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THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS. “RELATIVE STRANGERS,” BY MARGARET HERMES AND “MOMMY WRITING: MOMMY, DO YOU WANT A SANDWICH,” BY SUZANNE McMILLEN-FALLON, CAN BE VIEWED BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST.

Judith Raskin 2THE BOOK: Close.

PUBLISHED IN: 2014

THE AUTHOR: Erika Raskin.

CloseTHE PUBLISHER: Harvard Square Editions, an indie publishing house run by Harvard alumni, is dedicated to bringing out provocative literary fiction.

SUMMARY: Close is a novel of family and suspense. Wry single-mom Kik Marcheson is dancing as hard as she can — teaching at the university, struggling with the family’s finances (which may soon include having to return the long-gone advance for her unfinished second novel), and coping with her increasingly challenging daughters.

Doone, the oldest, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence; Casey, the middle child-slash-good girl, is slowly coming undone and little Tess, the quirky kindergartner, has somewhat alarmingly introduced an invisible playmate into the family constellation.

When Doone’s activities can no longer be ignored, a TV therapist offers a hand. Caving to Casey, Kik sets aside serious misgivings and agrees to let the family participate.

And then things go from bad to terrifying.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Despite their issues the Marchesons are engaging and sympathetic. When catastrophe strikes, their narrative becomes one of pounding tension. (A personal aside: During a huge, crazy Raskin-Family vacation I was sitting next to one of my niece’s friends who was reading the novel. When her arm shot out and knocked the air out of me I knew exactly what page she was on.)

THE BACK STORY: Close is the love-child of two of my passions: writing and watching TV. A few years ago I started (guiltily) rubbernecking at therapy shows – trying to understand how seemingly nice people ended up baring their deepest secrets to the whole country. Then I began to wonder how the experience itself would alter their trajectories. Close was born.

By providing a shifting point of view between teens and their mom, the novel appeals to young adults on up. Judith Viorst called Close “a cross-over book like The Fault In Our Stars.”

WHY THIS TITLE? It’s a play on different meanings of the word.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: I penned Close because I found myself worrying that people were being exploited during moments of despair — for ratings. One of the questions the book asks is whether family therapy should be a spectator sport.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Both of my parents were authors and though I took the long way around the block I eventually joined the family business, writing both fiction and real life. I’ve been married to my college crush for thirty-five years. We have three (adult) kids and a grandboy.

I’m finishing a book of linked short stories and I edit the fiction section for the arts quarterly, Streetlight Magazine. My second novel is coming out in 2017 with St. Martin’s Press.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

“Raskin easily balances humor and drama in this novel about parenting, reality TV and family…A welcoming and nuanced novel…”

5 Stars, Foreword Reviews

“…a poignant and edgy story of a divorced-family dynamic through complex characters and the real life struggles of parenting and adolescence.”

5 Stars, LitPick

“This book is all about relationships between people and knowing when to forgive and when to let go. It focuses on the theme of trust and what happens when that fragile trust is broken. CLOSE by Erika Raskin is a great read for any teenager…”

Teenreads

SAMPLE CHAPTER: http://www.amazon.com/Close-Erika-Raskin/dp/0989596036 – reader_B00NRU12MA

Copyright © 2014 by Erika Raskin

Chapter One

Sometimes the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror. Kik was lying in bed listening to the roar, waiting for her sixteen-year-old daughter to sneak in.

Again.

The strange maternal emotion of heartache-slash-outrage wasn’t helping anything either.

Doone knows Thursday is my worst day at work!

Kik was looking at grueling back-to-back sections of Creative Writing. In the best of circumstances, teaching the class of fragile-shelled freshmen took lots of careful tiptoeing. Doing it on no sleep was going to be a crapshoot. There could be casualties all over the place.

A sudden scream pierced the quiet.

“Mother! Help me!” Tess wailed. “Hurry, hurry!”

Kik leapt up and ran into the hallway, heart charging her ribs. She almost plowed into fourteen-year-old Casey, who was also racing towards the kindergartner’s room.

“What is it?” Kik panted, as she groped for the light. “What’s wrong, Tess?”

“Someone is trying to get in the window!”

“Oh, honey, no, no!” Kik soothed, scooping the child into her arms. “It was only a bad dream. We’re all the way up on the second floor! No one can reach up here!”

 

Right then there was an angry rap on the glass and the three of them jumped.

“See!” Tess cried, two parts misery, one part triumph.

“It’s a branch, sweetie. It’s really windy out.”

“Well, I do not like it!” the five-year-old announced, pink-flannelled chest still heaving. “I would prefer if you could make the tree stop. Please and thank you.”

Kik and Casey exchanged a bemused look over the little one’s head. Tess’s odd diction, including a staunch refusal to use contractions, cracked them up. With the exception of Doone, everyone found it endearing.

“Perhaps Sister might have a cozy in here?” Tess asked, already scooting towards the wall. “It will help me to understand that it was only the tree knocking. Not a very scary man like I was worrying.”

Kik shuddered.

“I’ll stay in here if you let me brush your hair tomorrow, Tessa-messa,” Casey negotiated.

“We should discuss that in the morning,” Tess demurred. “I am awfully tired.”

“And on that note,” their mother smiled, bending to kiss them. “Good night, my lovelies.”

Kik’s daughters were variations on the same doe-eyed, olive-skinned theme. But Tess had insane corkscrews that bounced from her head and Casey’s mane fell straight down her shoulders like a satin scarf. While Doone was clearly related she’d modified her appearance with piercings and a chop-cut dyed a flat, mother-torturing black.

Kik returned to her room and glanced at her own reflection in the mirror. Her resemblance to the girls was evident.

In this light, the forty-three-year-old thought glumly.

She pushed Bean, the aging black Lab, over to his side of the mattress and got back under the quilt next to him. In the process, she accidentally allowed her gaze to settle on the family portrait Doone had done.

Back when she still sort of liked me.

The oil was a dead-on rendition of the four of them stretched across Kik’s bed, hanging onto Bean like a pool raft. The painting’s boundless artistic promise could induce hope or despair depending on how Doone was doing.

Kik quickly looked away, went back to waiting. Her frustration was intensified by the nowhere-to-be-found cordless phone, which emitted another strangled, too-brief warning from its undisclosed location. Missing for nearly a week, the battery was about to die altogether.

And then the stupid thing will be gone forever!

The concept of lost drove her crazy. Kik was pretty sure she could remember every item she’d misplaced since elementary school.

She checked the clock again and actually groaned. Not only was her first class looming, so was the compulsory dinner party at the new chairman’s house, an event Kik had been dreading since the invitation popped up in her inbox like a suspicious skin mole.

She suddenly remembered she’d forgotten to ask Casey to babysit and felt a rush of guilt.

I wish I didn’t have to rely on her so much. But who knows what would happen if I left Doone in charge?

The tears that had been threatening since her eldest’s missed curfew suddenly spilled.

Why is everything so difficult now?

When Casey and Doone were small, the Marchesons’ light and art-filled house vibrated with kids and classic rock and craft projects spread for days at a time over the dining room table. Kik threw elaborately themed slumber parties for the girls, baked bread and made pizza from scratch. She sewed matching doll dresses and nightgowns. Doone’s

storms blew over quickly. Life was messy and loud and full of laughter. Kik wrote and wrote. And though it didn’t sell a lot of copies, her novel got good reviews. Which led to the great teaching gig. Everyone seemed happy then.

Even Owen.

The past was crammed with haphazard snapshots that Kik was sure could be separated into two albums: When My Husband Loved Me and After He Stopped. The first picture in the second volume would be the celebratory dinner she’d made in honor of Owen becoming the youngest full professor in the Biology Department. He’d come home from work that night and steadfastly plucked offending ingredients from a dish that she’d spent hours on.

“You eat raisins in restaurants, Owen!” Kik had complained, hurt. “You like curry!”

“Please don’t tell me what I like,” he’d said, continuing to Balkanize his plate. “I guarantee you have no idea.”

From that night on his voice downshifted into the somnolent whisper of the Permanently Disappointed. Kik responded by dancing as hard as she could. She struggled to keep the house cleaner and the girls quieter when he was home. She stopped sleeping in sweatpants. She bought him the high-end road bike he’d bookmarked on the computer.

But her husband remained detached.

The solution came to her a few weeks later when she peeked into a stroller at the park and saw the balletic movements of a newborn. The sweet dance of the infant triggered contraction-strength longing and Kik had been shocked by the clarity of the answer. That very night after the two girls went to sleep, she propositioned her husband.

“Owen, let’s have a dessert baby! Remember how much fun it was when Casey and Doone were teeny? How happy we were?”

(How much you loved me in their glow?)

“What do you think?” she’d pressed. “Wouldn’t it be great?”

“No.”

“No it wouldn’t be great or no we can’t?”

“Both. Either.”

“Can we at least talk about it?” He just shook his head, went into the kitchen. Kik followed. “Owen, please. Let’s talk about it.”

“There’s nothing to discuss. I said no.”

In a culmination of unnamed fears and frustration, she picked up a dirty plate and pitched it towards the sink. A mound of spaghetti landed on the floor. When Bean ran in to lap it up, Owen tripped over him.

“Yeah,” he hissed, limping back to the bedroom. “It’d be a great idea to bring another baby into this.”

Her breath caught. “What’s this?” she repeated, trailing him. “What do you mean?”

Owen dropped onto the edge of the bed. His eyes looked feverish.

“Kik,” he whispered. Then he put his hand out. All of their worst news had been shared with their fingers laced. Owen’s brother’s death. Her father’s.

Heart pounding, she refused the touch.

“Kik, we need to talk.”

She shook her head.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Kik froze. Her throat felt tight. An unfamiliar voice finally came out. “You didn’t mean for what to happen?”

“I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”

She could hear her pulse beating in her ears but was unable to get her mouth to work.

“Say it again,” she eventually whispered.

He did.

“Who is it?”

“Her name’s Vivy. Vivy Karr.”

“The one who wrote that article about your funding? Last year?”

The duration of the deception added to the injury. In a fleeting, piercing moment Kik imagined the unfolding of the whole relationship. She envisioned all of it. The first time Vivy went to Owen’s lab to interview him about his big oxygen transport grant. The instant mutual attraction. The phone call for unnecessary follow-up questions and the easy decision to just finish the interview over a coffee. A long coffee. Leading to chatty emails and teasing texts. And then lunch. And then more lunches that could be written off as innocent since they took place in public settings. But private topics would have already been broached. Tentatively at first, eventually breached with abandon. The first time he put his hand on the small of her back. And then the inevitable admission of feelings and desire.

Kik began to sob so intensely she couldn’t breathe. Owen tried to quell the volcanic spasms with a tight hug.

“You’ll be okay, Kik. You will.”

“But I love you, Owen! I love us,” she begged into his chest. “What can I do?”

“Shhh,” he whispered, holding soundly. He stroked the back of her neck and the unexpected tenderness became a kiss. And then a forlorn passion overtook them both.

Afterwards, Owen began shoving things into a suitcase. He was frantic. Shirts unfolded between drawer and bag. Sock balls rolled under the bed.

“Is the embassy falling?” Kik asked, stunned by the frenzy to escape. “The rescue helicopter leaving?”

“What?”

“Are you afraid I’m going to keep you captive? Or are you feeling guilty for cheating on your girlfriend?”

He didn’t respond and she went to splash cold water on her face. She felt drugged. The medicine cabinet was open, the blue case holding her diaphragm at eye level. She gasped. Owen came in and saw what she saw. His scientific brain did a quick calculation.

“Where’s the spermicide?” He grabbed the tube and applicator from the cupboard and thrust them at her. “Here! Put some in!” Panic caused his voice to rise and crack. “Call your doctor! I’ll run into town and get the emergency contraception. I can’t believe this! It’s the exact wrong time of the month for you to have unprotected sex.”

His desperation woke up her fury. “You know what, Owen? I’m done trying to please you. It’s my body. And you can just get out. Now.”

Disgust chased shock across his face.

It wasn’t an end-run to trap him. It was just an attempt to control a little piece of her careening world. But Owen’s ovulatory prediction was accurate, of course. Their third daughter was the product of his exit interview. Basically, Tess was conceived while her father finished packing.

 

Kik declined Owen’s weak offer to reprise his role as labor coach. It was Kik’s sister, Maddie, who eventually accompanied her to the hospital. And it was Maddie who asked the hospital chaplain to speak with Kik when she cried for two straight days following her C-section.

The newly-single working mother-of-three eventually reached equilibrium. What most hastened her journey back was the discovery that Vivy left town shortly after Tess was born. The departure of the Other Woman provided a liberation of sorts. Kik still got to hate her. But at a safe, non all-consuming distance. (Which isn’t to say she didn’t regularly search the web for the reporter’s byline in order to chart her geographic and professional shifts.)

For a long time, Kik engaged in full-length reconciliation fantasies starring herself and an earlier, more relaxed Owen. And even though there was a conveyor belt of middle-aged women who appeared one after the other to wave from the car when the girls were being transported by their dad for weekend visitations, Kik’s imaginings always ended with her magnanimously agreeing to let him come home.

Then last year she saw another one of Vivy Karr’s bylines. In the Charlottesville paper. The Mistress was back in town. Owen reconciled all right.

With the woman who broke up our marriage!

Kik was looking at the clock again when the back door finally creaked open and Bean, who’d slept through the earlier crisis involving the knocking tree, suddenly jumped from a dead sleep to the floor. He never barked at Doone’s stealth entrances because the pragmatic vegan carried sandwich meat in her backpack to keep him quiet.

Kik listened to the dog’s nails make a happy clicking sound all the way to the kitchen below.

I should go down, too; have it out!

But her last conscious thought before slipping sideways into sleep was that of surrender.

I am lost. And, as Tess would say, getting loster.

The fading cries of the wayward phone entered Kik’s dreams, a child gone astray calling for its mother. She awoke a few hours later, fractured and exhausted, to the radio announcer excitedly calling for afternoon snow.

Perfect.

The mere prediction of precipitation could wreak havoc, triggering a full-on child-care scramble. Kik was sure her sanctimonious new boss would be monitoring everyone to see which members of the faculty had things under control — and which poor planners had to cancel classes and scurry home.

Why can’t Owen just pick Tess up if school gets out early? He’s tenured — I’m tenuous!

But her ex wouldn’t offer to leave his lab and Kik wouldn’t ask. She knew the rules. Owen’s graying ponytail of false advertisement disguised the rigidity that had come to characterize him. He took the girls on the agreed upon days.

Well, Casey and Tess, anyway, Kik thought. Doone refuses more often than not.

Kik steeled herself for the morning dance with her eldest. The last parenting manual she surreptitiously read, hunched over by the bathrooms at Barnes and Noble, recommended children deal with the results of their own behavior. Which made sense in theory only. Because the

eventual outcome of Doone not getting up would be Doone flunking out. Which seemed pretty extreme.

“Rise and shine,” Kik said, knocking first on Tess’s door.

“We’re downstairs,” Casey called from the kitchen below.

“We’re downstairs!” Doone mimicked snottily from across the hall.

Kik’s shoulders crowded her ears in nervous anticipation of the impending struggle. She took a deep breath.

“Please get ready, Doonie. Dress warmly, though! It’s supposed to be really cold.”

“Thank you, Weather Channel chick.”

A myriad of responses flashed. Many included storming the room and snatching the teen out of bed by her hair. Before she became a parent, Kik never would have guessed that boundless love plus fathomless worry added up to deeply pissed.

Doone’s behavior had nose-dived after the divorce. Not that she had ever been easy. Her school struggles began before she even lost her first tooth. Mysterious challenges that defied labels — and therefore treatment.

“Unspecified learning disability,” according to the ridiculously expensive school-recommended psychologist. “Low tolerance for frustration.”

Very helpful.

Kik received countless calls ‘inviting’ her to come in and meet with the pre-school team. The teachers were concerned about Doone’s tantrums when paper would rip instead of cut. Or when regular milk was provided instead

of chocolate. But what most troubled them was her flitting from one learning station to the next, never alighting anywhere for very long.

Not me, Kik had wanted to say. Give me a short attention span over hysterics any day.

She went to dress, choosing a blue sweater and gray pants with an elastic waistband. Comfort clothes that didn’t cut into her softening midsection or self-esteem. Then she brushed concealer on the bags under her eyes and wondered why puffiness didn’t smooth out laugh lines. Kik didn’t really mind those, though. She thought they made her look kind.

The two younger girls were down in the kitchen, Tess mid-monologue.

“And not only that! I shall also be asking Santa for jewelry. Pierced earrings. And a locket. But he knows that because I asked last year. He just forgot. And some more movies from before my time. Black and white ones, too. And perhaps a hamster. Did you know soon it will be my turn to bring Pinky home on the weekend? We used to have two hamsters at my school but one of them dieded.”

“I think I heard about that,” Casey responded.

“That is the problem with hamsters, you know. They die.”

Kik smiled as her middle daughter changed the dicey subject. “You look pretty, Mom.”

“Not haggard and peri-menopausal?”

“Ew,” Casey laughed.

“Oh, Mother!” Tess said, eyes wide. “I forgot to tell you that I discovered the phone. It was in my doll bed all along!

Underneath all sorts of items. I think, perhaps, Harperly put it there. She can be quite naughty at times.”

“I’ve noticed.”

Harperly was Tess’s imaginary friend who had recently taken up residence. Kik played along but found something slightly off-putting about her baby suddenly having long conversations with, and about, thin air.

Because, basically, the idea of invisible playmates is creepy!

“I’m just relieved you found it. I thought we’d have to have another search party. Did you put it in the charger?”

“No, but Casey did.”

Which reminded Kik to ask about babysitting.

“No problemo,” the teen answered. “I’m just going to be doing homework.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Kik put a mug of water in the microwave, then noticed Tess had on her snow boots, apparel she generally refused. “Look at you! I’m so glad you’re wearing those, babiest-girl! Otherwise I’d be worried all day about your piggies being cold!”

“Casey said she would give me a dollar for each one if I did not cry.”

“Thank you,” Kik smiled at her middle daughter. “I know that was no mean feat.”

“They are not mean,” Tess shouted. “They just do not like to be sweaty!”

When Doone finally turned on the shower upstairs, Kik put her cell phone in her bag and kissed the younger girls goodbye. Little by little her shoulders unbunched as she passed the sprawling horse farms on the winding back roads into Charlottesville. The rolling hills, even in their

denuded condition, were her own private tranquilizers, and by the time she turned towards campus she felt calmer.

Kik decided to spring for parking rather than getting amped up again racing from her appointed space in Siberia. She pulled into a close-in lot and hustled over to the little kiosk graffitied with the esoteric musings of uber-educated attendants, handed the cute kid her keys, and ran across the street. Although rushing, Kik still noticed the elegance of the postcard-pretty college grounds, replete with red brick buildings and balconies held up by smooth white columns. The school’s beauty always left her cold, though.

It had been built on the backs of slaves.

The classroom had a frat party vibe when Kik arrived. She smiled at the sudden quiet and carefully examined the reading glasses hanging on her chest. She’d learned from an unfortunate encounter with a sesame noodle that accessorizing with eyewear was tantamount to strapping on a highchair tray.

She smiled again at the group.

“Okay. So, a) I apologize for being late and b) I really enjoyed your essays about character identification. I was impressed by how many of you independently chose biblical figures as literary corollaries.”

Luke, an adorable lacrosse player who probably got young teachers in trouble back when he was in high school, raised his hand. “What about you? Would you say you’re most like the protagonist in Heading South?”

Kik actually felt herself blush.

Did he read my book?

“I’m sure we share some characteristics.”

“Such as?” Luke pressed.

“Let’s see. We both worry about things like how many participants a prayer chain actually needs. We’re both seriously steadfast. Think Horton Hatches the Egg. And our hair color is the same. Though I’m not crazy about her cut.”

Everyone laughed.

She kept glancing out the window throughout the day, praying for the forecasted snow to start falling.

Mandatory attendance at Martin’s party will surely be waived for inclement weather!

But the temperature aggressively stayed in the high forties all afternoon and Kik raced home after her last class. Casey and Tess were sitting at the kitchen table in the glow of the TV that lived on the counter. It was tuned to The Dr. Price Show.

“Who’s on, Case?” Kik asked.

“This woman who’s addicted to plastic surgery. She’s had like forty operations.”

“Yikes,” Kik leaned towards the small screen, squinted. “She does look good, though.”

“Mom!” the teen laughed.

“Kidding. What’s Price say?”

“That this kind of thing makes him sad.”

Out of all the therapy shows that Casey had a baffling affinity for, Kik kind of liked the British import. While the other TV shrinks reminded her of medicine men pitching product from the back of their horse-drawn buggies, Price didn’t go in for the self-aggrandizing hype. He seemed more interested in helping his guests. More than once she’d gotten sucked into watching an intervention done by the

stoop-shouldered shrink with the nice eyes, and ended up in tears.

She bent over Tess, busy lining up a battalion of crayons in front of a coloring book, and kissed her head.

“Where’s Doone, Case?”

“Um, she texted. She’s studying with a friend.” The obvious lie was repeated without commentary.

Furious, Kik grabbed the landline and tried to call Doone but went to voicemail. “It’s me. You do not have permission to be out tonight! Especially after last night! I want you home now.”

For icing, when Kik went to change she discovered her strappy stiletto had been shoved inside a stretchy sock. Probably thinking it was some kind of new toy, Bean had chewed a good quarter inch off the shoe’s heel. She hobbled downstairs and asked Tess if she’d been playing in her closet.

“I might have done,” the little girl said earnestly. “It is just that I do not want your things to think I have forgotten about them! I have not visited in quite some time.”

“Casey, is it noticeable?”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom. No one’s going to look at your feet. Just try and enjoy yourself, for once!”

“I did mention where I was going, didn’t I?” But she was taken aback. “You’re my rock, Case. Thank you.”

“Am I a rock?” Tess asked. “Or am I still a gravel?”

“You are my helium balloon,” Kik said.

The temperature outside had dropped and a noisy funnel cloud of papery leaves danced across the unpaved driveway. Kik shivered. She just wanted to cozy up on the couch, be close with the girls.

All three of them!

Dread tapped her on the shoulder and she took a deep breath to try and shrug it off.

She steered the car onto the curiously named Dick Woods Road, then into the dark template of a heavily wooded, half-built community. It was clear that like Charlottesville proper, nothing made sense layout-wise. Street names changed willy-nilly. The bumper scraped ominously and Kik suddenly feared becoming seriously lost, her body not discovered until spring by heavy equipment drivers.

If the party wasn’t at Martin’s, I’d just bag it.

Her phone rang.

“Mommy!”

“What, sweetie?” Kik smiled in the dark. Tess had learned everyone’s numbers while she was still in nursery school. And used them freely.

“Casey says we cannot make brownies and I have a very large yen for them!”

“Did she say why not?”

“Because she has to work on a Spanish paper. Even though she could do that after my retirement at eight o’clock!”

“Let me talk to her.”

“Arghhhh,” Casey groaned in Kik’s ear.

“Hi baby. Listen, it’s probably in your best interest to go ahead and just let her make them. The mix I got the other day, all you have to do is add water.”

“All right,” Casey sighed. “Are you at the party?”

“No! I can’t find the freaking house. I’m beginning to feel like Meriwether Lewis out here. I’m pretty sure I’ve crossed parts of the county no one else has.”

“Oh, Mom. Poor you.”

Suddenly a parade of parked cars leading up to a McMonticello petulantly facing the woods instead of the street, appeared. “Wait a minute — I’m here!”

“Good luck,” Casey giggled.

Mindful of her fragile heel, she stepped carefully along the Shuster’s candle-lined path. As far as she was concerned the homey touch with the luminaries was akin to a well-decorated waiting room outside an oncology office.

The lead-up might be nice. But for the most part you’re hosed as soon as you cross the threshold.

When Martin joined the faculty just two months before he said his tenure would be characterized by camaraderie and gentle stewardship.

An enormous, big, fat, mean lie.

He’d been making a concerted effort to distinguish instructors from the real professors, dropping in on so many of Kik’s classes “to observe” that the last time he slithered into a seat she had a nearly insurmountable urge to peg him between the eyes with an eraser.

The rumor was that Martin planned to bring in more degreed faculty, ratchet up the qualifications of the department as a whole. Perhaps even phase out instructor-level teachers altogether.

Which would be just perfect. Then what will we do?

A sleek sports car with the vanity plate BSTSLR was parked near the top of the drive.

This just keeps getting better.

Though not an actual member of the department, Dorian True, the polka-meister of prose, the walking embodiment of self-promotion, and the reigning Southern champion of shiv insertion, had apparently wormed her way onto the guest list. Kik hated everything about the self-appointed doyenne of the Charlottesville writing community: her gaudy sentences, the plots she recycled from one book to the next, and the bizarre braid that sat on top of her head like a basket lid.

Kik tried to do that deep breathing thing from yoga but couldn’t remember if it was inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, or the other way around. She’d had to flee class when she got intractable giggles after the guy on the adjoining mat let one rip during downward dog. She never went back.

The door swung open before she knocked.

“Klara! I’m delighted you could make it!” the mini-man pronounced.

“Sorry I’m late, Martin,” she lied. Behind him a hideous copper contraption poured water down the wall like a plumbing emergency. “Nice fountain.”

“Thank you, my dear. We had it custom made by one of Japan’s most renowned water sculptors.”

“Lovely.”

Not.

An awkward silence grew.

“Can I offer you a rum toddy?”

“Please!” she said a little too desperately. A table set with a crystal punchbowl sat right inside the foyer. Little glass cups hung from it like shrimp hors d’oeuvres. “What

a great idea, Martin! Entryway cocktails! I should try it at home — steel myself for what lies ahead.”

The compact little man stared at her appraisingly and Kik put the drink to her mouth to prevent further logorrhea. Ever since his appointment she’d been plagued by her landlord dreams. She hadn’t had them for a couple of years. The recurrent nightmare was an actual replay of the security deposit walk-through of her first apartment. The landlord had opened the oven and gasped as if he’d just discovered the remains of a voodoo sacrifice.

The dreams first started right after Owen left, stealing sleep night after night. It took therapy to understand they were about inadequacy. And humiliation. It wouldn’t require a return to the couch to uncover the reason for their comeback.

Martin Shuster had arrived like some academic avenger after the laid-back former Chair had had a debilitating stroke. It was a widely known secret that Martin had been the search committee’s second choice. The first had withdrawn his name at the last minute after being accused of taking credit for intellectual property not his own.

Kik had been amazed by how much a new manager could screw things up. She used to love going to work. It was like summer camp for artsy adults. Now there was backbiting and paranoia and serious job insecurity.

On Monday, Martin stopped her in the hall and casually mentioned that he was going to assign a full professor to help her edit the students’ award-winning literary journal. Kik had been speechless. She’d been the faculty advisor since the inception of Or Perish. Her eye twitched just

thinking about it again. Behind her the doorbell rang. She turned.

“Hi you,” she grinned.

Parrish Boudreaux beamed back.

“Go join the party, you two,” Martin commanded. “There’s just one more tardy guest.”

“Micro-manager taking attendance?” Parrish muttered when they were out of earshot.

Kik giggled.

“Hey, girl, I heard you won again. Congrats!”

“Thanks. It’s been the bright spot of my week. Oh, who am I kidding? Year. The bright spot of my year.” She took a sip of her drink. “Martin’s probably trying to think of a way to rescind it. Decree that the students can only vote for their favorite tenured faculty.”

“You know if you sat your little butt down and finished your novel it’d be a non-issue. Your stock would soar. You’d get a promotion.”

“Are you trying to push me deeper into the abyss?”

“Why don’t you get in touch with your agent over Christmas?”

“Because I haven’t written anything!”

Suddenly Dorian waved grandly from the sunroom off the kitchen. “Mr. Boudreaux!”

“The barnacle’s here?” he whispered, jovially waving back.

“I’ll protect you.”

“She can rub up against me all she wants — just don’t let her talk.”

“I don’t know,” Kik said innocently. “I’m kinda interested in what she’s working on these days.”

“I’ll kill you dead, woman. Do. Not. Get. Her. Started.”

One of their favorite games was Six Degrees of Dorian True, throwing out topics ranging from spontaneous combustion to gastric bypass, just to watch her divert conversational traffic back to herself. Dorian had even commandeered a recent article on a poet’s death. Kik and Parrish had taken turns reading it aloud. Dorian talked to the reporter about how she and the departed came up together, describing the literary salon for the ‘myriad of successful writers in Charlottesville’ that they had co-hosted for years (first Kik had ever heard of it), finally segueing into how she’d be dedicating her next novel, Country Roads, Shining Stars, to the deceased. Parrish said all the obit needed was an order form and Kik had almost wet her pants in the faculty lounge.

“How long do we have to stay?”

“Just stick with me, young lady. And seriously, podna. You’d better pace yourself in the drink department. Office parties are factored into job evaluations.”

Her anxiety shot up but bumped against Parrish’s wandering attention.

“Hey, is that Cisco’s wife over there?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Packed some pounds on, huh?”

“She had twins, Parrish.”

“Did they leave one in?”

She shook her head and in return he did his slow grin thing. Which didn’t generally work on her. But she looked away just in case. Women tended to pulse around him. He was tall and lanky with a Cajun accent and dark brows that

arched high over dancing brown eyes, making him seem perpetually bemused.

“Forty-nine more minutes,” he said.

“Until what?

“I blow this pop stand. I’m catching an obscenely early flight to New Orleans.”

“You’re leaving me here? What time is your flight?”

“Seven.”

Kik snorted. “Want a wake up call?”

“Couldn’t you just nudge me?”

“Aren’t you ever afraid it’s going to snap off?”

His hands flew to his crotch in the universal male sign for the world coming to an end.

Kik laughed. “Anyway, as you never tire of mentioning, I’m a day older than you. Which means I’m about two decades past my prime.”

“No such thing, darlin’. Hey, you wouldn’t be able to take care of Orbison for a few days, would you? He hates the kennel.”

“Uh, no? That’s all I need. Your flamboyant mutt harassing Bean all weekend. How’s Colette?”

“Good. I won’t be, though. Patsy awaits.”

“What’s going on?”

“Just the usual.” His struggles with his ex had been percolating for years, ever since Patsy took their little girl back to visit family in Louisiana — and stayed. Parrish not only learned about the marital dissolution long distance, his wife also came out to him during the same conversation. In one of life’s little ironies, the world’s biggest heterosexual flirt had inadvertently married a lesbian. “How’s Doone?”

Kik shrugged her pain.

“Oh well. We’re a pair. Let’s go mingle. Consider it a wise career move. None of your usual marginalia. Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

“Whoa. What do you mean wise career move?”

“Come along.” He led her towards a resolutely middle-aged woman in a red and orange quilted jacket who was sauntering around like she owned the place. He introduced himself.

“I’m delighted that you were able to come tonight, Parrish!” the woman in the tea-cozy barked. “Martin was telling me you’re going to teach song writing when your sabbatical is over?”

“Yes. And the Build-a-Novel course,” he smiled. “Allow me to introduce Kik, which is acronym-ious for Klara Isabella Kaufman.”

“Marcheson,” Kik added, “is my last name.”

“She’s one of the stars of the Mixed Arts Department,” Parrish went on. “Just won the Faculty Prize in fact!”

“Pleased to meet you,” the woman pinched out.

The insincerity was so unmistakable Kik felt hot shame. She mumbled appreciation for the dinner invitation and could have cried with relief when her cell phone began ringing in her purse.

Kik excused herself and walked back towards the quieter kitchen. “Hello?”

“Mom, I’m sorry to bother you again but — ”

“Is something wrong, Case? Is it Doone? Did she get home?”

“No. But, um, Dad just called and, um, Vivy just got asked to be on The Suzanna Show tomorrow about an

article she wrote and Dad wants to know if I can go, too. He said it could be an early birthday present.”

“You want to go on a trip with your father’s girlfriend?”

“Dad’s going, too.” The three words contained a world of hurt.

“Casey. I’m sorry. You should definitely go. Really.”

“Are you sure? Because I won’t if you don’t want me to.”

“Honey, I do. I want you to go.”

Please let me have sounded more sincere than Mrs. Shuster.

“Thank you, Mom!”

Kik immediately began worrying about how this would play out with Doone. Tess’s exclusion could be chalked up to age — but what about Doone’s?

Oh, who am I kidding? I can barely get her to go out for dinner with him. He hasn’t even seen her since she began stretching her earring holes to National Geographic dimensions!

Martin tapped a spoon on a wineglass to announce dinner. The guests were ushered into a huge dining room where beskirted chairs brushed the floor with mauve hems and candle centerpieces sprouted from rings of gold-tipped pinecones.

“It’s like walking into one of Dorian’s paragraphs,” Kik whispered to Parrish, a tad too robustly. Their assigned seats bookended the woman.

Martin asked the room to bow heads for prayer. Beneath the heavy tablecloth Parrish’s fingers began doing itsy-bitsy spider up Kik’s thighs.

“Cut it out,” she hissed.

His face remained in placid contemplation until Martin finally sat and waiters appeared with salad plates.

“Are those anchovies?” Kik whispered.

“Stop pouting. It’s unbecoming.” He turned to the woman on his right, abandoning her to Dorian.

“So, Kik, how are you?”

Here we go.

“Fine, thanks. How are you, Dorian?”

“Very well. You’ll appreciate this — I just had the most interesting discussion with my editor. Oh! That reminds me! I saw a copy of your little novel — ”

Little novel!

“— at the library sale. I picked it up for you since it’s out of print. It was on the last day so it was 75% off. You owe me a quarter,” she laughed merrily. “I’ll put it in your faculty box next time I’m there.”

Kik’s face smoldered as Dorian plowed on.

“Anyhoo, what I was going to tell you was that some of the mid-list authors are throwing absolute hissies about not getting enough post-pub support. They’re all over. Tweeting and posting, complaining — ”

“Why shouldn’t they complain? The whole system is rigged, Dorian. Do you really think you and Nina What’s-Her-Name are the only novelists in the country?”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

Right.

“It’s just that there are all sorts of really great writers out there who either can’t get published or who are buried by marketing for better-known authors.”

“Careful, dear,” Dorian patted Kik’s arm, all Southern comfort and false concern. “Someone could get the idea the dinner wine came from sour grapes.”

That’s it. Game on.

“Anyhoo, Dorian, I’m really glad we’re sitting together because one of my students asked a publishing question and I was totally stumped.”

“Fire away.”

“She wanted to know the ethics behind a writer having the same friends she thanks in the foreword provide the blurbs on the back cover. She mentioned the objectivity factor. And the thing is, she brought in one of your books! As an example,” Kik said, lying through her teeth. “How should I have answered?”

“You could have just explained that the more successful an author is, the smaller the peer group.”

Ok, that’s a wash.

“Hey, I enjoyed that article about you, Dorian.”

In spite of the flying knives, the woman’s cheeks pinked up. “Which one?”

Parrish squeezed Kik’s knee before she could answer, choking off what he knew was coming.

(Your friend’s obituary!)

Then he and Dorian started talking about the Charlottesville Book Festival and Kik checked out. She suspected the annual literary event had been designed to make her feel like a failure in her own backyard. Successful authors, agents and publishers made a pilgrimage to town putting on panel discussions about all things writerly. It generally set off a career-related depression.

Perfect.

She excused herself and walked quickly down the hall in search of a bathroom. Her unsteady gait pushed the weakened stiletto to its limit and the thing snapped off altogether. She sat on the toilet lid awash in apocalyptic sadness, and unstrapped both shoes.

What is wrong with me? Why would I take on Dorian True?

Kik closed her eyes. Eventually a knock startled her from her stupor.

“Just freshening my make-up,” she announced, lest anyone think she was in there so long for some bodily function. At least she didn’t have to flush. When she opened the door Parrish was waiting with her purse and both of their coats. While he helped her into hers, he nodded towards the vanity where a bonsai tree, pebbles and a miniature rake sat in a tiny jade saucer.

“Small man, small garden?” he asked.

That got a smile.

“You okay, Klara?”

“More or less. Mostly less.”

“C’mon beautiful. Let’s go.”

WHERE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Harvard Square Editions PRICE: 17. CONTACT THE AUTHOR:

Erikaraskin.net

Twitter.com@erikaraskin

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Erika-Raskin-Author/

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writersbridgebridgebuilder

Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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