Monday, September 29, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #28

"The African killer bees haven't come this far north, have they?" she said, trying to speak softly so only the oldest girls closest to her could hear.
Obviously, not the most sensible or mature of the oldest girls, because they immediately gabbled in Spanish. The only word Meg could understand was muerte -- death. More girls joined the screaming.
"Stop that!" Meg shouted, and waved her arms -- not smart to do, if there were swarms of bees in the area. She glanced around, waiting for the girls to quiet down and give her their attention. She could see lots of little moving objects in the air. Definitely a swarm, not just a few random bees out looking for flowers out here in the fields.
She and the girls wouldn't have been allowed out walking if there were killer bees in the area, would they? So they were safe. Right?
"We are all going to go back to the compound, okay?" She pointed at one of the older girls who usually translated for her. The girl spoke, even mimicking Meg's inflections.
"We are going to walk quietly and slowly and calmly. We are not going to irritate the bees. En silencio. Despacioso." At least, she hoped she was telling them to move slowly. She wanted to say perezoso, but she was pretty sure that meant lazy. "Do you understand? Poco a poco, las bocas cerrada. Comprende?" She used forefinger and thumb to press her lips together. A few little girls giggled nervously, but they copied her when she folded her hands at her waist and took small steps forward.
The girl doing the translating finished, and copied Meg. Other girls followed suit, and soon their group moved back the way they had come, pressed closer together on the path. Some still whispered and little shrieks erupted every dozen steps or so, little hands pointing at black specks of movement in the air.
         A loud scream erupted at the back of the group. Meg turned around, to see one of the older girls gyrating, swinging her arms. She didn't need translation -- the girls who could translate for her were too busy trying to calm the littler girls or doing their own screaming -- it was obvious the girl thought the bees were dive-bombing her.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #27

Stumbling through her request with the aid of the Spanish-English dictionary she carried in her shoulder bag, Meg asked the girls to take her on a walk to learn about local plants. Especially the ones that could be used for dying cloth, or as patterns for pretty needlework to decorate the skirts they were making. Armed with canteens and hats with big brims, a notebook to sketch pictures and her camera, they notified the supervisors on duty and headed out through the gates.
Funny, but walking in the center of a crowd of over twenty girls, even with two holding her hands, Meg felt alone. The older ones loved to practice their English skills with her, and loved even more interpreting and showing off for the little ones, so Meg didn't lack for conversation. Still, she felt as if she were more a piece of equipment, something necessary, required to take on their walk, and not their friend or teacher.
Then the bees came. The shrieks of the girls in the front of their straggling, chattering group pulled Meg out of her self-pity mode.
"For heaven's sake, don't swat at them," she snapped, probably too loudly, definitely too angrily, when the older girls made her understand what was happening. "Just stand still and let them fly by. They're probably more scared of you than you are of them."
Privately, Meg thought that bees were the dumbest creatures on the planet. Dumb and angry and prone to sting anything that moved.
          Wait -- were those killer bees that went on the offensive, even if it happened to be a balloon flying through their airspace, or even rubber balls? She had seen a story posted on the Internet one time, about a bright red rubber ball that landed in a hive. The picture showed hundreds of bees stuck in the rubber ball, or at least their stingers, after they attacked it, the impetus of their bodies keeping the ball moving and jingling, which irritated them more.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #26

Jay knew he was hopeless. Elephants -- animals, period -- were easier to talk to than people. Still, he couldn't help trying and hoping. Especially when it came to Bergen. She laughed at his stupid jokes, even the ones that he had to explain to other workers. He had a tendency to see things from a juvenile perspective. Such as elephant jokes.
"How do you know an elephant's been in the refrigerator?" he asked Bergen, as they checked on the liquid skin bandage they had put on Sheba's left flank the day before.
"Footprints in the butter," she muttered, as if she was afraid someone would hear them.
He wanted to tell her that at this time of the day, working in the heat and dust, far from the fence of the arena, there was no one to hear them but the elephants. Then again, maybe Bergen was afraid of the elephants hearing and being offended. She had a charming ability to consider their charges as thinking, reasoning, feeling beings.
"How do you get an elephant into the refrigerator?"
"Easy -- you open the door and put everything on the bottom shelf so he can sit on the top shelf."
"Why?" He looked up from dabbing a new layer of liquid skin on the previous one.
"You mean why put an elephant in the refrigerator in the first place?" Her eyes sparkled before she looked away and stroked down Sheba's trunk.
Bergen wouldn't believe him if he pointed out how quietly the elephants stood for treatment when she was around.
"No, why let him sit on the top shelf?" Jay made a mental note of this conversation. He hadn't considered exactly the answer she gave him. It made him think she told a lot of elephant jokes herself.
"Elephants like to be up high where they can see everything. Don't you?" she crooned, getting a snort and a flip of the trunk from Sheba. That got both of them laughing softly.
"All right, smarty, why shouldn't you be in the jungle between three and four?"
"You forgot the next one."
"What next one?"
         "You're supposed to ask how to get a giraffe into the refrigerator." She waited, but he just folded his arms and grinned at her. Bergen sighed. "The answer is, you take out the elephant and fold up the giraffe and put him in. And the answer to yours is -- you don't go into the jungle between three and four because elephants jump out of trees every afternoon between three and four."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #25

"You're one of the levelheaded ones. I bet you'll stay through the end of the summer like you promised, and you won't be antsy all the time, wanting to go somewhere with fast food and movies and reliable Internet."
"Sorry. You're wrong."
"You know what I mean." Debra snorted laughter and playfully slapped at her arm. "Your need for comfort isn't going to override your passion for being down here and making a small difference. Because you can see that a lot of small differences add up over time. You have the long view of mission work. You're willing to wait for the impact to come in weeks and months and years, not in the next hour. And maybe not even while you're physically present."
"They're not all like that." She gestured down at the long, single-story building the short-term workers slept in.
"Hmm, no. But they need to have some tempering to find out what kind of mission workers they are. Y'know, I think you need to talk to the new doctor before you lump him in the category of too-cute-to-be-worth-anything."
"I prefer to stay away from the pretty people."
"So you're condemning him without hearing the evidence? I'm surprised at you, Meg."
"I've been getting enough evidence from the other girls. Felicia was upset because he didn't notice she spent extra time on her hair and nails, or she wore her special pink shirt to dinner yesterday. He just grunts at the girls who come over to the clinic to talk to him--"
"Because they keep standing in his light, or get in his way when he's busy treating the children or the people who come for the free clinic. Honestly, those girls don't have the sense to come in out of the rain."
"Haven't had any since I got down here."
          "You know what I mean." Debra raised her hand like she would swat Meg, earning a grin from her. "I think you should make the effort to get to know him. You might find out you have a lot in common."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #24

"Want to tell me why? I'm a good twenty years older than you. I'm the one who should be cynical, not you." Debra handed her one of the hand-woven fans bigger than their heads.
They were alone on the rooftop, which was the only reason why Meg felt free enough to confide her thoughts to her.
"Just bad experiences, I guess. Or I know enough people who have had bad experiences. My prof calls them the 'pretty people.' The ones who have it all -- looks, education, social position, wealth, opportunities. The prettiest faces cover the ugliest minds and hearts, seems like. Even if they don't intend to be that way, if they're high enough on the social ladder, they have everyone telling them they can do anything they want, take anything they want, it's their right, and nobody has any right to tell them no. Even if it means hurting someone. I know there are lots of people in this world who are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, but you don't see that many of them, and they sure don't get the good press. Or else the press is out to dig up all the dirt they can find, because they're so sure it's all a false mask. And if they can't find real dirt, they'll just spread rumors until everyone hates someone who didn't do anything wrong."
"Who do you know who was hurt like that?" Debra asked quietly, after a few moments of silence, allowing Meg's words to fade into the quiet and the gathering shadows. The children two stories below them sounded far away, their laughter and chatter even more alien than usual.
"Oh… you hear things. All the injustice in the world."
"Is that why you're down here? To help make up for the injustice in the world?"
         "Why not?"

Friday, September 19, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #23

The very first day, the interpreters had explained to the girls that if they learned to sew very well, to be able to decorate clothes and design new clothes, they could earn a living for themselves that would keep them off the streets and out of the fields. They had made excited little sounds and whispered to each other, eyes wide, and brought friends back with them the next day. By the end of the first week, Meg had thirty students when she had been told to expect ten. That little success had carried her along for two more weeks, until the interpreter had to move on to the next group of missionaries who came down for the summer, to build new houses in the compound and teach English. Suddenly, she was back to square one, unable to communicate. Sewing didn't have to be a quiet occupation, and her girls did whisper among themselves, but for the most part she could have been by herself in the long, single-room building that served as church sanctuary and dining hall and music lessons room. Another gripe she couldn't silence -- her sewing group was constantly interrupted to set up for meals or for the choir to practice.
What she wouldn't give to be part of the laughing, talking games and crafts group over on the other side of the compound.
She might as well have a huge wall standing between her and the rest of the orphanage, staff and children and visiting missionary teams.
Meal time or meeting up with her bunkmates in the evening before devotions and bed wasn't much of a relief. For the last three days, the girls in the bunks around her were gaga over the new doctor who had shown up to work in the clinic on the other side of the mission compound. It might as well have been on the other side of the planet. Unless one of her girls cut themselves with their scissors or poked themselves in the eyes or tried to pierce their ears with their needles, Meg had no reason to go to the clinic.
          After two nights of listening to whispers about "He's so cute," and "I wonder if he would mind training a nurse," and "Do you think he has a girlfriend?" and variations on the theme, more appropriate to middle school girls, she decided she didn't care if she ever met the man. She wasn't even sure what his name was. Meg had met Dr. Frisco the day she arrived, to go over her medical documents and get a basic physical and to warn her about the various health hazards in the area -- water, sun stroke, scorpions (thanks, so much!), and other insects. She hadn't needed to go back to the clinic and planned not to need to. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #22

Somehow, Meg thought that getting away from junk food would be the key to losing weight this summer. She was sure she had read statistics somewhere that the reason obesity was so bad among people living on food stamps or at the poverty level was that they bought the cheapest food they could find. That was always starchy, sugary, over-processed, full of salt and fat. It was cheaper to buy a couple boxes of sugar-laden cereal or donuts than invest in fresh fruit and omelets for breakfast, for instance.
Going to this part of Mexico, just an hour over the border from Texas, was supposed to remove the junk food and limit her to fresh food. Well, the made-fresh-every-day part of the menu was right. Nobody told her that they would be eating tortillas three times a day, often fried, heavy on the beans, or fried plantain chips. A carbohydrate-lover's paradise, but murder on someone who was already afraid she was on the verge of turning diabetic. Worse: what sort of treats did the missionary teams bring down with them for the children in the orphanage? Lots of hard candy, bubble gum, gummy candy. Sugar, sugar, everywhere.
Forget the trick of filling her stomach with water whenever she got hungry, in case she just needed to re-hydrate. Nobody went anywhere without bottled water, and they all got three bottles every day, rationed more carefully than the chicken or the locally made sausages (don't ask what's in them, just eat and say "thanks").
There was always the "diet trick" of drinking the local, unfiltered, unpurified water, infested with who knew what microbes, diseases, and microscopic creatures. Good for losing lots of weight, fast -- if she didn't mind carrying something home that would prevent her donating blood ever again.
Meg made sure she walked for exercise every morning and evening, just because she spent so much time sitting down with the girls in the main house of the orphanage. All that sweating should have done her some good. So how come her jeans felt as tight as they did when she climbed on the plane in May?
"It's only mid-July," she told herself.
Unfortunately, that just made things worse.
        What had she been thinking, coming down here with just two years of high school Spanish -- and definitely Spain Spanish, rather than Mexican Spanish, because nobody understood more than half of what she tried to say -- and expecting to be able to teach anybody anything? The only saving grace was that the girls didn't talk much when they came for lessons, and they seemed to understand what she was trying to teach them through just signs and sketching little diagrams on the battered old chalkboard at the front of the long room. Meg loved the mismatched group of girls, always scrubbed rosy clean, their hair neatly and tightly braided out of their faces, so eager to learn. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #21

Brandy's shriek, an hour before the dance was due to start, could be heard from one end of the camp to the other. Casey and Laura and their girls were closest, because they had elected to go for a walk down to the beach to look for what the day's storm had washed up. A few of the little girls outdistanced them as they ran for the staff cabin, and Casey had an awful vision of Brandy finally erupting in a berserker rage, picking up a little girl and flinging her across the clearing without realizing it. And then later claiming the child attacked her and she was only defending herself.
The girls stopped on the steps of the staff cabin as if they had run into an invisible wall. Their faces twisted in shock and disgust, they backed down the steps and pressed their hands over their mouths and noses. Casey caught up with them in that moment, and it was like sticking her head into the isolation tent when her little brother had lung problems. They had needed to make the air around him damp and thick.
The fumes that spilled out of the door of the staff cabin, however, didn't smell anything like the isolation tent full of medicine sprays. Casey's first thought was that someone got lazy, flushed a tampon, and the ancient plumbing in the cabin had finally rebelled.
"What in the world happened?" Mrs. Gilbert demanded, bustling across the open square to join them. She stopped, swallowed hard, then pushed away her disgust with visible effort as she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. She slapped it over her mouth and nose and climbed the steps into the cabin.
Casey followed her, though she didn't have anything to filter the stench.
        Brandy stood in the doorway of the bathroom, frozen, an almost pitiable expression of horror and nausea on her face. Casey didn't want to know what those dark smears were on her face and clothes, but it looked like seaweed festooning her hair and shoulders. Little plops of dark water continued to drip from her fingers and the ends of her hair. A dark puddle with clumps of darker matter spread out across the floor. A big red plastic trash barrel lay on its side, blocking the door of the bathroom. It was a good guess the dirty water -- and whatever it contained -- had been stored in it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #20

"She doesn't want to help us. Just like all the others. Figures," the man said. The others nodded in almost perfect synchronization.
Andrea imagined he was the mouthpiece for the group. Or maybe they were all a group mind, like aliens manipulating borrowed bodies?
"It's not a matter of wanting to help." She swallowed down the urge to add that a little politeness and asking for help, instead of grabbing at people and throwing down accusations, went a long way toward getting help. "It's a matter of being able to. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm on my lunch break."
"Permanent lunch break," the first woman muttered.
"Just what do you think I can do for you? Don't expect me to write a story and publish it, just on your say-so," she added, suddenly recognizing the man who stood on the far right of the little semi-circle that seemed ready to pounce on her. "You can't make accusations and expect the paper to blindly print them, without doing research and validating facts."
"Yeah, that's what you say. It's just another excuse. If you wanted to, you could do it," the main speaker said, almost spitting. Which was incredible, Andrea decided, because there were very few sibilants in what he had just said.
"Really? And just what kind of authority do you think I have? If I had any kind of authority, to assign stories and decide what goes in the paper, would I be answering the phone?"
"You're a liar," the man on the far right growled. And followed it with a stream of invective Andrea only partially understood.
          She felt as if her feet had been nailed to the pavement. Her ears felt scorched, and for a few heartbeats there was a strange, distanced sensation, as if it all were happening far away, and yet his voice was so loud.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #19

"Hey, you, girl," a thin, scratchy voice snarled from behind Andrea.
She opened her mouth to retort that the old woman was misquoting the old rock-and-roll song. The words caught in her throat when that wrinkled hand latched hard onto her arm. Self-defense mode kicked in, and she barely stopped herself from twisting her arm free while swinging upward with her other hand, palm flat, to shove hard against the nose of the stranger.
"Never heard of personal space and 'look, don't touch'?" she muttered, and stepped back from the woman.
A few people walking past during the busy lunch hour on Main Street glanced at them, but nobody stopped.
"You work at the paper. I've seen you."
"Intern," Andrea was quick to retort.
"Whatever," a man with the exact same sour, pursed-mouth expression said, stepping up next to the woman. He waved his hand like he waved away pesky flies. "We've all seen you."
We? Andrea looked around and saw three other people. All stooped, with narrowed eyes and mouths pressed flat in dissatisfaction. They weren't all old, but they were all at least thirty years older than her. Who could guess their real ages, with those unhappy, sour expressions and the way they dressed, sort of old-fashioned with long sleeves and collars buttoned up. Honestly, who wore long sleeves and hems nearly to their ankles and cardigans in this weather?
         Maybe they weren't human?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #18

"Come on, troublemaker," she said, patting Shemp's trunk about halfway to his face. "Let's show the kiddies you're not going to eat me, okay?"
Not that she had any hope the big goof would listen, but there was always a first. Bergen picked up her wheelbarrow, clipped the rake, shovel, broom, and pan into place, and headed for the edge of the arena to face the children.
She strained her ears for the soft thuds of those big, flat feet on the packed dirt and concrete of the arena. Maybe Shemp did follow her for a dozen steps or so. The rising shrieks from the children seemed to confirm that, but just about the time she thought she could consider a job as an elephant trainer, that sense of air pressure behind her faded. Slowing, she glanced over her shoulder. Yep, Shemp had turned aside to examine the remnants from the latest bale she had brought into the arena. Sighing, she continued to the edge of the trench. Before she could wrack her brains for something to say to the children, they deluged her with questions. Bergen had to laugh at some of them, but she fought not to. The children were so serious, no matter how silly they were.
Was she an elephant doctor?
Did she speak to elephants?
Did she get to wear sparkly tights at night and ride on the elephants' backs?
Did she have to be a doctor to work with the elephants?
Did she get to sleep in the elephant house with them?
Bergen nearly gagged at that thought. She could barely breathe when she went into the elephant house to clean up the floor. Sleep in there? Only if she wanted to suffocate and smell like elephant for the next week. She didn't dare say that, though.
What was in the wheelbarrow?
She showed them, tipping it forward so everyone could see.
         Amid the chorus of disgust and awe for the mere size of the "patties," one little boy asked if he could have some to take home for a souvenir. From the look on his face, he was suitably impressed, and probably thought her job was the coolest one in the entire zoo.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #17

"Look out!" a little girl shrieked, and a chorus of voices responded.
Bergen looked toward the fence on the other side of the trench around the elephant arena -- yeah, and like that would stop them if they really wanted to get out of there and go rampaging through the zoo? -- and saw a bunch of school-age children leaning against the railing, waving and shouting. At her. The air pressure built up behind her, and the distinct sweet-grainy-dusty-musky smell wrapped around her. Which one of her charges was it now, and what did he or she want?
She turned, just in time to see a big dusty gray serpentine mass sway toward her face, then upwards, grazing her hair. Please, don't let him sneeze in my face again, she prayed, and put up both hands to shove the trunk away before it wrapped around her. For some reason, one elephant found it amusing to try to drape its trunk around her shoulders, turning into a smothering, bone-crushing heavy muffler. Emphasis on muffler, as in wrapping around her face. And what one elephant did and got away with -- as if anyone could stop them, short of using tranquilizers and elephant guns? -- the other ones imitated.
The trunk curved around like a big snake and tapped her right shoulder from behind.
"Shemp!" Bergen laughed, partly in relief.
         That wasn't the elephant's name, but it seemed appropriate, since along with his tendency to tap people on their right shoulders, he liked to retrieve things she had pushed out of the way in her cleanup rounds, and bring them back to her. Like the big red rubber dodge balls she had played with in elementary school, or the hula-hoops, or the branches. She had named the big elephant for George of the Jungle's elephant pal -- usually referred to as the "big, peanut-loving bow-wow." Along with his tendency to fetch things she didn't want fetched, he had an uncanny ability to sense the presence of peanuts, even inside sealed cellophane bags, inside her backpack, as she walked past the arena on her way to her locker in the maintenance half of the elephant house.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #16

After six weeks now assigned to the elephant "encounter" arena, Bergen had serious doubts that anyone really could "handle" the elephants. Cajole them. Bribe them. Even yell at them, and usually get no more response than a flick of their trunks -- which just had to mean something derogatory or even obscene, in elephant language -- or a twitch-flap of those floppy ears. But handle them? That implied the animals were being controlled.
Bergen seriously doubted that could be accomplished, without a cattle prod, tranquilizer gun, whips, and maybe electronic implants in their brains that turned them into big, dusty, slow radio-controlled cars.
Definitely she wasn't "handling" the elephants. More likely they were handling her. Kind of like that piece in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where readers found out that lab mice were actually on Earth to run experiments on scientists. Whenever she thought the arena was clean, she turned around and found a couple mounds as high as her knees had been left as far apart from each other as they could be, while her back was turned. In complete silence. That was what always bothered her. Shouldn't something that big and soft and greasy-looking actually make a loud noise when it hit the ground? The stuff actually steamed, early in the morning. Not that she thought long on the grossness of it, but she couldn't seem to keep it out of her mind. Especially when she was griping.
The only thing worse than finding two or three new big piles to clean up the moment she put away her tools, was to come back from hauling several bales of the sweet hay and other twenty-four-hours-a-day "snacks" the elephants preferred, to find the piles had been turned into a carpet. She always had the feeling the grandma elephants watched her with a reproachful look in those little round eyes, as if it were her fault that the kids had made a mess while her back was turned.
           Not until the third week of her "expanded" duties, did it occur to her that she had lost her fear of the elephants.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #15

Elephant poop.
Was there anything more frustrating, humiliating -- and plentiful -- than elephant poop?
Mercer thought the situation might be more bearable if she could actually be far away from the elephant compound when the "deposits" were made, but the sneaky creatures -- and how in the world could anything that big and slow manage to be sneaky? -- always did it the moment she turned her back. She would cross to the storage shed to put away her industrial-strength broom and the enormous shovel-dustpan she used, confident that the arena where little children came to "meet" the big, baggy, dusty creatures was clean and presentable. Then she would turn, thinking maybe if Dumbo and Jumbo and their friends -- not their names, but she preferred familiar handles -- were good boys and girls, maybe she would treat them with a long shower from the hose. They did seem to love it when she aimed the fire hose up over their heads and sent long, soft streamers of water all over them. The first few times they flapped their ears and let out little half-trumpeting sounds, she had been afraid she had startled or irritated them, and any minute now they would charge straight at the source of the irritation or fright. Meaning her. Then trample her. No one would be blamed except her, because after all, she had stepped into the elephant enclosure.
That still freaked her out a little. Yes, someone had to go into the enclosure during the long, dusty, bright summer days and regularly clean the arena. But why her, the new kid?
"The critters like you," Dr. Hawkins had said, when Bergen asked, her voice squeaking a little bit, when she was handed the assignment after just a week as go-fer and general assistant to everyone who worked with the elephants.
         "Like -- a snack?" She had felt a little better when Dr. Hawkins grinned and shook his head, and the other, more experienced elephant handlers laughed and didn't show any irritation with her hesitation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

NEW Tabor Heights novel: A BOX OF PROMISES


Coming this month from Desert Breeze Publishing:

The fifth book in Year Two of the Tabor Heights, Ohio series.

Five college friends have made vows listing the goals they want to meet for the summer -- and those who don't succeed provide a pizza party for the others.

So far, we've met Andrea, Ray and Casey. In September we'll meet Bergen and Meg, and get glimpses of what the other girls are up to.