Thursday, June 30, 2022

Scenes From Today's Scenes: Rumors on Cottage Grove Road

 

I'm trying something new--adding pictures to my work in progress! This is a scene from Rumors on Cottage Grove Road.



Approximately pages 127-132

Vera stood just outside The Three-legged Goat House. She’d practiced yoga before the accident, but not since, mostly because she had enough exercises from her physical therapist, thank you very much, but also because she wasn’t comfortable in tanks that would reveal her scars. She tugged on her long-sleeve t-shirt, knowing she would stand out like Quaker in a disco. Tucking her mat beneath her arm, she told herself to get over it, and strode into the large wooden enclosure.

Goats wandered around, kicking up sawdust, and butting against the other members of the class.

“There you are!” Janine waved her over to a corner where she stood with a few women Vera recognized from the barbecue at Principal Marc’s house. “Do you remember everyone?”

Vera nodded, even though she didn’t. She because Lizzy walked in with Madeline, Ty, and a girl about Ty’s age. Fortunately, the leader also walked and took his place at the head of the class.

Janine and her friends spread out their mats. Vera did the same but made sure she was as far away from Lizzy and Madeline as possible.

“Hello everyone, my name is Jose.” Jose had a Michelangelo-statue-worthy body, a long black braid, and a commanding voice. “I’d like to welcome you all to The Three-Legged Goat House. As you can see, all of our goats have four legs, so you won’t need to worry about tipping them over when you fall. And, if I’m doing my job right, more than a few of you will fall. I’m here today to test your balance and help you discover your inner kid.”

Vera’s gaze slid over to Lizzy. She looked good. Happy. Older. Madeline’s eyes connected with Vera’s and lit with recognition.

Madeline leaned over to whisper something to Lizzy.

Vera’s breath caught. She scooped up her mat and bolted. She nearly tripped over a goat with only one horn.

“That’s Horny,” Jose called out after her. “He won’t hurt you. Hey, the class hasn’t even started yet.” He heaved out a sigh about the same time Vera darted through the exit.

“Oh well, this practice isn’t for everyone,” she heard Jose say. “It takes a special breed to commune with goats.”

Two hours later, Vera found herself parked in front of Hoag Hospital. After brushing away her tears, she pulled in one deep breath and then another. What was she doing here? How had she gotten here? Now what? When she’d started driving, all she knew was that she couldn’t go back to her dad’s house. If Lizzy had followed her—and she wouldn’t put it past her ex-mother-in-law—and saw Dad, Lizzy would know.

Image from Sunset Ridge Park, Newport Beach Real Estate


She probably already knew.

Maybe she should just tell Tim. Introduce herself to Ty. If they weren’t interested in her, she’d try and rebuild her life without them. Lizzy glanced out at the sun sinking into the tree tops. Well, she was here, she might as well make the most of it. After climbing from the car and hitting the locks, Vera took the path through the neighborhood leading to Sunset Ridge Park.

The park lived up to its name. High on a hill, it provided an amazing view of the coastline and the sun sinking into a pink puddle out on the horizon. A baseball game was in progress on the field. Children scampered and raced around the play structure. Vera ignored all the other people and hoped they would extend her the same courtesy. She sank onto a bench to watch the water swallow the sun.

The sound of a ball hitting a bat rang out. A small crowd cheered. Gulls wheeled and cried over her head. All of these noises could have come from a hundred miles. She had moved a hundred miles away and her past still found her. How did that even happen?

She wasn’t a religious person, but maybe God was trying to tell her something. Maybe Ty needed her. Maybe she needed Ty. A dozen unbidden memories swamped her. Driving to the hospital, panting with contractions, thinking she would die from the pain. A nurse handing her the red squalling baby. Tim grinning and crying behind the nurse, wiping his nose with the back of his blue-plastic glove. Her breasts swelling and leaking every time she heard a baby cry. Driving away on a dark night, leaving only a note for Tim, and one last glance at Ty.

She’d been too young. Too dumb. Too much of everything she hated about herself and not enough of who she knew she couldn’t be.

“Ronny?”

Vera started and twisted around.

Lance, dripping with sweat, jogged her way. His smile dimmed when he saw her face. “Hey, I thought that was you.” He flopped onto the bench beside her. “I’d give you hug, but as you can see, I’m gross.” He waved at his soaking tank top and equally sopping shorts. He looked good to her. Better than good.

“It’s good to see you,” he said. “What are you doing here?” He dropped a baseball mitt between them.

Vera studied it. “Baseball?”

“Sure. It’s fun.”

“I didn’t know you did fun?”

He upped the wattage of his smile. “It’s new. Hey, I thought you moved to Lake Arrowhead.”

Vera blinked back tears.

“Not working out?”

When she didn’t answer, he pressed, “It can’t be that bad.”

When she began to cry in earnest, Lance wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “Come on.” He stood and offered her a hand.

Vera sniffed, wiped away a tear, and looked at his hand. “Where are we going?”

“The Shake Shack.”

“Ice cream?”

He waved his hand in front of her. “Isn’t ice cream the answer when girls question life?”

“I’m not a girl anymore.”

Confusion flickered across his face.

“I’m female…that’s not what I meant. I’m a grown up. I need to,” she gulped, “be responsible.”

“Be responsible tomorrow. Eat ice cream today.”

Vera gave him a tentative smile. “That’s a very un-doctory thing to say.”

He shrugged. “So, sue me. I have malpractice insurance.”

She put her hand in his and let him lead her to his convertible BMW. A few minutes later they were speeding south on the Coast Highway with the top down and the wind toying with Vera’s hair.

“Did you know the coast of southern California was occupied 9,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries?” Lance asked her.

“Why do I care?” Vera had to hold her hair back to keep it from wiping in her face.

He shrugged. “You were feeling old. I told you something that should make you feel young.”

“I already knew I was younger than the California Coast.”

“You’re younger than me.”

“You’re pretty responsible.”

He sobered. “I have to be.”

“Me, too.”

Image from Shake Shack, Newport Beach, Facebook


The Shake Shack sits high on a bluff above the Crystal Cove State Park and Beach. The bright yellow one-story building has one window in the front for ordering, and one window on the side for pick-ups. A smattering of wooden tables fills the patio overlooking the ocean. Vera remembered coming here as a kid with her dad when it was his custody weekend…when and if he remembered. Vera sighed and admitted to herself that she came from a long line of irresponsible people.

Maybe it wasn’t all her fault she was a lousy parent. It wasn’t as if she’d had good examples.

Lance pulled into the line of cars waiting for a place to park. “Want to order me a mud-pie shake?” He opened the console, pulled out his wallet, and fished out a twenty. “Get whatever will make you happy.”

She laughed. “I can get my own drink.”

“I know you can. But you can also let me try to make you smile. Also, get me a burger and fries and get what you want.”

Vera plucked the twenty from his fingers and climbed from the car. By the time she’d ordered and picked up their food, Lance had found a place to park and selected a table with a view of the sunset.

“Are you going to tell me what set you off today?” Lance asked.

She told him about Tim, Ty, Madeline, and Lizzy. “I had worked so hard to put my past behind me and suddenly, there they all are to remind me of my biggest mistake.”

Lance didn’t say anything for a moment, then, softly, “I’m glad my mom doesn’t think I’m her biggest mistake.”

“Oh geeze, that’s not what I meant.”

“Isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Maybe if you got to know your son, you would stop thinking of him as a mistake.”

“He’ll hate me. They all will.”

“So, let them hate you. What’s that American saying, Haters gotta hate?”

“But they’re not haters. They’re good people. All of them. Even worse, they’re good-doers.”

“Oh,” Lance gave a dramatic shudder. “Good-doers are the worst.”

“I know, right?” Vera selected a sweet potato fry and dipped it in ranch dressing. “What a minute. You’re a do-gooder.” She popped the fry into her mouth. “Hypocrite,” she snarled.

“As a good-doer,” Lance said primly, “I feel I can speak out for my kind and tell you that these good people will want you to confess.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. There’s nothing that a good-doer loves more than learning that the astray want to change their ways and join the good-doing team.”

Vera swallowed her fry and felt it scratch her throat on the way down her pipes. “Maybe I don’t want to join their team.”

Lance put down his burger and studied her. “What about your music therapy?”

She felt as if he’d slapped her. “What about it?”

“Isn’t that all about helping people?”

“Well, of course, but—”

“But what? Just not those people?”

Vera ducked her head. “I guess.”

“I have news for you. When you decide to spend your life helping people, you have to start with those closest to you.”

“My family.”

“Yourself.”

Image from Wikipedia (Newport Beach)


Rumors on Cottage Grove Road

 



By Kristy Tate

 

Vera dipped the makeup brush in the face-powder. This simple act had taken her months to master, and this was something she would never let herself forget. Gratitude for the small things kept her sane. She turned up the light on her magnified mirror and leaned in, brush in hand. Doctors, therapists, and a daily regimen of pills had gotten her here—to this place where she could gaze at her reflection without horror.

If nothing else, her accident had taught her monsters don’t live beneath beds, lurk in shadows, or captured behind bars. The evil keeping her awake at night, the one whispering you can’t, you mustn’t, and who are you to think you can? lived inside her own head. If she listened to these voices, her constant companions, they’d shape her life. She could call them prettier names, such as common sense, wisdom, or prudence, but they were really just fears. Creatures of her own design. Past hurts, wounds, and insecurities transforming into excuses, justifications, and rationalizations.

She had shut them down.

Just like she’d unwrapped the bandages covering her skin, she had set her fears aside. Still, at odd moments when she really didn’t mean to, she’d spy her reflection in windows or lakes, and her breath would catch.

This is not who I really am, she’d think. I’m not the monster.

Vera selected the tube of lipstick and clicked it open. Two years ago, she only wore make-up on stage or before a show. She’d rocked the down-to-earth country girl image. Now, she relied on cosmetics to transform her. She’d grown to love the sweet and sometimes toxic smell, the silky coolness on her skin, the colors, and, especially, the ability to reinvent herself to suit her mood.

Satisfied with her handiwork, she selected a soft cottony dress and a pair of Steve Maden sandals. The lacy dress hung loosely on her slight frame, flitted around her knees, and covered a host of fading scars. In the past, she would have chosen a pair of short cut-off jeans, cowboy boots, and her favorite red and white checked halter-top. Or maybe even a bikini.

Were her swimsuit days over? She’d only been to the beach twice this summer. Both times it had been in the evening, and she’d worn a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans.

Since the accident, every day had become a series of tests. She failed as many as she passed. In the beginning, it was the nurses, doctors, and therapists administering the exams—squeeze the tennis ball, walk the hall, balance on one leg. But today, she’d undergo another sort of test. An important one. One that could determine the rest of her life.

If she passed, she’d set her plan in motion. If she failed, she’d…

Failing wasn’t an option. She didn’t have a backup plan. Grabbing her purse, she swung out the door. In the garage, she settled behind Ben’s 2004 Mercedes convertible and stuck the key in the ignition. She’d sell this car, along with the house, as soon as she dared.

Today’s test was the first step.

Vera slid on her sunglasses and tied a scarf around her hair. Moments later, the convertible roared down the palm tree lined street. She eased onto the Pacific Coast Highway and crossed the bridge leading to Balboa Island. She parked in a beach lot, undid the scarf, took off the glasses, and tidied her hair. She blinked at her reflection. The scars along her hairline were only faintly pink.

They’ll never know, she promised herself.

She heard the party before she actually saw it. Reynold’s beach bungalow sat on a spit of sand overlooking the harbor. Music—Hootie and the Blowfish— poured through the open doors and windows. A man with a flushed face manned the steaming taco bar and grill while girls dressed in string bikinis carried trays holding wine flutes and bottles. Vera paused at the railing separating the sand from the lawn. She’d played this game long enough to know the trick was to act like she belonged.

But the stakes had never been this high.

She heard Reynold’s laugh and her attention swiveled in his direction. He wore a Tommy Bahama’s Hawaiian shirt and a pair of white linen pants. His blond locks—hair-plugs—lifted in the slight breeze. Kayla Gaynor and a redhead Vera didn’t recognize stood beside him, giggling at something he’d said. He looked up and caught Vera’s gaze. His eyes lit with interest.

Had he recognized her?

In another lifetime, before she’d met Ben, Reynolds had first spotted her on a beach. She’d been playing frisbee with friends from high school. At first, she’d thought he—an older guy trying to suck in his paunch—had been hitting on her. And he had been, in a way. But the modeling contract he’d eventually presented had been real enough. And that had led to the singing gigs. He’d even introduced her to Ben.

She owed him a lot—for the good and the bad.

Encouraged, she made her way across the lawn. She felt the gazes of men and women on her back as she entered the fray. She recognized many of them—Meggie Brentwood, Angela Parsons, Dean Kramer—their glances bounced off her. Hope trilled along her spine. Not one of them said her name.

It didn’t take her long to reach Reynolds’ side. She plucked a wine cooler off a proffered tray, thanked the girl, and met Reynolds’ frankly curious gaze.

“Hello, sweetheart.” He stuck out a thick paw. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

Vera couldn’t hold back her smile or the joy bubbling through her.

She’d passed.

#

Lance met Vera on the sidewalk in front of the beachside café. Because they were meeting during his lunch, he was wearing his scrubs and an ID card on a lanyard. Hoag hospital loomed on the distant hill. Vera knew at any moment Lance could get a call that would send him scuttling back.

He gave her tight, soap-smelling embrace.

Before he could speak, she said, “Call me Vera.”

Lance pulled away and rolled his eyes, but schooled his expression when he caught her seriousness. “Why would I call you Vera?”

“It’s my name now.” She strode past the gate and took a seat at a bistro table with a view of the ocean and the surfers toting their boards. Because it was a weekday, the gulls outnumbered children and parents. She preferred it this way.

Lance settled onto the chair across from her and picked up a menu. It had taken so long for her to regain her sense of taste or smell. She’d craved certain foods, like butter pecan ice cream, only to be disappointed when her tastebuds finally returned. Like everything else in her life, butter pecan ice cream just wasn’t the same. She already knew she’d order some sort of vegetable soup because it would be filling and make eating unnecessary for at least three to four hours.

While she waited for Lance to order his roast beef sandwich from the perky server who was probably trying to start her Hollywood career, Vera studied his caramel-colored skin and thick dark curly hair. It had taken her weeks to determine his nationality. He hadn’t been forthcoming, as if being from Pakistan was something to be ashamed of. His proper name wasn’t Lance, of course, but Lazim. That had also taken her weeks to discover. The nurses at UCLA Medical Center had been completely gaga over him. Vera knew this because she’d spent so much time there, the medical staff had become like family. One nurse, Annie, had been especially aggressive with him. Could Annie have been the reason he’d transferred to Hoag?

Vera didn’t want to think about nurses—seeing one of her doctors was hard enough. Because she didn’t need it, she set her menu beside her water glass. “I’m completely starting over.”

“Why would you want to start over?” Lance plucked a roll from the basket the server had placed in front of him. With his thick hair falling over his forehead and shielding his face, Vera couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or confused. “At twenty-eight, you’ve only just begun.”

His I’m so much older and wiser attitude annoyed her, especially since she knew he was still in his thirties. With her appetite disappearing, she set her own roll on a plate at her elbow. “You like to think you’re the fount of wisdom and I’m a babe in the woods, but the past eighteen months have changed me. Aged me.”

He raised his brown eyes to meet hers. He blinked. “You’re wearing contacts.”

“Do you like them?” She fluttered her long false lashes.

“Your eyes were the one thing you had left.” His voice sounded strangled.

“You’re missing the point.” Vera wrapped her fingers around her cool water glass and liked the feel of the condensation against her skin. She’d stopped drinking alcohol after the accident and never picked it up again. She found it interesting that so many people struggled to quit, but for her it had been as easy as deciding what shoes to wear.

“Are you still going to group therapy?” Lance asked.

“Yes.”

“And what do they think of your new name?”

“They like it.” Vera sipped her water and watched him over the rim of her glass.

Lance snorted.

She set the glass down with a solid thunk. Why did his opinion matter so much to her? “I don’t really get you. When did you change your name?”

“What does that have to do with anything?” His gaze skittered away from hers.

“Lazim isn’t so hard to pronounce. Why did you change it?” When he didn’t answer, she changed tactics. “You know I was depressed.”

“That’s completely normal. You experienced a serious trauma. You’re very lucky to be alive.”

She pressed her lips together and waited for the waitress to set their meals before them. “Remember, we talked about luck. I don’t believe in luck.” She picked up her spoon and dipped it into her fragrant tomato basil bisque. “As a doctor, a man of science, I wouldn’t think you would either.”

He gazed at her with his liquid brown eyes, his mouth a tight straight line. “I believe in God.”

“Everyone does,” she said dismissively.

His lips twitched. “Not everyone.” He picked up his sandwich as if he found it fascinating.

Vera plucked up a package of crackers, ripped it open, and poured the contents into her soup. “But I don’t think He has anything to do with this.”

“This?” he asked around his mouthful of sandwich.

“My decision to recreate my life.” She could tell he wanted to ask why she would want to do such thing, so she didn’t want for his response. “I’m starting over,” she repeated. “My dad just bought a place in Lake Arrowhead. I’m thinking of going there.”

“And doing what?”

“Teaching music.”

“I thought you were through with that.”

“I’m through with performing. I’ve enrolled in a music therapy program. I can take all of the courses virtually.”

“That’s…great.” He gazed at her as if he didn’t recognize her.

“I want to help others who have suffered, but I don’t think I’d be a very good counselor or therapist. But music—that I can do. I’m not sure I can help people—but I know music can.”

Lance put his sandwich on his plate and studied her. “I’m proud of you.”

Warmed by his praise, she beamed. “Thanks. So, you approve of my plan?”

“Studying music therapy so you can aid people’s healing? Yes.” He picked up the long skinny pickle on his plate and shook it at her. “Changing your name and your eye color? No.”

“Why not?”

“You already have so many decisions and changes to face. Why compound them?” He bit into the pickle.

Because the thought of never having a child slays me, but she couldn’t say this to the beautiful man sitting across from her. If he knew her true intentions, he’d try and stop her. “I’m not walking away from everything and everyone. You, for example, are invited to visit whenever you like.”

But she knew he wouldn’t. He practically lived at the hospital and rarely went anywhere that wasn’t within shouting distance of his work. It had surprised her he’d suggested they meet for lunch at the beach instead of at Hoag’s cafeteria.

“Maybe I will do that,” he said without meeting her gaze, letting her know he was lying.

#

The village buzzed with summer people. The Tudor style buildings lined the lake’s beach. Ducks and geese floated on the water, waiting for the bread crumbs children and a few adults tossed their way. A carousel at the play area spun in circles and played jangly music. Vera shouldered her purse and navigated through the crowd, glancing in the shops, daydreaming of opening her own music studio.

She stopped at a café, ordered a smoothie, and sipped it. It felt cold and refreshing on her tongue. The day that had begun so muggy in Orange County was turning cool as the sun kissed the edge of the treetops.

Vera settled on a bench and watched people wander up and down the sidewalk lining the water’s edge. A handful of boats zoomed on the lake, casting up sparkling diamond-like showers. A man in a rowboat fiddled with a fishing pole. A miniature Mississippi riverboat moored at the dock. A small fluffy sort of dog walking a very pregnant woman stopped to snuffled around Vera’s ankles. She bent to ruffle the fur between her ears, but froze when she heard a familiar voice.

“Sorry! Frampton! Come!”

It couldn’t be. Could it? Vera studied the woman. Ella. Vera searched her memory and remembered Ella’s husband, Colby, had started a pediatric office in Blue Jay Village just a few miles down the road. How could she have forgotten?

“So sorry.” Ella tugged on the leash.

“He’s…” Vera searched Ella’s friendly face—the blue eyes, smattering of freckles, pink cheeks. Pregnancy suited her. Vera’s heart twisted. She cleared her throat, trying to dismiss her grief. “He’s not bothering me. What is he?”

“I don’t think anyone knows.” Ella pulled on the dog and he skittered across the walkway. “Well, have a good day.”

Vera watched Ella waddle into the crowd. Her heart rate slowed. Ella hadn’t recognized her. Vera pressed her hand to her chest and took in a deep breath. Relief whooshed through her. Reynolds hadn’t recognized her and neither had Ella.

She hadn’t even been to visit her dad, yet. Was it a coincidence she’d bumped into Ella on her first day in Lake Arrowhead? Or was it a sign?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Marketing Mayhem: Writer Retreats. Rubbing Shoulders With Strangers

 


I hesitate to tell this story because it makes me look more than a little inept. Believe me, I’m usually very good at navigating life and being an adult, even if this experience would argue otherwise.

Earlier this month, I was blessed to be able to attend a writers’ retreat. The lodge slept forty and there were about thirty of us. One woman spearheaded our three daily meals, but we were each assigned kitchen duties. There was a large table of treats everyone contributed to that was open for 24-hour grazing. (This will be important to my tale later.)

Five days. No internet. No cell service. No life interruptions.



I had two main goals.

Number one: Make friends so when I attend a conference held by the same organization in September where I’ll pitch my novel to editors and agents (because after ten years as an indie author, I’m willing to give traditional publishing another thought) I won’t feel as awkward, weird, and lonely as I am wont to do in a crowd.

Number two: Finish my Kindle Vella story.

I left home at 6:30 a.m. By 7:30, L.A. traffic was behind me and I was in the desert. I arrived at a friend's in Mesa, AZ in time for her to feed me lunch and remind me of how lucky I am to know her. 3 hours later, I'm back on the road, surprised by the empty, barren landscape. I miss the last gas station. Start to get nervous. No cell service. No internet. The GPS is an arrow on a blank screen. Ride for several miles on an empty tank. I see a sign promising gas three miles off the main road. I chase after it, only to find the shack of a shop only has diesel. The proprietor tells me she can no longer afford to provide gas, but there's a station eight miles away (further from my destination.) I come to a small town with a library, post office, school, and something called a pumpkin depot. No gas. A local promises me there's gas another mile south. My car is now running on fumes and I'm rolling down hills at every opportunity and praying on the inclines. I find the gas pumps adjacent to another mom-and-pop store. I fill the tank and offer prayers of thanksgiving. (At this point, I would have paid a thousand dollars a gallon. I hesitated to even look at the cost, but, even though I was in the back of beyond, the gas was still cheaper than in Orange County.)



Back on the road, every other vehicle I pass is a giant truck driven by a man wearing a cowboy hat. I arrive in Payson to find it woodsy and much cooler than Mesa. I follow the road out of town and now, with a full tank of gas, can climb the hills without fear. Although, I was frantic to get to my destination before dark. Twenty miles of dirt road and the instructions which seemed so inadequate before, start to make sense. Turn at the house...if you pass the creek, you've gone too far...look for the green pipe...pass the red and brown cabin. At 6:30, I arrive at the lodge where thirty other writers are mingling. My car is covered in orange dust, but I'm ready to write. I’m nearly the last to arrive.

Boy howdy was I ever productive! My main goal was to finish my Kindle Vella story, The Cocoa Concoction--which happened on the first day. It turns out that without family and friends, internet, cell service, and household chores beckoning me, I can be wildly productive. I finished that story. Edited two others, and read through a third. By Saturday, I had run out of things to do. Not wanting to start a new project, I decided to head home a day early.



I was saying goodbye and loading up my car when I realized I had locked my purse in my trunk. Inside my purse were my phone, my glasses, and my keys. I desperately needed help. A few of my new friends were able to get cell service, but without my glasses, I couldn’t read any numbers. A circle of my new friends was looking things up and making calls. We tried a few locksmiths, but no one wanted to drive twenty miles down a dirt road to help.



I went to the neighbor to see if they knew anyone with the right sort of tools and know-how. She didn’t know anyone personally, but she pointed at a group of people playing in the creek at the edge of the property and suggested I ask them. They said they thought they could do it.

There were three men, two women, and four little kids. The kids and women came back with me to the house while the men hiked back to their campsite to get their trucks and tools. I fed the kids with snacks my writer friends donated from the before-mentioned treat table and tried to keep the moms and kids happy.

The men were able to break into the car pretty easily, but as soon as they did, the car—knowing it was being broken into—went into panic mode. The alarm went off, and worse, the button to open the trunk and the latch to fold down the back seats to access the trunk were both frozen. Three hours later, thanks to YouTube, the men with their tools dissembled the car’s alarm system. While they were breaking into my car, I’m tossing out candy and treats and trying to keep everyone happy. The men were throwing out cuss words just as liberally. (Did I mention this was a group of Mormon women writers?)

Remember my first goal? To make friends? E V E R Y O N E there knew who I was by the time I left. I was the weirdo with the screaming car who interrupted writing time by bringing a gang using colorful language to the retreat.

When I went away to college, after living in a small town for my whole life and graduating from high school with the same kids who had been in my kindergarten class, (No lie. My best friends in high school were also in my kindergarten class) my dad told me the best way to make friends is to ask for help then double repay the favor. I guess I got half of the equation right, and I now owe a lot of favors. I like to think I have thirty new friends.



Still, I came home with a finished story, two completely edited books, and the realization of what I can accomplish without interruptions. Also, I added a bunch of new friends on social media. The whole experience was a win, even if it had its moments of terror and frustration.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Scene From Whispers Over Wildrose Road

 To celebrate the release of my new book, I'm posting something about it every day. Here's the scene that upended Lizzy and Madeline's life and radically changed their relationship. From Episode One, The Funeral.

read now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B194V4WZ

Wind-driven leaves, twigs, and small, forgotten debris skipped across the parking lot. The breeze ruffled the hem of Madeline’s skirt and tickled up her legs. Lyle’s office was in the same professional building as her father’s, less than a mile from her own. Her father had tried to get her to lease office space in the same plaza, but for reasons she hadn’t stopped to question, she’d balked.

Dad could pave her way through law school, but he couldn’t get her in his plaza. Still, first as a kid and then as an intern, she’d spent so many hours at the Rancho Allegro Business Park, it almost felt like home.

Madeline pulled open the door to Mayer and Watson, LLP, and greeted the receptionist. To her surprise, she found Lizzy in the waiting room, sitting in a wingback chair and reading a Martha Stewart magazine.

Lizzy glanced up, her eyes widening. The magazine in her hands slipped to her lap. Lizzy recaptured her composure, stood, and gathered Madeline into a hug. After pulling away, she said, “Imagine! Seeing you twice in a week! It’s like finding a lucky penny not once, but twice.”

Madeline’s smile felt tight. She didn’t like Lizzy any more than Lizzy liked her. The difference between them was that Madeline was candid and Lizzy didn’t know how to be honest, even with herself. She’d been pretending to be a character in a cheesy movie even before there ever was a Hallmark Channel. Lizzy was soft, squishy, and smelled of something sweet. Vanilla, maybe? Madeline pulled away as soon as she could and tugged her blazer back into place.

“What are we doing here?” Lizzy reclaimed her seat.

“I guess we’ll find out.” Madeline settled into a chair not quite next to her former sister-in-law.

She took in Lizzy out of the corner of her eye. Lumpy sweater.  Stretched- out jeans. Navy blue sneakers dotted with tiny strawberries. Not-quite-white socks. As if Lizzy felt Madeline’s gaze, she smoothed down her sweater and crossed her ankles.

The phone buzzed, and the receptionist answered. “Mrs. Clark? You can both go in.”

Madeline buttoned her blazer, stood, and strode for the door. Lizzy trailed after her like a kid sister.

Madeline didn’t have any siblings. She’d been thrilled when Chad had first introduced her to Lizzy. But the thrill had been short-lived. As soon as Lizzy had opened her mouth, she’d made it painfully obvious they were as different as poodles and kittens.

Not that Lizzy was unattractive. Thirty plus years ago, she’d been a beauty. She still was—if you didn’t mind lumpy sweaters, misshapen jeans, and sneakers dotted with strawberries.

Lyle held the door open for them to pass through. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the back bay. A flock of geese in a V formation winged by. What would it be like to be so free?

After shaking hands with both women, Lyle motioned to the leather chairs facing his desk. Lyle also took a seat. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve asked you both here today.”

Beside Madeline, Lizzy crossed her legs and laced her fingers together in her lap. Tension rolled off her. Madeline could almost smell her former sister-in-law’s hot flash. When no one else spoke, Madeline said, “I assume this has to do with Brian’s estate.”

Lyle pulled a pair of glasses out of his breast pocket and slipped them on. “Yes.”

“How—why—” Lizzy stammered, then cleared her throat. “What does this have to do with me?”

Lyle ignored Lizzy and fingered the papers on his desk. “It may surprise you to learn Brian hadn’t changed his will since the divorce. This was something we’d talked about many times. He informed me that should anything ever happen to him, he would wish his entire estate bequeathed to you, Madeline.”

“But our children—” Madeline began.

“Brian knew your children would eventually receive their inheritance when you pass. He thought that they could better handle the wealth when they were more mature.” Lyle looked at Madeline fondly. “He had great faith in you. Much more than he had in himself.”

Madeline skated Lizzy another glance. Lizzy stared out the window beyond Lyle, her lips pressed together, shoulders rigid.

“The thing is,” Lyle cleared his throat, “shortly before his death, Brian made a rather speculative purchase—using not only all of his estate, but also yours, Mrs. Clark.”

Madeline and Lizzy exchanged glances.

“What?” Lizzy acted as if Lyle had just surprised her with a pop quiz and pressed her hand against her breast. “We’re both Mrs. Clark.”

As if he didn’t know.

Lyle donned a look that managed to appear both patient and condescending. “And he used both estates, yours—Elizabeth—and his own.”

Now he had Lizzy’s full attention. Her mouth formed a perfect O. After a stunned beat of silence, she rasped, “He spent all of my money?”

“Yes. On a warehouse in Running Springs.”

“Running Springs?” Lizzy echoed. “In the San Bernardino Mountains?”

“You’re familiar with the area?” Lyle steepled his fingers and rested back in his chair.

“Somewhat,” Lizzy said. “Running Springs, not so much. My daughter lives in Lake Arrowhead. My grandparents had a cabin there.”

“And now, you are a joint owner of a warehouse,” Lyle pronounced as if he was bestowing great news. “Both your names are on the deed.”

“A warehouse? I don’t want a warehouse!” Lizzy blinked rapidly, looking like she teetered on the verge of tears.

Madeline had never seen her former sister-in-law lose her temper—would she do so now?

“I’d be happy to find a broker to list it for you,” Lyle said, “but given the current state of affairs and market, I’m sure it would sell at a loss.”

“Why would Brian buy a warehouse?” Madeline scooted to the edge of her seat.

Lyle raised his hands in a defeated gesture.

Something clicked in Madeline’s memory. Lizzy must have come to the same conclusion, because she asked, “Is this warehouse the same one where they found Brian’s body?”

“Yes,” Lyle said. “But you know that, according to the autopsy report, Brian died of a heart attack.”

Brian, Chad, and their father had all suffered with heart disease and a yen for rich food and red meat—a deadly combination.

Lizzy blinked some more. “Still, rather coincidental, don’t you think?”

Madeline caught her lower lip in her teeth. She’d never considered Lizzy the suspicious kind. She was as naïve as a lamb, if not going to be slaughtered—because the woman did always land on her feet, usually while balancing a platter of cookies in her hands—then, at the very least, sheared.

“Do you have the deed?” Madeline asked.

“Of course,” Lyle murmured.

“I’d like to see it,” Madeline said.

Lyle pushed a packet of papers across his desk. Madeline gathered them up and flipped through them.

“I know this must come as a shock to both of you.” Lyle slipped off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“What’s in this warehouse?” Lizzy peered over Madeline’s shoulder.

“It’s empty.” Lyle laced his fingers together and rested his hands on his belly. “It’s been abandoned for several years.”

“So, there’s no lease, or anything?” Lizzy bit her lip in concern.

“Do you know what he had planned to do with it?” Madeline looked up from the deed.

“No idea,” Lyle said. “I’m just as surprised as you are. This is really uncharacteristic of the Brian we knew…and loved.”

“All of my money? Gone?” Lizzy said, almost as if talking to herself, trying to convince herself of this new reality. She sank back in her chair.

Lyle held up a finger and pointed at the ceiling. “It’s not gone. It’s just been invested in a warehouse.”

“That you say would be imprudent to sell.” Lizzy’s voice turned hard and cold—two adjectives Madeline would never have attributed to her former sister-in-law. “Can we lease it out?”

“For what?” Madeline considered Lizzy, her cheeks flaming red, her blue eyes sparkling like ice shards.

“How would I know?” Lizzy stood. “You’re the one with the deed!”

Madeline handed it to her. “Would you like to read it?”

Lizzy made a grunting noise, rolled her eyes, and gazed out the window while she gathered her thoughts. “I want to take a picture of it.”

“Of the warehouse?” Madeline asked.

“The deed.” Lizzy’s tone had the word duh attached to it.

“Be my guest.” Madeline handed it over.

Lizzy pulled her phone from her purse, placed the deed on Lyle’s desk, and busied herself taking pictures of each page.

“What are you going to do with that?” Madeline asked.

“I don’t know. Something.” Lizzy pocketed her phone.

“Whatever you do, you’ll need my cooperation,” Madeline told her.

“What do you suggest we do?” Lizzy sounded snarky and emphasized the pronoun. Interesting. Madeline had never seen this side of Lizzy before.

“Go and look at it?” Madeline suggested.

“I can go tomorrow.”

“I’m in court all day tomorrow,” Madeline said, “but there’s really no need for both of us to go.”

“There’s no need for either of you to go if you’d rather not,” Lyle interjected. “I can contact a broker who can provide not only pictures but also a video tour. That is, after all, a typical part of the listing.”

“Will you email me a link?” Madeline asked.

“And me as well.” Lizzy’s tone had lost its combative edge, but Madeline could tell she was about to explode.

After the meeting, Lizzy marched beside Madeline, her anger clear with every strawberry-sneaker-stomp. Once they reached the parking lot, Lizzy rounded on Madeline. “What do you know about this?”

Madeline paused beside her Audi. A few spaces over, she spotted Lizzy’s ancient Honda. She still drove that thing? It should have been put out of its misery years ago.

“Madeline!” Lizzy barked.

Madeline wanted to laugh at her former sister-in-law’s outrage. “Nothing. I promise you. This is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Lizzy demanded.

“Don’t you mean, what are we going to do about it?” Madeline countered.

“I know nothing about warehouses,” Lizzy said.

“And you think I do?” The wind kicked up and lifted the edge of Madeline’s skirt. She fought her frustration. “I’ll have my assistant call a local broker.”

Lizzy closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m behaving badly. I know this isn’t your fault. It’s just...”

Madeline waited for Lizzy to finish.

“Never mind,” Lizzy mumbled, and headed for her rattletrap. “Let me know what the broker says and how I can help,” she tossed over her shoulder.

Madeline felt as if someone had passed her a ball in a game she could never win.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Chance Encounter







1995 Calico, California


The shrill ring made Lizzy jump. Chad had given her the cell for Mother’s Day. She was still getting used to it. Wasn’t sure she liked it. B.C.—before cell phones—she could disappear if she wanted. No one could reach her. No one knew where she might be hiding. Now, that invisibility factor had been ripped away. It rang again. Lizzy glanced away from the undulating highway to see who called.

Maisie.

She answered, but only static replied.

Lizzy let the phone drop to her lap, wondering what her sister wanted to talk about, but not curious enough to pursue the conversation. Calls cost money. A dental practice also cost money.

A lot of money.

Lizzy followed the marker pointing to the parking lot of the ghost town. The sun glinted off the shiny cars. Heat, like a wavy vapor, visibly rose from the baking asphalt. She parked between a Jeep and a dusty Toyota Corolla, tucked the cell phone and keys into her bag, pulled on a wide-brimmed straw hat, and opened the door. The air felt like a furnace blast.

Welcome to Calico, California.

Lizzy followed a path winding through a collection of wooden structures. How many—if any—were original? She passed a saloon, a church, a post office, and a school. A few of the people milling about were dressed in nineteenth-century costumes. The tinkling of a piano sounded through an open window.

A man dressed in Levi jeans held up with a belt with a palm-sized silver buckle, a ten-gallon black felt hat, and tooled leather cowboy boots stood on a porch. His voice boomed over the small crowd.

Lizzy took her place in the back, beside a man hiding behind a camcorder and a woman with her hands resting on the handle of a stroller. A golden-haired baby gurgled up at Lizzy and waved a tiny stuffed giraffe at her.

Lizzy smiled at the baby and her heart tugged. Her own Ella was probably about this girl’s age.

The man in the cowboy hat and boots tucked his thumbs into his gun harness addressed the crowd. “This is a dangerous place filled with brave men and the women who loved them. The trek here was long and arduous. Many died on the trail. Few survived once they arrived. Lured by the prospect of easy riches, they came despite the fact the desert only promised them heat and dust.”

 

ASHTON

Lexi elbowed Ashton, jostling the camera. “That’s Sarah Sarandon,” she hissed.

Ashton blew out a breath and tamped down his frustration. The museum docent wasn’t really all that interesting, anyway. He lowered the camcorder to search for the Sarah Sarandon look-a-like.

“That woman with the gold sandals. That’s her,” Lexi whispered and nodded at a tall, statuesque woman wearing a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, and a pair of strappy gold heels.

“I heard she’s filming a movie around here,” Lexi continued in a hushed tone. “Those shoes are to die for. I wonder where she got them.”

The woman in said shoes turned to leave.

“I’m going to follow her.” Lexi strode after her, abandoning the stroller.

Adele tossed her giraffe after her mother. Ashton stooped to pick it up and bonked his head. Straightening, he rubbed his new sore spot and gazed at the pretty blonde woman holding Adele’s giraffe.

“Sorry,” she said and she weaved on her feet.

“No, I’m sorry.” He reached out to steady her.

She gave him a watery smile and held out the giraffe like a peace offering.

“Are you okay?” He took the giraffe and dropped it back into Adele’s clutches.

Adele babbled her appreciation.

The woman brushed her pale hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. “Just not super adapted to the heat.”

“Tell me about it. It’s like a furnace here. I take it you’re not a local?”

“No.” She glanced around. “I think the only locals here are rattlesnakes and lizards.”

And then, as if struck by a sudden idea, she bolted.

Strange.

Ashton watched the woman who had hit him on the head scurry through the people milling about the old wooden structures, wondering who she was and why she was in such a hurry to get away.

#

Lizzy found the restrooms nearly in time. The cinderblock building felt blessedly cool. Because both the stalls were occupied, she braced her hands on the trash can, leaned over, and waited for her stomach to settle. She took three deep breaths through her nose, inhaling the scents of a used diaper mixed with someone’s discarded French fries. Her belly roiled. She dry-heaved over the can.

Then something, no someone, distracted her. A brunette poked her head over one stall to peer into the neighboring stall.

A toilet flushed, and a woman in a baseball cap scuttled out. Then a lot of things seemed to happen all at once. Something crashed to the floor. A woman screamed. Water gushed from the stall belonging to the creeper. Bracing herself against the wall, Lizzy watched as a tide of water seemed to carry the woman she’d seen earlier with the man and the camcorder out into the center of the room. The woman righted herself to a kneeling position and pushed to her feet. She was drenched from the waist to her feet, but it didn’t slow her down. The woman bolted from the restroom.

The water swirled past Lizzy, heading out the door, carrying something sleek and shiny in its tide. Lizzy wasn’t willing to wade into the water—although it was probably clean enough—to rescue what she now recognized as one of those fancy new flip phones. The phone drifted in the flow and settled near the trash can. Lizzy rescued it, took a deep breath, and went to get a paper towel to dry it off. She had to choose where she stepped so as not to soak her shoes.

Would the phone be ruined? Lizzy glanced in the stall and noticed the toilet had come completely off the wall and was now laying on the floor like a wounded animal.

With the phone in her hand, Lizzy went outside to find someone who could salvage the restroom—or at least shut off the water—and also the woman who had dropped her phone.

ASHTON

Lexi, sopping wet, appeared at Ashton’s side. “We have to go. Now.” Her words escaped in short huffs of breath.

“What happened to you?” Had she tried to cool off by soaking her clothes? That didn’t seem like a Lexi thing to do.

Lexi refused to meet his gaze and poked him with her outstretched hand. “Give me the keys. I’ll meet you in the car.”

Adele laughed as if she found her mom being drenched hilarious. Lexi flashed her daughter a frustrated glance. “Give me the keys!”

Ashton had hoped for some better footage. He understood the value of history and the importance of keeping it alive, but he also knew that Calico, for Lexi, had only been a pitstop, and not a very interesting one, between Las Vegas and Palm Desert. Ashton knew better than to argue with his wife. They’d been married for nearly ten years and keeping Adele had been the only argument he’d ever won.

Adele could use a nap. Hell, he could use a nap. Plus, Lexi needed a change of clothes. And while Palm Desert was full of glitzy condos and pools, nearby Palm Springs had its own fair share of history. Resigned, Ashton tucked his camcorder away and rolled the stroller after Lexi. On their way to the parking lot, they passed the restrooms and several people carrying mops and buckets.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Ashton asked Lexi’s wet backside.

Lexi answered with a hostile glance she threw over her shoulder.

 

LIZZY

Back at the hotel, Lizzy wiggled into her pants but left the top button undone. Her loose and airy peasant top helped keep her secret. When Chad emerged from the shower clad in a towel wrapped around his waist, she couldn’t help feeling twinges of jealousy. He looked just the same as he had when they’d married six years ago, whereas she was bursting out of her bra and couldn’t button her pants.

“How was golf?” she asked.

Chad launched into a drive-by-put-by-hole description of the round, but Lizzy got lost in the birdies and pars and started thinking of the couple she had met in Calico.

Chad fell silent and she realized he had asked her a question. “How was the pool?”

“Oh! I—huh, didn’t go.”

“What? Why not?”

“I went to Calico. It’s a ghost town.”

“You would rather go to a ghost town than hang with my mom and Madeline?”

“I had enough of the sun yesterday.”

His disapproving frown melted, and he came over to drop a kiss on the top of her head. “That’s fair.” He toweled his hair. “Did you check on Ella?”

Lizzy held up her feet and examined her purple toes. “I talked to Midge. They’re having a good time. They went to the zoo today.”

“Ella is probably lost in the thick of all those kids.”

“Midge only has two more than us.” No point in telling him that Midge nursed a secret ambition of having six children. Six kids, for Chad, would be tantamount to having six cats. He wouldn’t understand.

But Lizzy did. Of course, she couldn’t/wouldn’t try to convince him.

Chad stepped into his pants, pulled on a shirt, and stood before the mirror to comb his hair. “You about ready to go?” He flashed her a quick glance in the mirror. “You look nice.”

“Thanks.” Could he really mean that? What would he say if he caught a glimpse of her top button? She smoothed down her top and climbed to her feet. “Where are we going to dinner?”

He headed for the door. “Some fancy joint Madeline picked out. It’s just around the corner.” His expression brightened. “Jim Monroe called earlier. He wants to know if we’re ready to sign the contract.”

Lizzy’s breath hitched. “What did you say?”

“That I need to have my lawyer look it over.” Chad held the door and waited for Lizzy to pass through.

After taking her hand, Chad and Lizzy joined the crowd surging the sidewalk. The sun, now a pink smudge on the horizon, had lost its power and a cool breeze ruffled the hem of Lizzy's blouse. She pressed one hand against her belly.

“Would it be so bad if you continued working for your dad?”

“We’d have to stay in Rancho Allegro.” He skated her a glance. “I thought you wanted to move to someplace rural. That’s why Lester’s practice is so perfect.”

She wrinkled her nose. “And expensive.”

“Don’t forget it’s expensive to live anywhere in Orange County.”

Lizzy gasped when a familiar couple pushing a baby stroller rounded the corner. “There’s the couple I met in Calico!”

Lizzy dropped Chad’s hand, reached into her bag for the phone she’d found in the restroom, and weaved through the crowd to catch up with them.

“Hey!” She held up the phone for evidence. “I found your phone!”

A woman who looked surprisingly like Susan Sarandon turned around, as did the woman who had dropped her phone.

“That’s not mine,” the woman said without even looking at it.

“Are you sure?” Lizzy studied first the woman with the hostile expression, and then her husband—the man she’d seen with the camcorder—and then their child, who smiled and waved the toy giraffe at Lizzy.

“Positive,” the woman snarled, turned her back on Lizzy, and strode away.

“But…I saw you today at Calico,” Lizzy called after them. “You dropped your phone in the restroom. I looked, but couldn’t find you.”

Chad caught up to her. “What’s that about?”

Confused, Lizzy slipped the phone back into her bag. “It was the weirdest thing. I know I saw them earlier. And was that Susan Sarandon with them?”

“I don’t know.” Chad stared in their direction. “She looks different when she’s not fighting big spiders.”

Lizzy elbowed him and he grunted as if she’d injured him. “That’s Sigourney Weaver, you oaf.” She told him about the woman standing on the toilet to spy on the Susan Sarandon look-a-like in the next stall and how the toilet broke and all the docents got their nineteenth-century costumes soaked when they tried to stem the toilet tide. By the time they reached the restaurant, she had Chad doubled over in laughter.

The other members of Chad’s family joined them on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.

“What’s so funny?” Madeline, her stuffy sister-in-law wanted to know.

So, Chad told them, but it wasn’t as funny when he told it.

Someone touched Lizzy’s elbow. She turned to see the man she’d seen earlier, only he no longer had the baby stroller or the camcorder.

He cast a nervous glance at the Clarks. They were a tall, handsome and intimidating group, and Lizzy felt a flash of compassion for him and remorse for poking fun at his wife.

“Can I see that phone?” he asked in a hushed tone.

A server stuck her head out of the restaurant’s doors. “Clark? Party of six?”

Chad shot her a questioning glance.

Lizzy held up her finger. “I’ll be right there.” After waiting a beat for the Clarks to file inside, she stepped out of the crowd and pulled the phone from her bag.

The man took it and met her gaze with his big brown earnest eyes. He ran his thumb over the case. “This belongs to my wife. Thanks for finding it...and us.”

“I knew it was you. Why would your wife lie?”

He shrugged. “She was embarrassed. Maybe afraid to let me down. Or maybe she was afraid someone would try to make her pay for whatever happened in the restroom.” He paused. “What did happen?”

She told him about the broken toilet, but didn’t mention she had seen his wife standing on it to spy on the person in the next stall. It no longer seemed funny.

His lips twitched, but he also looked sad.

Lizzy decided to change the subject. “Is that Susan Sarandon with you guys?”

“No. She’s a hedge-fund manager with Goldman Sachs, which is, in Lexi’s opinion, even better. My wife collects the wealthy the way my grandma collects teacups.” He sucked in a deep breath as if he wanted to recapture his words. Holding up the phone, he waved at her and turned to go. “Thanks for this.”

She felt reluctant to let him leave. “Does your wife know you’re talking to me?”

He walked backward, still facing her, but moving away. “No, but I’ll tell her. She might not believe me, but honesty is the best policy and hiding the truth is the same as telling a lie.” He pocketed the phone and said goodbye.

His words teased Lizzy throughout dinner. As soon as she and Chad were back in the hotel room and alone, she blurted out, “I’m pregnant.”

Chad, who had stripped out of his clothes, dropped his shirt. “You’re what?”

Had he really not heard? “Pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”

He held open his arms. “Sweetie, that’s great.”

She stepped into his embrace and placed her head on his chest. “You’re not mad?” Listening to the steady thrumming of his heart, she felt immediately comforted.

“Mad?” he echoed, rocked her side to side, and stroked her hair. “How could I be mad?”

“We won’t be able to afford the practice…especially not if this pregnancy costs as much as the last.”

“It won’t, but…so what if it does? We’ll make it work.”

She craned her neck to look up at him, and he dropped a kiss on her lips.

“You’ll have to continue working for your dad.”

“I like my dad.”

“We’ll have to stay in Rancho Allegro.”

“As long as I’m with you and Ella, I don’t care where we live.” He took her hand, placed one hand on her waist, and waltzed her around the room until she felt breathless and giddy.

“Want to know a secret?” He smothered a smile. “I’ve known for weeks.”

She danced away to swat him. “You knew?”

He recaptured her, swung her in his arms, plopped down on the bed, and settled her onto his lap. “Sweetie, watching you in the shower is my favorite pastime. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”

“And you really don’t mind holding off on starting your own practice?”

He placed his finger under her chin and lifted her face so he could look her in the eyes. “With you and Ella and this new baby Clark, I’m practicing every day. And it’s the best sort of practice there is.”

Lizzy closed her eyes and thought of the chance encounter with the man. His words had helped her create one of the best nights of her life. She wanted to thank him somehow but suspected she’d never see him again.

Time would prove her wrong.

Want to read more about Lizzy and Ashton? Their romance begins nearly thirty years later in The Whispers Over Wildroad Rose. Now available for only .99 cents on Amazon.

Curious about Calico, California? Read more here:

https://parks.sbcounty.gov/opinion-beyers-byways-a-brief-history-of-calico-ghost-town/