Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 7

seedsChapter 7

Marcus ducked into the kitchen, sliding behind the granite island and heading for the recycle bin under the sink. He inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of his sister’s sweet and sour meatballs and his brother-in-law’s smoked pork. Even after everyone had grazed for the last hour, food still mounded the island.

His brother-in-law Fyodor waved his hands up, down, and sideways as he discussed the Diamondback’s Super Bowl chances with the neighbor.

Or was it the World Series? Marcus didn’t care enough to find out. He jerked his chin in acknowledgment of their existence and silently prayed they wouldn’t rope him into their conversation. Of course, worse traps waited for him, and he had no one but himself to blame. He should have known this meteor shower get together would be more than just family.

Like their mother, his sisters had never met a stranger they didn’t want to feed. And that applied double for their neighbors. 

Too many of them were single women, swimming through the crowd like piranhas smelling blood in the water chummed by his sisters.

He was the chum or chump.

Marcus balanced his empty bottle on the heap of refuse filling the recycle bin and considered taking the trash outside. Maybe he could catch his breath. Not that many guests were actually outside watching the meteor shower. Sweat beaded his lip. But then his chances of being cornered increased if he left the safety of the crowd.

Safe being a relative word.

Just not around his relatives. Marcus needed an exit strategy.

Gabriella something-or-other tossed her dark hair over her shoulder and glanced at him from under her lashes. Her preteen son looked up from his phone to glare at Marcus.

The kid obviously had issues about his parents’ recent divorce. Marcus had been there, done that, and had the counseling bills to prove it. He turned, keeping her in his peripheral vision as he sidled up to the fridge.

Single lady number two wasn’t much better. He couldn’t even remember the name of the bottle-blond with recent LASIK surgery. Connie? Or was it Candy? Her horse laugh had him running for earplugs. The only thing that made her attractive was that she wasn’t looking for Mr. Right, only Mr. Right Now. Unfortunately, she also had a satellite child. This time a teenage son full of intelligence subsumed by hormones.

No, thank you. Marcus’s sons were still in their full head remodel of the teen years and had at least a handful to go before becoming rational human beings again. 

Marcus snagged a carrot off the tray of crudités and ran it through the dip.

Across the room, his oldest sister Naomi glared at him. 

Marcus popped the carrot in his mouth and chewed. Even with the mound of onion dip, they were pretty tasteless. How did Iona enjoy the things? Iona. She probably had some exciting plans for tonight’s meteor shower. Plans that didn’t involve family obligations, dodging babysitting assignments, and matchmaking siblings. Knowing her, she was outside enjoying the meteor shower.

Opening the refrigerator door, he stared inside but didn’t really see the contents. Maybe he should return to his parents’ house. Overseeing the renovations was a second full-time job, but given that he lived two houses away, the ladies could corner him there.

And then where would he be?

Marcus blinked. Seventy-two bottles of assorted Czech beers, a couple dozen Polish ones, and three English lagers. Even if he drank it all, it wouldn’t make him stupid enough to date any of the prospective candidates his sisters threw at him. 

He grabbed the English lager, knowing it would piss off his brother-in-law Fyodor and popped the top. He hoped Fyodor and Naomi got into a big fight over Marcus’s pilfering. Then again, it could make his sister more determined to make sure he didn’t miss out on wedded bliss. Raising the bottle to his lips, he washed down the carrot and lingering taste of onion. 

Motion caught his eye. His two potential dates approached him from opposite flanks. Despite their casual gait, they were closing fast. 

Marcus ground his teeth. If they spotted each other, things could get real ugly real fast. Time to retreat. He’d heard Pittsburgh was lovely this time of year. He made a beeline for the kitchen door. Once he slipped through, he could escape into the alley and skulk all the way home.

Heart drumming in his ears, he neared the edge of the kitchen island. 

The women picked up their pace.

A hand clamped on his shoulder. Fyodor’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the pilfered lager. “So how are the renovations going? I got plans for that money.”

Marcus shrugged off his brother-in-law’s grip. The meathead was always slapping something by way of a macho greeting. Couldn’t he get it through his thick skull that some people preferred a firm handshake to physical assault? “We’re still on track for the May listing.”

“Still May, huh?” Fyodor shoved a chip in his mouth and chewed as he talked. “With all the help we gave you after Mom and Pops died, I thought you’d be done by the end of April at the latest.”

 “You don’t say,” Marcus grunted. The family’s help had consisted of descending the day their father’s body was taken to the mortuary from the hospice to ransack his parents’ possessions. His loving sisters had cherry-picked everything, even attempting to snabble Marcus’s belongings. Those days had been almost as joyful as a root canal without painkillers.

Fyodor’s small forehead narrowed, creating ripples all the way to his receding hairline. “Are you sure you’re not just making stuff up to live rent-free for a couple more months?”

Marcus shook his head. “It’s not rent-free, and you know it.”

He paid the mortgage every month and didn’t charge the family a dime for his time and coordination of the contractors just as he’d promised his parents. Sometimes it sucked being the oldest child. If he’d had a choice, he’d live in a smaller place that was energy efficient.

Fyodor nodded then shrugged. “With a May listing, we could have some family barbecues this summer.”

“Not once it’s listed. The place has got to stay in pristine shape to get top-dollar.” And Marcus would have a reason to avoid cookouts where he purchased everything and had to clean up later. He took a long pull on his beer and edged closer to the back door.

His sisters had corralled the women and sequestered them in different corners. Hand gestures flew as they whispered and sized him up.

Great. Marcus would bet his sisters were doling out advice on how to win him over. His advice would be to leave him alone.

“So which is it going to be? Gabriella or Cindy?” Fyodor planted himself in Marcus’s path.

Damn, his sisters had enlisted the meathead. So much for gender solidarity. “Neither. I’m not interested.”

Fyodor shook his head. “What, are you gay? They’re both beautiful women with enough meat on their bones for that extra cushion. And speaking of cushion. Gabriella had her boobs redone. There’s something to be said for firm and perky versus droopy bananas.”

Marcus stared at the beer bottle in his hand. If he smashed it against the granite counter, he could use the jagged edge to cut off his ears, then he wouldn’t have to hear his brother-in-law’s sexual preferences. Then again, he could just leave. Although only two feet away, the door might as well be on Mars.

“So, which is it going to be?”

Marcus drew a deep breath. His sisters were waiting for a nod from his brother-in-law before releasing the hounds. Goddamnit. They had ganged up on him. “Neither.”

“You need to pick. Your sisters made promises to your parents. Deathbed promises.” His brother-in-law shoveled two more chips into his mouth already inhabited by crumbs. “Pick perky boobs. You shouldn’t regret it.”

He regretted it already. Marcus set his half-empty beer on the counter and opened his mouth to respond. His phone rang; the old-fashioned jangle of bells drew attention. What now? He tugged his cell out of his front jean’s pocket and glanced at the screen.  Peter Lynn from college. What could he be calling about? What did it matter? Anything was better than this conversation. He eyed his sisters then his brother-in-law. “Tell my sisters I’m fine on my own.”

Without waiting for a reply, Marcus thumbed on his phone and stalked outside. At least Peter Lynn offered a chance at a topic he might be interested in. Heading for the back gate, Marcus held the phone to his ear. “Peter. How is it going?”

 A muffled sob rattled through the connection but no words. Had he been butt-dialed? He rechecked the screen before pressing the phone against his ear. “Peter?”

“No. No, it’s not Peter.” The woman’s voice was shaky, and her sniffles were watery. 

“Bernice?” Marcus made the connection. Peter’s wife was the only one who would have access to his phone. “Is everything OK? Is Peter OK?”

“Peter’s dead.” Her bombshell exploded, blasting waves of silence, each more deafening than the last. 

Peter? Peter was dead? Marcus floundered in the thought. It didn’t make sense. He stopped in the middle of the yard. Fresh growth caused the yard to look fuzzy. A few meteors streaked overhead. His conversation turned primitive. “How? When?”

“Cancer. It was cancer.” Bernice exhaled a shaky breath.

Marcus shook his head. “But he beat the cancer. Two, no three years ago.”

“It came back.” Bernice blew her nose. “It came back so fast. One minute he was fine and healthy, rattling on about a big project. And the next, he’d collapsed and was taken to the hospital. And the cancer… The cancer was everywhere.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. What can I do to help?” Marcus had experience with funeral arrangements, death certificates, insurance paperwork, and the Social Security Administration bureaucracy. 

“Peter left you something.”

Marcus blinked. “He didn’t have to do that. His friendship was worth more than anything to me. You know that.”

She spoke as if she hadn’t heard him. “He changed toward the end. I should’ve known something was wrong. But it wasn’t like he’d had brain tumor before.”

“Changed how?” Marcus winced. Brain tumor? Peter would have hated the loss of his mental faculties. When he’d realized he’d lost the battle, would his friend have decided to go out on his own terms?

“He thought someone was watching him.” Bernice sniffled. “The doctor says… The doctor says the tumor’s location could’ve caused the behavior.”

“I see.” But Marcus didn’t. Not really. Peter had undergone nine months of chemo to beat the cancer the last time. Peter’s attitude hadn’t changed. Not one iota.

But it hadn’t been brain cancer last time.

“Can you come by after the funeral?” Bernice cut into his thoughts. “I’ll give you the package then.”

Marcus nodded. “Of course I’ll be there. When is the funeral?”

A doorbell sounded on Bernice’s end. “I’ll send you the details. I—I have to go.”

“Right. I’ll talk to you tomorrow then.” He spoke to the dial tone then stared at his screen. Bernice had always been painfully polite to him, but now… Grief was a rabid monkey on every mourner’s back.

A hinge squeaked behind him, and he pivoted on his heel.

His sister Naomi charged across the porch. “Cindy really is the better of the two. I know you’re not so shallow as to want someone with a boob job.”

Marcus sighed. “Peter Lynn is dead.”

She reared back. “Your friend from school?”

“Grad school.” Marcus nodded. They’d bonded over a shared tyrannical thesis advisor. “His cancer returned. With a vengeance.”

But he’d had slow-growing cancer before. What had changed?

“Peter was your age, wasn’t he?” Naomi tilted her head and tapped his chin.

“Yeah.” Marcus’s hindbrain kicked in, screamed at him to run.

“All the more reason why you need someone by your side. Like Mom and Pops wanted.” Naomi’s features squished together, aping a look their mother had perfected when she wanted to guilt him into doing something. 

He’d been immune for years.

“Cindy would be great to take to the funeral. I’m sure she can offer you comfort afterward.”

Marcus’s mouth opened and closed. What in the world was wrong with his sisters? “You never give up, do you? No matter how inappropriate, no matter how many times I tell you to butt the hell out of my life.”

Naomi flinched. 

He’d never yelled at her before. Never raised his voice. He was the calm one, the one always left in charge, the one his folks always left to take care of their children while they worked two jobs.

Naomi squared her shoulders. “I promised Mom. And it isn’t going to hurt you to take Cindy out.” 

Marcus squeezed his skull between his hands. “You don’t take a date to a funeral.”

“You can’t be alone, Marcus. It’s not natural.”

Turning his back to his sister, he stomped toward the gate. He had two options—either continue to avoid their matchmaking and eventually be worn down by their stubbornness or offer an alternative solution that would stop them. His fingers hovered near the latch. He almost smiled. Almost. That would give everything away. Opening the gate, he stood half in and half out of her yard. “I’m not alone, haven’t been for a while. But we’ve just decided to try for something beyond friendship, and I don’t want you lot ruining it for me.”

Naomi folded her arms over her chest. “So, what are you saying?”

The back door creaked, and his sister Annie tumbled outside. “Who did he pick?”

“Neither one.” Naomi held up her hand. “Apparently, he’s trying to tell me that he has a girlfriend.”

“He’s lying.” Annie joined her sister on the grass. “This mystery woman doesn’t exist. Does he even have a name for her?”

Marcus rolled his eyes. He was in it now. Guess this was just what he needed to ask Iona out. “I’m not making Iona up.”

“Iona.” Naomi hissed. “Is she Greek? Mom always said, you can’t trust the Greeks.”

Marcus pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off a headache. He loved his mother, but she always had a saying for everything. And none of it was good.

“When can we meet this Iona?” Annie plucked her phone from her pocket as if she had such a busy life she needed to consult her calendar.

“Never.” Naomi sniffed. “Apparently, she needs to be protected from barbarians like us.”

Marcus smiled. If they were mad at him, then he could have even more time to himself. Who knew being rude had such benefits. 

“He’s lying.” Annie pointed at him. She sniffed the air reminding him of velociraptor searching for its next meal after being on a weeklong diet. “Look at him twitch. You’re throwing a barbecue this weekend, brother, and if this Lola person isn’t there, then I’m giving Gabriella the spare keys to Mom and Pops’ house and telling her you liked her best.”

“Fine.” He let the gate slam behind him and stalked down the alley. At least he had four days to tell Iona she was now his girlfriend. Where was the apocalypse when he needed it?

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Friday Fun Fact

Morning comes later when the sun sets earlier. Fall is coming:D

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See how they grow

Our kitties are growing up. I think they’ve doubled in size.

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Thankfully, our other cats are tolerating them better.

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The dog still startles them and then they poof up and hiss at them.

Until next time, stay healthy.

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 6

seedsChapter 6

Kim Garcia leaned back in the lounge chair, crossing her bare feet at the ankles while the evening breeze tugged on the cover-up, trying to expose her bikini. Adults and children rested on chairs, clustered around tables, or bobbed in the water of the hotel’s rooftop swimming pool. Most focused on the meteor shower over their heads.

 Swirling her wine, Kim raised the glass high and peered at the night sky through the burgundy liquid. Ancient humans had considered meteors and comets bad omens. 

Not so for Kim. Each point of light was a dollar sign, recognition for her growing company, and that much closer to ending her association with Contact 21. The shady prick had already taken Tupper off her hands. Her future burned brighter than the space debris catching fire in the atmosphere. 

She sipped her wine, rolling the liquid over her tongue and tasting the floral notes before the bitter hit — not a bad year. The chilled glass sweated in the warmth of the evening. She finished the rest of her drink in two swallows. 

A couple oohed and aahed as a particularly bright meteor streaked across the velvety sky. Throttling the wine bottle, Kim tipped it up and dumped the rest into her glass. A single drop clung stubbornly to the lip. Like she would give up so easily. She shook the bottle, forcing the last drop to fall into her waiting glass. “Gotcha.” 

A waiter appeared from the nebulous fringe of darkness beyond the pool’s aqua glow. “Would you like another bottle, madame?”

Madame. Damn, that made her feel old. Kim shook her head, then nodded. “A bottle of your finest spring water. Chilled on the bucket of ice and a cold glass to put it in.”

She giggled and ripples raced across her wine. James Bond had nothing on her.

“Very good, madame.” The waiter withdrew after wiping away the ring of moisture her wine bottle had left on the table. Like it had never been.

A chill snaked down Kim’s spine, and her stomach clenched. The sushi she’d eaten for dinner threatened to revisit her mouth. She swallowed hard. That’s what she got from eating fish in the desert. It had absolutely nothing to do with her solo consumption of a bottle of wine. She snorted then covered her mouth in case she snorted again. 

So what if she was a little tipsy? She deserved this celebration. She’d finally found the last group of scientists to grow that damn fungus. She didn’t get why Contact 21 wanted so many companies on the job when a handful would do.

But God help anyone who tried to find answers.

Not that she had understood that factoid in the beginning. She shifted her drink close, splashing wine over the lip. She blotted the dots on her bare leg then sucked her finger. Those first mobile labs had problems—electricity, containment; even the stupid UV lights had glitches. But those bugs had been worked out months ago — no more freaky contamination issues.

She glared at her drink before draining the last mouthful. Holding it against her palate, she allowed her tongue to swim in the sensations. So why were they back to ten labs working on the solution? The first three were yielding fabulous results. 

Hell, two were even on the cusp of achieving runaway growth of the fungus.

And receiving the promised financial reward.

Big money. Too much money for one person to invest in such a risky venture. It had to be a government project. She swallowed the wine. The world dipped and swayed as she sat up. She missed the blurry end table the first time but slid the glass on the second time. With a smile, she flopped back on the lounge chair and let her head loll back. 

“Enough.” Why was she obsessing over the details? She was about to get paid. A bundle of cash that would make all her problems go away.  She squinted at the stars then fidgeted in her seat. Nope, that nagging feeling had her by the throat and was throttling her.

 Maybe she should keep an eye on things, not directly, but sideways, specifically through Iona Edwards. Yeah, Kim understood the inconsistencies the background check had revealed.

 Although from middle-class roots, Iona had been educated at elite boarding schools and had rubbed elbows with the children of the upper half of the one percent. She’d spent holidays and vacations, not slumming with her family, but on yachts, castles in Europe, and private islands. Hell, the girl had barely managed to squeeze in her parents’ funeral service before jetting off to a party in Paris. Still, for all her cold-hearted lifestyle, she didn’t have the kind of connections required for industrial sabotage. 

Too bad, her privileged friends attracted Contact 21’s attention. 

Warmth traveled through Kim’s veins, and she yawned. Maybe tonight, she’d finally get a good night’s sleep. She ran her fingers through her hair, shaking the wet locks and draping the ends over the back of the lounge chair. A yawn threatened to unhinge her jaw just as the waiter appeared with her bottle of water.

He cracked open the bottle then poured the contents into a clean glass. “Will there be anything else?”

“Just the bill. Thank you.” She signed the ticket, then reached for her phone. Maybe she should go to bed early. The phone vibrated in her grasp, and she nearly dropped it in fright. She really was letting the job get to her. Laughing under her breath, she closed her fingers around, and blinked the readout into focus. 

The phone vibrated again. Green bubbles rose from the bottom of the screen to hover near the top.

Dammit, when had she turned it to vibrate? Steadying her thumb on the home button, she unlocked her phone. Words swam into view. One leaped off the page. Funeral. Her mouth dried. The alcoholic haze burned off, clearing her thoughts. Whose funeral? There’d been so many in the beginning, but that was behind her now. Wasn’t it? She scrolled through the messages.

Who had died?

The bubbles grew in size as she scrolled. Dr. Peter Lynn lost his battle with cancer? Dr. Peter Lynn? Lynn? Lynn. The name clicked. She’d given his group the fungus two months ago. Kim straightened. Fear soured her mouth.

And he’d been exposed to the fungus in a lab accident a week ago.

There was no hint the fungus caused cancer. She sagged into the cushions. This death was natural causes. Thank God. She stared at her phone, looking for the information. Funeral services would be in two days. She would send flowers.

A link took her to his obit. Crap. His bio listed his association with her company and a special project he’d been involved in. Contact 21 wasn’t going to like that. In fact, he would hate it. She scrolled through the rest.

Nothing incriminating. 

Still… She opened her email, looking at the Google results for a mention of her company. What the ….? Another obit mentioned her company. And another. She pulled each one up. Another cancer. Leukemia for the second. A third had a stroke and caused a car accident. 

The hair on the back of her neck rose. Her company was the common link between the deaths. No, not her company. Contact 21. 

Her internal alarms caused her to tremble. She stabbed the home button and searched for other researchers on the fungal project. Seventeen dead. That was everyone working on the project for the last two months and didn’t include those who had died from the cleanroom failures. She scraped a hand down her face then reached for the glass of water.

She had to warn the others. She had to… Say what? The head of the project is a lunatic? 

A shadow stumbled into the chaise next to hers and mumbled an apology.

Her ears prickled, then her arm blazed with warmth. Her head snapped up as she cradled the limb. A thin red line snaked down her forearm. Her fingers tingled then numbed. The phone dropped onto her thighs.

“Let me get that for you.” The shadow shifted her phone to the table.

Contact 21! Her tongue was foam in her mouth. Panic clawed at her, but her body didn’t respond. Couldn’t respond. “Wh!”

Drool slipped down her chin.

“Relax.” His warm hand pushed her back against the chair. “It’s almost over. Just a few more seconds.”

Over? Her life. Her chest stopped rising and falling. Her brain screamed for oxygen, but it wasn’t going to happen. She looked into his face, the face of her murderer: hers and how many others?

He smiled at her. “My own concoction. Not even a tox screen will pick up a trace. It’ll look just like a heart attack.”

A bubble of rage built inside Kim. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t fair. The bubble grew pushing out everything until it consumed her, and then it popped, taking her life with it. As soon as she released her final sigh, Contact 21 walked away, whistling an old gospel song as he melted into the shadows.

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Friday Fun Fact

The other day, the number of deaths from COVID-19 was -1. I immediately thought zombie apocalypse. Others thought resurrection (aka Jesus was back). Seems neither was right.

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Boil, boil, toil and trouble

My daughter bought me these ‘tea bags’ for Christmas.

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I have been afraid to use, them because they are so cute.

But since the hubbinator broke my teapot, I am getting desperate. I do have a new one on order, but in the meantime, I have to pour boiling water over these guys.

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I think this might be going a little too far.

Until next time, stay healthy.

 

 

 

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 5

seedsChapter 5

Iona’s fingers froze on the buckle of her bicycle helmet as her door slowly opened. Sweat trickled from her temples. Someone was forcing their way into her apartment. Which weapon should she choose—the pen, the kitchen knife, or the lock on her bike?

When the door finished opening, her neighbor Elizabeta Tamir stood in the door frame. “Iona! Thank heavens, you’ve come home.”

Mia stood at her mother’s side. Sloe-eyed with a mane of jet hair framing her round face and pointy chin, the eight-year-old girl gripped a grease-stained fast food bag in her hands. Knobby knees protruded underneath navy school shorts while skinny elbows hooked an oversized cartoon character backpack.

Iona knew all the little girl’s valued possessions resided in that pack, knew the fear of being shuttled to yet another location without warning. Iona’s pack in junior and high school had carried the same heft. She clamped her lips together before taking the mother to task.

Beta shooed her daughter inside the apartment. “I picked up a shift, last minute, and need to be at work. My ex was able to take his sons, but Mia….”

Beta’s white pressed shirt disappeared into her black slacks. Her skid-resistant shoes reflected the popcorn ceiling. Crisp clothes for a faceless server at one of the town’s ritzier places. The uniform of human widgets.

“Of course. Mia is always welcome.” Iona stepped back, preempting the poor single mother speech and the reminder that Mia’s dad was currently serving time for putting her and her mother in the hospital. Iona’s fingers made quick work of the straps of the bicycle helmet, and she hung it on a coat stand that boasted more antlers than a herd of elk. 

Backpack thumping against her spindly legs, Mia shuffled to the Goodwill-special couch sagging against the wall. A quilt Iona’s mother had made covered the back and seats in an Irish chain. Hefting her backpack onto the couch, Mia sank to the floor and used the square, glass coffee table to hold her dinner. Nimble fingers quickly unrolled the bag and set her chicken nuggets, dipping sauce, and fries on a greasy napkin.

Iona strode the four steps into the kitchen and opened the cabinet by the sink. She removed a plate from the mismatched stack, then tugged a cloth napkin from the drawer and set them in front of Mia. After smoothing Mia’s hair, Iona faced her mom. “How long will I have the pleasure of her company tonight?”

Beta set an iPad in front of her daughter then wiped her hands on her pants. “I’m not sure. Some rich guy is hosting ‘a sky is falling’ party. I was told the tips should be really good, but the hours will be really long.”

“Why would someone have a Chicken Little party that lasts all night?” Iona took a steadying breath. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been taken advantage of by Beta and her need to find baby daddy number four.

Beta laughed, a deep throaty sound that drew people’s attention. “Not a Chicken Little kind of ‘sky is falling party’, but a meteor shower party. Don’t you watch the news?”

Meteor shower? Iona searched her memories. Maybe there was a mention on one of the websites she visited “Sorry. I don’t watch the news.”

 Nor did she have a TV. Why waste the money on cable or satellite? She spent enough on her internet connection. Still, she wasn’t going to be so easily distracted. “How long will you need me?”

Beta chewed on her bottom lip not even making a dent in the waxy red color. “All night, I’m afraid.”

Iona winced. “It’s Monday. Mia has school, and I have work tomorrow.”

If someone had declared a national holiday due to the meteor shower, she would have remembered. 

“I’ll pick her up at soon as I get off work.” Beta promised, turning to leave. Not once did she meet Iona’s gaze.

“My alarm rings at six-thirty.” Iona’s stomach clenched. This wouldn’t be the first time Beta abused the privilege.

Mia held her tongue between her teeth as she dipped a nugget into some clear red sauce. 

Iona knew the little girl paid attention to every little dip and rise in inflection, every folded arm, or pursed lips. 

The familiarity of the drill made Iona’s teeth itch. 

“Six-thirty is fine.” Beta waved as she bounced down the stairs. “Just have her in her school clothes, so I can drop her off at child care and take a nap.”

Son of a gun. Beta was looking for Baby Daddy number four when her shift ended. Iona mentally swore then crossed the landing and gripped the railing. Her palms dug into the cool metal. “And we’re going to the park.”

“That’s fine.” Beta waved and hustled from view.

Iona watched her flicker in and out of the puddles of light before disappearing around the corner of another apartment building. Was there even a meteor shower tonight? She glanced at the sky through the web of pine boughs. Not even a star twinkled in the night sky. She’d check once they got to the park.

Pushing away from the railing, she pivoted on her heel and entered her studio apartment, shutting and locking the door behind her. Who was she to judge where Beta found a home? Iona still hadn’t quite defined the word. This apartment wasn’t really home, was it?

Her twin bed was tucked against a wall near the French door to the back balcony. A yellowing photo of her mother and father stood on the second-hand end table holding her lamp and phone charger. The sofa faced the TV stand bearing an oversized computer monitor complete with a wireless keyboard and Mac mini next to the router box. Only a few items would go with her to Europe, the rest into the small storage unit she rented or back to the thrift store from whence they came. How could this be a home if everything could be so easily given away? Iona wrestled her thoughts back to the present.

Legs stretched out under the coffee table, Mia had transferred her food to a plate. She’d carefully draped a cloth napkin over her lap and nested the French fry and nugget holders inside each other. She didn’t look at Iona and kept her hope contained by looking at her dinner. “Are we really going to the park?”

 “Of course.” Iona unstrapped her lunchbox from the back of her bicycle. Crossing to the galley kitchen in two strides, she tossed her dirty containers in the sink. “We’ll go right after we finish our dinner. The weathers too nice to spend all night cooped up inside.”

The little girl smeared grease across the case of her iPad as she shut it. “Do you think we will see some meteors?”

Iona refrained from promises. She vowed never to be an adult who made and broke them. “I hope so. And we can make a wish on each one we see because in my day they were called falling stars.” 

Mia nodded.

Iona placed a handful of carrots on her plate before tossing the rest of the bag into the fridge. Removing an old margarine tub, she popped the top then removed radishes, celery sticks, and a few slices of jicama to her plate. For protein, she scooped out some jalapeño hummus, cubes of Dubliner cheddar, and a few slices of prosciutto. She grabbed the bag of ancient grain crackers then placed her plate next to Mia’s on the coffee table. 

The little girl’s eyes focused on the array of vegetables as she held a limp fry in her fingers. 

Iona smiled. It had taken the girl four weeks to try a carrot. From then on, she’d been hooked. Iona couldn’t wait until fruit was in season. “You know the rules. I get one fry for every vegetable you take.”

Mia nodded and slowly selected five fries. The more she liked a veggie, the longer the fry.

Leaving her to make her selection, Iona took two glasses from the cupboard. “I have some tea. Do you want a glass?”

“Is it the unicorn one?”

Unicorn. Iona shook her head. It wasn’t until she saw the blue unicorn wishes ice cream at the store that she’d made the connection. “Yes, it’s blue raspberry.”

“Then, yes, please.”

Iona hadn’t taught the little girl manners. She’d come with them. Being polite was almost as important as being quiet if you wanted to fit in. Sadly, they didn’t work all the time. Iona poured the blue tea into the glasses then joined Mia. “How was school?”

The little girl pursed her lips. Five fries lay on Iona’s plate. Mia’s contained two carrots, a piece of celery, a radish, and a slice of jicama. “Jeannie McNamara said math was hard today. But I showed her the trick you showed me, and we decided that it was easy.”

“That was nice of you.” Iona stuffed one of the fries in her mouth and quickly chewed. Cold grease coated her tongue and palate. She suppressed a shudder. Cold fries were not her favorite. “And how are you doing in math?”

“I have some problems…” Finishing a carrot, Mia selected the slice of jicama.

“We could look at them before or after we go to the park.”

“Before?”

Iona suspected there were more than some math problems Mia wanted help with. There always seemed to be a lot of homework, and the girl was only in third grade. Didn’t anybody believe in playing anymore? “How about half before and half after?” 

She glared at the electronic babysitter. Computer games didn’t count. 

“Okay.” Mia bit into the jicama. Her nose wrinkled, and she opened her mouth as if to spit the food out. 

“Swallow it. You don’t have to eat the rest.” 

 Mia quickly swallowed, dropped the sliver of jicama, then gulped half her tea. “That’s nasty.”

“No, not nasty. What do we say about foods we don’t like?”

Mia wiped her tongue on her napkin. “Not my favorite?”

“That works.” Iona returned one fry. “Just so you know what veggie to avoid in the future, that is jicama. It tastes like a raw potato to me, which is why I dip it in hummus. Have you tried hummus?”

Iona swirled the slice through the bean mush, scooping up enough to cover the jicama, then popped it in her mouth.

Mia’s eyes narrowed. Setting her jaw, she picked up the discarded jicama and ran it across the surface of the hummus, mimicking Iona’s actions. Still squinting at the food, she sniffed it then nibbled at the end. She chewed at the front of her mouth before going to the side then the back molars and swished it around her mouth like she sampled a fine wine. After a moment, she swallowed. “Tastes like bean dip but not.”

Mia transferred the fry back to Iona’s plate. They finished their meal and, working side by side began to clean up their mess.

“Besides math, do you have any other homework?”

“Nope. We…” Mia froze, fisting the pair of dirty napkins. “Our plant. I forgot to check our plant.”

Mia ran through the bedroom space, feet pounding on the floor through the carpet. The knob rattled before she threw open the door.

Iona sighed. Drying her hands on the towel, she followed. Her pot garden was just that—empty pots, no plants. She didn’t have a green thumb. It was a good thing Marcus Stanislav was in charge of growing the fungus for their new project. 

On the back balcony, Mia perched on her knees. A crayon label of cilantro drooped from a popsicle stick jutting from the soil. She frowned at the pot. “Did you forget to water?”

Clearly not trusting Iona’s reply, Mia shoved her finger into the soil. Clumps of dirt clung to her digit. 

“I’ve been watering them. The seeds just don’t seem to want to sprout.” Iona crouched next to the little girl. “Perhaps we should plant all of the seeds. The packet was on clearance. Maybe the seeds were past their expiration dates and are duds.”

“Duds?” Mia’s nose wrinkled as she tried out the word.

Iona raked the crumpled seed packet off the table where she’d left it and unrolled the torn top. She poured the tan rounds into her palm. “Dud, as in doesn’t perform as expected.”

“Dud.” Mia smiled, proud of herself for learning a new word. She held out her hand for the rest of the seeds. “Can we plant them in the rest of the pots?”

 “Sure, why not.” Iona’s knees crackled as she rose. There was plenty of dirt in the pots, why not add the seeds? “Do you want me to get the ruler again?”

Iona respected rules. They helped her know her place and manage her expectations.

“Nah, I remember from my finger.” Mia pointed to a millimeter above the first digit of her index finger. She carefully set two seeds on her finger and poked them into each pot. 

Iona shuffled into the kitchen, filled a pitcher with water, then returned. Leaning against the door jamb, she handed off the plant duties.

Mia carefully added water to each pot. “One of them should grow.”

Since there had to be thirty seeds left, the odds should be in their favor. “I should think so.”

“Can we go to the park now?” Mia returned the pitcher to the kitchen sink.

 Locking the back door behind them, Iona ran her tongue across her molars as she thought. The deal had been homework first and the park later but… She checked her watch — seven PM. Iona’s bedtime was in two hours if the little girl cooperated. “We can’t stay too long because you still have homework.”

“Yes.” Mia fist-pumped, then swiped her fingers on her school uniform shorts and skipped toward the front door. 

“Do you want a water bottle?” Iona grabbed a reusable insulated cup and filled it with water from the refrigerator filter. 

“I’m good.” Mia threw open the door and charged onto the landing. Like a racehorse at the gate, she strained toward the stairs.

After securing the door, Iona pocketed her keys and galloped down the stairs to keep pace.

“My friend said she’d be in the park watching the shower.”

“It is a nice night for it.” Iona held open the gate. After Mia walked through, she made sure the latch engaged. The black sky unrolled above them despite the light pollution from the apartment complex. She hoped the park was dark enough to see at least one or two falling stars. She certainly could use the luck for the project and prize money ahead. 

The hair on Iona’s nape prickled as she reached the parking lot. She glanced right then left but didn’t see anything. In fact… the light over the garbage dumpsters was out. Her eyes strained. A shadow moved. Was someone over there? 

Mia slipped her hand into Iona’s and tugged. “Come on.”

Iona walked fast to keep up. They wove through the cars in the parking lot, jumped the parking barrier, and jogged across the gravel landscaping. She panted for breath by the time they paused at the curb.

Mia looked left then right then left again. “It’s safe now.”

Iona bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Did the little girl get brownie points for helping the aged cross the street? She hurried across the two lanes despite the lack of traffic.

“I’ll be at the swings.” Mia pointed to the dark, hulking shape of the covered playground area, then forged ahead.

A handful of lights on the corner of the sandlot barely penetrated the night. Strings of lamps illuminated the meandering paths, but few touched the park’s interior. A couple stretched out on a blanket over the grass. A larger party sipped beer around picnic tables lit by cell phones. Someone grilled meat.

Iona watched Mia’s silhouette merge with another child’s. Hand in hand, they rushed to the swing sets.

Iona shuffled along the sand-covered walkway to a series of benches. She found a spot near the swings and listened to the metal creak, children’s calls to go higher, and laughter. The park glowed briefly then dimmed, then glowed then dimmed.

Children stopped.

“It’s started,” someone whispered on her right.

Iona glanced up. Bright white streaks pinstriped the night sky. There must be dozens of them. Iona closed her eyes and made a wish. When she opened them, the scene hadn’t change.

Fabric rustled on her left. A woman aimed her cell at the sky. “Wouldn’t it be funny if each one was an alien ship come to take over?”

Her companion snorted. “All hail our alien overlords.”

Iona shook her head.  Not funny in the least. Her phone buzzed in her pocket. After one last glance at Mia’s silhouette, Iona tugged out her phone.

Marcus had sent a text message. <The meteor shower is a good omen for our project.>

She held the phone to her chest and chuckled. She quickly typed in her reply. <Scientists aren’t supposed to be superstitious.> 

A green bubble appeared with his reply. <Too late. I already made my wish.>

<Me, too.> She gazed across the park. What the heck? She checked the sky and then the grass. Was it her imagination, or did the grass echo the glowing path of the meteors?

Available Friday 7/31/2020 only on amazon

 

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Friday Fun Fact

Kittens have no respect for personal space unless it is their own.

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What are you reading?

I haven’t been reading much lately. In fact, this month’s book is the same as last month’s book.

So what are you reading?

Until next time, stay healthy.

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Seeds of Destruction, Chapter 4

seedsChapter 4

Iona dismounted her bicycle before it stopped. Holding onto the handlebars, she stumbled forward then brought the bike under control just as she reached the fence of her apartment complex. The hinges of the wrought iron gate creaked as she opened it and wheeled her bike through. Bits of green paint clung to the wheels. The gate clanged shut behind her. On her right, the humid smell of laundry soap mingled with the hum of a dryer before the path opened onto the apartment grounds.  

Green and yellow grass unrolled in patches to lap at the bases of towering pines. The brown drooping needles of the boughs testified to the presence of the bark beetle’s relentless assault. A shout of laughter from the park behind her cut through the rails of the fence. Twilight shrouded the entire area in shadow.

 She waded deeper into the quad, and her eyes struggled against the gloom. Her normal mile and a half bike ride from work had turned into two when she circled the park twice before finally crossing the street. Such good news as the potential bonus needed to be celebrated and savored with others, not alone in her empty studio apartment.

She paused by the grill, still reeking of wet charcoal and sweet barbecue sauce and tugged her cell phone out of her pocket. Her hand trembled as she thumbed through her contacts. Multi-digit European numbers scrolled past. She wanted an American one, the only one that mattered. Her sister Sabine’s name appeared in the frame of the screen. Three times she’d texted her sister about Christmas plans.

Three times she’d been informed of Sabine’s various obligations to her husband’s family.

Iona wasn’t family. Not since their parents’ deaths. Taking a deep breath, she typed in her message. “How about a Christmas Eve brunch at Federico’s? My treat for you and your family.”

She read and reread the message three times before hitting send. A minute past. Her heart thudded in her ears. ‘Delivered’ appeared near the message, but no floating bubbles indicated a reply was forthcoming. Would Sabine accuse Iona of trying to buy her nephews’ affections again? Or would her invitation open the door to ugly accusations that Iona was shaming her non-college educated sister about her low income? 

Releasing a long breath, Iona stared at the screen. She’d be able to deal with whatever fallout happened in person, not long-distance from a studio flat in Europe. After five minutes, she guided her bicycle toward the three-story building where she lived.

An elderly lady mounted the steps from a basement apartment. Gripping the rail with both hands, she climbed like a toddler, feet meeting on one step before tackling the next. Her housecoat was buttoned askew. Her steel-gray curls poked the air at odd angles as if she had just rolled out of bed. Her powder blue slippers were worn, allowing one toenail to peek out. The pink polish was chipped at the end. Hazel Fields had escaped.

Iona slowed as she approached Hazel. The ticking wheel counted down like a dying heart. Would the old woman recognize Iona or recall their first meeting? Hazel had shown up at Iona’s door looking for her friend Pearl. 

The old woman had become quite angry when Iona hadn’t known any Pearl. Thank heavens Hazel’s daughter had appeared to take her home. Iona was certain that Hazel would have punched her on Pearl’s behalf and snapped the brittle bird bones underneath Hazel’s liver-spotted skin. 

“Mama.” Libby, the daughter, appeared on the step behind Hazel. “Can you come back to the apartment now?”

Crying out, Hazel raised her arm as if to strike her daughter. “Who are you? Leave me alone. I’ll call the police.”  The old woman gripped the railing so tight, her crepe paper skin smoothed over her white knuckles. “My daughter won’t let you get away with this.”

Pain tightened the edges of Libby’s features. “Marsha is expecting you in the apartment. You two always watch The Price is Right together.”

Hazel’s wrinkled brow resembled a Shar Pei’s. “The Price is Right?”

“That handsome devil Bob Barker is waiting.” Libby set her hand on her mother’s back and stroked it slowly.

Iona slowed. Bob Barker had been on The Price is Right when she was a child, surely there was another host by now. Then again Hazel Fields lived in the past.

Hazel released her death grip on the railing and clung instead to her daughter’s arm. “My daughter is a cop, you know. A detective. She’s a success, not like the other drug-addled thief.”

Libby nodded. “Tell me all about Marsha.”

Iona pushed her bike away from the two, her chest tight. Libby was the one doing the hard work of taking care of her mother. Libby had to watch her mother’s mind leave this earthly plane long before her soul departed her body. Yet, it was Marsha’s company the old woman craved, and Libby was abandoned.

Just like Iona. Except her parents’ deaths had been much quicker. But the score and a half of years between then and now still drove a wedge between siblings.

Hoisting her bike on her shoulder, Iona mounted the stairs. The wheel continued to spin and click as she reached the first landing. It stopped on the second. She huffed to a stop on the fourth. Her third-floor apartment seemed higher than usual.

Maybe she should take longer bike rides, build up her stamina for when she returned to Europe? Those walk-up apartments were always cheaper than modern places with elevators. And cheaper meant she could stay longer. Her neighbor’s door stood open, the overly cheerful music of a children’s show streamed outside accompanied by the pungent, oily scent of fast food.

Iona slid her key in the lock, twisted it, and pushed open her door. Using her heel, she swung the door shut and then positioned her bicycle against the wall. She paused. There had been no click as the door hit home. Her skin prickled as she turned. 

A hand wrapped around the door and pushed it open on silent hinges. 

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