My debut novel, 415 101, will soon be seeking publishers.  I am immensely proud of the fact that I not only finished a novel, but that it is a quality read.  It’s the first in a trilogy of novels concerning a character named Lucy Wayne, from high school to age 40.  Each book, however, can be called a true ensemble piece.  In fact, the first chapter of 415 101–what you are about to read–features not Lucy Wayne but two peers who will soon play a great role in getting her hopes and dreams off the ground.

Thanks for taking the time to read. (And yeah, I named the chapters in the book.  I love titled chapters, rare as they seem to be.)

The cardinal perched on the steps of Richter’s Deli and Grocery flittered back into the cloudless morning sky as the two girls approached the storefront.  The humble and accommodating nook indicated one end of the block where Kell Fernandez and Tracy Ridenour had lived, along with their mothers and the former’s two brothers, for the past seven years.

Tracy suspected the owner suspected the girls of swiping sundries when they would wander into the store once a week or so—usually, as was the case on this day, on the weekend—but decided not to pursue the issue because a pair of teens shoplifting occasionally was infinitely preferable to staring down a gun barrel as his cash register was being crudely relieved of its relatively meager contents.  She was correct in her suspicion, and five minutes after inadvertently frightening away a bird, they exited Richters with tote bags of candy bars, gum, and one 20 oz bottle of Pepsi.  This final item baffled Kell from the second she saw Tracy snatch it from the shelf.  She bit her tongue for just that amount of time, but for a recent high school graduate who treated her myriad philosophies like passions and her myriad passions like philosophies, restraint was impossible.

“Tracy.”

“Yeah, babe.”

“You don’t even drink soda.”

“Right?”

“So why take something you have no use for?”  Kell had nurtured only one vice in all eighteen of her years, maintained a single hard-fast rule in regards to said transgression:  steal only what you need.  Tracy, who ranked the paying of fuck-all rather low on her list of practiced immoral conduct, stole on a whim.

“Every other week we have this talk, Kell.  Besides…Mom drinks soda.”

“Does she drink Pepsi?  I always see Coke in the house.”

Tracy’s facial muscles twitched.  “Look, okay, I just figured I’d stick it in the fridge and someone would end up drinking it.  Okay?”

Tracy’s slight stature—just over five feet tall, just over one hundred pounds—made her frequent bursts of shrieking laughter all the more jarring to anyone in her vicinity.  (Kell thought it a bit like captured lightning trying to escape from the bottle.)  And as she could not keep from voicing her frustration with carefree criminality, nor could Kell keep her face from reshaping itself a pained grimace.  Kell found loud laughter—the type that attempted to expand a room or shrink the sky, the type that pretended to defuse tension—a sign of immaturity.  Nearly as slender as Tracy, but several inches taller, she was aware of her graceful silhouette and furthermore took pride in it.  Braying like a hyena on nitrous oxide went against this image.  With a great sigh, she attempted to save face.

“Endless studies indicate that female shoplifters of all ages and all social stratum, unlike their male counterparts, steal with purpose.  For instance.  A woman would never steal Old Spice deodorant.  But a man would steal lipstick.”

“You and I both know guys who would have use for lipstick, babe.  Hey, hey!”  Tracy stopped abruptly, as Kell inwardly swore and gave thanks that no one else was on their side of the street.  “You think Jim would let Kayla have this candy?  C’mon!  Let’s go by there.”

Tracy’s sweetly tight-lipped smile would have been hard to resist even without the discernible gleam in her eyes.  Kell wordlessly acceded, and they turned on their heels, walking at the same steady pace in the opposite direction.

———————————————

In 1759, Pennsylvania resident Jonathan Hager purchased two-hundred acres of land between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, naming it “Hager’s Fancy,” in the style of the times.  Three years later, he founded “Elizabethtown,” in honor of his wife, a name that would endure for half a century until official vote rechristened the land “Hagerstown.”

Hagerstown itself came very close to enduring for only half a century.  On July 7, 1864, with the Civil War devastating the country, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early ordered a cavalry of 1,500 soldiers (as led by Brigadier General John McCausland) to invade Hagerstown and collect a ransom in the amount of $200,000.00, plus some clothing, as revenge for the destruction of farms and cattle in the nearby Shenandoah Valley.  If this ransom demand passed unmet, the Confederates would burn Hagerstown to the ground.  McCausland, however, misread the monetary request and headed back with a mere $20,000.00.  A plague in modern downtown Hagerstown was erected over a century later, celebrating the city’s salvation thanks to good old Dixie illiteracy.

For Kell and Tracy, it served another purpose entirely.  The girls could have very simply gone south on foot from their home and bypassed the downtown area altogether, passing little of note but the elementary school and local post office.  Heading west one block, then proceeding south, would send them through the arterial road, Washington Avenue, where they would pass the opposite end of the school and hit downtown in fifteen minutes, crosswalk traffic permitting.

This path was not chosen for the purposes of stimulation, as Hagerstown was long past its 1970s heyday, and was by nearly all standards culturally, socially and architecturally bankrupt.  But both Kell and Tracy had decided that strolling by various Methodist and Lutheran churches constructed of weather-beaten limestone and a depressing array of abandoned storefronts, beat the piss out of the so-called “anchovy apartments”—jammed and stinking—and their perpetually soliciting tenants, hovering like flies around feces, a daunting cast of the addicted, the obese, and the filthy.  White and black, young and old, they occupied the next-to-lowest rung, the one that allowed them someone else’s four walls and little else.  Their discontent fermented bitter venom, and they would bite an outsider just as casually as they would friends and family.  Kell and Tracy had several invisible marks—the latter, especially, with her hair cut page-boy short and dyed cherry-red.  The final strike had come from a morbidly obese woman of middle age (and a mindstate from that time period), a bushel of blonde hair framing an overly and futilely made-up face, her turquoise tank top helpless to hold back the rolling hills of her upper body.  “Get outta here, ya dykes,” she’d sneered, in a voice that had the same nondescript faux-Southern flavor as could be heard in much of the Western Maryland region.  With that, Tracy vowed they would never walk by there again.

The celebratory plague downtown not only reminded the citizenry that they lived where they lived only because some racist idiot couldn’t understand the simple demands of another racist idiot; it let the girls know only one more block lay ahead.

“It has to be eighty degrees already,” Tracy speculated, huffing out a breath to emphasize her point.  “I hope the candy doesn’t melt.”

“Check it.”

“Nah, we’re coming up on Jim’s.  And if it is, hey, Kayla can always fingerpaint with it.”

————————————————-

Tracy Ridenour did not marvel over much, nor for too long, but she wasn’t sure when or if she would ever one day step foot into the one-bedroom apartment shared by her brother Jim, his wife Dana, and their year-old daughter Kayla, and not wonder how long three people could continue in such conditions without hallucinating, applying warpaint to their faces, and begin hunting fat kids outside McDonalds in lieu of actual pigs.

There was no real indication that adults occupied the cramped space.  Toys, obnoxious both in appearance and sound, could be found in every room.  A pair of blankets, pink and yellow, were spread out in front of the television set.  The refrigerator held orange juice, grape juice, milk, condiments, styrofoam containers protecting leftover takeout and—in the one glaring indication that “here be big people”—cans of Bud Light.  The cabinets were less full, containing a few boxes of cereal (the brands varied week to week, but Lucky Charms was the one constant); boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese; bags of marshmallows; and pancake mix.

Simply walking the six feet from the doorway to the couch could dishearten Tracy.  How could anyone live like this?  No, it wasn’t a scene of social service-signalling squalor, but it seemed that Jim and Dana had given their lives—their hobbies, their indulgences, any and everything that made them unique—up for the sake of their child.  This, to Tracy, was not compromise to insure the care of one growing individual.  It was sacrifice.  She’d broached the subject with their mother, asking if she agreed that the couple needed to re-prioritize for sanity’s sake, but the certainly older and ostensibly wiser woman had assured her younger child that Jim and Dana were just typical young married parents.

Understanding keenly that the woman was certainly older and ostensibly wiser, Tracy chose to bite her tongue.  At least around her mother.

“Dude, you look beleagured.”

Jim smirked but offered no contention.  He had, after all, caught sight of his reflection in the microwave door an hour earlier when pulling out the breakfast burrito.  His sand-colored hair was still wet from a shower that seemed to have no effect but to make his fatigue presentable for the public.  His eyes were bloodshot and his chin acne-spotted.

“The ladies are out,”  he informed them, leaning against the front door.  (The couch was large enough for only two reasonably-sized individuals, and Jim Ridenour wouldn’t dream of not giving up his seat(s) for a woman, sister or not.)  “Gone shopping.”

“Beats fishing.  You?”

“Yeah?”

“You doing anything?”

“Cleaning.  Well, actually, I was thinking about it.  Talking to you guys now.  Hey Kell!”

Kell let a light smile dress up her face.  Jim and Tracy shared the trait of inconsistent volume control.

“Drinks, guys?”

“Nah, we’re good.”  Tracy knew Kell preferred to be spoken for in these situations, and Tracy couldn’t have asked to feel better at that moment.  Not even the sight of a cereal bowl on the floor—right by the blankets—could faze her.  Let those chocolate-flavored puffs fight to stay alive!  Dana’s not here!  Sucks she had to take Kayla too, but I guess she’s trying to be a good mom and shit.  Oh well—compromise, right?

“Me too, but I’m still thirsty.”  Jim suddenly stepped forward, reached down to pluck a glass of OJ from the checkered table in front of the couch, and then retreated till his back had hit the door yet again.

“I see Rugrats is on,” Tracy said, pointing at the barely-audible TV.

“Yep.  Kayla loves Rugrats.  I still can’t believe the dude from Devo did the music to that.”

“What dude from Devo?”

“Y’know the dude from Devo.”

“Yeah but Jim there’s like multiple dudes in Devo.”

“Well, y’know…yeah, but I mean the dude in Devo.  He did the music.  The dude!”

“Yeah well they all look alike to me.  The hats and stuff.”  Tracy paused, displeased that the barometer needle had scarcely moved.  “And what are you talking about, Kayla loves Rugrats.  She’s one year old, dude.  One year olds don’t know anything about love.”

“Wrong,” Jim protested, punctuating the proclamation with a hearty citrus belch, causing Kell’s guts to perform an gruesome acrobatic routine.  “That’s the age when love is all you need.  Before you get old and forget what you didn’t even know you knew!  All she needs is love.  And food.  She loves cookies, just like ol’ Dad.”  He glanced down to the table, as if expecting to see a carton of cookies, and grew so discomfited when not seeing one that he didn’t hear Tracy’s light admonishment at a 20 year old calling himself “ol’ Dad.”

“I’ll be right back.”  As the girls sat and shared bemused looks, rustling sounds emanated from a short distance away.   Jim had retreated to the kitchen on a cookie hunt.  He returned, furrow along his forehead.  “Well, all I gotta say is, Dana better get some cookies while she’s out.”

Tracy was watching her brother intently, shaking her head at how easily the little boy in him could pop out and beat pots and pans, when she noticed a bluish-purple bruise on the left side of Jim’s forehead.  How had she noticed the bloodshot eyes but not such a nasty knot?

“Dude, ouch!”  She pointed to the corresponding spot on her own head.

“What?  Oh…oh yeah.”  Jim shrugged and confessed, sheepishly, “ I fell in the shower this morning.”

“Does it hurt?” Kell wondered.

“Throbs a little.  I’m keeping an eye on it.”

“You are fucking hardcore, man, “ his sister teased.  Then it was time for Tracy’s guts to do their own synchronized set of flips and splits when she turned her head and caught Kell’s gaze and smile in her direction.

“Nothing compared to you, though.  I’m serious.   On a scale from Billie Joe Armstrong to Ben Weasel, how punk do you feel right now?  Or do you, as a young riotous gal prefer the ‘from Belinda Carlisle to Kathleen Hanna’ scale?”

“Woooow.  Hey Jim, do you remember when you were punk?  Before you had a kid?”

“I do, I do,” he nodded, polishing off the orange juice and proceeding to tap the now-empty glass against his right thigh.  “Those were good days.  I rebelled against Mom, Dad, school, jobs, condoms.  Got me where I am today.  And how is our earthbound mother lately?”

“Fine.  What?”

Jim’s face was stretched in a smile so wide Kell was almost convinced she’d heard skin crack.  The natural blue of his eyes began to outshine the burst vessels around them as he rocked back and forth on his heels.  For a few seconds, Tracy feared the knock on her big bro’s noggin was having deleterious effects.

“I know she is.  I spoke with her on the phone this morning.”  His eyes shot from Tracy to Kell, back to Tracy.  “She says you’ve turned into an animal activist and I should ask you about it?”

Kell’s body began to shake with inhibited laughter.  Her grin, combined with the one still on Jim’s face, could have measured a greater wattage than the bulb used to illuminate the adjacent kitchen.  Tracy glared at her and barked, “Tell him then!  I won’t give him the satisfaction of hearing me tell it.”

Clearing her throat, Kell concentrated her gaze on the man six feet away, his arms now crossed in anticipation.

“Okay, it was last night.  Tracy and I decided to go to the movies with our friend.  Tracy also agreed to drive us all there.  On the way, she decides to inform us that just before leaving the house, she went in the bathroom and dropped some acid.  For just the second time in her life.  She thought that it would enhance the film-going experience.  Maybe it would have.”  Kell chuckled and fought the urge to glance over at Tracy, knowing that doing so would cause a complete collapse into a hysterical laughter that she couldn’t afford to allow.

“We get to the strip mall and before she can even find a parking space, Tracy stops the car.  She’s practically hyperventilating.  Sweating, face as red as her hair.  She jumps out of the Cadillac, literally jumps over the door, and starts running up and down the parking lot, flailing her arms around and screaming.  Then, suddenly, she stops in front of this one empty space.  The lot isn’t very full yet, it’s like 5:30, but this one space just grabbed her attention.  She goes:  ‘No one can park here!’  And then she just stands there.  Like she’s on guard.

“I tell our friend to wait a second.  I get out of the car, opening the door like a normal sober person, and walk over to Tracy.  I ask her, ‘What is happening right now, honey?’  Tracy proceeds to explain that a family of koala bears has gathered within the lines of the parking space, and it is up to her to guarantee their safety until they can be relocated.  Or, as she put it, ‘Kell, if somebody doesn’t stand up and take responsibility, they’re gonna get parked on!’

“Meanwhile the Cadillac is blocking one of the turns into this lot.  Our poor friend just sitting there.  A guy in another car yells ‘I’m calling mall security!’  and Tracy yells back, ‘Finally!’  Then she goes back to the car, gets in, and we park.  We’re ready to go see a movie.  Except for Tracy.  Protecting poor little animal families makes her very tired, you see, and she took a nap in the backseat for the next ninety minutes.”

Jim, who had stood in rapturous silence while Kell told the story, letting his eyes speak for him all the while, could only look over at his thoroughly humiliated sister and shake his head.  “You are a Ridenour, girl.  We handle our drugs.”

After Jim had laughed himself into a coughing fit, a protracted silence settled over the small space.  Kell knew, from experience, that soon one of the siblings would stammer out a half-hearted reason to break up the party.  She also noticed that it would most likely be Tracy to do the honors, as Jim was looking at them with an uncharacteristic friendly smile, as if he was genuinely pleased they were here and speaking so casually with him, and he hoped they would extend the visit.  Briefly she considered the possibility of a wake ’n bake, but remembered just as quickly that Jim had once told them both he never smoked in the apartment.

“All right, Jim.  We’re gonna head out now.  Tell Kayla I said what’s up.”

“Oh.  Okay.”  His face began to fall, but caught itself before crashing completely.

“But, before we do that…”   Tracy dug in her canvas tote bag—plain gray, as she hated the idea of shilling for a brand or having someone notice a name or design before they noticed her—and pulled out a true handful of Kit Kat candy bars.  “A little something for the family.  Sorry it’s not cookies.”

“Kayla will definitely not get to sleep by midnight tonight.  You’re the best, sis.”

Kell and Tracy got up from the couch and approached the door, the latter giving her best aw-shucks shrug.  “See ya, Jim.  Ice that head, dude.”

——————————————————–

“He needs to take care of that thing, seriously, he’ll scare Kayla.  Oh my God!  Kell, when we get back home, please remember to ask Mom about the time Jim cracked his head trying to fly out of the living room window.  Ohhh, why didn’t I remember that back there on the couch?  At least in my dumb story I was on drugs.  He was just an idiot boy.”

A mischievous bastard wind had suddenly materialized on the way home, causing Kell’s hair to fly up from the middle of her back and pile atop of her head.  Every few seconds she would have to shake her head and straighten her hair with both hands while an unencumbered Tracy clucked in semi-sympathy.

“I hate the summer wind,” Kell groused.

“Isn’t that a song?  ‘The Summer Wind’?  From the fifties or something?”

“Probably.”

“There should be a song called, ‘I Hate the Summer Wind.’ But it would be like a loud and nasty song.  Short, but it gets the point across.  Loud, nasty and short, like my brother’s wife!”  Tracy turned her head in the direction from whence they’d came to shout the last sentence.

The hysterical shriek that escaped Tracy’s mouth sent a nearby Jack Russell Terrier from his owner’s living room to the front door.  But it was the words said before that sent a beast of an entirely different sort to the front of Kell’s mind, knocking out all concerns over affection-starved brothers and unruly follicles.  A beast whose shape, size and sounds were no less intimidating for their familiarity.

“Tracy,” Kell said in a measured tone, trying not to show her hand too rashly.  “I’m going to ask your mom about Jim thinking he can fly when we can get home.  Then I have something to ask you.”

“Okay.  Anything major?”

“Not particularly.”  Just curious if you think you can fly.

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