Welcome to another temptation to buy my short story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR, or—if you’re not feeling especially extravagant—a single, digital copy of a featured story which, I’m confident, will turn your head in time.
Today’s excerpt is from “Ashley Alert.” This tale found its origins in the establishment early last decade of that roadside system designed to inform us when a child is abducted–which mostly reminds us to fasten our seat belts and rat out drunk drivers, since such abductions by strangers are rare. Our hero is one Ashley Butterworth, a precocious, Inland Empire six-year-old chafing under the close supervision of Rosemary, her stay-at-home Mom–who herself gets into it regularly with Alex, her schoolteacher husband, over her fears for her only child’s safety.
A Scene from:
Bracing his patellae against a cabinet door, Alex scratched a gluteus absently through his plaid flannel boxers and massaged his stubble with the other hand. None of this, not even his steady gaze, hastened the brewing process. Still, he stared. Must be why it’s called ‘automatic drip.’
Rosemary cupped her mug, inhaling chamomile and eyeing her husband. “You came in late.”
“‘In-service.’ My choice was six hours yesterday after school or all day today.”
“Was that all?”
“Had a burger and a couple beers with Harry.” He didn’t look at her.
“You could have called.”
“Did.” He groped for a large mug. “Your cell was busy.”
She focused on the tawny liquid. “Didn’t leave a message.”
Alex pushed the newspapers aside and set his vessel down. He leaned on a hand, engaged her, and pointed at the freehand calendar on the melamine board behind her head. “What’s that say?”
She swiveled and flushed a little. “‘Friday;’ ‘16;’ ‘In-service.’”
He looked down the hallway. “Where’s Ashley?” He’d already heard the harsh singsong of an animated, synthesized musical score, so he didn’t have to ask but he needed to, anyway.
Mock horror wreathed his face. “Is that allowed?”
Rosemary sighed and pushed herself up gamely. “Look, I’m sorry, Alex. I haven’t been sleeping as well since I started working again.”
Alex gulped at his caffeine. “Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays too much for you?”
“It’s not just that.” She sounded truly weary, which caused him to thaw some. She used his waistband to pull him near and nestled into his side. “I’ve had to rejigger Ashley’s schedule, since St. Ignatius is so rigid about pickups…”
“Ah, yes—St. Ignatius. Pity we aren’t really Catholics; that’d be worth a healthy tuition break.” His lack of hostility allowed her to relax a little, which led to shudders of emotion. He tipped her back and saw her streaked face.
She raised her eyes. “It’s just—it seems like I worry all the time.”
“I want so much for her. I want her to be all right.”
He stroked the down under her chin with a fingertip. “She will, darlin’. You just have to trust it—to trust her. Let her wander; let her breathe. Kids have a capacity to surprise that’s boundless.”
She wiped her nose. “You make it sound so easy. I want it to be easy. Mostly, I’m just…terrified.”
He looked at her a little harder. “Of what?”
She clasped her hands. “We were happy last night, just the two of us; I put her to bed and listened to her prayers. She drifted off and she was my baby girl again. I turned on the news and there were stories. Two possible abductions yesterday, just in California. Registered sex offenders.”
Alex’s chin jutted out as he bit his lip. “Oh, Jesus, Rosemary. Why do you watch that crap, anyway?” He reached down and flipped open the Press Enterprise and the County Sun. “If you have to torture yourself, use these; at least you can pick your poison and there’s some semblance of perspective.”
She pushed away. “What are you saying—that they’re lying?”
“Not lying; more like distortion. What they choose as ‘news’ bears no relation to real life and its priorities. Murders; fires; celebrities; and ratings tie-ins. What does any of that have to do with us?”
“So, you don’t think times are more dangerous?”
“Than what? Come on, Rosie. I teach rudimentary statistics and probability to twelve-year-olds. We’re a nation of 270 million people that built a 50-state child-abduction alert system on what, 112 cases? And most abductors are close relatives in the first place. Violent crime has dropped steadily since 1981—except among people who don’t look like us, and whom we hardly ever see. Entire political careers have been built on ‘Three Strikes’ and ‘Megan’s Law.’ We turn off our TVs, buy more guns, and cower behind our doors. In the safest nation on the planet!”
Rosemary shook her head. “Oh, Alex. I wish I had your…confidence.”
He reeled her in again and touched his nose to hers. “All you gotta do is believe.”
Her eyes were wells of uncertainty. “In what?”
“Something. Anything. Everything.” He hooked her neck in the crook of his arm, kissed the top of head, and saw his watch. “And now, I believe I’ll join my daughter in some Looney Tunes.”
“Damn it, Alex.” Her inhibitions closed on her like a shroud. “Can’t you be serious?”
“As a heart attack,” he said as he backed out, pointing at her with a flourish. “Made me what I am today. Bee-lieve it.”
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