Wow, it's been a big week here! Sprite tested and earned her Karate yellow belt, and then the very next day learned how to ride a bike! The bike's been an on-going issue for a couple of years now, so this is fantastic. She was pretty sure she was the only 3rd grader in her school who couldn't ride a bike - not so anymore!
I love the shadow of the bike in this picture - and then the ice and snow. We got something like 16 inches of snow two weeks ago - but because Wisconsin is having the absolute weirdest winter EVER, it's almost melted away already. Yesterday it was 70 degrees here - unheard of for March. Generally we don't even start thinking spring until May.
Sprite has tried lots of different sports and activities - soccer, gymnastics, figure skating, piano lessons, swimming, theater, and now Karate. She's really good at theater (home away from home for a drama princess, right?) and swimming - but Karate has been AMAZING. It's very disciplined and controlled - the kids all learn and practice in a group, and any kid that's cutting up or class-clowning gets put on time out.
She liked gymnastics, but she's very easily distracted, and without a mechanism for reeling her in, she spent a lot of gym time screwing around and doing stuff half-assed - which, as a paying parent, drove me a little bit wild - and yet I didn't want to be the mom yelling her kid from the loft observation area, you know? Still, every time she tested for the next level and didn't pass was heartbreaking. She'd keep her emotions tight until we got home, and then throw herself face-down on her bed and sob.
At Karate, they don't encourage the kids to test unless they are ready. I like that. I feel like it's a quiet form of high regard and respect for children.
So Karate is good. I like that the instructors seem to take the time to get to know every kid, I like that the practice area is controlled, and that respectful behavior is 100% expected. And I like that one of the instructors told me last night that Sprite is, "Competitive, enthusiastic, and has made good friends here. We're so happy that she likes Karate."
Proud mom moment, for sure.
Okay - on to Thursday Morning Fiction...
Since I've been working so diligently on DeVante's Choice (and since I have the document open to encourage me to get back to it), I'm going to share an excerpt. DeVante's Choice opens with the death of Emily's husband, Nathan, which is essentially the end of the human lifetime that DeVante allowed her. DeVante is coming to collect her, and Emily knows it. Here's a little piece where Emily's making some attempt to wrap up her life.
Night 5 – Emily (Duluth, MN)
Emily surprised herself with all she accomplished in just one day. She docked her iPhone and turned the tunes up loud. First she gathered necessities and packed her suitcase. She had no idea how long she'd be staying in this house, if she would be here even one more night, and she had no intention of losing the few things that were precious to her. DeVante hadn't said where they would live, but she wasn't going to fool herself into thinking she'd have any say in the matter. His daytime safety was paramount. And even though she almost shuddered at the thought, it would be her safety, too.
It was harder to pack Nathan's things, maybe because she didn't pack them in suitcases, but in large garbage bags. She would donate them all to a clothing charity, and so the totality and permanence of Nathan being gone had to be faced. It didn't matter that this was his favorite shirt, or these jeans had a back pocket ripped off. All of it had to go.
The hospital had given her a plastic bag that contained his personal items – watch, wallet, and wedding ring. These she put in the suitcase because she couldn't bear to even look at them yet, much less toss them away.
She filled the garbage bags with many of her own clothes, as well. Pants she hoped to fit into again someday, shirts that she hadn't worn in the last twelve months – all of it gone.
She was ruthless, but it was cathartic.
In the late afternoon, when she couldn’t fit another bag into the car no way, no how, she drove downtown to the free clothing exchange and let volunteers and patrons alike help her unload the car.
Somewhere in the short drive home she started crying, and somewhere in the crying, she started yelling.
"Goddammit! Fuck! I hate this! It hurts, oh, oh, oh, it hurts," and she sobbed until she thought her throat would break wide open. It was like every other grief – so hard and real and mean that it felt like she couldn't possibly live through it and come out whole. And it was so familiar to her, this pain, that she became furious with God and life and everything. It wasn't fair. Why did she have such big hurts? What did she ever do to deserve to lose everything, not once, but three times running. Why did God or Karma or Fate have to kick her ass to hell and back, was it all payback for spending the night at a friend's house in third grade?
And so she cried again for her family of origin, her parents and her brother – who died when the house caught fire – because, indeed, new grief somehow always drags up old.
The storm of rage and tears was mostly over when she pulled into her driveway. And thank God, because the whole of the Wine Cooler Brigade were gathered on the front porch. DeeDee, Dawn, Kim, and Diane.
Emily tried to put on her "I'm fine" face as she got out of the car, but Dawn, Cara's mom, , bypassed Emily's facial expression and wrapped arms around her.
"Aw, Sweetie. Are you hanging in there?"
Emily nodded into Dawn's shoulder, but the friendly hug made her cry again. "I can't believe he's gone."
Dawn's arms held on tighter.
Emily felt Kim's classic pat-pat-pat on her shoulder, and felt the whisper of her breath as Kim said, "I'm so sad for you. I don't know what else to say."
None of them had lost children or husbands, so of course they didn't know what to say, but it was so kind of them to come that Emily squeezed her eyes shut against Dawn's spring jacket and tried to regroup inside her head.
A few moments passed before she raised her head. "Thanks, ladies. I can't tell you how nice it was for you to come by."
"We brought food. And wine coolers." That was Diane, the crass one of the group.
"No vodka?" Emily asked.
"Of course vodka!" Diane exclaimed. "I'm pretty sure we could all use some of that." It was worth a smile. Diane was known to proclaim, often and loudly, that all problems grew smaller when mixed with vodka.
"Well, then… bring it on," Emily said, pulling away from Dawn and pushing open the front door. "Shall we settle on the patio?"
It was agreed. Dawn, Kim, and DeeDee fixed plates of chicken salad and green grapes, but Diane tugged Emily outside, settled her in a lounge chair, and fixed her a drink.
"Bottoms up, Em, and you'll feel better soon. I promise."
"Or worse," Emily laughed, but sucked down the drink in three swallows.
The next two – or was it three – drinks went down just as easily, and Emily did feel better. The girls were reminiscing their feats and exploits, and those of their daughters, and as the sun set and the air grew cool, laughter kept them warm.
There came the point of intoxication where that one story got told, the one that set them hurtling into gales of laughter, and as soon as the last of them ran out of breath, another started giggling, and they were all laughing all over again.
Emily wasn't sure when her tears of mirth turned to tears of sadness, but even then she felt good in the way she always felt good when she laughed until she cried.
Her life with Nathan had been filled with moments like this, and she would never forget them, not the people, not the moments – even if she did forget the actual stories. They were had-to- be- there stories, anyway, probably not even funny if told among other company. She knew that awkwardness of trying to repeat something funny to non-participants, the silence that fell when they didn't get it, the lame, "oh, I guess you had to be there" that explained, but only generated half-hearted laughter.
Her whole life would become a had-to-be-there story, but it was okay, because she'd been there, and that was all that mattered, wasn't it?
The girls said their goodbyes just after dark, and Emily zig-zagged through the house, cataloguing in her head what tasks were complete, and what she would need to accomplish the next day.
She had fallen into a light sleep on the couch when DeVante arrived.
His hand brushing over her forehead and into her hair woke her. "You're so late," she said.
"No," he answered, "not so late."
"I'm just tired, then," she said, and closed her eyes again.
"The house feels empty. You were busy today, after staying up most of the night with me."
"Maybe. But it felt good to get things done. And my friends showed up, so we talked and drank and laughed. It was nice." She opened her eyes and looked into his face. "Promise me something."
His expression became immediately guarded. "If I can."
"You don't have to look so tense," she said. "It's nothing hard."
"I have a suitcase in my bedroom. It's got pink and yellow polka dots. I filled it with things I want to keep, and I want you to promise me that it won't be left behind."
"Where are we going, my dear Emily?" he asked, his voice a whisper.
"I don't know. But I packed, just in case."
"All right. I promise. I'll write down Daniel's address in San Francisco, and you can ship it there."
"Perfect. Thank you."
He nodded, and she thought she could see he was relieved that she'd asked for something he could give her, easily.
"Shall I make you coffee, or do you just want to sleep tonight?"
The question sounded civil enough, but Emily knew he was asking out of politeness or in deference to her grieving process, and he would be annoyed if she sent him away to sleep, so she said, "Coffee," even though she all she really wanted to do was sink into sleep.
"You rest," he said. "I can make the coffee while you doze."
Dozing sounded heavenly, so she agreed.
She was dreaming some strange thing or another when the sound of the doorbell startled her awake. She forgot to see where DeVante was, what he was doing, before she opened the door, and once she did open it, had a moment of panic that he would be exposed.
But that was silly, she told herself. He knew how to move around in the mortal world. So perhaps the panic was more like guilt, for she felt her anxiety when she saw Nathan's brother Jack, and his wife, Carolyn, standing on the porch.
"Hi," Emily greeted them. "Is everything okay?"
"That's what we came to ask you," Jack said.
"Oh! I'm fine."
"Fine except you're not answering your phone. We were worried about you."
She felt a moment's suffocation, but then it passed. They were Nathan's family, and were truly worried about her. They knew she didn't have any living relatives, and they knew Jenna had returned to Japan.
Carolyn pulled Emily into a comforting hug. "We don't want you to be alone. Grieving alone is awful."
The back of Emily's neck prickled, and when she pulled away from Carolyn and turned, she wasn't surprised to see DeVante standing in the doorway. "Coffee?" he asked, in a friendly tone, and Emily's eyes widened.
"Is that for me?"
"Of course," he said. "Can I get some for your guests?"
She accepted the warm porcelain mug, and smiled at him, studying his face. He passed for human, perfectly, and she wondered how he did that.
"This is Nathan's brother, Jack," she said. "And his wife, Carolyn."
"Pleased to meet you," DeVante said, executing a sort of formal bow. "May I get you coffee? Or chicken salad?" His lips twitched, as if the words 'chicken' and 'salad' were dirty, and gave Emily a wink that made her blush.
"Late for coffee, for me," Jack said, and his expression was inscrutable.
Carolyn shook her head. "We won't stay. We just didn't want you to be alone."
"I'm okay," Emily turned back to Jack and Carolyn and offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "DeVante is an old friend, and came to keep me company."
"Nice to meet you," DeVante said, and Emily could almost see his air of dismissal as he left the room rather than make more pleasantries.
Subtle as a heart attack.
"Are we intruding, dear?" Carolyn asked. "I am so sorry."
Emily could still see Jack puzzling things out. "Have we met this fellow before?"
"Not intruding," Emily answered the easy question first, even if the answer was a lie. "And no, Jack, you haven't. He's friend I had before I met Nathan."
"And he's never come around?"
"No. He lives far away. And he stayed far away, out of respect for me and your brother. But I'm glad he's here now. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Carolyn flashed Jack one of those looks married people have that seemed to contain an entire conversation. "We should go."
Emily suddenly remembered something. "Wait, don't go yet. I have some things for you. I'll be right back."
She went into the bedroom. She'd found in Nathan's things a pocket watch that had once belonged to Nathan's grandfather – Jack's grandfather, too – and wanted Jack to have it. She also wanted to offer Nathan's 9 mm Beretta hand gun to Jack, and the pocket knife that had been Jack and Caroline's gift to Nathan when he stood up as Jack's best man.
"These should be yours now," she said to Jack, handing him the gun case, watch, and engraved stainless pocket knife. "There might be more, but these things I found today."
Jack looked pleased. "Grandpa's watch! I forgot Nathan had it. Thank you."
"You're welcome. It was so kind of you to drop by – I can't tell you how much it means to me, and how grateful I would have been had I been alone. But…" she gestured to the doorway through which DeVante had disappeared. "You know."
She hugged each of them as she ushered them onto the porch. Jack threw one more inquiring look over his shoulder as he went down the steps.
"I'll be okay," Emily said. "I know grief. It's familiar."
He nodded, and then they were getting into their car, pulling away from the curb, down the street. Gone.
Whew. Emily hurried back into the house, to DeVante.
She found him reclined comfortably on her bed, his back propped against the pillows. Fully clothed, thank God.
"All my life I longed for family," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed, one knee on the coverlet, half-turned so she could look at him. "And here they are at my door, just when I don't prefer their company."
DeVante's watchful eyes felt intense on her as she sipped her coffee.
"What?" she said, when he continued to look at her.
"The concept of family was foreign to me, until Daniel. Before Daniel, Roderick was my fledgling, often my problem, but I did not consider him family."
"You didn't have parents or siblings?" she asked, again startled to realized how little she knew about him.
He shook his head. "No. I was the only child born to my mother, who died in childbirth."
"Who raised you then?" Emily asked.
"For a long time, no one. I watched monkeys and jaguars in the Colombian forest and learned how to survive." He shrugged, like it was no big deal. But there was so much information in that one small phrase that Emily knew it was a huge deal.
"Colombia, in South America?" she asked.
"Of course South America."
It explained his faint accent, the foreign exclamations that burst out of him when he was angry or frustrated. Why the words sounded vaguely Mexican to her ears, but weren't exactly.
"And then who raised you?" she asked, knowing she was pushing, but she was thirsty for information about him, to feel like she knew him, and if he was going to offer tidbits about his past, she was going to drink them in.
His eyes darkened. "Katarina, of course."
Emily's stomach dropped. "Oh."
He smiled at her then, but it was a tight smile, more like a grimace, but enough that the little fangs showed, gleaming and white, and her stomach somersaulted.
"Put down the coffee and come here."
She pressed her hands more firmly around the cup. "I'm not done."
He sighed. "Emily."
She looked into the cup, disappointed to see it was almost empty.
"Come and take what I offer. And you will know everything you want to know about me, and more."
"And more what? What do you mean?"
"All of me will be available, the good, as well as the ugly."
She sucked in a deep breath, reminding herself that she'd already made the decision to stop fighting him on this.
She set her coffee mug carefully on the bedside table, and stared into his gray eyes, letting him take her over, as she moved fully onto the bed, trying to convince herself that she was ready for this.
Peace flowed into her, the feeling that she was right where she needed to be, doing what she needed to do, and all the events of her life were leading to this one perfect moment, and she felt so very calm.
Calm like a drug.
She recognized it for a split second, and would almost choose to struggle, but then in addition to holding her with his eyes, DeVante breathed her name… Emily, and it seemed to echo through her head, a plea or a claim or a prayer, and she had no choice but to answer.
Her very soul seemed to reach for him, the sensation like a physical memory. He was in her head and in her blood, drawing her closer, pulling her in, assuring her there was nothing to fear, that all he would do was love her, and he would do it so very, very well.
The peal of the doorbell sounded incredibly far away.
But DeVante's eyes released her, and Emily startled out of the dream-state she'd been in.
"Coffee," she gasped, as if she'd heard the alarm clock. "I need to get more coffee."
"And to answer the door," he reminded her with a wry smile, as the chime sounded again.