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For The Strength of Youth

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Little Miss Liberty
    Steven O'Dell
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Most Recent Chapters
The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
    Ch. 58 -- On Wings of Angels
The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
    Ch. 61 The Music Within
The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
    Ch. 60 -- Lamb and Lyon
The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
    Ch. 59 I Hate Christmas
The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
    Ch. 44 The Wisdom of the Wise
 
Submitted by Steven ODell on 14 March 2011 - 12:35pm. | | | | | |

The Music Within
(C) Steven G. O'Dell 2011

The old craftsman set the final piece of exotic wood inlay into the lid of the music box and smiled with satisfaction. Once the glue was dried, he would oil the wood and polish the entire box with loving care and then give it to his sweetheart for her sixtieth birthday. He closed his eyes and thought of how it reflected her own qualities. He had put every ounce of love and skill he possessed into this particular piece and hoped she would love it as much as he loved her.

~~~///~~~

Linda was feeling 'one of those days'. Hard to explain, but even harder to experience personally. She felt old and useless. She was tired, weak and thought of herself as crippled by age. She had ceased nearly entirely to see her talents and value as a woman and a human being. She was as worn out inside as she thought of herself on the outside. The day was overcast, gloomy and cold as she walked about in a daze. She was supposed to meet someone soon; someone who loved her deeply. Linda wasn't sure she was in the mood right now for meetings, even with someone who loved her, but she would 'bite the bullet' and proceed.

The antique shop seemed to call to Steven in some strange way. Although he liked old furniture and impeccable craftsmanship, antique shops were not the kind of places he was wont to frequent, yet there was something in this one that beckoned him to enter.

On the surface, it seemed much similar to any other antique shop, but there was still this feeling that somewhere, somehow, a hidden treasure awaited him. Wandering from aisle to aisle, Steven inspected each article he passed, admiring the fine workmanship and care that had gone into the making of them. He reflected on the fact that with the advent of the industrial revolution had come the apparent demise of quality and pride of workmanship. How sad for the world, he thought.

It was in the last aisle that he saw it, with a fine layer of dust, sitting alone on the top shelf. There was no reason it should have caught his eye and yet it did, oddly. As he reached overhead to pull it from the shelf, he felt a warmth rush through him from head to toe. Holding the old music box in both hands, Steven admired it and recognized the fine detail and care that had gone into its making. Every part fit like a glove to a hand, every inlay cut perfectly and placed carefully, with no gaps or hint of misalignment. The craftsman who had made this box was a true master. Wiping the dust from the lid, he took it to the front window, where it could catch some natural light and just as he did, the clouds seemed to part and the sun shone brightly through the window and onto the box, causing him to catch his breath and hold it for a moment, admiring what he knew instantly to be a real treasure.

"Ah, I see you know fine workmanship when you hold it." It was the owner of the store, who had come in quietly from the back room.

"Yes, sir, it's wonderful. A lot of love went into its making."

"Shall I tell you it's story?"

"It has a story?" Steven raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"It certainly has. A wonderful story at that. It was made by a real craftsman, a master at his art, which you can easily see. What you cannot see is why it was made. The master craftsman was a man who was deeply in love with his wife of sixty years. He made it for her sixtieth anniversary and presented it to her over a special dinner at her favorite restaurant. She was thrilled with it, of course. It plays her favorite song."

"How wonderful that must have been."

"Yes, it was. They had another ten years after that night. She passed away on their seventieth anniversary. He was heartbroken, but had the years of memories to console him for the last few years of his own life. The music box came into my possession about seven years ago. Since then, it has been up on that shelf, waiting for the right person to find it and recognize its worth. Are you that person?"

Steven paused without words. He looked at the owner for a moment and then again at the music box and smiled with a joy he hadn't felt in some time. He knew exactly who would be the recipient of this very special gift.

~~~///~~~

"I found it. At the last minute, I found it for you." Steven smiled across the table at Linda and waited.

"Found what?"

"The perfect gift to show my love for you and to convince you to marry me."

"We've been through this before. I'm getting old and my helath isn't what it was. You would be getting a broken woman, an imperfect package."

"I know what kind of package I would be getting, better than you know it yourself." He reached down beside his chair and picked up a gift for her. "This is for you...and it is a lot like you."

Linda carefully unwrapped the gift and found the music box to be a thing quite beautiful. It was immediately apparent why he had chosen this box. Everything about it was exquisite and outstanding. It had been freshly oiled to bring out the grain of the woods and the pearlescent inlays complemented the various exotic wood inlays.

"It's gorgeous."

"As are you. I only wish you could see yourself as I do. You are a daughter of God and loved by Him more than you could ever imagine in all your days. You see only the frailties you suffer. Like the wood that needed to be treated with oil to bring out the beauty of the grain, you need the gentle oil of love to bring out the beauty within yourself. Like the sparkle of the shell inlay, you will shine with the affection I will give you freely. And like the song within the music box, you will have a heart that sings with the love you will feel once you let yourself go to be the woman you were meant to be from the start."

Gazing into his eyes, she saw that he meant every word. She saw, perhaps for the first time, the depth of his love for her. A tear was forming in his eye and that told her everything she needed to know. Breaking eye contact, she opened the lid of the music box and within seconds her breath was taken away.

"I can't believe it...that's my favorite piece of music ever."

"I know. I was led to this box this afternoon, just as I was led to you, Linda. We were meant to be together, just as you were meant to have this music box. I see the beauty within you, not just the exterior, which I think is beautiful, too, by the way. I know there is a song within you that is aching to come out and be sung. I want to be with you when it is sung. Is that so wrong?"

She shook her head, crying silently.

"Then I ask you this one thing as I give this gift and I will never asked another thing of you. Will you please marry me and let me bring out that beautiful song I know is within you?"

Again, all she could do was cry, but with a gasp she reached across the table and took his hand, smiled and nodded her consent.

The song would finally be sung. The music within would be set free at last.

Submitted by Steven ODell on 24 July 2007 - 12:11am. | | | |

The following was written in response to a challenge to write a story based on either the theme 'Missing' or 'Joker'. The stipulation was that it be limited to 100 words maximum. When a challenge like this is leveled, I always add to it by challenging myself to use the entire 100 word allotment while still making the story as polished and complete as I can, without unnecessary words and phrases. Whether you agree with the results or not, I enjoyed the challenge and here is the result:

MISSING—© Steven G. O’Dell 2007

This morning I looked deep into my life and knew there was something important missing. So conspicuous was it by its absence that it left a gaping hole that ached to be filled. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? How could I have overlooked it?

I can’t possibly focus on anything else now. This has become more important to me than anything else in my life at the moment. I am doomed to be forever empty if this need is not met. So, it is with total sincerity and a hopeful heart that I ask you—will you marry me?

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:48am. | | | |

Author's note: This portion deals partially with the married life and honeymoon of the Jameson's. Although it is not soft-porn by any stretch of the imagination, it does get more personal, playful and tender than the other portions of the story, but that is to be expected at this stage of their relationship. Anything less would not be convincing or realistic. If you are offended, please do tell me and I will consider revision (if you can offer an alternative) or removal of the story from this site.

anovelapproach@writeme.com

Summary:

Things should now be peaceful for Ron and Denise Jameson. All of their problems have seemingly been solved. They are a newly married couple and are supposed to be enjoying their honeymoon in Hawaii. The painful truth is that the past does indeed come back to haunt. In their case, a man who should be dead and completely gone from their lives is still making a hell on earth for them and there will be no peace until this ghostly and persistent evil is vanquished once and for all. Their happiness and their sanities depend upon it.

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 8 July 2007 - 11:35pm. | | | | |

Ronald Jameson is an ordinary man; unassuming and not noteworthy to those he passes on the street each day. He minds his own business and keeps to himself socially. The truth is that he has no social life. Events in his past have caused great pain and there seems little chance they will ever be rectified in his lifetime—that is, until he meets Denise Payton, a marvelous woman he rescues from a raving madman she wants to leave behind as quickly as possible.

Denise has a problem more serious than anything she has ever dealt with—a problem that could cost her very life. In fact, it could also cost her newfound love interest his life. The problem is Ted Randall; an ex-boyfriend, mentally and emotionally unstable, who thinks the world revolves around his needs and him alone. Ted is evil incarnate and never lets anyone forget it.

Fate has drawn these three together for a purpose both dizzyingly wonderful and infinitely frightening. Before their ordeal is over, Ron and Denise will face the trials of nature in a mountainous region, their own weaknesses and the worst that their unrelenting and formidable antagonist can throw at them. Facing these challenges may bring them closer together—or it may tear them apart forever. Before they can discover the answer, they must first survive.

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 5 July 2007 - 11:23pm. | | | | | |

Life is full of choices, but when Jenna must decide between two men who come into her life, she finds that decisions are not always easy and appearances are not always what they seem. The rest of her life—and ultimately, the life of the man she chooses—hangs in the balance. There is literally no room for mistakes. She must choose correctly.

The tale continues. This time Ron and Denise must help to protect and console some new young friends that are enfolded in trials as severe as they come. These trials are literally a matter of life and death to these two young lovers, a condition with which Ron and Denise Jameson can identify and which they understand fully. Dangers will come from sources unforeseen and unexpected. They can only hope that help will do the same.

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 5 July 2007 - 4:26am. | | | | | | | |

Relative Size--(C) Steven G. O'Dell Nov. 2005

The warm sunshine felt wonderful on her arms and legs as she ran across the large open yard. The breeze was gentle, but more pronounced as she ran inhaling the fragrant air that wafted from the nearby lilac bushes and rose garden. The grass brushed her toes lightly with each bounding step and all was right with the world in this little girl's life. She felt so alive in this great big world that surrounded her.

With a sudden leap, she rolled to the ground and lay still for a moment, basking in the sunshine that bathed her naked skin and warmed her from head to foot. Catching her breath, she could hear the birds in the trees and in the sky overhead. 'Such a great big world,' she thought. Rubbing her arms back and forth across the blades of grass, as though making a summertime snow angel, the softness of the experience caused her to roll over onto her stomach, where she began to inspect the wonders before her.

Each blade, though seemingly at first glance the same as all its neighbors, was in its own way unique, even if only because the mower had shaved each in a different manner--some smoothly, some more torn, some angled and others straight as could be. She marveled that she had never noticed this before and as she stared closely at one particular blade she noticed the movement of some small creature that caught her eye. It was an ordinary ant, but she was in a state of heightened awareness today that led her to study this insect as she never had before. What a wondrous little creation this was and she marveled over it for several minutes as it went about its business in the grass before her. Until another movement caught her now sensitive eye.

It was incredibly tiny and she actually strained to come closer and focus upon it. What appeared to her fascinated gaze was an almost unbelievably minute creature, red and having all the appearance of a spider in its nature. She was now struck with a sense of wonder that she had indeed never felt. Here was something that she was discovering for the very first time in her young life--as if it were a new world, only now revealed to the eyes of mankind.

The detail she observed in this nearly microscopic creature was stunning. Every needful part was there to allow it to function in its own huge world and each worked to perfection. The young girl suddenly knew two things very clearly. First, large as her own world had seemed but a few short moments ago, there were things that must feel so much tinier than she. And secondly, she knew that she would never see her world in quite the same way ever again.

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 5 July 2007 - 4:10am. | | | | |

The Guitar—© Steven G. O'Dell July 2005

The music was unlike any she had ever heard. It grabbed her by the heartstrings and pulled her physically to itself. The otherworldly strains came softly from the inner recesses of the undistinguished and quaint little shop that she had nearly missed in her private rush down the narrow cobblestone street, but she now stood transfixed as the sultry tones of the simple acoustic guitar beckoned to her from the darkness beyond the door.

One step at a time, slowly she marched forward, led by the intoxicating siren sound of an unseen master. Gradually, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim lighting of the room, the form took shape of a seated man bent over a guitar. His eyes were tightly closed, as though in deep meditation and his head subtly bobbed and weaved to the emotional melodies that so fluidly poured forth. His behavior suggested that he did not just play the music, but that he also experienced it, lived in it fully and passionately.

His fingers were now gentle and quivering, then again swift and light and she knew that the music that so deeply stirred her did not come alone from the fingers and mind of the musician, but from the depths of his very soul. His roughly handsome face changed with each phrase; soaring, now weeping and then flights of ecstasy and beyond. Tears flowed easily from her as the melodies played about her heart and feelings. She felt nearly captive and helpless in the grip of this master musician.

As she watched his two hands orchestrate their dance around the instrument he held, it occurred to her that the device he so masterfully expressed himself upon bore strong resemblance to her own feminine shape. She blushed as a warmth surprisingly surged through her and she instinctively knew that such hands as could express themselves in this spirit-touching manner must also know their way around the body of such a woman as she--nay, even her very soul.

Now nearly breathless, she lifted her gaze from the interplay of man and instrument, the dance between fret and soundboard, mesmerized by the now open, dark and penetrating eyes that seemed to search her inner depths. The soft smile on his lips assured her that any fears were in vain and she began to willingly open her heart and mind to this heavenly symphony that she had nearly lost in her desire to hurry to nowhere important.

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 11:59am. |

Chapter 4

“Ink-pitcher!” cried the pen
“Writing stick!” retorted the inkstand.
And each of them felt satisfied that he had given a good answer.
(The Pen and the Inkstand, 1838)

“I need a favor, Libby.” Max Wheeler laid his age-spotted hand next to the pot of jasmine on her desk. It was lunch hour on Thursday afternoon, and the sound of children playing carried through the open windows, making Libby wish she were outside with them as usual. “It’s a big favor.

Libby looked up and noted that the twinkle in his eye belied his words of caution. “For you Max, anything.”

“Good. I want you to go into Captain Rogers’s classroom this afternoon to—”

“No.” She looked resolutely down at the catalogue that lay open before her. “I’m busy. We need new encyclopedias.” She circled a set—perhaps the only ones still being bound in this age of CDs and wide Internet access. Her company was on the cutting edge of cyber-technology, but Libby valued words on a page she could touch and turn with her fingers.

Max began again. “Captain Rogers has got to be one of the world’s worst teachers.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Libby said without inflection. “Fire him.”

“There’s nobody to replace him with and you know it.”

She knew, too, that Max liked the man. It was the only real lapse of good judgment she’d ever noted in him.

“He’s a nice enough guy,” Max continued as if reading her thoughts. “The kids like him. He’ll be okay once he knows what he’s doing. He just needs a little nudge in the right direction.”

“Ask Shenla to nudge him. I’ll take her class.”

Max shook his shaggy head. “It’s the second day of school, Lib. Shenla needs to hit her stride with her own kids.”

Libby turned another page and circled an atlas. “’Hit her stride?’ Shenla taught those children’s parents. She probably taught their grandparents!”

“Precisely,” Max said, trying another tack. “She’d overwhelm poor Captain Rogers with her experience.”

“Max,” Libby said firmly, “no.”

The old man shrugged his shoulders in defeat and turned toward the door. “Fine. Keep hiding behind your stacks of books. If pride is more important to you than—”

“Pride!” Libby exclaimed. “Surely you don’t think—” Words were lost in her indignation. “I am not hiding from Captain Rogers!”

Am I? She looked down at the catalogue but didn’t see it. Instead she saw herself hurrying across the playground in the mornings instead of playing her usual game of tetherball with the girls, and then saw herself eating lunch alone in the library instead of in the workroom with the rest of the faculty. Why?

Because I’m busy, of course, she told herself. She certainly wasn’t afraid to face David Rogers. She’d been called worse than a snow queen by a competitor—in the headlines of The Wall Street Journal, no less. She’d been called worse by the detectives she’d hounded to solve her parents’ murder. Even her ex-fiancé had called her worse—often, and in public. Why, then, had two little offhand words from a stranger cut so deeply? Only because she’d let them. And she’d let them because she feared they were true. What if she never could trust another man after Karl?

Above all else, Libby hated her insecurities to show. And they must show now or Max wouldn’t be here. He didn’t ask her to trust Captain Rogers, after all. He didn’t ask her to date him. He only asked her to help him with his class.

“I’ll help Captain Rogers with his class,” she said.

“That’s my girl! Could you go now? I think he’s having a little trouble teaching math.”

Libby saw from the open door to his classroom that Captain Rogers didn’t have any trouble that a little simplification and a fully-equipped riot squad couldn’t solve. He stood at the blackboard with his back to the class, apparently outlining the theory of relativity. While he scribbled equations and talked (to himself), the class hollered back and forth, wrote notes, and tossed spit wads.

Libby cleared her throat. Then she rapped on the door frame. Finally she raised two fingers to her lips and whistled like a riot cop. Twenty surprised faces turned toward her. The noise and notes and spit wads disappeared.

“Good afternoon,” she said as she walked into the now-quiet room. She gathered a stack of books from the shelf and carried them to the front as if her sudden appearance were part of the daily routine. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

David lowered the hand that held the chalk. “Uh, no,” he said. “They were finished with math a long time ago.”

She couldn’t help but notice that the embarrassment on his face was mixed with relief. She set the books atop his bare desk. Almost bare desk. Somebody had brought him a half-dozen crab apples from the tree at the edge of the school yard. Or, more likely, somebody had brought them to throw at his classmates and David had intercepted them one by one.

She turned to the class. “Mr. Wheeler suggested that since you’re sixth- graders now, it’s time you learn library science. We’ll begin with spelling.”

“Is that what ‘library science’ is, Miss James?” a boy called out.

“We raise our hands in class, Calvin,” Libby said. “And, yes, spelling is the root of library science. How can you look up a book if you can’t spell the words in the title?” She rewarded the few bobbing heads with a warm smile and the rest of the children nodded too. “Take out your workbooks please.”

A hand shot up. “We haven’t got any paper or pencils, Miss James.”

David soon realized that not knowing he had a cupboard full of supplies was only the first of his failings. He watched Libby issue materials with a proficiency that would put a naval commissary to shame, then took mental notes as she taught spelling. His confidence began to grow. Teaching wasn’t as hard as he’d thought. In fact, Libby made it look easy. By the time the lesson ended, he had mostly forgotten his failings, but when she mentioned history he gulped. With luck, none of the kids had listened to this morning’s lesson.

He wasn’t lucky. Libby wasn’t the only traitor in residence. Amen School was full of them.

“Captain Rogers said that history is ‘vastly overrated,’” a girl—David didn’t know who, but would when he started using Libby’s new seating chart—volunteered. “What did he mean, Miss James?”

“I meant—” David began.

“That it’s all in the way you approach it?” Libby asked.

David hesitated, unable to look away from her pretty, faintly accusing face.
“Okay,” he said at last.

“You’re studying American history this year,” Libby told the class as she turned away from their teacher. “It can be fun.” She considered, then opened the history book. “Perhaps you could study transportation—the way people have moved from place to place over the years.” She showed a picture of the Santa Maria. “You could learn about sailing ships first and later Conestoga wagons and steam engines and—yes, Calvin?”

The boy’s eyes were bright. “Can we learn about space shuttles?”

“Yes,” Libby said. “Finally you could learn about space shuttles.” She glanced at Captain Rogers. “And since you have your own expert here, you can study space in science, too. There’s a long section on astronomy in your books.”

“There is?” David asked.

“Yes. And you can check science fiction out from the library to read when you study English.”

David was as pleased as the kids. Issac Asimov beat Emily Dickinson by a moon shot. After he’d told them yesterday that her sonnets could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the lesson had gone quickly downhill. But now there was hope on the horizon. And if things ever got really out of hand again, there was always “library science” to fall back on.

When the final bell rang more than an hour later, David looked up at the clock in surprise. The morning had seemed to last six and a half days, but the afternoon had evaporated. He expected Libby to leave with more alacrity than the kids, and was surprised and pleased when she lingered in front of the cupboards. He walked over to thank her.

“Max sent me.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that her earlier sociability had gone home with the children. He watched her pull out a stapler, scissors, and a long roll of black paper. “I appreciate your help,” he said. “I’m not much of a teacher.”

“Then why are you here?”

He stepped back. “I, uh…NASA sent me.”

“Why you?”

After Monday’s fiasco, she probably would believe he’d been sent to charm her, even if he told her the truth, which of course he wouldn’t. “I’ve been grounded since my space walk,” he said, reciting the CIA script. “It was either Teach for America or man a desk for NASA. I chose the lesser of two evils.” He smiled ruefully. “Or I thought I had.”

He was ready with more of the almost-true explanation, but Libby didn’t ask for it. Instead, she stuck the paper under her arm without further comment and carried it across the room to the bare bulletin board. He watched her unroll and cut the paper and tried not to stare at her legs when she kicked off her sandals and climbed atop a desk to staple the paper into place. Despite the incredible view, his conscience got the best of him. “Why don’t you let me to that?”

She climbed down silently, handed him the stapler, and returned to the cupboard. A moment or two later, feeling his eyes on her back, she turned. “You can cover a bulletin board, can’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.” It wasn’t too difficult. The bulges were hardly noticeable when he finished.

In the meantime, Libby had produced a veritable milky way of yellow and white stars. “It’s a progress chart,” she said as she climbed back up on the desk to staple stars over the worst of the wrinkles in the paper.

“A what?”

She turned and leaned against the board. She was infinitely patient with dense children, he’d observed. She was undoubtedly kind to dumb animals. But thick-headed “astro-nots” were clearly in another category. “Surely you went to elementary school. You must remember something about sixth grade.”

“I remember a few things,” he shot back. “I remember that we stood at attention at the blackboard to do math and that we did thirty push-ups for every problem we got wrong.” He didn’t know why he was telling her this, but couldn’t seem to stop the stream of words. “And I remember every latrine I scrubbed for forgetting to end a phrase with ‘yes, sir,’ and every lap I ran in the snow for lousy penmanship. I went to military school,” he concluded, as if it might explain both his outburst and incompetence.

“I went to an upscale boarding school,” she replied.

David couldn’t define the look that came over Libby’s face with their shared confessions. He could only catch his breath at the beauty of it.

She lifted her shapely shoulders. “I think my school was a lot like yours except our uniforms were chic and we did declinations of Latin verbs for rule violation.”

“I’d rather clean latrines.”

Libby’s lips parted in what could only be a smile; then, as if remembering herself, she turned back to staple up another astral cutout. “Ad astra per aspera,” she said. “That’s Latin for ‘To the stars by hard means.’ It was our headmistress’s favorite expression.”

It was also, David thought, a fitting motto for his life; he’d have to remember it. As he handed Libby stars he wished he knew what to say to return them to that flash of near-intimacy. But the moment had passed, if indeed it had ever existed.

He listened as Libby explained the use of the progress chart as she worked on it. Then she instructed him on class discipline and suggested a lesson plan for the next several weeks.

The bulletin board at last complete, Libby began to climb down. David reached out automatically to help her and, when she drew back, felt as if he’d been slapped. “Excuse me,” he said. The tightness in his throat felt like rejection but it came out as sarcasm. “I’ve been reading your book of fairy tales. I must have forgotten for a moment that we swineherds aren’t supposed to soil the lily-white fingers of you snow queens.” He crossed his arms and took a step back. “Do you mind if I breathe in your presence?”

Libby pushed the desk she’d been standing on in line with the others, squarely between them, and right into his leg. “I don’t care what you do, Captain Rogers,” she said. “But I wish you’d go back to outer space to do it.”
Even while nursing the pain in his shin, David admired the way Libby’s silky hair brushed her shoulders as she spun on her heels. “Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?” he asked as she reached the door. “Are you afraid you’ll melt when I do touch you?”

The gust of air she created by slamming the door behind her blew the carefully stacked spelling papers to the floor, but didn’t dispel the scent of vanilla and wildflowers she’d left behind. It was as unmistakable to his senses as the clear, perfect penmanship she’d left on his chalkboard.

As he moved to pick up the papers, David caught a glimpse through the window of Libby stalking back toward her library. He paused to watch the woman he’d been sent to spy on and berated himself for letting his mouth again take over for his brain. He was supposed to be gaining her trust, not her loathing. What was his problem? Could it be the woman herself? Who was this woman that could beguile children, create order from chaos, and disconcert him more than he liked to admit?

“A traitor,” he told himself. “That’s what she is, Rogers, and you’d better not forget it.”

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 11:06am. |

Chapter 3

It is difficult to keep the thoughts together in everything; one little mistake upsets all our arrangements.
(The Snow Queen, Story the Third: The Flower Garden of the Woman Who Could Conjure, 1845)

Okay, so he shouldn’t have given a zero-star review to the diner, David thought as he stared down at the plate of charcoal toast and runny eggs that had been tossed on his table with a look that could have curdled the goat milk. And he really shouldn’t have called Libby James anything but blessed yesterday—at least not in this town.

He pushed the plate away and looked out the window to avoid meeting the glassy-eyed gaze of a buffalo head that frowned down from its mountings above his booth. Across the street was the town square. David was surprised to note that Libby’s statue had not yet been erected there. Possibly it was just off its stand being polished somewhere else.

In the meantime, there was a veritable chorus of townspeople to sing her praises. Max Wheeler, for one. The principal hadn’t sent him packing after yesterday’s snow queen incident, but David knew that he’d considered it. And it might have been easier to pack up and tell his chief at the agency that he’d botched the assignment than it was to apologize to his unhappy new boss and then define “cad” for his baffled new colleague.

Shenla Naylor, another card-carrying member of the Libby James fan club, hadn’t heard his remark, so he still got dinner at her house with extra helpings of Libby testimonials. Did he know, Shenla had asked, that Libby made the sauce in those applesauce cookies herself and grew the nuts and ground the spices? (He didn’t.) And did he know that she was simply the sweetest person ever born on the face of the planet? (Then why was she turning her countrymen’s safety over to terrorists?)

David set his palm computer where his plate used to be, then looked around to make sure that none of the men seated at the counter slurping coffee had turned his way. Finally, assured that the only creatures looking on with any interest were the ones mounted on the walls with the buffalo, he pressed a couple of buttons to call up the latest communication from the Phoenix office.

There was nothing new to look at. Elisabeth James was as slick as the Teflon panels that lined the space shuttle—nothing would stick to her. Or else, said a voice in his head, there is nothing to stick.

Try as he might after meeting her yesterday, David had had a hard time fixing Libby James on any kind of “wanted” list but the most personal variety. Rather than listing her with murderers, thieves, and international spies, David was more likely to jot her name in his little black book. Not that she’d be there long. David’s address book was famous in certain circles in Houston because all the names in it were written in pencil. Those that hadn’t been erased had mostly faded away over time. It wasn’t that David didn’t like to have women around. It was that he didn’t like to have them around very close or for very long.

In that way he thought he was like his grandfather, Admiral Benton Rogers, the man who had cared for him when his father was killed and his mother abandoned him. Perhaps “cared for” wasn’t the word to describe the relationship David had with his grandfather. He was not so much cared for as he was molded, and by the time he was eight years old he was packed off to Farragut—a Naval military school that boasted three astronaut alumni before him—for the first phase of his grandfather’s idea of his destiny.

At the thought of Libby, David stuck his palm computer in one pocket of his knapsack and removed his scriptures from another. If he’d learned nothing else in the last couple of years, he’d discovered that daily scripture reading kept him centered. That’s what he needed now. He had to keep his thoughts together and his mind on the job ahead. He couldn’t let his feelings for this woman—if he had any—upset any of the careful preparations. He’d been sent to this desert island of a town on a mission and the faster he accomplished it the faster he could hail a rescue ship and get back to civilization. Amen gave him the willies. It was darker at night than outer space and the din of crickets in the trees and frogs on the river banks kept him up nights missing the sounds of sirens and jet planes he was used to.

David opened to where he’d left off reading the night before, Section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was only a few verses—all he had time for if he wanted to be on time for his second day of school. At first, the Lord seemed to be speaking exclusively to Joseph and Oliver, but in verse 14, David experienced the vague shiver that he’d come to recognize as the Spirit, so he read the verse again and then a third time:

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

David looked up, but it was clear that the little voice that said “Amen” was in his head. He looked back at the page. The first part was unquestionably true. At the time in his life when he had most needed God—needed a Father with both compassion and power—he had inquired with desperation and the Lord had responded with devotion. It had happened again under less desperate circumstances, then with increasing frequency, and had culminated in his return to the church of his infancy. He’d been baptized just over a year ago and had recently been ordained, and then endowed in the Houston Temple.

Despite his recognition of the truth in the first lines of scripture, the words that commanded his attention now were the last: If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

Amen? It was a question, not a benediction, but it was something to think about.

To think about later, that is, after he’d survived another day of the public education of Attila’s latter-day Huns. David returned his scriptures to his knapsack and dug a dollar for a tip from his wallet. Then he reconsidered and pulled out a five instead. He’d gone back to The Garden of Eatin’ this morning when he realized that if he wanted to get anywhere on this assignment he’d better start rebuilding his bridges mighty fast. He hasitily spooned most of the raw egg into his mouth and slipped the burnt toast into his knapsack. Then he picked up the check and headed toward the register.

“I hear tell you’ve been to the moon.”

David paused at the quasi-greeting from one of the grizzled old men then smiled at another. The latter was his landlord, and from what David had gathered thus far, the geezer would gladly tell his cronies more about his renter’s career than he actually knew. “Well, let’s say I’ve been in the neighborhood.”

“Then you ain’t walked on the moon?”

“No,” David said. “I’ve—”

The man pounded his fist on his knee as he turned to Homer. “You owe me five bucks! Right out of the mouth of the astro-not himself. Nobody’s been there. The moon landin’ was faked, I tell you!”

“Huh?” David looked at the steaming mug in the man’s hand and wondered if there was a correlation between the consumption of bad coffee and the sudden death of brain cells. More likely there was lead in their water. That might account for so many crazies in one place. “Why would NASA fake a moon landing?” he said at last.

“That’s what I wanna know!” the man exclaimed. “You go call your buddies at Star Command and ask ‘em that, will you?”

“Uh, sure,” David said, backing away. He would drink bottled water from here on out. “First chance I get.” Shaking his head, he approached the cash register with his eyes on the snarling lynx that hung above it since the woman who stood behind the machine looked less welcoming.

“That was a great breakfast,” he told LaDonna and patted his tight, empty stomach to prove his point.

The chief cook, bottle-washer, and keeper of the menagerie was obviously torn. On the one hand, he had publicly insulted her cooking. On the other hand, she had a very unmarried daughter, and Captain Rogers was the most eligible bachelor this town would ever see. The sound with which she took his money, then, was something between a growl and a purr.

David had gained ground by facing the tiger straight-on and he knew it. “I’ll be back tonight,” he said. “I hope you’re serving that Magic Meatloaf I’ve heard so much about.” Not.

“LaRae makes it,” LaDonna said. “LaRae’s my daughter.” She gave David a shiny new quarter in change and a free peppermint before adding coyly, “I’ll wager that after one bite of that meatloaf you’ll be forced to admit that she’s an even better cook than her mother.”

Couldn’t be worse.

“And her talents!” LaDonna exclaimed as she raised a dimpled hand to encompass the dead animals or the cosmos, David wasn’t sure which. “Can you believe she did all this herself?”

“Shot them? Stuffed them? Hung them” David didn’t know if he was incredulous or nonplussed.

“Yes!”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” David lied. “I’ll come early.” The truth was that he couldn’t wait to leave. In his eagerness to get past the mightily antlered elk head that was The Garden of Eatin’s coat rack, he pushed open the glass door without first looking out it and winced when hit somebody on the sidewalk outside.

“Gosh, I’m sorry!” David dropped his knapsack and reached down to assist the middle-aged woman who’d lost her balance and fallen back into a sitting position. Her long, cotton skirts were akimbo and her wild, curly hair fell over her face.

She moved away from David’s hand as if he had raised it to strike her, and her mouth opened in a silent scream.

“You’re hurt?” David asked, unable to account in any other way for the contortion of her features.

“No.” But her face was a mask of shock and disbelief. “No, no, no!” She scuttled away from him like a frightened crab.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated helplessly. “Let me help you. I—”

She was on her feet before he could reach again for her hand. She cast him another long, searching look before she spun away and ran as if for her life.

“I’m sorry!” he called after her. When he finally turned toward school, he almost bowled over a student. Fortunately the kid was a little quicker to get out of the way.

Calvin used a grubby finger to orbit his ear. “She’s crazy, you know.” He popped up his skateboard with the toe of his sneaker and caught it expertly. “She was standing there staring in the window. She coulda moved when she saw you coming out.” He raised the finger to his ear again. “Crazy.”

David looked from the boy through the plate glass window at the restaurant/taxidermist museum and its lunar-landing skeptic of a patron. “How could you ever tell around here?” Then he looked down at his student and gathered his thoughts. “I mean, why do you say that, uh, Calvin?”

The kid beamed to hear his name—the right one this time. “Well, first off, she’s afraid of kids.”

That wasn’t crazy. He’d spent only one day with a roomful of them and he was pretty cautious now himself.

“She came to town a long time ago,” Calvin continued, “but she doesn’t have no friends and she doesn’t talk to nobody.” His face was sober. “She don’t have a job or a family or nothing. And she comes to church on Sunday but she sits all the way in the back and . . . “

David could tell that Calvin had paused for special effect. This would be the bombshell. “And?” he prompted.

“And she don’t ever take the sacrament!”

That was the bombshell? “Maybe she’s allergic to wheat,” he ventured.

“And water?”

“And water,” David agreed to end the conversation. Besides, he suspected Amen’s water himself. “We better get to school, don’t you think?”

As he walked toward Amen School with Calvin talking a mile a minute at his side, David’s thoughts drifted back toward Libby. No matter who the mysterious wild woman was, her secrets couldn’t be any deeper than Elisabeth Jamison’s. Either these naïve townspeople who thought they knew Libby so well were in for a big surprise or the Central Intelligence Agency was.

It would be interesting, he thought, to see which it would turn out to be.

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 10:57am. |

Chapter 2

The word ALONE she understood very well, and knew how much it expressed.
(The Snow Queen, Story the Fourth: The Prince & The Princess, 1845)

Libby slid into the chair farthest away from David Rogers and wished it were farther. They’d spoken fewer than two dozen words to each other and already she knew all about him. He was self-absorbed, cocky . . . and deluded if he thought she was going to give him the time of day, let alone a date. It was men like him—or at least a man like him—that she’d fled LA to avoid. She instead focused her attention on one of the few men she admired: patrician principal Max Wheeler.

Perhaps if he’d been forty years younger… she mused. Of course, forty years ago Max was already married. The good ones always are.

Why was it that since she’d turned twenty-six, worthy single men seemed harder to find than iced tea at a ward social? Most of the “eligible” men Libby knew were either divorced and looking for another chance to make an “eternal marriage” last longer than their car payments, or egocentric flirts like David Rogers who couldn’t spell “commitment” to look it up in a dictionary. Libby had been engaged to a cretin in the not-too-distant past, and wouldn’t make that painful mistake again ever.

Ever, ever, she told herself as she caught a glimpse of David’s strong, male profile from the corner of her eye. Despite herself, her chin gravitated after her eyes. And why is it that You give men like him the huge spaniel eyes and thick, curly brown hair? She still awaited God’s explanation when David turned toward her. Libby looked quickly away, then propped an elbow on the table so she could lean her chin on her palm and cup her long fingers into a blinder for her traitorous eyes. Ever!

Hoping to overcome a painful past, Libby had come to Amen to cultivate a life of books, gardens, and solitude. It was true that in another life she was Elisabeth Jamison, CEO of Jamison Enterprises, but as soon as she completed the corporate sell out that was in the works she could retire to obscurity as Libby James. She’d worked for a life of her own choosing and planned now to cherish it. Alone. Words mean different things to different people. To Libby “alone” meant “sans a man” and that in turn meant “safe.”

Max cleared his throat in preparation for yet another year at the helm of his slowing sinking ship of knowledge. Libby pushed aside her thoughts of Captain Rogers and smiled up at the principal in encouragement. Max was six semesters past the age when he’d hoped to retire to the serenity of a fishing boat on the Hassyampa River. But with nobody to replace him, he stayed in the traces instead of a trawler. That, among other things, made Max Wheeler one of the Greats in Libby’s book of unsung heroes.

There were 117 children enrolled in Amen Elementary School this year, Max reported, down ten from last year and sixteen from the year before. Two new teachers had replaced the ones who had fled back to the city after the previous term. Omar had married the local veterinarian and David had come courtesy of a Teach America! Grant to impoverished areas. Omar stood and bowed after the introduction while David made a gesture that approximated a wave.

“Isn’t he so scrumptious you could eat him right up?” LaVerne Payton asked in a stage whisper that couldn’t possibly have carried farther than Sacramento. Her penciled-on brows reached almost to the bangs of her freshly hennaed hair as she grinned at Libby.

Libby sighed. With so little happening in Amen about which to gossip, LaVerne considered it her civic duty to generate intrigue as best she could. She’d concoct a lurid affair between Libby and Captain Rogers and have it spread around town before dusk unless Libby responded correctly. “He’s very handsome,” she said. “Too bad Dr. Jen saw him first.”

“Not the Egyptian, Libby!” LaVerne cried. “The astronaut!” She thrust her chin forward rather like a gila monster about to take hold of prey in its powerful jaws.

Libby knew that, like the lizard, once LaVerne latched onto something, she might worry it to death but she’d never let it escape. Never let her escape in this case. She cast David a scalding look. This was his fault. If only he weren’t single. If only he weren’t gorgeous. If only he weren’t here!

And what was he doing here, anyway? This was her town. Her ancestors had settled it. Their son had discovered the rich ore deposits and improvised a way to mine copper. This man, her great-great-great-grandfather, had built the Amen Mine, and while building it amassed the tidy nest-egg that his son invested in the railroad, which his son rolled over into early aeronautics on the West Coast, and that his son parlayed into a fortune in defense contracts in the World Wars. It was his son, Libby’s grandfather, who had quadrupled the already considerable wealth manufacturing microchips in California’s Silicon Valley.

Elisabeth and her older sister, Geneva, had been born in California almost a century after the first of their ancestors left Amen. A quarter century later they returned—like generations of Jamisons before—to bury their dead in the family cemetery outside of town. They had come veiled in black to avoid prying media cameras that followed them everywhere after their parents’ brutal murder. Geneva Jamison had taken one look at Amen from beneath the layers of netting and vowed never to go back. Elisabeth Jamison had taken a longer look and vowed never to leave.

No one had seen Libby’s face then, so nobody recognized it a few weeks later when she returned. Nobody but her bishop—and her eccentric next door neighbor—knew that Libby James was Elisabeth Jamison. Max Wheeler was too intelligent and too intuitive to believe the fables Libby spun in his principal’s office when first seeking a position at the school. Finally, relieved to know that Max would be her bishop as well as her boss, Libby sobbed out the true story about her parents’ death and her recently broken engagement. Max had hired her on the spot or, more accurately, he had granted her sanctuary in an anonymous, idyllic world of books and children. Each time she returned from a business trip to LA, she felt as though she had been cast back into the garden from someplace east of Eden.

If only the garden had remained serpent-free. Glancing at David, she figured she’d have to say something else to placate LaVerne, but she was wrong. Shenla Naylor swept Libby out of the spotlight and claimed center stage before the younger woman could blink.

“Libby’s not the only single gal in town,” Shenla said with an exaggerated tug on her wig of platinum curls. She’d left town in the early 50’s for the flickering lights of the silver screen, but returned to teach at Amen School a scant year later after two B sci-fi movie walk-ons and a short-lived string of car commercials. Though she had failed by Hollywood standards, in the limited firmament of Amen, she was the brightest star. “I think he’s real cute,” she said, the wrinkles on her Max-Factored face overlapping as she smiled. “Would you care to join me for dinner tonight, Captain?”

“Yes, thanks,” he said without hesitation. “I don’t think I’d survive another so-called meal at the Road Kill Café.”

In spite of herself, Libby winced. She hated to see anybody suffer and Captain Rogers surely would. LaVerne would quote him to her sister LaDonna, The Garden of Eatin’s owner and cook. LaDonna, in turn, would hold a grudge against him until the morning of the first resurrection. Possibly longer.

“Then we have a date,” Shenla said with a wink at Libby.

Max soon adjourned the meeting to Libby’s desk where she removed the lid from a tin of homemade applesauce cookies.

“Her cookies are getting more attention than the principal did,” she heard David observe to Omar with a sidelong glance her direction.

“Perhaps her cookies are more deserving.”

David took a bite. “You’re right. This is the best cookie I’ve ever had.”

Libby ignored his praise. She turned her back on him and stared at a row of perfectly aligned books. Dewey be darned; she began to pull books off the shelf and put them back on again just to pass the time until David Rogers left her library.

“I may speak with you?” Omar asked a few minutes later.

Libby turned to see that the cookie tin was empty and the room almost so. But not empty enough. David was still there, talking to Max but following her with those chocolate-colored eyes of his. She looked down at her feet, then forced her own eyes to make the interminable climb back to his face. This was ridiculous. She was the head of Jamison Enterprises, for goodness sakes. A mere glance from her in a boardroom could make a grown man blush and look away.

David Rogers didn’t look away, nor did she think that she would ever see him blush. Most disconcerting was an odd something in his eyes that hinted that, while he clearly admired her, he didn’t like her.

Why not? she wondered, then in the next moment amended it to So what? She couldn’t describe the lurch in her senses when he looked at her—or the sudden craving for fudge sauce—but it couldn’t be attraction she felt. If she made a list of things she didn’t want in her life right now she’d write “alpha male” on it six or eight times. In red ink.

“Of course,” she said, turning back to Omar.

“I have lived only here in Arizona in the US,” Omar told her, “but I would like to know about other places in your country. You, Miss Libby, were born in the northlands?”

“Um, no,” Libby said, trying to pull her mind into their conversation and ignore the fact that David was listening in. “I grew up in Southern California.”

“There it is very cold?”

“No.” She pushed an errant strand of hair back behind her ear. “It’s warm year-round.”

“It was your college education, then, that like myself, took you away from your land of birth?”

“No, again. I went to Stanford.” Libby considered the poor man’s puzzled expression helplessly. “Omar, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”

“Neither do I understand,” Omar said. “Captain Rogers told me that you, Miss Libby, are a snow queen. I ask your background only in my wonderment at how you obtained this prestigious title.”

Suddenly Libby had no trouble meeting David’s eye and knew at once that she had been wrong. The right look under the right circumstances could make him squirm. She turned back to their colleague. “Captain Rogers was using an English figure of speech known as a metaphor. I’m sure he’d be happy to explain it to you.”

Omar looked past her toward David, but Libby didn’t need an explanation herself. She’d been right about him from the first moment they’d met. What was it about her that could attract a cretin—all the way from outer space?

As she brushed past him on her way to the door he said, “I meant—”

“I know what you meant, Captain,” she said. She’d show him “snow queen.” She’d show him “snow queen, ice princess and arctic empress” besides. “You made it perfectly clear to me. It’s Omar you confused.”

Libby looked around for Max Wheeler and saw him by her desk. “Lock up for me, will you please, Max? I just remembered I left some Eskimo Pies in the oven.”

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