The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth - Part Six

Sacramento author J. Scott Coatsworth has written and published a number of short stories, novellas and full-length novels, but “The River City Chronicles” holds a special place in his little writer heart.

In many ways, it is a love letter to Sacramento, one that we wanted to share with Outword’s readers. To do that we have uploaded the next installment of chapters of the book here, for you to read online.

Previously in the River City: Carmelina found out her long-lost daughter was killed in an auto accident almost two decades earlier. She got home, and Daniele was there. He suggested an exorcism to get rid of Arthur's spirit after the debacle of the dinner party. She commiserated about Marissa with Dave, and invited him to her exorcism.

Brad met with Matteo and Diego, and suggested an intern program with the center kids.

Ben's first official date with Ella, in the hospital where her brother Max is in a coma, didn't go so well. Ella sent Ben home, but agreed to see him again. He tries again, and Ben's trans mother tells him to get lost - because he's trans.

And Matteo had a new idea to help save Ragazzi - turning the restaurant into a Tavola Calda for lunch - and share it with Diego.

Will Carmelina ever get the skunk smell out of the house, not to mention the vengeful spirit? Will Ben keep trying to see Ella? And is there more to the story of Carmelina’s long lost daughter?

Find out next.

Major Characters:

•   Ben Hammond: 35 – Trans author and barista working on his first novel

•   Brad Weston: 30 – Runs the LGBT Center, former chief of staff for GOP senator, partner to Sam

•   Carmelina di Rosa: 55 – Semi-retired, redhead, lost her husband Arthur three months ago

•   Dave Ramos: 47 – Human resources consultant and Carmelina di Rosa’s tenant

•   Diego Bellei: 47 – The chef at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Matteo Bianco.

•   Marcos Ramirez: 39 – Web designer and gay playboy who works with the LGBT center

•   Marissa Sutton: 17 – Bisexual homeless teenager who turns up at Ragazzi for the cooking class

•   Matteo Bianco: 47 – Co-owner and host at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Diego Bellei.

•   Sam Fuller: 23 – Suspense novel writer, working on second novel, partner to Brad Weston

Minor Repeating Characters:

•   Andrea Smith: deceased - Carmelina’s daughter

•   Arthur di Rosa: deceased – Carmelina’s husband

•   Dana Pearce: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   Daniele Amoroso: 40 – Italian suitor interested in Carmelina

•   Darryl Smith: Andrea’s adoptive father

•   Ella Jackson-Cucinelli: 32 – Caucasian woman recently transferred to Sacramento from Chicago

•   Emily Stamp: P.I. hired by Carmelina

•   Giovanni "Gio" Mazzocco: Diego’s son

•   Jason Clark: One of Marissa’s friends at McClatchy High

•   Jessica Sutton: Marissa’s adoptive mother

•   Loylene Davies: friend of Carmelina’s

•   Luna Mazzocco: Diego’s Ex and Gio’s mother

•   Max Cucinelli: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   “Moms” Cucinelli: Mother to Max and Ella, trans woman

•   Rex Ward: Owner of the Twink tattoo shop

•   Ricky Martinez: One of the homeless kids from the LGBT center

•   Tristan Dayton: Marissa’s boyfriend

•   Valentina Bellei: Diego’s sister who lives in Italy


46 - Exorcising the Past

Carmelina was trying her best not to laugh.

Father Murphy, the priest who’d arrived with Daniele, reminded her of no one so much as the actor Emmet Walsh. He was short, with wispy tufts of silver hair and an air of utter certainty about himself and his place in the world that seemed—she felt bad for thinking it—sorely misplaced.

They were outside. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. “And you’re… retired now?” she asked.

He nodded solemnly. “I do weddings, baptisms, blessings, and exorcisms to keep me busy. Frankly, I rarely get a good house exorcism anymore. What leads you to believe the house is haunted?”

“There have been strange things happening since my husband passed away.”

Dave and Marcos had shown up for the grand event too. “I see a redheaded monster walking around inside sometimes,” Dave said with a serious face.

“Redheaded monster. Interesting.”

“Shut up!” Carmelina mouthed at him.

Dave stuck his tongue out at her behind the priest’s back.

“What they mean to say,” Daniele said, glaring at Dave, “is that there were a number of strange incidents this last week. I think her husband hasn’t gone on to rest after his untimely passing.”

“What sort of events?” Father Murphy raised a bushy white eyebrow.

Daniele looked at Carmelina.

“Well, let’s see. A clogged toilet. Burned piadine. A power outage. Oh, and a skunk came in and smelled the place up.”

“These all seem like normal things.…”

“Not when they take place over less than half an hour.”

He reached for something from behind his ear that wasn’t there. “Where did I put that pencil again?” He looked around, confused.

“It’s in your hand, Father.” Where did you find this guy? Carmelina mouthed at Daniele.

“Ah, there it is.” He smiled happily. “It’s often difficult to tell if a house is haunted. Perhaps we should start with a simple exorcism and see if that helps?”

Carmelina shrugged. “You’re the expert.”

“And really, why overcomplicate an exorcism?” Marcos asked.

Father Murphy seemed to miss the sarcasm. “Yes, I agree. Shall we go inside?”

“Of course. I have to warn you, it smells a bit.” She’d cleaned up most of the mess, but the skunk smell was still strong. She ushered everyone inside.

“Yes, it is rather pungent, isn’t it?” Farther Murphy said, wrinkling his nose. “Ah well, sooner started, sooner finished.” He pulled out a bottle of Kirkland water. “Consecrated it myself,” he said with a kind smile.

“If you need any more, I have a case at home,” Dave whispered.

Carmelina shushed him.

The Priest opened the bottle, taking some in his palm. “Is this where the worst of it occurred?” He looked around the living room.

Carmelina nodded. “The skunk attack was right about here.”

He nodded and proceeded to splash the floor, the walls, and most of her furniture with flicks of Holy Costco Water.

“Not the Baumgardner!” Carmelina grabbed the watercolor painting off the wall just in time—a carousel horse she’d bought in a little gallery in Carmel the year before. “I’ll put this back in the bedroom.”

When he was done, he splashed each of them in turn.

Carmelina wiped the water from her face, scowling.

The priest opened a big leather-bound book and began to read. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies…”

“This is a bunch of malarkey, you know.”

Carmelina turned to find Arthur—her Arthur—sitting in his favorite chair, looking up at her through his coke-bottle glasses.

“If you wanted me to go, you could have just asked.”

Carmelina stared at him. It wasn’t possible. He’d been dead three months now.

None of the others seemed to notice the strange and somehow absurdly normal apparition in their midst, in his brown corduroy slippers and blue bathrobe. His pipe lay in an ash tray on the small table next to his chair, a lazy trail of smoke drifting up from the bowl.

“You’re not really here,” she said, frowning. “This is some kind of fever dream. I must be sick, or out of my mind—”

“Suit yourself. You always were right, after all.”

It wasn’t a dig. Arthur had told her, soon after they married, that as far as he was concerned, she would always be right.

She needed to sit down.

She took a seat next to him on the little couch they’d chosen together ten years before, with its embroidered upholstery—flowers—and Chippendale legs.

“He really does know how to ramble on, doesn’t he?” Arthur said with a grin, glancing at the priest.

“…bind him and cast him into the bottomless pit, that he may no longer seduce the nations…”

She smiled in spite of herself. “I know, right? I’m only doing this because Daniele convinced me it was a good idea.” Of course. She felt like an idiot. “Daniele. That’s why you’re angry.”

Arthur chuckled. “I’m not angry. I want to see you happy.”

“I wish you were still here,” she said, putting a hand out on his. It felt warm, alive.

“You and me both. But when the Good Lord calls…”

“…you should have let it go to voicemail.”

He laughed, that heartwarming and slightly nerdy guffaw of his, and her heart melted.

He put his other hand on hers. “Promise me something.”

She nodded. “Anything.” Just stay with me a little while longer.

“Ask Daniele about September twenty-third.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Just promise you will.” He pulled her close to him and kissed her lightly on the lips. “Farewell, caramia. I loved you full and well.”

“Don’t go!” She tried to grab him, but her hand touched only air.

“…to keep us safe and sound. We beseech Thee through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

Water splashed on her face. Carmelina blinked, wiping it away from her eyes. She was standing next to Dave and Marcos.

“That should do it,” Father Murphy said. “That’ll be a hundred dollars.”

“Excuse me?”

“Check or cash is fine. And here…” He handed her a card.

“Weddings & Exorcisms Unlimited—Hitch’em and Ditch’em. Very clever.”

Dave snickered.

“Turn it over.”

She looked on the back of the card. “Services rendered: weddings, funerals, blessings, baptisms, and exorcisms… buy two, get the third free.” She glared at Dave. “Not a word.”

“If you need me again—for a repeat performance, or if someone passes on—you’ll get the next thing at no charge.”

“Um… thank you?” She ushered him out the door, closing it behind him.

“That was educational,” Dave said, smirking.

“Get out, all of you!” She pushed Dave and Marcos out the door. “I’ll see you two later at Ragazzi.”

She pulled Daniele back inside. “Dinner tonight?”

He nodded. “Sorry about that. He’s a friend of my mother’s.”

“It’s all right. It was… enlightening.”

He kissed her lightly, and her mind flashed back to Arthur. “Seven o’clock?”

“Here?”

“Pick me up. This place isn’t ready for public consumption.” She’d gotten accustomed to the smell, but she was going to need a shower.

“Deal.” Then he was gone.

September twenty-third.

She drifted over to the mantel, looking for Arthur’s photo. She picked it up and laughed.

He was no longer scowling but was winking at her instead.

She held it to her chest and smiled.

 

 

47 - Salt to Taste

Diego had prepped the chicken early for his Sunday afternoon class. He enjoyed being the teacher, sharing with others some of the dishes his mother had passed down to him.

It was one thing to make them in the Ragazzi kitchen alone or with the help of a sous chef. But it was quite another to pass them on to a whole new group of people who would take them home and make them their own.

Today, he planned to teach the class how to make an Italian classic: Chicken Cacciatore, or Pollo alla Cacciatora con Patate alla Contadina, as the Italians called it.

He had prepared three chickens, figuring that would be enough for his small class.

The bell on the front door chimed.

Ciao, bella,” he called out to Carmelina.

Ciao, bello.” She gave him a peck on each cheek.

Marcos and Marissa followed shortly after, along with the new guy, Dave, who’d been at Carmelina’s disastrous dinner party.

“What are we making today?” Marcos asked.

Cosa? Ah… What are we making?… cosa facciamo.” He searched for the right words. “Kitchen… no, chicken alla cacciatora.”

“Oooh, I love Chicken Cacciatore,” Carmelina said. “My grandmother used to make it, Southern Italian style.”

“This is Northern… versione?”

“Version.”

The bell chimed again. This time it was Sam with Brad in tow, and following the two of them was Ben.

Diego smiled. “I think we all here…”

The bell chimed again. And again. Another group of people came in the door, three couples, two gay and one lesbian, from the looks of things.

Carmelina and Marcos jumped up to grab a few more chairs.

The bell chimed again.

Where were all these newcomers from?

“I may have told a few friends to stop by for the class,” Brad said with an impish grin.

All told, they ended up with twenty faces, more than half of them new. Diego was going to need some more chickens.

Salve, amici vecchi e nuovi.… Hi, friends new, friends old.” He held up one of the chickens. “Today we make Pollo all Cacciatora. Cacciatora means… how hunters would… preparano?” He glanced at Carmelina.

“Prepare?” she whispered.

“Yes. Prepare foods. With cipolle, odori, pomodori… I mean, onion, herb, tomato, and for sure, wine.”

He proceeded to show them how to sear the chicken.

* * *

Marissa poured white wine into the pan, laughing as it sizzled and started to evaporate. She loved cooking, which was kind of weird.

“You’re a natural at this,” Carmelina said.

Marissa blushed. “You think so?” Her parents had never told her she was good at anything. Just the opposite, in fact. Her mother was always complaining about how lazy she was, how she never finished anything. Marissa had seen no reason to try to change her mind.

“Yes. Not everyone can cook. For a while there, some folks thought it was a feminist badge of honor to not cook at all.” Carmelina chuckled. “I’ve always enjoyed it, myself. That’s the key. Do the things you enjoy.”

It was fun. “But I’m not a feminist. I don’t hate men.”

Carmelina put the chopped tomatoes and thinly-sliced onions in the pan. “You have a lot to learn about feminism, and you need to show us feminists some respect,” she said, frowning. “We fought for everything you have now. There was a time women couldn’t even vote. When I was young, women were expected to marry a man and settle down. Your career was at home, raising kids.”

Marissa stirred the pan gently. It smelled delicious. “I’m not sure I want kids.”

Carmelina put a hand on her shoulder. “You can do whatever you want with your life. If you want to stay home and have kids and cook for them every night, that’s an option. But if you want to have your own restaurant and become a top chef, you can do that too.”

“Or become President?”

Carmelina nodded. “If we’re lucky, even that too.” She snorted. “Though why anyone, man or woman, would actually want that job—”

“To change things,” Marissa cut in. “So kids can afford college and don’t end up homeless on the streets.” There were so many things wrong with the world.

Carmelina looked at her appraisingly. “You’re going to make a difference. I don’t know how, but I can feel it.”

Marissa blushed. “I hope so.”

“I know it.”

* * *

At the counter, Dave and Marcos were just getting their chicken prepared.

“I’m terrible at this kind of thing,” Marcos said. “I usually buy the whole breasts at Nugget.”

“It’s not that hard. My mother showed me how to cook from scratch. She was really good at it. She had to be, with four kids.” He took the knife. “You just cut here and here and here. Want to give it a try?”

Marcos shook his head. “You go ahead. I’ll watch.” He loved looking at Dave’s hands. The man had beautiful skin, and those hands moved with grace and precision.

“There we go. What’s next on the recipe?”

“How are you doing?” Diego said, looking over their shoulders. “Nice cuttings.”

“Thanks,” Dave said with a grin. “Your English is getting better.”

“Matteo mi fa… make me practice, every day.” He rolled his eyes.

“Maybe we’ll teach you Spanish next,” Marcos said. “I’ll bet it would be a lot easier for you.”

“It is as Italian. Forza!” He patted them on the back and moved on.

Marcos stared at his partner. Dave really was handsome. A little older than the twinks Marcos was used to bringing home. But solid. Real. He imagined what Dave might look like under his red T-shirt, under his Levis—

“Hey, are you gonna help me or not?” Dave was glaring at him, but his eyes twinkled.

“Sorry! What do you want me to do?” Yes. Tell me, please.… His imagination took hold of him once again. Those beautiful lips—

“What does the recipe say?”

“Just a sec.” Marcos fumbled for the paper. “Okay. Put the chicken in the pan with the sage, rosemary, and mashed garlic clove, and salt to taste…” Taste. He imagined licking Dave’s neck.

Yeah. He had it bad.

 

 

48 - A Little Advice

Ben peeled the potatoes, working through the large sack with trained efficiency. His mother had taught him how to cook when he had still been a child.

“Alice, you hold the potato like so and grate the peel away from yourself like this.” She’d demonstrated for her daughter, flicking the peels away into the sink with practiced skill. In seconds the potato was bare. “You have to watch your fingers though. Don’t want to skin yourself, do you?”

Ben closed his eyes. He’d hated the name Alice. Not only was it a girl name, which he most certainly was not, but it was old fashioned.

His mother had loved traditional things. She’d been proud that Ben’s father earned enough at the meat packing plant to pay for everything they needed, so she could stay at home and raise her two children, Ben and his brother Mason, traditionally. She’d been proud of her traditional Victorian home in Mansion Flats. And she’d been proud of her traditional family—the perfect husband, boy, girl, and golden retriever.

It still stung Ben to the core that his own mother had disowned him. He wondered from time to time how she was doing. His brother called him now and then with status reports, but sometimes he just missed his mom.

This whole thing with Ella’s moms had really thrown him, bringing up his own mother’s rejection as if it were fresh.

Come va? How’s it goes?” Diego put a hand on his shoulder.

“Almost done.” He pointed at the big bowl of peeled potatoes he’d amassed.

“You make a good… how do you say…” he mimed stirring something in a pan.

“Cook?”

! A good cook!” Diego patted his shoulder and gave him a big grin, then moved on to the next group of students.

“You almost done there?” Sam called.

“Yeah, just a couple more.” He’d been paired… or, he supposed, throupled, with Sam and his husband Brad. He finished the last of the potatoes, and brought the bowl back to their corner of the counter. Diego had suggested they prepare them all at once to save on cooking space on the stove.

They each grabbed a paring knife and set about quartering the pile of potatoes, piling them in a large bowl.

“I can’t believe there are so many people here today,” Sam said, looking around.

“I put the word out at the Center,” Brad said with a grin. “There are a lot of folks who like supporting queer-owned businesses.”

“You okay, Ben?” Sam asked, shooting him a concerned look. “You seem a bit quiet today.”

“I’m… yeah. I’m okay.”

“Come on. Something’s bugging you. Spill.” He looked at Ben like an expectant puppy dog.

He shook his head. “It’s stupid.”

Sam laughed. “If you knew half the stupid things I’ve gotten worked up over recently…”

“Maybe we should leave poor Ben alone,” Brad said, frowning.

“No, it’s all right.” Ben sighed. “I just started dating this girl, Ella, and her mother doesn’t want her going out with me because I’m trans.”

“Ah.” Sam shook his head. “People can be so narrow minded.”

“Would you date someone transgender?” Ben asked.

Sam looked thoughtful. “Um, I think so? It’s never come up. I guess it would depend on the person?”

Lots of gay guys said that, but it felt like Sam meant it. “When I transitioned, I built up this whole fantasy around it—that I would be just another guy. Just like all the other guys. That people would look at me and see someone physically male.”

“And?”

“Mostly, I pass. But just when I forget about being trans, when it slips my mind for just a moment, someone steps in and reminds me.”

Brad nodded. “Being gay’s like that too. You forget, sometimes, that you’re a guy who likes guys, that society’s still not a hundred percent on board with that. And then some homophobic jerk reminds you.”

Ben nodded. “Weird thing is, Ella’s mother is transgender too.”

“Huh.” Sam rubbed his chin. “Did she say why she didn’t want you seeing her daughter?”

“She’s afraid of all the baggage I’ll bring into the relationship. And I guess she would know, right? Maybe I’m being an idiot—I should just date other trans folks. It would be easier.”

“But then, wouldn’t there be twice the baggage?” Sam said with a grin.

“Yeah, well, there is that.” Ben cut his last potato.

“How old is she?” Sam asked.

“Who?”

“Ella.”

“I don’t know… maybe thirty?”

“Then what her mother wants really doesn’t matter, does it? You’re both adults.” Sam finished his stack and set down the knife. “You have to do what’s right for the two of you.”

“I guess so.”

Sam put a hand on his. “Ben, you’re an amazing guy. Just because you got there a different way than Brad or I doesn’t diminish that in any way. You’re not an asshole, and I have a lot of experience with assholes.”

Ben grinned. “That’s a little too much information.”

“Hey, are those potatoes ready yet?” Carmelina shouted from the stove.

“Just finished. There in a sec.” Ben grabbed the bowl. “Thanks, guys.”

* * *

Diego closed the door behind the last student. The whole thing had gone really well, despite the extra people. They’d actually turned a profit this time, and he’d had an idea of his own to share with Matteo.

Caro,” he called up the stairs.

“Coming.”

Diego gathered the dishes and pots and pans and stacked them in the kitchen. He’d just started washing them when he heard the telltale patter of Matteo’s feet coming down the stairs. “All clear?”

“All is gone,” he affirmed.

“Everyone’s gone,” Matteo corrected him. “How did it go?”

How did it go? Com’è andata. “Good!” He handed Matteo a dishrag, and they worked on dishes together. “We were twenty today!”

“There were… Oh, never mind. That’s fantastic!”

“I had an idea,” he said in Italian. “What if we did classes several afternoons a week? Close the place two until five. That’s our quietest time anyhow.”

Matteo nodded, thoughtful. “That could work.”

“With takeout service at lunch and dinner as usual. We could really improve our cash flow. Look!” He dried his hands and held up his earnings for the afternoon.

“Cash flow? Someone’s been listening.”

Diego grinned. “Yes, caro. When you’re not boring me to death.”

“Hey, I’m not boring!”

“Of course not.” Diego pecked him on the cheek. “So what do you think?”

“Flirting will get you everywhere.”

 

Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

Chicken Cacciatore With Farm Potatoes

Ingredients:

•   1 chicken

•   1 tablespoon fresh lard

•   2 onions, sliced thin

•   3 or 4 ripe tomatoes (or 1 can chopped tomatoes)

•   1 glass dry white wine

•   1 sprig sage

•   1 sprig rosemary

•   1 clove garlic

•   2 lbs potatoes

•   1/2 cup olive oil

•   1 pinch salt

 

To cook Chicken Cacciatore, it’s preferable to use lard for two reasons: chicken today is less fatty than it once was, and lard gives it more flavor without making it too heavy.

If your chicken still has the head and legs and you don’t want to use them for this recipe, you can use them to make chicken broth.

Sear the chicken in a pan on the stove to remove any down remaining on the skin. Wash it under running water and dry it, then cut it into pieces following the joints, detaching the legs and head.

Put the lard in a big pan and melt it. Lay the pieces of chicken skin-side down in the pan and combine with the sage, rosemary, mashed garlic clove, and salt to taste, and brown it over high heat in the uncovered pan.

When the chicken is well-browned, add the white wine, and when it has evaporated, add the onions and chopped tomatoes.

Mix everything carefully, add a glass of hot water, and then season to taste with pepper.

Cover the pan and continue cooking on low heat for about thirty minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks or quarters, and put them to blanch in boiling water.

Let the water come back to a boil and cook for two minutes.

Drain them and allow them to finish cooking in a pan where you heated some oil with the rosemary and sage. Stir often because they may stick.

Add salt when they are cooked and serve with the chicken.

A good wine to accompany chicken is a cabernet red, spicy sweet but soft, suitable to counteract the acidity of the tomato.

 

 

49 - Just a Second

The crowd at Roxy was subdued. The place was only about a third full, not unusual for a Sunday night.

Carmelina smiled graciously at Daniele as he pulled out her chair. It was nice being on the receiving end of someone’s gentlemanly urges again. She saw a flash of the cross tattoo on his wrist and frowned. It was an unwelcome reminder of another evening that had gone less than ideally between them.

He slid into the booth seat across from her and flashed his most charming smile.

She wasn’t ready to slide back into things so easily with him. “I haven’t been here in ages,” she said, studying the menu. The stuffed peppers looked especially inviting.

“I’m so sorry about this morning,” Daniele said. “My mother recommended that priest. Apparently he’s done some great feng shui for her before.

She chuckled in spite of herself. “He does eastern religion too?”

“As I said, I am most apologetic.”

“At least we got a good show out of it.” She looked over the rest of the menu. “Mind if we start with the zucchini chips? They’re really good.”

“Sure, why not?”

Their waiter, a cute young guy in a crisp white shirt who could almost have been her grandson, stopped by the table. “Good evening. My name is Jason. Can I get you started with something to drink?”

Carmelina smiled at him. They were so cute at that age, but Lordy, he was young. “Sure.… Do you have anything from Six Hands?”

“Yes, I think we have Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the cellar.”

“I’ll take a glass of the Cab.” She set down her menu. “Daniele?”

“Nothing for me. Well, maybe a bottle of Perrier?”

The waiter nodded. “Back in a minute with those drinks.”

Curious. “Don’t you ever drink?” she asked Daniele.

He shook his head. “I learned a long time ago it’s better for everyone if I don’t.”

“A mean drunk, huh?”

“Something like that.”

They placed their order when Jason returned, and Carmelina sat back, examining Daniele from across the table. “I’m not sure if I have forgiven you yet.”

“For the exorcism? I know. It was a bad idea—”

“For running out on me after we had sex.”

“Ah.” He blushed. “I know. You just caught me off guard.”

“About the tattoo?”

He nodded. “It represents a really dark time in my life.”

She put her hands on his. “Daniele, what happened on September twenty-third?” She felt him tense up and heard his sharp breath.

“Who told you about that?”

She’d scored a hit. “Let’s just say you weren’t entirely wrong about the whole ‘ghost of the dearly departed husband’ thing.”

He stared back at her for a moment, then he seemed to deflate, like one of those car dealership balloons when the pump is turned off.

“Hey, it’s okay. You can tell me. No judgment.” She squeezed his hands.

“I do bad things when I get smashed,” he said at last.

She nodded. “I’d guessed that. Go on.”

“I used to go out on the weekends with my friends from Sac State and get really stinking drunk, but we were smart about it. We’d take a taxi to the club together and then take another home.”

“That’s sensible.” She had a bad feeling she knew where this was headed.

He looked away, his vision unfocused. “One night it was just Jeff and I. He wanted to check out this new place in Davis by UCD, and it was too far to cab. So I drove.” He wiped his eye with the back of his hand. “We were there for four hours. We had a blast. And I didn’t think I was all that drunk. I felt fine. We drove home a little after two in the morning.” He paused, and the side of his mouth twitched. “We were coming through midtown—down J Street—when this car pulled in front of us, going really slow. I got angry and tried to get around him, but he must have been drunker than I was, because he was weaving all across the—”

“Here are the zucchini chips.” Jason set them in the middle of the table. “You two doing all right?” He was far too perky.

“We’re fine, thanks,” Carmelina said, shooing him away. “Go on,” she said to Daniele.

He took a long sip of his Perrier. “I passed him on the right as we were coming up on Marshall Park, just before Business 80. But I misjudged it and ended up riding on the curb for just a second—” He choked up and put his hand over his eyes.

She squeezed his hands. “It’s okay. I’m right here. What happened then?”

“It was just for a second, but this woman had come out of one of the bars, I guess, and she was there in front of me, and…” He looked up at her, and his eyes were wet. “I’ve thought about that moment every day since it happened. Replaying it in my head. Thinking about what I could have done differently. If I just had stayed home. Or hadn’t drunk anything. Or had taken Highway 50 instead of J Street.”

“Did she…?”

He nodded. “Almost instantly. I got this to remember what happened. What I did.”

She touched the tattooed cross, running her fingers across it. So much pain.

“They ruled it an accident. I was just below the legal limit, so they let me go. But I’ve never forgiven myself—”

“Hello there. Who had the stuffed peppers?” an expediter asked, bringing their food.

“Those are mine,” Carmelina said, clearing a space. Restaurant folk always managed to show up at the worst times.

“And you must have the Chicken Saltimbocca.”

Daniele nodded. “Thank you.” He wiped his eyes with his napkin, and then they were alone again.

“So that’s why you don’t drink anymore?” What a terrible lesson to have learned.

“I haven’t had a drop since that night.” This time he took her hand. “Can you forgive me? For my rude behavior the other night? And for what I did?”

“We all make mistakes.” She drew her hand away with a little smile.

She glanced down at her dish. It looked delicious. “Let’s eat before it gets cold.” She took a bite. It was good, but her mind was elsewhere.

 

 

50 - The Time We Have

Ben glanced nervously at his watch. It was a quarter past twelve in the afternoon, and Ella was late. Maybe she’d decided not to come. Maybe her moms had found his texts and had forbidden her to see him.

She was in her thirties. Why did her parent still rule her life?

It was a warm, early October afternoon in River City. He sipped on a chai latte under the shade of the huge old oak tree in front of the Grind, watching the passersby. He had to work later, but for now he was free.

He’d been neglecting his writing over the last week, but he was so close to the end. He just couldn’t seem to focus on it properly. Not with Ella taking up most of his mental energy.

“Hey, sorry I’m late!” Ella’s hand was on his shoulder. “I couldn’t get away. Moms and I were having lunch at Cafe Bernardo. I finally told her I needed a little alone time. That I wanted to take a walk.”

She came. He grinned and gave her a big hug. “It’s all right. I was just enjoying the day.”

“So you want to?”

“Want to what?”

“Take a walk with me? I’ve been cooped up in the hospital for days.”

“Um… sure! Where do you want to go?” He got up and slipped his backpack over his shoulder. “I don’t need to be back here until two-thirty.”

“Capitol Park? It’s such a beautiful day.”

“Sounds good.” They strolled down the boardwalk that fronted the MAARS Building. Ella looked a little withdrawn. “Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Moms told me what she said to you. I was really angry with her. But she had her reasons.”

He frowned. Moms’ ‘reasons’ were that he was trans and that she didn’t want her daughter dealing with all of his baggage. “What did she tell you?”

They turned the corner, descending the stairs to the sidewalk. “Let’s stop at Devine and get some gelato,” she said with a wan smile. “We can take it to the rose garden at the park and talk there.”

They stopped by the gelato place, which was busy as usual on a Sunday afternoon.

“What’s your favorite flavor?” Ella asked, her hands on the glass.

“Hmmm… probably the stracciatella. Or the honey lavender. But not together.”

“I’ve always been a big chocolate fan myself.”

“Then you can’t go wrong with the double chocolate.”

In the end, he got her a waffle cone with three flavors of chocolate, and they made their way down to the park. They found a sunny bench facing the center of the rose garden, where water trickled over a white fountain surrounded by a quartet of heart-shaped planters. They sat in silence for a few minutes while they finished their gelato. She was staring at the fountain, and he was staring at her.

“She told me I was too much trouble for you,” he said at last. “Your moms.”

She turned to regard him for a moment, and nodded. “It was probably easier for her to tell you that.”

“What do you mean?” Ben’s brow furrowed. “You’re the one who doesn’t want you to see me anymore?”

She looked away again, silent.

“I’m sorry—I don’t know what I did to upset you? Did I say something I shouldn’t have? I thought things were starting out well between us—”

“Ben, I’m dying.”

That knocked the wind out of his sails. “What do you mean?” It made no sense. She was here, whole, vivacious—and beautiful. She was more alive than anyone else he knew.

“I have a degenerative neurological condition called Fahr’s Disease. It’s been in my family for a long time.” She sighed, and turned to face him again. “I was living with my moms in Chicago, waiting to die. I finally got tired of hiding.”

“So you moved here?”

“Yeah. Max is here, for starters. I thought I could make a new start with whatever time I still have.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “He told me he’d found this experimental treatment at UC Davis, but the trial was already full. He said he had some way of getting enough cash to buy me a way in.”

“Ella, I’m so sorry.” He ached to see her like this.

“It’s all right. I’ve known for a couple years now. Sometimes I have a hard time controlling my movements. It comes and goes. But it pretty much only gets worse from here.” She put a hand on his arm. “You don’t want to be with me, Ben. It will only bring you sadness.”

She started to get up, but he gently pulled her back down.

“I saw you, Ella. In a vision.”

“What?” She frowned. “That’s not funny.”

“It was the day before I met you. I had this vision of you, with me, in this adorable little kitchen in a house that belonged to the two of us. When I saw you, I just knew.”

“Even if I believed you,” she said, staring at him, “it would never work. I’m sick, Ben. I’m never going to be the girl of your dreams.”

“Don’t you get it? You already are.” He pulled her to him and kissed her.

She resisted at first, but then she kissed him back, putting her arms around him and pulling him to her tightly.

At last, she let him go. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” she said softly. “It’s not fair to you.”

“Let me decide what’s fair and what’s not.” He cupped her chin in his hand gently. “Ella, I want to be with you for whatever time you have left, if it’s a year, a month or even just a week.”

She bit her lip. “Are you sure?”

“Surer than I’ve been of anything in a long time.”

“I don’t know—”

“You don’t have to decide right away. I’m patient.” He took her hand and lifted her up off the bench. “Come on. You promised me a walk, right?”

He called in sick to work, and they spent the rest of the afternoon walking through town and talking.

 

 

51 - ’Doptermonster Blues

Marcos threw his keys into the bowl on the small glass-and-metal table by the front door. Marissa wasn’t home yet. He had the place all to himself. He’d been cramming code at Temple Coffee, trying to finish up a job for a new client. The guy was nice, but he had no clue how programming or Wordpress actually worked. Marcos had spent the last week trying to manage expectations and had done so much custom coding he was afraid the whole thing would come crashing down with the next developer update.

He liked being out in the real world when he was coding. He’d spent too much time crammed in a small cubicle when he’d worked for Intel out at their complex in Folsom, before he’d been replaced by someone cheaper with an H-1B visa. But never mind all that. He preferred working for himself, even if the pay wasn’t steady. He’d established a good network of clients and had about as much as he could handle.

He sank down on the couch and sorted through the mail. Costco was selling a bunch of crap, as usual. He’d weed through that later. There was a money beg from the food bank. He’d given the last Christmas and probably would again this year, or maybe for Thanksgiving, but that was still a month and a half away. Then he ran across a letter from the Sacramento County Juvenile Court. He opened it and stared at the contents. Then he folded it up and put it neatly into the envelope.

Marissa got home a half hour later. “You here?”

“Yes. In the kitchen.”

She’d made herself very comfortable here in the past nine days. “Oooh, that smells good. What is it?” Her head popped up over her shoulder.

“Ancient Chinese secret,” he said with a grin.

“What?” She pulled herself up to sit on the island. She held a paper bag.

“Old commercial from the seventies.” He chuckled. “No, it’s something called calabacitas. It means zucchini in Spanish. My Mom always makes it this way, with a broth and tomatoes and lots of cheese. What’s in the bag?”

She held it open to show him. “I stopped by the Freeport Bakery and got us a couple pastries for dessert.”

“Oooh, I love that place.” He tasted the broth. It still needed a bit of seasoning. Maybe some garlic salt? “Hey, how did you get home, then? Bribe the bus driver to wait for you?”

“Nope. Jason’s mom gave me a lift. She was stopping at the bakery, and vee-oh-lah.”

“It’s pronounced ‘vwah-lah.’” He frowned. “Who’s this Jason guy? Should I be worried?”

“I told you about him. He’s the gay kid they assigned to me. You know, to keep me out of trouble.”

Marcos laughed. “I imagine he has his hands full.”

“I have no idea what you mean.” She beamed innocently.

“Hey, want to grab a couple bowls, some silverware, and chips and salsa? We’re just about ready.”

“Sure. The Fiestaware?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Hey, what’s this?” She was holding the envelope from the court.

“Let’s sit down first. Then we can talk about it.” He was worried she’d be upset. He served a couple ladlefuls each of the aromatic soup. It wasn’t quite how his mother had made it—he’d added some chicken—but the smell always reminded him of her. He hadn’t seen his parents since the holidays in Palm Springs, where they’d retired a few years before.

Marissa took a sip of the soup. “Oooh, it’s good.”

Marcos dipped one of his tortilla chips in the plastic bowl of TJ’s salsa in the middle of the table. “So.”

“The letter?”

“Yeah. You probably already figured out what it is.”

“It’s about the ‘break-in’, isn’t it?” She used air quotes.

Marcos nodded. “The court date’s in about three weeks.”

“Fucking Jessica—”

“Hey, have a little respect. She’s still your mother.”

“Adoptermonster.”

“Even so. You can’t go flying off the handle like that in court, you know.”

Marissa frowned.

“There must have been a time when things were better between you two.”

“When I was little, she used to take me to the zoo on Sundays. We’d go feed the giraffes, and then we’d have a picnic lunch together out on the lawn.”

“See? That’s nice.”

“Just wait. When I was seven or eight, she told me I was adopted. It was at Raleys, and we were in the checkout line. I wanted some peanut M&M’s, and she wouldn’t let me get them, and I threw a fit. I guess I wouldn’t stop crying.”

“You were a kid.”

“Maybe so. But she said, and I still remember it word for word: ‘I wish we had never adopted your sorry little ass.’”

Marcos whistled. “That’s terrible.”

“After that, she’d tell me that whenever I did something wrong. And I think I started doing things just to dare her to say it again. Because if it was true, maybe that meant I wasn’t like her. That I wouldn’t grow up to be mean and spiteful like she was.”

Marcos put his hand on hers. “Marissa, you’re nothing like that. A headstrong, pain-in-the-ass teenager, to be sure. But look what you’ve done for all those outcast kids at school.”

“That was mostly Jason’s idea—”

“Maybe so, but you ran with it.” He sat back, remembering his own teen years. “One thing I’ve learned: each of us is responsible for the person we become. When my parents threw me out, I could have been bitter. I could have let it ruin my life. But I chose to move forward. To be who I was in spite of that.” He frowned. “I’m still learning. I’ve lived most of my life on the chase, looking for the next party, the next guy. I don’t want to live like that anymore. You came into my life, and I started thinking about things… differently.”

“You mean, like you and Dave being together?”

“Yeah, like that.” He was already looking forward to their next date on Wednesday. He picked up the envelope. “Look, we’ll get through this together. Then you can figure out what you want to do next, and I’ll support you.” He smiled wryly. “And who knows? Maybe your ’doptermonster will come around.”

Marissa snorted. “Fat chance.”

“Anyhow, let’s eat before it gets cold. My mother would never forgive me if I ruined her signature dish, and I can’t wait to try those pastries.”

 

 

52 - Fifteen Minutes

Matteo looked around the small but tidy law office. It was painted a bright yellow with white trim, and the light streaming in from the window facing J Street made it seem bigger than it actually was. Behind the large mahogany desk that took up half the space, shelves held a preponderance of legal tomes. A bright-green fern in a blue pot sitting on a pedestal by the window did its best to relieve the dark, staid tones of the furniture.

The door swung open next to him. “So sorry to keep you two waiting.” Dana Pearce was dressed impeccably in a gray pinstripe pantsuit. She was short, and her hair was close-cropped and a vibrant red. She sat down at her desk, leaning back in her chair. “I’ve been prepping for an upcoming case, and the judge just denied my motion for a delay. I’ve got about…” she looked at her watch, “… fifteen minutes. What can I do for you two gentlemen?”

“Brad at the Center referred us to you,” Matteo said, a little taken aback by her brusque manner. “We wanted a gay or lesbian lawyer.…”

“Hold up right there. Common misconception, but I’m bisexual. Go on.”

He nodded. “That’s good too. We just wanted someone who would understand the position we’re in.”

She leaned forward and put her elbows on her desk with her chin on her hands. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what that situation is?”

“Well, you see, we were married two years ago here in the US…”

“Twelve minutes.”

“We’re married, but Diego was married to a woman in Italy before, and she never divorced him.”

“Ah, there we go.” She sat back, considering the two of them. “Did you know you weren’t divorced when you married Matteo?” she asked Diego.

“Cosa…? Divorced…?”

“Sorry, his English isn’t very good yet.” To Diego, he said “Sapevi che Luna non aveva format le pratiche per il divorzio quando mi hai sposato?

“No. No!! Dopo. Later.”

“Okay, so there was no intentional fraud.” She thrummed her fingers on the desk. “And does Immigration know about this? I’m assuming you’re here on a visa?”

“I am,” Matteo said. “He’s here as my spouse.”

“Ah. There’s the problem, then.”

Matteo nodded. “So what do we do?”

“Well, the easiest thing is to invest. Do you have a business?”

Matteo nodded. “Ragazzi, over on Folsom Boulevard in East Sac.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that place. Brad said it was really good.” She took out a legal pad and wrote a few notes. “Okay, your fastest option is to invest in the business. You can get what is called an EB-5 visa. Matteo, you’re already covered, so Diego, you’d need to invest. What kind of assets does he have?”

Matteo shook his head. “Not so much. What would he need?”

“At least five hundred thousand, and you’d have to hire ten employees.”

Matteo blanched.

Porco cane!” Diego said.

“Ah, so he understood that.” She flashed him a smile and glanced again at her watch. “Eight minutes.”

“So what are our other options?”

“Honestly? Since Immigration hasn’t brought it up, he should get his divorce taken care of first, and then we can get you two legally remarried. After that, we can approach Immigration. Is his wife willing to go through with the divorce now?”

Matteo looked over at Diego. “Vuole sapere se ora Luna ti concederebbe il divorzio.

Diego shrugged. “Spero di si.”

“He hopes so.”

“Then I’d suggest getting a quick divorce. Then we can talk again.”

“That… might be a problem.” Italy didn’t do things quickly. Especially divorce.

“How so?”

“They just approved a new law that allows quicker divorces in Italy.”

“Perfect. What’s the problem?”

“‘Quick’ means six months instead of three years.”

“Ouch.”

“After a three-year separation.”

“Ah.”

“So?”

“So you don’t have much of a choice, do you?” She picked up a photo off her desktop and showed it to them. She was in it, along with a handsome man in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Behind them, the Grand Canyon was spread out in all of its glory. “That’s my husband, Ken. We met when I was in London on a one-semester student exchange. We’re married now, but it took three years to get through all the immigration bullshit.”

“That’s… encouraging.”

“Do you love him?”

He nodded. “More than anything.”

“Does he love you?” She glanced at Diego.

Diego nodded. “Naturalmente.” He grinned.

“My point is, it will all be worth it if you can stick together no matter how hard it gets.” She glanced at her watch. “Time’s just about up. Anything else?”

“Any other advice for us?”

“Keep your heads down. No traffic stops, no speeding, no petty theft. Remember, right now you’re living on borrowed time.” She grinned at Diego. “Especially you. You look like trouble.”

Cosa? Che ha detto?” Diego looked hurt.

Un momento.” He patted Diego’s leg.

“Fortunately for you two, Immigration is focused on Latino undocumented workers these days, so if you don’t make waves, you can probably ride this out.”

“Thank you so much. What do we owe you?”

“Brad’s a good friend, so this little session is on the house, but if you hire me, I charge $300 an hour. I do have a sliding scale, if your income is low enough.” She glanced at her watch once more and nodded. “And with that, we’re done for today.” She stood and shook their hands. “Pleasure to meet both of you. When the divorce is finalized, come back and see me, and we’ll talk strategy.” She gathered up her briefcase and was out the door with a quick smile and a wave.

Allora? Che ha detto?” Diego asked.

Matteo sighed. He had been hoping for something easier. “You have to go to Italy and get a divorce.”

 

 

53 - Where The Truth Lies

Carmelina browsed through the beautiful selection of fresh flowers at Fiori Amorosi, the flower shop owned by Daniele’s family. Daniele wasn’t there, but she had wanted to see the shop again. It had been years since she had been there.

It was a beautiful place, with dusky-yellow Venetian plaster walls that lent it an Old World feel and thick wooden shelves covered with flowers and vases and other knickknacks.

“Can I help you?” The young woman behind the counter, probably all of nineteen years old, flashed her a braces-filled smile.

“Yes, I want to buy a hundred flowers. Something… bright. Colorful.”

“Hmmm… Is it for a party?”

Carmelina frowned. “Not exactly. It’s… for my daughter. She passed away a long time ago. It’s complicated.”

Braces flashed her a sparkly smile. “I understand. We have a lot of carnations on hand. They come in lots of colors—”

“No carnations.” They reminded her of her senior prom, a dismal night that had ended in tears.

“Hmmm… How about some mums?”

“No. Too frilly.”

“Hmmm…”

The constant humming was starting to annoy Carmelina. She looked around the shop and selected a bundle of yellow daffodils. “How about these?” She had always liked daffodils. Arthur had wooed her with them for a month before she had said yes to going out with him.

Every day he would send her more. One the first day, two the second, three on the third, until finally she’d received a bouquet of thirty yellow daffodils with a note. “Please. Say Yes. I’m running out of money.”

Braces frowned, an annoyingly cute expression. “Hmmm… Let me check.”

“Yes, please do.” Carmelina tried not to grind her teeth.

Thirty minutes later, she walked out with a hundred yellow daffodils.

She drove the fifteen minutes to St. Mary’s Cemetery. It was a Tuesday afternoon. She parked the car, looking out at a funeral party gathered around an open grave.

She sat in her car for a few minutes, watching the mourners, wishing she had known when her daughter, Andrea, had been put to rest. She should have known. Should have felt it in her bones when her own flesh and blood had been taken from this world. Instead she’d probably been working at the County Welfare Office, maybe stopping to get a coffee or having lunch with Loylene and laughing about the latest office affairs.

At last, she pulled out the map Jenna at the cemetery office had faxed to her. She got out of the car and started walking among the graves. The lawn was yellow—another sign of California’s severe ongoing drought.

It took her about fifteen minutes, but she finally located the marker. It was a simple stone plaque embedded in the ground. “Andrea Smith, 1975–2000.” She sat down next to the stone, tracing it with her fingers. “I’m here, baby. Fifteen years too late. But I’m here.”

Why had she ever given up her beautiful child? She had hoped the little girl would have a better life with a loving family. Her mother had convinced her it was for the best.

If only she had fought harder. Maybe she could have prevented this from happening. She wiped her eyes with a Kleenex from her purse and blew her nose.

She lay the bundle of flowers on the adjoining gravesite and undid the ribbon that held them together. There was no can to place them in, so instead she set them over the grave, one at a time, laying them out below the grave marker.

“There are so many things I wish I could tell you,” she said as the flowers started to pile up. “It wasn’t your fault that I couldn’t take care of you. I was so young and scared. I was only fifteen when I had you, and I didn’t know what to do.” She knelt and kissed the gravestone. “I am so sorry, my love. I wish to God I had been there for you.” She put down the last flower and laid down with her head on the pillow of blossoms.

It was a beautiful day in early October; not a cloud in the sky.

When she’d set off to find her daughter, she’d never imagined it would end like this. She had hoped coming here, to this final resting place, would give her some closure. Instead, she felt guiltier than ever.

Her cell phone rang. She pulled it out, feeling a little disrespectful at having not silenced the ringer. Fortunately she was all alone in this part of the cemetery. She got up to walk away from the grave.

Caller ID said “Catholic Svcs”. “Hello?”

“Hello? Is this Carmelina di Rosa?”

“Yes it is.”

“Hello. This is Sister Clara. You came to see me this last week?”

Carmelina sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “Yes.”

“Good. I wanted to let you know that I was going through our files. I found an interesting notation about Andrea. Where did I put it?” There was a shuffling of papers. “Ah, here it is. About a year before she died, she had a child. She was put up for adoption when Andrea passed away.”

Carmelina’s breath caught. “I have a grandchild?”

“It appears so, yes.”

She felt too heavy for her legs to hold her. She sank down to the ground, shaking. “What… Was it a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t know. But the county might be able to tell you more. It appears they handled the adoption through the foster care system.”

“Thank you. Oh my God, thank you. I mean… I’m sorry, no disrespect to God.”

Sister Clara laughed quietly. “I understand, under the circumstances.”

“Could you email me the information you have?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you so much.”

“God bless.”

Carmelina hung up the phone. She stood unsteadily and made her way back to Andrea’s grave. “You had a child,” she whispered. Then it struck her.

“I have a grandchild.”

 

 

54 - ’Riss and Tris

Marissa shoved her backpack in her locker and slammed it shut. It had been a shitstorm of a day, starting with the fact that she’d left her math homework at home. Jason was out sick too. Strangely enough, she kinda missed his puppy-dog presence. And now this.

She stared at the note that Mr. Davis had slipped her during English class. Mrs. Dominguez, the school counselor, wanted to see her after lunch.

She didn’t need to see a counselor. What did they think was wrong with her? She came to McClatchy every day, did her homework (even if she forgot it at home sometimes), and she’d even made a few friends. She wished they would just leave her well enough alone.

She got into the lunch line, staring morosely at the offerings. Today’s meal was just great—a perfect shit topping on a shitty day: boiled cabbage, corned beef sandwich, and a side of steamed broccoli. What did they think this was, St. Patrick’s Day? Though she didn’t think broccoli was usually associated with Guinness and four-leaf clovers. It was green though.

At least they still had chocolate milk, and she could probably drown the rest in ketchup. She took ten packets. That oughta do it.

She slipped into her seat at the Outcasts table, hoping the rest of the group would ignore her. No such luck.

“Hey ’Riss,” Caity said, grinning, eyes big as an owl’s behind her coke-bottle glasses. “We were just arguing over which of the Reds we should tar and feather first.” The Reds were the school’s three most popular girls, Tabby, Shalisha, and Hayley, who all wore matching bright-red nail polish.

“Tabby,” Marissa said without hesitation. “She’d scream the loudest.” She emptied one packet after another of the strangely orange ketchup over her meal. She took a bite of the cabbage. Not bad.

“Shalisha would be better.” Clark’s gay flame burned bright. He was adorable. “She’d die if she had to wear anything not runway appropriate.”

“I don’t know.… Those girls don’t seem so bad,” a new voice said. “Mind if I sit with you guys?”

Marissa looked up to see a newcomer standing next to her. He was six foot two, at least, skinny with a mop of dark hair and a large black plug in each earlobe. Both arms were covered in tattoos. He was cute and totally her type. “Sure. Have a seat.” She scooted over to make room.

“Thanks. I’m Tristan.” He offered his hand.

“Marissa.” She looked at his lunch. “How’d you get a burger and fries?”

He grinned. “My mom’s one of the lunch ladies.”

“OMG. I have to get to know you better.”

He laughed. “Want some?”

“Please.” She snagged a few fries from his tray. “How come I've never seen you around here before?" she asked through a mouthful of fries.

“We just transferred in last week from Santa Cruz." He stared at her. "You really like fries, don't you?"

She blushed, her hand over his tray with her third handful. "Sorry. Um… want some of these?" She held up a piece of broccoli covered in ketchup.

He wrinkled his nose. "No thanks. Sweet of you though!"

She laughed. "You do realize this is the Outcast Society, right?"

“Yeah, someone told me. Right where I belong." He took a big bite of his burger and winked at her.

His right arm was covered with a flame-breathing dragon. "I love the tats," she said. What's this one represent?"

He blushed. "I love sci fi. It's a bronze dragon and his rider. From Pern."

"Pern?"

"Anne McCaffrey. You should really check them out."

She nodded. "I will." She glanced at the time. “Sorry, gotta run. Appointment with the school counselor." She chugged her chocolate milk and got up.

"That can't be good. Antisocial tendencies?"

"Almost certainly. Nice to meet you!"

"Likewise."

The day was getting better already.

* * *

She knocked on the counselor's door.

"Come on in." Mrs. Dominguez's voice beckoned her inside. She was stocky and kind of old… maybe forty? Her short-cut hair and no-nonsense demeanor practically shouted lesbian. "Take a seat, Miss Sutton."

Marissa did as she was told. "Am I in trouble?"

Mrs. Dominguez looked up with a frown. "No, not at all." She turned to her computer. "It's just that we've had a rather… unusual request. Your mother has asked to meet with you."

Marissa's blood ran cold. "She's not my mother."

“Sorry? It says here—"

"I'm adopted."

"Ah. I see. In any case, she's asked if we can facilitate a meeting. Technically, she’s still your legal guardian. I wanted to talk to you first, to see how you felt about it. Were you… were there problems at home?"

Marissa snorted. “Do you mean, did she beat me?"

"Well, yes. Was there any abuse?"

"Nothing physical. But she threw me out when I told her I liked girls."

Mrs. Dominguez frowned. “Well, that was judgmental of her, wasn’t it? Okay. So you don't want to see her?"

"She can see me in court."

"What?"

"She said I broke into my house. I have a court date, end of the month.”

Mrs. Dominguez frowned. "That's absurd. She ought to be ashamed. Alright. I'll tell her I can’t facilitate a meeting, but you may have to see her anyway.”

"Thank you. Can I go?"

"Yes. But Marissa…"

"What?"

"If you ever want to talk, my door is always open.”

Marissa nodded and darted out of the room.

Tristan was waiting for her outside. "How'd it go?"

She shook her head. “My mother wants to see me."

"Which is not good?"

"Long story."

He nodded. "Wanna tell me after school?"

He was cute and sweet. What did she have to lose?

“Sure. See you at three."

 

 

Check back in two weeks for the next part of the story – published the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

 

Like what you’ve been reading? You can order it in book form and read the whole thing now:

 

Amazon eBook: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DCFPCGZ/

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You can also visit Scott’s webpage and join his email list at https://www.jscottcoatsworth.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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