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A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story, Writing

A Stranger’s Hands – Part One

A Stranger’s Hands

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By Carrie Sue Barnes

Part One – Unknown

She could not look away from the man’s hands. Wide palms. Long, sturdy fingers. Strong. They looked capable of holding her, all of her; something she hadn’t thought of a man in years.

Two years and twenty-six days. Cora didn’t keep track every day. That stopped shortly after a year. Every few months though, she added it back up.

Two years and twenty-six days and suddenly (anything new since Theo’s death felt sudden), she was staring at a stranger’s hands, thinking of how they would feel holding hers across a restaurant table, or on the small of her back, guiding her through a busy airport. Ordinary tasks of her husband’s hands.

This was not her husband. This was not Theo, but a stranger. At the gym, no less. What was wrong with her?

Less than yesterday.

That’s what her sister Tessa would say. Tessa thought Cora should move on, that it was time. Cora thought Tessa didn’t know what she was talking about.

She made up her mind to switch to a different treadmill in a different row, away from the stranger and his capable hands. Tessa’s next question would be, was he attractive? Cora realized she couldn’t have answered. She’d noticed nothing except his hands.

It’s a start, Cora heard her sister say in her mind.

“It’s an ending,” she whispered as she began to run.

Cora pushed herself hard. She ran until her calves burned and sweat coated her neck. She ran until her head cleared. Afterward, she showered in the locker room even though her townhouse was only a half mile away. If something could be done elsewhere, instead of at home, that was what she preferred.

From the gym, she walked to Second Street Coffee. She set up her laptop and files in her usual spot: a booth beside the large front window, three tables away from the door. It had the finest morning light.

“Happy Anniversary.”

Cora’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands went cold.

“I thought it was safe to assume your order today.” Gil, the café’s owner stood beside the table, a mug and two bowls balanced in his hands. “Black coffee, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and fresh fruit.”

She watched him place the dishes on the table, but still could not speak.

Gil’s warm smile became a frown. He cocked his head, looking down at her from his considerable height.

“Are you well, Cora?”

“How? How did you know?” she asked in a barely audible voice.

“Know what?”

“That it’s my anniversary?”

Gil only looked more perplexed. “It’s two years since we opened. You were our first customer.”

“Oh!” Her cheeks went hot. She tucked her hair behind her ears, giving herself a self-collecting moment. “Two years, wow. Happy Anniversary.”

She smiled finally and Gil’s brown eyes brightened. Two years. For two years, she’d sat at this table every weekday.

Gil sat down across from her, something he’d never done before. “It’s alright. I didn’t expect you to remember that fact. I’m sure that day was a bigger deal to me than to you.”

“I doubt it,” Cora mumbled.

“What do you mean?”

“Um, nothing, nothing at all.” She unzipped her bag to retrieve her wallet. “Thank you for bringing over my breakfast. That was thoughtful of you.”

When she held out the cash, he shook his head. “Today’s breakfast is on the house. No argument. You were our first customer.”

“Thank you, Gil. I appreciate it.”

The bell over the door dinged as another customer entered and Gil left her table. Cora sat wondering over the same question that filled her mind at the gym. What was wrong with her?

One and a half coffees later, Cora visited the restroom. She stared into the mirror over the sink. Her dark blonde hair had dried into the natural waves she used to straighten with a flat iron every morning. She wore no makeup – no blush, no mascara, no lipstick – another unpredicted change. Her body, always slim, was now toned with tight muscles from the almost daily visits to the gym. She wore bootcut jeans, a long sleeved black t-shirt, and gray canvas sneakers. A Saturday outfit, as she used to call it, instead of her former workday uniform of a pencil skirt and blouse.

No one but she knew it was all different.

“I miss being known,” she whispered at her reflection. The intensity of the feeling caught her by surprise.

Cora’s steps were slow across the hardwood floor from the restroom back to her booth. She watched Gil sweeping crumbs from under the tables. The initial rush was long over. The line of early-morning commuters had hustled out one by one with their steaming to-go cups and bagged muffins. The last of the breakfast regulars, mostly retirees lingering over their conversations and egg sandwiches, were migrating toward the door. Goodbyes were called out to Gil and his employees.

She knew all of the regulars’ faces, and several of their names from overheard conversations, but they did not know her.

On Wednesdays, a group of cyclists came in after their early morning ride, arriving around the same time as Cora at 6:45. They were jovial, young men, younger than Cora, who never failed to greet her with a “good morning” or a comment on the weather. It brightened her day each time she saw them with their smiles and their carefree conversations, but they did not know her.

Twice a month, a dozen mothers gathered in the coffee shop for Bible study sessions. There were new moms still fresh-faced and eager, and wizened, older mothers who listened quietly and offered careful advice, and middle-aged, over-scheduled moms bolstered by the ninety minutes of adult conversation and camaraderie. They discussed verses and chapters, children and husbands. They laughed and cried together. Cora savored hearing the stories they told each other, witnessing the way they united around one another’s struggles and victories.

A handful of times the women invited Cora to join them, despite her explaining the first time that she was not a mother. Twice she had splurged and paid for their beverages. She couldn’t explain why. Perhaps because she wished she belonged with them. She didn’t though, and they didn’t know her.

Not even her clients knew her. That was the nature of online financial planning. Everything was accomplished via emails and shared files. If a client needed any communication beyond that, Cora made phone calls, or a video conference call on rare occasions. No, they certainly didn’t know her.

The anonymity was not intentional. It arose from a gradual, subconscious retreat from everything that reminded her too poignantly of Theo and their six years together. Six and a half years if she included their whip-speed six months of dating and engagement.

No, the anonymity was not intentional, but it was too complete for Cora to see any cracks to climb through the walls she’d built. She initially welcomed those walls, curled up inside them and functioned only when she remained there. Lately though, she began to wonder how long she could keep them up. She began to wonder if she wanted to keep them up.

Her unhurried thoughts were interrupted by the swish of broom bristles sliding beneath her table where she was seated once again. Out of habit, she wordlessly raised her legs and Gil swept the spot beneath her feet.

“All finished?” he asked, gesturing at the empty fruit bowl on the table.

Cora had eaten the oatmeal first while it was still hot, and one of the servers collected that bowl earlier. The fresh fruit she’d saved until she grew hungry again, then savored each juicy piece. She handed the bowl to Gil.

“Thank you again for breakfast.”

“You’re very welcome, Cora. Thank you for being the only person who is here almost as frequently as I am.”

“You put extra pieces of baked apple in the oatmeal, didn’t you? There was more than usual.”

Gil looked pleased. “You always leave the bits of apple until the end when you order that one. I figured that was because they’re your favorite part.”

Surprise tingled in her nerves. “You noticed that?”

“I did.”

The insight into her habits produced a concoction of feelings in Cora. It was tiny. A simple observation. It did not feel tiny though. It felt warm and comforting and kind and strengthening. What else do you know, she wondered as Gil walked to the front counter to deposit her bowl and fork. When he returned for the broom he’d propped against her booth, Cora was suddenly desperate to speak.

Read Part Two here.

Faith, Family, Gratitude, Personal Reflection

Waking Up Grateful

sunrise-1634734_1280For the past week, I have woken up sad, or angry, or worried. As often happens, the mindset with which I awakened then lasted for the day. I carried myself through the workday, the tasks of home life, and even enjoyable time with my family, all with the sadness or anger or worry somewhere between the background and foreground.

Yesterday though, I woke up grateful.

Let me back up. A few weeks ago, my sister Cheryl, the oldest of our seven-sibling bunch, was diagnosed with cancer for the third time in eleven years. It was last Wednesday that she was informed that the cancer was not localized in one spot like the prior occurrences but had metastasized to numerous areas of her body. She’s still waiting to find out if the cancer is treatable at this point, and what the treatment plan could be. So, that’s the basics of where the sadness, anger, and worry were coming from in recent days.

I’ve written plenty of posts about mindset and perspective, and their critical role in handling all that may or may not come our way. I’ve written about choosing hope and joy and peace even when our emotions resist. I’m not sure how much I’ve mentioned the need for it all to be genuine though. And in order for the hope and joy and peace to be genuine, sometimes you have to slog through the other realities first.

I allowed myself to cry. Alone, with my siblings, at my office desk with my head bowed. I avoided conversation and interaction with people to some degree. I took every hug my husband offered and wet his shoulder with a few tears. I sipped on a couple more drinks than I normally would in a week’s time. Truthfully, I didn’t really try to climb out of the initial reactions. I wasn’t striving for anything other than letting myself feel the sadness and anger and worry.

But you know what else I’ve mentioned on this blog before? Maybe more than a few times? That God knows better than we do.

God’s eyes sees farther down the road than our eyes can see.

God’s mind comprehends realities that are beyond our grasp.

God’s wisdom is untainted and unbiased.

God is never, never caught by surprise.

So yesterday, by His grace, I woke up grateful. My eyes fluttered open to see the last pink streaks of sunrise out our bedroom window and my spirit felt happy. There have been plenty of moments in the past week that I’ve felt happy, but it has consistently been happy and. Happy and still feeling the rest of it. In that first waking moment, this time I only felt happy. Just happy. The other things came charging at me within seconds, but that moment lasted long enough for me to recognize the gift. Long enough for gratitude to rush in ahead of the rest.

God knew. He knew I needed the gratitude to shape my perspective as I continue to feel everything else. He knew I needed the thankfulness to feed the fortitude to be there for my sister in whatever lies ahead.

Last night, mixed in with prayers for Cheryl’s healing and strength, I added a new prayer. I prayed that I would again wake up grateful. And this morning, I did.

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Catholicism, Faith, Holiness, Jesus, Scripture

The Narrow Way

Today’s Gospel reflection for Catholicmom.com is from yours truly. I wrote it a few months ago actually. Rereading it this morning when it was published, I’m struck by how the Holy Spirit knew that even I would need these words at this time. Perhaps they’ll mean something for you too.

Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew 7:6, 12-14.

Click here for my thoughts on the Lord’s words about the narrow path of discipleship.

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Photo Credit: CatholicMom.com
Because the Saints Said So, Dignity, Faith, Intentionality, Saints, Worthy

Because the Saints Said So: I Always Knew I Could (St. Catherine of Siena)

Today, I’m taking a bit of inspiration from Burl Ives and The Little Engine That Could. While I drove my kids to the sitter’s this morning, we sang along to some classic tunes by the beloved children’s folk singer of decades that passed long before I took my first breath. The last song to play before I dropped off the kids and switched the radio to Dave Matthews was “The Little Engine That Could.”

“Just think you can, just think you can,

just have that understood

And very soon you’ll start to say,

I always knew I could.”

Those lines had my brain rolling along for a bit. Thoughts arose of confidence and self-doubt, of faith and discouragement, and the roles they play in achieving our goals.

The children’s diddy oversimplifies the concept, of course, but it does speak a nugget of truth: our mindsets drive our actions. There is only so far you can take yourself toward a goal you don’t believe you can achieve. On the flip-side of that coin, there are few forces that can defeat you when you believe you can succeed no matter what.

Confidence is born of faith. Faith in the abilities and passions God instilled in your unique self. Faith in your willingness to try. Faith in God’s promises to be your strength and wisdom. Faith in your destiny to make a unique, unrepeatable contribution to the lives of anyone within your reach.

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If you know who you are in the eyes of God, if you know your Maker and therefore your makeup, it is not vanity to believe in yourself. Instead, it is foolhardy to doubt.

I don’t know about you, but there are few things that carry me forward with more joyful strength than the opportunities to look back and say, “I always knew I could.”

 

Books, Full of Days, The Hidden Legacy, Writing

Change Is a Tricky Thing

changeI have a bit of an announcement to make. It is both happy and bittersweet. For nearly ten years, my manuscript has been created, nurtured, pruned, and grown under the title Full of Days. It was not the original title. The original title was a terrible, overly dramatic phrase I will not admit to here. Before the first draft was finished though, my little story had become Full of Days, and so it has remained… until now.

When I got into the nitty gritty of collaborating with the editor assigned to me by my publisher, she asked that I consider changing the title. The first time she asked, right there on the title page as her very first comment when the edits were sent to me, I mentally refused. She stated that title’s strength did not match the story’s strength. I frowned and muttered and thought how absurd the request seemed to be. The next time she mentioned it, I wondered if I should at least think about it. The third time she mentioned it, I’d spent a number of weeks reviewing her subtle changes and astute suggestions throughout the manuscript and had to humbly admit that maybe (just maybe) the editor knew what she was talking about. I don’t remember if there was a fourth mention. There might have been. I only know that by the time I reached the final page of the manuscript, completing my review of her work on my story, I was deeply grateful for how she’d sharpened the writing and developed my perspective on giving the reader the best possible version of the tale and characters I’d created.

Thus began my deliberation over the title. Oh, how I wrestled with it. By the time I sent a handful of title ideas to the publisher to get their opinion, I’d brainstormed and eliminated at least twenty possibilities. Always, in my mind, Full of Days was still in the running. It was a contender but not the guaranteed winner.

The goal was to create a title that captured the interest of a reader who knew nothing of the story itself. Someone who might be perusing books in this genre, looking for something new to intrigue them enough to at least read the back cover’s synopsis. The title needed to create curiosity and hint at the heart of the story.

Making the choice felt like renaming a newborn child after first deciding on a name quite early in the pregnancy. It was akin to spending all that time of nurturing and development calling the child by one name, then, upon meeting him face to face, realizing it simply is not the right name for him. It happens, and I imagine it is quite a bittersweet change to make in that moment. Such a change would transition from difficult and uncertain to happy and confident as the new moniker became familiar. That is exactly how I’d describe this process.

So, yes, after all that rambling, I am here to tell you that as of Tuesday, my upcoming novel has a new title! I invite you all to be on the lookout in the coming months for news of the release of the debut christian historical novel titled The Hidden Legacy.

A to Z, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Love, Marriage, Writing Prompt

A to Z Flash Fiction: Diorama

D: Diorama

pexels-photo-421160Harold’s run stalled outside a brick bungalow on Cedar Street. The skyline was rimmed pink, with everything above still ink and stars. Daily, before dawn, Harold ran one and a half miles at an eleven-minutes-per-mile pace. Every single morning, except Sundays, and he did not stop for anything mid-run. Never.

“You’re seventy-two. It’s okay to slow down,” Harold’s doctor said at his most recent check-up. “Maybe mix it up with walking or swimming, something a bit easier on the joints.”

Harold lied when he told the doctor he’d consider it.

He checked the tracker on his wrist. The device was a gift from his son. Harold had scoffed at learning its features and tricks, or even growing comfortable with its bulk around his wrist. He was loath to admit to anyone how much he appreciated it now, with its details and data and graphs, its uncanny ability to measure the value of his daily movements.

Eight-tenths of a mile to go.

So, why had he stopped? Why did he stand, feet planted on the damp sidewalk instead of striking it at his self-regulated pace? He stood still because he was traveling through time, and travel like that tends to take a person’s breath away.

Inside the house, on display through a wide picture window, was a diorama of the past. A living room: white walls, gray sofa, black recliner, and two lamps glowing from each of the end tables framing the sofa. Family photos in frames. A book on the arm of the recliner.

A woman and a child.

Harold’s pulse throbbed. He felt it in his chest, in his neck.

“My girls,” he whispered.

The woman – slim, average height, pixie-cut chestnut hair – stood in the center of the room, her arms wrapped securely around the child lying against her, chest to chest. Her head was bowed with her cheek resting on the crown of her daughter’s blonde head. Her eyes were closed.

The child’s face was turned away from the window, tucked into the curve of her mother’s neck. She looked to be two, perhaps, clothed in plush, yellow pajamas. One little hand held the ears of a well-loved, stuffed bunny, and the other hand rested on her mother’s shoulder.

All was still. A three-dimensional snapshot of thirty years ago.

Harold reached for the tree branch above his shoulder. The coarse bark beneath his palm broke the spell over his senses. He pulled his eyes away from the house, away from the intimacy of the moment between mother and child, and forced himself to move.

At the end of the block, where Harold typically turned left to return home, he turned right. Then he turned right again, then left. He jogged into the cemetery, along the gravel paths to a headstone beneath a birch tree. There, he kneeled.

Harold waited for his heartbeat to slow. He laid his hands in the dewy grass and squinted at the sun mounting the treetops.

“I saw you today, Rosie.” He cleared his throat. “I used to see you everywhere. Everywhere. But it hasn’t been like that in a while. It was you and Sadie, when she was just a little thing. It was our living room. I mean, I know it wasn’t. I know it wasn’t you, or Sadie, or our home. For a moment though, it was, and it was the happiest and the saddest I’ve been in a while.”

He leaned forward on his knees, pressing his palms into the cold, solid stone. He rubbed the ridges of her name with his thumb and sighed.

“It was wonderful to see you.”

Harold stood, and ran home.

*****
Let’s get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I’ll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I’ll consider it for a prompt.