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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 23: FORGIVEN

      Rich came in just before lunchtime. She wouldn't have known if Joe Horse hadn't told her when she stopped in the kitchen to check some figures the old cook had given her. Rich didn't poke his head into the doorway of the office where she was working, and she didn't hear him calling to the children as they went past him on their way to the gym or the bathroom or to another classroom for story time or craft time.
      "Are you all right?" she asked when she ran into him in the hall on her way back to her office. Her irritation faded when she saw the strips of tape and the three-inch long strip of gauze on his forehead.
      "Hit the steering wheel," Rich muttered, blushing. He reached up like he would rip the tape off, then winced and seemed to think better of it -- and then turned to walk away without the gusher of questions or comments or complaints that seemed to be his standard practice. Maybe, Nikki mused, he didn't say anything because he knew she had figured out his tactic was to avoid going back to work.
      "What steering wheel? On your car? Were you in an accident?" Nikki followed him down the hall, abandoning her looming report deadline for a moment.
      "Some jerk plowed into me at four a.m. It's a good thing I was nearly half asleep."
      "Is your car--"
      "Totaled. But it was a rust bucket anyway. Insurance ought to get me a new one." He grinned, but it couldn't take away the paleness of his cheeks or soften the dark smears under his eyes. "I should have wrecked the junker a few years ago and got myself a new one the easy way, huh?"
      "That's not..." Nikki sighed and scolded herself not to lecture him. Not when he had been in an accident. Still, this sign of his continuing entitlement attitude irritated her.
      Rich waved good-bye and swayed his way down the hall in a modified, slowed version of his usual saunter.
      "He wasn't half asleep," Brock said, after Nikki mentioned it that evening when he showed up to work on the Mission's books again.
      He had the computer software figured out and had promised to teach Claire how to use it. Nikki wanted to sit in, just to see if it was as tricky as he said. She had mentioned the software to Sophie, who said that company was too new to have a track record. Then she asked Sophie to evaluate it so she could pass the word along to others, so no one would get trapped and messed up like the Mission had been.
      "He wasn't?" Claire snorted and shook her head. "Seems like Rich goes through life half asleep most of the time. Why wouldn't he be then?"
      "Because he was drunk. He also didn't mention he was going the wrong way down a one-way street. The guy who he claimed plowed into him wasn't even in his car, which was legally parked in front of his own house."
      "How do you know?" Nikki asked.
      "I work at the Picayune, remember? Curt was grumbling about it when he came back from getting the news for the police blotter. He had a few more stories about good old Rich's driving record, too." Brock snagged another rolling chair by its padded arm and dragged it over in front of the computer. "Are we going to work on this mess, or do you want to gossip all night?" He grinned to take the sting from his words.
      "Oh, gossip is such an ugly word," Claire said. "I prefer more theologically correct language. Like 'sharing.' Or 'fellowshipping.' You know, so sweet and religious-sounding."
      "You mean 'fellowship' instead of 'pigging out'?" Nikki said with a snort of laughter. "I've heard it all, believe me."

      "Either way, the truth's pretty far away from the story Rich told you."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 22: THE SECOND TIME AROUND

      "You're kidding." Daniel looked down the long hospital hallway, waiting for someone to jump out and say 'gotcha.' He really expected Joel to pop out, despite the cast encasing him from hips to toes -- and asleep when Daniel checked on him five minutes ago -- and laugh at his reaction.
      "Please?" Max twisted her face into what Emily called the 'pitiful puppy-dog' expression.
      It worked better with Jeremy and Joe. Max had too much mischief in her, under normal circumstances, for anyone to believe her innocent act. It was even less effective today. Her color was better and she looked like she had managed to get some sleep last night.
      "Me? Play Petruchio?" Something deep inside him started cheering, jumping up and down excitedly. Like he had felt when he was still a student and got the plum part in a production.
      "Dad agreed with me that you're the best bet."
      "Yeah, but I'd really examine any decisions Joel is making lately. Especially since he was probably half-asleep and doped up when you asked him."
      "Morgan... " She crossed her arms, took a step back and waited. Max knew him too well. She knew he was dying to get back on the stage, even if it meant less than a week to learn his part and fit into the pacing and by-play the rest of the ensemble had already established.
      "You know I'll do it." Daniel squeezed her shoulder, giving her a little shake before he released her. "You can always depend on my ego."
      "Ego schmeego. You're a sucker for people in a bind. Can you come by early tomorrow for rehearsal, so Della and Gretchen can get you fitted for the costume? Dad's built a little wider than you are, but the height is a good match, so there shouldn't be that much work to alter it."
      "You were really sure I'd say yes, weren't you?"
      "With suitable groveling and inducing guilt, yeah."
      They laughed together as they walked down the hall to the elevator. Morning visiting hours were over. Daniel had tried to slip in between classes, hoping to catch Joel awake. Life was going to be hectic, his schedule tight, until Joel was out of the hospital and up to speed on life. It was already accepted that until Joel was allowed to drive, he wouldn't come back to teaching. Daniel and the General would have to cover all his classes and administer his final exams. Fortunately, Joel Randolph was so super-organized, he made his colleagues look bad. Thank goodness there were only three weeks left to school, and Taming of the Shrew would only last two weeks.
      When Daniel got back to his office, he called Lynette to tell her he was taking over Joel's part in the play. She was delighted for him. For a short while.
      "There's something in your voice," she said. "Like you're hiding bad news from me."
      "Not exactly hiding. Just not too happy to tell you about it." He took a deep breath and let it out as a slow sigh. "That means my evenings are tied up until the run is over, and my weekends, studying the part, and probably my lunch hours. The ones I don't lose to Joel's classes, that is. Not much time for us."
      "Oh." Silence for a few seconds. "Well, don't you need someone to prompt you and read the other parts? I played a mean Katarina when you took that directing class, if you can remember back that far."
      "You'd do that?"
      "For Joel and Emily? Of course." Lynette managed a chuckle. "Besides, I have this great fantasy of spending the afternoon in the park with a picnic lunch, performing Shakespeare for the birds and deer. Sounds kind of... romantic. Don't you think?"
      "Lyn, you are the greatest. I owe you. Big time."
      "Well then, you can make the picnic lunch, how about that?"

      "It's a deal."

Monday, April 21, 2014

April 21: BEHIND THE SCENES

      With the hospitalization of their parents, Chuck Winters functioned as public relations man and buffer between the three siblings and the media. The sudden reappearance of Emily Keeler was big news. People who had turned their backs on her years ago when she abruptly left Hollywood had filled the papers in less than twenty-four hours with fond reminiscences. Max despised them all. Whatever Chuck Winters wanted, he would get. Including a speedy pick-up of his phone call. It wasn't quite nine a.m. in Hollywood. What was he doing at work so early?
      "Hi, Chuck." She settled into the sagging corner of a couch in the cavernous living room, which also served as the costume shop and Green Room for the Homespun Theater.
      "How are you three holding up? How's Joel? What do the doctors say about Emily?" His sympathetic smile came through the phone.
      "Dad's more alert. Dr. Holland is threatening to take the phone out of his room if he doesn't stop trying to run things from flat on his back." Max congratulated herself on keeping her voice steady. "We're doing okay. Rehearsal tonight. You're coming for opening night, aren't you?"
      "Haven't missed it in seventeen years. Certainly won't miss it now." He sighed.
      Max heard a multitude of unspoken messages in that sigh. Chuck Winters had been friend, critic and supporter to her parents when they first established Homespun Theater. He had given away the bride when Joel and Emily married. He had spirited away talented new actors Joel and Emily had nurtured, to careers on both coasts. When Max began writing, he had hounded and harassed her until she improved it enough to be saleable. She blamed him for her current misery, caught in a book she no longer wanted to write. She would be lost without him.
      "Got some good news today," he said after a few moments of sympathetic, comfortable silence. "Pelican wants an option on your Gabrielli script. You'll get just over eight thousand after my fee, but it's a start. They want a bio piece before they make a final decision."
      "They heard about Mom and made the connection, didn't they?" Max wondered how she could feel so elated, and then two sentences later feel like a lead weight had settled into her stomach. "They don't want a family comedy script. They want something written by Emily Keeler's daughter."
      "Son." Winters chuckled. "For some reason, they think you're a boy."
      "Let them."
      "Max--"
      "We're getting hounded here, people asking about Mom. If everybody thinks Max is a boy, that'll be some protection for us, won't it?"
      "And when you have to go to L.A. for meetings? If they're expecting a man, and a woman shows up..."
      "For now, could we leave them in their ignorance?" Max sighed and pushed her problems aside. This was no time to feel sorry for herself. Future problems would just have to be handled in the future. She had her brothers and parents and the theater to worry about.
      "All right." Winters sighed too. Max wondered what kind of rotten day he had been having. Probably woken at dawn by reporters. "I'll send a safe, unisex biography. I hope you won't be too proud to accept the option check, even if all they do want is something from Emily's kid."
      "I'll take all the money I can get right now. Insurance doesn't cover everything." Max leaned back over the swayed arm of the sofa and stared at the ceiling.

      The spider web of crack marks across it had four new arms. Someone would have to climb up and spread tarpaper and sealer on the former firehouse roof before it rained again. With the hospital bills that weren't covered by insurance, and no real hope of getting restitution from the drunk truck driver who hit her parents, how could she find the money for this new expense? It was all resting on her. It seemed to Max that every hour brought some new responsibility and pressure. For the last two days, her prayers had mainly consisted of "Help!"

Sunday, April 20, 2014

April 20: BEHIND THE SCENES

      Nine a.m. Max knew she should call Tony. At the oddest times during the long, stressful night of waiting at the hospital, she thought of Tony anxiously waiting for news. She couldn't. Telling Tony her parents' condition would be admitting how bad it was. The three-hour difference between California and Ohio would only be a valid excuse for a little while longer.
      The hospital had set aside an entire waiting room, just for their family and friends. Max knew it was more a survival tactic than kindness. At least twenty people waited with her and her brothers at any one time. The noise alone had to be a problem. A private waiting room gave the staff the option of closing a door.
      Pastor Glenn and Rita had been there from around eleven until three in the morning, then they had to go home to get a little rest and prepare for the worship services. Jeannette Marshall had come around eight, with breakfast and fresh clothes for her and the boys. Dr. Morgan had keys to the theater, and he let her in, then followed her to the hospital. From the moment Morgan walked in the door, he had been a rock of support and common sense. Not ten minutes ago, he ran interference with the first newspaper reporter who tried to slip into the waiting room. Max hadn't even realized what was happening until Morgan was at the door, throwing the full weight of professorial disapproval on the stranger with the digital camera. Then a hospital security guard showed up and led the reporter away before any damage was done.
      Max supposed the moment the name Emily Keeler appeared in the accident report, a flag program somewhere on the Internet passed the news on to a thousand sites. The concept of "viral" took on a whole new meaning.
      Worrying about the paparazzi was low on her list. She had a book deadline to meet. Taming of the Shrew was supposed to open up next Tuesday. The set wasn't finished yet. The costumes weren't finished. And Joel was playing Petruchio -- who was she going to get to replace him with eight days to learn the lines and the blocking? Maybe she should cancel the production. She stared at the list of things to do when she went home from the hospital, if she ever went home from the hospital -- how could she go home and leave her parents here? Why wasn't Tony here to hold her hand and help her think straight? She was cut in half without Tony. Why did he have to pick now to leave her all alone?

      "Max." Morgan sat down next to her and caught hold of her hands. "One thing at a time. You're not alone in this."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

April 19: BEHIND THE SCENES

      "Max Keeler anywhere around?" Heavy footsteps crunched in the gravel of the yard behind the scene shop at Homespun Theater.
      "Who's asking?" Max Randolph finished putting the freshly sprayed copper plates down on the wire drying rack her stepfather had created decades ago. The chemical stink of the spray paint made her feel a little dizzy, which was why she took advantage of the nice weather to do her spray painting chores outdoors.
      When she had a hard time working on a scene for her latest book or screenplay, she put in a few hours in the scene shop or the printing shop. Today, she worked on props for The Taming of the Shrew, which Homespun would be producing in a little more than a week. She had been doing a lot of scene shop chores since her writing partner and best friend, Tony Martin, went to UCLA to do his writer-in-residence stint. If he didn't come back in mid-May as promised, her writing career just might be stalled out permanently.
      "I'm Steve Coheny," the stranger said.
      "Sorry, don't know the name." She stood up, careful not to wipe her paint-smeared hands on her jeans. Max turned around and nearly staggered backwards into the damp plates. A jolt of adrenaline drove away the paint fumes headache that threatened to turn into a bout of nausea.
      She knew that face, but fifty years older. The face that haunted her worst nightmares had similar coarse curls, but shorter, tighter, gray-frosted, not dark chocolate. Steve Coheny wore Carlo Vincente's face -- or an unreasonable facsimile, as Tony would say. He was taller than Carlo; his shoulders were wider, and his complexion not quite so Mediterranean dark.
      Max took a deep breath and felt some of that tension tying her guts into knots loosen and fade. No, he looked a little like Carlo, but not as much as she thought on first glance. It was more her imagination than his bone structure. She had to find a way to get her mind off that problem she had been gnawing since the mail from the Gabrielli Film Fellowship came yesterday.
      I have got Carlo Vincente on the brain, she silently snarled.
      It wasn't Carlo's fault that he was single-handedly shredding her latest triumph. He had no idea she even existed, and Max preferred to keep it that way. For the rest of her life, if possible.

      Okay, God, I admit I was stupid choosing my mother's maiden name for my screenwriting name, but do You have to keep rubbing my nose in it?

Friday, April 18, 2014

April 18: FIRESONG

      Friday morning meant a breakfast buffet in the building attached to the auditorium where Firesong had performed. Dani had a room in the girl's dormitory on the far side of the quadrangle formed by auditorium, library and two dormitories. The guys were housed in a dormitory next to the auditorium. She didn't mind the walk across the misty, tree-filled green to the building, even though she did grumble that the guys got an extra ten minutes of sleep. When she got to the building, she found a few people picking through the buffet tables, but no family members.
      She wasn't surprised. Even though they all grew up on a farm, all the boys -- especially Andy -- were disgustingly flexible when it came to sleeping in.
      Taking a deep breath, knowing the inherent smell and mess of male-dominated dormitories were part of the reason she went to a two-year commuter college, Dani stepped into the dormitory to hunt for the guys. If she let them go hungry, she would hear about it until lunchtime. Keeping them on schedule really was part of her job description, after all.
      "I'm a doggone babysitter," she mused, and nearly burst out laughing when a young man wearing nothing but boxer shorts, lying on his back on a couch with a pile of books in the lounge, gave her an odd look.
      The guest rooms were down a flight of stairs, so Dani didn't have to go through the fire door with a huge sign listing the hours the opposite sex was allowed inside. This was a Christian college, after all. She hurried down the steps and prayed for no more doors or stairs to deal with. A right turn in the little lobby filled with couches and vending machines led into the laundry room. A left turn brought her into a hall lined with doors. Dani paused, trying to remember what rooms Andy said they were in.
      "Stupid." She took a deep breath. "Breakfast!" she called, pitching her voice to penetrate.
      "Dani?" A door creaked open and Tom looked out, rubbing his eyes. His hair was a tangled mess. "What time is it?"
      "The sun is up and has been for an hour. The food is out, and if you slugs don't hurry, there won't be anything to eat." She smiled brightly, turned on one heel and got out of there.
      The less time she spent in a male dormitory, even on a Christian college campus, the safer her reputation.

      Dani had thought long and hard about her resolution last night. If she set up a routine and a pattern of behavior, no one would believe a word of scandal anyone tried to raise against her. She thought of Pilgrim's Progress, where people threw mud at the pilgrims dressed in clean white clothes. The mud slid off without leaving a stain. Dani resolved to be like that.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17: FIRESONG

      "Boring," a tenor voice whined somewhere behind Kurt.
      He didn't know which of the White Knights had said it, and right now, he didn't care. Only two hours into his babysitting duties, and already Kurt wished he had been in the car wreck instead of Wade Klinghoffer. He suspected he would only be able to relax while the White Knights were too busy performing to get into trouble, or else asleep. Or else they were occupied somewhere and cut off from all temptation and opportunities for mischief -- meaning no college girls to dazzle and lead off into dark corners. Half an hour ago, he had walked in on the band members speculating on what the college girls here looked like, and making bets on how many each of them could score with.
      Remembering his own college days, when he also used his music to impress girls, Kurt could almost sympathize. But he had fallen away from his commitment to God back in college, and his band never pretended to serve God with their music. The White Knights claimed to be Christians, yet they intended to use their music to seduce girls at a Christian college.
      No wonder Wade wanted out of this contract.
      Kurt had stepped into the dormitory lounge given over to the band and was relieved when they changed the subject. He didn't see any guilt on those faces, and that had made him angry enough to lecture them on the conduct expected of guests on campus. Obviously, his lecture had gone over their heads.
      He couldn't trust the White Knights to behave themselves while his back was turned. If they were bored, they weren't heading toward a lawsuit from some outraged parents.
      "Don't you guys have to practice? Aren't you playing tonight?" he asked. It was bad enough he had to sit in the same room with them while he worked on his notebook computer and caught up on paperwork and correspondence. Did he have to think for them, too?
      "Nah," the baritone said with a lazy grin. All the White Knights were skinny and blue-eyed, with long blonde hair. Kurt had a hard time telling them apart. "Some other group's driving in from Ohio. We can have a good time tonight."
      "Hope so," somebody muttered. Kurt didn't look, but he felt the scorch of angry glances turned his way. He fought a smile and told himself he was performing a good deed.
      Then the baritone's words registered. He could be wrong -- there were probably hundreds of bands in Ohio. But didn't Katie say something about Firesong performing at a conference for youth leaders this weekend?
      Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, Kurt stepped out into the hall. He hoped the White Knights were all too lazy and self-absorbed to listen as he placed a call to Katie.
      "Yeah, they're probably halfway to Fort Wayne by now," Katie said, when Kurt asked her. "Why?" She laughed when he gave her the abbreviated version of what he had heard. "What do you know? You and Dani might finally get to spend some time together without a thousand errands pulling you apart."
      "Very funny, Miss Matchmaker," Kurt growled. But he grinned at the dormitory door in front of him. She might just be right. This might be the chance he had been praying for, wishing for.

      But that meant he had to protect Dani from the White Knights. How could they resist someone so alive and vibrant?