up to me from downstairs, her West Virginia accent tinged with irritation.  She was right, though; I had been holed up in my room for quite awhile…hours maybe.  Feeling the need to hurry, my fingers flew over the computer keys as I worked on getting just the right combination of white balance and contrast into the photo I was working on.  It was of the small pond in the woods behind our house.  I’d caught it yesterday, right as the sun had been going down.  Orange rays practically bounced off its surface making the prosaic little body of water look almost magical.  A starburst of a sun flirted with the horizon and the forest seemed alive with possibilities.
“In a minute, Mom.”  My voice raised to carry down to the kitchen, I hastily added a smidge of warmth.  Nope, too much.  Moving the slider back the other way, I cocked my head to the side surveying the results.  Ah, just the tiniest of tweaks…  There!  Exhaling loudly through pursed lips, I shut my eyes.  Photo editing was an intense process.  Some said it was cheating to use the computer-based programs to make your pictures better; but all the really good photographers did it.  And, that was what I wanted to be more than anything.  A good photographer.  I smiled, eyes still closed, as I corrected that thought.  No, what I wanted to be was a great photographer.  It was what I dreamed of.  I’d saved every dime of my babysitting money since I’d been twelve to buy my digital SLR camera, along with a rich assortment of lenses and filters.
“Marni!” 
Oh-oh, Mom was royally pissed now.  “Be right there.  Really!”  Narrowing my eyes in concentration, I looked again at my photo before punching the save button.  And then I looked again.  Where had that come from?  In the bottom corner of the picture, curled up by the base of a young sycamore tree, was something that looked an awful lot like a wolf.  How the hell had that gotten there?  Why hadn’t I seen it before?  Had I been so intent on the sunset, and getting the color balance just right on the computer, that I’d just not noticed?  I closed my eyes, scrunched them tight, rubbed at them with my fists, then opened them again.  What I saw made my breath catch in my throat because there was no wolf this time round.  With hands that were suddenly less-than-steady I saved my work, then saved it again to an external hard drive.  I found I couldn’t think about what must have been a hallucination.  I sort of tried to, but my mind just danced away from the subject as if it knew better than to examine it too closely.
“Maybe I do need to eat,” I muttered to myself as I pushed wearily up from my chair, gathering my long blonde hair into a rough pony tail so it wouldn’t fall into my food.  As I passed through the door that went into the upstairs hall, I plucked a rubber band off the door knob, securing the pony tail, before tromping down the wooden risers.
“Well, it’s about time.”  Mother looked up from her sewing, her blue eyes rheumy from the fine work.  A few stray hairs, blonde going gray, escaped from the severe bun she always wore.  “Your supper’s in the oven.  I put foil over it so’s it’d stay warm.”
“Thanks, Mom.”  I bent to peck her on the cheek.  It had been just the two of us for as long as I could remember.  Dad had died in the Gulf War.  I’d only been five when he’d left and he’d never come home.  For whatever reason, Mom had never remarried.  Hell, she’d never even dated that I knew of.  But, she and I didn’t talk about things like that.  We talked about me and my future and about the weather and the myriad of things we had to do—like growing vegetables and canning—for us to get by.  I guess I take after my Dad.  At least it seems that way when I see his old photographs scattered around our house.  I have the same hazel eyes and square jaw.  And the same tall, lanky build, all bones and broad shoulders.  Mom is shorter.  And her features far more delicate.  She was really beautiful when she was young.  When I was little, I used to think she was like some exotic fairy hovering over my bed at night.  Now, she just looked tired.  And sad.
I gathered up a hot pad and pulled my dinner from the still-warm oven.  Pouring myself a glass of goat’s milk from the old, cracked blue pitcher in the fridge, I scootched a chair up close to her.  “Is something wrong?” I asked as I started eating, the wolf-mirage in my photo almost, but not quite, forgotten.
Mom sighed.  Then she reached out and patted my cheek.  “No, Marni.  Nothin’s wrong.  Just eat your supper.  Then you probably need to get on to bed.  School time will come early tomorrow.”
“But I only have another week left and then I’ll be done with school.”  I was talking around a mouthful of vegetable casserole.  Swallowing, I added, “Probably wouldn’t be the end of the world if I missed a day at this point.  My grades are all turned in and I passed everything.”
“You still wantin’ to go to that fancy photography school?” she asked, an odd tone in her voice, mouth half-curved into a smile.
“Well, uh, sure.  Of course.  But, Mom, we don’t have the money for that.  I’ll just go to the JC here in town.  They have photography classes, and I can get a two-year degree.”  I kept shoveling food into my mouth as I talked.  Now that I was eating I realized how hungry I’d been.  That must have been what had happened upstairs.  I’d been light-headed and just imagined that there was something in that photo…
“I could sell this place.”  Mom’s voice broke into my thoughts, and I looked up, shocked.  I opened my mouth, but she held up a hand.  “No, Marni.  Let me finish.  It’s a lot of work here.  That it is.”
“But I’d still be here to help you,” I interrupted.
“Not forever you wouldn’t.”  There was that same bittersweet smile again.  “Ah, baby girl.  We haven’t done so badly, you and I, but it’s time for you to move on out into the world; and I can’t handle the work here all by myself.”  She was still sewing, glancing down from time to time to ensure a straight seam. “Well, maybe I could do it for awhile more, but surely not ten years from now.  I’ll be close to seventy then.  I’ve given this a lot of thought; and it seems to me like you could use money now, not when you’re closin’ on thirty.”  Sitting back, she looked right at me as if daring me to contradict her.
I just sat there dumbstruck, fork mid-way between my plate and my mouth.  “But…but, I couldn’t let you do that, Mom.  This place…”  I set my fork down and gulped some milk.  “Dad left us this place.  You can’t sell it.  It’s all we have left of him.”  Where had those words come from?  It was like someone else was talking through me.  My recently consumed supper began to curdle in my stomach.  Out of nowhere, I was suspiciously close to tears.  I hadn’t really thought about Dad in months, maybe not in years.  I didn’t understand why I was feeling so upset—he’d been dead for thirteen years after all—but an unfamiliar inner voice was broadcasting that this house, and the acre of land it sat on, anchored our family together:  Mom, me and our dead husband and father.  Shaking my head briskly, more to unseat whatever had taken up residence in my head than anything else; I turned back to Mom since she’d started talking again.
“…maybe that’s why it’s long past time we got out of here…” she muttered.  Then she kept on talking, but not to me.  It was almost as if she’d forgotten I was there.  “Some nights,” she went on, “Danny still walks these halls.  Him, or the others.  And, when I’m half asleep—or half awake—I can feel his hands tuggin’ at my hair and hear his voice tellin’ me things…”  Breaking off abruptly, she met my eyes.  “Marni, I can’t have a life of my own less’n we leave here.  I know you’ve likely wondered why I never found you a new daddy.  Well, it’s because it feels like I’m not really a widow.”  She laughed hollowly.  “I’ve said a piece too much here, I reckon,” she mumbled, looking embarrassed.  Standing up, she carefully folded her sewing and laid it atop her mending box.  “Think on what I said.  Be sure to finish your supper.  You don’t eat enough.”  Then she walked out of the room leaving me feeling…  Ah, what was I feeling, anyway?  Confused?  Scared?  About ten years old and wishing someone else would still make all my decisions for me.  The big ones anyway.
Mechanically, I finished what was left on my plate and carried it over to the old fashioned sink.  Rinsing it, I laid it in the drainer, still thinking about what Mom had said.  Geez, she’d practically told me that our house was haunted.  And that she was…was trapped in some way by the ghost of what had been my father.  As I trailed up the stairs to brush my hair and my teeth, I glanced at the grandfather clock on the landing.  It was barely .  Deciding I could do a little more photo editing, I gave my teeth and hair short shrift, pulled the chain to douse the bathroom light and headed for the computer.  The nights in early June were still chilly, so I snugged one of my favorite well-worn sweatshirts over my head, luxuriating in the feel of the faded, red cotton against my goose-bumped arms. 
Reminding myself to keep an eye on the clock, and with an internal promise that I’d button things up by ten, I brought up the hundred or so shots I’d taken the previous afternoon at sunset.  Drawn almost beyond will and reason, I clicked on the one I’d been working on before Mom had chivied me down to supper.  Opening my eyes—gulp, I hadn’t realized I’d closed them—I examined the computer image.  And, there it was.  My wolf was back.  Except this time there was someone with him.  The someone looked familiar somehow, but that part of the photo was just too small on the screen.  Without thinking much—or I probably wouldn’t have done it—I clicked on the “actual pixels” tab and scrolled down to that corner of the picture.
What I saw made my heart start pounding.  Mouth suddenly dry, I jumped out of my chair so abruptly that it fell over with a clatter.  It couldn’t be.  But it was.  The man in the picture, with one arm wrapped about the wolf, was my father.  Shit!  Had Mom been right about him still being here?  I’d taken what she’d told me earlier with a grain of salt, but faced with the reality of what my camera had recorded…  Shakily, I righted my chair and began to pull up the other photos.  Would he be in them, too? . . . . 
(For more, scroll to the top and click the link to Title Goes Here.)

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